Last week, I finally dropped in at PedalEasy, our own homegrown pedal assist e-bike manufacturer. PedalEasy started five years ago when co-founder Ron Wensel wanted to do more cycling after he survived a heart attack.
Ron, a modest man who lives in Deep River, is a mechanical engineer who knows a thing or two about speed and energy. He served as the lead investigator following the Challenger Space Shuttle accident & subsequently as the lead designer of sealing for the Advanced Solid Rocket motors.
After his heart attack he decided to use his inquiring mind and technology background to apply all that knowledge to build his own ‘rocket’: a pedal assist e-bike to help him go further, easier. Not satisfied with what was out there, he designed a new frame, tested tons of batteries and perhaps 15 electro motors.
I cycled out to the work shop near Greenbank: 8,5 km in the rain and 12 degrees, th cell phone in a sealed plastic zip bag. After 30 minutes of cycling but dry thanks to my Marmot rain coat, I found their place which was even smaller than I thought. I had expected a two car garage, but it is barely a one car garage. The tiny space is full of bikes. Along one wall is a workbench without any empty space anymore. Batteries packs galore, wheels hanging off the ceiling, boxes in corners. It is good to remind ourselves that HP and Apple started out in a similar fashion.
Ron likes quality. His son Claudio, who runs the workshop, too. Claudio’s first job was working for a large retailer. He was asked to put bikes together, as quickly as possible, without much training. While assembling, he realised that the quality could be upped. Now, besides running his business, he teaches e-bike repair in cooperation with RightBike Ottawa. Currently Claudio puts most bikes together.
I set down with Claudio to talk about the business. Well….. I sat down and Claudio stood, as there is no place for two to sit.
HotBike (HansOnTheBike): How’s the business going?
Claudio: It is going great, we are ahead of our forecast. There are a couple of hundred of our e-bikes on the road now. We are opening our new bigger premises in Bell’s corners on June 25. We’ll have about 900 ft plus a loft for more storage. It allows for a showrom space, a work shop and a small office.
HotBike: What is so special on your e-bikes?
Claudio: We have put a lot of thought in our design. We tested numerous different electro motors. We have chosen for a front wheel drive, for reasons of balance when you lift the bike and we felt that front wheel drive gives a better grip on the road. We tested different batteries and we think the current battery pack provides a good combination of weight and power. It can be charged 700 times, so for the average cyclist, that would be years of cycling on one battery pack. There is an on/off button and a throttle integrated in the left hand handlebar grip.
Hotbike: But the frames are from Taiwan I guess?
Claudio: No they aren’t. We designed our own frame. We travelled to China to talk to the factory. It is a family owned business. My mom travelled with us, as she wanted to make sure there was no child labour involved. We have high standards for our products and that includes Responsible Entrepreneurship. We order frames in relatively small batches as we finance everything from our own pockets, so the upfront cost is high. However, we are going to order bigger numbers soon.
HotBike: I noticed your bikes have only eight gears.
Claudio: From experience we know that eight gears is enough. Three was just a little too low. We use Shimano internal hubs: internal hubs are less prone to failure, you can even switch gears while standing still, they need virtually no maintenance and because the chain doesn’t need to travel from left to right, it can be wider and sturdier. Internal hubs are a great invention.
HotBike: The Responder looks like serious business. What is the story behind it?
Claudio: The Responder is a heavy duty vehicle for first responders. The Ottawa emergency responder folks came to us with a pile of specs for the police and paramedics here in Ottawa. They needed sturdy bikes and they believed e-bikes were a solution; in an urban environment, the bike can basically go everywhere. The electric motor would save some human energy, so that when a responder arrives, he has more energy to do the tasks he is supposed to do, like reanimation for example.
HotBike: It looks like there are a lot of gears on that Responder.
Claudio: There are 30 in fact. It was asked for.
HotBike: Any recalls?
Claudio: not really, there were some very minor issues with cable connections in the beginning, that was about it. You need to maintain the bike, like any other bike, but that can be done by every bike shop. Brakes, tires, bell, lights, fenders, luggage carriers are all standard items.
HotBike: How do you promote your business? I don’t really encounter the name often.
Claudio: it is a combination of cooperation with others such as Rightbike and advertising. They are using our e- bike to haul their bike rentals around on a trailer as well as to go to events with bike tune up tools. We get the word out through social media as that is basically the only way to reach out to the younger segment. To reach the older demographics, we use the newspaper. Besides that, it is a lot of word of mouth.
HotBike: How does the future look like, sell the business and cash in?
Claudio: the business plan is written for growth. We are taking very little out of it, and pay ourselves an absolute minimum. Every time when you start to make a bit of money though, we need to reinvest: a bigger shop, an extra employee, more time for marketing and book keeping. The start up phase is a never ending demand for money. Luckily we had some money so we didn’t have to borrow.
HotBike: I have to ask this: did you cycle in the Netherlands?
Claudio: My mom and dad did. They cycled around for a month and my dad was ecstatic. Cycling safety was so impressive.
HotBike: Where is Marko (co-founder)? Still in bed?
Claudio: Ha. No, he is currently in BC, setting up a project with a bike tour company.
HotBike: So what is the new address?
Claudio: We are at 20 Bexley, unit 12, behind the Winners and Shoppers Drug in Bell’s Corners.
HotBike: You are in good company, with neighbours such as the Metro, the LCBO, WhiprSnappr Brewing Company and Ishina Indian Restaurant. Looking forward to see you in your new store.
HotBike: Well, it is time to go. Back into the rain. I have cycled on an pedal assist ebike only once in my life in the Netherlands, with my parents and my wife. The experience is best described as a very nice tailwind, no matter which direction you go. In the Netherlands, currently over 100,000 e-bikes are sold annually, so it is definitely a growth market.
Better electric storage will revolutionise short distance transport as you already read in my previous blog about the Dutch grocery store e-cargo bike delivery.
So if you come back from yet another conference where 300 men in dark blue suits declare that “Canada should innovate more”, you know that PedalEasy is one such shining example.