by Steven K. Roberts
Silicon Valley, California
June 22, 1991

“You know you’re going slow when you’ve got dead bugs on the BACK of your bike.”

— the always-quotable David Berkstresser, watching me trundle up his driveway during a test ride.
(Photo by Mel Lindstrom during a shoot for Bicycling Magazine)

It’s getting close. Suddenly all priorities have changed — the things that distracted me last month are now not even an option. Flip on the TV for a while to relax? Yeah, right. The only excursions into the world are for the daily 10-mile training ride and subsequent recharging of the CSU (Calorie Storage Unit), and sleep is an annoying necessity that interrupts me every night at 3 AM or so.

A story in the current issue of Information Week generated 70-80 letters, and I have found my emailboxes overflowing (sitting at 64 unanswered items as I write this — many quite interesting, all deserving a response). Instead of spending the next couple of hours trying to catch up, I’m going to use them as the basis of a FAQ document: these questions are typical of those asked by a techno-literate audience (as opposed to the kind encountered on the street…).

Zonker Harris wiring BEHEMOTH network

First, a quick update… there’s been a lot of progress in the last couple of weeks. David Harris (photo above) is moving ahead on the audio and serial bus cabling, doing a beautiful job with bundles of tiny shielded wire and tight LEMO connector wiring. The audio crosspoint matrix CAD work with analog design by Steve Sergeant (photo below) has been completed in San Diego by Bob Lockhart, and US Circuits turned out boards which will be stuffed and interfaced to the FORTH systems next week. Ron Covell and Jesse Newcomb are working on mounting the new molded fiberglass fairing, which Maggie Victor is painting. I’ve just finished bringing up the PC and Private Eye controller — now cabled into the helmet and working. Jay Hamlin is building a keyboard controller that will inhale force-sensing resistor data from the handlebars and produce closures that make sense to the Infogrip BAT chord keyboard controller. John Noerenberg is writing software to link Eudora in the Mac to the satellite terminal via the Comm Toolbox, along with some Unix hacks to tie the hub into Internet via a dedicated Sun 4/260. Steve Delaire is building a custom motorcycle-type hydraulic disk brake for the monster. Dan Kottke is building an LED matrix controller for diagnostics, Martin Rowland is running around Silicon Valley on a daily basis to acquire parts, Maggie is helping prepare the lab for shutdown… and I’ve been playing manager, PR flack, photo model, secretary, researcher, purchasing agent, technician, and project strategist around the clock. I’ve also taken two test rides since the last update, just for a reality check. (I noticed that it’s like, um, ~really~ heavy.)

Steve Sergeant in Bikelab

The first ride was to give a talk at Apple; the second was to the Foothill Flea Market, and included a live test of the Qualcomm OmniTRACS satellite system. It works rather dramatically. Not only did I send and receive numerous pieces of mail en route, but when I returned sweaty and panting to the lab I found my path drawn on the office PC screen as a blue dotted line, connecting the points on the map where transmission or acknowledgment of reception had occurred. Pretty magical stuff!

Work in progress includes the helmet cooling system, more brakes, trying to finalize a tent system that can accommodate all this, the distributed power switching system that allows FORTH control of all loads via FETs, the cellular modems, general waterproofing, and, well, everything else that has to happen before I can ride it next month. Gonna hafta drill out my toothbrush to cut weight… it seems that BEHEMOTH is now over 400 pounds loaded. <shudder>

(One amusing fact: the 105-speed drivetrain covers an extremely wide range from 7.5 to 122 gear inches. This translates into some interesting numbers… in the granny gear, one full pedal revolution moves me forward 22 inches. In the tall gear, the same pedal stroke moves me 33 feet.)

OK, on to the questions……..


20 Frequently Asked Questions

“By open-ended nomadic community, do you mean you sort of invite people to ride along and get some firsthand experience of the joy of adventure?”

