Troy Rank’s Epic 4,400 Mile Ebike Journey and Why It’s Important

Troy is very casual about his epic 4,400 mile journey. Last year he noticed that the current Guinness Book of World Records for longest motorized bicycle journey was just over four thousand miles. He knew his bike could go that far. He knew he could go that far. He had his wife’s support. So he set out to break the record.

Of course it wasn’t easy. When he stopped by my shop last week on his way back to Rochester after cycling out to Colorado and back, I asked him about a bandage on his arm. “A dump truck ran me off the road. No big deal. I was able to lay my bike down on the grass, so just some cuts and bruises.” He kept a video blog about his journey. He describes many flat tires. He describes many electrical problems. On day 13 he describes how he was woken up in the middle of the night by a sprinkler system going on right by his tent. At one point he “Had to solder a bunch of connectors and diodes with a lighter and got stung by a bee. The fun never ends.” But he kept going.

Troy traveled between 100 and 150 miles a day at about 20mph. And he did it solo–no sag wagon. His journey lasted about a month. He camped out, stayed at friend’s houses, and occasionally indulged in a hotel room. Where he could find outlets on the outside of buildings he stopped to recharge. Stores with pop machines and ice machines were likely candidates. As an avid electronics hobbyist, he developed a custom charger so that he could charge his army surplus batteries relatively quickly. He described how at least twice his charger blew a breaker on a circuit connected to an ice machine; he was obliged to apologize to the owners and tell them to reset the breaker so that their ice didn’t melt.

There is a quiet revolution taking place on America’s roads. A new type of vehicle invisibly flits around automobiles stuck in traffic and zooms uphill past bicycles, getting commuters to work refreshed, getting the kids to school on time, and bringing home the groceries. This vehicle is of course the electric bicycle. The growing popularity of the electric bike is almost unnoticed by the mainstream media this side of the Atlantic; in enlightened Europe the electric bike is the fastest growing form of transportation.

The electric bike will radically change transportation. It’s not a matter of “if”, it’s a matter of “when”; soon to be gone are the days when a person can waste a couple thousand watt hours of energy to pick up milk from the grocery store half a mile away, which is the same amount of energy Troy used to go 100 miles. At some point during this century a person’s finances won’t permit such waste; even sooner, as in now, the Earth’s climate won’t permit such waste. We need to replace our heavy, unnecessarily fast cars with lightweight, relatively slow vehicles. Who is taking on the task of developing such vehicles? Not the automobile industry. They see energy efficiency in terms of incremental improvements: 40 mpg instead of 35 mpg; a heavy fast electric car instead of a heavy fast gasoline car. Nor the bicycle industry. To them the bicycle is an exercise machine; riding an electric bike is “cheating”. Nor the environmentalists. Environmentalists are focused on the fossil fuel industry as the culprit, ignoring the role of their beloved bumber-stickered Subarus and Volvos in global warming. No, this revolution is being led by ebike hobbyists like Troy, the crew at the Endless Sphere forum, and the enlightened car-free people who contributed to Liz Canning’s Less Car More Go documentary. These are the true heroes of our age.

Why is Troy’s journey important? Was it just the joy ride of a lone adventurer, or does it have a greater significance for the rest of us? I maintain that Troy ranks up there with Ferdinand Magellan and Charles Lindbergh, heroes who pushed the transportation of their day to its limits, to show others what was possible. Now that Troy has shown us what is possible, it is up to us to follow. I predict that within the next decade many of us will make trips similar to Troy’s, only more comfortably because of the development Troy has set in motion. I can imagine streamlined ebikes with high-capacity lightweight batteries. I can imagine high-efficiency motors, maybe even made in the United States! I can imagine roadside shops that eagerly advertise their electrical outlets in order to bring in ebike traffic. Troy is a trailblazer bringing us closer to the ideal of relatively slow, low cost, low energy transportation, the kind of transportation we need. Let us celebrate Troy’s accomplishment!