SPECIAL: Three is the Magic Number with Mike Radenbaugh
Doug Gordon: You can hear the sound of the future in that little battery booth there. I love it. We’re gonna try reverse. Here we go. Should I make the “beep, beep beep, beep?”
Aaron Naparstek: [laughs] Yes.
Aaron: Welcome to The War on Cars. I’m Aaron Naparstek. What you just heard was the sound of my co-host, Doug Gordon, riding a tricycle. But this isn’t the kind of trike you might have ridden as a kid, this is the newest offering from our sponsor, Rad Power Bikes. And we took our test ride with the founder of the company himself, Mike Radenbaugh.
Aaron: We’ve been wanting to get Mike on the podcast for a while now. He built his first electric bike in 2006 as a high school junior with a 20-mile commute to school in Northern California. 16 years later, Radenbaugh’s garage tinkering has evolved into North America’s biggest e-bike brand. Today, Mike views his mission as nothing less than taking on the automobile industry and getting Americans out of their gas-guzzling SUVs and into smaller, lighter, cleaner electric vehicles. The next step in that mission is the RadTrike. Rad is betting that its new three-wheeler will make biking more accessible to a lot of people who, for whatever reason, might not feel comfortable riding on two wheels.
Mike Radenbaugh: Yeah, we can kill the music.
Aaron: Doug and I met with Mike Radenbaugh at the company’s new Brooklyn showroom to test ride the trike and talk about his vision for the future of personal mobility.
Aaron: Right. So we’re here with Mike Radenbaugh from Rad Power Bikes.
Doug: Okay. So it seems like you’re sort of planting your flag here in Brooklyn, which is really, you know, the birthplace of The War on Cars in many ways. You walk in here and it actually has a feeling of more like a car dealership than a bike shop, which feels like a very deliberate choice. Can you talk about that? I don’t mean that in a bad way. There’s not, like, pushy salespeople going to talk to the manager in the back to sell you on undercoating or something like that. It’s very comfortable. There’s chairs, there’s a refrigerator. Last time I was here, I got a very nice seltzer. What’s the overall strategy in sort of winning the war on cars and opening a really big kind of fancy, very nice, beautifully-appointed bike shop like this?
Mike Radenbaugh: Yeah, this store and everything we do at Rad is about accessibility, and accessibility in the price, accessibility in the design, and the accessibility and the ability to come in and test ride. Because you have to re-educate people after a hundred-plus years of living in a car-dominated society where you attach your ID to your driver’s license from the time you’re a teenager. And so we have to undo all of that. And so this store really operates like that as a beautiful place to come to take test rides and see this accessible lineup of utilitarian bikes we build.
Mike Radenbaugh: We have a massive wall of spare parts and accessories and lots of service bays. And the Brooklyn store right now is a big, beautiful showroom. But as our installed base grows, we shift the square footage to be more and more service oriented. So I think it does look a little bit like an automotive dealership in some ways, that you come into and the showrooms are generally pretty small in our dealership and the service centers are massive because that’s how people are using our bikes. They’re using them to replace cars. You know, this is our almost 10th store now. We’re opening another store in Florida in a few weeks. And they all followed this similar framework.
Aaron: Where do you see the trike going?
Mike Radenbaugh: The trike? First off, it’s our number one most-requested model ever. We’re the largest e-bike company in North America, and it’s our number one most-requested model. So the market potential is massive there, and totally underserved. And we don’t, to tell you the truth, fully know all the ways it’s gonna be used. We know where we’re seeing consistent requests from is a really broad audience of people that would benefit from the payload of 415 pounds and the stability and utility of three wheels. But it’s really designed as a platform for the end user to apply their imagination to. Are people gonna mount blenders on the back and take it to the farmer’s market and offer vegan, non-alcoholic margaritas? I would guess yes. [laughs]
Doug: Yeah. Hopefully, yes. Yeah. Yeah.
Aaron: It’s clear what your vision is for a trike. This man wants a vegan margarita.
Doug: We’re in Brooklyn. That can be arranged I’m sure. What kind of questions are you asking yourself as you’re designing and building this thing before it’s released?
Mike Radenbaugh: What was most important to us with this product is to build a platform that will popularize three wheels, three wheel micro-mobility as a true form of car replacement. And to continue that vision that we’ve done with the RadRunner, which is this compact cargo kind of utility bike, and bring that to the three-wheel market.
Aaron: Do you see electric cars as your competition, or do you see that as something completely different?
