Sailing the Sahara on Bikes

Last month colleague and friend Jos Louwman (founder of Amsterdam’s famous MacBike) and Fredjan Twigt did just that; They sailed (and pedaled) bicycles from Agadir to Dahkla, about 1100km, in eight days. They carried their camping gear and drank about a gallon of water a day. What a great adventure!

The sail-bike is called a Whike and it’s Fredjan’s brainchild; the result of combining his passions for recumbent bikes and sailing. Of course the basic principle of sailing on land or ice is not new; Ice boats have been used in cold regions for centuries and some race boats can exceed 200km/hr. Yes, it IS possible to travel several times the wind speed with low friction sailing vehicles.

But ultimate speed isn’t the purpose of the Whike. On the Whike site it’s described as a fun, original and comfortable vehicle. At least in the Netherlands it’s legal for use on bicycle paths and public roads. An overview of how the sail power at various wind speeds:

Force 1 to 3: The sail works as a “help motor” and you need to pedal along. You note that you easily ride faster than without the sail.

Force 3-4: You now really feel the power of the wind. You easily ride past other cyclists and with a crosswind you needn’t pedal to continue moving.

Force 4-5: Pedaling is simply no longer necessary to get where you want.

Force 5+: Be careful for gusts and always keep the sheet (the line that trims the sail) in your hand. Depending on your skill and weight maybe fit the (smaller) storm sail.

whike-sahara-tour 3

So what does this have to do with practical cycling? A lot. The bike industry is currently doing their best to push electrically assisted bikes, something WorkCycles is more than a little ambivalent about. Thus far we’ve been highly underwhelmed by their lack of reliability, unnatural feeling, ineffiency, poor serviceability and downright ugliness.


Meanwhile here’s a bicycle with a tiny sail that does approximately the same thing: no batteries for the landfills, controllers to fry, sensors, chips etc etc. It’s a lesson in minimalism. The rigging for a sail of this size is practically indestructible and even if something broke or tore in an accident it’d be easy to repair or jury-rig to continue.

whike-sahara-tour 6

Sure, Whiking through the streets of downtown Paris or Manhattan is not entirely realistic but I bet the concept could be made practical for a far broader range of applications than our technology driven perspectives would allow us to believe.

Innarested? Check out the Whike website.

whike-sahara-tour 1

Photos by Jos Louwman and Fredjan Twigt. Thanks!

15 Responses to “Sailing the Sahara on Bikes”

  1. todd Says:

    that does look like great, great fun. and what coastal tour doesn’t have prevailing crosswinds? but because i’m a geek, i wonder if the front wheel couldn’t be a high-torque direct-drive hub motor, with the wind serving to help charge a small battery (through regenerative effect) that you’d discharge on the uphills. this approach is a losing proposition without a sail, but with?

  2. todd Says:

    and then, see, if thin-film photovoltaics could be integrated into the sail…

  3. Frits B Says:

    Did you see this? Found it via David Hembrow’s blog.
    “Whikes not welcome to Fietselfstedentocht”

  4. ubrayj02 Says:

    Add me to the list of eBike Doubting Thomases. I’ve had enough of the cheap ass Chinese piece of shit variety roll into my doors, that I’ve been asked to service, to know a horrible trend is on its way.

    eBike sales have been driving the Dutch bike industry’s corporate profits the last few years, so you are bound to see more.

    The thing that gets me with these things is taking care of them in the long run – 10 to 15 years from now, who will make a profit selling obsolete batteries for some crappy eBike? The same group that sells a $50 seat post for old Peugots, I suppose.

    The guys that own these things are always of the bike-ignorant, technotriumphalist-penny pinching variety. To them i ask, why not buy a goddamn scooter or motorcycle and leave me alone.

    Of course they won’t and I’ll be truing ruined 14 gauge UCP steel spokes ripped from the eHubs of your ePieceofshit for the next half a decade.

    All hail the win sail bike! At least it’s made to last.

  5. henry Says:

    That might be feasible and even practical but I just like technology light solutions.

    Frits B,
    I think it’s quite reasonable to exclude the Whike and other “assisted” vehicles from a group ride with about 15,000 participants.

