Zen & The Art of Velomobile Maintenance.


Hi, Peter. Please tell a bit about yourself.
My name is Peter Rumjantzeff, and I’m a Helsinki-based velo-mobilist. I was born in Munkkivuori and I grew up in Roihuvuori and Laajasalo. That’s pretty much it, the short story.

Studies?
Yeah, ah… I did my basic school in Helsinki. After that I moved to Joensuu, to continue my studies and work, for nine years. Then I lived in Manchester for a while, then back to Joensuu, and then to Helsinki in ’96.

What were you doing in Manchester?
I was a full-time musician at the time, I went to play there. I loved the accent, even though at first I didn’t understand a single word! One time I took a taxi, and the driver was rambling about, the accent so thick. All I understood was that he was 85 years-old and that he used to fly Spitfires during WWII! (laughs) But yeah, I was playing guitar. I actually started as a drummer and did twenty gigs with a progressive rock band, without vocals, you know, really arty thing. But then I switched to guitar, punk-rock. Then I played in a glam-rock band in Helsinki and went on tour, Tavastia, Lepakko, and other places. And then I switched to country & western. We self-produced a couple of records.

You mentioned being a Luddite, in an email.
It was a joke, kinda. I do try to stay away from certain technical stuff. I’m not very keen on mobile phones and portables. Finns love mobiles, but I try to stay away from them. I enjoy sitting in a tram, without a mobile phone. When you absorb your surroundings, you LIVE more. I don’t mind spending a lot of time on the net when I’m at home, but outside, I’m offline. I draw the line on my door.

For young people it’s more natural, but I’m 46. It’s a great thing to have internet, but… I was 27 when I got my first mobile phone, and 33 when I got my first internet connection… The thing is, after 30 you don’t absorb things so well. I mean, what you learn in your youth stays deep within you. But after 30, it’s not the same, it’s not natural.

You speak English very well.
Thanks. I was best of my class in English, during the 80s. I was a rebel, because English was not considered an interesting language in Finland back then. It was our Soviet days, so English had this slightly negative aura. But I tried to learn English well, and was best of my class, and they were laughing about me. Now it’s so different, though. My English is average!

What do you do, professionally?
I’m a pensioner. And in my situation, you’re trying to figure out what to do with your time. You want to try different projects, and immerse into them.

You ever feel like a castaway, on a desert island?
Yeah, that’s exactly how I feel. I have an artistic nature; I’ve been modeling stuff all my life, airplanes, all kinds of things, and I was looking for something different. So in 2014 I saw in the cover of ‘Mobilisti’ magazine an old Finnish velomobile and I got inspired. It’s also in my nature to resist being pigeon-holed, which pisses people off sometimes! (laughter)

How you mean?
People have a need to classify things, to put things into categories, especially vehicles. They think they can be very liberal towards other people, but when it comes to vehicles, they’re very conservative, they want them neatly separated in boxes. But a velomobile is between boxes. It’s not a car, and it’s not a bicycle for me either. According to the law, it is a bicycle, but culturally it’s not. It’s between a bike and a car. And it’s very hard for people to understand this.

Is there a lot of hate on the road, between cyclists and car drivers?
Oh, it’s ridiculous! And I don’t want no part of it. I come from being a motorcyclist -I’ve owned 22 motorcycles, one after the other- so I love to ride. Have you read Pirsig’s Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? That’s my philosophy for riding. The law says I’m now a cyclist, but philosophically I’m still a motorcyclist. In general, cyclists ride for the exercise, or to get from A to B. But I love to purely ride, it’s the main thing for me and the rest is secondary. So I’m between boxes that way too. (laughs) I agree it’s good to go out there to exercise, and to replace cars with bikes as well. But for me, I just love the road going under me.

Does it bring you peace?
Yes. The road is the only place where I find some kind of peace. The stage was another, but I don’t play anymore, so… Riding gives me a great feeling that’s hard to explain to sport cyclists who look only for exercise.

