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How to ride a Segway or, getting a bum steer

It's impossible to ride a Segway without looking like a dork. But they're so much fun, you don't care.
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When Volkswagen Canada recently offered a two-day jaunt to some local points of interest, two thoughts came to mind: really local means not much driving, which is a drag, but being local is also a great way to introduce ideas for this time of year that don’t involve large investments of time and money.

The biggest draw for me? A chance to ride a Segway.

Since they were introduced under a huge cloud of secrecy nearly a decade ago, classification problems have hung it up in gaining a wider market. Originally code-named Ginger, the innovation that was guaranteed to change every single person in the entire world forever and ever pretty much fizzled until characters on Arrested Development and Frasier started scooting around on them and making people on scooters look cool.

The concept is simple enough. A Segway is essentially a platform with two large tires and a single handlebar. Gyroscopes detect changes in balance and an on-board computer adjusts accordingly.

To go forward, you tip your toes down. To reverse, you dig your heels in a little. To turn, you simply twist the handle in the direction you wish to head. The part they don’t tell you? It is impossible to do this without looking like a dork. But they’re so much fun, you don’t care.

In spite of their agility and environmentally-friendly rechargeable motor, Segways remain a niche conveyance; they’ve been adopted by many airports and warehouses and some police divisions, but patchwork laws around the globe mean universal acceptance just hasn’t happened.

In Ontario, they aren’t legal on public property. Hence Volkswagen bringing a handful of us to Toronto’s beautiful Distillery District, where you can zip around to your heart’s content on the cobblestones.

While a tour guide pointed out where Al Capone killed people – allegedly – and where windows blew out during the production of bootleg liquor, I dipsy doodled around on my Segway. Practice a little and you can turn on a dime.

You do get some instruction at the beginning of the tour. It took me three tries to even stand on the thing, but I am hardly noted for my balance and grace. It was raining, and you also have to wear a helmet. A small slalom course of cones helps you adjust to steering and when I stopped running over the cones I knew I’d mastered it. As the tour guide gathered us around for some final instructions, I felt myself going backwards.

Fast.

Panicking, I dug my heels in harder, like I would with rollerblades or skates. This is not recommended. The harder I tried to stop, the faster I flew backwards. Silently hoping nobody would notice, I debated turning, or crying, or just throwing myself to the ground and hoping the stupid thing wouldn’t land on me. Instead, a guide just yelled. “Dip your toes!”

Instantly, the machine righted itself and scooted back into formation. Everyone develops their own technique. Mine involved sticking my bum out to balance my weight better. It’s a curious technique, and not terribly flattering. But once you’re on a Segway, you just have to remember that everyone wants to try one and they’re looking at you funny because they’re jealous.

Thirty-nine dollars for half an hour, helmets and instruction provided, anyone over 10 can go. The District is full of neat things to see and do and the Segways are a blast. Segway of Ontario also offers off-road Segwaying at Horseshoe Valley.

My sons have said they would like to try that when I learn to ride standing up straight.

Lorraine Sommerfeld appears Mondays in Living and Saturdays in Wheels. Reach her at: www.lorraineonline.ca.

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