Yup. For a while I was seeking people who want to trash their lifestyles and hit the road with me, but that smacks of commitment. The new plan is much more realistic…. wanna go for a bike ride and sample high-tech nomadness? Fine, let’s do it. Hams are particularly welcome since on-the-road communication without radio is a real pain. I move at a leisurely pace by most cyclists’ standards, so don’t worry too much about your physical condition. You’re probably not hauling 400 pounds, and should have no trouble keeping up. If you’re fast, then you can zip ahead, take side trips, or otherwise pass the time while waiting for the recumbersome bikeasaurus to trundle into camp. Any takers?

“In your travels, you must have to [meet strangers, start relationships, and carry on conversations] constantly. Did it come easily, or did you have to work at it?”

It happened pretty easily, largely because of this high-tech door-opener underneath me. Wandering around on foot, I have a very hard time striking up a conversation without obvious shared context. The bike provides that context, which would lead to total burnout on the same topic were it not for the fact that it eventually switches from foreground to background. People open up to travelers and writers anyway, and if there’s ever a lull in conversation, there are always more bike questions. Besides… anything that reinforces peoples’ dreams makes them very friendly.

“How did you get Sun to sponsor your R&D? Were you a Sun employee before you started this project? If not (or even, if so!) how were they enlightened enough to give you the resources you’ve enjoyed?”

Sun is an unusual company in that they are not totally focused on a specific product line (despite the wild successes of same). A number of the company’s high-level people spend most of their time thinking about the long-term future and exploring areas outside today’s specific product development issues. The net effect is a symbiosis between generalists and specialists — and a very lively corporate culture. I had almost no exposure to Sun (or workstations, or even Unix) prior to this relationship, but we both recognized the potential for mutual benefit. Sun provides resources and a community of intelligent people (and SPACE!), and I reciprocate by sharing my ideas and contacts freely… a sort of high-tech court jester.

Besides, I have always wanted to ride a unixcycle.

The sponsorship issue in general becomes very complex, especially with about 150 companies involved. This project can be thought of as a three-way partnership between the bike, the sponsors, and the media — with me as facilitator. Everybody wins: more new toys leads to more interesting bike functionality which leads to more media coverage which leads to still more new toys. I’ve become addicted to it. <grin> Later note: I wrote a book about this whole process, called Reaching Escape Velocity.

“Do you have a destination, or are you just on an endless journey?”

Yes, but if you think too much about where you’re going, you lose respect for where you are…

More specifically, the general plan right now is to leave Silicon Valley via rental truck on July 15 and drive to Omaha, there to start RAGBRAI — the big (10,000 people) bicycle ride across Iowa. From there I’ll head to Chicago to visit a few sponsors, then to Milwaukee for the IHPVA championships (excellent video here). From there, presumably, I’ll pass through Oshkosh and head up to Door County, then cross to Michigan on the ferry, and head down through Lansing, and Ann Arbor. After that, I’ll zoom down through Ohio and stop by Columbus and Cincinnati, then probably wander through Lexington enroute to my parents’ house in Louisville.

All that comprises a robust enough shakedown cruise to give me a very good idea what must be finished, fixed, or thrown away. The vague plan is to truck back here (possibly in time for Interop?), spend about 3 months finishing the job, then leave again from here, for real — open ended.

(I should mention that I’ve already done 16,000 miles on previous versions, and every time I ever made predictions like this they turned out to be wrong.)

BEHEMOTH console on the road in 1991

“If you run the computers while you are riding, how do they handle the vibration?”

Hopefully, well! On previous trips, everything worked fine without any shock mounting (though the rigidly mounted console kept trashing the bike’s headset bearings… the unsprung load caused brinelling). This time, the console and RUMP areas are floating on rubber Lord mounts, and the hard disks (all 4) are in additional shock-isolation environments designed to meet Conner specs. I’ll know more by the time I hit Louisville, but feel confident that they’ll be fine (later note: they were).

“How do you deal with cooling the CPUs?”

I start with the most power-efficient CMOS machines I can find (in most cases), like the 286 core module for DOS, the Macintosh Portable, 68HC11 boards for control, and Microchip PICs for random logic replacement (the SPARCstation IPC is for occasional high-performance use in compressed video and communications, not constant duty enroute). I then use switching regulators, power-cycle heavy loads like disk drives, and shut down things that aren’t in use. As an example, the main DOS machine that runs the Private Eye heads-up display draws 1 amp at 5V max, and about half that when idling with its display and hard disk on standby.

