Sunday, October 9, 2011

Big Wheels and Any Fork You Want

Every once in a while, we must let a flight of fancy take us for a ride. I have been looking at photos of bicycle with 36" wheels for a few years now, thinking, "Hey, wouldn't that be fun." A few weeks ago, I noticed that many of these big-wheeled bicycles were made by Walt Wehner of Waltworks Custom Bicycles. I was intrigued, so I looked into Walt's work. It turns out he does much more than build "36ers." He builds all kinds of bicycle frames and he also has a passion for building custom forks using the segemented, "Yo Eddy" design that I love so well. Plus, he loves to ride, which is a big bonus in my book.

I asked for an interview, and he agreed. His answers were modest, insightful and straightforward. Enjoy.

Walt, working
Photo by Ed Ellinger

Q: Tell us a bit about Waltworks Custom Bicycles, its history and your vision for its future.

A: Well, the story goes something like this: I was employed as a technical editor for the DOE at Los Alamos National Lab, but funding for the renewable energy programs started drying up, so I was offered the choice of a job I didn't like... or a layoff. So I was looking for something to do (this was 2003) and my good friend Feldman forwarded an ad for an Anvil framebuilding fixture he'd found online. So, on a whim, I bought it, along with some very basic welding and metalworking equipment, and started building bikes for all my friends (and myself, of course). My first frame was built for my wife for her birthday, weighs 7 pounds, and looks like it was built by a 6 year old. And it took me a month. But I improved, thank god, with practice, and eventually people I didn't know wanted to pay me for frames. So I bought some liability insurance (this is 2004 now), put up a website, and things basically snowballed from there.

A Large Drop on a Very Cool Bike!

To be honest, I do not have a real concrete vision for the future of the company. I will keep doing it as long as people want bikes and I am having fun with it. It's not tremendously profitable, but it's enough to pay bills, put food on the table, and even go on vacation now and then, so that's good enough for me. At some point I'd like to offer more of an "experience" for the customer - meaning work out of a much larger shop in a location where someone could come and go for a riding vacation and watch their frame built and assembled (and get to test ride it and have me make changes if needed). I do enjoy talking to people about what I do and showing them how frames come together, and that's something that customers also tend to really enjoy, so it would be really cool to offer a more experiential service. That's in the distant future, though, as my current space is much too cramped for multiple people. I would not mind hiring an employee or two down the road (packing boxes and making parts orders gets pretty old after a while), but once again, that would have to be at another location.

Ahhh... Segmented Goodness

Q: According to your website, you enjoy building custom forks. I know a lot of folks experimenting with fork geometries for Porteur-style bicycles. Can/will you build forks to just about any spec, or do you prefer to build them in the geometries you like?

A: I'll happily build any fork geometry a customer wants. I've done everything from 20" to 36" wheel forks with configurations all over the map. I'd estimate I've built 400 forks at this point, so I've seen a lot of different stuff and am pretty adaptable with unusual requests.

Segmented Fork, Nice and Muddy

Q: What else do you love to build? Where do your passions lie?

A: I like building almost anything that's metal. I've built berry-picking devices, furniture, terrarium equipment, home carbonation systems, and even a crutch for my neighbor. I also really enjoy fixing stuff (not just bikes) and solving fun little problems. Of course I like riding bikes of all kinds, as well as rock climbing, yoga, and cooking.

Q: I love 36"-wheel bicycles! And, at 6'6", it seems like I could use 36" wheels to build a bicycle with a nearly normal geometry. Given the wheel parts available, can a 36"-wheel bicycle be a real, practical alternative? Or are they just fun toys for people who want to be seen? What else would you like to say about 36"-wheel bicycles?

A: As of now, 36ers are at the novelty stage. What I mean by that is that the components (primarily rims and tires) are pretty substandard (the tires are 4-ply slicks that weigh in excess of 2000 grams, the rims are pretty similarly junky). That being said, they are very enjoyable to ride even with all that extra wheel weight, and the next few years will probably tell if the size "takes off" to the point where there's at least one decent tire and rim (something equivalent to the launch of the 29" Nanoraptor in 1999). I've explored having a run of tires and rims made, but as of now, there are fewer than 50 bikes on earth that would use them, so it's hard to justify the cost and risk (and yes, I'm aware that there are lots of unicyclists who ride this size).

Little Lady, Big Wheels
(At least she looks little compared to those 36" monsters)
Photo by Brad Bedell

Sizing is interesting. A 36er can be built to work pretty well for someone down to about 5'10" tall, but to really do something without any serious geometry tradeoffs, you're looking at the very tall folks - probably 6'4" and bigger at a minimum. If you're looking to win races or beat your buddies to the top of a climb (or the bottom, really), a 36er probably isn't for you. If you enjoy having a different experience on the bike and want to get lots of attention while doing it, they're great. So yes, they are "fun toys for people who like to be seen", but they also have a lot of enjoyable attributes that make them a worthwhile addition to a bike collection for the right rider (you think your 29er rolls over stuff well? You ain't seen *nothing* yet!)

It's also worth pondering whether it would be better (since the existing 36"-specific parts are crap) to scrap the size in favor of something else. There's an argument to be made for something between 29 and 36 (32"?), and making it happen wouldn't be any harder, really, than getting good stuff for the 36" size.

