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
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.
Fowlkes is in a groove as he heads out of the parking lot onto a
bicycle path. Pump, pump, pump. He picks up speed. "Left side!
Left side," Fowlkes announces as he moves into the passing lane
and breezes by an in-line skater who has no inkling that the
weird contraption passing him has a connection to his
The RowBike attracts a what-the-heck- was-that? stare from
nearly every passerby. Just like old times.
Tom Dunkel, who lives in Washington, D.C., is a frequent
contributor to SI.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Inventor Olson, out for a spin on a Rowbike, got his inspiration from boring health club workouts. [Scott Olson riding Rowbike]