“I was a bit curious about your satellite link to the Internet. Does it allow you the type of real-time access to the network so that you can interactively use network services, or is the link only for sending and receiving electronic files”

The Internet link is now being implemented by Qualcomm, which has provided an essentially off-the-shelf OmniTRACS satellite terminal like those in use on some 15,000 trucks around North America. This is a low-speed connection, for email only — no FTP or telnet! A dedicated Sun 4/260 is being installed to rewrite headers and otherwise implement the gateway between Qualcomm’s satellite hub and the net, and Eudora on the bike’s Mac communicates with the terminal via a driver in the Comm Toolbox. As far as email goes, it should be pretty much transparent. I will have relatively high-speed net access whenever near cellular sites (or connected to a modular jack, of course). I will be evaluating the Telebit CellBlazer and the Microcom 1042 under a variety of conditions, probably favoring the former for high-speed dialup IP via the Netblazer to my server at Sun, and the latter for low-power access to GEnie, MCI, America Online, and the occasional BBS. Stay tuned….


What do you do with your on-board computers? Do you run your own business? Do you use them while riding or when you are at a pit stop?”

The computers handle everything from low-level control (security, power, network management, data collection, gear display…) to high-level applications (navigation and mapping, biketop publishing, email, CAD, ham satellite tracking, writing, database management….). Yes, I run a business — Nomadic Research Labs. It’s a bit hard to define, but includes publishing a quarterly journal (Nomadness), selling books and technical reports about the adventure, speaking gigs, consulting spinoffs, and a manufacturing joint venture now in development. As to the mobile-vs-stopped question: one of the design specs is that there should be NO practical difference between movement and stasis. The handlebar chord keyboard, Private Eye, MSC thumb mouse, ultrasonic head mouse, Audapter speech board, and low-power rugged computers make it pretty comfortable to work and communicate while riding.

“How do you protect the bike from rain, snow, etc.? How good is the satellite link under adverse weather conditions?”

Given the choice, I don’t ride in heavy weather… but I don’t always have a choice. All enclosures are waterproof, and a fabric cover can be velcro’d over the control console. The satellite link is not noticeably affected by rainy weather — additional road experience will yield data about wider extremes. There may be some measurable attenuation visible on the maintenance screen, but I doubt it will be enough to block communication entirely. This is 14 GHz spread spectrum.

“Apart from using captured solar energy to run the computers on-board, do you also use it to give some power boost to your bike, especially in situations where you have to climb uphill with all that load?”

Ah, that would be pleasant. But the numbers don’t work: I have 82 watts of panels, and the 45 amp-hour battery is pretty much reserved for computers, communications, and lighting. A variable-reluctance motor-generator from Semifusion is being developed for the regenerative braking system, and calculations suggest that if we dump the raw solar bus into it (motor mode) the boost is roughly equivalent to a 2 kilogram push. This will be nice on level ground, but down in the noise on a steep hill (without adding heavy gearing… this is a hub motor/generator). Of course, I could always load up on batteries for a serious assist, but that’s more weight… and I’ve already blown the load budget on other equipment.

“You probably don’t ride much on main highways or on the freeway… where do you go? Dirt roads would be difficult due to your sensitive equipment… how could you get from place to place? Also, how fast can you go? And I’m astounded that you’re not robbed or vandalized on a regular basis. Do you carry a lot of clothes or other personal belongings besides the computer stuff? Also, not to be nosy, but are you independently wealthy?”

<grin> Last question first…. not at all! I’m a hand-to-mouth freelancer, which has occasionally been the literal truth: take a subscription order on the road and pedal happily to the next grocery store with 15 whole dollars to spend!

As to road choices — most parts of the country have a rich variety of back roads, county roads, farm roads… the only problem is finding documentation. They don’t show up on the atlases or gas station maps (which only show cyclists where NOT to go). The solution involves research: acquiring county maps and DeLorme atlases, asking cyclists, trying to make sense of often-distorted local advice, and very soon, using CDROM map databases. You are right about dirt roads; they’re a drag. Sand and gravel are even worse.