Q: What off-the-shelf bicycles do you recommend for people who cannot afford custom?

A: I used to like Cannondale, since they made their higher-end stuff in the US, but that's over with now.

Actually, let me back up. A short rant - custom bikes aren't that expensive compared to other high-end stuff. If you want me to build you a complete bike with a nice suspension fork and XTR-level parts, I can easily do it for around $3500-4000 (of course it depends a bit on exactly what you put on there). If you look around, that's actually not any more expensive (and arguably cheaper) than a non-custom bike (check out the price on a similarly equipped Yeti: ). In fact, until you get below $2500 or so, you're really not saving anything by going with an off-the-shelf bike.

That said, $2500 is still a lot of money to many people, and if someone's looking for a bike in the $1000 range, I don't spend much time shopping around for them, but I remember Giant and Surly being a good deal. Ventana, Ellsworth, and a few others still make bikes in the USA for folks who care about that (like me), but they tend to be just as pricey (or more) than custom.

Q: What components do you recommend for different types of bicycles? Is there anything new out there that has impressed you recently?

A: I don't have strong component preferences - ride whatever is comfortable and works. I do like the stuff made by Paul, Phil, King, and Fox particularly since they're fine products made here in the US.

A wall full of bikes is a very good thing

Q: Are there any bicycle fads currently underway that you absolutely despise?

A: Nope. I know I'm supposed to say hipsters and fixies (Editor's Note: I promise, I was not fishing for that response!), but I just don't really hate anyone who rides a bike for fun (or for work). There's a lot of complaining about new headset and bottom bracket standards, but I think most of them are pretty good for at least some applications. Bikes have gotten tremendously more fun and functional in the last decade or so, so I gave up being a retro grouch long ago.

I do generally dislike a lot of the stuff that I see displayed at bike shows, simply because it's pretty clear that a lot of it was never intended to be ridden, but I wouldn't say I despise that kind of thing. Bling can be fun and if your goal is to make bike jewelry, that's great. I tend to crash my bikes, though, and get them dirty, so show bikes don't usually appeal to me.

Anyone will tell you that all true craftsmen have their own beer label

Q: We hear a lot about the bicycle culture in places like Portland, San Fransisco, and Minneapolis, but Boulder has had a strong cycling culture for decades! Tell us a bit about bicycle culture in Boulder and how it is different from places like Portland.

A: I guess I'm not sure what that question really means. People in Boulder like to ride bikes a lot, and we've got the usual groups of triathletes, roadies, mountain bikers, college kids on fixies, etc, etc. But I don't know that it counts as a "culture". I do know that there's a lot of animosity between cyclists and non-cyclists here, both on the road and the trails, and that's unfortunate, but probably inevitable given the population density of the Front Range.

Q: What else would you like to say?

A: I hope this interview wasn't too boring.

Q: What did you have for breakfast?

A: Some homemade biscuits with eggs and cheese, plus a few slices of tomato.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Serving Those Who Do Not Race

The term "Keeper of the Flame" is generally reserved for framebuilders who build lugged, brazed frames according to "old school" manufacturing techniques. But the frame is only one part of a bicycle. Your old Raleigh Pro will not look so classic if it is equipped with carbon bars and "Deep V" rims.

Enter Velo Orange (V.O.). Rambling through their website makes me feel like I am flipping through the pages of a French parts catalog from the 1950s. The parts are beautiful, shiny polished metal and rich leather. Yet they also look solid, ready to take on the rigours of riding in the real world.

V.O. was founded by Chris Kulczycki. He was kind enough to grant me an interview.

All photos are from the Velo Orange blog.

Velo Orange Founder, Chris Kulczycki

Q: Is there an overall theme to the Velo Orange product line? If so, please describe it.

A: Here is the little introduction I wrote when I first started VO. It's been on the landing page of our web site ever since. It's as good a description of our products and philosophy as I can write:

"Most cyclists don't race, yet they ride uncomfortable racing bikes and try to go too fast and so miss much of the world around them. Our emphasis is on a more relaxed and comfortable style of riding, and on refined bikes that are comfortable on a century ride, an inn-to-inn tour, or even on a ramble down your favorite dirt road.

"For many years some of the wonderful parts and accessories once produced by small firms in Europe for the cyclo-tourist and randonneur have been unavailable, or outrageously expensive. So I started Velo Orange to find and sell these remaining items, and to produce those that were no longer available."

V.O. Grand Cru Quill Stem

Q: Are you a cyclist? If so, what kind of riding do you do?

A: I'm a lifelong cyclist. My main interest is light touring, but I've done some racing, mountain biking, and loaded touring as well. My ideal ride is a leisurely tour lasting anywhere from one day to a couple of weeks winding through beautiful countryside. I love to stop and wander around little villages, take meals at local cafes, and spend the night at B&Bs or country inns. I'll stop at every farm stand, boatyard, vineyard, atelier... But the reality is that business and family obligations mean that most of my rides are an afternoon on the back roads of Maryland with, maybe, a stop for lunch.

Q: Please tell us a bit about the history of Velo Orange. What inspired you to start the business? What have you learned along the way?

