Note: I wrote this article back in 1998 and it originally was published in the May/June 1998 issue of Recumbent Cyclist New (RCN #45). I'm reprinting it here with the kind permission of Bob Bryant. Bob continues to publish Recumbent Cyclist News and if you're at all interested in unique bicycles you should check out RCN.


Joe in the Joetator next to a Geo Metro

Joe and the Joetator

by Kent Peterson


Copyright © 1998 by Recumbent Cyclist International. Reprinted with permission.




"My God, what is that thing?"

This reaction comes almost involuntarily to the lips of anyone who sees the bike we've dubbed "Joetator." Yes, we explain, it's a bicycle. 12 feet long, one hundred pounds, but still a bicycle. Somehow, I hadn't thought it would turn out this way. It began, like many a misadventure, as a simple plan. I'd seen the beautiful flowing lines of the Rotator Pursuit in Recumbent Cyclist News and I'd read Bob Bryant's glowing review. "Oh, yes," I'd thought, "it will be mine." The problem, as usual, was saving up enough money to purchase this sleek antelope of the asphalt. My money was mostly getting channeled into such frivolities as food, a roof over my head, shoes for the kids and other such nonsense. My pursuit of the Rotator was shaping up to be a multi-year ride.

My buddy Joe Kochanowski had the answer, "I'll build you a bike," he said. Now you have to understand that Joe is a genius. An absolute, certifiable genius, like Thomas Edison or the guy who came up with the idea of a TV show called "Xena: Warrior Princess." But Joe's medium is electricity of TV programming, Joe sculptures in steel and he builds bikes. Sure, most of  his bikes are massive. scary looking things but most people only catch glimpses of these bikes as Joe pilots them at speeds more often associated with the oval race track at Indy than the pot-holed streets of Seattle.

I began to warm to this idea. "Yeah, Joe's version of a Rotator...we'll call it the Joetator. It'll be great!" My thoughts continued on. "Yep," I told myself, "when you're friends with Michelangelo, you don't put in ceiling tile." Joe actually owns a Rotator Super Seven, one of the legendary Rotator racers.

Of course, Joe has extensively modified his Rotator and he rode it fully faired in last year's Seattle to Portland ride. One of the thousands of people he passed was heard to mutter, "He's got a motor in there." No, it's just Joe but Joe is enough. So Joe would take his knowledge of the Rotator, mix it up with his street smarts and build a super bike.

We talked a bit about money but talking money with Joe is like talking about Harrier jets with an Amish farmer. He may be vaguely aware that such things exist, but they really don't enter into his day to day thinking. "I'll build it, you ride it and if you use it and like it and use it, pay me whatever." Great, Joe has just invented the first shareware bicycle. Well, at least on paper anyway. And that was step one. Get a big piece of paper. Actually it was a chunk of an old cardboard box Joe scavenged out of the trash. Joe scavenges everything.

When I first met Joe, I wondered if he was homeless. I later learned that he lives in a house just north of Boeing Field, just south of Seattle, in the industrial district. His house is packed with bike parts and tools. And when I say packed, I mean packed. It looks like the Tour de France crashed into an exploding oil rig and landed in his basement. There are bikes, metal tubes, lathes, cut-off saws, wrenches, old fairings, airplane drop tanks, oxygen cylinders, small to medium caliber weapons, pedals, cranks, large vices, micro calipers, air compressors, and enough miscellaneous hardware to build two stealth bombers with enough left over to build a small chemical refinery and an espresso machine. But we were starting simple. A big line drawn on the cardboard where the main body tube would go. Here's where the bottom bracket goes, the wheels wind up here, the seat goes here... "How long are your arms?" Joe asks. "Huh," I reply as I distractedly try to calculate the scrap value of the metal in the room. I'm beginning to think Joe's net worth may be somewhere in the Bill Gates neighborhood. "Your arms...HOW LONG ARE THEY?" Joe grabs my arm and a tape measure, "I have to figure out where the steering goes and I want to make sure you can touch the ground. You don't want to unclip at a light, you'll just put your hand down." Joe takes a couple of readings, makes a few marks on the cardboard and is on to the next problem.

