Riding the Slow Sea Horse

segwayThe Segway was released in 2001 to the gasps and yawns of a somewhat lukewarm public. The now famous machine is a two-wheeled electric vehicle with a gyroscopic self-balancing system. They go up to 12 miles per hour and can go up to 24 miles on a single charge.

If you want one in Corvallis, you’re in luck—we have one of the longest tenured Segway dealers in the business. Rick Bennet from Segway of Corvallis has no doubts about the vehicle.

“I actually own five,” he says, grinning as he shows me a model in his 3rd Street showroom. “I use ‘em to go all around town, to run errands. I live in Philomath and I ride one in to work here sometimes.”

Segways have a divisive and at times crazy history, and that’s not even counting GOB riding one to comic effect on Arrested Development.

When they were first released, the technology was thought to be potentially revolutionary. Silicon Valley luminaries were hailing Segway as the harbinger of the future. But due to their high price and some would say relative lack of utility, sales were less than robust in the early going.

“They weren’t accepted at first,” says Bennett.

In 2003 Segway only sold 6,000 units. And in 2006, all 23,500 units they had sold to date had to be recalled due to a software problem that could cause falls.

In 2010, just when sales of the vehicle were really picking up, another setback: the owner of Segway, British entrepreneur Jimi Heselden, accidentally drove one off a cliff to his death.

Once again Segways were more fodder for late-night monologues than on the tips of high-tech tongues.

The company has had ups and downs since then, and was sold again earlier this year, to Summit Strategic Investments. Shortly thereafter they announced an upcoming three-wheeled model.

But Bennett has had steady success selling them for over 10 years now.

“I ship about 80% of my Segways out of state,” says Bennet. “I get a lot of people who contact me from all around the country. I’m the number one ranked Segway dealer, as far as customer service goes, in the world.”

Segways have become popular mostly with the elderly, infirm, and people who carry tasers.

“Our largest customer base is the police and security markets,” according to Bennett. But he also tells stories about how much they can help people. One of his customers is a man with diabetes who can’t get around too well because of complications with his feet. This year he’s using his Segway to do Christmas shopping for the first time in years. Bennett almost wells up a little telling about it.

Segway of Corvallis not only sells the vehicles, but also leads guided Segway tours all around Corvallis, including the OSU campus. They even have some specially painted orange vehicles for campus tours.

“I’m like an ambassador for OSU,” Bennett says with a proud smile.

And while they look… less than cool, they also look really fun. I admit, I’ve always wanted to ride one, but never wanted to spend money on it and be stuck riding one in a tour for two hours.

On this cold morning with Bennett, I’m warm inside his showroom getting ready to live the dream. He holds one steady for me while I step on for the first time.

“You just lean forward and it goes, steer with this,” he instructs me, gesturing with the handles.

I get on shakily. He helpfully points out that if I bump into something, I’ll fall. The whole room is littered with kids’ toys and deflated bouncy houses; he shares the space with a bouncy house rental business. I navigate the littered floor, leaning to steer. I narrowly avoid an obstacle course of colorful rubber. It feels a bit like riding a slow sea horse.

I have trouble stopping and am now going dangerously close to the window.

“All right, why don’t we steer it back over here…” he nervously takes control and guides me back over to the front desk. And then holds it until I get off.

“How much does one of these cost?” I ask him.

“About $6,000,” he replies.

There is a long silence as he looks at his watch.

I’ve ridden one now. I survived. It was pretty awesome.

Take that, bucket list.

By Ygal Kaufman