Written by Arthur Treff | Photos by Anthony Harden
Hybrid cars that run on a combination of electricity and gasoline are everywhere, and gaggles of bicycles can be seen in every city. But what about hybrid bicycles; the ones incorporating pedal power, augmented by electric motors? Why do we rarely see them?
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]ost of the hybrid bikes on the market are heavy-duty bicycles that have an electric drive system to aid the rider in climbing hills. Too heavy to be ridden at speed by pedal power alone, and too underpowered to keep up with traffic, these bikes have not really caught on except in flat urban areas where traffic speeds are slow, distances short, and there are no hills to challenge the bike’s electrical system.
Outrider USA in Fletcher, North Carolina, has a product line that they believe solves this problem. Not an electric car, not a moped, nor an electrically assisted conventional cycle. Instead, they have designed a three-wheeled vehicle that the rider can pedal to a respectable bicycle pace, supplemented by a state of the art electrical system, which can accelerate the vehicle to ride with the auto traffic on rural roads.
“Our vehicles are the best way to move one person on or off road, while keeping them safe, healthy, and exhilarated,” says Jesse Lee, one of the three founders.
Capital at Play was treated to an extended test drive of an Outrider Alpha 422 recently and the experience was a game changer. Settled into the seat between the front wheels, the rider places their feet on the forward-mounted pedals. This recumbent position allows for powerful pedaling due to positive lower back support.
Once pedaled up to four miles per hour, electrical power can be fed with a twist of the throttle, but hang on. Electric motors, unlike gasoline engines, can deliver full torque from idle, and the acceleration is silently breath taking.
Swinging onto Hoopers Creek Road from a stop, we quickly caught the auto traffic clocking 35 mph. The hum of tires on the pavement and whirr of the motor were the only sounds emanating from the Outrider trike, leaving our ears open to birdsong and passing auto traffic. We next turned onto the sinuous and hilly Terrys Gap Road, where the Outrider Alpha didn’t disappoint us.
Want to sit back and enjoy the visceral thrill of cornering and the long views? No problem. Stop pedaling and stay on the throttle…for many hours without recharging. Want to get a workout while still chasing down cars? Easy— keep pedaling, shift up to a higher gear, and back off the throttle a little.
For the first time, a human in almost any physical condition can get a workout on the scenic, yet hilly roads, that Western North Carolina is famous for. On the Outrider Alpha 422, you can continue to burn calories and not hold up traffic, even on vertiginous pitches that would punish Olympic class cyclists.
These three-wheeled vehicles have broken records and garnered well-deserved international attention for the effort. But the summer of 2015 promises to be the most exciting season yet for the six-year-old company. Outrider USA will begin shipping a new product: the Horizon; a full-suspension, off-road capable trike that can be used by anyone, including quadriplegic riders.
Opportunity called the Outrider office one day in 2013, and the right people answered the phone. A consulting project, to help a customer who had lost use of his limbs build his own electric trike, exploded into a new product, for a ready and willing target market, funded by a six-figure-yielding Kickstarter campaign.
How did three men in their twenties achieve such an enviable position? Like most entrepreneurs, an idea became a hobby, which morphed into an obsession. Like-minded friends were pulled into the vortex, and the project was shared on the Internet. Suddenly, one day, people wanted to buy what the lads were building.
Daniel Rhyne and Tommy Ausherman were roommates attending Appalachian State University who commuted to school on bikes, which turned out to be more challenging than expected…
Plying the back roads of Boone in all weather on a bike was tough, and the hills are plenty; but their biggest concern was safety. Both men had had run-ins with cars, particularly when they were pedaling slower than the flow of traffic. Tommy and Daniel started to design an electric motor assist they could install on their bikes to get them up to speed when needed.
They bolted a ponderous but powerful motor and heavy lead/acid batteries to Tommy’s mountain bike. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. Tommy and Daniel named the beast.
“T-Wrex was fast,” says Tommy, “but all that steel and batter-ies overwhelmed the lightweight bicycle; I could feel the frame flex over bumps and rounding corners. It took me through a year of commuting, but the wind resistance at speed was significant and the single front brake didn’t stop the heavy bike very well.”
