Remember the freedom you felt as a kid riding your bike, with the wind blowing in your hair? Paul Freedman is helping people recapture that feeling and awaken what he calls “the spirit of the bike.” And he’s doing it by putting a fresh spin on renewable energy.
Freedman has never owned a car. He relies on public transit and his bikes to get him near and far. “It’s funny how when I ride my bike somewhere, like to a wedding recently, people always ask me if I need a ride home. It’s hard for people to understand that my bike is my ride. It is my vehicle of choice,” he says.
With a computer science degree from Harvard University, Freedman was on track to make his name in the tech industry. But after several Internet-related internships in the late 1990s, he decided to shift gears. He left behind his hometown roots in Boston to set up shop in San Francisco, where in 2003, he founded Rock the Bike (RtB).
The Berkeley-based company started out with a focus on the everyday rider, selling bike gear and gadgets that Freedman designed and built in his workshop. The success of his signature product—a fluorescent stick bike light called the Down Low Glow—gave the company the financial footing to expand into pedal-powered products with the 2007 purchase of his friend’s bike blender business.
“I saw pedal power as an opportunity to showcase bikes while educating people about climate change and the importance of our energy-use decisions, but I never anticipated that it would become the focus of the business the way it has,” Freedman says.
The “Fender Blender”—a bike that powers a blender solely with pedal power—was RtB’s gateway into pedal power. With its ability to churn out smoothies and cocktails, the Fender Blender quickly became a top seller (and rental) for schools, farmers’ markets, festivals, and parties. Among Rock the Bike’s repeat clients is Kaiser Permanente, who rents the bike blenders to feature at health fairs. Freedman adapted the design to accommodate an ice cream maker and a spin-art station—offerings that help his message appeal to younger crowds.
“The trick is reaching kids at the right age, that sweet age when they’re receptive,” Freedman says. “I hope our products can help kids have an ‘aha’ moment—I want them to think about their energy use and think about the role bikes can play in reducing pollution.”
Pedal power isn’t new, of course, but Freedman, whose friends describe him as a “mad scientist inventor,” has taken the idea beyond the novelty of the Fender Blender to power concerts and events. To decrease the use of diesel generators, extension cords, and batteries at concerts and events, Freedman developed a batteryless system of audio and LED lighting equipment that is powered 100% by stationary bike generators (which use a small electrical generator built into the wheel’s hub). Since towing large, professional equipment around by bike would be impractical, Freedman designed and built his own setup, with modified speakers that provide high sound quality sufficient for audiences up to 1,000 people and bands with up to eight members.
RtB sells the equipment and also provides full-service pedal-powered event services. When logistically possible, his team transports all the gear to and from the event on bikes towing RtB’s custom cargo trailers called Table Trailers. For out-of-area events, they rent a truck or use a freight company if necessary. Once on site, the team transforms their cargo bikes into stationary generators that can power loudspeakers, mixers, monitors, 2,000-watt subwoofers, and LED stage lights. Freedman and his “roadies” serve as pedal coaches who motivate the audience to pedal, and while the crowd does most of the pedaling, the RtB crew jumps in to boost power as needed. When music is at full volume for RtB’s largest festival stage, the typical power consumption is between 800 and 1,200 W. “The burden is on us as the event producers to provide enough bikes so that pedaling feels only like climbing a small hill,” Freedman says.
The brain of RtB’s pedal power system is the Pedal Power Utility Box, which serves as the hub for up to 20 pedalers and the Pedalometer, an LED display tube that shows pedalers how hard they must pedal to produce the power needed. The box includes large capacitors for two to four minutes’ worth of concert sound, and a sine wave inverter for lights, music, and anything else that can plug into its standard 110 or 220 VAC outlets.
“Our goal is to get people excited about pedaling and make them think about their energy choices by reaching them through their muscles, by making them feel what it takes to make the energy needed for their everyday lives,” Freedman says.