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Flatbike Adventures at the Sea Otter Classic 2024

Bob Forgrave

Flatbike Adventures at Sea Otter

The Sea Otter Classic, held each year at Laguna Seca in Monterey, is more than a bike show. It’s an exposition large enough to get lost in, combined with 14 races across MTB, road, and gravel, and somewhat of a carnival atmosphere. Last year had 580+ exhibitors and more than 76,000 attendees.

This year’s Sea Otter was likely even bigger than last year. Race results were constantly being announced for three days.

Sea Otter map

Think of it like a small city, with maps that don’t name any stores. Exhibitor names are all conveniently online . .  if you have cell service.

A word about the attendees . . . Sea Otter crowds are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. People and bikes of all types blend together in one moving mass. And these aren’t people walking their bikes. These are an eclectic mix of high-end mountain bikers, aero bike road racers, and little kids on bikes with no pedals riding their bikes expertly through thick crowds, with never a collision.

And if people ever got far enough for a couple sets of handlebars, there were plenty of expert MTBers happy to ride manuals–wheelies–safely into the crowds. I also saw a unicycle, several cargo bikes, and a guy with a lawn chair mounted on a one-wheel skateboard casually zip by several times. I could swear he had a plate of nachos the last time.

 

Red Bull/Hyper Bike had an entire entertainment ring at Sea Otter, with regularly scheduled shows drawing large crowds. Mazda had three consecutive booths and a staff of 10, all in stylish black. Fox had enough consecutive stalls to populate an entire street. Some vendors even construct actual buildings for the week.

Building at Sea Otter

No tents here. Build it and they will come.

This was the environment that Flatbike went into again this year, with a simple 10 x 10 canopy, three new bike models, an upcoming Kickstarter for a new product, and one booth worker (me).

Were we going to make a big splash at Sea Otter? Unlikely. Every third booth had a giveaway, sometimes for $6,000 bikes, so whatever we did would just be one of hundreds of amazing promotions. But we still had big, audacious goals:

  1. Show our full-size folding bikes and space-saving components outside of our corner of Washington State.
  2. Put our “portable adventure” approach to the test. Do everything by bike, and save $550 by biking from the airport and not renting a car.
  3. Test a new idea about how we think bike cases should work.
  4. Get expert feedback on our first Flatbike-manufactured (vs Flatbike-assembled) product.
Flatbike booth at Sea Otter

Flatbike booth #L309. Just one of hundreds of exhibitors in a very large event. The red table is made of two bike-shipping boxes.

And, of course, stickers this year. We might have had the best stickers at Sea Otter.

Flatbike stickers for Sea Otter

What do you think?

 

Three new CHANGE bike models at Sea Otter 2024

There’s often no substitute for seeing something first-hand. In our case, there’s a “Yikes!” factor that needs to be overcome when people think of using a folding bike in rugged ways, so it was essential to demonstrate a different approach, one in which the frame holds itself together, and the butterfly latch below it is just there to push up. This was an eye-opening reveal for many folks, even though we’ve been selling it since 2017.

latch open latch closed

Now to build on that. We got consistent feedback on all three new bikes. In general, it was:

  • CHANGE Folding Gravel Bike (our top seller): “Nice! Can you also do a road bike?” Answer: Many of our customers today are already customizing their Folding Gravel Bikes in a more road-like direction. And when Changebike, LTD in Taiwan introduces their official gravel frame (vs the MTB frame we’re building off today), we’ll go even more in a road direction.
  • CHANGE Folding Adventure Bike (announced last month): “Does that have the same gearing as the gravel bike or the MTB?” Answer: Either. Lots of flexibility with a hybrid. And if we electrify one of them, this will be the first candidate.
  • CHANGE Folding Off-Road MTB (still not announced yet): This was folded in front of our booth, so it became the main draw. Every initial question was about the latch, how it avoids the latch stress problem on every other folding bike, etc, which led to lots of demos. This led to the Why question. “Why put my folded MTB in a car trunk or elevator?” Answers: Reduced theft after your ride, use a taxi/Uber/Lyft to go from one riding area to another, and bring MTB fun to city people who live in an apartment ad may not even have a car.

Which brings us to this challenge… Can I prove the car-free message on myself? Go to Sea Otter and not rent a car at all?

