Give a kid a bicycle that won’t fall over and you’ll get a happy cyclist as early as tomorrow. That’s the idea behind Jyrobike, a self-balancing bicycle that its creators claim dramatically shortens the time it takes to master one of early childhood’s most difficult, time-consuming challenges.
When it comes to introducing a budding newcomer to bicycling, there are generally two schools of thought. The most popular approach advocates building confidence through the use of training wheels. The idea is that as the child soaks up the joys of riding, he or she will also somehow gradually develop the necessary sense of balance along the way. Then, you have those who make up a small, but growing number of detractors that have decried training wheels as just plain evil.
It’s not that training wheels don’t work. Rather, they argue, it’s that they work too well. Having a pair of side wheels, by design, tend to provide such rigid stability that the inexperienced rider isn’t able to get a feel for more nuanced techniques, such as leaning into turns or setting their feet when coming to a stop. Consequently, children end up taking as long as several weeks or months to become proficient as a lot of time is spent unlearning bad habits while getting accustomed to new ones, they say. These are the same folks who are part of a growing trend to start kids off on pedal-less balance bikes or going as far as removing the pedals so that they can get acclimated to balancing on two wheels, before they can be eased into the complexities of maneuvering.
The Jyrobike can be thought of as a kind of third way. Built around a “fall-proof” technology, the bike allows for all the breezy enjoyments that come with riding. But as the child gets a handle on the finer points of technique, which include steering, braking and pedaling, the level of steadying support can be dialed down accordingly until there isn’t any assistance needed.
“What’s great about our system is that it doesn’t just keep the rider from falling over, it also handles and performs much the same way as a regular two-wheeler,” said Jyrobike founder Robert Bodill. “That way, it teaches them how to ride, but doesn’t do the work for them.”
“Personally,” he added, “I’ve been able to teach some kids to ride in 15 minutes.”
The Jyrobike is actually a revamp of a technology developed and later commercialized by a team of engineers at Dartmouth. Back in 2009, interested buyers had the option of swapping out the front wheel of a bicycle with what was then called the Gyrowheel, a standard tire and hub that housed a battery-powered spinning disc. The original inventors had discovered at the time that keeping the disc or “flywheel” spinning at a speed of about 9 mph was enough to produce a “gyroscopic precession” effect, where the front wheel would turn automatically in the direction the bike was leaning to avoid tipping over. And as long as it stayed upright, the rider can maintain control.
Despite selling about 30,000 Gyrowheels during its production run, the technology wasn’t without its flaws. So with the Jyrobike, Bodill wanted to clear away some of the barriers that may discourage parents and beginning cyclists. Not long after buying up the inventors’ patents, the Australian entrepreneur assembled a Belfast-based team to relaunch the product as both a replacement wheel and a complete bicycle. Both include a more advanced gyroscope design that produces a precession effect that’s up to 50 percent stronger. Battery life was also improved with an energy-efficient system that lasts more than three times as long (three hours) between charges. And whereas the original add-on was too clunky and wide for most of bicycles, the new version is slim enough to fit nearly all models. To boot, it even includes a stereo sound system that plays sound effects such as bugle music, sirens and a roaring dinosaur.
Since launching a Kickstarter campaign in early June, the Jyrobike has surpassed its crowd-funding goal of $100,000, raising over $138,000 with two weeks left. It’s slated to fulfill orders by September.
Also in the works is a more sophisticated version for adults who have trouble balancing due to physical ailments or advanced age. Other possibilities, Bodill contemplates, include adapting the technology for stunt riding as well as for bike messengers who often navigate streets strapped to a heavy bag and can use some added stability.
“When I first heard about Gyrowheel, I was impressed simply by the fact that it’s possible to teach children how to ride a bike in a single afternoon,” he said. “But after developing it further, I’m starting to see that there are all kinds of people who can also benefit from this technology.”