“The guy who invented the first wheel was an idiot,” to quote the late comedian Sid Caesar, “the guy who invented the other three: he was the genius!” Sympathy with this point of view is the instinctive attitude for newcomers to the Solowheel, an unusual, one-wheeled vehicle developed by American inventor Shane Chen. It is, on first inspection, a monstrously heavy, circular briefcase, about half a metre tall, offering no visible means of transport whatever.
To the seasoned pilot, however, the Solowheel is an elegant and convenient alternative to the bicycle, scooter or Segway, its closest relative. I was fortunate enough to receive half an hour’s tuition from Ray Brook, a kind of volunteer evangelist for the Solowheel who, at 68, stands living testament to some kind of anti-aging properties hidden in its workings. It is clear that, since he discovered the machine, he has barely set foot on solid ground; gliding, instead, through life with boyish exuberance, his legs perpetually glued to the twin wings of a Solowheel.
Clinging to Brook’s arm like a crippled seabird gripping a cliff-face, I am led around in an infernal circle at the edge of Granary Square, London, where art students mutter withering remarks as they pass. “I’m going down, Ray, I’m crashing,” I bellow, my arms flapping in ungodly loops, and he soothes me with words of encouragement. The wheel’s motor, he tells me, is built around a “gyro-switch”, which responds to the weight distribution across the wheel. Lean forward, and the motor accelerates; backward, and it slows.
By some estimates, 20 minutes is all you need to become comfortably independent astride the wheel: estimates I can only presume were made by lissom, rubber-limbed circus-folk with long careers on the tightrope behind them. I practised every evening for a week and can now make jolted right-angle turns, and can at least mount the thing without the help of a wall or a colleague. Painful as it is, I have been forced to accept that I rank among the least graceful employees of the Observer. The editor’s assistant, on her first foray, drifts across the newsroom like a leaf across a pond. The graphics editor speeds along the canal, a pint of Amstel in one hand. The commissioning editor on this supplement negotiates an improbable corner despite the floor-length evening dress she is wearing for a ceremony at the Foreign Press Association.
But I stuck with it, not only out of professional duty or loyalty to Brook, but because the brief instances of stability and finesse which occur during practice are satisfying beyond measure. Upright on the utterly silent wheel, the wind billowing my coat, I felt I could glimpse a bright future of unpolluted boulevards, of groups of wheeled figures drifting past, exchanging bons mots and vaping. It was a blissful vision, stopped short when I dog-legged sharply into fence.
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