When Aaron Latzke and David Delcourt launched the Kickstarter campaign for their "Siva Cycle Atom" on Tuesday morning, they gave themselves a month to amass $85,000. When I spoke to Latzke yesterday afternoon, some 54 hours later, they'd raised more than $58,000.
The masses (at least, those among them willing to send money to strangers on the Internet) have spoken: charging your iPhone with your bike is an idea worth throwing lots of cash at.
Without having tried out the product myself, based on the online pitch and my brief conversation with Latzke, it's easy to understand the generous response. The concept behind the Atom is so obvious and obviously useful, it's hard to believe nobody has thought of it (and produced it, funded it, and brought it to market) before.
As Latzke tells it, inspiration came to him while he was on a business trip in Belgium. Everywhere in the Low Country, he kept seeing these bottle dynamos -- small electrical generators, often connected to the front light, that spin along the sidewall of a bike tire. As an avid cyclist, he said he was drawn to the low-cost, low-tech solution to riding at night. And as a mechanical engineer, he said he was convinced he could make it way better.
After quitting his job and devoting himself full time to the development of a prototype, through a mutual friend, Latzke was introduced to David Delcourt. Both eco- and business-minded and a regular commuter cyclist to boot, it was Delcourt who suggested taking the idea of a souped-up light generator one step further -- to put some of the kinetic energy of a spinning back wheel toward powering a battery pack or any USB device directly.
Thus, the Atom.
Indeed, despite (or maybe because of) all its crowd-funded popularity, I'm sure many will sneer at the many Atoms soon to be found gracing bikes all around the Mission. For those who lean toward a more absolutist notion of what cyclists and cycling should be about, the Siva Cycle product (and its campaign to ship free Atoms off to low-income countries) may reek of solutionism or commercialism or Apple-grade trendiness. Just watch the Kickstarter video. See three hip dudes riding down 17th Street, charging up their iPhones at they go. Cut, and now they're occupying the reclaimed wood of the Four Barrel parklet, hungry for Kouign-amanns and ready to tweet.
Well, to dredge up that old tautology: haters gonna hate. But I like the idea of the Atom (notice, I didn't say I like the Atom itself. While the product certainly sounds nifty, don't read this as a product recommendation).
Instead, think of this as a simple observation that bike culture is increasingly seen as just another part of mainstream commercial culture. And that's a good thing.
Because despite the enormous increase in ridership in San Francisco over the last decade, the word "cyclist" still evokes for many a category of person unto themselves with a distinct uniform (be it, Lycra or cut-off Dickies) and personality (self-entitled, lane-hogging jerk). What they might not think of is your average schmo who, like any average schmo with a car and a cigarette lighter jack, might need to charge a phone or Mp3 player on their way to work.
Aside from shifting the image of the bicyclist toward the mainstream, products like these also make regular cycling more accessible.
"We wanted to design [the Atom] in a way that wouldn't be intimidating to people," Latzke told me. "Though a high-performance rider who used Strava might really benefit from this, it can be valuable to the commuter city rider, too."
Admittedly, no one is going to start riding to work every day solely because they can charge an Android while doing so. But the Atom, like rechargeable bike lights, like bicycle lane map apps, like cool e-bike innovations, like even bicycle lanes themselves, helps to narrow the experiential gap between the cushy, climate-control car commute and the ride to work by bike.
There is a machismo strain to be found within cycledom. There is the idea that braving the side-swiping trucks, the clouds of exhaust, and the hills and the sweat and the weather, are all an indelible part of what it means to be a cyclist, and that those who find braving the sharrows too intimidating or difficult or inconvenient are better off taking the bus.
To which I say, "feh." The bike party is a big tent and everyone is invited.
Ben Christopher is an Oakland-based freelance journalist. His favorite pastimes include pretending to work at coffee shops and shaking his fist disapprovingly at errant drivers from atop his baby blue Cannondale.