SEND TODAY'S BICYCLE THIEF back in time 150 years and he would still know what to steal.
The first two-wheeled pedal-powered vehicle rolled out of a blacksmith's shop and onto the streets of Dumfrieshire, Scotland, in 1839. It was called Macmillan's Hobbyhorse, after the child's toy. A few years later, Macmillan's iron steed raced and defeated a mail carriage. The passing of time has obscured exactly how Macmillan stopped (in photos of the Hobbyhorse, no brakes are apparent).
By the late 1800s the bike as we know it - with two smaller, same-size wheels, air-filled rubber tires, a diamond frame and a chain carrying power from the pedals to a sprocket in the rear - was in production.
"They basically got it right," says a flier distributed by the Bicycling Federation of America. "Ever since, tinkerers and inventors . . . have been relegated to improvements in materials and components."
Now comes Alex Pong of Whidbey Island: age 53, high-school dropout, former phone-company maintenance man, current tinkerer and inventor.
Pong has designed a mountain bike that could turn the competition into instant antiques. It stopped more traffic than any other new product unveiled last September at the biggest U.S. bike trade show of the year, the Interbike Expo in Las Vegas. Gone was the traditional diamond frame; in its place, Pong designed a radical cruciform backbone, squarish in section. The front and rear suspension resembled not pogo sticks but the knees of a Terminator. The wheels were still round with rubber tires, but they sported five fat spokes apiece and promised to never need truing.
The whole package is supposed to weigh a feathery 20 pounds and go like a falcon in a dive.
If all proceeds as planned, it will look - and cost - like nothing else on the trail.
The bike manufacturer Cannondale hopes to complete the first production version of Pong's bike, which it will call the V-4000, this spring. Already, a Cannondale spokesman says, the waiting list is more than 100 customers. Each of them is eager, without so much as a test ride, to buy a bike that will sell for somewhere between $5,000 and $7,000. Cannondale also plans to outfit members of its newly sponsored racing team with V4000s; before long, certain components - the V4000's disc brakes or five-spoked wheels, say - could trickle down into more affordable models.
"The technology of the bicycle has not plateaued," Pong says. "No one has taken the trouble to look at what else you can do."
Bicycles are not even the half of it. Airplanes, automobiles - who knows? maybe even tools, furniture, and swimming pools - may one day get the Pong treatment.
"I'm like the little boy in `The Emperor's New Clothes,' " Pong says. "I have seen the solutions to a lot of engineering problems that other people have just not seen."
One wonders what history will make of Alex Pong's bicycle. One wonders what to make, right now, of Alex Pong.
THE INVENTOR works and eats and sleeps in a big corrugated metal box just off the main road that snakes away from the ferry at Whidbey Island, between a fire station and a lumber yard.
The inventor takes stairs two at a time, tucks his tie - when he wears one - into his shirt like Gen. Eisenhower (the better to keep it out of the machinery) and loses himself in whatever story he is telling at the moment. He knits his brow incessantly; the furrows appear permanent. He rubs his face with his hand often, and sees the world with the droopy eyes of a man who has just risen from bed and thrown the curtains open on the sunlight.
He moved to this island in 1975 (his parents had migrated to Seattle back in '57) and watched two of his more ambitious projects - a lightweight private airplane engine and an off-road motorcycle that Pong's son steered to victory in the Barstow-to-Las Vegas race - becalmed by indifferent investors, or scuttled by antsy ones.
To make ends meet, the inventor worked for eight months repairing trucks and backhoes for the local phone company; another time, he tried peddling his own wooden light-switch covers. The inventor's wife, Sally, worked nights in a bakery.
Things are going well enough now with the mountain bike that she can afford to stay home and and answer the phone - "Hello, Magic Motorcycle" - and cook, but not so well that flakes of plaster don't sometimes drift down from the ceiling into the soup.
"We have a joke," says Sally. "We use our money for frivolous things - like food."
Later, upon reflection, Sally will add: "Things have been more interesting than if I'd married the mailman."
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, Alex Pong put a stamp on a letter that touched on what he thought to be wrong with piston engines.
The current automobile power plant, he wrote, is as irrational as "resharpenable razor blades, washable toilet paper or reusable condoms." Pong dismissed Detroit's engines as "old, outdated, and obsolescent structural architecture festooned and made up in a shroud of solid-state wizardry, an aging refugee from a bordello masquerading as a debutante."
This is the way Pong writes - and talks - when he gets rolling.
Pong said he had a better idea: a slow-turning engine made almost entirely of cheap, flat rolled steel. "Long live STEEL" he wrote by way of closing.
He mailed copies to automakers, Business Week magazine, numerous newspapers. He wrote to the American Iron and Steel Institute. From all of them came not one single peep.
"I would've been better off just tearing up all the letters and putting them in the round file," he says now.
Undeterred, Pong kept figuring, thinking, sketching, dreaming.
It took a simpler, human-powered machine to change his luck.
Some time after he wrote the letter, he looked up at a bicycle hanging from the shop ceiling and thought, "Why not?"
"An absolute piece of cake. A no-brainer. We can build one of those in no time at all."