Joe is good at solving problems, but he works at his own schedule. Despite the presence of enough hardware to jumpstart the economies of several Balkan republics, Joe would continually comb swap meets, surplus stores and industrial dumpsters to find just the right part. This went on for months. I managed to spend some time with my wife and sons and got enough real work done to get a handle on that whole food/shelter/clothing thing.

My recumbent fever had not lessened at all. I home-brewed a couple of SWB bikes of my own (yeah, I'll get around to doing an article about that someday!) and somewhere along the line I bought Bob Bryant's ex-test Rocket. I got very used to seeing my lovely wife's eyes roll heavenward and her head shake in disbelief as I explained my need for yet another bike. But for some reason she loves me very much and I now have this fleet of , well, let's call them "unusual" bicycles.

But Joe kept working. I'd get calls and questions and reports from the lab. "The Pursuit has tiller steering, " Joe would say, "you don't want that. I'm going with side sticks, OK?" "Sure, Joe. Build it the way you'd want it." After all, I figured, Joe knows at least a thousand times more about this than I do.

"You want rear suspension." Joe would lose points on Jeopardy because he didn't phrase this in the form of a question. Joe had bolted the period onto the nd of that sentence and then TIG welded it to be extra secure. "I want rear suspension," I echoed like the Imperial Storm Trooper in Star Wars saying "These aren't the droids we're looking for." "This is winding up heavier than a Pursuit, but weight doesn't matter once you're rolling..."

"Weight doesn't matter once you're rolling," I thought, "but how do I get this thing rolling?" It's a few months later and I'm at Joe's. I'm settled into a rollable Joetator. It's, um... an experience. "You'll feel more secure once I get the rollcage done," Joe assures me. "Rollcage?" I think for an instant but as I survey the pounds of tubes and cables and metal bits that could be awkwardly pokey in a crash I think, "you know, a rollcage is a pretty good idea!" Joe push-starts me down his street. The Joetator has semi-conventional controls connected in unconventional ways to a custom drivetrain and brakes that are looking a little overwhelmed by the rest of the bike.

I'm a bit overwhelmed by the bike. OK, OK, I'm terrified. But I'm rolling. In a straight line with a death grip on the side sticks. "You can heave on those as much as you want," Joe says, referring to the steering sticks, "You can't break 'em!" "No," I'm thinking, "nothing in this bike is breakable with the exception of me..." But Joe has wrapped me in various pads for my test flight and even without the rollcage this bike has an "inside." I'm inside and the outside world is just something I run over. The Joetator is picking up momentum. I do a little course correction with the sticks but when I attempt my first turn, I crash. It's very uneventful. It's like the bike is some kind of big, stubborn hippo. I wanted to turn, it wanted to lay down. It won. "It'll take some getting used to," Joe assures me.

"It'll take some getting used to," I assure him. But I get up and get the bike rolling again under my own power. Ride... crash.... ride... crash... ride... ride... crash..., I'm getting the hang of this... crash... ride... ride... this ain't so bad... ride... ride... I get so I can navigate the industrial-sized streets of Joe's neighborhood. I ride back to his place and crash in his driveway. "Hmm, you need more practice," Joe discusses final tweaks and plans for the rollcage/pairing frame. "It's just a little more work..."

Six weeks later I took delivery of  the Joetator. Part of the reason for the delay was working out the logistics of delivery. You just don't strap a twelve foot long bike to the roof rack of a VW Jetta and go. No, this is a deliberate process.

There was no way I was ready to pilot the Joetator the twenty-something miles from Joe's industrial neighborhood in south Seattle to my house in the suburban foot-hills of the Washington Cascades. And Joe wasn't volunteering to ride the beast up to my burbclave either. Maybe the climb along the north edge of Cougar Mountain was making him pause. Maybe it was just his distrust of neighborhoods where coffee shops outnumber machine shops.

Our pal Tony Licuanan solved this problem. Tony has a van. And it's not one of those delicate shuttle-a-few-kids-to-little-league minivans either. No, this is a VAN, an old Ford built like gas still cost twenty-five cents a gallon and designed on the theory that vans are used for bringing eight burly guys and all their gear up to construction sites in the Alaskan wilderness.

So Joe, Tony and Steve Nash managed to coax the Joetator into the van. It was a tight fit. When they showed up at my house one Saturday morning, the Joetator was squeezed in diagonally with it's tail flush with the left rear door and its nose draped over the passenger side front bucket.

