Reporting by Kat Baumann
It's no secret or mystery that designers love to reengineer bicycle stuff. Bikes are fun and ubiquitous, simple yet challenging. What may be less clear to the untrained eye is that most creative bike designs are impractical and embarrassing in action.
What does it take to make waves in an industry whose key technology is a motorless wheel? I'd argue for three things: novelty, practicality and sweet, sweet engineering. Touch on only one of those and any bike snob worth their salt will roll their eyes, sigh into their latte (for actual mechanics, substitute cold coffee or warm beer), and try to forget. Don't fret, I offer here a quick case study in how to make people love your wonky bike idea: Kinn Bikes, makers of the Cascade Flyer commuter-cargo bike.
Attractive Yet Burly
1.) The Cascade Flyer is a midtail city bike, a designation that Kinn helped to pioneer, and one that no one else is making. The Kinn creation myth starts with founder Alistair Williamson's desire to comfortably pack grandkids onto a tough sporty bike, a desire he was unable to meet without making his own. Williamson has a keen eye for design details, having previously worked as an engineer and designer at Tektronix and his own high-tech startup, but he's not alone his needs. Since the debut of extra-freaking-long "longtail" cargo bicycles, many a rider and mechanic has grumbled about the lack of this just-right, in-betweeny style. It's got built-in bells and whistles all over, and for the knockout, it's made in the U.S. Novelty: achieved.
2. This thing can haul hundreds of pounds on the back, but it still feels like a snazzily built city bike. Looks like one too. Unloaded, it's got quick handling without being twitchy, great balance, solid frame construction without feeling bloated, and carefully chosen parts that won't irritate the life out of you once you've used them for a season. The spec'd parts illustrate parental knowledge and general thoughtfulness: that double kickstand isn't a luxury if your cargo squirms, disc brakes are the most sane option for encumbered commuting, and the front wheel "lock" gets the long frame onto a bus rack and saved me at least one black eye. Plus, it's got accessory eyelets as far as the eye can see.
"Are we there yet?"
Sloshily loaded to the child seat's maximum weight, I got through the standard two second take-off wobble and then actually forgot my awkward waterbaby was with me. While top-heavy loads are inherently unwieldy, I could still accelerate nicely and without the skeevy wheelie feelings that often come with a heavy back-end. Even for this remarkably short and remarkably cranky ex-mechanic, the whole bike was liftable, fittable and comfortable. With some tweaks to bar height, it would feel uncannily like my own city bikes. I put a grown ass co-worker on the back to check for rack stiffness and front end flex. I got nothing but bell ringing and motorcycle noises from behind. Pragmatism: activated!
3. The designers and engineers tinkering with this bad jamma have logged years working on bikes, riding bikes, crashing bikes, welding bikes, and trying to stick kids to bikes. They have (or have at least talked to people who have) firsthand experience with the system requirements for making this brain baby work. The prototype frames were made by a local bike-building guru and a fabrication company whose welders and engineers work specifically on bikes. No blissful ignorance here. The construction strikes a balance between functionality, geometry and industry standards, which makes this weird thing totally kick ass when it could so easily have been a Charlie Brown football kick on wheels. Engineering: nailed it.
On a visit to the Kinn workshop, I talked with Operations Manager Max Miller, a lifelong bike mechanic, fabricator, ex-sushi chef and Yamaguchi-certified builder, about the oddities and prospects of their new line of bikes.
What is a Kinn bike, and how does a midtail differ from a standard bike?
Max Miller: The only bike we make right now is the Cascade Flyer. It's our "midtail" city bike, a transport bike for families. Midtail is a classification that Joseph Ahearne coined. It's not a longtail like an Xtracycle, but it's longer than normal bikes... which aren't called shorttails. Bobtail maybe?
Our bikes are 6” longer than an equivalently-sized commuter bike, with a built-in rack that is part of the frame and designed to carry both heavy cargo and passengers safely. It's specifically designed around the idea of being able to carry a kid on the back of the bike, plus groceries or kid-related stuff. But it's not exclusively for people with children, it's really for anyone who wants to conveniently carry more than moderately sized loads. It can carry more than you can manage on a normal bike or even a touring bike, but for people who don't need a full on cargo-specific bike. What shortcomings in a standard city bike does Kinn address?
