Builder Spotlight: Metrofiets (Phillip Ross), Tonic Fabrication (Tony Batcheller), Vulture Cycles (Wade Beauchamp)

What inspired you to enter the Constructor’s Design Challenge competition?

PHILLIP: I did it the first year, and sort of the same reason this year: the event shows what a cargo bike can do. There are preconceived notions of what front-load bikes are capable of. People think if you’re in a city and it’s flat, you’re OK – but anything else, no way. We smashed that notion in 2009 – we built it light, raced it 77 miles and did really well, and got 7th place for design. After a year off, we jumped at the chance to do it again. We’ve had a lot of design innovations in between, and we wanted to incorporate them. Plus we’re friends with a lot of builders, and it’s great to give and take feedback. Tony and Wade jumped in, and here we are.
WADE: I’m already doing some production work with Metrofiets, and had met Phil through the Oregon Bike Constructors Association. We were talking, and found we had similar interests, and we were working together already, so he said, “Hey, want to be on the Oregon Manifest team?” I said “Sure.”
TONY: I’ve done some work with Metrofiets, and they invited me. It’s a good time – something different. Their bikes are “out there,” different from what I usually build. It’s a fun group of guys to brainstorm with.

How far along are you in the design process?

PHILLIP: We have the design pretty much nailed. We’re in the fabrication process. We built a bike early on with some of the new design elements – we’re testing it, thrashing it. Then we’ll incorporate more things into the final bike.

The design criteria are aimed at inspiring new solutions and flexibility – how is this influencing your thinking? Are you taking it back to square one?

WADE: It’s a total collaboration – we get together and everyone moves on all the ideas. It’s not a complete redesign – we’re using ideas that have worked before, and refining them. Of course, it’ll be a cargo-style bike; we’ll look at what exists with Metrofiets and tweak it a little, keeping it fun. Their attitude is not pretentious at all, and we want to keep it lighthearted with lots of fun stuff going on. We’re not NASA engineers making a rocket that will just go straight to the moon – just do one thing. It has to look awesome too. Because, hey, if we build a bike that solves the world’s transportation problems but it’s ugly and uninteresting and no fun, nobody’s going to care.
TONY: It’s a little refine, a little rethink. Nothing is set in stone; there’s a basic design of a Metrofiets, but nothing is guaranteed to stay that way. We’re doing a lot of trial runs of ideas right now.
PHILLIP: We’ve broken down the form as much as we could. We weren’t even sure it would be a long wheelbase, but we decided it would. We can accommodate the urban dweller and meet the contest criteria. It’s a fresh look, but reminiscent of what we’ve made in the past. It’s going to be crazy sick.

The competition stresses fresh and modern – how will that affect aesthetic decisions?

PHILLIP: Drastically. There’s a certain look-and-feel aesthetic we’ve become known for. Some of that will still be there, but we’ve departed. It’s fresh and modern, but we’re not throwing away everything. It’s a modern take on the same design – it’s fresh and modern for our bikes.
TONY: It will have some of the normal styling, but definitely with a few new twists.

What does true flexibility in a modern utility bike mean to you?

WADE: It has to do a variety of tasks – it can’t just be a simple bike with some racks. It has to move your life as well as you – kids, furniture, groceries, the things people use trucks for. The “perfect” utility bike doesn’t exist; everything will have compromises and benefits. Every version will do something better than the other, or worse. One builder can say “Mine can be carried to a 5th-floor apartment,” and another can say “Yeah, well, mine can carry 50 plants, five ducks and two kids.”
PHILLIP: You’re not stuck with your frame – it accommodates what you do on a daily basis. It’s not always going to the store, picking up the kids or going to garage sales. Most traditional frames won’t accommodate all the different tasks you want to do. A true utility bike allows you to get groceries from the corner store, go on a tour, negotiate an apartment building. Light enough to pick it up, but not flimsy.
TONY: (laughs) A backpack – that’s how I’ve always done it. I don’t know what the true utility bike is for me yet – working with these other guys is helping shape that.