A: After we'd started and sold a successful company, we started doing a lot more cycling, including some touring in the US and in Europe. I found that I wanted certain components that were getting hard to find. I guessed that others would want them too. The plan was to have a little part-time business importing and making a small selection of practical components. We got carried away and now, 5 years later, we have hundreds of our own products and sell to over 400 shops and custom builders in a dozen countries, as well as through our own e-store and through wholesale distributors.

V.O. Grand Cru 50.4bcd chainrings. Look Familiar?

Most of what I learned at VO is technical stuff about manufacturing, sourcing, shipping, etc. The really important stuff I learned at my first company, and it's just been reinforced at VO. There are three most important things I've learned about business. The first is to communicate with customers. We learn a tremendous amount from those who use our products and often make improvements and develop new products based on their suggestions. The second point is to hire the very best employees you can. Always try to hire people who are smarter and more talented than you are. Finally, I learned to continually improve products; never believe something is “good enough.”

Q: How much design work do you do "in house?" How much of what you sell is "off the shelf" product that you buy from various suppliers?

A: We do a tremendous amount design in-house. Examples include our racks, most of the handlebars, 50.4bcd cranks, retro cages, bike luggage, Grand Cru stems, our frames, and many more. There are some things that we can't design alone because they require more technical expertise than we have. The roller bearing headset, the Polyvalent crank, and the hubs are examples. In these cases we go to the factory and explain our concept and their engineers help with the design. Sometimes there is no need to develop a new design. We can take a product developed by a factory and simply specify the finish and cosmetic details we want, or we might ask them to upgrade the alloy or the hardware or the bearings.

Q: How would you like Velo Orange to evolve over the next five years?

A: VO will continue to introduce new components and accessories and refine existing offerings. One big change is that we're considering introducing a line of complete bikes. We may do this on our own or we may seek a partnership with a larger company.

Unlike most other companies we hope to use many of our own components. I'm a fan of a boat building company in Maine called Hinckley. What sets them apart, beyond impeccable workmanship, is that unlike most boat builders they don't just build the hull, deck and interior. They also make a lot of their own rigging, fittings and hardware that work and look better than off-the-shelf stuff. In the bike world the French constructeurs were superb custom bike builders who not only made frames, but often also made racks, stems, and brakes – even drive-train components that improved on what was made by the big companies. We hope to bring that sort of integration into production bikes.

V.O Raid Rim

Q: Are the products that Velo Orange sells meant to be practical, functional, durable items for "real world" bicycling, or are they intended more to make a fashion statement?

A: I don't know what to make of this question. Designing items as "fashion statements" is the exact opposite of what we do. Yet, unlikely as it seems to some, many people see our products as very fashionable because they are elegant and purposeful.

People have funny ideas about fashion. Consider the middle aged and overweight guy huffing along in logo covered spandex on a carbon race bike. The gearing is too high for him, the saddle too narrow, the bars too low, and the 20mm tires are rock hard. Now that is following fashion to the point of absurdity. And it's exactly what many bike shops still push customers into.

Now put the same guy on a rando frame with proper gearing, a comfortable leather saddle, bars at saddle level, and wide comfortable tires. He might now cover that 50-mile Saturday ride in perfect comfort and still get a good workout. Fortunately we're seeing a big shift in perception, a shift in fashion. More and more cyclists are learning that, unless you actually do race, the rando or light-touring bike is a far better choice.

Q: Please choose one item you stock, perhaps one that has not gotten much attention yet, and describe it to us. What makes it special? Why do you like it?

V.O. Grand Cru Hub

A: One of the things that makes VO different from most bike companies is that we develop more products than most companies five or ten times our size. There are so many new VO products that I think are special. The Grand Cru touring hubs which use four identical and large Japanese bearings, yet can be field stripped without tools, are the latest example. Or look at our new Grand Cru stems, or the double-eyelet Raid rims, or the Porteur rack, or our large range of metal fenders.

Q: Is there a "typical" Velo Orange customer? If so, please describe him/her to us?

A: I suppose the thing that most impresses me about the customers I meet at the shop and at bike shows is that they are usually very experienced cyclists who put a lot of thought into their bikes.

V.O. Polyvalent

Q: I am 6'6". I have a commute that is fourteen miles each way, with roughly 1300 feet of overall climbing. What is the perfect commuter bicycle for me?

A: I know that there are plenty of bike pundits out there who would happy to tell you exactly what you should ride and how you should set it up. I'm not one of them and it's not the sort of question I'm often asked. The people who come to VO have usually had a number of bikes and know what they are looking for. As for me, my VO pass hunter (basically a rando with canti-brakes) works very well as my commuter and as my “sportif” for fast day rides.

Q: What do you like for breakfast?

A: Most days it's just coffee, either an americano or a Kona drip, but occasionally a can of kippered herring and some sliced tomato.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Caltrain Increases Bicycle Carrying Capacity

Good news for Bay Area commuters! Caltrain recently announced that all trains now have two "Bike Cars." Most trains will now hold 80 bicycles, while the rest will hold 48. According to this article at, Caltrain has increased its bicycle carrying capacity by more than 50% since 2008. 3600 cyclo-commuters use Caltrains on a typical weekday, representing 9% of total Caltrain ridership.