By building the rack into the frame and lengthening the wheelbase, the bike becomes dramatically stronger and more stable. Although the majority of commuter bikes do end up being outfitted with racks, it's a separate part designed and manufactured by an entirely separate company. Usually they're held in place by a handful of M5 bolts, and often (and this scares the heck out of me) aluminum bolts! Which, yes, are slightly lighter, and also tend to shatter! I've extracted a fair number of those from people's frames over the years. I'm not sure why racks aren't standard. Once most people put a rack on their bikes, it stays there. Forever. There's no reason it shouldn't be built as part of the frame. The Dutch have been doing that for ages. The classic Dutch city bikes have a rack built into the frame, they come with fenders, they have guards to keep long skirts out of the wheels. They're actually designed to be ridden every day to work, without people having to be "cyclists."
The bike industry in the US has historically been centered around cycling as a sport or a hobby. It's a very new thing to see bikes designed for practical transportation. Not just biking to work on Bike To Work Day, but biking to work every day, a majority of trips by bike. One side of that is urban planning and infrastructure. Portland is very forward thinking, and there's been a lot of progress around the country around making streets safer for cyclists and so on.
The other side of it is making bikes that are actually capable of handling that! You've got people jumping mountain bikes off cliffs, and you'd think those people are gonna do a lot a damage, those people are going to break bikes. But after years and years of wrenching on bikes, I've found the most demanding task you can ask a bike to complete is just going to work every day. It's partly because people who are riding for transportation often don't have time or inclination to spend a lot of time working on their bikes. It's like a car: You might change the oil every once in a while, but you're not spending a lot of time shining and tuning and waxing every part of it weekly. If you race bikes, that's actually part of the fun, the routine. But it's not something that everyone wants to do! You need bikes that are designed with that in mind, and designed as a complete package.
Right now, you get a frame that's designed for commuting, and have to go find all the other needed parts, which may or may not fit with it, and figure out for yourself everything you need. Fenders, chainguard, skirt guards, lights, bells should all come on that bike! Even though building up from scratch can be fun, it shouldn't be a requirement in order to ride a bike. You don't have to be an auto mechanic to drive a car, you shouldn't have to be a bike mechanic to ride a bike.
So how did you design the Cascade Flyer to be user friendly?
We've gone out and found a lot of those parts to make it a complete package. Not just a kickstand, but an incredibly strong double kickstand that will support your bike while you balance your kid on it. A rack that an awesome kid seat bolts straight into. Fenders that are designed to work, that were created with the frame design in mind.
When we were studying how the bike would actually be used, one of the main requirements was that it fit on the bike rack on the front of a bus, in case you get a flat tire and don't want to fix it, or if you're taking a trip that's longer than you're comfortable biking. In order to achieve that with a longer frame, we decided to make the handlebars able to flip around 180 degrees, which shortens the wheelbase and will (just barely!) fit on a bike rack. It's also the same measurement used for a lot of accessibility planning—stairways, elevators, bike racks, bike lockers at train stations and office buildings, hooks on lightrail and Amtrak. Even the largest frame is within a quarter-inch of that measurement even though we've made the bike longer, since a longer wheelbase means a more stable load.
We also make a spring-loaded detent system to gently hold the front wheel in place once you've turned it a full 180. It keeps the front end in place so that when you're picking the frame up to put it on a rack the bars don't swing around and clock you! The system is basically a spring-loaded ball bearing that fits into a 3D-printed plastic part that sits inside the head tube, hidden up there in the frame. The bearing interfaces with a strike plate I braze onto the fork's steertube. It's a little hidden system, in there where it won't interfere with anything else. It provides about 40lbs of moving pressure, which, if you're holding the end of the handlebar, feels like a gentle tug to get it loose. It doesn't lock into place, just gently holds it there. There's no chance of it locking up by accident while you're riding, and there's not that much holding force—just enough to keep it from swinging around wildly. We went through literally twenty systems and iterations of that design, knowing that we wanted that function. What we have now definitely works! It wasn't ready for the first round of bikes but it's one of my favorite parts of the design.
Kinn frames are fully custom, built for you and designed by you. How does that work?
