For Steve Roberts, Vehicle of choice is a bicycle loaded with computers.
Steve Roberts nine years ago moved out of Columbus, Ohio, and into what
he calls Dataspace, a world of electronic networks where home is just an
abstract concept. He sold his house, figured out some clever ways to pack
electronics onto a bicycle and hit the road.
Ever since then, Mr. Roberts has been pushing back the frontier of
telecommuting. He works outside, travelling as he pleases, in shorts,
stopping for a picnic or a stroll along a river whenever he wants to. On
the other hand, his bicycle-office now weighs more than a quarter of a
Mr. Roberts, a 39-year-old computer consultant, author and speaker, has
a cellular modem on his bicycle so that he can pick up electronic mail
while he is on the move. Urgent E-mail gets routed through a satellite
hookup and dropped into his bicycle's computer system immediately. The
bicycle will announce: "Mail has arrived." If he isn't on the bike, the
bike will page him. A ham radio lets him troll the airwaves for
conversation if he feels like chatting.
Mr. Roberts has four computers built into the bike: two IBM-compatible
machines, one MacIntosh and one Sun Sparcstation. He also has 40 other
chips of comparable processing power. The bike could pass for a small
With the electronics connected into his helmet and handlebars,
Mr. Roberts can do all his conversing and corresponding on the move.
A computerised ultrasonic device built into his helmet allows him to
move the cursor around on the computer screens just by moving his head.
Using eight keys built into his handlebars, he can type on the order of
100 words a minute using a special shorthand. Or he can use the keys to
play a synthesised flute.
Mr. Roberts usually has a tiny computer screen pulled down in front of
one eye. Wires and tubes run into the back of his helmet, hooking into
speakers, a microphone and a system that circulates coolant around his
The bike is an eight-foot (2.4 metre) long model, so Mr. Roberts looks
like he is pedalling a lawn chair. He pulls a wide, bright-yellow
trailer that is covered with solar panels. A huge antenna and some flags
stick up from it. Blaupunkt speakers right behind Mr. Roberts's head are
usually blaring music from his CD player. On the front is a sort of
cockpit, with three computer screens and numerous gauges. Fully loaded,
the bike weighs 580 pounds (264 Kg), not counting the 6-foot, 200 pound
(1.9 metre, 91 Kg) Mr. Roberts. "It used to get 40 miles to the pizza,"
Mr. Roberts says, "But as its gotten heavier its down to 25 miles."
Mr. Roberts, who is cheerfully irresponsible about money, supports
himself largely by relying on others: The $300,0000 of equipment on his
bike is almost all donated by manufacturers intrigued by his work, and
he often combs his "hospitality database" of 1800 people to find a place
to stay at night.
He also does free-lance writing and publishes a quarterly journal called Nomadness that has 1000 subscribers: he sells almost all the subscriptions himself from his bicycle, often using a credit-card reader that does its check through his cellular modem. He has also written a book, called "Computing Across America," about his first cross-country trip.
Mr. Roberts hasn't actually been pedalling nonstop for nine years. After
an initial odyssey of five years and 16,000 miles (about 26,000 Km) on
early office-bicycle prototypes, he paused for four years, knocking
around in computer circles. But he got a bad case of what he calls
"tire itch," so he went to work building a bigger, better bicycle. After
a 750-mile shakedown cruise, this month he hit the road again. His current
behemoth is called the Behemoth, which stands for Big Electronic Human-
Energized Machine, Only Too Heavy.
Mr. Roberts, an intensely verbal sort, has written of "leading two
simultaneous lives. One is visceral, sweaty, attuned to every hill and
headwind. The other is ethereal, intellectual, an electronic interlocking
of imagination and communication."
Since all the new electronics have made the experience even sweatier than it used to be, the bike is now up to 105 gears. Three braking systems aim to prevent a repeat of the scare he had when his brakes gave out while he was descending a winding Rocky Mountain pass. Going up a steep grade, he goes just over 1 mph (at that speed rapid-deployment training wheels pop out to keep him from falling over). Cruising speed is just 9 mph.
"That's OK," he says, "I'm in no hurry."
Maggie Victor, who travelled with him on her own bike for one extended
trip, says they lived in such a hand-to-mouth fashion that "we'd sell some
books and I'd go to the grocery store."
Mr. Roberts has picked up some consulting for companies, such as Sun
Microsystems Inc., that are interested in mobile computing. John Gage,
director of the science office at Sun, talks of how a huge market will
develop for mobile computing and communicating devices and says: "Steve
has built that already. It just weighs hundreds of pounds and has to be
pedalled." Mr. Roberts did, however, decide not to go pro: He won't carry
ads on his bike.
He is building a business as a speaker, but that is making him modify his
aimlessness. To get to and from engagements, he has bought a truck with a
camper attachment and is pulling a trailer full of wrenches, soldering
irons, computer chips, spare tires and whatever else he needs to reinvent
the bike. He will drive to a speaking job and then begin wandering using
the "mother ship" as a base.
"This goes against everything I believe in," he says of the gas-guzzling vehicle. He adds, though, that "I once calculated that it gets 1.2 light- years per cubic-mile of gasoline. It sounds better that way."
Mr. Roberts comes by his restlessness honestly. An adopted child, he
tracked down his biological parents a few years ago and found that his
often-married father had the same aversion to commitment and that his
grandfather had built a boat, sailed it up and down the East Coast and
written about his adventures.
Mr. Roberts tinkered as a boy. To deal with neighbourhood bullies, he once
built two powerful squirt guns that could fire electrically charged salt
water - primitive stun guns, essentially - and attached them to his
bicycle. He tried college briefly, but felt that the way engineering was
taught was akin to "going to art school and being taught to paint by
numbers." He dropped out and hitch-hiked around the country, occasionally
working on barges or hopping freights.
He tried the U.S. air force briefly, hoping to learn more about electronics, but felt he was being harrassed. So he read up on schizophrenia and got an honorable discharge by faking passive-aggressive behavior.
At that point, in the early 1970's, the first microprocessors were becoming
available. Mr. Roberts tried building a computer around one well before the
first personal computers hit the market, placing him close to the cutting
edge to get consulting contracts from big companies. He also wrote four
books. But the more he turned electronics into a job, the more he felt he
was just squelching his passion.
"I briefly tried growing up," Mr. Roberts says, "but it was a bad idea."
So he is back on the road, although his life isn't entirely devil-may-care.
He worries enough about the bike that he has loaded it security systems. If
someone gets within 15 feet of it, the bicycle will page Mr. Roberts and
warn off the curious by saying something like: "You are being monitored by
an alien spaceship. Do not touch the bicycle or you will be vaporized by a
If someone tries to move the bike, it will broadcast distress messages over
ham-radio frequencies and a satellite network. It will also dial 911,
politely identify itself as a threatened bicycle, consult the Global
Positioning System and tell the police its latitude and longtitude within
But more often, when the bicycle talks, it is to have fun. Mr. Roberts says
he was watching it from a restaurant window recently when a small boy
carrying a skateboard walked by. Using a radiotelephone, Mr. Roberts had
the bike say: "Hey kid, that's a funny-looking bicycle you're carrying."
The boy, startled for a moment, said: "Don't be silly, Mr. Bicycle, this is
a skateboard." The bike and the boy chatted for a bit, then the boy said:
"Wait here a second, I want you to talk to my mother." When the boy
returned, Mr. Bicycle stayed silent. But when the frustrated mother started
to drag the boy away, the bike said: "Hey, pretty girl, want to go for a