Parked outside Dutch Bike in Ballard is big hunk of metal President Jimmy Carter once called “the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Pres. Carter and the bike crossed paths in Georgia years ago while its inventor, artist Eric Staller, was on a demonstration tour. Staller gave the president a ride around town, picking up curious onlookers along the way as the Secret Service followed closely behind.
“And he said, ‘You know, I was trained as an engineer … and I never could have come up with something like this,’” said Staller.
Staller, who is known for his art cars and eccentric installations, says he doesn’t know where his ideas come from.
“I am addicted to blowing my own mind,” said the 65-year-old. “And I’ve been doing it so long that I know that if I can blow my own mind, I can blow my audience’s mind.”
The Conference Bike—or CoBi, as its fans have nicknamed it—is the commercial variation of Staller’s artwork, the Octos. The artist made the eight-seater bike in 1991 as a metaphor for the oil crisis of the time. Eight riders dressed in futuristic black-and-white costumes rode around New York on the Octos, turning heads, as part of Staller’s Urban UFOs series.
When Staller moved to Amsterdam in 1994, he took the Octos with him.
“And Amsterdam being the great cycling capital of the western world, they (the people) were so enthusiastic,” said Staller. “People wanted to rent it, borrow it, buy it. And that’s when the light bulb went up over my head to develop it into a product.”
Several prototypes later, Staller gave birth to the CoBi and commissioned a German company to produce the bike. He went on to produce two more original bikes: the Quintette, which seats five and climbs hills better than its predecessor, and the LoveBike, a two-seater with a heart-shaped frame that has proven popular in the wedding industry.
Today, there are some 350 CoBis in 18 countries. Nine of them live on the Google campus. Another belongs to Cirque du Soleil. And one lives at Seattle’s Dutch Bike, which rents the bike by the hour.
David Schmidt, owner of Dutch Bike, says his 7-year-old CoBi has proven popular at the shop even though he does little to advertise the rental.
“People take it from here, ride it to the beach, ride it to bars,” he said. “It’s very easy to pedal. It’s got one gear. It’s pretty hard not to have a good time.”
Hop on a CoBi, says Staller, and something magical happens.
“The inhibition-lowering effect it has on people! It has people giggling, and chatting,” said the artist who sometimes rides his CoBi around San Francisco, where he now lives, picking up strangers. “You see the imagination working, and the wheels turning in people’s heads as they ride it.”
The riders aren’t the only ones who break out of their shells, says Staller, adding most passersby are instantly drawn to the unusual contraption.
“Watching the expressions of the people you pass is hilarious. I’ve been doing it for 10 years now, and I still haven’t gotten tired of watching the reactions,” he said. “Mouths falling open, I can read on people’s lips, ‘Oh my God, what is it?’
“If I could have a dollar for every iPhone photo taken of the bike, I could retire.”
Since its invention, CoBi fans have found several “really satisfying applications” for the bike, says Staller. It has proven especially valuable for the visually-impaired and the hearing-impaired—those who may otherwise find it difficult, if not impossible, to ride a bike.
“There’s a virus of positivity that’s spreading in that particular world,” said Staller. “More and more organizations are ordering them. There’s one now at a summer camp for blind children in New York.”
Schmidt took his CoBi to a retreat at the Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc. in Seabeck, and saw the phenomenon in action.
“That was probably one of the coolest things,” he said. “I think it’s unique for them to do something all together.”
Staller has also seen the bike bring together unlikely riders. He was especially moved to see Israeli and Palestinian children riding and laughing together at the Vonage pour la Paix children’s peace conference in Paris. The experience inspired him to donate several CoBis to groups in both Israel and Palestine.
“These are children that would have never laid eyes on each other. And here they are, cooperating,” he said. “It’s amazing to me that this, what really came out of my art, has taken on a life of its own.”
See the CoBi in action in this short film by Dutch filmmaker Sietske Tjallingii: