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Three Wheels, an Infomercial and an Offbeat Way to Lose a Few Pounds

By Lenny Bernstein
Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"What is that?" "How does it go?"

I am on the Mall, outside the Botanic Garden, with Roy Brown and a small group of his friends and relatives, also known as the DC Metro Area Trikke Riders club. It is a sunny Sunday morning, and in various forms, those are the two questions this three-wheeled contraption provokes from tourists and passersby.

Remember the Trikke (pronounced "trike")? Me neither. But apparently nearly everyone else on the planet has seen the late-night infomercial featuring this adult scooter, and increasing numbers of people are buying them.

According to Trikke CEO John Simpson, the company sold 2,500 units in 2002 and more than 60,000 last year. Clubs have sprung up in 16 locations across the country, with no help or sponsorship from Trikke headquarters in Buellton, Calif. In 2002, Time named the Trikke one of the best inventions of the year.

The thing is more than a little strange to look at, with its oversize wheels, skateboard platforms and cambering handlebars. But it offers a full-body, no-impact workout, according to its adherents, at the same time that it gets you from Point A to Point B. And it's as much fun as a bicycle, once you learn how to ride it.

"To me, this solved the motivation problem," said Angela Roberts, Brown's wife and the woman who got the Trikke rolling in her household. "When I'm on it, I love it. When I'm off it, all I want to do is get back on it."

Roberts had been trying to lose weight for years when -- you guessed it -- she saw the infomercial and bought a Trikke a little over a year ago. She is 25 pounds lighter now, the result of the graceful arcs she traces just about everywhere.

Better yet, she put Brown, her husband, on it. Brown's job as a buffet manager at Charles Town Races and Slots had ballooned his weight to 325 pounds and, combined with his low-activity lifestyle, had given him Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

"I said, 'There is no way I'm doing that. No way,' " Brown recalls. "She got it right away. But it was very frustrating for me."

Today, Brown is 15 pounds lighter and has quit his buffet job. He no longer requires insulin. He has started an exercise equipment business, Rock and Roll Fitness, out of his home in Charles Town, W.Va., where he sells, services and offers training on Trikkes. He says he has sold 170 so far. Prices range from $120 for a child's model to $600 for the most expensive adult Trikke.

You don't just jump on a Trikke and take off. It takes practice to find what Brown calls "the sweet spot" and what I thought of as my center of gravity. "Carving" -- the leaning, back-and-forth motion that, along with leg power, is essential to moving the thing forward -- is disconcerting at first. It takes a good bit of practice to go uphill, according to everyone who rides them.

You can jackknife if you're not careful, as first-timer Eric Strauchler of Lanham found out that morning. He fell off in a heap, bruising his shoulder and collarbone, and scraping off some skin.

"We all have Trikke tattoos," Brown says.

When I call Strauchler the next day, he is sore but undaunted.

"I'm going to keep doing this. I'm not going to give up," says Strauchler, 52, a deckhand on an Army Corps of Engineers vessel that cleans debris from the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. "I think everyone falls off of something. When I was a kid, I rode a bike and I fell off many times."

I climb on Roberts's Trikke with a bit of trepidation and try to wriggle and lean it into motion. I go nowhere, becalmed on a sea of asphalt, until she tells me to think of the alternate-foot motion of inline skating. I give it a running start the second time and soon I am able to putter along for a few yards. The motion of the handlebars helps sustain my momentum, and as I grow more comfortable, the left-right lean isn't nearly as troubling. Others say the motion is closest to skiing.

Then Lawrence Mayes shows up. Mayes, 29, is a man among boys in the local Trikke club. He has done a 100-mile ride on a Trikke in less than nine hours and regularly zips along at an average speed of 12 mph. (He has a wrist GPS to prove it.) He is trying to hit a sustained speed of 15 mph. You can see him in this YouTube video , but be forewarned: He crashes rather spectacularly and shows off some nasty road rash.

Mayes, a Bank of America administrator from Chesapeake, Va., says he lost 36 pounds in three months after acquiring his Trikke with points he earned at work, and has kept the weight off for a year. He rides his scooter to work a couple of days a week and sees no need for any other form of exercise.

"On a bike, if I did 30 miles, I would work the crap out of my legs," he says. "On the Trikke, if you do 30 miles, you feel it in your arms, your shoulders, your calves, your abs, your obliques."

Dutch researchers asked by Trikke Europe to study the scooter concluded that an average-size man who takes an hour-long ride at 9.3 mph would burn about 500 calories. Their study also explained how the carving motion propels the Trikke forward, but even after reading a translation of their analysis I'm still not sure I understand.

Simpson says the Trikke's future may be as a short-commute vehicle for people seeking a greener way to get to work. To help people when they need more than human energy to move their Trikke, the company markets versions powered by small electric motors. And the Trikke folds up and can be stashed in a closet.

"If you have a short commute and it's not raining or snowing and you want to get a workout and be gentle on the planet," he says, "this is the way to go."

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