The pair began to research recumbent riding positions and tricycle frames. Closer to the ground, a recumbent bike’s wind resistance is lower, as is the center of gravity; perfect for mounting the motor and batteries. Daniel and Tommy settled on a tadpole trike frame (two front wheels with a single rear) which they purchased from a company in the United Kingdom named, KMX.
Could This Be a Business?
In the fall of 2009, ‘Skunk’ made it’s debut on Boone’s roads. The trike carried it’s 125 pounds down low. It handled, stopped, and accelerated better than T-Wrex. This pedal/electric vehicle could reach 56 mph, and it became Tommy’s main mode of transportation.
He had enjoyed the building and design process so much that Tommy thought that he could turn his interest into a part-time occupation to help get him through school. He created a website chronicling his build history and finished products. Tommy also formed an LLC and became a distributor for the trike frame company, KMX.
“After almost a year on the trike,” says Tommy, “I began to see through my love-struck eyes some opportunities for some very large improvements on my faithful steed, namely, in the motor department.”
Research revealed that large, radio-controlled helicopters used powerful, light-weight motors to drive the main rotor blades. Using one would drop motor weight from 25 pounds to five, in a package the size of a coffee mug; this was huge news…but could it power a trike?
Internet forums introduced Tommy to Matt Schumacher, a fellow electric vehicle zealot, who was also designing an electric drive system around the RC motors. Tommy was perfecting his trike product, and Matt’s business, DaVinci Drive Components, was selling drive components to DIY e-bike builders. Their cooperation and technology sharing was mutually productive and devoid of competition…problems were solved.
The ‘Transition 1’ trike was launched in summer 2010. Months spent researching and engineering had shaved 40 pounds from the vehicle, which increased the speed and, more importantly, mileage — a lighter vehicle is easier on the motor and batteries, allowing greater distances between recharging.
“With the increased capability and range of the new trike,” says Tommy, “I found myself using it for almost everything. My car would often be parked for days on end, and all of my traveling miles accomplished on the trike.”
…and then there were three.
Meanwhile, two hours away at Elon University, another midnight flame was burning. Jesse Lee, a student in the Environmental Studies program, was hounding his professor about alternative energy and proposing fantastical vehicles. His professor, Jack Martin, who also taught at Appalachian State, handed Jesse a phone number saying, “call Tommy Ausherman, because I don’t know what to do with you, and Tommy’s as crazy as you are.”
One phone call, followed by a visit, confirmed that, Jesse, Daniel, and Tommy were kindred spirits. This was the summer of 2009. In addition to shipping the first trike purchase order, the trio formed a business called FFR Trikes, and the Transition 1 was redesigned. The Transition V2 sported drive train tweaks, as well as more robust electronics enclosures and rear fender.
Tommy, Daniel, and Jesse each have their specialties, which have served them well.
The technical idea guy is Tommy; eager to push the envelopes of speed, distance, power, or handling. His ideas would be nothing without Daniel, a hands-on pragma-tist, who takes Tommy’s dreams and shapes them into a vehicle, and then figures out how to scale the design for manufacturing. Jesse’s forte is team building and communication, and thus, has a natural marketing ability. It has been his content marketing work that has elevated Outrider’s market perception out of the $250 bolt-on, bicycle kit manufacturer, and into a slot of it’s own, namely, a totally new category of transportation.
FFR became Outrider USA, and the company was selling on average ten trikes per year. In 2012 the results of four years worth of product engineering were brought to a joyous conclu-sion in the Alpha 422 product. A quantum leap in technology from the original ‘Skunk’ platform, this vehicle was unlike any that had come before in ultralight electric vehicles, so to prove it, Outrider attacked some records.
The Big Slowdown
With all these records and international press attention, you would think that life was grand for the three men behind Outrider USA, but the opposite was the case. With a high manufacturing cost and a product price tag hovering around $10,000, they were selling only ten vehicles per year, not enough to sustain them.
Additionally, Daniel, Tommy, and Jesse were sharing a tiny, inexpensive, and very primitive living space, as well as working 12+ hour days together. Up until 2013, their main sustenance was the shared dream of engineering and building the best single passenger vehicle…money was secondary.