According to Google, there’s a hotel next to the airport, but Laguna Seca is 51 minutes of steep climbing away. Every day of the show. We’re going to need a travel plan and great gearing.

We put Portable Adventure to the test at Sea Otter

First, if I’m going to ride from the airport to the hotel, I’m going to need everything as bike-friendly as possible at the other end. All show materials shipped directly to the show. All personal clothes in panniers.

But the bike shipping case itself? That’s a problem.

At 37″ x 15″ x 30″  (94cm x 38cm x 76cm), the shipping box for a folded CHANGE bike is somewhat less awkward than a standard bike shipping case. And there’s less assembly than usual at the other end–just unfold, remount the front wheel, and put the bars back on the stem. But still–even empty, how am I going to carry a 37″ x 30″ box on my bike???

A common answer is to just throw away the shipping box at the airport and trust that another box will spontaneously be available after the trip. With all these bike vendors around, all needing to leave at the same time, the likelihood of success with that plan was 0%.

No, we needed an entirely different approach. Working off an idea we’ve discussed internally at Flatbike, I cut apart a standard Flatbike shipping carton and meticulously reassembled it into an entirely new type of bike shipping box–one that fits inside itself at the other end of the trip to collapse down to half the size, at 15″ x 15″ x 30″. Now THAT can be carried on a bike.

fitting a bike into a much smaller box

Start with a box half the size of a CHANGE bike carrying bag. Then fit a full-size bike in it. Yes, it’s still oversize. (Even a single 700c rear wheel by itself would be close to oversize).

The new collapsible bike box design works well . . . except for one complication

The night before the flight down, we completed the collapsible box, and we packed a Folding Adventure Bike in it. So far, so good.

We put it on the plane as oversized baggage, and then I picked it up in the Monterey airport. Still, good, although I had a bit of shipping envy as someone went by with a similar-sized case WITH WHEELS. Impressive! BikeBox Alan comes from the UK, and costs 346 pounds sterling ($432) for the Premium Bike Box. It’s also available in the US from one supplier who wants an eye-watering $1,000 USD.

Similar sized bike box at Sea Otter

So similar in size. Such a different approach.

But to get down to that size, you can’t just fold your bike in half. You need to pull off both wheels, your stem, and your rear derailleur. At least your crank and fork stay on.

Hmm. I’ll take my collapsible, mostly free Flatbike box . . . that TSA HAS OPENED DURING TRANSPORT! Not a good sign.

Upon reassembly in the airport, I discovered that TSA had taken everything out of the box, stuffed it back in differently, and bent my front disc rotor. Why hadn’t I taken that off and properly protected it like serious bike riders do? Because I was testing how little work and rework was necessary for air travel by bike, and the experiment backfired in this respect. The rest had gone well.

The Sea Otter adventure begins

The adventure begins. Actually, thanks to TSA repacking, the adventure has already begun : (

I chose B3 bags because they can hold so much stuff, but they’re a bit top heavy. Next time it’s back to Ortlieb. Now I just need to bike to the closest hotel.

When entering a hotel room for the first time with a CHANGE bike, I like to play a bit of  “Where’s Waldo?” with my bike, finding places I’d put a bike out of the way if I lived in a studio apartment but still wanted a real bike. How well does a full-size folding bike blend in?

Hiding a CHANGE bike

Three stars! This hotel room has plenty of space for three full-size folding bikes.

 

A CHANGE Folding Adventure Bike and the case it arrived in. In a studio apartment, it’s not hard to imagine that minimized case with a cover on it, turned into a functional end table.

Change bike with folded box

Spoiler alert: Astute readers will note some additional cabling and something unusual going on at the rear wheel disc. Before this article is over, we’ll be discussing electrifying a CHANGE bike.

 

Climbing and descending with a CHANGE Folding Adventure Bike

But first, there’s this cycling route to the show every day.

route map

Ready for 54 minutes of “very steep hill?”

54 minutes of climb, much of it “very steep”, according to Google. And my front brake will be on intermittently with every wheel rotation, unless I can do something about it without tools.

