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Alumnus’ bicycle design integrates cycling into everyday lifestyle

Ross Evans (BS 1999 ME) is founder of Xtracycle.

Ross Evans (BS 1999 ME) likes making things that solve problems and so he became a rather prolific and diverse inventor when he was an undergraduate in the product design program at Stanford. Among his brainchildren were an underwater breathing system for capsized kayakers, a kids fort-building system now sold by Cranium, and an innovative wall system for quickly partitioning rooms. But Evans’ big passion is bicycles and one of his Stanford inventions in this area led to his career as the founder of Xtracycle, where he’s pedaling a “bicycle lifestyle” by turning bikes into versatile cargo vehicles (they can also power small appliances). In the developed world, “sport utility” bikes enable healthy fun. In poorer countries, they could also be the most practical option for moving goods and people.

How did the Xtracycle idea get started?

I came to Stanford really interested in bicycles. I had done some work volunteering with Bikes not Bombs. I was involved in helping bikes go to Nogales, Mexico, while I was in high school in Tucson. For my freshman research paper that we had to do at the time, I ended up writing about the bicycle as a tool for development. That became the foundation for some grant money that I was able to get through the Center for Latin American Studies. Terry Karl, a professor there, said, “Well, I can’t give you any advice on the engineering side, but I just know this is something the world needs.». So I went to Nicaragua the summer after my sophomore year, in 1995, with the grant. I also got a grant from the Haas Center, The Kennedy Public Service Grant. The idea you learn here in design is to look at what people are using. What are the indigenous materials and needs, and so I started working with that. It turned out people were trying to carry these huge bread baskets, or they were trying to carry milk crates and soda crates. People would classically put a sack of grain over the top tube or over the handlebars, so people were already trying to carry stuff with their bikes. My first observation was that most people needed to carry stuff between about 150 to 200 pounds, whether they were taking kids to school or produce to market. When I went down there, I had already made a bike trailer in ME103 with Dave Beach, and so that was sort of my foundation. But it turns out that there wasn’t much receptivity to trailers, and they were harder to make because the required wheels are expensive there. So the second observation was the need for a two-wheeled device that was able to ride on a single track, a path where people would also be walking. If you tried to have more tracks for different wheels of a tricycle or a trailer, it would just get beaten up because the path is not made clear for three wheels.

So you couldn’t just make a trailer, you had to make something that would go over the back wheel?

Right. So the basic concept evolved over time, but the idea was to keep things simple and extended rearwards, so you didn’t have to do any funky steering. All you needed to do is have a long chain. And then that evolved over time to become a bolt-on kit to work with bikes that were already there. I got a fellowship to go out to Hampshire College for a year for their Lemelson program in invention. I came back after that and I went to Senegal and Cuba, and presented at some conferences, and when I came back I’d gotten a $16,000 grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance. With the grant money, I bought a welder and started buying materials, and put together a team. We also got into a class at the business school with Chuck Holloway and wrote a business plan. That was kind of the rolling start to the Xtracycle.

What is the idea of a “bicycle lifestyle” that Xtracycle enables?

At the outset, we made cargo bikes to carry stuff. It was just purely utility, but what we’ve come to understand is that for any activity that we do in our lives there is a combination of practical and magical. We started riding our bikes and realizing there was sort of a game, or an adventure, in seeing what you could carry. We like the idea of everyday adventure, the idea that the things you have to do in your life can be an adventure, so go and get your groceries or pick up the kids. Adventurers aren’t just these people who go explore the North Pole or who hop off of huge cliffs. They are also everyday people who can get involved in just being more free and having fun. It operates at such a deep emotional level for people. It’s just awesome. There is this magical aspect where you do something that you had to do anyway, but you come away more empowered and you’re playfully doing something that would otherwise have been mundane. Our lives can be so much more fulfilling when we do things that we have to do anyway, but we get a chance to get in shape, get outside, test our capacity, and really, ultimately come to realize that we are capable of more than we think we are.

So tell us about the company.

