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Backstory: A natural Segway ...

The two-wheeled transporters are making inroads into everyday life - from fishing trips to weddings.

By Cristian LupsaCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 18, 2006



WASHINGTON

As the bagpiper wheezed into full song, a hush fell over the meadow and guests turned in their folding chairs to watch the wedding party. Bruce Dickson, the silver-haired father of the bride, beamed in his honey-brown suit as he prepared to escort his daughter down the grassy aisle. But behind his smile, Dickson was feeling rising anxiety - and it had nothing to do with the groom. He just didn't want to hog the spotlight - fearing that if he walked arm in arm with his daughter, he'd roll over her dress and tear it apart.

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As she approached, he leaned forward gently and his gray Segway inched toward her. They held hands and moved down the aisle - the beautiful bride and her father on the self-balancing human transporter.

The wedding is Mr. Dickson's favorite Segway memory.

A Washington lawyer, Dickson recently developed a neuromuscular disability that makes walking difficult. The Segway has replaced his wheelchair, and he uses it at home, at work, and around town. And like a growing number in the Segway subculture, he's used it as part of his everyday life - to dance at the wedding, fish near the Arctic Circle, to argue cases in court, and to give rides to his cockapoo, Pippi. He owns three Segways and his favorite is battered and dirty - a point of pride for heavy users.

"People are embarrassed by wheelchairs," he muses. "But they like [my Segway], they show interest in it."

The Segway, the enviro-happy machine unveiled to great hype in 2001 only to thud commercially, has made steady, if modest, inroads among early adopters, becoming the stuff of daily life for pockets of enthusiasts from coast to coast. It's used to commute, have fun and, in the case of Segway tour operators, make money.

Segway Inc. won't release sales figures, but Will Hopper, president of the users club SEG America, estimates there are 25,000 to 30,000 "seggers" nationwide, a fraction of the average ballpark crowd.This number doesn't include vehicles sold to police departments (officers look more approachable on Segs), research institutions, and other organizations.

"Today people are generally positive about it - kids think it's cool and seniors love it," he says.

But the machine remains overshadowed by the early hype and its price, says Steve Kemper, author of a book on the invention of the Segway. The Segway is a blast to ride, says Mr. Kemper, who nevertheless adds he isn't ready to pay the $4,000 to $6,000 sticker price.

Mr. Hopper, who missed being first to own a Segway in the Washington area by 20 minutes, shrugs off the price concern saying that for many, the Segway is a valuable investment. "I got it for fun," he admits, "but now use it instead of jumping in the car for little trips." The trips are usually for his jobs in downtown Washington, installing art and furniture.

Washington, with an estimated 300 to 500 "gliders," is one of the busiest clusters of users. It's not unusual to see half a dozen Segways snaking lazily around downtown on organized tours.

It could be argued that such low numbers do not a culture make - but, say Seg users, that would be wrong.

Ryan Colbert, for example, averages 250 miles a month on his Seg, which he says has evolved into a "one man stand against foreign oil, high gas prices, and our lack of interpersonal communication."

Most mornings, Mr. Colbert, who lives in Orlando, Fla., attaches a bicycle cart to his Segway and glides his 5-year-old son to school.

"It is the most popular way to arrive at his K-12 school," Colbert says in an e-mail interview. "The person directing traffic wishes us a good morning and helps us cross the busy entrance. It is really a nice time we enjoy together that will hopefully be a fond memory he looks back on when he's older."

Colbert is one of many gliders nationwide who converge in online discussion groups to swap stories, plan events or share names of their Segs (Seahorse, The Equalizer, Sammy Segway). They have a sport (Segway polo), they accessorize their Segs, and they have built a Seg-vocabulary. Gliding is the preferred action verb, closer to the segsperience than cruising or riding. Users are seggers or gliders. Seen a Seg somewhere? That's a Seg in the wild. A pack of Segs are a glide. And then there's the "Segway smile," the surprise reaction of a seg-skeptic once he climbs aboard.

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