We're working with Zen bike fabricators, they're a midscale bike production facility working in aluminum, steel and sometimes [titanium], usually for other brands. Companies making bikes on that scale are relatively rare in the US. We essentially designed the bike with them, to translate the first bike into something production-ready.
What was the first base frame or iteration of the design?
The base frame was this monstrous looking thing that Alistair chopped together with a hacksaw in his basement and then got some guy to MIG weld in his garage. It's pretty scary actually, to think that he was riding around with his grandkids on it... but that was the proof of concept, an extremely rough prototype. The next step was really supposed to be the end product for his project. It was a custom frame built by Joseph Ahearne, which pioneered many of the design features incorporated into the Cascade Flyer. That is a fully custom absolute work of art. It's strange, but beautiful!
So how did it become a production bike?
I think he just got sick of being hassled on the street by people who wanted to buy his bike off him. He saw there was an interest in it, and was looking to get back into product design and engineering after doing a lot of work in IT and finance. The fact that Zen was getting started at the same time made it possible to consider doing that kind of production here. The whole idea of supporting a local economy and US-based manufacturing is pretty important.
At what point did that decision get made? It seems like a big part of Kinn's genetic identity.
Being made in the States? That was actually the factor that made it possible! Even though overseas production would be cheaper, minimum orders are significantly higher. We were able to get a first run of 30 bikes built, which is about a third of a minimum quantity order from any of the big shops in China. And that minimum is 100 units of something that they're basically making already, potentially with your custom geometry or some little tweaks to it, but they have it all figured out—barely change the jigs around and put your name on the bike. To do something that's really ground-up custom... we're really lucky to be able to do that!
Another nice thing about keeping production local: We were able to change a couple of critical design issues in the first bike off the line on the fly. On the very first one you couldn't adjust the back brake! They were able to quickly change the spacing—still a tight fit, but it works now!
After the first season, how have things gone?
Response to the bikes has been awesome. The challenge has been how to make more. The first were in many ways a prototype. In order to be a viable business, we need to be able to scale up to 200-300 frames a year. Trying to secure funding has been tough. There's a valley of death between the scale of production you can finance out of pocket with help from friends and family, and the level of cashflow that will allow you to get loans to do that type of production. So, we're currently negotiating that. We've got a Kickstarter campaign and we're reaching out to potential investors in the bike industry or who are passionate about cycling. We're hoping to do a production run of 100 this year, if the Kickstarter doesn't pan out we'll do a limited production of 50, and then another limited run for delivery in the spring.
Portland is the self-crowned capital of custom bikes, but you guys are doing production. What scale are you aiming for?
We'd like to be doing between 1,000 to 1,500 a year. At 1,000 a year, we'll have economies of scale and tooling that'll allow us to bring the price of the bike down significantly. To get there is going to require a lot of... well, money mostly. And moving into some production technologies we're not using. Computerized tubing bending, for example. We're doing a lot of processes by hand right now, or with limited machine tooling. But there's a capacity to laser-cut and miter every tube we use, which is awesome! That's available in town, but in order to get access to that we have to hit a certain volume.
What new design stuff—features or changes—are you itching to see as you grow?
We're looking at making the rack and deck system compatible with a wider range of accessories and add-ons. Right now, we have part of the deck on a quick release system that can swivel to carry wider loads, and it comes off entirely to directly mount the Yepp Easy-Fit child seat. We're working on other capabilities we can fit in there. We've had some talks with Burley, down in Eugene. They have a trail-a-bike system that locks into their proprietary rack, and we'd like to integrate that lock-on system. On long-tail or midtail bikes, there's no way to get a tag-a-long bike on there, since they generally mount to the seatpost, and a deck interferes with that. We've got a couple other design ideas floating around about that interface.
We had an integrated locking box on the first production run that's been eliminated this year because it's not as waterproof as we'd like. We went through a lot of versions with that, trying to make it a better system, which kept getting more complicated and still not performing. So that's off the table for now, but we'll come back to it with different production techniques. The most promising [option] right now is using a single injection molded plastic part, to take care of a lot of the waterproofing and work like we want it to. Not a critical part of the bike, but it's a sweet feature! Something we want to see, but something we want to do right.
It's still a tiny niche, but there are a couple bikes that come close to the Kinn. What are the differences?
