This Bizarre New Watersport Is Taking Over the World
The lifejacket snaps lock with a reassuring click, and Eddie, an amused associate at Saint Lucia’s Viceroy Sugar Beach resort, smiles. “It’s just like getting on a bicycle,” he says, encouragingly.
We’re on the southwestern coast of the island, in the clear shallows of Anse de Pitons, and I’m about to try the next great watersport: waterbiking.
Floating in front of me is the Schiller S1, a $4,500 contraption that’s part bicycle, part catamaran—with a promise that you can pedal it across any body of water. And if creator Judah Schiller has his way, it’ll soon be on the amenity list at every great resort. “We’re at the start of new industry, category, and sport,” he told me. “In five years, I think there will be Schiller Bikes on every hotel beach around the world.”
Eddie gives the back of the bike a light push, and I’m pedaling into the Caribbean, away from the powdery shores of Sugar Beach and Saint Lucia’s majestic green Piton mountains.
Riding out is easy. The water ski-like pontoons resemble bumpers at a kid’s bowling alley birthday party, holding the carriage above the frothy surf as the sea’s sandy bottom drops away. Everything is very stable; during the safety briefing, there wasn’t even talk of what to do should you fall off, because you won’t. The anodized aluminum bike frame is svelte and lightweight, and one rotation of the pedals gives the propeller eight spins, so it takes very little physical effort (and just two minutes) to put me 50 yards offshore. Before long, I’m skimming along a French-flag mega-yacht anchored in the bay, close enough to see my reflection in its cold, mirrored starboard.
The thing about riding a bike in the middle of a large body of water is that people stare. Suddenly no one’s looking at the multimillion-dollar yacht: they’re all looking at the curious spec of a bike doing leisurely loops through the bay.
Schiller invented the waterbike in 2014, but it’s still a novelty.
“As a spinner, cyclist, and water lover, learning about the Schiller Bike was one of those rare instances when you look at something and simply say ‘of course,’” says Bill Walshe, chief executive officer of Viceroy Hotel Group. Sugar Beach, which now has three S1s, was the first resort in the world to buy in. “I wasted no time e-mailing Judah to let him know how excited I was by his invention.”
Now other resorts are catching on to the nascent trend: Schiller counts such brands as Four Seasons, JW Marriott, and Aman among its hotel clients, placing bikes in fantasy destinations Bora Bora, Costa Rica, Bali, and Dubai. Three of earth’s four oceans are now bike-able. (And you can purchase one all for yourself, too, if you’re so inclined—the S1 sells online, alongside its hydrodynamically superior brother, the $6,000 S1-C.) It’s now at 14 resorts worldwide and will top 21 this year.
Outside the leisure market, a community is growing. Early adopters are creating and recording routes, charting territory through Austin’s Lady Bird Lake and around France’s Cap d’Ail and sharing it on social media.
“You get a few people riding together and eventually, someone’s going to start racing,” Schiller says. “You get athletes to race and you’ve got a sport.” To that point: Schiller is in the final stages of organizing a waterbike race with a “royal-backed foundation” in the south of France next summer.
After biking the length of the yacht, I stop pedaling, stand up on the pontoons, and just float for a minute. My heart rate’s elevated, partly because I crushed a beer immediately before this, partly because waterbiking is one of those sneaky workouts you don’t really feel until you’re halfway through, and partly because of the thrill of being this far out on the water, raised up over it, feeling exposed, rather than down in it, cocooned in a kayak’s polyethylene shell or secure on the surface of a surfboard. Schiller calls it a “glass-bottom viewing experience.”
The water is too deep (over 200 feet) and too dark for me to see the rays and turtles and nurse sharks cruising below. (Perhaps for the best.) But I see the water. It’s right there. It’s like the difference between riding a regular roller coaster and a floorless one: the less between you and the elements, the better.
“You don’t have that on a kayak or a stand-up paddleboard. That’s why the Schiller bike is disruptive,” Schiller says, ticking off today’s favorite buzzword. The verdict is pending as to whether investors agree; Schiller is pursuing Series A capital this month with the aim to transform it from global beach resort fitness toy into a true industry.
I can tell you that the ride has definitely disrupted my out-of-shape self. Pedaling back to shore, against the current, requires more effort than I anticipated or am prepared to exert on vacation. But I make it back. Fortunately, Eddie isn’t there to see my sweat-drenched face.
I trot across the beach to my wife and flop on a fluffy, white lounge chair: “Water,” I croak. She side-eyes me, “Are you serious?”
My chances in the French summer race don’t look good.