Mike Radenbaugh: I think electric cars are a continuation of the great lie of the automobile in that you move from 28 miles per gallon, what’s that, the average fuel efficiency of the fleet, to maybe 70, 80, 100, 120 miles per gallon energy equivalent for electric vehicles, depending on which one. An electric bike gets 1,600 miles per gallon energy equivalent, and that’s the step we need to take. This isn’t—like, we can’t stair step to full-sized electric vehicles. We need to completely transition and get away from cars. And the other kind of stat along this line that’s troubling and really motivating to us is the amount of batteries that go into, like, a full-size electric SUV. You can build 300 to 400 maybe even more Rad Power bikes with the batteries that go into a single full-size electric SUV. It’s just—frankly, it’s a little infuriating, but I’d say motivating is a better word for it.
Doug: On the political front, you know, there’s a huge tax credit for buying an electric car, about $7,500 or so, but there’s no federal credit right now for buying an e-bike. A lot of states and cities are working on that. You guys ran a promotion earlier this year looking to advertise it as like a warehouse-clearing sale. Aaron bought one of those, and I know a lot of people who did. There was someone who posted something on Twitter that basically said it kind of proved what an e-bike tax credit or other federal incentive would do for e-bike sales. What are your thoughts on sort of what needs to happen at the federal level with e-bike credits or tax incentives?
Mike Radenbaugh: Yeah, first off, there’s nobody listening to this podcast has any surprise in hearing this, but the massive amount of entrenched interests and hundreds of millions of dollars going into the lobbyist efforts to propel the automotive industry forward, to keep them grasping onto the—you know, what the last hundred years have been and the next hundred years have driven this outcome of this massive credit associated with a bigger credit the bigger the vehicle is, which is terrifying for an e-biker like myself or a pedestrian, that we’re incentivizing bigger and bigger vehicles over smaller replacements. And luckily, there’s some good news, which is at state, county, regional, different transit authority levels, you have huge amounts of e-bike tax credits being approved, but in these micro settings.
Mike Radenbaugh: So the federal e-bike tax credit was dropped in the final bill in this last round. And I think that was just a tremendous shame, and really is going backwards in our serious addressment of the climate crisis. So I’m hopeful that we can see that change in future sessions, and we can get an e-bike tax credit at the federal level. And they can start to use some of this model legislation from a number of states we’re working with now where the programs have been hugely successful. But speaking just to your comment around, yeah, we had a sale on one of our models that we retired from the line up now. Part of our business is keeping the line up simple, so people can come in and kind of move into an e-bike lifestyle more frictionless. And that did give us a glimpse into what a tax credit can do or point of sale rebate. I can’t speak to specific numbers, but the amount of RadMissions that were sold was phenomenal.
Aaron: Do you ever consider putting together anything like an e-bike manufacturers association so that, you know, you have more power in lobbying and policymaking?
Mike Radenbaugh: It’s badly needed, but there’s also a really wonderful bike-level association called PeopleForBikes at the national level. And this is something we really are working hard to take a leadership position on too, is just spearheading the special requirements to make sure e-bikes can become popularized at the rate they need to be.
Doug: Yeah, I was going to say PeopleForBikes was pretty instrumental in trying to get that e-bike credit into the final infrastructure bill. Unfortunately, didn’t get in, but they tried really hard, and their policy arm is pretty—they put out a lot of good research. So yeah.
Mike Radenbaugh: But, you know, I think that the e-bike movement has always been people-led, and it’s groups like that or the consumer. And in this case, with these state level purchase incentives happening, it’s people working in local government that bought their own e-bike and now see the myriad of benefits for their constituents. And they’re driving the programs. And so I love that. And so I’ve always called this a people-led movement, and that continues to be more true now than ever.
Aaron: As we were talking, we followed Mike downstairs to an immense concrete basement space with 20-foot ceilings. It was like some kind of top secret e-bike bunker. In one corner, dozens of Rad Power bikes stood ready in neat rows awaiting purchase. Three trikes sat waiting for us in the middle of a big empty space.
Mike Radenbaugh: Okay, so …
Aaron: Ooh, wow. Oh my gosh.
Mike Radenbaugh: Bike storage space.
Doug: Can you tell us what we’re looking at?
Mike Radenbaugh: Yeah. So we’re downstairs in the Rad Batcave. And this is where there’s a quiet out of the public view test riding area. And we also have a lot of our bikes down here that are prepped to be rolled up to the retail store when people come in so they can leave same day with a fully assembled bike. So we’re in a little bit of an e-bike epicenter down here. And the Rad trikes are our number one most-requested product ever. So it’s something we’ve been working on for years. Back in 2007 when I started the company, I was having a lot of people come to me with different ailments or different reasons why they wanted high handlebars and big tires and utility and more power. But I also had a lot of people asking for tricycles, and bringing me tricycles to convert to electric. And so now 16 years later, we’re really excited to bring the RadTrike to market.
