Look, Ma, No Handlebars! With M.I.T. Prof David Wilson's Bike, Even Pedal-Pushers Can Be Laid Back

updated 08/29/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/29/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Faster than a speeding lawn chair, more comfortable than an Italian racing bike. Look, down the road—it's no bird or plane, it's David Gordon Wilson, 55, an MIT professor on the bicycle he designed to blend speed with comfort, the Avatar 2000. Whether it will fly commercially is yet to be seen, but the first time he tested his contraption, in May 1975, says Wilson, "I was bowled over by the waves and cheers."

Though Wilson's two-wheeler looks a bit bizarre, it's the first bike to come near to challenging the car in ease if not swiftness. The reclined seat, with steering and gearshift underneath, cuts the muscle strain that crouched cyclists often get and lets even weak-kneed cyclists cruise at a breezy 20 mph. The winners of last year's International Human Powered Speed Championships pushed the Avatar to 52 mph in their victory. Wilson claims his cycle is extra safe, since a rider can't be pitched over the handlebars. When gas-powered roadsters threatened to squash his low-slung, hard-to-see gizmo at night, Wilson raised his visibility with a Day-Glo signal flag.

Chair-seat bikes first appeared in 1895 but never caught on, and they largely disappeared in 1933 when the International Cycling Union banned the unorthodox machines from races. Wilson, a mechanical engineer, began a revival in the early 70s after moving to Boston from his native England. Working with a couple of master bike builders, he completed his designs in 1981. So far, 145 fast-movers have paid $2,127 each for the handmade vehicles, and with six rival firms now making similar machines, Wilson dreams of "an entire world of recumbent bikes."

An avid biker for 46 years, Wilson claims the Avatar's novelty has threatened his average yearly cycling total of 4,500 miles: So many curious people stopped him with questions he couldn't get anywhere. Ever inventive, the wheeler-dealer soon fixed that—"I taped a sign to my back, reading: 'Antiperspirant test.' " Since then, Wilson's cycling has been no sweat.

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