Jesus walked on it. Mark Spitzed in it. Sponge Bob farted under it. Now I’ve cycled across it.
I’m talking about water, and my inaugural voyage on a hydrobike (aka water cycle) this past August. I first saw one of these contraptions last summer on Moyie Lake, in southeastern British Columbia. Every morning a woman pedalled past the dock. Her ride was the talk of cottage country. A quick look around on line reveals a variety of hydrobike models out there, from the pontoon-style solo one we saw, to tandem-pontoon versions, to sleeker paddleboard models, non-sleek fat trikes, and a strange array of DIY specials. A handful of manufacturers produce them in North America. Most people encounter hydrobikes as part of the recreational water-fun rental scene, along with paddleboards, kayaks, and pedal boats.
My initial reaction was to scoff. The hydrobike struck me as a preposterous and gimmicky perversion of real cycling. The rest of my family, however, was keen to try it. This summer we seemed to run into hydrobikes everywhere we went on our holidays. On Hornby Island, posters announced we could rent the machines, but when we tried to contact the guy from the posters, we were told he had moved onto other passions. Then, back at Moyie, surprise, surprise, we discovered that our relations there had purchased a “human-powered pedal boat watercraft,” as it is also less succinctly known. The kids loved it, as did my wife, so when no one was watching, I took it out for a test spin.
According to one manufacturer, “The Hydrobike experience is true biking on water,” whatever that means. (It makes about as much sense as “true swimming in a tree.”) But I had my doubts about the cycling component of the whole endeavor. Sure, it might be fun, the way an amusement park paddleboat is fun—that is, clunky and slow and novel, until the “fun” wears off after about 10 minutes. But the bicycle aspect, I figured, was true hokum.
One thing I noticed about hydrobikes even before test-driving one is that they have the same effect on bystanders that fatbikes do—that is, people can’t help smiling at the sight of them. Sure they’re big and bulky, but as with fatties, the fun factor largely mitigates the unwieldiness one. Both bikes look and feel like oversized toys for grown ups. Everyone wants to try one, wants to know where to get one.
So what was it like? Despite my initial skepticism, I actually enjoyed the ride. The pedaling part is weirdly chunky, and it feels strange to sit so high up on a water craft (after years of canoeing), but I was impressed by how stable and fast it was. In a flat out race, my son Gil on the hydrobike kicked the butts of my wife and I in a canoe. It wasn’t even close. True, the hydrobike is not terribly maneuverable; I wouldn’t take it on whitewater. But as a way of getting around on flat water, it definitely has potential.
Turns out, in fact, that cycling on water is actually not a new idea. It’s almost as old as the bicycle itself. Check out this article by C.A. Hazlett from Boston’s The Wheelman magazine in 1883: it describes a 50-mile tour of the Piscataqua River (along the border of Maine and New Hampshire) on “marine bicycles” propelled by a combination of pedal-power and wind. This was no Sunday afternoon pleasure paddle around the duck pond. Hazlett and company took their marine bicycles on a three-day trip that included stretches on the Atlantic Ocean, where they even encountered a storm. (Hazlett describes how “This rocking horse motion [of the white-capped waves] was very exciting, and fully as exhilarating as coasting the steepest and smoothest of hills on the road bicycle.”) Others attempted different approaches to the pedal-paddle crossover. Here’s an illustration of Englishman William Terry’s amphibious tricycle also from 1883. Terry travelled on his hybrid from London to Paris—that is, across the English Channel—in July of that year.
This historical aspect of the hydrobike gives it some added lake cred, in my books anyway. These tweed-clad dudes were the serious road cyclists of their day, and they treated marine cycling as a logical extension of the same activity, not as an amusement park activity. This makes me wonder if modern-day hydrobiking has potential as an actual, serious thing. Do people somewhere on the planet go on hydrobiking tours? I wouldn’t be surprised.
That said, hydrobiking, whether touring or just farting around, does come with unique hazards that we learned about the hard way. My son’s glasses rolled off the little dashboard when he was trying to pop water wheelies. The glasses are now somewhere at the bottom of the lake. On our last day there, my wife was cruising along when the crank arm flew off and also was lost to the depths.
Still, I’ve been persuaded that the hydrobike is not just a gimmick. It has possibilities. Pedalling across Moyie Lake, I was struck by the contrast between what I was doing and the obnoxious JetSkis buzzing around me. Maybe the best way to think of the marine bicycle is as the anti-JetSki, with a rich history and the ability to convey at least some of the quiet, physical, honest pleasures of land cycling.