solar bike fixi

This may be a story of interest to anyone who is considering designing and importing a bicycle into Australia (or other country) from scratch.

My decision to attempt to import a bicycle into Australia came from wanting to work with my own design that will one day be hydrogen powered - hydrogen that is produced from algae - I'm working on this goal from both ends and hope to meet in the middle one day. My main reasons for wanting to design my own bike were these:

  • I needed a good looking, simple, economical, robust and high performance bike.
  • I wanted to get rid of the gears to limit extra resistance and cost.
  • I needed a super efficient bike, as eventually when the energy to power it comes from algae it will have to be as smooth and efficient as possible because getting energy from a biological system is difficult and any energy produced must be very carefully used.

My decision on which bike to use was rather straight forward. I wanted a single speed bicycle with 700c rims and excellent running gear. This was to reduce both costs and resistance associated with wheel friction and gearing and to simplify the components to limit any possible troubles in future. When using an electric bike, I found that I rarely used the gears and nearly always rode around in top gear, even when going up relatively steep hills I could manage this quite comfortably in a high gear so it was a clear decision to go for a bike without gears. The fixed gear bicycles were back in vogue at this stage and there were a number of models around that were quite appealing for me to use. Such as Apollo's "Salt" and "Pepper" and some of Mongoose's cheaper models. However, all of these had some small issues such as thin forks, non-ideal frame dimensions, high price, low grade components and no attachment points for batteries or hydrogen canisters and fuel cells. I realized that to use such a bike I would need to make some modifications myself to existing available models or alternatively have my own bicycle designed from scratch. I tried the first (prototype 1) and then chose the latter.

My design phase consisted of measuring the frame dimensions of an old racing bike I had. This doesn't look much but it's super light and fast and is a replica of a bike that was used by the Australians in the 1988 olympics - though I removed the racing handlebars and put on a comfortable old seat. It's a real rocket ship in disguise and I still get around on it a lot.

My racing bike

Next, I measured the frame dimensions of some fixie models being retailed and made very slight changes to my measurements from the racing bike. I took note of the visual styles and components of all fixies around the bike shops here in Perth; handlebars, rear wheel dropout, seats, sprocket type, and everything that I thought would contribute towards comfort, looks and performance. Then I did some basic sketches of the style and dimensions of the bike that I was looking for. These sketches I sent to one of the better bike/ebike factory I regularly deal with. They improved my sketches and together we made some diagrams that could be used by the frame making technicians. I also had to pay particular attention to the fork strength and dimensions to ensure they would be appropriate for a variety of electric motors that I would later use.

early fixi design

refined fixi designs

Once the frame design was completed I had to decide on all of the running gear and accessories I wanted. At this time I was quite lucky as I had planned a trip to China to visit some factories I deal with and this conincided with a very large bicycle trade show that was being held in Shanghai (China Cycle 2010). At the show I was able to choose components to use. There were thousands of accessories to choose from but in the end the most important aspects for me were really the comfort (so chose Velo plush seat and handle grips), performance and running gear (KMC/PROMAX) and rim style (AIRSHII). It was quite difficult to get my factory in China to acquire all of these components and assemble them for me for just a sample or two but in the end, when you have a business and a relationship previously and make mega-promises they will get into action. China and industry in general is used to incredibly large orders, even purchasing 100 of these bicycles is a very small order for them so to get just a sample was very difficult. However, they came through in the end and I was able to choose all of the components I wanted and have them make the frame as per my specifications. The colour scheme I opted for was white and black and I aim to have some of these bicycles hand painted by indigenous artists one day.

My first prototype arrived and as with every other piece of equipment that I had begun importing previously there were some obvious flaws and important points that had been missed. However, this was expected and I was actually quite impressed by both the looks and the performance of the first Solar Bike Prototype Fixie. The whole set of bike components I was able to get organised for just under $200 US FOB. When the sample cost preparation was added, the delivery costs and money transfer fees were added, the cost to have this first sample arrive was approximately $850 AUD and had taken about 3 months.

prototype

From this first design I had to make some small modifications. These were as follows:

  • The attachment points I needed for the rear carrier rack needed for some battery/fuel cell options I was planning were absent
  • The mudguards I had asked were not in line with this style of bike and would just cause problems for me later so I chose to remove these
  • The rear gear was too low and I had to change the teeth number to increase the speed
  • I opted to have toe-clips on the pedals
  • The rear brakes were missing, though it also had a fixed gear so if riding in this mode the rear brake is nearly redundant but it is better to have this if riding electric
  • The brakes were good but I had to change to better calipers.
  • The front brake was in the left hand rather than the right hand
  • I was later told that Australian law requires front and rear reflectors, wheel and pedal reflectors and a bell. It's also not in the style of this bike to have these but I've had them include them separately for this bike
  • The upper horizontal bar was a touch too long so I reduced this by just under 1cm
  • I wanted to have a more unique and retro look to the rims that would involve a checker pattern

This was my order list of components to be used:

