One of my most-read articles is a 2011 interview with Josh Hon of Tern Bicycles, published shortly after the launch of that folding bicycle brand. In 2012, I touched base with him just after Eurobike and the addition of four bicycles to the line. This year, I asked Josh about handleposts—the tall vertical tube that connects the handlebars to the front of the bike—and about how much he gets to ride when he’s on the road. Spoiler alert: Levi’s Commuter Jeans seem to be an important part of the Tern uniform.
I was just watching your video of the Tern Social Ride during the Taipei Cycle Show. Neat to see people riding the bikes for real, not just for the cameras, and that sidecar bike was super cool rolling along with the “laptop guy.”
That laptop guy was Eric Mah, part of our marketing team, and in fact he was busy editing a photo for the Taipei Cycle Show Daily that was waiting for a pic of the Social Ride so they could include it in the next day’s issue. So you see how responsive we are.
Tern is really involved in what I’d call “special events”: SXSW and tie-ups with German and Italian transit operators.
You are right. We do a lot of events. Events can tick a lot of boxes: they raise brand awareness, they’re often good for the local community of riders and potential riders, they can help drive sales and, importantly, we enjoy doing them. The entire team works incredibly hard–and events allow us to feel some of the love for our product.
What’s next? More of the same?
Yes, I do think you’ll see more of the same from us. Specifically, we think it’s great doing events that encourage more people to try riding.
You got some attention at the show for the Physis 3D handlepost. The handlepost seems to be the real key to success with folding bikes that have short head tubes.
We’re extremely proud of the Physis 3D. Yes it does seem simple, but it’s incredibly hard to design a handlepost that folds well and is strong. The devil is in the details. Our Physis handlepost incorporates four separate patents.
There are a few key reasons why we’ve been able innovate so quickly on this critical piece:
• Our small product team has over 100 years of experience designing folding bicycles. I’ve been at it for over 20 years now. That’s a lot of testing, prototyping and iterations that are part of our DNA.
• We ride our own stuff. Getting to work, on weekends, we’re on our own product. So we’re constantly thinking about how it can be improved. Our head of product design has never owned a car. And he lives in Finland. That means he’s riding every single day of the year, including through the Finnish winter. So it means that we’re not just designing our bikes for the occasional weekend ride—we’re constantly thinking about things like corrosion, salt, extreme cold and serviceability because these are things we face ourselves on a regular basis.
• We’re focused. Folding bikes are all we do. Folding bikes aren’t some small side project sitting next to road and mountain bikes.
Where the Physis handlepost stands out is its stiffness. Most times when you get on a folding bike, you feel lots of unwanted flex. Between the incredibly stiff Physis and our stiff frames, the ride of a Tern is very different.
Seems like such a simple thing: increase the diameter for extra stiffness, improve the hinges for durability and ease of use and you’re done. What does Tern know about handleposts that others don’t (or don’t focus on)? What’s changed the most in handlepost technology in recent years?
We’ve done a few things to get that stiffness:
• We’ve integrated the headset into the base of our Physis. Typically, there can be unwanted flex at the interface of handlepost and headset. By machining the base of the Physis, we’ve essentially turned the Physis into, by far, the stiffest headset upper on the planet. That’s one of the patents on the Physis.
• With 3D forging, we’ve taken the design a step further. 3D forging is not new; many of the latest and best stems use it to reduce weight and increase strength, but typical 3D forged stems are only 100mm in length. Our Physis, on the other hand, is a breakthrough because it’s the largest (that I’m aware of) 3D forging currently used in the bike industry. There are only a few forging companies in the world that can do a 3D forging that large and with the precision that we demand. 3D forging really lets you optimize for strength and weight. Our Physis 2D handlepost passes EN testing by a very healthy margin; by comparison, we simply couldn’t break the Physis 3D. After exceeding standards by about 400% we simply had to turn off the test machine. Now of course an engineer is thinking, “Well then it’s over-engineered” and they’d be right. So our next iteration will likely have some weight reduction, but we always prefer to have a healthy safety margin and then refine from there.
Your job involves a lot of travel. How much riding do you do along the way?
If it’s a quick in-an-out sales-type visit, then usually I don’t do a lot of riding. But the team and I always look for excuses to get riding in.
One place we get a lot of riding in is at trade shows. Traditionally, when you do a show, you get a hotel near the event and walk or drive. It’s pretty ironic, but at most cycling trade shows you see traffic jams with all the attendees trying to get into the parking lot. We used to do the same thing–staying in smoky noisy, casino hotels in Las Vegas for Interbike, for instance.
