Sunday, February 22, 2015 marks an landmark day for small wheel enthusiasts everywhere. Small wheelers, for perhaps the first time ever, have a real shot at winning an Academy Award. Me and My Moulton, the small, 14-minute-long animated autobiography of writer and director, Torill Kove, will be competing to win Best Short Film (Animated). Go, Torill. Go!
The day will also be a big one for the search terms: Moulton, What is a Moulton, Moulton Bicyle, Moulton Bike, Moulton, Where Can I Buy a Moulton, and Molton, Multon, Moltoon, and probably every other misspelling imaginable. Suffice it to say, it we're not talking Schwinn here. Undoubtedly, a great deal of web traffic will end up in one particular place, www.portapedalbike.com.
The little film tells the story of two inventive architects buying their children a small wheel bike. As ISWE recently learned, this is, in a way, also the story of PortaPedal Bike. The PortaPedal bike biography also begins with children riding bicycles, two inventive architects, one of them on a quest to buy small wheel transportation for his children.
Al Cappello, co-founder of PortaPedal bike, latched onto an affinity for bicycling from an early age, growing up in Buffalo, New York. Al and his friends would start out on their bicycles on Saturday morning and be gone all day. They would ride to the Niagara River and to the city dumps, where they would scavenge what good things they could find. It was their bicycles that gave them that freedom. Through those adventurous, industrious roots, Al's interest continued as he entered high school. Without a car, Al worked in restaurants until he was able to save up for an adult-worthy steed, a French, Fontaine bicycle with Simplex gears and cottered cranks. The Fontaine was his companion as he continued to enjoy cycling through his college years and training as an architect in Arizona.
After college, in 1987, Al and a colleague, Jeff Looker, struck out on their own to form a new architectural firm. As it would be, Jeff was also an avid cyclist. His cycle consisted of a specially built Cooper frame, adorned with Campagnolo components. Al and Jeff both commuted about 12 miles to work on a daily basis. Cycling was a part of their lives and a true means of transportation. They would both drive in to work together on Monday with their car full of cycling equipment and fresh business attire for the week. They would leave their car at the office until Friday until, much to their wives' chagrin, they would load their car and head home with a pile of dirty clothes and bikes.
In 2007, largely inspired by an economic downturn and subsequent disappearing demand for commercial retail and restaurant architectural designs, Al and Jeff adapted by entering into a new venture, Acoustic Vibes Music, a physical and online retailer of high-end and custom acoustic instruments. This would be the business platform prototype for the bike shop. In 2010, Al and his wife, Donna opened PortaPedal Bike, an online and physical retailer of all the best in folding and small wheel bikes ranging from Montague to Moulton and everything in between.
But why small wheel and folding? Why would the modernist architect parents in the film choose one for their children, why would Al and Donna form a business around them?
Architects train to solve problems. They identify the issues, they survey their resources, they design solutions. An issue for Al had to do with his, as he refers to him, "sin-in-law," the young man who had, at the time of this writing, not yet married his daughter. The "sin-in-law," it seems, traveled with Al's daughter to visit Al and Donna by means of small airplane. While the little airport they would land at is only three miles from Al and Donna's house, it was 30 miles from their business. A visit from the kids could mean a sixty mile trip from work to the airport to the house and back to work. There had to be a better way. The group decided that better way involved a couple of folding bikes. They could store them in the plane and pull them out at the airport to ride the short distance to Al and Donna's house. Problem solved. As the moustachioed father demonstrates in Me and My Moulton, small wheel and folding bikes solve problems. They can fit in an apartment, a car trunk, and they can accommodate riders from 12 to 100. They can fit in an airplane and that was ideal for Al and the "sin-in-law." And then the inevitable addiction set in.
As they say it is with Lay's Potato Chips, it's difficult to have just one. Al's foray into folders began with a search for a pair of used folding bikes to refurbish and give as gift to the flying offspring. A lot of used bikes, such as Dahon's were sold in pairs, they belonged to couples with RVs and such. Usually one bike was in good condition, that was the wife's, and usually one was in poor condition, that was the husband's. Al bought a pair and then another pair in hopes of creating a pair of two good bikes out of four. Through the clean up and repair, Al began to appreciate the designs, the distance from wheel to wheel and pedal to seat and the clever ways to fold. He appreciated easy transport in his car and the agility of small wheels that adds a whole new dimension to cycling, being able to ride in close quarters on sidewalks where people are. It was cool. But... as Al kept looking for better and better bikes to get for his daughter and her partner, his collection continued to grow. Soon, Al ended up with eleven bikes in all. But still, he couldn't bring himself to give the couple bikes with even a nick or scratch, so he ended up a pair of brand new folders for them anyway. So, Donna said, "You have to get rid of some of those bikes." That was a problem. Another issue was Donna taking care of an ailing parent. Those concerns, combined with the procurement of two more irresistible, mint-condition Italian Amica folders, resulted in the idea for a business being born. PortaPedal Bike would sell small wheel and folding bikes.
Based on the success of Jeff's business--refurbishing and selling guitars, representing the goods of acoustic instrument artisans, and selling instruments locally and to international clientele--Al began speaking with the manufacturers of the best available small-wheel and folding bikes. It took a little bit of talking--because manufacturers of fine bicycles don't just want anyone representing their products and serving their customer base, for them, it's about service first and the money to follow--but soon Al and Donna had Brompton and Bike Friday on board. Acquiring Moulton then relied on the connection to Acoustic Vibes. Coincidentally, the US representative was located in nearby Phoenix... and even more coincidentally, he happened to be an accomplished guitarist and musician. Anyone who could sell such fine instruments, he concluded, could also sell fine cycling machines. Moulton then was on also board. Taking time, as architects do, to carefully design the shop and website to serve in a way that is logical, sequential, and clear, Al and Donna produced a traditional local business, cutting-edge online presence, and something fundamentally fun. It started with risk, buying a dozen bikes at a time with cash before manufacturers were willing to extend terms, then it grew to a local and international online community of connections with fun and interesting people--travelers, adventurers, and commuters--who are interested in small-wheel and folding bikes.
Sales vary by season. Phoenix and Tempe's season is the opposite of much of the rest of the US. Snowbirds come south in the fall and winter and that's their cycling season. At that time the majority of the sales are local. Conversely, in the summer, when the rest of the country is cycling, online transactions comprise the majority of sales. Either time, customers are equally pleased with the capabilities of small-wheel and folding bikes. Customers talk about the ways the bikes enhance their travels, how enhance their life, how they ride more and more frequently, how they use their bikes to ride to the store, and how the feel fitter and better. Al and Donna enjoy the stories their customers tell and especially their photos from far off destinations such as Thailand or Hawaii. Some customers are hesitant to consider small wheels, opting to come in to see a 26" Montague first. But when given a chance to actually ride a small wheel bike, they almost always come back with a smile on their face. The bikes are quick, agile, comfortable, compact, and fun. Al says you don't have to sell small wheel bikes, all you have to do is demonstrate and explain them.
Few if any bike shops sell the spectrum of bikes available at PortaPedal. PortaPedal sells Brompton, Bike Friday, Moulton, Dahon, Montague and Tern. This provides PortaPedal shop visitors an unparallelled opportunity to actually ride and compare the assets and attributes of these similar yet quite distinct brands of bikes. Al is thus uniquely equipped to help us understand the differences. Because most bike shops that do sell small wheel or folding bikes only have one or a few at most, it's difficult to know if what you're buying is the best choice for you. This is even more difficult with online searchers, when you obviously can't take a test ride or even a very close look. It can be a pig in a poke. One can end up with a bike that is not well suited, a bike that is not ridden, and a rider that doesn't ride.
At the shop, Al often takes, on average, up three hours with a client to help them decide, purchase, learn to fold and unfold properly, disassemble and assemble, and transport their bike. PortaPedal's new location is right next to a quiet neighborhood. He will go on a ride with clients, across different terrain, with Allen wrenches to adjust their cycling position to make sure it's comfortable. Al doesn't want his clients to get home with the bike and be frustrated. He wants them to have fun and enjoy riding. Toward that end, Al has a little bit of general advice for anyone who is considering buying anywhere, especially online.