Steve had ridden all the way over with his head poked up between the fairing frame tubes. He looked like Hannibal Lector being escorted to the maximum security ward. The combined efforts of Joe, Tony, my friend Kevin Coughlin, and myself were applied to the problem of extracting the Joetator from the van without beheading Steve. I'm happy to report we were successful. I stood there looking at my new bike. It didn't have a skin over the fairing (that was my finishing job) but it was basically done. It was my bike now. I actually own another bike built by Joe, I've seen various bikes he's built and I'd seen the Joetator in various stages of its construction. You would think that this would have prepared me. You would be wrong.

You remember how you saw the first "Alien" movie and it was pretty scary and then you saw the second movie with the bunch of Aliens and they were scary and then near the end of the second movie you saw the Alien queen and you went "Oh My God!"? "Oh My God!," I said. "Yeah, it turned out great, didn't it?" Joe said.. "Wow, it's... umm... big," I stammered. "Yep," Joe flipped up the canopy. The Joetator looks like a cross between a beached whale and a wingless fighter plane. The fairing/rollcage makes it a bit tricky to get into, but I manage. Yeah, it's like I remember but it seems so big. The feeling is the mirror image of the feeling you get when you visit your old elementary school and realize how tiny the desks are. We all have places to go and things to do so I'm spared having to do too many minutes of my ride... crash... ride dance in front of an audience. Later, it's early evening and I'm alone with the bike. I approach it with caution, which is what Joe himself recommends. "You can't let a bike like this go to your head. Just because you can run over animals and smash into cars and come out unscathed doesn't mean you should do stuff like that." Right, I really shouldn't do stuff like that.. But the bike is big. Really big. I realize that I'd always seen it on the wide streets of Joe's neighborhood. In my neighborhood, it's a monster loose in the village. Kids who regularly yell out "Cool bike, Mister!" as I whiz by on my Rocket now cower in terror and hide behind their mother's skirts has I lumber up to an intersection. I feel I should file a flight plan every time I want to go for a ride.

On the first night I own the Joetator, I pull a muscle in my back as I try to jockey it into my carport. "I thought these bikes were supposed to be GOOD for your back," my lovely wife quips. She is not one of the Joetator's biggest fans.

I never get used to the bulldozer steering of the side sticks. It's an odd combination of sluggishness that suddenly becomes a fierce over-steer. I try to explain this to Joe. "The steering sucks!," I explain. Joe presses me for details. "Sucks how? Too slow, too fast, what?" "Yeah!" I say, "that's it. It's too slow and too fast. At the same time! Can you change it?" "Nah, I'll build you a new bike." That's one problem with Joe, once he gets a new idea, he wants to build a new bike, which explains his continuously expanding fleet.

But I've learned more about myself, too. The Joetator isn't a bad bike. It's a great bike... but not for me. I like bikes to be little, fast, cute, zip-around bikes. Joe likes vehicles. Big, fast, frightening ones that are bikes, too, but a different kind of bike than what I ride.

A few weeks later it's the Seattle Bike Expo. The whole RCN gang is there: Bob, Tony, Steve, Joe and me. My pal Mike Ewing had taken the ends off a really big trailer to help me get the Joetator down to the expo. It's being shown off along with various other bikes including my latest toy, a tiny SWB low racer built by John Williams, raced at Yreka, California in the '92 HPV event, retired, and then rebuilt and customized by Tony Licuanan and now dubbed Pillow Bike (more on this later).

I have no intention of bringing the Joetator back home with me. I have to work up the nerve to tell Joe. I find him at the swap meet. I'm just getting ready to launch into my "It's not the bike for me" speech when Joe says, "Would you mind giving up the Joetator? Tony's got this buddy who'd really like it. You know, it's not your kind of bike anyway, you're more of a SWB guy." Like I said before, Joe is a genius.

A month or so later I met Richard Lanier. We started talking bikes and then Richard starts describing his latest bike. "Joe built it. It's amazing, about twelve feet long..." "You've got the Joetator!," I interrupt, "How do you like it?" "Well," he says, "it's really something. I've got to change the steering though...it really sucks."



Joe Kochanowski Joe shows the hand-down stop
Joe & Joetator side view Joetator side view
Kent inside the Joetator Joetator front view