On a tricycle

On a tricycle built for - well, everyone
by Chad Cain

FLORENCE - High gas prices, retiring baby boomers and a go-green movement might be converging for a fledgling Florence company that makes recumbent tricycles.

The way Josh Kerson sees it, there's a burgeoning market for the trikes that his company, RunAbout Cycles Inc., makes at its 30 N. Maple St. headquarters. The hybrids are powered by a combination of old-fashioned pedaling and an electric motor built into the bike's drive train.

It's an invention Kerson has spent the last eight years perfecting, and now that RunAbout Cycles has a solid prototype in place, he believes he has positioned the company to meet the demands of an untapped market.

Backed by a major investor from Tennessee, Kerson said he is close to landing a manufacturing deal that would call for the production of 5,000 trikes a year and for developing a marketing campaign to sell the bikes. That's a significant increase from the 15 trikes the company has made to date.

"These are really handmade prototypes that we can manufacture more efficiently," he said, noting that a manufacturing company would be able to buy the needed parts in bulk rather than by ones and twos.

Where these bikes would be produced is still being considered. Kerson said most trikes are mass-produced in Asia, and he is looking at China and Taiwan as possibilities. He said a Pennsylvania company also has made a solid offer, using smart technology such as robotic laser cutters that would lower overall costs to make the bikes.

"I'd love to manufacture in the States," Kerson said.

In addition to a potential manufacturing deal, Kerson said RunAbout Cycles will also convert part of its shop into a retail store for the first time in its two-year history. The retail operation, set to open this week, will sell traditional iZip upright electric bikes and eGO electric scooters. The store also will sell kits that can convert traditional bikes into electric bikes. Those kits are made by a Canadian company called BionX and by a California company called Sierra Cycles.

"For us, it's a real exciting time to move into a full-blown electric bike store," said Kerson, adding that his store will be featured in a window display in front of Faces' store downtown this spring.

How it works

RunAbout Cycle's signature product is its recumbent trike known as the SpinCycle. Riders of the bike pedal in a semi-reclining position, aided by an engine that runs through the bike's drive train. Two batteries are located under the seat.

"You can pedal like a regular bike, or you can use the motor, or ideally you do both," said Kerson.

How far and how fast one charge can take a rider depends on many variables, mainly because riders decide how much energy they want to use during a ride. Kerson said some riders can go all day on one charge, while others use up their energy in as little as two hours. Those who don't pedal and use only electricity can go about 35 miles on one charge. Those who pedal a lot and use electricity at the same time can cover about 40 miles on a single charge. Most riders travel in the 18- to 20-mph range.

"You can get a cardio workout or you can pedal to a comfort level," Kerson said.

The trike Kerson and his cohorts created, which started out weighing nearly 300 pounds and included a trailer, now weighs about 80 pounds. Over the years he incorporated the trailer into the trike itself, went to a smaller model with a smaller motor, and installed more lightweight, lithium-ion batteries. The batteries weigh 13 pounds each and are recyclable, compared to the initial trike that had traditional acid batteries weighing 135 pounds.

"If you ride a golf cart around, the weight of the battery doesn't matter. But for a bike, you want to use the lightest, highest-energy battery," he said.

Charging the batteries is as simple as plugging them into an electric outlet using a charger that comes with the trike. It costs about a dime for a full charge. Kerson also sells a solar panel package with his trikes, which some customers prefer. Solar panels likely will last through several bikes and up to 30 years.

In addition to saving money on gas and helping the environment, Kerson believes his recumbent bike offers many attractive features. The bike is more stable than a traditional bike because it has a low center of gravity and a wide wheelbase.

Most people, especially senior citizens, like the exercise they can get while still having the option to use the motor for extra energy when climbing hills or carrying extra weight such as groceries. The trike can carry a rider of up to 250 pounds along with up to 100 pounds of cargo in saddlebags secured to the rear rack.

"These days it's a really advantageous system to have," he said. "What's misunderstood about the electric-human hybrid is you can pedal like you would a regular bike. By pedaling that way, you can go 20 mph instead of 12 mph on a traditional bike."

A burgeoning market

When he thinks about the future, Kerson believes several factors are in RunAbout Cycle's favor.

The entrepreneur is looking to Asia for a view into the electric trike's future. His research shows that in 2007 there were 12 million electric and recumbent bikes in China, compared to about 60,000 in Europe and 40,000 in the United States.

"They are significantly moving forward in another part of the world that we don't see here - 12 million Chinese can't be wrong. It works in an area where they've been riding bikes forever," Kerson said.

In the United States, some 50 million baby boomers have retired or are about to retire. That's a market Kerson would like to target and it's also a segment of the population that can afford the pricetag.

The bikes now cost $6,000 to make in the company's Florence location. If they are mass produced as planned - Kerson is still hoping to find more investors for the manufacturing and marketing campaigns - the cost would drop to about $4,000.

Kerson said each trike includes nearly 300 components and takes two experienced workers in the bicycle and automotive industries about five weeks to build.

RunAbout Cycles likely will market its trikes in areas that offer year-round riding opportunities. The "fair-weather" trike can be a tough sell in New England, but Kerson said people who live in the Sun Belt states would have the option of integrating the bike into their lives.

"They could leave their cars at home," he said. "It's great in a 10-mile area. ... The aim is not to replace cars. The goal is to have a healthier ride, and a more efficient ride."

It's only fitting that Kerson is carving a niche for himself in the bicycle industry. For 15 years, the Williamsburg resident earned a living running a bike repair shop in the warm months and fixing skis in the winter months.

But in 2000, at the age of 30, he decided to head back to school to pursue a dream of producing his own vehicle.

"At a certain point I realized I wanted to take it to another level. I started attending trade shows and realized that two niches were starting to grow in the bicycling industry, electric bikes and recumbent bikes," he said.

He attended UMass' University Without Walls and earned a bachelor of arts degree in entrepreneurial business and appropriate vehicle design. RunAbout Cycles launched in 2006, but the trike has been a work in progress for much longer.

"This literally is my design from the ground up. There is not a recumbent tricycle with the electrics designed into the frame from the ground up," he said.

Chad Cain cain be reached at ccain@gazettenet.com.