Xtracycle is doing well, it is looking at probably 3X growth from last year to this year. We moved recently down from the foothills, where we were kind of camped out for eight of the last ten years or so. There was a really cheap lifestyle up there and it made it possible to explore the capacity of this stuff while we outlived the resistance. You know, it’s really hard to overcome the level of resistance that we were facing (from more sports-oriented bicycle dealers) and actually survive to the point where gas has gotten so expensive that people are looking for alternatives. Luckily we've kept the doors open and had some fun along the way. Recently we moved to Oakland and set up our shop right in the Oakland/Emeryville area, and it’s going great. There are two full-time staff currently and we’re getting ready to hire some more, but there are about six people that work kind of as consultants or part-time.

So do you make the bicycle or do you make the bolt on attachment?

We have historically just made the bolt-on attachment, called the Free Radical. We have partnered with some other companies that are bike makers that basically are making a long bike, and so we really extended our reach significantly by opening up and sort of brokering these partnerships where bike companies make frames from scratch that work with our platform or our standard, and so all of our accessories and plug-in racks and different pieces that we are making, like the Blender will work with that. There’s all sorts of different accessories. But now we are starting to branch out with the Radish. It’s our new bike. It will be our own proprietary frame that works well with our bolt-on kit.

List a few of the accessories.

There is the blender that the kids were making smoothies with today at EDAY. There is something called the Tray Bien, which is if you want to carry another bicycle, so it’s sort of like a roof rack kind of bicycle carrier, but for your bicycle. There’s a number of accessories that are coming out, like the Magic Carpet. It’s a padded deck that passengers sit on. There’s the KickBack, a heavy duty center stand, so if you want to load your kids, your bike will be standing upright. You can also use an accessory to generate power for your music. There’s footsies which kind of slide in and basically enable the passenger to rest their feet comfortably on these little wooden running boards. We have racks that slide in, called Wide Loaders — low-slung racks for heavier or bulkier cargo. There’s an attachment that works with that called the Long Loader, which enables me to carry a ladder or a surf board, or a kayak. It keeps the long load away from the pedal.

Sounds like the back half of the bicycle can be quite useful.

Indeed, it turns out that people get really creative when they have new capacity with their bicycle. The Xtracycle is just a platform and people are making their own accessories for carrying everything from pets to plywood. Some noteworthy engineering projects have even cropped up. There were some aero-astro students in Europe who attached this four-foot-wide glider wing to the back and studied it in a wind tunnel to figure out that at seven miles an hour the wing offset any friction or weight associated with having a bigger bike and cargo. There is really interesting stuff people are doing. Another guy did this attachment that was called The Chalk Writer. He has sort of a dot-matrix printer on the back and would slot in cans of construction spray chalk that would print out playful or political messages on the street, in chalk. It was an amazing project. He has a Web site. You would write a message to his website which would send it to his cell phone, his cell phone would interpret it so the writer could print it out on the ground, then take a quick web shot of it and upload the image, and the location through GPS. So you could basically see where you had printed out your message on the streets of New York, or wherever he was riding around.

So, what’s your ultimate hope for all of this?

My vision is to help seed a world with more bikes that are really intended for fitting into our lives — they would have a broad uptake, so that every family had one, even if they didn’t use it all the time. We’re in an age where traffic is getting worse, and people’s health is getting worse, obesity is a problem, etc. On a bike we have a chance to interact with our neighbors. And that’s one of the things that you realize when you are on a bike. You can stop and say hi to somebody. You’re more fit. You are not having to make time to go work out. You’re having quality time with your kids and they are behind you giggling and having a great time while you ride to school with them on your way to work. To me that’s the vision, that we here in the U.S. will have a culture that adapts and evolves to embrace a bicycle lifestyle. Xtracycle certainly has a role to play in helping create and support that possibility. And then after that, there is an obvious extension where the our non-profit, Worldbike and its partners begin to take the momentum that is building around cargo carrying bicycles. We will do the work to make sure that there is a world-wide supply of "bikes that haul" for the people who just obviously don’t have any other option.