It is good to know that at least one West Coast metropolitan area "gets it." Encouraging commuters to try multi-modal transportation, such as bicycle/train combinations, will show people that they can get from the final train or bus station to their workplace in a few minutes. Now, if we could only convince officials in Southern California to adopt a similar attitude...

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Portland Area "Pay-to-Ride" Smackdown

In the red corner, Jerry Willey, mayor of the cash-strapped Portland suburb, Hillsboro, OR!

In the blue corner, Portland-area cyclists who pay taxes and do very little damage to roads compared to cars and trucks!


Willey comes out slugging, proclaiming that adding bicycle lanes costs money that should be provided by those using the bicycle lanes. BikePortland editor Jonathan Maus counters, “Willey should focus on the problem — which isn’t that people don’t pay more just because they happen to ride a bike sometimes — it’s that too many trips taken in our cities are taken by cars.”

Photo by Jonathan Maus,

This article in the Hillsboro Argus, by Kurt Eckert, gives readers a blow-by-blow description of the conflict to date. Maybe I am biased, but the arguments from bicycle advocates seem quite convincing. F'rinstance, Bicycle Transportation Alliance president Rob Sadowsky points out that "Ninety percent of BTA members own a car and drive it, but make a commitment to drive less. They all pay drivers license fees, vehicle registrations and other fixed costs, and most pay property taxes that go for maintenance on the system."

Still, in a time of fiscal desperation, who can say what people will believe? Read the "Comments" section of the article to get an idea of what we are up against in terms of anti-bicycle evangelists whose heels are thoroughly dug-in.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Brothers Hampsten

Steve and Andy Hampsten have loved bicycles since they were kids growing up in North Dakota. Steve has worked at different jobs including gourmet cooking and blacksmithing, but he always returned to the bicycle industry, first as a shop mechanic, then as a bicycle maker when he and Andy founded Hampsten Cycles in 1999. Since then, he has been running the company full-time.

Andy is a cycling legend who does not conform to the "rock star" image seen in so many of today's racers. While the professional bicycle racing crowd became famous for its steroid-drenched egomaniacs, Andy developed a reputation as a genuinely nice human being. Kent Eriksen, Andy's long-time friend and a frame supplier to Hampsten Cycles, describes Andy as "a gracious guy with an incredible talent for climbing hills. He is a good spirit, very unassuming." Even when he was winning some of the biggest races in Europe, Eriksen explains, "Andy always liked to eat good food even more than he liked cycling."

Andy has found a way to pursue both passions in Cinghiale Cycling Tours. His company is known for fast-paced riding through the Tuscan countryside, but it is also famous for the wonderful food and wine consumed along the way.

Andy (left) and Steve (right) Hampsten

Question: Steve - You have learned to build many things in your life, from gourmet meals to items from a blacksmith's forge. How and why did you finally choose to devote your career to building bicycles?

Answer (Steve): I think it chose me... at one point I met with a career counselor - and this was after five years wrenching in bike shops followed by seventeen years cooking - following an hour of tests and chatting she said "You should be building bicycles." About that time I started leaning to work with steel and I've never looked back.

Question: In a nutshell, describe the design philosophy at Hampsten Cycles, please.

Answer (Steve): "Road bikes for all types of roads"

Hampsten Zucchero

Question: How many bicycles/frames does Hampsten Cycles sell in a typical year?

Answer (Steve): Fifty is about normal, this year we're at forty as of the beginning of May. Should be an interesting year.

Question: Do you hope to grow the company? If so, what directions do you see such growth taking?

Answer (Steve): I'm really happy with the size we have and that I don't have to spend my days managing people. If we grow I'll need to spend more time managing the business, less time working with customers and on design - so that feels like a dilemma. But if I had another builder who could wrench and help in some other areas - painting, shipping, or organizing the work flow - we could conquer the world.

Question: Does Hampsten Cycles build frames at fixed sizes/geometries, or are most of your frames custom-built for each customer?

Answer (Steve): On one model, Crema, we push fixed sizes and limited options - but we're still flexible - everything else we do is custom.

Hampsten Crema

Question: You have recently moved much of your your manufacturing from outside companies such as Co-Motion Cycles and Ken Eriksen Cycles to in-house production at "HampCo Towers." You have hired Max Kullaway, who has extensive fabricating experience at Merlin and Seven Cycles, suggesting you are very serious about achieving world-class titanium fabrication quality. How has the move to in-house fabrication worked out for you? Do you intend to keep developing your in-house capabilities, or are you considering going back to out-of-house vendors?

Answer (Steve): It feels like everything we've done here has been evolutionary: first our frames were built by Match, then Dave Levy, then Moots got involved, etc. At the same time, since we started, I've been buying tooling and we've long had the ability to produce lugged frames with Martin Tweedy wielding the torch. So it's been a back-of-my-mind goal to build welded frames in-house for some time and meeting Max made that happen. But if he moves or goes to divinity school then I'll be looking at my options again, won't I? Of course there are other people who can build bicycle frames but there are very few who can do it as well and as consistently as Max - really, it's a short list.

But in terms of this year and last year, doing 95% of production right here has been the best thing possible for the company and for the bikes - it would be difficult to rely on others after this experience. It's not that we don't appreciate how IF/Co-Mo/Eriksen/et. al. build their frames, it's that here we can have each frame done the way we want down to the smallest detail.