Now, we rent a house a bit farther away and ride in every day. It’s great shooting past all the cars waiting to get parking. If it rains, our bikes have fenders. At night, most of our bikes have lights. Put on a pair of Levi’s Commuter Jeans, and we’re already dressed for the show. In Vegas we get a nice house with pool and a big backyard, and we barbecue, host evening soirées, eat steaks from Costco, and save money relative to staying in a hotel. Plus, the entire team gets to hang out together, which is pretty critical since we come from all corners of the globe and don’t get enough time with each other.
At Eurobike, we rent a farm house and ride through apple orchards every morning to get to the show. The traffic at Eurobike can be pretty crazy, and cycling is even more of a time saver.
Of course, since our bikes fold they are super versatile. There have been times in Germany where it starts pouring rain, and perhaps we’ve had a beer too many, so it’s easy to simply fold the bike and jump in a van back home.
Which Tern are you riding?
Personally, I’m currently on an Eclipse S11i but I’ll be changing soon to an Eclipse X20. I love the ride of the 507 wheel size.
I know you’ve been doing this for a long time, but what does your more recent travel tell you about the relative health of bicycling around the world?
We see very strong, healthy growth in many markets. When I started in this business, most of my friends said, “You’re doing what??” Cycling was not cool and was hardly on the transport agenda for most governments. As a teenager in the States, the one thing everybody wanted at the age of sixteen was a car. Now it’s different. I had a friend just today who asked, “Hey, can you recommend a dealer in Beijing who can build up a wheel with an internal gear hub?”
The image of cycling has changed profoundly. In so many countries now, cycling is seen as a critical component of the transport plan. Public monies are being invested in cycling infrastructure. London just announced a billion dollars for cycling projects over the next ten years. New York is doing a great job. But it’s not just these cities: we also see it in somewhat unexpected (at least for an American) places like Buenos Aires or Bogota, Colombia. Did you know that in Bogota they close 70 miles of city streets every Sunday so that people can get out and ride, skate, blade and walk? Up to 2 million people get out and enjoy the streets. That’s amazing and uplifting.
Now obviously a lot more needs to be done in many cities, but in general we see really strong, positive growth around the world. We see that when governments invest in cycling infrastructure, good things happen.
Two years ago, you identified service as “the single area that needs the most focus” by your new company and mentioned the importance of service centers and quick parts fulfillment to your go-to-market strategy. Do you feel you’ve hit your service marks? It has to be difficult to be focused on something that a bicycle buyer might think of simply as a necessary part of the business–if indeed the buyer thinks of parts fulfillment at all.
I think we’ve done a good job with our service and to be honest, we’re even further along that I expected. It really comes down to the passion of our people to provide excellent service. Our parts warehouses in the United States, Germany and Taiwan are stocked. We’ve had a few quality hiccups along the way but we’ve been fast to resolve them and if you ask our customers and dealers, I think they’d generally be satisfied with our responsiveness.
A few months ago, Steve Boyd, our general manager, was visiting one of our dealers in New York. A customer walked through the door with a Tern looking to buy some accessories. Steve checked out the bike and noticed something wrong so he whipped out his tools and swapped the faulty part for a good one. One of the shop mechanics was pretty surprised to see a general manager traveling with tools and parts and getting his hands dirty. Steve’s reply, “That’s how we roll,” kind of sums up our mentality.
Your company is focused on sales by authorized dealers (you don’t sell direct). Will your dealer base expand? Or is the limited-dealership BWM Mini model a better fit for your bicycles?
Our philosophy is that our bike is a pretty special mechanical device. There’s a lot going on there so you need a good dealer to explain everything teach the customer proper usage. In addition, our bike will need service so you need a good dealer to provide dependable service over the next decade or so.
But we haven’t done too bad in the first year. We already have distribution partners in about 55 countries and have over 1,000 shops carrying our bikes. But absolutely we are looking to expand our dealer base. We’re expanding carefully—we want to protect the territories of our existing shops while expanding into areas where we don’t have a presence.
What’s been the happiest surprise of the past two years? Hitting (or exceeding) your production numbers? Paying the bills? Emails from happy customers?
The thing that gives me the most satisfaction is seeing our unique and special product (which isn’t that cheap) get accepted by customers. There are lots of cheap folding bikes out there. And there are lots of city bikes. But our product, which combines all the features you need in a city bike–with great portability, with some features like our adjustable stem or best in class dynamo hub–is one of a kind. We love seeing our product getting used and appreciated by people and when they tell us how they are using the bikes and how it’s changed how they get around the city. That gives us a pretty big jolt of energy and encouragement.