Author: David Tobias | Photographer: Photography by Anne
As anyone who has watched our treasured tourists knows, bicycling—a seemingly benign mode of transport that’s nearly as basic as walking—can have its challenges. Who hasn’t seen someone, clearly out of practice, come to a clumsy halt on a bike after searching frantically for the brakes, threatening a header, dragging their feet Flintstone style, stopping (finally), then tipping just slightly right or left while standing on tiptoe waiting for traffic to pass? It’s downright embarrassing—or entertaining. You choose. For those who have discovered Hilton Head Island’s incredible network of bicycle pathways, it’s perhaps the only thing unpleasant about the entire invigorating, family-friendly bicycling experience.
Matt Papka has the solution—not just for Hilton Head Island, but for the whole wide world, which seems to have suddenly rediscovered the bicycle as an alternative to America’s love affair with the carbon emitting, gas-guzzler. The solution, he says, is the Elev8 Bike.
Although the basic concept of a bicycle hasn’t changed much in the last 200 years, there have been some major breakthroughs: the invention of the handbrake, for example, and the creation of the BMX bike, a favorite of the young and daring.
Papka and his Elev8 Bike partners Bill Becker, Jerry Bowes and Dr. Kimberly Perry, think that technology invented by Becker, a self-taught engineer and retired “methods guy,” has potential to change the nature of bicycle riding dramatically, especially for baby boomers who can’t let go of their youth but may have lost some of their flexibility and balance.
The bicycle’s name, Elev8, describes exactly what this new concept is, and its technological secret comes down to hydraulics.
If you’re sitting at a desk, look down and you can see the secret. That gas spring cylinder that enables your desk chair to go up and down was Becker’s inspiration, in 1994, for a bicycle seat that could do the same. He’s been working since then to refine the concept and find a method to make it efficient and profitable to produce. He’s also been trying to take it to market, although with limited success.
Refining the concept was no problem—that’s Becker’s specialty. Taking it to market was another matter. But thanks to a fortuitous Becker bike ride in Hilton Head Plantation and Papka’s choice to walk his two Jack Russell Terriers at precisely the right moment, perhaps a match made in heaven has been made right here on Hilton Head Island.
“I met Matt riding this bike,” said Becker. “I stopped to admire how well-behaved his Jack Russells were, and when I stopped my bike, I lowered the seat so I could sit comfortably with my feet flat on the ground. Matt asked, ‘What did you just do?’ I explained, it to Matt and that’s how all this began.”
After several years of product testing and refining, the Elev8 bikes are now being built and delivery is imminent. The hydraulic seat design allows riders to adjust the height as much as seven inches. That means getting on and off is easy and, as Becker did, you can put both feet on the ground when coming to a stop.
Papka has developed a distribution system that’s a bit multi-level, but mostly traditional, and while the sales big picture is a bit short of world dominance, he projects that the Elev8 has potential to take a significant slice of the 100 million bicycle market—perhaps even as much as three to five percent of the world market, thanks to baby boomers.
Add Boomers to the many younger people and people with body awareness also interested in the bike – and suddenly it seeems to have universal appeal. That’s not just Papka talking. That’s an observation from a name synonymous with bicycling worldwide: Richard Schwinn, whose grandfather started the Schwinn Bicycle Company several decades ago.
“When Bill and I first agreed to be partners, the first thing I wanted to do was get conceptual confirmation,” Papka said. “So I put the bike in the car and took it to about 80 independent bike dealers. I’d take it right into their shop, show it to them, assemble it, disassemble it and ask what they thought. What I learned is that independent bike dealers are all different-minded people.”
Schwinn’s own stingray bike back in the ’60s was the precursor to the BMX bicycle, which turned into a craze. But change comes slowly in the bicycle business. As part of his 32,000-mile journey to visit independent bike dealers over two years, Papka was granted an audience with Schwinn in Wisconsin, and what started as a 20-minute meeting turned out to be three hours and a lunch, according to Papka.
“At the end of it, Richard told me ‘I don’t know who you are or where you came from, but you’re hitting the baby boomer market right between the eyes.’”
As the bike rolls out, Papka, Becker and managing partner Jerry Bowes hope to call on Schwinn to consult on its further evolution. Clearly, baby boomers will be the primary target audience for the Elev8, but not just in the United States. Japan’s boomer population percentage is comparable to that of the U.S., and Papka has been talking about distribution in South Korea and other countries.
Matt Papka and Elev8 innovator Bill Becker
Papka, Becker and Bowes, who also lives on Hilton Head Island, have further expanded the range of target markets to include fleet bikes for colleges and universities, complete with school colors and logos and fleet vehicles for city security, allowing police to maintain a comfortable posture and steady sight lines.
A distribution plan will include “Elev8 Sales Program” and “Master Elev8 Sales Program” representatives conducting tent expos, fitness expos, bike expos and demonstrations where they will sell the bikes.
“I have people who want to carry it in stores—national chains—but we’re negotiating,” Papka said. “There are a lot of talented sales people out there who would like to make income by selling bikes.”
An Elev8 bike will sell for $988.88 (the logo looks like an 8 on its side, which looks like two bicycle wheels side by side).”
The other piece of all this is the patent on the Elev8 concept itself, secured by Becker and owned by him and his partners. Potential is also there to sell not only bikes, which include the Elev8 component, but also “component-ize” the seat alone and make it widely available for sale to bicycle manufacturers, which, according to Papka, may be where the big money lies.
“Either way, we’re positioned perfectly,” Papka said. “The United States is becoming more bike-friendly; bike paths are being built and there’s greater awareness of bicycles and the need to be green. Our company is very green and environmentally concerned. That’s what we want to be—greener.
“But mostly we want to put folks on bikes.”
To take a look at the Elev8 bike in action, visit www.elev8bikes.com