The Pike’s Peak course in Colorado is the most challenging road in America, with 156 sharp corners, over 12.42 miles at a 7% average grade, climbing 4,700 feet of elevation gain.
On July 14th, 2012 the Outrider team set a new course record of 23 minutes and 32 seconds for the Pikes Peak Pedal Electric Hill Climb. As if that weren’t enough, the Outrider vehicle had so much power left at the end of the race that it was ridden down, then back up at full power — averaging 31 mph up the relentlessly steep grade — all without recharging.
On April 8, 2014 a modified Outrider Alpha 422 with Tommy Ausherman aboard, achieved a top speed of 85.9 mph on the runway at Hendersonville, North Carolina. This is a world record for a sub -100 pound vehicle, regardless of the fuel source: gas, jet, electrical, or human powered.
Tommy Ausherman rode an Outrider Alpha from Asheville to Charleston, South Carolina, a distance of 225 miles over the course of 12 hours, setting a world record for the longest distance ridden on an electric bike in 12 hours.
On the Horizon
The grueling, four-year effort had taken its toll. Poor and burnt out from long workdays, the partners decided to sell the company, and sought appropriate advice. Business brokers told the trio it was going to take approximately two years to find a buyer; in the meantime more work had to be done on the company to make it attractive to buyers; this was not good news.
Feeling desperate, Tommy spent an evening writing and map-ping his thoughts, wondering how the business plan could be recreated to include financial sustainability as well as a greater sense of purpose. He hoped that somehow, Outrider could be put to work on something that served humanity; nothing came to mind, but Tommy had faith that something good would come from the turmoil.
Two days later, the office phone rang. An excited customer named Chris Wenner was on the line. He’d designed and built a trike, and Outrider had been advising him with the frame geometry and had sold him key drive components. Chris is quad-riplegic, and the trike project took him two years to complete.
He had just returned from his first test ride of his trike and Chris was overjoyed. It was the first time since his spinal cord injury that he felt like himself again. Wenner was an avid adven-turer and mountain biker before he became paralyzed at age 17 in a diving accident.
His unbridled joy was a shot of adrenaline for the exhausted trio. What Chris said next was to be prophetic. “I want to make this experience available to other people like me,” said Chris, “will you guys partner with me to make this happen?” Had Outrider just found the greater purpose Tommy was hoping for?
“We had to meet Chris face to face, so we flew out to Colorado,” says Tommy, “which if you knew our financial situation and how low our spirits were, you’d realize what a big commitment that was.”
“The time spent in his presence was an education,” says Jesse. “At first, we tiptoed around not sure how to speak to a Chris without offending him. He schooled us on communica-tion, how the hand controls on his trike work, but most of all, he educated us on how he (and others like him) got through the day.”
Outrider returned from the trip energized; they would work to create an adaptive trike. The trio now had something more meaningful to work on. They reached out to other victims of spinal cord injury via Internet forums, such as Apparelyzed. com, to gauge interest in an adapted Outrider trike product. It would have to be a completely new design, which was appro-priately named Horizon.
To fund Horizon’s engineering and initial production costs, they decided to mount a crowd funding drive on Kickstarter. com. The cornerstone of the campaign was Chris Wenner’s story: How a physically challenged man reconnected with his adventure-driven soul through piloting an electric trike. It was content marketing personified.
Crowd funding is more than raising funds. The global group of potential customers can become a marketing think-tank, providing product feedback, which streamlines the design process and inspires confidence in the project.
Not only did the Kickstarter campaign raise more than $126,000, by the end, our trike-trio knew which features and benefits to build into the Horizon product.
In the midst of the excitement surrounding the Kickstarter campaign, Daniel received an employment offer he could not turn down: production manager for Belmont Textile Machine Company (BTMC), the business his grandfather started back in 1955. In addition to making more money, Daniel would be helping mange the success of his family’s business, something he had always desired.
“It was a difficult choice for me,” says Daniel. “Outrider was, and is, the most amazing thing I’ve ever been involved in, and by taking this job, I would be moving away from my two best friends.”