 
Component Specification Colour Designer/factory
Frame Reinforced steel; SC-560*SH-409*HC-594*CA-430*SA-367   Black SOLAR BIKE
Front fork Steel, reinforced 1mm dropout;  367mm Black SOLAR BIKE
Chainwheel&cranks SCXS-EX2R; 44T 1/8* 170 YS701 White LUNFENG
Chain Z410 1/2"*1/8"*92L White  KMC
Pedal Fp-965 9/16" Black JIALONG
Head Bar MTB-AL-110; 22.2*25.4*6°*560 Black XINGLONG
Head stem RQ-412, 22.2*180-17° Ext 105mm; anti-water stopper Black YINGLONG
Grips VLG-851AD3, PVC 22.2, 130mm White  VELO
Front Brake RC-469    Black PROMAX
Rear Brake RC-469    Black PROMAX
Brake Lever RX-232HD  Black PROMAX
Rim 700C*14G*24H  Checker AIERSHIIBIKE
Spokes 14GX277mm stainless steel Black JIANGNAN
Tyre K-193, 700*23C, butyl rubber Black KENDA
Free wheel sprocket 1/2*1/8*16T  Steel CHANGYI
Fixed wheel sprocket 1/2*1/8*16T  Steel CHANGYI
Saddle VL-3028 White; black bow; white stitch White  VELO
Seat post SP-214, 28.6*300L Black YINGLONG
Wheel reflector RR-315-WUA Yellow; AS standard White  CATEYE
Front reflector RR-180BTW AS standard; 22.2 light clip for head bar White  CATEYE
Rear reflector RR-180BTR AS standard; 28.6 clip for saddle tube Red CATEYE
Hub Axle Protection shaft cover 3/8" Black Black XINGGUO

Though not happy to make another model with these modifications and eagerly awaiting my promised order of a container load they did make me another sample. Once again, about another $850 and a few months. The next model arrived and nearly everything was as I was hoping - besides for a few loose bolts here and there. This is Solar Bike Fixie prototype 3:

fixi prototype 3

Fixi surfing

On October, 2010 I converted the fixie into an electric bike and it is fantastic. It's truly what I consider to be a great commuting machine for an average person. The electric fixie is shown below. Model: NUTCASE. This is fitted out with a 200W mini-motor and a water bottle style 9Ah battery. It can be upgraded to 350W or 500W but due to the increased current draw of the larger motors if using these batteries, it's better to use a rear 10Ah carrier rack battery.

electric fixie

I was very happy with the model but then ran into the economical side of things. What price can I sell these at to not lose money and hopefully make a small profit to continue with its production? Would bicycle shops stock these and sell them? What models would I compete with? How would the quality of my model compare to others out there? Is it really worth the trouble?

The answers to these proved to be quite dis-heartening. Most bicycle shops quite liked the model and were happy with the quality but they weren't interested at all in stocking it. The reasons were: there is a limited market for fixies with only young people wanting them that they feared was nearly over, most bicycle shops like to have only a few suppliers to keep things simple and are not interested at all in dealing with an individual supplier. And finally, it is impossible to compete with some of the other larger suppliers. Mongoose has a couple of fixie models out that they sell wholesale to bicycle shops for under $400 and Apollo has the "salt" and the "pepper" models and these companies import in huge volumes, have large supply networks and so can keep costs low. There are a number of online fixie suppliers now such as "drfixie", "chapelli cycles", "mojobike", "cellbikes" and others and they all can sell their models at about $500. I simply could not compete with these guys in terms of price (though my quality is a touch better I believe). I contacted some of these companies but they couldn't or wouldn't sell me their bikes for "retro" fitting to become electric and wouldn't offer a price I could work with. Also, their frames were not of the ideal strength and the holes present for the water bottle battery were absent in most cases. I was stuck between giving up or continuing, knowing that it would unlikely ever work out to be profitable. Having come so far, I think that most humans will continue even though they know they are destined for failure because they've put so much time, money and effort into it. I was the same and couldn't deal with the idea of not having my own bicycle so I maxed out my credit card once again and purchased the minium order quantity (50 bicycles). I made some further small changes to the dropout for the rear axle (changed it to a horizontal dropout), the head stem (made it adjustable), included an extra set of "retro" style handlebars that will offer improved comfort and vision if riding electric and included my model "NUTCASE" logo on it.

fixie final modifications

The minimum order was 50 bicycles and I purchased these without having any idea of the sales potential through my limited networks and knowing that I could not offer these to any bicycle shops and sell them while making a profit. I was ok with this and decided that it's better to pursue and see how it works out than start again with another idea. I had some ideas to have them hand painted to support local aboriginal artists which I'm still working on and I am working on supplying my university with a small fleet of electric bicycles to be used by staff and students and solar charged in a specially designed shed for them. I am currently researching systems for small scale solar-hydrogen production and the design of the cells and hydrogen canister on the bicycle and motor power that will be ideal (it seems that I will likely have to drop down to 24V rather than my preferred 36V due to cost of cells and packing arrangements). The bicycles have been prepared, packed, sent and last Friday I destroyed my back unpacking them from Fremantle port and gave thanks to my friend's kind offers of storage space in their garages. I've had interest and have sold two in advance and unloaded five to two bicycle shops that are helping me in my endevours (EZ. Rider & Cottesloe Cycles). There are currently 43 remaining as of valentines day 2011 and they will likely be the last of a limited edition of the Solar Bike Fixie Model Nutcase. I'll give a few away to friends and keep a couple for design purposes and I hope the rest find happy homes and serve their masters well throughout their lives.

fixie final production

A few photos, a lot of photoshop and then a bit of animation:

 

The End

Matt - Solar Bike, Feb 14th 2011