Aaron: So who’s asking for the trike? Where’s that demand coming from mainly?
Mike Radenbaugh: The trike is for anyone that benefits from the highest payload in our lineup. So it’s a 415-pound payload. Anybody that benefits from the stability and utility of three wheels. So we just see this as a platform to popularize three-wheel micro-mobility. But it’s not just a regular trike. It’s got a lot of really kind of special features from the steel frame, which is super rigid and strong but also flexy and really locks you into the ground. And it’s folding. So it shows up to your doorstep in a single box and unfolds to this, like, 415-pound micro compact super cargo bike. So I see Doug over here, his mouth’s literally wide open. And so I think we need to jump on these things and do a test ride. [laughs]
Doug: I’m admiring all the accessories.
Aaron: Right. So we have, like, a trike roof top. Like, what’s …
Doug: That one looks like a scaled-down golf cart, basically.
Mike Radenbaugh: Yeah, we have all kinds of cool accessories down here. So the trike works with our whole lineup of accessories, front and rear. So you can carry a pet in the front and a pet in the back, or four bags of groceries, or whatever you might like. But we also have the Rad Canopy, which is very much the first of its kind. It’s this patent-pending product that we’re in development of right now, and we hope to bring to market. And it’s a weather cover. So from the sun, from rain, it protects you from the elements.
Aaron: Trying to put Cleverhoods out of business.
Mike Radenbaugh: No, it integrates great with Cleverhoods. [laughs] So what do you members of The War on Cars think about going on a test ride?
Doug: Let’s do it!
Aaron: Okay. They’re making us wear helmets, though.
Doug: We’re on a trike. I haven’t ridden a trike in a really long time, so it’s probably a good idea.
Mike Radenbaugh: Yeah. Let me—let me do it on. We’ll give you a rundown of the operations on Doug’s bike. So the on/off button’s here, the bright orange one. You can turn the headlight on and off here. Then one of the most exciting features is that it’s our first vehicle with reverse, and it’s our first vehicle with a parking brake. So the reverse is operated by just holding down the back arrow. The ‘R’ comes up, and then you can use the throttle to activate reverse.
Aaron: Oh my gosh.
Mike Radenbaugh: And then if you want to exit reverse, you hit the arrow again. It kicks you right into 1. And then it operates like all of our other Rad models, except this one’s tuned, so it’s extremely smooth, the throttle operation. Makes it easy to record podcasts while you’re going.
Doug: So it’s three speeds?
Mike Radenbaugh: Five.
Doug: Five speeds.
Mike Radenbaugh: Five levels of pedal assist and a full 750-watt throttle.
Doug: Wow. What’s the top speed?
Mike Radenbaugh: 14 mile an hour top speed, which is just—it’s zippy, but also a really responsible speed.
Doug: And what’s the thinking on offering reverse?
Mike Radenbaugh: The reverse is just awesome for getting in and out of tight areas, and you just end up using a trike more like a little vehicle, a little pickup truck.
Doug: All right. I’m gonna give it a go. I’m gonna start at 1 and see how I do. All right.
Mike Radenbaugh: Oh, brakes. Brakes are important. I should tell you about the brakes. So the left-hand side is a 180 millimeter disc brake. And then for familiarity, the rear brake is a coaster brake.
Mike Radenbaugh: So you can try both out.
Doug: All right. This is great, because we have, like, a little e-bike playground in here. Lean and turn. Okay. Oh yeah, it’s fun. You can hear the sound of the future in that little battery boost there. I love it. You gotta picture, like, an industrial Batcave just filled with electric bikes, and we are cruising around like kids in a basement.
Doug: We’re gonna try reverse. Here we go. Should I—should I make the “Beep, beep, beep, beep?”
Aaron: [laughs] Yes.
Doug: That’s great. It’s super smooth. And here we’re going forward again. This is great. It’s super fun. So Mike, when you said for familiarity there’s the coaster brake, explain what you mean by “familiarity.”
Mike Radenbaugh: A lot of people that come into the Rad ecosystem haven’t ever really ridden a bike. Maybe the last time was their coaster brake bike in their youth, and 40 years later they’re excited to get back and feel like a kid again in their transportation.
