2017-06-01 / Up Close

Easy Rider

You may have seen the torpedo-shaped vehicle whipping around State College and wondered who was inside. Meet Chris Kepler, owner of the velomobile — just one of the ways this audio engineer keeps it green.
Robin Crawford

When it comes to commuting, there are plenty of people in the area doing it the old-fashioned way: pedal power.

But whether he’s zipping along area roads in his futuristic-looking velomobile or making the trek through wind and rain, sleet and snow on his custom-made electric bike, there’s nothing old-fashioned about the way Chris Kepler commutes.

A dedicated cyclist, Kepler had been pedaling his way to his jobs as a sound engineer for more than 20 years before he got his velomobile, one of only a small handful in the Northeast United States. He’d been reading about them in online bicycling forums for some time, but it was the comments about just how fast they were that led him to order one in late 2014, sight unseen. “I was interested in having the fastest human-powered vehicle and being out of the elements while commuting,” he says.

Low-slung and gleaming white, the bullet-shaped Quest XS is silent as it travels, reaching speeds of up to 40 miles per hour on the open road. Kepler, who has logged 16,500 miles since he got it in 2014, is used to the bewildered looks he gets, but takes the attention in stride. He’s gotten used to passengers hanging out of car windows to take videos of him passing by. “I got pulled over four times in one day,” he says. The first time, he explains, was a police officer who just wanted to know what it was. The other three times that day were on campus, where officers wanted to know if there’s a motor inside.
There isn’t.

Sometimes known as bicycle cars, velomobiles weigh in at about 62 pounds and are essentially recumbent bikes outfitted with shells that protect the driver. Legally considered bicycles, their engineering combined with their aerodynamic design make them highly energy efficient. Cyclists use three to four times less energy than they would riding standard bikes, yet reach speeds of 40 miles per hour. Inside, the vehicle is surprisingly roomy, with a number of compartments for cargo.

Between his electric bike and the velomobile, the graduate of State College Area High School estimates he logged more than 7,950 miles last year on commutes that range from 38 to 58 miles roundtrip — he says he averages 45 minutes on his commute from Stormstown to State College. On the electric bike alone, he has logged more than 10,000 miles since he got it in 2014. And while the bike is equipped with a motor, he rarely uses it. “It’d be faster and less sweaty,” he says, “but I’d feel like I was cheating.”

And like the postman’s motto says, neither rain nor snow nor sleet keeps Kepler from getting where he’s going. Case in point: When a blizzard blanketed the county with snow this past winter, there was no way Kepler wasn’t showing up for his job as a sound engineer at a local music venue. He simply hopped on his custom-made electric bike, complete with studded tires, and hit the road.

Later that day, his wife, Susan, was at work when a co-worker forwarded a picture that was making the rounds with the caption, “Look at this poor S.O.B.!” It was a picture of a barely visible Kepler on a near-deserted road. “Over 6 inches is harder to ride in,” he acknowledges. “But I still made it in regular time.”

Kepler guesses that pedaling instead of driving saves approximately 360 gallons of gas a year. It’s a way to combine a thirst for adventure with healthy living. “It’s good to get sweaty,” he says. “If everybody worked up a good sweat every day, most people would be a lot healthier.”

His commitment to the environment extends to his professional life as well. His company, Chris Kepler Audio Services, has been responsible for the sound and light for the entertainment stages at the People’s Choice Festival for 23 years as well as Fourth Fest, Boalsburg’s Memorial Day festivities and Raystown Lake’s Dirtfest. Kepler was impressed by the use of solar power there, especially how it affected the sound system he ran. “It was totally silent,” he says. “There was no buzz, no hiss. I wondered if the system was even on.”

After months of research, Kepler bought a solar-powered generator for festival jobs. The portable unit, which combines solar panels with a 2,000-pound rechargeable battery, is one of the only, if not the only, solar generator powering music festivals in this part of the country, according to Travis Semmes, owner and founder of California-based Mobile Solar.

“It’s unique everywhere, but it’s very unique to the Northeast,” Semmes says. “My customers are mostly from Texas, New Mexico, places like that.”

Audiences have become accustomed to the incessant background hum traditional generators create, but for the finely tuned hearing of sound engineers and musicians, the white noise electricity causes has always been a problem. “We’re always competing with it,” says Jamie Brown, who has been doing festival sound with Kepler for more than 20 years. Using the solar-powered generator at festivals last summer, he said, was a boon to the musicians and sound engineers alike. “There’s zero ambient sound,” he says. “He made me one happy sound guy when he invested in that.”

“I think Chris is a bit of a visionary,” Semmes says. “He’s really willing to put his money where his mind and his heart is.”

Kepler says he’s just trying to live as green as he can. “To me, going green isn’t something you just do sometimes,” he says. “This is a lifestyle. This is how I’ll be living the rest of my life.” •SCM

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