From the Better Late Than Never News Desk: Somebody finally got around to harnessing the power of the rowing machine. Thanks to the new and aptly named RowBike—a chain-driven rowing machine on wheels—gym rats are free to stroke their way from New York to Los Angeles if their hearts and quads desire. What's next? An abs machine with wings? A Stairmaster that travels in time?
Scott Olson, the 37-year-old inventor who gave the world in-line skates, spent four years and $350,000 developing the RowBike. "It's been like pushing a tractor across a grain field," Olson says, employing imagery that befits a lifelong Minnesotan.
The RowBike, which went into full production in January, retails for $599. "This is no gimmick," says Olson. "This is going to change people."
A bicycle that you propel by pumping the handlebars in an oarlike manner may seem slightly daffy, but Olson is used to bemused reactions to his ideas. Back in 1979 he began tinkering with a pair of funky street skates in his parents' basement. Olson, an amateur hockey player who later toiled in the Winnipeg Jets' farm system for a few years, was looking for a way to skate outdoors in good weather sans ice. He added some center-mounted polyurethane wheels to the skates and an ankle-support system similar to that of a ski boot, and—eureka!—he had a fair-weather skate that was ultimately dubbed the Rollerblade.
And the world laughed.
Oh, folks were curious about Rollerblades when they saw Olson and his pals tooling around, but not many became paying customers. In 1985 Olson sold 95% of his fledgling company to investor Robert Naegele for $100,000. Suddenly, as luck would have it, the world stopped laughing and started in-line skating. Today there are 22.5 million converts, and Rollerblade, Inc. has a 44% share of the $838 million annual in-line market. Although Olson missed out on the biggest windfall, he still gets a 1% royalty from Rollerblade's sales until 1997, and that has earned him some $10 million.
The idea for the RowBike came to Olson during a workout at a health club, while he was cranking away on a stationary rowing machine, bored out of his skull. He started wondering if there was a way to make the ordeal more interesting, maybe even mobile. As with the original Rollerblade, Olson is manufacturing the Rowbike himself.
Olson claims that using the RowBike burns twice as many calories as conventional biking, and he has invested several hundred thousand dollars in a TV infomercial to get that message out. But a novice is likely to feel a bit wobbly the first time out. The seat slides back and forth as in a rowing scull. Combine the leg thrust with the handlebar-yanking upper-body motion, and steering can be an adventure.
But Dave Fowlkes, a young designer who is part of the small RowBike development team, makes everything look so-o-o easy. He pulls the company van into a parking lot by Lake Nokomis, one of the many waterside parks that speckle the Minneapolis landscape, and takes out an experimental RowBike. "You start by walking yourself on it," Fowlkes says, pushing off the ground with his right foot. "And don't move on the seat, either. It'll just confuse your balance. Once you get used to it...."
Swish. He zooms off, carving graceful loop-the-loops. With his feet in the footholds and his legs fully extended, Fowlkes glides along with a kind of incongruous majesty, pumping just enough with his arms to maintain a comfortable cruising speed. He looks like he's taking a souped-up Barcalounger out for a spin.