Doug: It’s comfortable. That little back support, that little lumbar support there is good, too.
Mike Radenbaugh: The lumbar support is adjustable. So just like a car seat has—like. car seats have 12 different ways to adjust them from lumbar. This moves up and down, but the seat base also shifts forward and backwards in relation to the seat back. So it fits all sizes of riders.
Doug: So do you think part of the audience for this—because you keep describing it like a car, do you think part of the audience for this is that senior who has to give up the car keys or wants to drive less?
Mike Radenbaugh: There’s gonna be a lot of that. I think there are gonna be a lot of the existing almost 600,000 Rad customers today that want to upgrade to the RadTrike. And then people in their family and loved ones that they maybe buy one for. So I think it will be a product that’s really popular with our current customers, but there’s also tons of applications, tons of people out there that have been totally underserved by expensive, dangerous, toxic car culture or the current micro-mobility options just being very much in their early infancy. You know, a RadTrike that goes 14 miles an hour, it’s a totally new class of vehicle. What comes with that is like, we’re launching a new education program in our stores, and we’re gonna hope that as many people as possible will come into our stores to learn all the kind of safe operating procedures. Not everyone’s as skilled on two or three wheels as the two of you, so that education piece is gonna be really important in making sure that this is successful in scaling and replacing as many vehicles as possible.
Doug: I mean, the thing is people probably associate trikes with just, like, granny bikes or, you know, old people bikes, and this is like a cool little sports car that seems very safe.
Mike Radenbaugh: So one of the other really special features of the trike is that it’s folding for transport. And if you take the battery and the seat off and you fold the handlebars down, it’s really low and rolls into the back of pretty much every small, midsize SUV and above. And it only weighs just over 60 pounds, so it’s quite easy to roll in the back and transport. And also if you’re storing it in an apartment or something, it becomes quite a small package.
Doug: My wife and I always talk about, like, renting an RV and spending a summer traveling the country, and I feel like this just would roll right into the back of the RV. You park it at a campsite and then you can kind of go explore.
Aaron: Yeah, it’d be perfect for that. Like, these will literally carry more cargo than pickup trucks, probably.
Doug: On a trip basis, you’re probably using this to get more groceries than your Ford F-150. Yeah. Yeah. Is there—do you see a commercial application for the trike? I feel like it’s a good fleet bike for delivery services or, like, a campus, a corporate campus setting.
Mike Radenbaugh: Yeah, we already have commercial customers signed up to start trialing the RadTrike in fleet environments. And you can imagine the amount of pizzas you can carry on it because it’s got this big rear rack and a big front rack. And it’s very stable, so when you’re loading up pies, it’s a lot easier than on a traditional two-wheel bike. But yeah, there’s tons and tons of applications where a vehicle like this is just—it’s been needed for a long time. And it’s gonna replace sprinter vans, and it’s gonna replace massive vehicles that get 10 to 15 miles per gallon.
Doug: So now that the—not that the pandemic is over, but there’s this sense that a new normal has sort of been established, and that initial incentive to get an e-bike, to get out of the house because everyone’s working from home is sort of diminished, where do you see things going with e-bike sales? What’s the incentive now to get an e-bike, other than, you know, environmental concerns or reducing your car usage?
Mike Radenbaugh: None of that stuff went away, and then the fuel prices started jacking up. So again, in March, we started to hear a bunch of our customers coming into our store, citing fuel prices as their number one reason for coming in. And this is a story we hear from our customers all the time. Like, I always call the electric bike the Trojan horse to environmentalism, because people buy an e-bike a lot of times not for environmental reasons. They buy it for improving their life rather than reducing their carbon emissions. But slowly they remove their second car from their life, and then a lot of people go car free completely. And so I always just think about an electric bike as our most resilient form of transportation, and whatever’s coming next, the e-bike’s ready for it.
Aaron: Hey, that’s it for this special sponsored episode of The War on Cars. Thanks to Mike and Kelsey at Rad Power Bikes for taking the time to speak with us and giving us that test drive. This episode was recorded by Doug and myself at the new Rad Power Bike store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Highly recommend you go swing by and visit. And it was produced and edited by Ali Lemer.
Aaron: On behalf of my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Sarah Goodyear, I’m Aaron Naparstek and this is The War on Cars.
Aaron: So Mike, what else is on your agenda? Like, what do you have to do as the person who runs this company?
Mike Radenbaugh: Well, I’d like to get an actual official card that I can put on my wall that says, “I’m a card-carrying member of The War on Cars.” If you could work that out. Yeah, that’s my number one priority today.