Meet Your Maker: Dave Whitmon

A man with a ‘high-speed Barcalounger.’

Velomobile enthusiast David Whitmon with his aerodynamic bicycle in Post Office Square. —Photo by Sam Moore

The first annual Martha’s Vineyard Mini Maker Faire will take place on Saturday, May 7, from 10 am to 4 pm at the Ag Hall in West Tisbury. The Faire will showcase Island “makers” — beekeepers, swordmakers, robot designers, artists, musicians — anyone who comes up with a clever solution or a new idea. One of the “makers” you’ll get to meet is Dave Whitmon.

Not all Islanders know Dave Whitmon, but most have certainly seen him. For years he traveled Martha’s Vineyard’s roads on his multiseated bicycle, first with one daughter pedaling behind him, and then with a second. Combined with Dave’s conspicuous helmet feather, the threesome made a compelling sight.

Nowadays, Dave travels in a new kind of bicycle altogether: a low-riding, torpedo-shaped, brightly colored vehicle called a velomobile. Same deal: You may not know Dave, but you’ve seen him on the roads.

Dave and I met recently in the center of Post Office Square in Oak Bluffs, where he had parked his machine. This is the second velomobile he’s owned; it’s 9½ feet long, it has three wheels and 27 gears, and it’s orange. Most important, Dave told me, it’s a bicycle, something many people seem unable to accept.

Can you elaborate on that?

People ask me where the gas goes. I repeat to them that the vehicle is manually operated, like a bicycle. So they say, you mean it’s electric? No, I tell them. There are pedals — you can look. They pause, then they ask if I use propane.

That must get annoying.

It sure does. Sometimes I tell them the velomobile actually runs on processed cream cheese. That puts an end to it.

What are the basic components of the body?

It’s made of carbon fiber, which is a strong but flexible material. It gives. [Dave demonstrates, pushing against the body with his finger; it gives easily.] There is electricity, but only for the horn, front and rear lights, and blinkers. There’s enough room inside for my groceries, and it’s very comfortable. [Again he demonstrates.] I call it my “high-speed Barcalounger.”

What speed can it go?

My fastest speed has been in excess of 55 mph. I’ve hit 45 mph on the Vineyard Haven Road many times. Aerodynamics is the key. It’s only 36 inches high and 30 inches wide.

How are you treated by drivers?

Not too well sometimes. Some drivers get very aggressive, and want to pass me even when I’m at or above the speed limit. And people do dangerous things like take videos of me while they drive along beside me in the opposite lane. It’s crazy.

You’ve been a strong advocate of manually powered transportation. And you have “Peace on Earth” written on the side of this machine. Is all of this an expression of your personal philosophy about the world?

Well, I love Martha’s Vineyard and the environment around me. I fear for what we are leaving our children when we are gone. When I travel on the Island, I find it more efficient to ride. I want to keep my impact upon the planet as low as possible. I don’t own a car.

The “Peace on Earth” sign, which I wrote on my velomobile for the 2015 Edgartown Christmas parade, seemed appropriate for what was happening in the world. Afterwards, I decided to keep it. It’s not a thought that ends after the holiday season.

Are velomobiles getting more popular? Is there an official organization of any kind?

There are now five on the Island. There is no official group in this country, but there are various velomobile events in the U.S.

In August 2015 we held a first-annual Roll Over Cape Cod event that included 14 velonauts, or drivers. I set up the route and led that ride for both days, 170 miles from Woods Hole to Truro. You may have noticed the decal on my velomobile that says “Velomeister.” It is an honorific my fellow velonauts gave me.

This summer’s route will be a little different, and 15 miles longer. Again, I have laid out the course and will lead it.

What will your Maker Faire presentation consist of?

A friend of mine will join me, so there will be two velomobiles on hand. It will be an eyes-only, no-touch approach. But we will answer any questions people have.

I only have one more. How does a velonaut fix a flat?

Easy. Just lay the vehicle on its side. It comes with a spare and all the tools.

Thank you, Dave. I’ll see you on the roadways.