Heads turn the moment the first two pull up to the curb at about 5 p.m. in front of Brocach on the Capitol Square. Commuters waiting to board their buses home share a genuine what-the-hell moment with passers-by.
As if drawn by some gravitational force, onlookers approach the two vehicles -- for that is what they appear to be -- with some mix of curiosity, caution, bewilderment and bemusement. The objects of their fascination look like pods on three wheels. One is white and liberally adorned with decals. The other is yellow, with little other decoration.
Then the lids pop open. One man stands up out of each, pulls his velomobile up onto the sidewalk and waits for the rest of the Roll Over America (ROAM) tour to arrive for dinner.
The tour is rolling through Madison Monday evening. After the dinner rendezvous at Brocach, the riders are staying at Lake Farm County Park en route from Portland, Oregon, to Washington, D.C. The 3,100-mile adventure is intended to demonstrate the practicality of velomobiles as viable alternatives for long-distance travel.
When the tour departed Portland on July 28, it included 22 riders from Europe and 25 from North America. The route has since crossed the Sierra and Rocky Mountains and Northern Plains to reach the upper Midwest. From here, it continues southeast, across Appalachia before arriving in D.C. on August 26.
One rider notes that there has already been some attrition. A couple of accidents and "family issues," he explains, have cut the number of riders to about 20 Europeans and 15 North Americans.
After cruising along on Monday's 136-mile segment from Onalaska, the riders gathered outside Brocach appear eager to introduce the public to their velomobiles. Most of the vehicles are recumbent tricycles encased in aerodynamic fiberglass or carbon-fiber shells. While the shells cut wind drag, they explain to curious onlookers, the added weight can slow their ascents up hills and mountains.
The hills slowed their progress a bit, one rider notes, though he still averaged about 20 miles per hour -- all the more impressive when you consider the tour has been on the road for 19 consecutive days.
This appears to have induced a degree of camaraderie that can make it difficult to discern the Europeans from the North Americans -- though a couple of Dutch riders exhibit an enthusiasm that will be familiar to anyone who has followed Dutch soccer or speedskating.
The tour's passage through south central Wisconsin comes on the same evening when the city of Madison convenes an unrelated public information meeting on a proposal to designate Ruskin Street as its next bicycle boulevard -- a road in which bicycles may be ridden in the middle of the street's lanes.
Considering recent spikes in gasoline prices, it doesn't take much imagination to visualize the conversion of at least some highways to veloways.
Not everyone will be able and willing to convert from automobiles to velomobiles, of course, but that's not stopping engineers from re-imagining recumbent bicycles and tricycles as vehicles with bodies, roofs and windows.
Their shells also decrease velomobilists' exposure to the elements, adding to the innate environmental appeal of human-powered vehicles. The shells also make fine canvases for decoration. Their cool factor may fade if or when velomobiles become more commonplace. Judging by this evening's response among gaping downtown onlookers, though, the concept appears for now to be as hot as one model festooned with a flaming paint job