Hampsten Gran Paradiso

Question: Why did you choose to create a separate "Tournesol" brand name? Please tell us a bit about the Tournesol models.

Answer (Steve): Tournesol was originally conceived as a project between myself and Douglas Brooks. We wanted to focus on bikes that fit differently and looked less contemporary than what we were showing with Hampsten They probably feature larger frames, have less saddle-to-bar-drop, and almost always use a rack, fenders, and maybe some sort of light system. We felt that a more retro look suited Tournesol well - Douglas even came up with the name - and I felt that there would likely not be too much overlap in customer bases between the two marques. Rene Herse, Alex Singer, Rivendell, Toei, Mariposa: these were all our influences, inspirations, and some are even our friends. In the last ten years we've seen a good amount on interest in French-style touring bikes, randonneuses (hey, I don't make this stuff up), 650B, front racks, "planing", Mafac/TA/Simplex/Huret - mon dieu...

Tournesol Audax

Additionally, I wanted to avoid confusion with our Hampsten customers. I never wanted Hampsten to be painted with the "retro" brush; classic and commemorative were fine but I didn't feel that looking DeGaulle-era suited Hampsten Cycles very well.

Cycles Tournesol was also a good opportunity to play with a different graphic design look and color palate. The parts we use for most Tournesol builds tend to be silver, frames are usually some dark shade, shiny fenders, nickel-plated racks, gum-wall tires, etc. So it's been a fun direction to go in that stands slightly apart from HC in terms of looks and fit but remains very much a Hampsten in terms of build quality and functionality. Sort of like BMW with Mini Cooper, if you will.

Question: I commute fourteen miles each way to work, with roughly 1300 feet of total climbs on the way. What is the perfect bicycle for such a purpose?

Answer (Steve): Crema, Strada Bianca, or Tournesol - anything that gives you options with tire sizes and whether or not to use fenders.

Question: Cinghiale Cycling Tours has a reputation for "highly energetic" days in the saddle. Say, for instance, that someone is in his mid-forties and carrying 20-30 extra pounds. Could he keep up with Andy as the group pedaled through Tuscany?

Answer (Steve): Hey, that's me! Well, maybe I'm older - and what do you mean by "extra" pounds? But Andy waits, if that's your question - no rider left behind...

Answer (Andy): I'll start early. We are all in our forties or carrying more than we wish. We look for a largish group so when we hit our own groove in the hills we end up with good company. Some trips are in the mountains and we warn people about how hard the riding is, so we get fit riders who know how to pace themselves. Extra weight and all. We regroup a few times a day, or on very long days we stay in one group and roll at a nice constant pace.

All work, no play? I think not...

Question: Andy - Do you ever get strong riders on your tours who are itching to "cross swords with a legend?" If you do, have you exhausted all your competitive urges during your days as a professional cyclist, or do you still feel the need to teach the young whippersnappers a lesson?

Answer (Andy): I am too old to cross swords with the young and overly fit. And too old to not spank them on chosen occasions. Our rides are non-competitive. Of course there are some guys that need to find the pecking order on climbs to be happy. Especially when there is a female rider in the group that has dropped them. We are good at keeping the pace social at the beginning of our rides, and letting the lactic acidly challenged know when they can go hard.

Question: Andy - Cinghiale seems to run tours primarily in the late Spring through early Fall. What do you do with yourself during the rest of the year?

Answer (Andy): Drink wine. I mean do research. I hate to claim title to a legit job but running the trips takes time all year long. Hanging with my daughter and wife tops my list of preferred activities. Finding new roads in my back yards and hitting favorite rides is always fun. For a strange reason I started racing on back country skis in Colorado, that will not be a new career.

Cinghiale tours give riders a chance to ride the Alps with Andy Hampsten WITHOUT trembling in fear

Question: What else would you like to say?

Answer (Andy): Riding is more fun than ever. Or more to the point it is as fun as when I was a kid determined to explore the world on my bike. Having a super bike and fancy food is nice, but riding in good company or alone makes any one of my days a great day.

Answer (Steve): Buy American, support people who make stuff, be nice to others.

Question: What do you like for breakfast?

Answer (Steve): Eggs scrambled with whatever was yummy last night, toast with gooseberry jam, 2 cups of coffee, OJ.

Answer (Andy): An Ozo house special coffee and a breakfast burrito!! Why can't Europe get the second part of this combo??

Is The BikeShare Movement Gaining Momentum?

This article in the Alexandria Gazette Packet, by Michael Lee Pope, describes the proposed BikeShare program in Alexandria Virginia. This program is based on similar bicycle sharing systems in Washington, DC and Arlington, Virginia. The proposal is receiving strong support from local government officials who look at it as an important tool in fighting traffic congestion. However, it is facing predictable opposition from those who question the validity of spending government dollars to encourage bicycle riding. Poul Hertel, an Alexandria resident, said, "The city can’t afford to put the bus schedule at stops throughout the city but they want to spend $400,000 on this?"