    The chi-e-bikes are unspeakably bad but even the quality models from respected makes will require far more maintenance than normal bikes, the repairs will be frequently beyond the skills and interests of mechanics and spare parts will be scarcer and many time more expensive. Just for example I’ve heard from colleagues that a replacement battery for some recent Gazelles cost about €800. Who’s going to pay that?

    Of course the pedalec can, in concept, make cycling practical for a broader audience. Unfortunately the reality thus far has mostly been highly underwhelming.

  6. Frits B Says:

    I didn’t say excluding the Whikes was unreasonable, I just wondered that one day these things are never mentioned and then they pop up twice in a day. 🙂

  7. henry Says:

    Maybe it’s because everybody is reading and getting inspired by bakfiets-en-meer? 😉

  8. ten Says:

    wow, that’s cool and kind of obvious when you think about it. Cycling with the wind is so much easier, why not add a little extra (starts to think about adding a sail to his mundo…..)

    A while ago I started thinking about ebikes, I thought they would be a good idea for getting heavy loads up hills and for generally increasing the distances I could cover.

    But the more I thought about it, the more the tech-heavy issues started to bother me. At a struggle I think I can probably understand and work on my bicycle, but add the e-gizmos and that all changes. Also add in the issue of batteries and their replacements – that Gazelle battery replacement is, um, shocking – and you just about defeat the whole cost-effectiveness aspect that is one of the great things about a bicycle.

    There was a big discussion about ebikes on recently, a lot of people seem to support them and I guess if you have greater distances to cover they have some justifications (anything that gets people out of their cars…) but it seems like there are a lot of downsides. I’m with henry on this one: tech-light is good.

    (great heads-up on the cheap-and-crappiness of the new china bikes, lots of those coming onto the market around here in japan recently)

    I also think this opens up to a broader point about how pampered we are as a society – people are constantly trying to save themselves effort and hardship. What happened to good old-fashioned stoicism? (I’m only 35 by the way). People around here apparently need to wrap themselves in a steel box as soon as it starts raining….wouldn’t a raincoat suffice, then a towel off and a cup of tea when you get where you’re going? Ditto when it’s hot out – a subtropical climate here and yet somehow its socially unacceptable to get sweaty on your way to work.

    Yes, getting rained on or sweaty is a bit more uncomfortable, but the saved money, environment (global and local), and health (in many ways a purely selfish benefit) surely make up for that. Sadly, right now you look like a nutter if you try it (I speak from experience….).

    It seems to me the ebike thing is more of the same – let’s have bicycling without the effort! Really just a marketing ploy without much real benefit.

    Back to wind – I read something recently about the vast (and nearly unregulated) amount of fossil fuels being consumed by the shipping industry, and it started me thinking that a whole new paradigm-shift could result in a ocean-going cargo sailboats – maybe there’s something for windcycles in there too.

    anyway, enough random musing, time for lunch

  9. Paul van Bellen Says:

    Hi Henry,

    Interesting post and hopefully one day I can have a go of the Whike.

    Regarding E-Bikes and specifically the Gazelle ones (as you probably know, we import them into Australia), a couple of clarifications;

    1. A Whike is a great idea but probably not suited to city environments where 95% of Australians live, therefore an e-bike is a better alternative to a Whike.

    2. Batteries at 800 Euros? That is a rip off. Gazelle sells the batteries to dealers for a fraction of this, and it but it is closer 200. So I don’t know where the 800 comes from.

    “Thus far we’ve been highly underwhelmed by their lack of reliability, unnatural feeling, ineffiency, poor serviceability and downright ugliness.”

    3. Reliability hasn’t been a big deal in my experience, sure you may need to service a bit more but I ride one everyday and if you know what you are doing it’s very easy.

    Unnatural feeling? The Gazelle Innergy is very smooth. I have to tell a lot of my customers it’s an E-Bike because the motor is so smooth.

    Ineffiency? Compared to what? A non-electric bike?

    Poor Serviceability? There is not one spare part I can’t access from Gazelle and all the instructions for how to fix the bikes are available online through a dealer program. It doesn’t get much easier than that. Time will tell how long the parts are available for but Gazelle have been very good with spare parts for bikes generally

    Downright ugliness? No right or wrong answer there, beauty is in the eye of the beholder!

    Most of the problems with E-bikes are usually due to lower quality E-Bikes.

