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I biked Vegas during CES and lived to tell the tale

I was on a mission to find the latest and greatest bike tech at CES. What better way to do it than by dodging the Vegas gridlock on two wheels?

Sarah Tew/CNET

People sometimes look at me aghast when I say I bike to get around New York City. But when I said I wanted to bike Las Vegas during CES, the common reaction was outright denial.

"No! You can't!" was the knee-jerk response. Followed quickly by, "Is that even possible?"

During CES, Las Vegas turns into a chaotic galaxy of booth-packed expo halls, crowded ballrooms a half a mile deep inside casino resorts, and meetings in high-rise suites. Flung across a roughly three-mile stretch of colossal hotels and convention centers, the flood of people who attend CES -- about 184,000 last year -- creates a gridlock of humanity. Most people spend a good portion of their CES either in transit or waiting in line in order to be in transit.

A bike felt like the perfect alternative. I'd try out bike tech from the show and maybe beat some of my colleagues while their Lyfts and cabs were stuck in traffic.

Now Playing: Watch this: I biked CES in the rain to find the best bike tech

Roger Kay, an analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates, has biked a decade's worth of CES shows. On the spectrum of bike-friendly cities, Vegas is "close to the worst," he told me on a phone call from Massachusetts this week.

"Las Vegas is a very efficient money vacuum cleaner," he said. "Cyclists represent a kind of resistant tribe."

But he extolled the virtues too. "My favorite moments were pulling away from the convention center right around sundown and seeing a line 500-deep waiting in the taxi line," he said. "I'll have my shower and be at my cocktails while you're still waiting to get a cab."

That sounded pretty sweet to me. If all went according to plan, this experiment could even be an asset.

Things didn't go as planned.

Two wheels, no tech

The first problem was to figure out what I would actually ride. I had hoped to use the latest bike tech on display at the show. But I quickly learned that exhibitors weren't overjoyed by the idea I'd take their precious, cutting-edge prototypes into the wild.


I brought a waterproof messenger bag to CES, mostly because its size would accommodate all the junk I had to haul around. It ended up being more necessary than I expected. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

I began investigating rentals, and it was at that point I started to question whether I was out of my league.

A Google search for "biking Vegas strip" brought up a TripAdvisor thread from five years ago. "You couldn't PAY me to ride a bike on the Strip," one commenter wrote. "If you are going to try to ride a bike on the Strip, you need to go ahead and buy a T-shirt stating how many points you are worth," said another.

My editor grimaced when I shared these warnings with him, sitting in the busy lobby of the Renaissance Las Vegas Hotel, a stone's throw from the Las Vegas Convention Center. "Just don't ride on the Strip," he told me.

The Strip is so iconic to Vegas. I needed to give it a shot, but I'd be very cautious -- only go during the day, perhaps first thing in the morning when traffic is at a lull.

Don't worry, I assured him, I'll be careful. I certainly wouldn't attempt it at night! We both laughed. That would be stupid.

I ended up with a low-tech BMC bicycle rental. The closest thing to any tech on it was a battery-operated rear light with two settings. On and off.

The delivery, set for 8:30 a.m. on the Monday before the show opened, was running late. After they dropped it off at my hotel while I was in a meeting, I walked back to pick it up and encountered the second major problem: rain.

Spinning in the rain

Kay told me that during his decade of biking CES, he only lost one day to rain.

I, however, wouldn't have a single stretch of dry riding. In the two days that I rented my bicycle, Vegas accumulated about a third of its total rainfall for the year. The second day was the city's sixth wettest on record.

But on the first drizzly day, my bike did the job. My first venture was a mile-and-a-half ride from the Renaissance to the Sands Expo Center, to check out Seattle Cycles' new electric folding bike.

Now Playing: Watch this: Best tech of CES 2018

I rode on sidewalks the entire way. Rude to pedestrians? Maybe. But Vegas is about as unfriendly for walking as it is for biking, so my route was free of walkers except for six folks I maneuvered around apologetically.

