the Xtracycle Revolution
Seven years ago, a couple of buddies from Stanford went knocking on bicycle-industry doorts peddling a strange idea: a long-tailed bicycle designed for hauling lots of cargo. But their pitch wasn't going well.
Even the few people who seemed interested in the pair's cargo bike told them to take their idea elsewhere... like to a poorer country.
"Our goal was to popularize bikes as a means of righteous transportation and to do that we knew we had to sell them in the U.S. market, but it was like pushing a big load up a steep hill," says Kipchoge Spencer, one half of the Xtracycle duo. "When we started Xtracycle there was zero market acceptance. We had a lot of trouble finding any interest within the industry. Everyone said the Xtracycle would never fly in this country. They said, "ògo to Africa'."
The trouble was, they'd just come from a poorer country. Ross Evans, the designer of the Xtracycle cargo bike, had conceived of the idea while helping people in Nicaragua make their bikes more suitable for practical uses.
Ross met Kipchoge at Stanford while working to complete his degree in engineering and product development. After graduating, Ross headed down to Nicaragua with a little grant money and began looking for ways to make the bikes used by Nicaraguans more utilitarian. He set up a small fabrication shop and started building wheelbase extenders for local bikes. When he returned to the U.S., Kipchoge convinced him to turn the bike extender into a business"--whether the North American market was ready for it or not.
So what's an Xtracycle Anyway?
The concept behind the Xtracycle is simple. A bike with a long wheelbase will distribute weight more evenly between its two wheels, enhancing both durability and stability. In addition, the long wheelbase also provides room for transporting big things like lumber, baskets of produce, loaves of bread, people (adults and children,) and anything else you can conceivably strap to its long side.
The Xtracycle is not a complete bike. It is a bolt-on component that lengthens a standard bicycle frame. You can buy complete bikes from Xtracycle, but they're actually just standard bikes pre-assembled with the Xtracycle add-on. Ross and Kipchoge toyed with the idea of incorporating the long wheelbase design into a complete frame, but ultimately settled on a modular design because it was cheaper for them to produce on their own (remember all those locked industry doors) and because modularity enhanced the sustainable ethos that underpinned their fledgling business.
"We recognized that there was a large standing stock of bicycles out there and repurposing some of those bikes was a great proposition for us," Kipchoge says. Even though they offer completely assembled bikes, most people buy the Xtracycle in kit form and add it to one of their existing bicycles.
The nice thing about the Xtracycle approach, perhaps the best thing about it, is the way it integrates load-carrying functionality into the bike. Unlike trailers (excellent devices in their own right,) the Xtracycle never needs to be hitched up; it's always ready to accept cargo, no prescience required.
An Idea Catches On
The doors Kipchoge and Ross knocked on back in 1998 are slowly beginning to open. Surly, a frame manufacturer they'd approached with the idea of making long-wheelbase frames, is in the final testing phase of a frame they call the "Big Dummy." It's compatible with Xtracycle accessories, primarily the huge Freeloader load-carrying system developed by Ross.
And Kona Bicycles has announced they'll be offering a long wheelbase bike of their own design called the "Ute" in their 2008 catalog. Unlike the Surly offering, the Ute will be available as a complete bike but it won't be compatible with the Freeloader bags.
That incompatibility inspires mixed feelings for Kipchoge.
"It's encouraging for the future of the long bike," he says. "But it's discouraging because it uses a new system that's incompatible with what's already out there."
Compatibility, Kipchoge believes, will be crucial for the long-term viability of this new category. It's a point well taken. The life and death of a product is often delineated by the existence (or lack thereof) of a vibrant industry offering accessories, variations, and components. The bicycle industry gained an incalculable advantage when it began standardizing components for interchangeability. On the other hand, there's always room for a few standards in any arena (Apple and Microsoft,) and the real test will come from the market"--any of the standards will do well if buyers can get an assortment of useful accessories for it.
The Future of Cycling
Incompatibilities or not, the fact that there are now three players in the utility bike market is encouraging. No doubt companies such as Trek, Specialized, and Shimano are looking on with interest. The marketing dollars and publicity these companies could bring to utility cycling could do wonders for the category. As Kipchoge sees it, these corporations have a unique opportunity to switch from recreational equipment manufacturers, to suppliers of a sustainable form of transportation. Companies such as Xtracycle, Surly, and Kona have barely cracked open the door.
"Our sales have been doubling every year," Kipchoge says. "But we're still just a blip on the radar. A culturally significant blip, but a blip nonetheless."
Xtracycle has managed to slowly build up a following of loyal customers who spread the Xtracycle gospel wherever they go. They've done this without the aid of an immense advertising budget. Instead, they've done it by building a product that works, at a time when such a product is needed. But they're aware that it will take larger players to push cycling into its next phase.
"Utility cycling needs more exposure... the thought leaders need to adopt it," Kipchoge says. "People like Al Gore or Leonardo DiCaprio... they just don't get it. Instead of promoting the not-solutions like hybrid cars, they need to be getting on bikes. We've got a lot of work to do still."
But with any luck, the most difficult work has already been done by entrepreneurs like Kipchoge and Ross"--the work of prying open locked doors. All that's left is for the big players to step through, into cycling's grand new era.