So you wanted to build a velomobile.
Yes. I designed it and it was a pretty free process. After having built ten big radio-controlled model airplanes, it was not difficult -in fact I used some techniques from aviation. For example, when I needed to make the “airframe” stiffer, I used a hybrid technique: you don’t use only one material, you combine two and create a more rigid composite. Let’s say you have a piece of wood and a piece of steel. If you join them, it’s more difficult to bend them. Force changes from bending power to stretching power. That’s how they actually used to build airframes and wings in the past: it’s the surface of the wing that takes the load. But anyway, I had to build a certain rigidity into the frame, ’cause when I myself am on it (and I’m pretty heavy) and also there’s the batteries, the total weight is about 170 kg. Imagine hitting a pothole at 50 kph with all that weight.

The whole thing can break apart.
Ahá. That’s why I chose this hybrid method, and also because I built it in my own apartment, where I can’t possibly weld (sparks = fire hazard). There’s not a single welding point in that machine.

You should have worked for Howard Hughes.
(laughs) A very wild guy, had his own airline…

Velomobiles existed in Finland in the past?
They were quite famous during the 40s. Right after the second World War, we didn’t have rubber, tires, gas, nor cars. All of our cars had been taken by the government, because they were needed in the front lines. And after the war it was illegal to import cars that were not soviet -but nobody wanted those! So, velomobiles were invented! They were fashionable for only three or four years, because at the beginning of the fifties we started to get cars and gas and everything. So the whole velomobile thing lasted from ’46 to ’49 more or less.

Are there other velomobilists in Finland, currently?
Yes, there are. We have a website where we keep an unofficial register. There are some 60 of them.

Do you know them all in person? Did they also built their machines themselves?
I only know a few in person. About half built their own velomobiles, the others bought them from factories. After 2010, there’s a new momentum going on, and three or four factories in Holland are making them. They are designed in wind tunnels, like aircraft, and are made of carbon fiber. Those things go faster with a guy pedaling than me with the help of a motor. They’re so aerodynamic and light, they weigh only 25 kg, while mine is 50 kg! A 2:1 difference in weight…

And how much do they cost?
More than 7.000 eu, plus 600 to bring it here.

7.000 eu! You can get a nice car with that money!
They’re not for everyone. That was one of the reasons I built mine: I wanted to do it the cheap way, which gives me a great feeling. And if you think about it the form itself is a byproduct of this too, because I didn’t design it to look like it does. When you use cheap materials that don’t bend much, the end result is going to look like a box. If I could, I would design it more like an egg, but I can’t with wood. With carbon fiber or glass, sure, but…

How long did it take you?
It wasn’t actually much work, it’s harder to build a model aircraft. I did it in one month, but much more difficult was to get all the materials, and bring them home! All the hardware retail shops are located around the Third Ring (Keha III) and I don’t have a car! Moving 10 square meters of plywood through public transportation, and tracking every piece I needed around Helsinki took more work than building the thing. (laughs) But it was fun, it was part of the hobby. I’m an old-fashioned hobbyist. These days people consider buying things as a hobby. To me, to have a hobby is TO BUILD something.

Plywood sheets become aerodynamic in the wind!
I know! (laughs) And the bicycle parts I got from the scrapyard. I go there and they have a three meter high pile of bicycle forks! And I needed 20-inch forks with a specific kind of brake, so I had to sort through all that mountain of stuff several times to find the pair! (laughs) All part of the hobby…

Is a velomobile a recumbent bike with a shell?
According to law it is a recumbent bike. But my opinion is that velomobiles are on their own class, separate from cars and bikes. The Swedish Institute of Technology published a very well written study (not technical, but sociological and philosophical) specifically about velomobiles. The author tries to explore to what category do velomobiles belong, and he is also of the opinion that they are on their own class. Many cyclists see them as bikes and that’s okay. Humans naturally desire to belong to some group, because it’s easier to gather power. They want better laws and rights for cyclists -which is good- and for that you need the force of a group. I myself don’t want to belong to any tight classification. And that gets me in trouble sometimes! (laughs)

For example?
I care very much about how things look. I’m an aesthete. And that goes against Finnish culture. In Lutherianism, Protestantism, pictures are not allowed. Beauty is not allowed, because it competes with God. But my Russian part loves beauty, it’s the thing that takes me to places. For many things, my first thought is how it looks. In Finnish culture, it’s very important how things work. Finns build things that work well, that are mechanically superior, but they disregard how it looks. For me, if the thing works somehow, it’s enough.