Getting millimeter precision without a dedicated tool like the Park DT-2 is possible with other tools, like an adjustable jaw wrench, if you follow the right disc-bending procedure, but nope. but, I didn’t bring anything but hex wrenches. So I did as much as possible by hand and then widened the brake calipers to minimize the effect of a partly bent disc–a classic case of fixing the symptom, not the problem.

So rubbing brakes weren’t an issue. Gearing wasn’t an issue. I was using the 2X version of the bike, which gave me a 30/42 combination, for a low gear ratio of 0.7, which is in mountain bike territory. For most of the climb, I didn’t even need the lowest gear.

Other times, I absolutely needed that low gear. I counted telephone poles. I counted cadence—THREE 2 3 4, FOUR 2 3 4, etc, until cresting one hill and heading into the next. I got passed by e-bikers and excellent cyclists half my age. And still, somehow, I arrived at the venue a few minutes before Google said I would. Goals #2 and #3 of our original plan were still working.

overgrown path

Even in this biking Mecca, you might still need to dart out of your bike lane into traffic. Or rather drift predictably into traffic, at a slow and steady climbing speed…

On the way back, all downhill, the experience was completely the opposite. At this speed, we don’t need bike lanes.

Remember that steepness? Now it’s reversed. Even with a 46/11 gear combination for a 4.2 top gear, I hit maximum cadence of 120 rotations/minute with a car behind me, a car ahead, and a passing car beside me looking for a place to cut in. Stressful? A bit. But I could focus on the cars. There is no way I ever would have ever done this on any other folding bike.

I had no speedometer or cycle computer on this trip, but It felt like at least 40 miles/hour. It turns out there’s a pretty cool bike speed calculator for use with cadence, gearing, and wheel-size variables and sure enough, the calculator says 41 mph. So there you have it; if you’re planning to go over 40 mph, the CHANGE Folding Adventure Bike is probably undergeared.

Discoveries at Sea Otter 2024

One of the downsides of a one-man booth is very little time to browse the amazing range of offerings as the show. Every discovery has to be made either before or after the show, or during a lull in the passersby when the Red Bull arena was in full-on daredevil mode and attracting large crowds.

In our limited scouting before-and-after the show, five exhibits stood out as worthy of specific mention:

      • Winnebago. This massive booth was right across from us, and surprisingly large for a bike conference, so naturally I had to visit. They’ve already got a relationship with a manufacturer of folding e-bikes–that are then stuck on the back of the vehicle in the rain and road grit like any other bike–but I found it far more interesting to mentally play “Where’s Waldo?” again. How many safe places could I put a full-size folding bike INSIDE, yet out of the way? Here are some options.


        .

      • KMC. A company that sells only chains. (Not that strange at Sea Otter, really, since the other booth by us sold only spokes.) But these chains solve an issue we’d been facing. Boaters have told us that a bike chain is basically 116 pieces of metal that can rust in corrosive weather. So this discovery was interesting. It’s a specially coated chain for marine environments. Should we start to stock it?
        a chain for marine environments

        If you’re a boater, this is way better than waxing your chain all the time.

        .

      • GoPro. Special shout-out to the GoPro booth folks who helped get me back up and running twice in one weekend as I tried to get a new camera unboxed and operational during the show.
        .
      • Red Bull/Hyper Bike. I don’t know if we call this an exhibit or a demonstration–definitely not a booth. More like one of the rings of a three-ring circus, with regular crowd-pleasing acts and routines running hourly.
        Flips at Sea Otter

        Riders spend little time upright at this exhibition.

        .

      • Bimotal. This one was intriguing. Started by former Tesla technical leads, Bimotal makes removable motors for bikes–just attach to your rear brake disc and go. Naturally, this is a modified brake disc, with a gear attached. But the ability to remove your motor when you go into a grocery store, just as easily as you remove pop-off pedals for bike security, is potentially a nice complement to our portable adventure offerings.

 

Last but not least, our own Flatbike-designed Pop-Off Pedals, coming to Kickstarter were out there for discovery and feedback. What would serious trail and cross-country riders think of Flatbike Pop-Off Pedals for MTBs and e-bikes?

We knew that these had passed ISO-4210 destruction testing, but still… we expected some occasional pushback to the concept of pedals that come off. Instead, we heard things like “Amazing”, “Cool”, “Dope”, “That helps prevent theft,” and once, “This is the discovery of the show for me.” Or even better, “I’ve been coming here since 1996. There’s not something unique every year, but this is.”