How fast? Depends on what I had for breakfast. I usually think in terms of 10 mph average throughout the day, which varies widely with terrain and wind. I’ve had it up to 50.5 mph with a gravity assist and am often slogging along at 2 mph up hills.

I’ve never been seriously robbed or vandalized (except for a stolen Walkman in Palm Springs). There have been some close calls, but the techno-bike talking to intruders and bristling with antennas rather gives the impression of alien technology and power. Those I trust least are also the ones most intimidated by the machine (for the most part, anyway… the exceptions can be terrifying).

Finally, yes… I carry a full suite of camping gear, cooking equipment, tools, clothing, and so on. BEHEMOTH is home.


“What is your motivation, and how long do you intend to do this for?”

Fun is the bottom line! This whole gambit is a blend of all my passions: bicycling, writing, ham radio, computers, networking, publishing, travel, adventure, romance, and play. I’m absolutely addicted to the energy of on-the-road beginnings, exciting new technology, overcoming traditional limits, making equipment do amusing things, communicating around the globe with solar power, and meeting amazing people in Dataspace and face to face. How long? I have no idea.

“Are you planning to visit <insert place name here>?”

Unknown beyond the immediate plans noted above. I will attempt to keep this distribution alias updated with my location and plans as they evolve. If you’d like to be in my hospitality database, arrange a visit, throw a party, ride with me, or otherwise get together — please email me when I seem to be gradually nearing your part of the world (often such invitations have a significant effect on my route, so don’t wait until I’m in your back yard to get in touch).

“In the Information Week picture it looks as though you have some sort of CRT device in front of your right eye?”

Yup — that’s the Private Eye display from Reflection Technology. It presents a 720 x 280 red image that appears to float in space in front of me, just below my normal field of vision (like bifocals). Controlled by one of the boards in the Ampro “Core Module” stack, it is the primary console device for the DOS environment and works amazingly well.

“I was interested in the ‘ultrasonic beam generated from the helmet that serves the same function as a mouse'”

Actually, the beam is generated from the console and sensed by three helmet-mounted transducers. This is essentially a hacked Personics head mouse — producing quadrature events as a function of phase and doppler data resulting from head movement. Michael Butler and I interfaced this with the innards of a Mac ADB mouse, and the job was done. In a future issue, I’ll report on how it works in the the windy, noisy, wet, bouncing conditions of the road.

Brain Interface Unit - Dutch filming

“Can you actually read your mail while pedaling or does a voice system read it to you? Can you actually type while riding, or do you speak it (or tap it in code)?”

Depending on conditions, mood, and other applications, I can do either — the basic mail spool environment is Eudora on the Mac, and text can be displayed on the console screen, routed to the Private Eye, or piped to the Audapter synthesizer.

And yes, I type while riding — that’s a major requirement. Force-sensing resistors from Interlink are built into the grips, scanned by a Microchip PIC and Maxim A-D/mux, and passed to the controller of an Infogrip BAT chord keyboard. This appears via a DOS TSR as a console device. A similar setup allows direct entry to the Mac or the trio of New Micros FORTH boards that do the dirty work. I do have voice recognition (Covox) but it is far too slow for free text entry, and Morse code would be very cumbersome for computing (though I can do it while running HF mobile CW ham radio).

“What about your family? Do you have a bicycle for your sweetheart?”

<grin> I traveled 10,000 miles solo, then took on a companion named Maggie for another 6,000. She has since done some touring on her own and we have decided to eschew interdependency… but we’re having a go at sharing RAGBRAI and points beyond anyway. And yes, she has her own bike — a Ryan Vanguard recumbent with homemade trailer carrying a cat, photolab, 2-meter ham radio, laptop, and solar panel. Ah, the social lives of technomads….

“I don’t believe a word of this. Where can I see a picture of the crazy thing?”

Check the July issue of Discover Magazine, which just hit the stands this week. Also, the June 19 issue of Information Week, and the August Bicycling Magazine.

Cheers from the bikelab!

Bikelab Crew, circa 1991