There’s some good-natured debate (or ribbing) within my immediate family (meaning my kids — I mean, my wife thinks I’m good at everything) about my various and sundry skillsets, or lack …
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There’s some good-natured debate (or ribbing) within my immediate family (meaning my kids — I mean, my wife thinks I’m good at everything) about my various and sundry skillsets, or lack thereof.
The older I get, my children will tell you, the better I used to be. But there’s one thing about which there’s no disagreement: I can ride me some pretty good Segway.
The fact that I’ve done it just four times in my life has little bearing on that ability. I chalk it up as a natural gift. I can do more than just get around on one of those two-wheeled, self-balancing personal transportation devices.
I can almost make one fly.
Well, scratch the word “fly.” Let’s just say “dance.” I’m recalling the famous New York Times headline from September 2010 which read, “Owner of Segway Company Dies in a Segway Accident,” detailing the death of millionaire British businessman James W. Heselden, who, while touring his West Yorkshire property on a Segway, plunged over a cliff to his demise.
Heselden — a witness later said he went airborne over the cliff after backing up his scooter to make room for a passing dog walker — didn’t invent the Segway. A genius named Dean Kamen did, releasing the first device in 2001 to great fanfare. At the time, Segways were so highly hyped that even Steve Jobs of Apple fame said they would be more popular than the personal computer. Kamen himself said the Segway would be “to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.”
That didn’t pan out. Aside from use in the tourism and law enforcement industries — and despite a boost from the “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” films and Weird Al Yankovic’s wickedly funny “Ridin’ Nerdy” music video — only about 140,000 Segways were ever sold. With the recent announcement that current owner Ninebot would finally stop production on the devices next week, I was reminded that part of my master-level skill has to do with the fact that I literally learned to ride a Segway the hard way.
My first foray into the world of Segway was about eight years ago during a trip to the California coast. In San Diego, my wife Lee Ann and I sought out interesting sight-seeing excursions; touring the famous Balboa Park and harbor area of that naval town on a Segway sounded ideal.
It can’t be that hard, I thought.
Turns out it wasn’t, but if you’ve never ridden a Segway, understand that operating one is a bit counter-intuitive. Your feet act as the gas pedal (put your weight on your toes to go forward, on your heels to go backward; the more pressure, the higher your speed) and you steer mostly by leaning. Your hands serve little function, and there’s no brake. It’s a nuanced way to get around.
Our San Diego experience began with a training course which included a 10-minute safety video, the highlight of which was an endless collection of animated riders having a wide variety of wild mishaps and crashes — interspersed with “this could happen to you, too, if you screw up” warnings.
Next was a brief test drive in an alleyway about the size of one-car garage. Once you could demonstrate you could stop and dismount the device without hurting yourself or others, you passed.
That was all a piece of cake, but it got scary quickly when it was finally time to head out. Upon leaving the tour office near the San Diego harbor, we rolled a half a block along an uneven sidewalk before turning left and going uphill — UPHILL! — on a steep, steep ride, six or seven blocks as I recall, toward Balboa.
It was baptism by fire. Picture it: a single-file line of Segway neophytes rolling slowly up a 20-degree incline, stopping and idling at every intersection (easy with practice, but fraught with the potential energy and disaster from a slight misstep), navigating around bumps and hazards and, once we were finally in the park, skirting moving, living obstacles — other park visitors, at least one of whom of whom alternately talked to himself and hurled insults as he shuffled beside us.
That somewhat terrifying introduction ended up with no injuries in our small (eight, if I remember correctly) group and had the benefit of instilling confidence in us for the rest of our tour. By the time we headed back downhill to the tour office, a few of us took to showing off our skills with rapid bursts of acceleration and sudden stops, as well as a few pirouettes when our guide wasn’t looking.
My other Segway experiences also involved taking tours while on vacation: in downtown Nashville, in a trendy Asheville tourist area, and in historic St. Augustine, Florida, on what turned out to be one of the coldest days on record there. That was particularly fun; the flat, open terrain gave us lots of chances to go really fast, but I think it was probably the closest I ever came to frostbite.
In each of these subsequent trips I proved to be increasingly adept. I could ride circles — literally and figuratively — around my kids and the other tourists, and could accelerate quickly and then stop on a dime.
I don’t know what’ll become of Segway tourism expeditions. I hope they continue. My kids already think I’m a dinosaur, and I’m not quite ready to retire this particular skill if Segway tours go extinct, too.
Besides, remember the St. Augustine jaunt? It was so cold that day the tour operator gave us a gift card for a free excursion. My skills are declining, so I’d hate to see that go to waste.