So far the two bikes that come close to what we do are Kona's MinUte, and the Boda-Boda from Yuba. Unfortunately, Kona eliminated the MinUte this year. They liked it but needed to bring down their number of models, and they're getting more into the gravel-disc-road thing. The MinUte is really the closest [to the Cascade Flyer]. It's an aluminum bike instead of steel, in style it's much more like a mountain bike, and its geometry is based on Kona's highly respected mountain and commuter set-ups.
If you want to get into the geeky geometry details, our bike is essentially a touring bike, just longer. The angles and geometry are very similar to Surly's Long-Haul Trucker and that new wave of heavy touring bikes. Granted, we've made some modifications—obviously to the wheelbase—and because ours is meant for a more upright riding position and a relatively swept-back bar. But that's our biggest design difference: the Kinn feels faster and you look better riding it. It's a proven fact that you will look 20% better on our bike.
...and the Boda-Boda is a cruiser. It's a beach cruiser with an extra long rack. Fun to ride down the block, but it's like riding a whale going anywhere else.
I'd ride a whale everywhere if I could.
I actually starred in that movie.
As the whale?
For me it's really a question of efficiency: the Cascade Flyer's got a larger wheel, skinnier tires, tighter geometry than most other options in the general cargo/city range, which makes it a more flexible ride. You feel like you're on a bike rather than a cargo vehicle.
Yeah! It's really designed to be ridden without cargo, to be fun to ride with nothing on it. Designed to be reasonable when fully loaded too. A lot of cargo bikes do that really well but when you're not loaded down you still feel loaded down.
What tools do you guys use for your design process?
We do a lot of stuff on paper.
Because it's the only design system that Alistair and I share! He draws stuff on the computer sometimes, but he doesn't do any 3D modeling or rendering. I design mainly in Rhino. The engineer we work with over at Zen is on some fraction of the Autodesk suite.
How does the paper system work?
It's pretty old school. A lot of the time what we're delivering to Zen isn't a drawing of a bike, it's a layout of fixed points that we then work out how to hit with tubes. Generally we'll bring all of that information to them and they'll get us a draft drawing, which we'll then print out to scale and put parts on top of and mark up. A lot of times, I'll translate some portion of that into scratch models so I can at least visualize it and verify measurements and so on. We go back and forth on that. Between ourselves and Zen and third party vendors making some other parts, we have a lot of laser-cut steel, we have custom components and tubes we buy from bike tube manufacturers—though some of it is 4130 aircraft stock. Ultimately when the design is ready to go we'll get a single frame made, build it up and hang the parts on it to make sure things actually fit, then we'll go ahead with a production run.
Anything else fun about the Kinn production process?
We make some of the accessories and frame parts in-house. We machine the bamboo parts for the deck, for example. And we design and produce small parts, like the quick-release latch for the removable deck, which is pretty cool. It's a spring-loaded nickel-plated cap that you push and turn to release the deck. It interfaces with some plastic couplings that are bolted into to the frame. We make the plastic parts for the frame and knob with help from our neighbors MC Laser Labs, and cut and route the deck pieces.
Why did you guys choose to use wheels from Sugar wheelworks?
Handbuilt bicycle wheels are functionally superior to those built by machine. They're dramatically stronger and more reliable, because of the attention to detail and number of fine iterations a human can go through in the process of balancing the tension in the spokes. The machines that build wheels are amazing in that they can produce a lot of wheels really quickly. However, what you typically see with a machine-built wheel is that it's completely true when it arrives from the factory, and after about 3 weeks, especially under heavy loads, it's all out of whack and needs to be trued by hand. So instead of passing that cost along to the consumer we get to it ahead of time.
On a cargo bike wheels can be the weakest point. It's a lot of abuse to that system. We wanted the strongest, highest quality wheels available, and fortunately there's a shop in town that specializes in exactly that. As a rider, it's one of those 99% invisible bits. You won't know we included such amazingly high-quality wheels because, well, what was the sister ship of the Titanic? No one knows because it never sank!
Wheels are one of those things where design should be invisible. You won't notice it because your wheels don't break down, but you'd notice if they did. Especially with people putting their families on these bikes, that's precious cargo! Both from a business standpoint and an ethical standpoint, we have to deliver a product that is safe and reliable because the stakes are so high.
Learn more about Kinn Bikes over at their Kickstarter campaign!