Pong started small. He designed a hollow crank-and-chain-ring assembly - the first important link in transferring a rider's power from leg to wheel, and a link where extra ounces add up with every turn of the pedals. Pong's crank looks like a small sculpture. It weighs about a half pound less than what were then the most sophisticated mass-produced cranksets. It costs $650. In 1991, Pong rented a booth at the Interbike Expo in Anaheim, Calif., and started taking orders.
It was at the following year's Interbike that Pong met the president of Cannondale Corp., a gut-instinct guy who returned to company headquarters in Connecticut and told research and development veep Dick Resch he should travel to Whidbey Island to meet this Pong fellow.
"I thought he was a wizard," remembers Resch. "We spent a lot of time talking and imagining."
Pong and Cannondale struck a deal. The bike maker would produce and sell Pong's wonder cranks, giving Pong the time and money to work his magic on the mountain bike entire.
Pong had ridden enough bicycles to know that major stress is exerted along a line that runs from the handlebars to the rear axle. Think of how you pull against the handlebars and push against the pedals when climbing a hill; even under less extreme conditions, much of a rider's energy is wasted by flexing and twisting the bike along that torsional axis instead of driving the wheel.
A diamond frame could support a 747 if you could find someone to land it on the top tube, Pong says, but it goes all noodly against the twisting forces of a 150-pound rider. His new bike will solve that.
At least in theory, which can be so much simpler and prettier than practice.
By March a half-dozen patents had been applied for and the Cannondale/Pong V-4000 "Magic Mountain Bike" had appeared on the cover of several bicycle magazines. A ready-to-road-test prototype, though, had yet to be completed.
The frame of the bike Pong packed in suitcases and carried to Las Vegas was solid aluminum; time ran out before it could be hollowed out. It weighed 70 pounds. Which is why, in several of the photos that the magazines rushed to publish, Pong is holding his invention by the handlebars or the seat tube, trying to look casual while straining to keep the bicycle from drooping under its own weight.
John Thompson, a regional product manager for Trek bicycles, echoes the skepticism of more than a few members of the trade as to whether Pong's machine will ever be more than an exotic, quirky "concept bike." "I'd be amazed if they pulled it off," Thompson says. "I'd be floored. I'd also be amazed if they got it under 30 pounds."
Pong shows not a trace of doubt. As long as two plus two continues to equal four, he has said, the V-4000 will be the fastest mountain bike ever.
"Suppose you're the president of Toyota," he says. "And you're transported to another planet with our industrial capabilities. And everyone's driving Model T's. It's like someone asking you whether your car is going to make these Model T's look bad."
AT FIRST, FOR A TIME, the inventor lied for a living.
He wrote crime fiction. Stories about people he'd never met in places he'd never seen doing deeds he'd never done.
The first piece he sold, a window-fogger about bad women and heroin smuggling, appeared in the December 1962 issue of Manhunt magazine. He remembers receiving $400 on publication. A few months later he sold a story to Complete Man. The magazine put it on the cover with the title "Nude Blonde Bait." Naked ladies by Rodin were available via mail order from these magazines; also, a Dictionary of Aphrodisiacs and correspondence courses in engineering ("Drafting Pays Big Money!") and bodybuilding. Pong was paid for writing sentences such as: "She was big, blond, and beautiful. She was also dumb, even though she thought she was being clever as hell."
Today, Pong rubs his head and grins. "I knew only vaguely at the time what a call girl was," he says. "I think I might've still been a virgin."
When writer's block bound him up, Pong chipped away at it by sketching airplanes. After almost 10 years behind the typewriter, it became clear that his pile of manuscripts was growing much less quickly than his pile of airplane designs.
It was on a bike ride into the hills above Fresno that he heard a voice tell him to build his airplane.
For the finer points of aeronautical engineering - like how to keep an airplane's wings from falling off - he relied largely on textbooks checked out from university libraries.
Flying was a childhood passion. A friend of the family piloted a private plane, the sight of which made Pong's mind soar. His hands, meanwhile, were learning how to maneuver a lathe and a milling machine.
His father - get ready, here it comes: Ping Pong - was an engineer, too, and a high-school dropout. He emigrated from China to the U.S. with only $100 and a gold watch, and somehow cadged an R&D job with General Electric in Pennsylvania. It didn't take him long to decide that the broadest roads of opportunity led to the Motor City. He moved to Ann Arbor, manufactured machine tools for the auto industry, and married a wan English-born University of Michigan coed who would give birth to Alex, an older brother and a younger sister.
In a basement workshop, the father built tiny steam engines.
Alex was banned from the shop. He thinks it was for using tools in an undisciplined manner. Alex would sneak downstairs, work on the sly, and sweep up the metal shavings so as to leave no evidence.
"I never heard a word of praise. He wanted us all to be doctors or lawyers. It was critically important to him that we not make a living with our hands. The hours I spent in the shop were stolen hours."
Pong's father also helped design a simple car - more a motorized rickshaw, really - that he hoped to manufacture in the Far East. Now Alex hopes a snap-together automobile engine of his design might one day succeed where his father's car failed. In a short stroke, Alex can go from cursing his dead father to admiring him.
