Lately I’ve been messing around with bicycles and sails, trying to combine the two technologies into a more perfect machine. Although it’s been done before, previous bike/sail designs were built around the sailboat model, with a large mast and triangular sail: excellent for harnessing the wind, but practically useless on roads. I’ve been working with smaller, more discreet sails that can be folded out when there’s a tailwind and back when there isn’t. Bike sails are cheap and easy to make, requiring little more than a beach chair, yard sign and duct tape.
In the spring I took this bike out to the Great Plains to test it in big wind. Starting in Chadron, Nebraska, up by the Wyoming border, I set out to go literally whichever way the wind was blowing. Eight days later I was in Waterloo, Iowa: just shy of the Mississippi River. 850 miles on a fully loaded bike, and I was hardly even tired. It was incredible.
This was back in April, with winds averaging between 25 and 30 mph - with gusts up to 50 - coming straight out of the west. The wind on the plains is awesome: it comes whipping across the prairie, shrieking through the power lines and ripping at everything that isn’t nailed or bolted down. When I was stopped, or at low speeds, the wind almost tore the bike apart, so it was important to either quickly find shelter or get back up to speed.
When I was moving though… wow. All around me everything was chaos: an entire landscape of crops, grasses and trees bucking and heaving in the wind, while on the bike everything was still - sometimes almost perfectly still - enough to light a match and let it burn. It was a bizarre, otherworldly feeling, and one I’ll never forget.
With a cruising speed between 18 and 23 mph, I was able to do over 100 miles a day easily - almost lazily - crossing practically a third of the country sitting on my ass. Yes, I had to pedal, but I didn’t have to pedal much.
In September I decided to really put things to the test and see how long it’d take to go coast-to-coast. Starting at the mouth of the Columbia River I headed east, reaching Virginia Beach, Virginia 3,867 miles and two months later. Here’s what I learned along the way:
1.) The United States is much bigger than it looks on the map.
2.) You can’t count on the wind.
3.) Having a large American flag on the back of your bike will give you an extra two or three feet of room from passing traffic.
In general, bicycle sailing works best in the West, in the deserts and plains. East of the Mississippi there’s just too many trees. The sails work best in high winds, 15/20 mph and above, and for hill climbing, where even a slight wind assist feels almost magical.
I may try this again in the spring, using a standard road bike and thin tires. Until then, the coast-to-coast bikesailing record stands at an easily breakable 64 days.