Wow. The only resistant message we heard—and I heard it seven times—was, “Do you also have this same latch in SPD? Because I want to switch back and forth for different types of MTB.”

OK, right now we have 2,000 sets of MTB platform pedals queued up for our launch and beyond, and none for SPD, but it’s clear what our first line expansion needs to be when the time comes.

The best discovery of the show

As the daily steep climbs to the Sea Otter exhibition field added up, I definitely felt it. Yes, I could still make it without stopping. And as long as I rehydrated after arrival, I was no worse for wear. But I had to get into the climbing mindset every time, and I was starting to feel jealous of the e-bikes passing me at the most grueling sections.

Before next year, I needed to find an elegant way to put a lightweight e-bike motor on the CHANGE folding frame. We’ve actually done it four times already for individual customers, but this would be something we would market as a Flatbike-approved approach. Once we find the find the perfect combination of power, rideability, and flexibility, of course.

Then, out of the blue, the answer dropped in my lap.

Toby, from the Bimotal booth, was exploring the show and dropped by the Flatbike booth. “Would you like your bike electrified?”

It took me about 1.5 seconds to decide that two bikes in our booth were enough. Who needs three? We could spare the CHANGE Folding Adventure Bike that I’d been commuting with daily. “Absolutely!”

Bimotal motor on and off

Yet another amazing thing? This hand-sized motor delivers 750 watts of drive power!

And just like that, we had our closest model yet of an electrified folding CHANGE bike–both motor and battery. In the shop, we’ll fine-tune some things for best compatibility, like which wheel and rear brake caliper we choose, and how we route the extra cabling, but this development is significant.

The next day, my 51-minute steep climb took 25 minutes, passing  in-shape road bikers and some e-bikers on the super-steep sections without counting any cadence or telephone poles, and I arrived without a river of sweat pouring off my chin. I was an e-bike believer.

For those with e-bike experience or preferences already, here are answers to the questions you probably have:

      • Isn’t a rear-drive less efficient than a mid-drive? Yes, since it doesn’t use the mechanical advantage of the gearing. However, at 750 watts, this has power to spare, and the efficient design from ex-Tesla engineers makes this rear-wheel drive beat most mid-drives up to about a 15% grade. My hills were steeper at times, and all I did differently was drop down into 5th gear.
        .
      • What about the extra impact of the motor as a rotating mass inside the rear wheel? That common downside of a rear-wheel motor doesn’t apply here; the motor is affixed in a stationary position, down low.
        .
      • Is this pedal-assist or throttle-only? This is the simplest possible design–throttle only. In practice, that meant that I engaged the motor only when a hill was starting to get to me, either out of steepness or shallow and just really long when I wasn’t into climbing. It’s the ultimate hill eraser.
        .
      • Do you feel drag of the motor when it’s not engaged? Definitely not when the motor is turned off (or even removed along with the battery in 15 seconds or less). But between throttle uses? I’m not sure. Sometimes on steep hills it seems like yes, and sometimes no. It could be, as Bimotal said to us, that the rider forgets how tough a hill is when using the motor, so the sudden absence of a motor feels like a drag. Makes sense to me…

More travel, now with a lithium battery

After the show, we reversed the arrival process with two exceptions, now that I had a non-TSA-friendly lithium battery. First, I mailed the battery back to our shop via UPS Ground, which accepts this type of shipment–FedEx does not. And since I was already in a UPS, I just mailed the bike back too.

That was expensive ($180!), as UPS outlets have their own rate structure. In retrospect, riding to a FedEx to ship the bike for half of that was an option, as was riding back to the airport and shipping for $40 on Alaska Airlines. But it was a long show, and honestly, I was knackered.

In the end, even with this extra shipping expense, we completely achieved our goal of testing portable adventure to save on car rental, got great feedback on our latest products, found a way to build even better full-size folding bikes for boaters . . . and came away with a customer-focused leap forward that we never expected.

Sea Otter for the win!

Bob Forgrave

flatbike-logo

Bob Forgrave is president of Flatbike, an
ecommerce company offering full-size folding bikes
and kits to make any bike take up half the space.


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