Bicycle sharing station in Arlington, VA
Photo by Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz

Cycloculture applauds the proposal, as well as the courage of those making it. Facing down people who cannot accept the bicycle as a valid piece in our transportation puzzle must be a difficult task, at times. Keep up the good fight!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Bicycle Craze!! Of 1890, That Is...

There is nothing new under the sun. This applies to bicycles as much as any other human endeavor. Those of us who have been around bicycles for a few years understand that the popularity of the bicycle rises and falls through the years and decades. Some of us get recklessly optimistic when there is a surge in bicycle usage. "This time it's really going to stick!" we tell ourselves and others. And, perhaps one day it will.

For a little perspective, read this article by Alison Nowak, writing for the "Southwest Minneapolis Patch." Her piece is a wonderful glimpse into history. It is also, perhaps unintentionally, a telling study on human behaviors. Sure, our bicycles have changes a bit since the 19th Century, but the fundamentals of marketing and salesmanship have remained constant.

Bicycle fashion circa 1890
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society -

"By the 1890’s bicycle mania had fully taken hold in Minnesota. Throngs of bicycles were seen on the streets of downtown Minneapolis between the years of 1893 and 1897. Many used their bikes as transportation to work, as well as to theater shows and other events downtown." Hmmm... Sounds a lot like modern day Minneapolis, doesn't it?

On a side note, readers who are interested in bicycling history from the 19th Century may wish to take a look at the recently-published book The Lost Cyclist, by David Herlihy. It is a globe-spanning tale of bicycle adventurers during the time period described in Nowak's article.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Should Your Next Bicycle Be Electric?

Ed Benjamin has been designing, selling and promoting electric bicycles (ebikes) for decades. He has led such ebike companies as Wavecrest Laboratories and Ultra Motors. He is also the founder and chairman of the Light Electric Vehicle Association (LEVA), and organization dedicated to promoting and facilitating the use of electric bicycles and other light electric vehicles world-wide. Additionally, he is a co-author of the highly-influential Electric Bikes Worldwide Reports, which are published annually and are viewed as the industry "Bible" on the current state of the electric bicycle industry as well as on future trends.

No one has done more to promote electric bicycles than Ed Benjamin. As many of my readers know, I am an enthusiastic supporter of this technology, so I wanted to introduce the subject through the eyes of the world's leading expert. Mr. Benjamin was kind enough to agree to an interview. Enjoy.

Ed Benjamin tirelessly promoting electric bicycles

Q: Many of my readers are "bicycle purists." What would you like to say to them about electric bicycles?

A: I am going to consider a “bicycle purist” as a person who believes and asserts that only human power should be used to propel a manual bicycle.

I used to feel that way and let me present my credentials as a purist: I worked in, or owned, bicycle shops from 1969 to 1996. I was a Jr. State Champion, Bicycle Road Racing, and later an ABLA Senior “B” racer (for those too young to know, ABLA preceded USCF and a Category B was equivalent to a Cat 2 today). I am an ex USCF Cat 2 official, and have promoted bike races, triathlons, and club events too numerous to remember. I was riding a “fixie” back when we called them track bikes. My current manual bike is a Moulton.

People like me often own bike shops and are often “purists.” And it is common for me to hear “I don’t need no stinking motor” along with comments about lazy, or cheating, from my peers.

But this attitude and definition of bicycle purism is one that I associate with “bicycles as sport”. For the USA and parts of Europe, that is the primary use of a bicycle, riding for fun, competition or fitness.

Ultra Motors A2B Electric Bicycle

But world wide, the billions of people whom ride a bike every day, do so for transportation.

“Bicycle as transportation” is a different matter, and the sport rider may not have considered that strong legs, a good wind and the time and interest to ride are luxuries to most transportation riders. Transportation riders are not much interested in sweating, being tired from their commute, or improving their fitness.

For a transportation rider, a bicycle is an upgrade from walking and an electric bike is an upgrade from pedaling a manual bike. An electric bike allows one to get to work without dripping sweat and it allows one to go farther with less effort – often translating into a better job or a nicer home (being located farther out, and thus costing less). In some cases, an electric bike is a vehicle that can cut through the traffic jam, or find a parking place.

Transportation riders, even in the USA, include the old, the fat, the pregnant, the injured, the less than fit, and others for whom a bicycle is a tool that enables them. The bicycle is not recreation, fitness, sport, or a lifestyle.

So, purists…I say that you are fortunate to live with a luxury that you may not appreciate. And…it is not forever. Your strong legs and good wind will give way, no matter how hard you work at it.

And as evidence of the role that an electric bike may play in your future, consider the electric bike riders of Holland, Germany and Switzerland. These are strong bicycle cultures where one’s fitness and strength are matters of great pride and concern. And places where the average age is rising fast. These older riders, who, on the average, have far more miles behind them than any USA “purist”, have found that the electric bike allows them to be comfortable on their bikes, at an age when they were finding the manual bike to be increasingly arduous.

And many westerners do not realize how strong a “bicycle culture” exists in China and other Asian countries. Although their bike culture is riding a 60 lb roadster everywhere, for decades, and living and working up many flights of stairs. Bicycles are a major transportation tool in China, SE Asia, India, Africa, and many other places. These are fundamentally bike cultures in ways that most westerners do not appreciate.