If they care to build it, it’s assumed it works well.
Yes! And this comes from Protestant religion. Look at a church, for example: plain and functional. That’s why I’m struggling all the time when I build anything! I have a row with Luther! (laughs) On the surface I’m 100% Finn, but scratch the surface and there’s more Russian (my grandfather from the maternal side was Russian). It’s a good thing, to have a kind of light side to look at things. Culturally I’m definitely not Russian. I’m in between, but more to the Finn side. You know how they say fish don’t see the water they swim in? I feel like a fish that sees the water! (laughs)

How do people react to such an unusual sight on the road?
It does work as a sociological experiment, which was one of my goals as well. It’s very interesting to observe people’s reactions when they see the vehicle, because it’s so… rebellious in a way. It doesn’t belong to any known category, and it questions masculine authority and credibility, so part of the project was to give a damn about credibility. I get very different reactions to it; some really hate it, and others love it. It’s either way, and not many stand in the middle.

Any interest stories?
The wildest episode so far was with this man driving an SUV. He threw the car at me and cut me off. I had to either brake or crash against his car. I was like “WTF!” and then I figured out what was going on: he thought I had stolen a kid’s pedal car, and he was making a civil arrest!!! He came out of the car and looked at me, then he understood I hadn’t stolen anything! (long belly-laughter) It’s a very different world from that of bicycles. On a bike you’re more or less invisible (okay, maybe car drivers hate you).

I’m thinking of the Sony Walkmans, when they came out.
Hey, I had those! They used so much battery… I used to listen to Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall album on my walk to school. It was a long walk and I could almost listen to the whole album…

My point was that people will resist anything that is really new.
Oh, sure. But I personally think velomobiles are the future. I see a lot of potential in a vehicle that’s mid-way between car and bicycle, consumes little electricity, and still goes fast and gives a moderate protection against nature.

What’s the electricity use like?
It consumes 8 cents worth of electricity per hundred km. So with one return bottle you can travel 100 km.

Amazing. Did you ever consider offering your plans to some agency, maybe implement a pilot project?
No, but it sounds like a good idea. I think the main reason people don’t ride them yet is that they are afraid of what others may think. They want to maintain a certain street cred. In a way I see their point, because I get so many reactions when I’m riding, and that can put people off. People don’t want to be seen and asked questions; they don’t want attention.

Once people see them enough, they will accept them, like everything else. In Oslo, the government offers cheap access to Tesla electric cars, and so the whole town is flooded with them. People don’t notice them anymore.
It’s a threshold. Once you’re past it, they accept it. And velomobiles have not crossed it yet. And of course the price is prohibitive. People don’t want to build stuff, they want to shop. And when they Google “v-e-l-o-m-o-b-i-l-e” and see they start at 7.000 eu they get a sedan with AC, heating, and Bluetooth stereo instead.

How much does your velomobile cost to build?
Without a motor, about 500 eu. The motor and the batteries are 1.000 eu more. Before I installed the motor and the battery, I pedaled 400 km, and it works! It was not fast, but you can get to places.

Would it be possible to build them in tandem, so two people could ride together?
It would be doable. But it’s a different project.

I ask because a velomobile seems an individualistic vehicle; you are in your own shell. But what if you have a family, a wife, two kids, bags to carry?
I understand your point. It’s true, and it’s probably one of the reasons why they haven’t become more fashionable. You can’t really bring your family with.

Could we stack them?
(laughs) It kinda destroys the idea! It’s for you, it’s personal. If you need to transport your family I guess that yes, you need another kind of vehicle, like a car.

