Bob Swaim has an unusual collection of what he refers to not as "bicycles" but rather, as "human-powered vehicles." It's easy to see why he makes the distinction: "Bicycle" traditionally implies one rider, sitting forward, steering with a set of handlebars, churning a pair of foot pedals.
Swaim's collection - amassed over several years of collecting both internationally and domestically - features spinning arrays of spokes, chains, seats and steering mechanisms that look more like they were designed for making Willy Wonka chocolates than for transportation. Swaim will showcase his wheeled wonders on August 3 as part of Pennypacker Mills' celebration of "In the Good Ol' Summertime," a look back at a simpler time when toys and games didn't rely on batteries.
"I rode my bike every day," Swaim remembers, citing his initial interest in cycles and cycling. "I had a paper route and rode six days a week, probably 4-5 miles. I rode only six days a week because I didn't deliver the Sunday edition," he laughs. "But my bike was always with me."
Reaching adulthood, his biking days were put behind him, and he spent his career teaching high school mathematics in the Souderton School District, Montgomery County. But the call of the saddle reached his ears again, later in life.
"When I was 51, I had a heart attack," he admits matter-of-factly. "I knew that I had to change my diet and change my approach to exercise. But it's like a driver who witnesses an accident: He's really, really careful in the immediate aftermath, but over time, he gravitates back toward the old ways. So I knew I wanted to adopt an exercise program that I could sustain. I thought of joining a gym, but I knew that wouldn't last."
Swaim felt he could keep boredom at bay by riding bikes of different designs and constructions. "They were fascinating, and there were a lot of varieties. Maybe I wouldn't get bored," he hoped.
A particular configuration initially caught his eye, a recumbent bike, which allows riders to lie back and not hunch over the handlebars. "I just fell in love with that bike," he says. He still rides a recumbent every day, about 15 miles or so, at age 67.
Like links in a bike chain, the acquisition of one recumbent bike led to another and so on. Over time, Swaim began collecting vehicles of increasing rarity and uniqueness. His present fleet of 250 includes:
- A bicycle built for two that is ridden side-by-side style, not the traditional manner of front-back tandem riders.
- A bicycle built for three, with seats facing front, rear and middle. He holds an age record on this machine: three passengers at a median age of 83.
- A dicycle, a gizmo in which the rider swings on a seat that glides between a pair of seven-foot-diameter wheels.
- A tandem bike built for six. "Got to be careful to keep your pants legs out of the spokes," he warns.
- A 42-inch high-wheeler, the style of cycles popular in the late 1800s. "Not a lot of people know that they were actually built for speed," he notes. "The larger wheel made more efficient use of each turn of the pedal, enabling riders to go faster than the norm."
The eye-popping entry in Swaim's collection is a seven-person "conference bike," which requires a little coordination to pedal and a "captain" to steer. Swaim has used his conference bike to introduce riding to the blind. "Exercise can be difficult for a blind person," he says. "But on a conference bike, they can gain the health benefit, as well as the fresh air and sunshine. Swaim recently demo'ed his conference bike at the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults in Long Island, NY, gaining such overwhelming positive responses that the institution invested in one itself.
Eager to share his unusual machines, Swaim began speaking about them and riding them in group presentations. He now speaks about 50 times a year. "The things I talk about are health, history, engineering, the environment, diversity, team-building and the value of volunteering," he says. "All rooted in cycling."
In The Good Old Summertime takes place at Pennypacker Mills
Swaim will also perform fetes of juggling a soaring Chinese yoyo and a set of weighted hoops. He will also march an industrial-sized Slinky through various gymnastics. Swaim has a number of these 1950s-era toys, including two that are 24-kt gold.
"They were gifts," he laughs. "One from my brother and one from my daughter."