The e-bicycle by Seattle Cycles, called Metrobike, was a kick to ride. With an expected starting price around $1,000, it weighs less than 30 pounds and can fold small enough to fit under a desk. To get that tiny, the Metrobike has smaller wheels than a conventional road bike, but it passes the "hands free" test, said Mike Yap, the startup's CEO. On a smooth road, you can lean back in your seat with your arms hanging loose at your sides.

"If you have a twitchy bike, you don't feel safe," he told me before we took two Metrobikes on a test ride to a hotel parking lot, where a stranger approached us to say we probably shouldn't linger there or we might get robbed.

A rider in a red dress bikes away in a white parking garage.

The Electron Wheel can be swapped into the front fork of almost any bicycle to give it an electric pedal-assist boost.

Joan E. Solsman/CNET

Next up was the Electron Wheel, a $799 wheel with an electric hub that can electrify the bike you already own. Electron Wheel swaps into the front fork of almost any bike and works with a wireless pedal sensor on your crankset to give your ride an automatic boost and to help you climb hills. A five-hour charge provides a range of about 50 miles, with a top speed of 20 miles per hour.  

The jolt forward from Electron Wheel's pedal assist felt peppier than the Metrobike experience. The ride felt smooth, but I was caught off-guard when I tried to lift the bike by its handlebars, with the 18-pound hub in the front wheel weighing it down. That weight didn't have a noticeable effect on steering as I tried out Electron Wheel in a parking garage where cars honked angrily to exit.

A trip on the Strip

A full-on e-bike was next on my agenda at the Flamingo hotel, about a mile away. A trip that would normally take me about 10 minutes in New York took a half-hour in Vegas, as I got lost in a warren of taxi lanes and parking garage directions behind Harrah's.

But when I reached the Flamingo, I met Smacircle's hustling CEO from China, wearing tan yellow shoes and a purple shirt, vest and tie under his grey suit. Smacircle is a folding, fully electric e-bike -- there are no pedals, and your seat doubles as a battery.  

Crowdfunded through Indiegogo, the Smacircle folds its small wheels into itself and breaks down in five steps to a length of about 19 inches. At about 17 pounds, it's small and light enough to carry in a backpack. It can travel about 12 miles on a 2.5-hour charge and has a top speed of about 12 miles per hour.


The Smacircle folding e-bike breaks down small enough to fit in a large backpack. 

Josh Miller/CNET

With an early-bird price of $649, Smacircle expects to start delivering before Chinese New Year on Feb. 16, possibly as early as the end of this month. After that, the company estimates the retail price of the bikes will be $1,499 in the US.

Smacircle is hypersensitive. In a hotel hallway where even slow speeds felt perilous, the slightest rotation of the throttle jolted me forward faster than I could handle. The brake is a tab for your left-hand thumb, which was too much of a departure for my muscle memory accustomed to hand-squeezing a bike brake lever. More often than not, I just threw my feet on the ground to stop from running into something.

But perhaps the most intriguing tech I saw at CES wasn't a bike at all. It was a bicycle light that you never need to charge.

The Firefly bike light from ESiMi is designed to generate its own energy from the routine vibrations of riding. With capacity to hold enough power for 10 minutes of light, it raises the prospect of never having to switch out a battery or plug your light into a USB port to recharge again.

ESiMi is aiming to start a crowdfunding campaign for Firefly on Kickstarter this month ahead of August shipments, estimating a price of about $39.

Inside the Flamingo hotel after my demo, I texted a colleague to ask what she was doing that evening. She was having dinner in 45 minutes with our editor, the one who warned me not to bike the Strip.

Could I get from the Flamingo, to a pit stop at a tech preview event called Pepcom at the Mirage, and up to the SLS hotel two miles away in 45 minutes? Possibly. After navigating the silliness of getting from one side of the Strip to the other, I had a straight shot up to the SLS.

But I had to ride on the Strip.

Without any prep.

At night.

In the rain?

Game on.

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