As gas prices are becoming rather painful on the wallet, more and more folks are looking for ways to save a few bucks. While cycling is obviously an option, a folding bike offers a great amount of flexibility for many commuters. With that in mind, I set out to throw a few questions at someone familiar with folders. Browsing the yellow sticky notes stuck to my monitor, I realized that the soft-spoken and reserved Yan Lyansky would be the perfect person to interview.
I’ve known Yan for several years now, having worked with him on an advertising project in 2007, then meeting him at Interbike later that year. His line of folding bikes have consistently elicited a positive response on various cycling forums, so I figured it was time to touch base and see what’s going on at Downtube, as well as get some insight into the man behind the company.
IO – Yan, you’ve got a PhD in mathematics, which is probably a bit unusual in the bicycle industry. Yet you’ve raced mountain bikes, designed your own line of folding bikes, and handle everything from their development and testing all the way through direct sales to satisfied customers. So I have to ask – is Downtube’s success due to your thought processes, or your passion for cycling?
Yan – I’m not sure I can answer this, since success is judged by others, hence others would have to conclude what I did best. However, I think my passion was the essential ingredient to get things going. I had some great employees over the years that helped tremendously. The market was booming when I started, so I guess luck also played a role.
IO – That’s pretty modest of you, but I suspect there were more than a few smart decisions along the way. The folding bike industry is full of unique designs with prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. What factors led you to take the path you did, producing high quality bikes at reasonable prices? Why not pursue the well-heeled buyer, or aim for a lower pricepoint and higher volume?
Yan – I wanted to be the best cost effective folding bike out there, and I think we have done that since 2003. I do not want to make/sell junk, hence we will never look at pricepoints for our bikes.
IO – It seems as though some of your competitors have less of a presence these days, while your sales are still strong, even in the colder months. Are there factors other than rising fuel prices that you attribute this to?
Yan – I think high gas prices have helped, but a weak economy has hurt. Currently, our overseas sales are skyrocketing with new distribution in Singapore and Indonesia.
IO – It’s a given that commuters make up a large portion of folding bike customers. I recently commented on San Francisco Muni Metro allowing folding bikes on trains and buses, which is a step forward for those that use public transportation, yet want to maintain a certain amount of independence. Does this put your business at an advantage, since they don’t allow non-folding bicycles? Do you feel this is a trend that we’ll see continuing in other cities?
Yan – It has certainly helped, many cities are going that route it started on the east coast a few years ago. I expect more cities will follow this model as congestion becomes more of an issue.
IO – Which brings me to my next question. Folding bikes obviously take up less space, making them perfect for commuters that prefer to bring their bike into the office, students with limited dorm space, and compact car owners that don’t want to mess with a roof or trunk rack. Flip a few levers and latches, and the bike folds down small enough to fit in an easily carried bag. What other advantages can the owner of a folding bike expect?
Yan – They are more efficient ( faster ) under 16mph. indestructible wheels ( small radius ), stiffer frame ( smaller triangles ), more adjustable ( one size fits all )
IO – I’ve mentioned office workers and students, but I’m curious if you have a target demographic. Is there a “typical” Downtube owner?
Yan – Boaters have been our best customers over the years. RV’ers and pilots are great too.
IO – I wouldn’t have guessed, but that makes perfect sense. For someone interested in purchasing their first folding bike, what advice can you give? As a designer, surely you feel strongly about certain features.
Yan – Get a bike with suspension. Folding bikes normally have stiffer frames due to smaller triangles and wheels. Suspension is almost a requirement.
IO – Great advice, and something I certainly would not have considered. I want to thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to do this interview. It’s certainly appreciated. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Yan – No, thanks for the time.
To find out more about Downtube folding bikes, please visit Downtube.com
This post and related comments can also be found on Twospoke.com