This reminds me of Alberto Santos-Dumont, the Brazilian air-balloon pioneer, riding his own dirigible above the streets of Paris.
Oh, the beginning of times in aviation must have been magnificent! To fly free, without rules! They would create their own aircraft, until they learned how to build a frame strong enough, and to control it…

Wild times. They didn’t even know about g-forces, or elementary aerodynamic principles.
True, and many died, of course. They would put the control surfaces on the FRONT of the wing! (laughs) After a few crashes they figured it’s better to put it AFTER the airflow!

Officially, what vehicle is this?
The official long name is as long as a novel. I usually forget one or two terms when I say it: korilla varustettu katettu moottoroitu kolmipyöräinen nojapolkupyörä! “Three-wheeled-motored-recumbent-bicycle-with-a-chassis”. It’s not a pedal car because, according to Finnish law, a car needs to have four or more wheels (three-wheelers are either bicycles, mopeds, or motorcycles). But even though it’s a bicycle, the motor is that big that it has to have a traffic insurance (I had to create my own serial number and stamp it on the metal part of the frame, with chisel and hammer – governmental rules). I have permission to ride on the high-shoulder of roads, not only on bike lanes, but I prefer roads because they’re in better condition than bike lanes (which are bumpy). And the one thing you DO NOT want when you ride are bumps. Or the stones they often put at sidewalks’ endings, connecting with the pavement. Riding you feel every tiny little bump on your spine. You’re very afraid of bumps.

You don’t have any suspension?
No, I don’t. Commercial models do have, and I could add it, but it would add another five kilograms.

It’s like a Formula One car.
Yeah! That’s pretty close. It’s not made for gravel roads, but for very flat surfaces. A commercial model with suspension is much more comfortable, but on my model, what limits your speed is the bumps, the condition of the road. If there’s a bump coming, you have to brake.

What instruments do you have onboard?
A speedometer and two watt-meters, to monitor the 500-watt, direct-drive electric motor, which has a 40Ah/54V battery.

And the motor you had to buy.
Yes. But the batteries I use are model airplane batteries that I put together to make a bigger battery, which was another reason why I built this thing: I had a pile of batteries I wasn’t using. When I found out how expensive electric bike batts were I thought “I already have a lot of them, I just need the motor!” So that’s where inspiration struck.

What is the exact role of the motor?
Good question. People usually ask me: “do you pedal or do you use the electric motor?” And I say: “it’s a hybrid; I use both at the same time”. The reason to ride electric is the pedaling experience. Motor and pedaling are not opposites, they are on the same side. I never stop pedaling, because I need the exercise (I’ve got metal knees, which I got when I crashed with my motorcycles).

But is it possible to stop pedaling and let the electric motor take you?
Yes, there is a throttle. But it’s not designed to do that. The motor is too small to ride long distances without pedaling. You could do ten kilometers and then it overheats. But it’s not the point. It’s a brilliant feeling when the motor and your pedaling work together. You don’t feel the motor, you feel like you have the legs of Hercules!

How does it work?
There’s a control box right before the motor, with a guidance sensor that monitors how fast and how strong you’re pedaling, and tells the motor to generate power accordingly. There’s a throttle, like I said, but I only use it when I need to start climbing a steep hill (it takes half a cycle for the sensor to recognize the need for power, so I use it manually to get it moving). And I have to use it if something breaks. Two years ago I was in Klaukkala, and the bottom bracket broke off. The whole bracket and pedals just dropped onto the road.

Ouch.
Yeah. So I picked everything as best I could and drove on with the throttle -slowly, to prevent heating.

I guess it’s tempting to use the throttle sometimes.
Yes, you need self-discipline. I compare it to pedaling on a stationary exercise bike, at home or at the gym: a velomobile is like an exercise bike equipped with scenery! Whereas on a normal bike you are forced to pedal, to start, to climb, etc, on an exercise bike you choose to exercise -there’s another philosophical difference there. Pedaling with the help of a motor feels great. It motivates me a lot!


Here are links to Peter’s blog (in Finnish, mostly) and to the thesis on velomobiles, published by the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology.