In 1991, Hanz Scholz, co-founder and designer of Bike Friday, flew to Australia with the world’s first Bike Friday travel bicycle: a diamond frame New World Tourist. Traveling with a friend, he took buses to cycle Australia’s desert regions including Uluru, the Olgas, Darwin, Broome, Perth, Catherine and Alice Springs.
It was hot.
“About 130 degrees. We went through 4 gallons of water, overheated. I had to ride 18 miles in the pitch dark with my little Maglite, then nearly ran into a wild horse. All the light showed was some fur.” And your Bike Friday prototype?
“Every time Janet got on a bus they wanted to charge her $10 for her mountain bike. They said to me, yours can go free but she’s gotta pay for hers.”
Ten years later, the New World Tourist has become the benchmark of performance travel bicycles, and is now part of a stable of completely suitcase packable bicycles covering the extremes of two-wheeled travel: tandem, recumbent, racing, touring and expedition models. In 2008, Bike Friday entered the commuter bicycle market with the tikit®, “the world’s fastest fold with the famous Friday ride.” IT ALL BEGAN in the chilly plains of Fargo, North Dakota, USA, where co-founder Alan Scholz started cycling to get a Boy Scout merit badge. He bettered it when, at 16, he and three friends embarked on an epic 14-day, 1100-mile self-supported bike tour around his home state. From that experience he was “hooked”. His parents Earl and Mary Esther noted his passion and helped him start the Great Plains Bike Club, which became the focal point in the region for touring and competitive cycling events. At 17, the adolescent entrepreneur opened a Ski and Bike shop in the basement and garage of his parents house. He called it Al’s Bike Shop, then later changed the name to Dakota Nomad.
Little 7-year-old brother Hanz, showing early mechanical genius, was kept busy by helping work on bikes and teasing the dog. Dad, Mom, sisters Erlanne and Mary Elan were closely involved, as was brother Ian (midway between Alan and Hanz) who now builds the BicycleR Evolution Trailers.
The brothers started racing and became known as tough to beat. They were also tough to beat in the sartorial stakes after Alan noticed there was a shortage of good cycling clothes and touring bags. He dragged out a sewing machine and started Burley Bike Bags, after the nickname of Alan’s future wife Beverly. Beverly fell in love with Oregon after doing an Outward Bound course in Eugene, so that’s where they headed.
The couple fell right into the laid-back hippie life of Eugene, cycling 25 miles every Saturday from their home-made yurt in the woods to the Saturday Market to sell their bike bags and clothes. Burley Bike Bags soon became Burley Design Co-operative, manufacturing quality rainwear, cycle touring bags, cross country ski wear, tree planting bags, yurt covers and the famous Burley Child Trailer.
Alan designed the Burley Lite trailer for his first daughter, Hanna, and later improved it for Fraeda, so that he would be able to safely carry two precious kids and still be a cyclist.
Burley Design Co-operative became a successful brand in the bike industry, and the Burley Child Trailer is known worldwide as the child trailer by which all others are measured.
Around this time, in 1985, Hanz Scholz did his landmark trip to Europe with an inexpensive (then state-of-the-art) folding bike. He came back “with a sore butt” and vowed to invent a high quality travel bicycle of his own.
Meanwhile, Alan and Beverly moved to Atlanta to explore new options, starting a custom commercial awning shop. Beverly and Alan later separated, and Hanz started working with his brother again in earnest. They returned to Oregon and opened ATP (Advanced Training Products) making tandem frame sets for Burley and bikes for other companies.
Hanz, still with that bee in his helmet (“and a sore butt”), started experimenting with folding travel bike designs.
Burley became the largest tandem builder in the USA for a period, but ever anxious to innovate and create something they could call their own, Alan and Hanz began building performance travel bikes full time, encouraged by their friendly dentist (now Bike Friday owner, Richard Gabriel).
Thus began Green Gear Cycling, in a small garage with two visionary employees.
The company is now colloquially known as Bike Friday, after its most visible product. The Bike Friday name, inspired by Man Friday of Robinson Crusoe fame, was suggested by early collaborator Paul Moore, a bicycle luminary in his own right.
“Running a small business is never plain pedaling, even if a product that is loved and admired the world over,” said Alan, as Bike Friday spent the next few years convincing a skeptical public and bicycle industry of the value of their vision. He attributes Bike Friday’s resilience (still going strong after more than 15 years) to the personal nature of the way it does business – forming a one-on-one relationship with each customer; the custom nature of the bikes; and intrepid nature of cycle tourists in general.
“We believe so strongly in matching a person to their very personal machine – their bike – that our whole organization runs backward from most manufacturing. Our design process starts at the customer instead of ending with the customer simply buying the results”.
Alan and Hanz are very passionate about “being personal”.
“The mass production orientation in our culture tends to make us see anything outside the 20th and 80th morphological percentiles as non-normal. [Morphology: the study of form and structure of plants, animals – Ed]. We are convinced that everyone interested in cycling and doing it well is “normal” to us. As an engineer, I know the materials don’t care what size and shape they are made into. Size and shape of the user are not restrictions when approached correctly.”
“We have a unique product. But we’re a very small, yet paradoxically international custom builder and cannot afford a big glossy ad budget or conventional placement in stores. We can only succeed if our customers love their Bike Fridays, and tell anyone willing to listen. We have grown by referral.”
There’s also the hurdle of making a product that is “different”.
“Conventional marketing tells us that if we wanted to make a bicycle that goes in a suitcase and also make money, we should use bigger wheels, for no other reason than to stay squarely in the comfort zone of the mass-market mindset. It is always risky to go against the flow, but there is putting your financial safety first, and there’s doing it right.”
The relentless pursuit of “doing it right” has resulted in Bike Friday turning out models never before seen in the cycling industry. Witness the Traveler Q, the tandem that converts to a single bike.
Bike Friday has always extended its vision beyond merely selling bikes. The company sees cycling as a way of life, and a way to create a better planet. Back in 1995 Bike Friday built the fire-engine red Family Tandem , the affordable, kid-friendly travel tandem that got big and little riders pedaling in unison all over the world. This bike initiated many programs for disabled children, including the Adapted Physical Education Project at Wayland Public School, MA., and the Tandem program at the L.A. Braille Institute. It’s just one of the special needs cases Bike Friday can address, among other under-served groups.
So what about the future?
“We’re going to continue to unveil models that may be firsts in the cycling world, like the new tikit®. They won’t be just another Bike Friday travel bicycle – though that’s always welcome news to our customers. Our goal is always to make life easier for cyclists and make the hardware needed to make cycling and travel easier and more available to everyone and every type of cyclist.”
Hanz has the last word. “Recent events have reminded us of something that we always knew: survival and success, both personal and professional, cannot be just about money. It’s about fellowship, humanity, relationships and all those words that seem to have dropped out of business journals and textbooks. It’s important to never forget there is a human being behind that email address.”