Al starts with the Brompton. It's a handmade bike, built out of one factory in the UK. Andrew Ritchie, the designer is still there. They are very dedicated. The bike is their cause. The standout feature of the Brompton is the compact fold. It folds small and it folds flat. There are no odd bits sticking out awkwardly all over the place. Folded, it easily stands on its own. Check out how Al and Donna are able to park six Bromptons in a piece of furniture! You can't really do that with any other bike that is actually functional to ride. And the Brompton is very functional. Unfolded, it has the same dimensions as a conventional 26" bike. The six-speed version can tackle long, flat stretches and considerable climbs and descents. Al has, for example, a group of young engineer cyclist and other customers who have ridden Bromptons in numerous cycling events, including the 111-mile Tour of Tucson, up and down hilly terrain and the 204-mile 2-day Seattle to Portland ride. The Brompton fold is the best for traveling. Some of Al's customers have actually been able to take their Bromptons on commercial flights as carry-on luggage (in just a simple, tight-fitting nylon cover), stored in the overhead bin. Of course, it has to go through the x-ray machine for the TSA first. It's small enough to do that. There's also an excellent hard case made available especially for Bromptons. No disassembly required. Simply fold the bike, place it in the case, extend the handle, and roll away. If you're interested in a quick, compact fold. If you're commuting. If you're going to be going in and out with your bike several times a day, and if you're not primarily interested in weight or top speed, a Brompton might be the best choice for you. Bromptons are also available in a variety of stock gearing, rack, and handlebar configurations. Bromptons are currently limited to a maximum of six gears, but it is a wide range from low to high. They are compact, dependable, and will last a life time.
Terns, by contrast to Bromptons, are Taiwanese production bikes. Terns are beautifully styled, well built, and have, on the higher end, very nice components, such as: American Classic hubs; low spoke count wheels, licensed from Rolf Prima; FSA cranks; high-end Shimano and Sram componentry. The frame hinges are large with large mating surfaces on both sides of the hinge. The hallmark of Tern is their contemporary styling, their high-end componentry, and their very light weight. One of the 10-speeds with a 25-inch low gear and a 95-inch high gear weighs, a great range, weighs only about 21.5 pounds. They don't fold as compact as a Brompton, but if you're not going to be taking it on an airplane or into a restaurant very often, it's a great choice. Tern is very innovative with their components and that's a good sign for Al. According to Al, a lot of the younger crowd are buying Tern's for the style, for the aluminum, stiffer-ride, lighter frames. If you're interested in weight, speed, componentry, styling and cost, and you're going to be riding mostly on smoothly-paved roads and not going in and out of various places a lot, a Tern might be just right for you.
Bike Fridays, like Bromptons, are handmade. Al and Donna don't stock a lot of them because Bike Friday's are highly customizable and that's one of their key features. Unlike Brompton and Tern, Bike Friday offers a huge variety of styles and frame sizes with a virtually endless array of component options. Bike Firdays can be designed for someone who is very tall or very short or even over 300 pounds. Al does custom ordering with Bike Friday. If you have special needs or specific preferences, or want to haul a truckload of material, as the Haul-a-Day above certainly can, a Bike Friday may be just the choice for you. You can choose folding, weight, speed, suspension, size, or all of the above as your preference.
Montagues are perhaps the most easily-distinguishable choice. Al's most popular Montagues are essentially full-sized mountain bikes that can fit inside a typical car. They are great for campers, outdoorsmen, and trail riders. Al says they are also popular with long-haul truckers. Truckers can store them inside the cab for safety and security and get them out and explore during layovers. The durability and aluminum frames also make them long-lasting in corrosive highway environments. Montagues are probably not the best choice for fast road biking. Terns, Bike Fridays, and Moultons are more ideally suited for that. But, if you're interested in a tough bike with off-road capability and you want to have a nice bike without having to worry about it getting stolen from your roof or rear bumper rack--or if you don't want a roof or rear bumper rack on your vehicle--a Montague is a wonderful option.
And as Al says, "Last, but not least, there is Moulton." Moultons are unique. They have a heralded reputation in the history of cycling, designed by Alex Moulton, designer of the elastomeric suspension for the Mini automobile. Al describes Moulton's approach to the design of the Moulton bicycle as similar to the design process of an architect, as starting from scratch with an issue in need of a solution. As an engineer, Moulton thought: What can we make to work best with the human form and human needs? He used small wheels for strength and quick acceleration, lower center of gravity for stability and ability to handle heavy loads, a low frame that's easy to get on and off of for both men and women, and adjustability in terms of size to accommodate different sized riders. He added high pressure tires for lower rolling resistance and full suspension on the front fork and shock absorption on the rear to soak up a stiffer ride. This makes Moultons the best riding road bikes in the world. They are quick and agile, compact, yet amazingly fast. Unlike Bromptons, Terns, and a few of the Bike Friday models, Moultons do not fold, they separate. They break into two halves, front and rear that may then be stored in a car trunk, backseat, or travel case. Al says it takes a couple of minutes to do that. Like a separable Bike Friday, separated with the wheels removed, a Moulton will fit in a standard Sampsonite 31" F-lite case, excellent for traveling. Al tells about a client couple who used Moultons in this configuration to travel 40 to 50 miles a day for 500 miles on a European excursion. Not in and out every day, but once to Europe and back. According to Al, the Moulton is very unique, fantastic riding, and fairly portable. If you're interested in the best possible ride and highest possible performance and you're willing to sacrifice some convenience, the Moulton might be the right bike for you. The Moulton has held the land speed record for a normal riding position. The only faster bike is a low-to-the-ground recumbent... and try to fit that in your trunk. These bikes, all of these brands, can go fast. You don't have to pedal twice as fast. The overall dimensions are similar. The gear ratios are set for the wheel size. The crank lengths are the same. Turn the pedals around at the same speed as your large-wheeled companions and you'll travel along just the same, in some instance, as with the Moultons, potentially better. You can certainly keep up with your big-wheeled buddies on your club ride. You might leave them in the parking lot while they strap their bikes to the roof of their cars.
