By Wayne Risher
Charles McVean gestures toward a fleet of funny-looking electric bicycles parked nearby and tells his entourage "OK everybody. Let's cruise."
And away goes The Mild Bunch, nine laid-back riders gliding silently down High Point Terrace to East Memphis' new railbed-turned-trail, the Shelby Farms Greenline.
The founder and president of McVean Trading and Investments LLC launched development of the Aerobic Cruiser four years ago in hopes of blending fun, exercise and profit.
To hear him tell it, the long, low-slung bicycle with a battery-powered motor between the driver's legs is a cure to what ails Memphis and America.
He believes it can help fight climate change, the obesity epidemic, the foreign trade deficit and a diminished manufacturing base.
McVean's company is assembling the Aerobic Cruiser in Memphis, albeit from mostly foreign-made parts.
"One of our objectives is to be a microcosm of the rebirth of manufacturing in the United States of America," he said.
It's developing a bicycle lifestyle center a few blocks north of the Greenline, in the neighborhood shopping strip where McVean rode his bike as a kid.
Cruiser's Lifestyle Center, 485 High Point Terrace at Philwood, will contain a bicycle service center, Cruiser showroom, convenience store, restaurant and public restrooms. First will come restrooms, opening in November, to provide pit stops for Greenline users.
Thinking big is old hat for McVean. In the 1980s he dropped millions on a proposal for indoor racing featuring hackney ponies ridden by robot jockeys. Six years ago he started the Peer Power Foundation at his alma mater, East High School. It cultivates high achievers to boost performance of their lagging peers.
McVean said he's invested "several million dollars" so far to create his own spin on the electric bicycle, a low-impact conveyance that sells tens of millions of units a year worldwide, primarily in Asia and Europe. His design combines pedal power with electric power so riders can go faster or further, climb hills or take a breather without stopping.
"It has not caught on yet in the USA because nobody has built the right machine," McVean said. "I think this is it."
"It's fun. It's exercise. But most of all, it's serious transportation," he added.
McVean has 12 to 15 people carrying out his vision, which sees Aerobic Cruisers dovetailing with efforts to make Memphis a bicycle haven.
McVean said the ultimate would be a bicycle lane atop the Mississippi River levee from Walls, Miss., to Vicksburg, with a high-speed ferry filling the gap between Walls and Downtown.
Employed by his venture are bicycle mechanics, competitive cyclists and business, retail and restaurant types.
McVean punctuated their cruise from High Point to the Shelby Farms visitor center with comments on marketing, economics and recent articles about the electric vehicle market.
"The Cruiser is a very unique project that's exciting to be a part of," said Jeremy Reese, who started working for McVean four years ago.
The Aerobic Cruiser is pricey: $5,000 for a deluxe model with well-padded semi-recumbent seat and shock-absorbing frame. The top-of-the-line can go 75 to 100 miles on a charge.
McVean's company has built 20 prototypes, outfitted with high-efficiency lithium iron phosphate batteries.
A lower-line model, the Commuter, will sell for less than $2,000. A three-wheeler also will be offered.
Kyle Wagenschutz, bike and pedestrian coordinator for city and county governments, said the Cruiser suits people who want both exercise and transportation out of a bike, but maybe need help covering longer distances.
McVean's plan for the High Point Terrace center is an example of economic activity spurred by the new Greenline, Wagenschutz said.
The trail's opening has been eagerly anticipated by the bicycling public, said Daniel Duckworth, general manager of Midtown Bikes on South Main.
"September was my best month all year," Duckworth said. "In my conversations with customers, it's obvious, whether they're buying new or dragging in something old to refurbish, generally most people have a high interest in utilizing that great asset we now possess."
As for the Aerobic Cruiser, Duckworth said, "The only segment that product will reach is well-to-do boomers."
Duckworth said purists, which covers most bike shop owners , "tend to have a general disdain for the electric bicycle. I embrace it."
He sells a plug-in electric unit for about $1,500 and can put an electric motor on a conventional bike for about $1,000. "Once people hear that price, they shy away."
McVean said he regrets initial prices are so high, due to the cost of batteries and components, but he expects costs to drop as production ramps up. "I hate telling the postman I don't have anything for him," he said.
He plans to target upscale retirement communities such as Johns Island, Fla., and Bay Harbor, Mich. It was on an annual visit to Bay Harbor that he got the idea for the cruiser, after seeing a man drive a plug-in electric car to and from a fitness center workout.
McVean views Memphis as a test market. "We're going to come in here and see if the concept has traction. If it does, we're going national fast."