Daniel would continue to be a partner in Outrider USA, but he had to relocate to Mount Holly, North Carolina. While this story may seem bittersweet from the emotional perspective, there is a silver lining for both companies.
BTMC designs and builds specialized machinery for handling yarns used in the rug making industry. Additionally, they have long been making specialized steel and aluminum parts for the Outrider trikes.
Hold that Thought
The Horizon will be the first Outrider USA product not based on a purchased KMX frame. Horizon’s frame has been purpose-designed and solids-modeled to lower the overall center of gravity (CG) in a monocoque configuration. The [quote float=”right”]Marketing staff at Outrider will be very busy this summer, trying to coax product traction within the adaptive sports arena. Additionally, they will be seeding two other targets — ecologically minded commuters and tour operators. [/quote]new frame will be built around heaviest components, the battery boxes, which will become stressed frame members. With a lowered CG and lighter weight, Horizon should be the quickest and most efficient product yet.
The management team wisely did not put all their eggs in the Adaptive Sports market, so Horizon’s running chassis was designed to be a standard platform with mass-market appeal as an ATV. With some clever engineering Outrider can adapt the vehicle to accommodate people with widely varying physical challenges.
With the frame being manufactured from scratch, the vehicle’s parts count increases, putting more emphasis on manufacturing process control. Since most of the parts will be built at BTMC, who better to manage it all than Daniel? The new position was a win-win.
The first Horizon production assembly is slated for August 2015. A total of 50 vehicles will be built. Seven are being sold to adaptive sports centers which will be used as market seeds allowing disabled customers to test the product during a test ride. Thirty-five individuals have purchased the new vehicle sight unseen, eleven of which pulled the trigger during the Kickstarter campaign.
The Kickstarter buzz garnered Outrider wider media atten-tion, well beyond the e-bike centered, gadget-geek publications who had discovered them.
After reading some of the press pieces about them, you might get the impression that Outrider’s entry into the adaptive sports space was marketing spin disguised as personal meaning. We found the opposite to be true.
Sitting across a breakfast table from Jesse and Tommy we were impressed by their contagious excitement and candor. Spend any time talking with the three Outrider founders, and their sincerity will announce itself, unprovoked.
Transition to New Markets
The adaptive sports market push and the successful crowd funding brought an undisclosed private investor to their team. Outrider’s founders feel the weight of responsibility to customers as well as investors, but so far do not feel their style or decision-making is impacted at all by this new money source. Growth can spell trouble for the inexperienced business owner. The lads wisely availed themselves of mentoring programs they found on the Internet. They have received help from SCORE Asheville, where experienced entrepreneurs coach the new business owners on a variety of subjects. Through this, and other Entrepreneur in Residence programs, Outrider drafted a plan to manage the growth, which revealed that they could not orchestrate long term and short term goals without some additional help.
They used some of the investment dollars to add five new employees, in 2014, to help cover product engineering, assembly, sales, and marketing. *It’s important to note that Outrider is not spending any funds to move into a larger facility, nor overspend on expensive tooling.
Marketing staff at Outrider will be very busy this summer, trying to coax product traction within the adaptive sports arena. Additionally, they will be seeding two other targets — ecolog-ically minded commuters and tour operators.
Outrider believes that tour companies with a fleet of Horizons could offer long-range group tours in scenic areas. Riding the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway on an Outrider trike could well be a destination vacation. This concept has been working for ages in the international motorcycle tour industry.
If the products weren’t impressive enough, the Outrider team’s drive, commitment, and enthusiasm is contagious. They’re so open and honest, that even if you have no interest in their products, you’ll leave the meeting not only liking them and believing in their cause, but you’ll find yourself cheering for them, hungry to hear how it all turns out.
Outrider Media Attention:
RED BULL ADVENTURES ONLINE
YAHOO AUTO ONLINE
ELECTRIC BIKE REVIEW
ELECTRIC BIKE REPORT
ELECTRIC BIKE ACTION
THE GEAR JUNKIE
THE ACTIVE TIMES
MOTHER NATURE NETWORK
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…