Al's predictions for the future of small wheel and folding cycling are bright. He sees more and more people everyday choosing the advantages of Ritchie and Moulton's creations. People see these small-wheeled wonders moving along roads and bike paths, individually and on group rides, they learn about them and see what they're capable of and how they work, and they give them a try. When they make the leap, they share their experiences with others. Key to expansion of popularity are bike-friendly cities, such as Tempe, Arizona and capable riders taking on challenging rides. Al's engineers do yeoman's work for the cause in showing: If a small wheel bike can complete a 111, hilly ride, it can certainly navigate the local park or country road.
In terms of technology, Al says we are certainly seeing more internally-geared hubs. This is interesting to small wheelers, because we've been using them all along. Internally-geared hubs have always had the advantage of keeping small and complicated parts safely concealed from all sorts of road hazards from water to mud to errant tree limbs and car bumpers. Modern tech is simply making these "clickety-clack" three-speed hubs better with broader, evenly spaced gear ratios, decreased resistance, and smoother performance. But, as Al notes, even the Sturmey-Archer HD is now nice and smooth. Internally-geared hubs are especially well-suited for traveling because they eliminate an external derailleur that can be easily snagged and thrown out of adjustment. They also make for a more compact fold. According to Al, Moulton is already using Shimano Alfine 11s on some of their higher-end models. Tern is using Shimano 11 and Nexus 8s. Bike Friday is using all kinds of hubs, even Rohloff hubs. Tern is also coming out with a model with 2.5-inch tires for a smoother, un-suspended ride. Al says it looks like a little fat bike. Al actually had one in the shop. It didn't last very long because it was an extremely capable, comfortable ride because of the larger diameter time. Someone snapped it up. Al is also seeing a lot of enthusiasm from the bicycle manufacturers. Brompton has gone, in just 4 years, from about 22,000 units a year to 45,000 units last year and every one of those sold. Tern, a young company, is growing because of their innovation. Dahon is also innovating with things like cable routing inside the tubing and Rohloff 14-speed hubs. Al concludes that the manufacturers are gaining confidence in their niche and that means we're going to see a lot of growth and innovation.
Al concluded our virtual shop visit with a little advice for ISWE--take our bikes to events to show people how they perform. Al said, "Take your small wheel bike to an event. Take it the two miles to the grocery store. Take it on the light-rail system or the bus. Give it that everyday exposure. Show people how they work and that they ca do everything their large-wheeled counterparts can do, let them ride them, and the will be amazed." ISWE took this as an opportunity to convince the wife to add more small wheels to the stable. Al finally laughed and said, "You've got to."
Al then summed it up like this:
Cycling is a great activity. It benefits all ages. One of my customers, came in to upgrade from an older model to a new bike. He is 83 years old. Cycling is beneficial physically and emotionally. It can have a real impact on our lives. Big bikes; we do a lot of work for big bikes. We buy racks for them. We put the racks on top of our cars. If we travel to another city, we have to worry about them on the racks, even if they're locked up. We haul them all around. We do a lot of work for our big bikes, but the little bikes bend over backwards for us. They take the hard work out of cycling. They make it easier to integrate cycling into your life; and if you can do that more, you're going to be healthier, it's a great social activity with your friends. It's going to keep you young. I'm sixty years old, but I feel twelve years old when I ride little bikes.
ISWE wants to extend all a super-extreme small-wheel thank you to Al and Donna Cappello for being so generous in providing ISWE readers with such a wealth of information about small-wheel and folding bikes. Also, thanks to PortaPedal Bike for doing so much as a local business in Tempe and around the world online. If there was an ISWE award, we would be giving one to Al and Donna Cappello of PortaPedal Bike!