Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer


10 of the Weirdest Pedal-Powered Machines
By John Wenz,
Popular Mechanics, 27 May 2016.

Bicycles. Tricycles. Unicycles. Those ridiculous recumbent bikes. For young and old, there are a variety of ways to get around by leg power. But throughout the history of the bicycle and its cousins, there have been a number of spin-offs, cousins, cast-offs, outright mistakes, and just plain weird cycles. Here are a few we dug up from the depths of cycling Mordor, some of which may be due for a revival and others of which may need a permanent retirement.

1. Two-Track Tricycle

Photo: John Wenz

Don't let the name fool you: This tricycle isn't the one you give a three-year-old to cruise around the driveway. The two-track tricycle came about in the late 19th century, when bicycles and tricycles competed for the public's allegiance. The two-track could be controlled by hand crank or handle bar, with a pedaling apparatus below. The style was briefly en vogue in Britain during the era of the penny-farthing.

2. Coventry Rotary Quadracycle


The bike seen here is a 1885 Coventry Rotary Quadracycle. While quadracycles can come in many shapes and sizes, this one looks like a take on the two-track, with two large, penny-farthing-style wheels and two smaller ones. The man in the photo is seated like a penny-farthing rider would be, while the woman is sitting lower in the style of the tricycle.

The Coventry Rotary Quadracycle was intended as a tandem bike of its day, an easy way to balance both riders. I'm sure the couple was having a delightful time, despite the stern facial expressions of the era.

3. Monocycle


A unicycle is arguably a weird enough pedaled contraption to be listed here, but those one-wheelers remain common, if niche. What I haven't seen roaming the streets in the past decade, or really ever, is the monocycle.

There's a good reason for that. Many mid-19th century cycles were an attempt to improve upon the velocipede, a bicycle forerunner on which pressure was directly applied to the front wheel. Allen Greene and Elisha Dyer built this monocycle and were granted a patent in 1869. They claimed it would be an improvement on the velocipede.

Not so much. The one seen in the above photo is a model donated to the Smithsonian, which writes" "The donor stated that it was reported that the vehicle had crashed badly on its first trial run, and proved to be unsatisfactory."

It reportedly never sold well, if at all. According to a 1988 article in the Los Angeles Times, someone got a monocycle working in that year. Just maybe not the Greene/Dyer one.

4. Folding War Bikes

Photo: Risorgimento/Wikimedia Commons

The military use of bicycles started in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the French began to test them and the British armies used them in the Second Boer War. Those models weighed in at about 15 lbs. and came with a mount for rifles.

World War I saw more common use, including by Italian troops (pictured above), as well as German and Austrian soldiers. Some of these folding bikes weighed nearly 50 lbs. Velocious Bicycles has a fairly good history of the bikes. It seems that along with being heavy, they didn't have the most pleasant riding experience.

Many folding bikes today utilize a more compact design, smaller wheels, and weigh about 20 lbs. Few people are still biking into war, though.

5. PodRide

Photo: PodRide

Mikael Kjellman's PodRide is...hard to define. The pedal powered car is a sort of all-season quadracycle, looking not unlike a smooshed smart car. Kjellman reports that it has a similar seat height to a normal automobile, even though it looks a little like this.

The fully funded IndieGogo campaign seeks to create of a series of prototype kits that can be shipped to hobbyists, who can then assemble their PodRide at home. Kjellman compares the assembly process to IKEA furniture.

This is far from the first bike-car mishmash proposed. Never forget the US$5,500 ELF car-bike hybrid, which is a little bit like a bicycle rickshaw with a hybrid e-bike motor. That vehicle is partly solar powered.

6. Draisine

Photo: Gun Powder Ma/Wikimedia Commons

One of the earliest forerunners to the bicycle was the draisine, sometimes called a "running machine." A lack of pedals should tell you a little bit about how that name came about.

Let's get this out of the way: the draisine is not pedal-powered. But as the ancestor to everything on this list, it's still important to mention how ridiculous it was. Built in 1817 by Karl Draise, it became the first velocipede, the two-to-four- wheeled human-powered ancestor to the bike. The locomotion behind it was basic: You ran with it, quite literally. The saddle and the wheels helped keep up with momentum.

Sometimes called a dandy-horse or a hobby-horse, the draisine took off at first. But rutted roads led riders to take to the sidewalks, getting the vehicles banned in many places. To this day, cyclists and pedestrians cannot get along.

7. Conference Bike


Before you ask: Yes, that picture was taken in 1996.

The Conference Bike was built by Eric Staller as a seven-person pedal-powered machine with one person at the steering wheel. Staller calls it a "a revolutionary way to bring people together;" it has one less seat than his previous eight-seat model.

This ride has since been shipped to at least 16 countries, mostly as a museum curiosity or transportation alternative, with a total of 300 out there at a cost of US$9,500 a pop. It probably won't see widespread use - who has seven friends these days, really - but it's more art project than transportation of the future, and accomplishes its goal of bringing people together by forcing them to make constant eye contact around a moving conference "Table."

8. KTrak

Photo: KTrak

Winter cyclists are pretty hardcore anyhow. KTrak adds another level onto their craziness by rendering the phrase "it's way too snowy to bike" moot. The kit comes as the rear wheel assembly with tracks and front ski you see here, and essentially turns basically any mountain bike into a human-powered snowmobile. Perfect for the Arctic tundra, certain areas of Siberia, and Wisconsin.

9. Daedalus 88

Photo: NASA

In the 1980s, NASA teamed up with MIT, the National Air and Space Museum, Anheuser-Busch, and United Technologies Corporations to fly a human-powered plane. They totally pulled it off, setting a distance record of 123 miles across four hours in the Mediterranean, flying over both land and water to get from Crete to the island of Santorini.

The Daedalus plane was designed by MIT undergrads and grad students and tested on-campus before moving to NASA's Dryden (now Armstrong) facility. Olympic cyclist Kanellos Kanellopoulos pedaled his way to the record setting flight, which flew between 15 and 30 feet in the air most of the time. The craft weighed 69 lbs. total.

10. Cyclomer


This is the Cyclomer, and if the buoys aren't a giveaway, it wasn't exactly designed for the road. It was to be an amphibious bike, one as comfortable on land as at sea. Popular Mechanics covered the contraption in 1932, writing, "When lowered the auxiliary rollers serve as stabilizers for water travel. On land the small spheres are raised and the vehicle travels like an ordinary bicycle."

A noble idea, but since a pedal boat was a much better (and drier) way to achieve human-powered transport over water, the Cyclomer seems to have remained merely a curiosity.

Top image: The Daedalus Project's Light Eagle human-powered aircraft. Credit: NASA.

[Source: Popular Mechanics. Edited. Top image and some links added.]