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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Smart money's on the Big Dummy

From the Star-Tribune: Threading his way through heavy traffic on a bicycle, Nick Sande has grown accustomed to drivers peering out their windows at him. Sometimes, the car-bound commuters give in to curiosity, roll down their windows and shout: "What is that thing?"

A "freakenstein" bike. A cargo bike. The latest design from Sande's employer, local bike manufacturer Surly, the thing Sande rides has a lot of descriptions. Surly calls it the "Big Dummy."

Joking aside, the long-tail cargo bicycle that Surly rolled out last month is being welcomed by some cyclists as a practical replacement for cars.

It carries passengers and as much as 200 pounds of cargo, thanks to an extended frame. An optional electric motor coaxes the bike down the road at 20 miles per hour. The setup weighs 6 to 7 pounds more than a conventional bike. But it's not cheap -- a fully assembled Big Dummy will set you back about $1,700. The motor, sold by Clever Cycles of Portland, Ore., runs at least $1,350 more.

It's a vehicle made for recessionary times -- and for coping with surging fuel prices.

At the website of Surly's corporate parent, Bloomington-based Quality Bike Products, visitors are treated to a calculator that allows them to plug in their commute distances and parking costs and get estimates of the payoff time for buying a new bike for that ride to work.

The Big Dummy looks like something from the Third World, where gasoline prices and the expenses of cars have demanded ingenuous transportation solutions. Think Cambodian cyclos, or the bicycle sidecars of Myanmar.

The story behind the Big Dummy's design isn't that far off from such exotic origins.

Surly makes the Big Dummy in conjunction with Oakland, Calif.-based Xtracycle, which has made a bolt-on attachment for standard bicycles since 1998. The company, still small with just two full-time employees, needed a framemaker to grow its market. After some initial meetings in 2006, a partnership was formed.

"They told us straight up, 'We're not frame designers, you are,'" Sande said.

Xtracycle founder Ross Evans said his idea for a long-tail bike grew out of experiences he had in Nicaragua while studying bicycles as transportation for his master's degree in engineering and Latin American studies from Stanford University. A Vietnam veteran working in Managua as a frame-builder convinced Evans of the value of a long-tail design: Its single-wheel path made more sense than a tricycle. And as a bolt-on attachment to a regular bicycle, it allowed Evans to reuse conventional frames. "I came to believe in it," Evans said.

He eventually founded a company in Northern California in 1998 to build and sell a "free radical," something that looks like half of a bike frame. It's designed to be bolted onto a standard frame to create a long bike. Evans estimates that he's sold 5,000 Xtracycle attachments. The company also makes accessories for carrying people and gear.

The collaboration with Surly, a major national bike brand, will add momentum to his vision for long-tail bikes, Evans said.

"It's so synergistic. It's grown the whole pie," he said.

The Xtracycle mission was never about market dominance anyway, Evans said.

"What we're interested in building is a movement and a platform. We feel that has more strength in it than being the titan," he said.

"You could compare the Xtracycle platform to the iPod platform," said Sande, "in that Apple allows other companies to make aftermarket products to support their products. So the more Xtracycle or iPod compatible products that are out there, the more likely people are to buy the platform product."

Setting off a buzz

Surly made three prototypes before working out the bugs, he said. Surly advertised the bike last summer, setting off a buzz in the bike world long before the frame was available.

The framemaker, a plant in Taiwan, had to redesign plant machinery to accommodate the large frame, Sande said.

"They kind of based everything on how long a tandem bike would be," he said. "The jig to hold all the tubes together, to weld them and align them, are all custom for this frame."

The company curved the top tube, making it easier for a rider to stand flat-footed at a stoplight or to swing a leg over the bar rather than the seat, in case the rear of the bike is loaded high with gear.

Surly ordered 300 frames in the first production run. The frames arrived last month and were distributed among some of the 4,500 retailers that are clients of Quality Bike Products. In Minneapolis, One on One Bicycle Studio and the Freewheel Bike shop got some of the frames.

"The alternative transportation market is huge. People come in talking about gas prices and about giving up their cars all the time," said Josh Klauck, sales manager at Freewheel. Demand for the Big Dummy has been strong, he said.

"It's insane," Klauck said. "One guy wanted us to ship it out to Australia."

The long-term effects of fuel prices may drive up bike sales, but not everyone's so sure.

"A lot of people think, 'Yeah, we're going to see an increase in sales because of gas prices," One on One owner Gene Oberpriller said. "Those of us in the industry say it's debatable. People are still going to spend the money on the gas. They're going to cut other expenses out."

That's the feeling of Jason Cao, a transportation researcher at the University of Minnesota.

"People will adjust behavior temporarily," he said. If gas prices remain high, people may begin moving closer to cities to cut their gas bills before they abandon automobiles, he said.

Still, with gas expected to hit $4 a gallon in the Midwest this year, the Big Dummy has been embraced by bicyclists as the beginning of something new. Longtime rider and Big Dummy owner Karl Stoerzinger said he feels like a pioneer.

"I have the new thing that no one else really has," he said.

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329

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