The USA will buy every year, around 15 million bikes. A lot of them are children’s bikes. The EU is similar, but with a larger proportion of adult bikes. And China is about 56 million bikes, almost all for adults.

Approximately 1 in 2 bikes sold in China is electric. About 1 in 4 in Holland. 1 in 8 in Germany, 1 in 10 in Switzerland.

Wavecrest Laboratories TidalForce Electric Bicycle

Q: What are the best things about electric bicycles?

A: They extend the rider’s range, reduce his fatigue, are generally more comfortable and have more functional utility for the transportation rider.

They are green. Yes, really. An interesting study from Germany shows that an electric bike actually produces less carbon in its life than a manual bike – even if the rider of the manual bike eats only vegetables. Of course, the manual bike user also benefits from increased fitness, a worthy benefit that may outweigh the carbon they are creating. Anyone who emails me and asks for it can receive a copy of the study (

Nearly everyone who rides one for the first time gets a big grin. They are fun (the last time I saw these grins was in the early 80’s when customers test rode the new fangled ‘mountain bikes’).

They make money for all parts of the bike industry. They are a higher ticket, higher margin, and more attractive to a wider demographic than manual bikes.

They are affordable and improve the life of many millions of people (there are an estimated 119 million in use today).

Q: Please describe the "typical" electric bicycle rider.

A: I will present four:

Hong J. is a 46-year-old schoolteacher in Shanghai whose ebike allows her to live farther from the metro station. That allowed her to buy a much nicer home. And she gets to work less tired and cleaner than riding her old manual bike. It is easy to carry her son, or groceries or both. Her transportation costs for the year are equal to one month of wages (most Americans will work for many months to pay for their annual transportation costs).

Hans O. is a 67-year-old retiree living in the Appledorn, Holland. His ebike allows him to accompany his wife on rides to cafes that were becoming just a bit too far to reach on his manual bike on Saturday mornings. (Anyone see the historical reference?)

Jim S. is a 29 year old in Los Angeles who is personally committed to reducing his carbon footprint. He is adamant about using his ebike and mass transit to get to work and to run his errands. He does not regard himself as a cyclist. His choices are not convenient, but a matter of principle.

Lee P. is a retiree living in Orlando, Florida. He and his wife ride their electric bikes no farther than a few blocks. They appreciate the comfortable saddles as they sit on the bikes for hours talking to their friends and neighbors about … their bikes.

Q: What are LEVA's primary goals?

A: To promote the use and business of electric powered two wheelers and other light electric vehicles. We are primarily an industry group, and we help with networking, information, and services.

Q: What needs to happen - culturally, economically, politically, etc. - in order for the electric bicycle to become a viable alternative to the automobile in American society?

A: Exactly what is happening today:

- Fuel price is rising (120 per barrel as I write)

- Americans are less affluent than before, and we are undergoing changes in lifestyle – and the necessary change in transportation costs is a biggie.

- Americans are moving more and more to the city. In the city, a manual or electric bicycle is more useful than in a suburban or rural setting.

- Traffic congestion.

- Shortage of parking spaces in cities.

- Politicians and planners looking for ways to reduce costs and improve lives.

Electric Bicycles in Suzhou, China - Photo by Patrick Benjamin, 2009

Q: Why has the electric bicycle been such a huge success in China?

A: It works for the dense coastal cities where traffic congestion, parking shortage and air pollution are important issues. And where the majority of Chinese live.

Most Chinese are cyclists already. The ebike is a step up for them. But even Chinese car owners often have an ebike as well – finding a parking place for the car is often impossible. And the traffic jams can be a major problem.

Strong government encouragement, in terms of licensing costs, bans on gasoline motorcycles, bans on mopeds, etc.

Cheap to buy, cheap to maintain, and very low cost for fuel.

Q: Electric bicycle sales in Europe have also been growing rapidly, although not to the same extent as they have been growing in China. Do you see this trend continuing? Or will ebike sales in Europe plateau?

A: I believe that ebikes will become about 1 in 2 bikes sold in Europe. A combination of the same reasons I list above for USA, plus a rapidly aging population and a strong two-wheel culture.

Q: What electric bicycle(s) do you ride? What do you like about it/them?

A: I have an old Tidal Force bike that I love because it is fast, solid and a product of my work. I also have a Trek ebike that is a pedelec that uses BionX motor – both companies that have been my customers. Keep in mind that both bikes were free. There are a LOT of good bikes available today.

Q: How do you see electric bicycle design developing over the next 5 to 10 years?

A: World wide, I believe the trend will be towards a light scooter concept, something like a Yamaha Passol. In the USA and EU I expect it to be more like the popular pedelecs of Germany and Holland.

The Yamaha Passol

Q: What else would you like to say?

A: Bicycles are a bit like the typewriter. There was a time when a manual typewriter was the standard. It was replaced by an electric typewriter, and later by a computer. We are sort of where the electric type writer came in, and it is just as hard for us to know what the evolution of the ebike will be – as it would have been for an electric typewriter engineer or user to imagine the laptop I am writing this piece on.

Electric two wheelers face a bright, and interesting future.

Thanks for the venue.

Q: What do you like for breakfast?

A: Fried eggs (with soy sauce, due to many breakfasts eaten in Asia) a strip of bacon, fruit. Coffee and OJ.

