If you spot something flying down the highway that looks like a big, white sausage with measles, don't be alarmed. It's a highly streamlined and geared-up, human-powered recumbent tricycle that can get a speeding ticket in a 55-mph zone.
Does it have a motor? That's usually the first question Ashlander Bill Tout gets asked, and the answer is yes: He is the motor.
It gets its speed and power from Tout's legs and lungs and has 27 gears that enable it both to climb steep hills (at a slow rate) or go as fast as Tout wants on the flat.
"It's something between a car and a bicycle but has the advantage that it doesn't use gas and oil like a car, and you don't get wet or fall down, like you can on a bike in bad rain or snow," says Tout, 62, who uses the bike for fun and puts 40 to 50 miles a day on it.
Thousands of valley residents like to bike. But let's face it, notes Tout, when you're about to start your commute to work and it's rainy, cold and windy, it's just too easy to say heck with it and take the warm, cozy, dry car.
"You don't feel as exposed as on a bike, and it feels more like driving a convertible car. It's built for commuting, but I use it for recreation," says Tout. "I find it very enjoyable, great for maintaining fitness, and we have wonderful roads in the valley."
It's a lot smaller than a car, but Tout says it's plenty visible in traffic — more so than a bike — and he's put red stickers ("measles") all over it to enhance visibility.
It has a canopy for winter and has storage behind the seat, so Tout can go for groceries with it. It parks in normal parking spaces, has headlights and taillights and features the same handlebar steering, shifting and sprockets as a mountain bike. The power goes to a single, rear wheel, with two front wheels for steering.
It weighs 70 pounds, a lot more than a bike, but when Tout goes up a steep hill, he can go at the speed he wants because, with 27 gears, the lowest gear is very low. With a bike, it's different: You have to go fast enough to keep it upright.
The Velomobile caught Tout's fancy last summer while he was on a bike tour. He found himself getting passed by 50 of them, pedaling from Portland to Washington, D.C., over three weeks. He plans to drive in a Euro tour next summer.
The Velomobile, a generic name, is popular in the flat countries of northwest Europe where gas is very expensive, says Tout, and most people pedal something for most of their trips.
Is the Velo the "car" of the future?
Probably not, says Tout. They cost too much, about $4,000 for a kit, but the price could come down a lot if demand increases. As gas prices climb, he sees people moving to bicycles, motor scooters and, for longer trips, small cars.
Tout enjoys the attention he gets on the road, with lots of people snapping photos of the vehicle or asking how on earth it's powered. Most assume it's electric (you can outfit it with a chargeable motor) and, on his first day driving it on the Bear Creek Greenway, a kid said: "Mom, look, it's a bike from another planet."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.