His name is Storm Sondors, and he’s made a fat-tire electric bicycle that sells for $499.
Sondors launched the bike in February 2015 after successful campaigns on crowdfunding sites Kickstarter and Indiegogo. He raised a combined $12 million, and still holds the record for the second-most-funded project on Indiegogo.
As for fat-tire bikes, they have become pretty popular, and they’re great off-road, especially in snow and sand — and look badass. With the Sondors, fat tires meet e-bike at a surprisingly low price.
Before we go any further, a note on the price: While the bike launched at $499, shipping will cost another $200. The price will also rise in future campaigns. But even then, the price of his bike seems out of place — if not impossible — in a market crowded with models that can cost 10 times what Sondors is charging.
By comparison, Specialised, a maker of popular road and mountain bikes, produces electric models that will set you back between $3,000 and $7,000. There’s Pedego, which has been producing pretty e-bikes since 2009. Their entry-level models will cost about three grand.
A good deal of controversy surrounded the project, fuelled in large part by a cease-and-desist order from another manufacturer that had already produced an e-bike called the 'Storm' (Sondors' original name for his product) as well as a lawsuit from Sondors' own PR agency for breach of contract.
Internet crowdfunding brings with it a great number of prying eyes, and when these suits were posted online a debate erupted over whether people would ever get their bikes.
There have certainly been lengthy delays; there are more than a few stories about owners receiving their bikes almost a year after contributing to the campaign. But let's not forget: The internet liked Sondors' idea so much it gave him 12 million bucks. In one year, Sondors has turned that into a production reality -- and the man was happy to report that all ordered bikes from the original campaign have now been delivered.
Sondors, an avid surfer, spent much of his career making children's toys, including, he told me, designing toys for McDonald's Happy Meals. He also said he recently purchased his first smartphone.
'I like something, and when I can't afford it, I try to make it myself,' Sondors said, 'and being into mass market (production) I started to ask myself, 'Could this be done better?''
By 'better' Sondors means cheaper. He claims his two decades in the toy industry helped him figure out how to produce the bike while avoiding major costs. He has evaded spending much on marketing, benefiting from the free press surrounding his record-smashing crowdsourcing campaigns and word of mouth.
The giant box showed up in our office in early February, and assembly was a simple affair. Anyone who's ever ridden a bicycle and would feel comfortable assembling a piece of IKEA furniture would be more than OK tackling this task.
There are directions online, in the form of official YouTube videos. I'd have preferred paper instructions, though, because handling the bike while watching and pausing videos is a pain.
The packaging could have been better, too: Damage during shipping included a bent front dropout, and the front brake took a hit. I was able to fix it myself, but some would probably have wanted to consult a bike shop.
Overall, the bike is a mean-looking machine. On close inspection, it's clear the components are bottom of the range, but the entire package is well-styled, especially the 'Sondors' logo on the battery case. And the seat is comfortable.
The bike captures a lot of attention: Reporters in our newsroom stared, children on the footpaths pointed fingers, taxi drivers leaned over to look.
'Hey, bro, nice tires!'
I imagine this is what it's like to drive around in a red Ferrari. Is it a good thing? It depends where you are. On the beach in Santa Monica, it brings smiles. In a busy East Coast city, it means I'd probably not want to leave it chained up outside the grocery store. Potential owners should prepare themselves for many questions from passersby. Some will like the attention; others may just want to get on their way.
Sondors' product does not exactly follow the emerging e-bike norm. His bike has a throttle, which allows the rider to add in electric power at any time or to use it exclusively, which makes the bike seem more like a scooter at times.
Most e-bikes use a sensor to add power to whatever output the rider is already making. In other words, they supplement, and don't replace, pedalling. Bikes like Sondors' are technically illegal in some cities, including New York, but in many cases the laws are not strictly enforced.
The bike will do 20 mph on electric power alone, which is the maximum allowed in many cities. In terms of top speed, it's really enough.
I did my best to avoid eye contact with a cyclist I'd blown past when he pulled up along side me at a red light later down the road. Man, how he must have hated my big, goofy bike. How I enjoyed knowing he did.
An electric bike is a great thing. Like most things that move, the Sondors will deliver joy. The immediate torque from the electric motor will pick you up from a standstill with naught but a pleasant hum. Like the hoverboard or the jet pack, the e-bike is another expression of our common delight at -- if not obsession with -- personal locomotion.
Of the people I let try the Sondors, each had the same immediate and happy reaction; that this can be achieved for $500 is a commendable accomplishment.
The site claims a range of 20 miles on electric power alone and 30-50 miles pedal assist. I have yet to try the bike out on any trip that long, but I can say if I ever did exhaust the battery, attempting to pedal a heavy, single-speed fat-tire bike home would be ... probably miserable.
I pedaled without the motor for a while, and quickly learned that trying to leg-press this thing off the line is decidedly un-fun. In fact, even with the electric motor engaged, on any kind of steep slope, the Sondors struggles. It simply does not have the grunt to pull itself up anything significant, and with just one speed, you're out of luck.
The braking is disappointing. While disk brakes on a $500 bike are a pleasant surprise, these are pretty poor, and struggle to slow the big creature down. I had to adjust them several times in two weeks, which, while a simple though annoying fix, may require a trip to a bike shop.
The fat tires do help a great deal in an urban environment. Potholes? No problem. Sunken storm drains? Easy. Curbs? Like a gentle massage. I spent a good bit of time looking for things to run over. All experiments resulted in big, silly grins. Again, this adds to the novelty factor of the Sondors, but not much in terms of real practicality.
The huge tires and wheels are quite heavy -- add in the battery and basic steel frame and you end up with a rather unwieldy 55-pound heft. Try lifting this thing up two flights of stairs, and you will quickly decide walking was just fine anyway.
Walking the bike down stairs is not just unpleasant -- it's borderline dangerous. I dreaded having to descend them each time I took the bike out. If you don't have a ground-level garage or shed and stairs are a part of your life, an e-bike may not be for you.
So is the big, cartoonish Sondors e-bike a bad thing? I think not. It's just not really an e-bike as we understand them. The bike is a toy. In fact, it's a really good toy -- it will make you smile. Comparing the Sondors to other e-bikes, or even to other bikes, misses the point.
If you need a bike on which to commute or conquer mountains, look elsewhere. But for something to knock around on -- to cruise along a beach or an easy trail or just feel some wind in your hair -- you cannot go wrong with the Sondors. In the bike's best moments it is an innocent deliverer of happiness at a bargain price.
The bike's creator told me much of his clientele were not 'typical bike people.' A lot of them, he imagined, would otherwise be unable or uninterested in riding a bicycle.
The unofficial owners' Facebook page is filled with accounts of users, some older or even elderly, going for bike rides -- you know, like you did when you were a kid. There are also a good number of people customising their bikes, which, considering the price, is a great idea.
I wouldn't dream of modifying a $3,000 Specialised Turbo, but a $500 Sondors? Why not swap in a bigger battery, better brakes, a more powerful motor, or fenders? You'll still come in well under the base price of the vast majority of models, and you would end up with something that is completely your own.
The company just launched a new crowdfunding campaign for the Sondors Thin, which will weigh less than half the original model, and come with normal road tires, a lighter battery, and aluminium tubing. Just like the original, it will cost $499 to early contributors -- and already it has raised seven times the campaign goal.
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