THE GO-BEHIND GOCYCLE
By Tony Donaldson
Richard Thorpe is the founder of Gocycle. While he has a varied background to look back on, like many of us, he started off as a cyclist from a young age. Many years later he took on a role as lead engineer working for the automaker McLaren. The combination of those two backgrounds is what eventually led him to see the possibilities for electric bikes, which prompted him to leave McLaren and found Gocycle.
EBA: So tell me a little about your background. I mean, you were an engineer from McLaren. And then how did that bring you into e-bikes?
Richard: Since I left McLaren in 2002, I’ve been involved in a lot of composite engineering, working with carbon fiber, and manufacturing and helping to design carbon fiber parts for racing cars. It really taught me a lot about how to work with lightweight composites and how to work well with finite element analysis of lightweight components.
I was into bikes a long time before I worked in the motorsport business. I was first inspired in 1980 with the DuPont prize for the Vector human-powered tricycle that set the world speed record for a human-powered vehicle at 55 mph. I think I was in 7th grade at the time, and I saw that picture on Popular Science magazine, and it inspired me to get involved with the development of bicycle recumbents. In later years when I was living in London, I got into developing urban bikes and bikes that are, you know, easy to live with and bikes that fold. And around that time, I could see that electric bikes were coming on stream from China, which I referred to as e-bike 1.0.
There were some early models in the U.S., even Lee Iacocca was probably a bit too early trying to launch an e-bike, selling through car dealerships at the time. I could see all the benefits of what an e-bike could offer with that motor, especially to an urban setting and an urban environment. And I felt, yeah, I had some unique experience in that I could combine my experience working with lightweight composite materials from the motor racing business, applying all the technology that I knew how and had learned to the electric motor, and create something that was much lighter, much more attractive for the western consumer than the e-bike 1.0s coming out of China.
EBA: Funny thing, but I was Lee Iacocca’s photographer for e-bike, and I got to ride those early lead-acid-powered bikes and they were terrible. Like you, he, too, saw their potential.
Richard: Yes, I mean, I remember pitching the first models of the Gocycle to the automotive industry. My pitch was started with me saying, “Hey, you know, Lee Iacocca was doing something there.” And I very much thought that this was something that automotive dealers would really take a shining to. The Gocycle was portable, also lightweight, and it can fit in cars.
And it was really a non-starter. I mean, I say right now I was 10 years too early in this industry, but I guess there’s a lot of people in the e-bike space that have been too early. It’s only in the last two, three years that you’re really starting to see a bit more of a mainstream consumer actually understand or have heard about
EBA: Yes, the technology has changed so much in the past, say five years.
Richard: I’ve had 1.0, 2.0 versions, and I think we’re on a like 3.0 right now. I think the next five years we’re going to see e-bike 4.0 coming around the bend. But for sure, you know, Bosch and the other mid-drive makers, they really shifted us from 2.0 into 3.0 in my view of the market, and actually commoditized the e-bike so that it could fit very, very easily into the traditional bicycle supply chain where you have unique drivetrain makers, and now you have motor drive makers, frame builders, and component builders.
IN THE FOLD
EBA: Let’s go back to the thought process coming up with that, because the Gocycle frame designs are all fairly similar, save for the most recent folding one. They all fold, but you must have started with sort of a blank sheet of paper to get to this. The way the wheels come off and the way that your clean drive protects the chain and everything.
Richard: When I was developing what would end up being Gocycle, I became aware of the electric bikes, and I was developing a portable product of a foldable bike that would have superior ride quality with no compromise to the right quality and no compromise to the rider fit. So, those were two key things on the design brief that were not going to change.
And you’ve also got geometry, those five points that you can’t really mess around with, which are the contact points that put the wheels to the ground, and the saddle, handlebars and pedals. Also, I was developing a product that would have the portability to be able to take it inside. You don’t have to worry about theft and all those good things.
At the time I was working for Bentley on their Le Mans car project and commuting to the northeast of London. The factory is out in farmland, and there was a lot of people or farmers that would take their tractors onto the road and they would dump all this kind of muck from the field that they just plowed. I was commuting on an Alex Moulton AM-7 (folding bicycle), and I got to this point where this thing was collecting so much dirt in the spokes and the chain, in the frame, and the cabling that I was just done with it. That was another thing I wasn’t going to compromise on—everything had to be enclosed nicely inside the product.
I strongly believe that bicycles fundamentally need to be of a certain weight. You’re always picking them up, you’re always handling them. They need to be lightweight to be enjoyable to own and ride. That was a key moment, which started the Gocycle down to the form factor that it’s taken.
And you can’t really just put a cover on top of something. Everything also has to do the job of structurally making the product nice and stiff to ride. So Gocycle became this monocoque type of automotive-inspired design where it was very much like a racing car where the chassis is the actual bodywork. And the Clean Drive, for example, is a very lightweight structure of injection-molded magnesium that acts as both the visual cover that protects the chain but also the structural rear swingarm.
EBA: And you’ve got suspension built into all of the models, don’t you? I mean, that rear link?
Richard: Yeah, the rear is suspended with about an inch of travel there. And, I chose 20-inch wheels because of all the world speed records that have been set on 20-inch wheels. That comes back from my understanding and interest in human-powered vehicles.