    Having said all that, I understand that Gazelle had some problems with their bikes early on because everything was new technology, dealers were learning everything, and with all new technologies it takes time to perfect, but they are quickly improving and anyone who ignores the E-Bike in the bike industry has got their head in the sand.

    Don’t get me wrong, the traditional bikes like the ones that Workcycles and Azor make are still me favourites, but in hilly hot cities like some here in Australia, the E-Bike has a big attraction.

    Anyway, keep up the good work Henry and hopefully will catch up with you May 2011, I am organising a Dutch Bicycle Study Tour here – Maybe some of the tour group would like to visit Workcycles.

    Cheers from Australia,


  10. ten Says:

    ha, I got what I deserved for typing that – in the afternoon I picked up Allen and cycled down to the futenma airbase protest – all very well but the forecast was not good (it is the rainy season after all), I bought an umbrella on the way and we needed it, because what started as light drizzle just got heavier and heavier.

    All was well at the protest itself – Allen was in the baby sling on my chest, both of us in waterproofs and hiding under the umbrella – until it came time to go home, , but at some point that umbrella had to come down (remember cycling with an umbrella is illegal in Japan!) and we had to pedal into the headwind then up the hill to get home, all in a torrential downpour. Allen started to lose his sense of humor as the rain got driven into his eyeballs, but I adjusted his hat and somehow managed to convince him (and myself) that this was great fun not idiotic.

    And unbelievably, he fell asleep climbing the hill as I sweated into the sidewind torrent. Straight in the bath when he got home it all ended well, tho I was exhausted and couldnt even shower until his mother got home from work.

    (Silver lining to that torrential monsoon cloud – at the protest we got interviewed by a reporter and apparently (I haven’t seen it yet) made the paper the next day.)

    That rain continued unabated for fully 36 hours – the next day I had to work, and I took the car. So much for stoicism and cups of tea….consider me humbled. I also wonder however can we convince people out of their cars when the weather does that?

    happy cycling, hope it’s drier for you

    ps Paul – thanks for posting your thoughts on electric (hot and hilly describes Okinawa pretty well) – I was glad to see an alternative viewpoint on that issue.

  11. Paul van Bellen Says:

    Thanks Ten…no worries!

  12. ten Says:

    regarding my first post: on second thoughts , stocism is being goodhumoured and determined in adverse circumstances. It doesnt imply self-sacrifice and choosing the harder option for the greater good. More broadly, however, marketing bicycling (or other environmentalisms) on austere self-sacrifice has a long history of not working so shouldn’t be pursued. Stick with positives, and avoid guilt tripping.

    Down periscope

  13. Larry Clarkberg Says:

    I think the appropriateness of ebikes depends on where you live, so I expect we’ll hear differing viewpoints for that reason. I am a triathlete and marathon runner and even I can’t get up Columbia St. with four bags of groceries and my daughter on my bike without my Stokemonkey. As to ebikes’ reliability, longevity, beauty, etc. market forces should fix those problems in shoart order.

    I think a bigger issue is simply semantics. There is a vacuum forming in our transportation system for a slow narrow vehicle that weighs between 30 and 3000 pounds. The car manufacturers don’t seem interested in coming down from that planet-wrenching upper end. It’s left up to the bike manufacturers to come up from the low end, to produce an intermediate-sized vehicle. Should we still call this vehicle a bike? Or should we accept it as a new thing and call it something else? I’ve been using the term “micro-car”. Can anyone think of a better word?

    Sorry ubrayj02 if you get stuck with the growing pains of this new industry, but I bet it’s gonna be a hell of a ride when these intermediate-sized vehicles take off, so fasten your helmet strap!

  14. Mark Stosberg Says:

    I own a WorkCycles bakfiets and an electric Yuba Mundo. While I appreciate and have promoted many of the features of the bakfiets, the fact is that the electric assist has made a huge difference in how much the Yuba Mundo gets ridden. It it has effectively replaced most uses of the bakfiets now and a number of uses of our car which the bakfiets never did. Read more about our electric Yuba Mundo.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    Mark Stosberg:
    I think an 800 mm long or 1000 mm long box bike/bakfiets two wheeled bike is much better than a Yuba Mundo for carrying big loads, especially children because of safety.

Leave a Reply