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Father Ephraim of Saints Athanasios and John Greek Orthodox Church pedals his velombile — a covered, non-motorized tricycle, outside his church in Irving Park.

Father Ephraim of Saints Athanasios and John Greek Orthodox Church pedals his velombile — a covered, non-motorized tricycle, outside his church in Irving Park.

Pat Nabong

What’s that lean, green, pedal-powered machine on Chicago streets?

About six years ago, in search of some quiet, a Greek Orthodox monk known as Father Ephraim moved in with a community of nuns on a remote Alaskan island that has no running water and too little electricity to power such basics as a refrigerator or a stove.

Now, having traded Alaska’s peace and quiet for Chicago, he’s creating some noise of his own for his choice of transportation.

Ephraim, 53, who moved to the Northwest Side about seven months ago, says he’s no fan of cars, never owned one. So, not long after arriving in Chicago, wanting to be healthy physically as well as spiritually, he ordered a velomobile —Â a pedal-powered contraption from Eastern Europe that looks like a giant green-and-yellow popsicle on wheels.

“You can’t imagine the expressions on people’s face when they see this because it’s such an outlandish thing to see on the roads,” says Ephraim, who is from Boston and has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT. “It makes commuting or just doing errands extremely enjoyable. The reaction of children is perhaps the most precious.”

In a city that increasingly aims to make its streets bicycle-friendly, Ephraim’s machine, called a velomobile, is a rare sight. In part, that’s because, until recently, if you wanted one, you had to have it sent from the manufacturer in Romania. The price? About $13,000, including air freight.

Last year, a dealership opened in Minnesota, potentially bringing down the cost by as much as $1,500 per cycle once the dealer starts shipping them over in bulk beginning in May.

Ephraim goes on and on about the benefits of his pricey cycle. He offers a detailed, handwritten list to show how the pros (“empowering,” “independence”) outweigh the cons (“potential for getting sweaty”).



Father Ephraim and his velomobile.

Father Ephraim and his velomobile.

Pat Nabong

He’s now a priest at Saints Athanasios and John Greek Orthodox Church in Old Irving Park. And when he’s out running errands, people will sometimes spot the streamlined tricycle in traffic and wonder whether there’s anyone inside. Some think it’s a drone. The police have stopped him twice, he says, to see if it’s a motorized vehicle, which would require a license plate.

“As soon as I tell them there is no motor, they say, ‘Oh, OK, then just be careful,’ ” Ephraim says.

He’s accustomed to drivers, pedestrians and other cyclists peppering him with questions. They’ll notice his eyes staring back at them through the narrow plexiglass windshield. If they’re persistent and polite, he’ll open the hood, unfold his 5-foot-9-inch frame and step out.

Ephraim wears a full-length black cassock and has a hand-carved wooden cross dangling from his neck. His salt-and-pepper beard is Gandalf-long. And he speaks softly, the words sometimes trailing off — befitting a man who values silence.

In Alaska, Ephraim says he’d paddle five miles by kayak from the convent on the 50-acre St. Nilus Island to the much larger Kodiak Island.

“I was actually able to go right up to a group of finback whales and reach out and touch one of them,” he says.

When he was considering moving to Chicago, he wanted something he could get around on in winter. This winter was unusually mild. But he’s confident he’ll survive a harsher one.



Father Ephraim in his velomobile. He says it’s pretty comfortable in there.

Father Ephraim in his velomobile. He says it’s pretty comfortable in there.

Pat Nabong

“Even though there is no heating in it, you generate so much heat just by pedaling, you have to keep the vents open to keep the fresh air coming to keep you cool,” he says.

His machine isn’t for everyone, he says. When you’re inside its carbon-fiber shell, with only a tiny window to see out, he says it’s like you’re inside a tiny submarine.

Ephraim says he’s ridden it as far as Wisconsin and back, hitting a top speed of 37 miles an hour on Green Bay Road.

“Of course, it took me 2 1/2 hours to get there,” he says.



Sitting not much higher than a fire hydrant, Father Ephraim and his velomobile make their way along a Chicago side street.

Sitting not much higher than a fire hydrant, Father Ephraim and his velomobile make their way along a Chicago side street.

Pat Nabong

He’s never been in an accident, but, because he’s so low to the ground, he says he has to stay vigilant for drivers who might not spot him.

Besides running errands, he rides his “submarine on wheels” to see parishioners at home for a “house blessing” or for confession.

One of them, Mary Paganis, says that, when he got to her home for lunch and she saw the vehicle for the first time, she told him: “What in the world is that?”

But Ephraim says most of his congregants don’t view the orthodox priest’s choice of transportation as particularly . . . unorthodox. And he wouldn’t mind if they did.

“It is important to take into consideration what people think of you,” he says, “but not to be enslaved to that.”



Father Ephraim shows the tight quarters inside his velomobile.

Father Ephraim shows the tight quarters inside his velomobile.

Pat Nabong

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