And if I am not riding a bike, I drive a pickup. Like the farmers I am descended from. But, at 80.00 to fill the tank…I avoid using it.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Is the "Gyroscopic Effect" a Myth?

In this Gizmodo article, Jack Loftus points to research that studied the real reasons why a bicycle in motion will, in general, stay upright. The journal Science published the results of experiments which used a "gyro-negating contraption" to determine whether or not a bicycle deprived of the gyroscopic effect created by its spinning wheels will fall over at speed.

Caution: This experiment done using SCIENCE!

The result? Even without the benefit of the gyroscopic effect, a rolling bicycle will tend to keep the rubber side down. The reason? "It's all about how a bicycle leaning automatically causes steering, which can bring the wheels back under a falling bike," reports Andy Ruina, one of the paper's authors. He goes on to say that the front-end geometry of the bike, including trail and center-of-mass position, is critical in determining whether a bicycle will be stable or not. If the front end is designed correctly, a bicycle will try hard to stay upright. Otherwise it will be unstable and unsafe at any speed.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Yes We Can! (Build Bicycles In America, That Is...)

Defying modern "wisdom," the team at Bowery Lane Bicycles have chosen to build bicycles in the USA. But wait... Not only do they build bicycles in the USA, they build them in New York City, an area renowned for sky-high rents and salaries. This location choice would be remarkable if Bowery Lane were building ultra-expensive boutique bicycles, even though the manufacturing costs of such custom machines might be overwhelmed by the price customers were willing to pay. But wait a little bit more... The hand-built bicycles made by Bowery Lane sell for less than $600!
Any reader who has been following "Cycloculture" for any amount of time knows that one of my primary interests lies in finding USA-based bicycle builders who are offering products at prices which are affordable to "the masses." No company has succeeded in accomplishing this mission better than Bowery Lane Bicycles. I needed to find out why and how the comany was taking this approach. Co-Founder Patrick Benard was kind enough to answer some questions for me.
The "Broncks Black" - Reliable, American-made transportation for less than $600

Q: Why did you choose to manufacture bicycles in New York City? How is that working out for you?

A: My partners and I chose NYC because we live here and managing the manufacturing and launch of this project from anywhere else would have been impossible for us. The fact that the bikes have a certain NYC cache has been a definite benefit though.

Our project really has the history of a cooperative effort that has ended up leveraging the skills and good-will of a dozen professionals (photographers, graphic designers etc.) that we had access to (many in our own building). There are only a few other places in the US where this could have happened.

NYC has allowed us to be very flexible and nimble in every respect except one. Commercial rental space is so prohibitive that it limits our potential as far as retail is concerned.

Q: Describe your manufacturing facility and process, please.

A: We designed the bikes and were fortunate to find a small manufacturing facility in the heart of a West Indian neighborhood with many talented welders. I've said before that we aspire to be the Model T of American bicycle manufacturing and that remains true. Our manufacturing principles are: local, affordable, durable, and stylish.

Q: How many bicycles do you make in an average month?

A: We have made 500 bikes in our two year experience. We are aiming to make and sell twice that in 2011. We also have accessories planned such as front racks, clothing and cycle caps.

Q: Do you see areas for potential improvement, in terms of manufacturing? If so, what are they?

A: A friend once said that the ideal bike was cheap, strong and light and that we should pick two out of these three. Our bikes have not been light. The production we are presently preparing is lighter. Our bikes are relatively inexpensive and we make it a priority to keep it so. Our bikes have been and will be strong.

We also hope to produce more and more of the components locally in the future, chain guards, fenders, racks and anything we can keep in house.

We will continue to innovate and learn keeping our principles in mind.

The "Broncks Raw," All the fun of the "Broncks Black" with clear-coated tubes and brazing.

Q: Please describe your design inspirations.

A: My wife and I visited Amsterdam in 2008. I've always been a cycling enthusiast, and the holiday, the city, the people, and the bike culture inspired me. We wanted to create a Dutch inspired bike that was NYC- street tough. Basically, if our bike can make it here, it'll hold up anywhere...

Q: When someone buys a bicycle from you, what do they get that they cannot get anywhere else?

A: A hand built bike made in America, that's stylish and functional while remaining affordable.

Q: How are your bicycles equipped? What accessories are included?

A: We've tried to offer a complete bike that's ready to ride once assembled. We include a bell, cork hand grips, chain guard and fenders, kickstand, rear rack, as well as our signature wooden crate.
An excellent use for a large cargo box.

Q: What is the price of one of your bicycles? Do you see that price changing in the near future?

A: We'd like to keep a basic single speed bike in the $595 range. We'll be offering a few internal geared versions that will add a bit, price wise, but affordable is our goal.
The "Breukelen," for those who prefer a step-through.

Q: Where would you like to see Bowery Lane Bicycles in five years?

A: I hope to have a five year plan in five years.

Q: What else would you like to say?

A: There are reasons why so little manufacturing is done in the U.S., it's difficult. But it’s important.
The "Reclaimed Crate," a cargo box made from re-used lumber.

Q: What do you like for breakfast?

A: 3 cups espresso, toast with peanut butter and honey from my own hives. Hope the girls (bees) are weathering the cold alright.