UMass bike patroller Robert Waskiewicz has power in his pedals

Last modified: Wednesday, July 31, 2013

AMHERST — Often the first official at the scene of a campus emergency at the University of Massachusetts is Bicycle Bob.

“I usually get there first because I’m going cross country,” said Robert Waskiewicz, a 15-year veteran of the UMass police department’s bike patrol. “You can go everywhere on the campus: on road, off road, on the sidewalk.”

And now he’s getting a power boost with an electric-assist bike that travels up to 28 miles per hour.

“I’m pedaling half as hard and going twice as fast,” Waskiewicz said.

Where he once patrolled 18 to 22 miles around campus each day, he can easily double that, covering as many as 52 miles in one shift, he said.

He’s also apt to be less tired and more ready to deal with emergencies.

• Click here for a video about Waskiewicz from 2010

The electric-assist bike, which cost $3,900 — nearly double the price of a mountain bike — was manufactured by Stromer, a company in Switzerland. The 62-pound bike, with an all-steel frame and known as the Stromer ST1 Platinum, has a 14-amp lithium ion battery below the seat and a motor attached to the rear wheel. The motor is so quiet, though, that only spurts of seemingly inhuman power give any indication that Waskiewicz is using more than just his own muscles.

The impetus for acquiring the bike came at a time last year when Waskiewicz, ironically, was not on a bike, but instead on his feet working a road detail.

Recognizing him as the primary bike patrol officer at UMass, Amherst College guest instructor Henry Hirschel approached him and suggested he get in touch with Bloomfield Bicycle and Repair Shop in Connecticut, which is considered one of the largest in New England specializing in electric bikes. Hirschel, an instructor in astronomy, teaches interterm seminars; one of those was a daylong course titled “The Bionic Bicycle 2013.”

Walter Rochefort III, the outside marketing director at Bloomfield, has been trying to convince police departments with bicycle patrols to adopt electric bikes. While early versions have been used by police departments including Boston’s, many have been phased out because the performance was inadequate, Rochefort said. The UMass Police Department, he said, is the only one in Massachusetts using the latest incarnation of electric bikes.

“They are the first we’re aware of,” Rochefort said.

Deputy Chief Patrick Archbald said Waskiewicz‘s dedication to the bike patrol, riding in almost any conditions from extreme heat to freezing cold, and the fact that the entire east side of campus is made up of hills and inclines, made it worthwhile for the department to pursue the electric bike.

“The fact that Bob and any other bike officers cover so much more ground is beneficial to us,” Archbald said. “That’s a key piece of why we’d want to make such a commitment.”

In addition to the steep purchase price, there was an additional $800 cost to purchase a backup battery. But charging the batteries costs only about 10 cents per shift, Archbald said.

Once the bike arrived in October, the first two weeks were spent testing it. Waskiewicz said he was a bit skeptical that it would be better than the mountain bikes he was accustomed to riding, but he was willing to try.

Rochefort urged him to be a tough critic. He said, “Bob, you ride it and see what you can do to make it go wrong,” Waskiewicz said.

What he found, Waskiewicz said, is that the Stromer handles just like a regular bike — with 27 speeds. The electric assist helps get up inclines, especially reducing the time it takes for Waskiewicz to work his way up Eastman Lane to the police station, where he has to fill out reports.

Waskiewicz said the department has long supported having officers on bicycles to supplement cruiser patrols. There are seven such cyclists, but Waskiewicz, the only one who rides year round, gets the electric bike.

“First of all, it’s a great way to do this job,” Waskiewicz said. “Second of all, you’re more approachable. I have a lot of kids come up to me and ask about this.”

The bike expense may be holding back other departments, as well as the differences in patrolling between a community with many miles of road and a compact campus.

Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone said he has investigated electric bikes and had officers do test rides with them.

“It’s a fabulous piece of equipment that we will definitely look at in the future as costs come down,” Livingstone said.

He said his bike patrol officers will often pack their bicycles in their cruisers and drive to their sectors to bike around. That makes the speed of an electric bike less important.

Some officers, too, were worried about losing the exercise they get from riding conventional bikes, he said.

Rochefort said he is convinced that even though UMass is the only department to have purchased one, once others have the financial means they will want to invest.

Waskiewicz said he has gotten teased by some bicycle enthusiasts.

“People laugh at me and say, ‘You’re cheating,’ ” Waskiewicz said. “But I’ve still got to pedal this thing.”


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