Want to explore Buffalo? You can go on a walking tour.
You can climb to City Hall’s observation deck.
You could swerve through the streets with a dozen other people on an outrageous contraption that looks like a happy hour on wheels. The bus, made in Arizona and owned by Buffalo Pedal Tours, is powered by the passengers’ pedaling. It plies the streets of downtown Buffalo, usually heading to and from various watering holes.
For me, this third option seemed the most attractive. And so, one recent Thursday afternoon, I joined a dozen folks gathered after work at Big Ditch Brewing Company. All of us had signed up to take a two-hour public tour.
It breaks the ice, the fact that you are all about to make spectacles of yourselves pedaling around on a public party bus, in full view of your friends and neighbors. And we all started chatting.
“I love to bike,” said Cindi Arsenault. “I heard about this on Facebook. I learned about it on Monday, and here I am.”
Still, even with such camaraderie, and fortified by beers with such hearty names as Low Bridge and Excavator, this tour took a little nerve.
Especially when driver/owner Ken Szal arrived, in a Buffalo Pedal Tours sweatshirt. He handed out helmets, which we all declined, and waivers, which we all had to fill out.
“Passenger Release of Liability Waiver and Behavior Agreement,” the waivers were titled.
Ken then shepherded us next door, into a massive garage. The pedal bus was parked in a far corner.
It was time.
I had complicated things by wearing a skirt. My line of reasoning went something like, I wore a skirt to ride the mechanical bull at the Erie County Fair, I wore a skirt to ride an elephant at the Buffalo Zoo, I can wear a skirt to pedal a happy hour on wheels. As I clambered up to my seat, I hoped for the best.
Arielle Valby, in the bell ringer seat, had dressed more appropriately and looked right at home. She clanged the bell and shook a tambourine, which was also thoughtfully provided. Ken, swinging the steering wheel up front, piloted us out of the garage.
There is a peculiar thrill to helping power a big vehicle over which you have no control. Outside, we lurched into action and promptly bumped into something. I don’t know what it was, but it added immeasurably to the excitement.
“Backpedal!” Cindi yelled. Everyone, warmed by the Excavator, roared with laughter.
Ken expertly swung us out of the predicament, and soon we were out in traffic. The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For the Devil” was pouring from the sound system as, laughing uproariously, we pedaled past Ferguson Electric.
The bus ran smoothly. When Ken puts on the brakes, it disables the pedals. When he tells you to pedal, it’s all hands – or feet – on deck. I was relieved my skirt was not a problem. Maybe a long skirt would be, but as it was, I was able to pedal with the best of them.
And if I couldn’t, who would know? The pedaling is on the honor system. As we passed Mohawk Place, a guy yelled: “Somebody’s slacking.”
On Ellicott Street, some motorists were impatient being stuck behind a pedaled vehicle full of happy people and blasting Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” We refused to meet their eyes, waving to people at the Metro Bus stop in front of the Buffalo & Erie County Central Library.
Ken doesn’t like to hold up traffic. He stopped and waved the cars past, and we headed toward our first stop, the Pan-American Grill and Brewery.
It would make sense to be able to drink beer on the pedal bus. It’s designed to be a bar on wheels, and it was draped with Labatt banners. “I know, it’s tempting, isn’t it?” Ken asked. The word is that in Michigan and Tennessee, riders can drink beer on board these pedal-powered buses. But New York forbids it.
And so the bus stops at taverns. At the Pan-Am, we were allotted only 25 minutes. A table had been reserved, and the waiter did his best to get us our drinks fast, and he even said yes to splitting our big check into five smaller checks. But things were chaotic. “I’ve got an unaccounted-for Pale Ale,” he called out once in desperation, as Teddy Roosevelt looked down, laughing, from a mural on the wall.
For subsequent stops we decided it was wiser simply to order at the bar. Meanwhile, we all agreed on the good time we were having. We returned to the bus, parked ostentatiously at the curb surrounded by admirers. Boarding, we felt like celebrities.
‘We’re gonna flip’
Who knew that Court Street went uphill? Veering onto Pearl Street, we found ourselves neck and neck with the Grant Street bus. Its riders stared at this vehicle more ridiculous than theirs. We did look ludicrous – especially as we approached dignified St. Paul’s Cathedral. What would the city fathers think?
We barreled onto Church Street, the Guaranty Building on our left, Arielle ringing the bell. Church Street was downhill, and so we coasted – ahhhh.
Soon, to the tune of Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5,” we were rolling toward Templeton Landing and gathering speed, suddenly, at an alarming rate. Yells rose from the bus. “Too fast!” “We’re gonna flip!”
The staff of Templeton Landing, politely overlooking our panic, gave us a royal welcome. The chef, in his white chef’s hat, filmed us on his phone. Inside, at the bar, we reveled in the trip’s success.
“No one is complaining,” Ken rejoiced. Occasionally, he gets people who don’t like to pedal or who want to go home early. But they are the exception. “You meet so many good people,” he said. “So many good kids.”
We made one more stop, at 716. People at the Tim Hortons next door stared, uncomprehending.
If you had one beer per stop, you were feeling pretty good by now. And as we headed back to where we started, the atmosphere was extra, shall we say, relaxed. The music was booming: Kris Kross’ “Jump,” Salt-N-Pepa’s “Shoop.” Two riders from Orchard Park began dancing in the bus’ aisle to Pitbull’s “Fireball,” a number I know from Zumba class, as the rest of us wailed our approval. A few men in suits, emerging from an office, pointed and cheered.
At this point, everything had just gone too well. Someone had to get thrown under the bus. And it was me.
I threw myself under the bus. I dropped my notebook. What I should have done was ask Ken calmly to stop the bus. But I did not. Some journalistic instinct kicked in and I decided, on the spur of the moment, to jump off.
Suddenly there I was, with the pedal bus half dragging me. I couldn’t get down. I couldn’t get up. Finally, apprised of the situation, Ken stopped the bus. And I ran back and got my notebook.
I never felt in danger. I was laughing, figuring the situation would work itself out somehow. But take it from me, do not try that. When I got back on, Ken grabbed a helmet and stuck it on my head. “You scared me,” he said.
All was forgiven back at Big Ditch, where the tour came to a happy end. The riders dispersed, as content as tired children, into the night. I felt virtuous, confident that with my pedaling I had burned off my beer.
Ken, preparing to put the bus to bed in its massive garage, seemed happy.
“You gotta smile,” he said. “You gotta have fun.”