The first bicycle Bill Becoat invented was just sturdy enough to keep him out of Vietnam. It was 1963, and Private Becoat—an early opponent of the war—pulled a Corporal Klinger in basic training by pedaling around Fort Polk, La., on a make-believe bike. Amazingly, the ruse worked. On the day of Becoat's discharge he rode his "bike" to the guard shack, dismounted and propped it against the gate. "Here's my bike," he told the MP. "I'm leaving it for the next soldier who needs it."
The latest bike to spring from Becoat's imagination is sturdy enough to keep him out of hock. In fact, the 55-year-old inventor hopes to revolutionize the bicycle industry with his two-wheel-drive cycle, which he claims is the first major innovation since the derailleur 70 years ago.
Becoat's bike transfers power from the back wheel to the front through a rotating cable encased in plastic. The extra pulling power from the front tire makes for greater traction on soft and sandy terrain and pinpoint cornering on turns at high speeds. "My bikes can claw their way out of ruts, over railroad tracks, through snow," Becoat says. "The front wheel won't ever wash out, even in the rain."
Becoat grew up in Centralia, Ill. "My whole world was bikes," he says. "Bikes were our horses, our steeds." He rode a herd of fourth-hand Hawthornes, Columbias and J.C. Higginses. Becoat and his pal Ronny (Hooley Hooley) West would ride out into the country and go plinking. "We'd plink sparrows and starlings out of the sky with Hooley's pellet gun," Becoat recalls. "Hooley wouldn't plink songbirds. He was a Boy Scout."
By the late 1960s Becoat's plinking was confined to a 12-string guitar. Inspired by the songs of Ledbelly and Bob Dylan, he moved his wife, Nancy, and two-year-old daughter, D'Andrienne, to Oakland and turned folkie. At nightclubs, free festivals and Black Panther rallies, Billie Joe Becoat sang of depression and repression. "I'd drag audiences through the cane fields of Louisiana, the cotton fields of Mississippi and the prison camps of the Delta," he says. "I'd bring them through the switchyards of Illinois and Missouri, then put them on the underground railroad and head for Harlem."
The ballads of this Billie Joe filled two record albums. The first, Reflections from a Cracked Mirror, included a touching tribute to Panther leader Huey Newton ("Born black, born chained, born Newton misnamed") as well as bummed-out blues ("I've got everythin' I need to drive me out of my mind/My wife is homesick, my little baby's cryin'/The cat's got the measles and even the dog is dyin'.")
Actually, those were the least of Becoat's worries. A heavy user of hallucinogenic drugs, he lost his car, home and—he feared—his sanity. He snapped out of his drugged stupor one night onstage in Berkeley, Calif. "I said to myself, What am I doing here?" he says. "All the strings in my heart were broken. The muse was gone."
So Becoat and his family loaded up a VW van and headed for Southern Illinois University, in Alton, where Nancy planned to reenroll and complete her B.A. Becoat labored as a car mechanic and a metalworker and later ran his own construction business. But it wasn't until 1986 that he decided to reinvent the bike wheel. At the time, he was repairing the 10-speed that his son, Bill Jr., used to deliver papers. If cars can have four-wheel drive, Becoat thought, why can't bikes have two? He built dozens of prototypes, convinced that he had hit on something.
Becoat's ride into the bike market was far from smooth. When he pedaled his wares into Schwinn's corporate headquarters, in Chicago, "Schwinn's people called two-wheel drive the answer to a question no one was asking," Becoat says.
Schwinn went bankrupt in 1992. Becoat came close before finding a company—MacGregor Bicycles—that was interested in marketing his bike. A group of Texas investors who recently bought 80% of MacGregor is considering whether to renew the licensing agreement he had with the company.
Meanwhile Becoat works at streamlining a two-pound, 13-ounce device that converts one-wheel-drive bikes to two, certain that cyclists will one day embrace it. "Two-wheel drive is Tour de France-bound," he says, staring off into the distance. "I can see it." And as everyone knows, he is a man of uncommon vision.