At its heart this is a competition – how do you feel about the competitive aspect? Will it drive innovation?

PHILLIP: Yes. It definitely drives innovation. There are two ways it’s competitive. The first is competing against ourselves: how much better can we be? Get out of our comfort zone and refine. We have to revision/reimagine what we can do with our platform: handling, cargo capacity, materials… the second competition is the field test. Will all the choices we make hold together? We don’t want a bike’s owner to have a wrench on the bike every day; the everyday rider is not a mechanic.
WADE: If I were on my own I would just try to make something weird and eye-catching, to attract a bit of attention. But Metrofiets has a track record with cargo bikes – they know more about them than anyone I’ve talked to. Some builders will be competitive in a friendly “look at we made – what did you make?” way, while some will try to compete through the event criteria.
TONY: It’s a challenge, mostly. Working with Metrofiets, they have an established direction – it’s fun to see how much further we can take it. I don’t think of it as a competition – it’s more of a fun project.

With bikes, innovation seems to be incremental – shaving weight, finessing shifting – but this competition is asking for BIG innovation – do you think that’s possible?

TONY: I would hope so. A lot of it is refining things that have been tried and didn’t succeed. With modern materials and modern manufacturing, they can succeed this time around.
PHILLIP: Sure, but will it work? I don’t know. It’s so rare that a really big innovation happens. I remember a world without email; the odds are low that something like that will happen in this competition. When Tony Pereira integrated the U-lock into his frame at the 2009 event, that was a step in the right direction – it had a wow factor, and got people thinking about it. Right now it’s a palette: how much can you fit on a bike at a reasonable price point and meet the event criteria?

In a way, indie builders are the R&D lab for the cycling industry for utility bikes. Where do see yourself and Oregon Manifest fitting into this innovation?

WADE: If we come up with something innovative and then a big manufacturer gets a hold of it and starts mass-producing it – it’ll be Asian-made and cheaper, but more people will get to use it. There’s good and bad. We can only make one or two bikes at a time. If someone steals our idea but makes it so more people can use it, it means the idea was valid. It sucks to not get paid or not get credit for it, but people benefit down the line.

Why do you think innovation is important for the everyday citizen cyclist? How can it change why and how people ride bikes?

TONY: Getting people excited about riding bikes – what does that? It’s different for everyone, so having a variety of cargo bike styles means everyone can find one they’re interested in. That’s what’s fun about building bikes – getting people excited.
WADE: If you make a bike that catches someone’s eye – it’s different from anything they’ve seen in a bike shop or on the road – they say “Wow, look at that bike!” The word “bike” popped into their head and it got on their radar. But it’s not the bike, it’s the infrastructure that will affect how many people ride. But as independent builders, we build bikes – and it starts with awareness: “This option exists for you.”
PHILLIP: People want a durable platform, one that can take a lot of abuse and still be fun to ride. And people want convenience – that’s why they drive cars: they’re convenient, safe, they don’t have to think about what’s under the hood, just pile in whatever they need to get from point A to point B. We’re creating a way to do these things more easily on a bike.

What about collaborating on this design challenge is interesting/challenging/rewarding?

PHILLIP: The most interesting thing is realizing we’ve become set in our ways. It’s refreshing to sit down and rethink the process. Oregon Manifest is a great lab to work in. There’s no client saying “It has to be this way,” just like we’ve done it before. A one-off client project is expensive; Oregon Manifest allows us to innovate. And working with other people – they have approaches we haven’t been exposed to, and vice-versa. We can focus on an aspect of building and say, “How do we break this down?” It’s really fun to sit down with people and riff. It’s making our product better, that’s for sure.
WADE: It’s rewarding – I’ve gotten to meet awesome new people with different backgrounds. 99 percent of it is meeting cool people – getting together with ideas floating around that are really fun.
TONY: The challenge is the best part. I’ve been doing this for 16 years, and 10 of them was making OEM production bikes. Prototyping is exciting – doing small batches of bikes or a one-off design like this never gets boring – that’s the part I like.