"Dad would wake up in the middle of the night and dictate a letter. Mom would type it, stick it in an envelope and never mail it. She didn't want to look bad. She told me he was crazy. I've written those same letters myself."
He saves copies of his own correspondence, including the one about his miracle "mush metal" engine.
"Sometimes you get no answer," Pong says. "But the letters aren't crazy."
HERE ARE SOME contents of the inventor's big metal box where he works and eats and sleeps:
Three hulking computer numerical control milling machines dominate the workshop, which in turn dominates the big metal box. Each CNC machine can take a block of aluminum and, with the proper instructions, grind it down into a sprocket or a camshaft node or a piston head or a teaspoon or what have you. CNC machines have, until recently, most often been used for aerospace parts; the most expensive of the machines, on loan from Cannondale, costs about $400,000.
Several garbage cans are filled with fine little corkscrews of aluminum. The floor is spotless.
Most of the five Pong children help with the business. One daughter is becoming skillful in operating the milling machines. Another handles the bookkeeping. The only son, Skooks, 28, takes his father's designs and translates them into a language that computers understand.
"I read code," Skooks says, "like some people read music."
A poster on the wall is titled "The Road to Success is Always Under Construction." It is filled with sound advice such as "Money talks and often just says `Goodbye.' "
To get to a bathroom, you must walk outside. The one for men is equipped with sink, toilet and a lawn mower. On the way to the stairs that lead up to the main living area you pass several pianos crowded together, keyboard to keyboard, like cattle being herded through a gate.
Pong is storing them as a favor to a friend, Dean Petrich, who tunes pianos. Petrich meant to keep them here for only a month - two months, tops - until he finished with a couple of grand pianos that were taking a lot of space in his shop. One month has turned to six. Pong has yet to complain about the pianos. He may be too busy to notice them.
Petrich is also a professional clown.
When Pong first learned that, he spoke of designing for his friend a fantastic unicycle. "He was going to build me a real fancy 8-, 9-, 10-foot unicycle that would fold in half," Petrich says. "He never did it. He's always had lots of extra ideas."
A GLIMPSE OF LIFE with the inventor as father:
"Everybody thinks their parents are weird," says the youngest Pong daughter, the one they call Sally Sunday. She is 16. She no longer attends high school. She seems smart and happy enough. She is going through a phase where she eats a lot of rice and plain pasta.
She does not consider her parents weirder than average, but she is trying to be helpful.
"OK," she says. "Here's a story."
When she was only 3 years old, she jumped off a stool and hurt her arm. "Daddy! Come quick!" her sister Tsunami shouted. "Sally's arm is bent funny!"
Daddy came running with a hammer and nails and wood and foam and duct tape.
"Actually," Sally's mother offers, "he reset Skooks' arm, too."
One time he built a wart guillotine.
"Oh," says Sally Sunday. "He offered to sew up my cheek once. And when I got a black eye he offered to put a leech on it.'
EACH TIME I VISITED Pong at his shop he would put down whatever he was doing and talk. And talk. And talk.
"Nobody appreciates a good listener as much as I do," Pong said, and then, moments later: "Did I ever tell you the story about . . .?" Pong's answers have a way of making you forget what the question was in the first place. Entire afternoons were consumed in this way. Ferries were missed. Empires rose and fell.
In order to listen to Pong talk to someone else for a change, I went with him to a local office of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Pong had an appointment with three FAA officials who certify airplane engines. Pong walked into the FAA office carrying a cardboard box that photocopy paper usually comes in. He opened the box and produced several gleaming engine parts.
The FAA officials looked at the pieces of metal. They picked them up and turned them around. They ran their fingers over the smooth curved parts and tapped the flat parts. They seemed to be trying to assemble the engine in their minds, like archaeologists who can piece together entire skulls out of a few shards of bone.
"You ever seen a piston like that?" Pong said. It was flat and wide, about the size of two sandwiched mayonnaise jar lids.
Pong told the FAA men some of his theories behind his engine: low compression, low volumetric efficiency, slow rotation, small size and weight. He said the engine he wants to build will, like the bicycle he conceived, be able to be disassembled with a single tool.
A similar engine, designed to power an ultralight aircraft and called the Pong Dragon, came close to production 10 years or so ago. The project bogged down; the investors seized control; Pong's design was changed significantly, he says. But this - this will be the engine of his dreams, without compromise.
The FAA men felt and tapped some more.
By way of an ice-breaker, Pong showed the FAA men some magazine spreads of his mountain bike.
One of them said, "It looks like something you'd sell to the military."
INVENT A BETTER MOUSE TRAP, and you know the rest. But what happens to the inventor of a better bike if he turns out to be an inventor who says: "My curiosity extends into almost every venue"?
Alex Pong's curiosity extends even to the little boy in "The Emperor's New Clothes."
Recall the story ends with the crowd realizing that, indeed, the emperor is naked.
"What happens then?" the inventor wonders. "Human nature being what it is, he's not going to sway the crowd. Then what? Does the crowd fall on the boy and bash him? I'm not scared, but maybe I ought to be."
Kit Boss is a Pacific staff writer. Harley Soltes is Pacific's photographer.