And so, when it comes to performance, a compact wheel offers very little, if any, reduction in rolling resistance with the modern tires that you have these days. It gives you that overall length of the product being shorter but still having a long wheelbase.
“And that was the moment when I thought if I founded an e-bike company, maybe we accelerate the adoption, even if it’s a very small way.”
And those tires we use is also important. We’ve got a wider tire than normal, which people only now are realizing that it’s actually the fastest lowest-rolling-resistance tire. There’s a now vast amount of data out there that says a wider tire will actually roll better, but with the added flexibility of the air in the tire, you can use that as your suspension. That’s one of the reasons why the Gocycle rides well because you can crank up the pressure on the rear tire that has suspension but run lower pressure in the front to still have improved rolling resistance and comfort.
EBA: It does make a difference definitely with varying tire pressure and you’ve selected such great tires for the bike.
Richard: Yeah, I mean, the original brief of the Gocycle was very much about lightweight and performance, and those performance tires are made for us by Vredestein. There’s actually a group in Holland that did a bunch of tests on 20-inch tires, and the Gocycle performance tires are in a class of their own in terms of rolling resistance.
EBA: Tell me about the e-bike miles program. I mean, it sounds like such a cool idea.
Richard: I’ve been commuting to work here at the Gocycle office for more than a decade, riding my Gocycle back and forth. Recently, over the last two to three years, there’s been just a huge increase in people’s awareness of global warming and traffic congestion that need to be tackled. I got to the point about two years ago where, on my commute, I could see that at times, I was the only one on the road on a bicycle, and I would ask myself, “Why am I the only person out here? Why aren’t there more people riding bicycles?” And that was the moment when I thought if I founded an e-bike company, maybe we accelerate the adoption, even if it’s a very small way.
When you drive a car on cold days, you get in and think, “Wow, this is such a nice environment to be in.” I have music, heat, maybe even heated seats. And that’s all quite different from being out on a bicycle. There’s also the danger inherent in cycling itself, which, as a company that has people cycling regularly, we’ve been affected by. I got to the point where I realized we’ve got to actually pay people to ride these things if we want to make a difference. And, I did a lot of research into other countries, and I noticed that France had trialed a scheme whereby if people worked for certain companies, they could claim a tax break if they were cycling to work.
“That’s something that’s always been part of what Gocycle is all about—having the freedom and flexibility to use it more than you would a traditional non-folding e-bike.”
And in Holland, the government had introduced a policy around 20 pence per mile. And there was a good study I found in Denmark that talked about the net benefits to society from more people cycling. So I’ve kind of bought into that notion that if someone’s on a bicycle or an e-bike, versus a car, that they’re saving money for society and that was what I needed to do as a founder of electric bike company. So, we started paying people to ride to work.
And it’s been it’s been a program that we just said, hey, any small company out there can do this tomorrow. I think we’ve saved 10,000 miles already since we introduced it in terms of less car miles traveled. It’s an easy thing to do, and we hope other people, other companies, join in. In the long term, we hope that the government would decide to give companies a tax break or tax credit for all the funds that we’ve paid out to our staff to effectively invest in the health and well-being of society as a whole.
IN THE FUTURE
EBA: What bikes are planned in the future, and do you have any prediction for the e-bike industry
Richard: Yeah, I don’t think we’ve even touched the surface of what the size that the e-bike market is going to be. It’s such a transformative product, and it’s going to be the dominant form of transport within an urban environment. Electric cars solve one part of the problem, which is pollution, but they don’t change congestion, and they’re a sedentary form of transport. There’s no active travel involved there.
We see a big growth opportunity in the folding segment where we are being recognized as a leader. I think the materials that are available to people, the amount of interest there is in the scooter business, and all that is bringing new thoughts to the portable aspect of e-bikes in the urban environment. I think that category right now, there’s probably three or four main players including us that are on the premium side of things. I think that category is going to grow.
I think the e-scooter market is a really interesting one, because I think it’s an amazing natural feeder for new customers that are going to want to upgrade to e-bikes after they’ve gone through their initial phase of fun and exhilaration of commuting on an e-scooter, and then realized that it’s quite a stressful commute to do that daily.
I believe from the beginning that if you’re in an urban environment that an e-bike that doesn’t fold or you can’t take it inside easily or onto a train is a compromise. This is very much our future, because we have a strong philosophy of designing lightweight bikes, so we’re working hard to keep the weight of our product on a downward trend. The bicycle industry is amazing at evolving and engineering, and the components seem to get lighter and better
I think the market is also going to see a lot more integration of auxiliary apps, health information, GPS, all that stuff. A couple of years ago Bosch debuted anti-lock brakes. The mindset is different once you’ve got a power supply on board, because you feel like you can put more stuff on it. Whether that increases the weight and makes the product less useful or not, I don’t know yet, but certainly you’re going to see a lot more accessories added.
EBA: Speaking of ease of function, there’s a Gocycle model designed to fold down in about 10 seconds.
Richard: Yes, that’s our new fast folder. We have a stowable range, which is more suited to people who want to store the bike at home or occasionally put it in the back of their car. And then we have our fast-folding range, which is under 10 seconds. It’s two latches, and the thing rolls on its wheels. So, yeah, the amount of convenience is important. That’s something that’s always been a part of what Gocycle is all about—having the freedom and flexibility to use it more than you would a traditional non-folding e-bike.
ELECTRIC BIKE ACTION MAGAZINE
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