of 7/13/15 Podcast
Martin Krieg: Welcome to the National Bicycle Greenway’s Mountain Mover podcast series. Here, you will get up close and personal with people who are taking giant steps for the betterment of cyclists and for the planet itself. We spent some time on the phone today with a man who has some pretty huge shoes to fill. As the new owner of RANS Recumbent, Jerrell Nichols will show you why legendary recumbent builder, Randy Schlitter, knows he sold the bike part in this company to a man who will make him proud.
Turn the sound on Build a wheel or clean your bike as we talk to an amazing individual who already has 20% in his small town on RANS bikes. So, Jarrell, how are you doing today, guy?
Jarrell Nichols: Doing good, Martin. Thanks for giving this call.
Martin Krieg: All right, indeed. Got it. This is going to be fun. Well, let’s just plunk right into it. For 20 years, you’ve been a car mechanic. You pretty much worked…it sounds like you worked to ride. You were saying the other day when we spoke when you were done wrenching on cars, you got out on the road on your bicycle. And yet 15 years ago, you rode one, a long time, NBG supporter, Jérôme Hediger’s bike. It’s a Trimuter recumbent. You rode it, did you not?
Jarrell Nichols: Yeah, I have ridden that. That was probably the first recumbent trike I was on.
Martin Krieg: It was a trike, you say?
Jarrell Nichols: Well, the Trimuter was. Prior to that, this gentleman owned a recumbent bike. And that was the absolute first recumbent I was on. And I thought, “Wow, someday I want to own a recumbent bike.” And actually that wish and dream has come true.
Martin Krieg: Okay, and so in what point in time did…half a decade went by before you had your next recumbent experience in, what, 2004 or something like that.
Jarrell Nichols: Well, somewhere in there. Again I didn’t keep track of the dates and times, but somewhere in there a friend of mine and I did scratch-build of a long wheelbase recumbent bike just because we could and because we wanted to. It was crude but it was fine and it continued to, if you will, feed that recumbent bug.
Martin Krieg: Wow.
Jarrell Nichols: And sure enough, one thing led to another. I did at one point in time own a Greenspeed trike as well for a short time.
Martin Krieg: Wow, do you still have the long wheelbase you built?
Jarrell Nichols: I still have. It sits outside collecting dust and rust, but I still have it there. I always thought of turning it into a sign silhouette thing in all black and put it on top of a sign or something like that. But right now, it’s leaned up in the bone pile in the back.
Martin Krieg: In the bone pile. How did it ride?
Jarrell Nichols: Actually decent enough. We just tried our luck at head tube angles and played with a fork rake to get to where the steering, it was a 26-inch rear, 28-inch front. It’s a similar frame layout of the current Stratus, which is the inspiration for that for us. A friend of mine, like I said, and I took it and just looked at a picture of a Stratus out of a RANS catalog and said, “Hey, let’s try to build this.” And we did.
Martin Krieg: Awesome. So you’re not in Hays where the RANS operation, at least, was based. Your tiny town, Montezuma is the name, tell us about Montezuma. How far away is it from Hays and for that matter how far is the biggest city, what is it, Wichita in Kansas? How far are you away from there? Sounds to me from when we spoke that you’re in the middle of nowhere, would that be correct to say?
Jarrell Nichols: Pretty much, you know we’re not at the end of the world, we can see it from here. Yeah we’re three hours, or 180 miles from Wichita, town of…I think 350,000 people. Two hours from Hays, we would be southwest of Hays and about straight west of Wichita. And yeah, Montezuma is a town of a thousand people. You know, the town itself. Now, it’s a farming community, so there’s a lot of people that live in the country side and there’s other small communities similar to ours nearby, and so yeah it’s made up of a lot of good people. It’s where I was born and raised and my wife was born and raised here we’re just small town people. We don’t have a stoplight in town, we do have a few stop signs. It’s a very relaxed setting and a great setting to raise a family and run a business.
Martin Krieg: And how many kids do you have, do you have kids?
Jarrell Nichols: Yeah, 3 children. 11, 6 and 3. Two oldest are boys and the youngest is a little girl.
Martin Krieg: All right. Have you built a recumbent for those guys? Little small ones?
Jarrell Nichols: Yeah, well there’s a little story there. After we got in contact with RANS and I decided I wanted to stick my toe in the water in the bike business itself and this was paralleling my automotive business as a sideline, as the bike business was. So I called Hays up to talk to them over there. Just called them and said, “Would you be interested in putting a biller out here and I’d be interested in being your man and to see if we could sell some of these bikes.” And so that’s how that started, and maybe I’m running ahead a little bit here but that’s how that started and I started riding the bikes, I love the bikes. I always have. RANS bikes have always been my favorite bike. As my oldest started graduating up from the tricycle and the strider bike into something with pedals like kid’s pedal bikes are, it leaves something to be desired, and rightfully so because kid’s pedal bikes are soon outgrown and discarded or passed down and so I got to thinking about this.
You watch your children and they have an apparently high energy to weight ratio and I thought, “What would it be like if we harness that a little more efficiently?” And, together with the fact I felt a little guilty riding around on a 1500 dollar bike and they were on a 50 dollar or 25 dollar garage sale bike and I thought, “Is this really fair?” So I sat down and seriously just thought, “Oh, I’m gonna scale down the RANS Dynamic.” And we are going to go ahead and build it up at three quarter scale, which means putting 20-inch wheels on and shrinking the frame down where we have an adequate stand over height for a 6-year-old and I did that and was impressed.
I mean our first 15 mile ride was done at an admirable pace. I thought this is working, Dylan was comfortable and he could keep up and I put a triple chain on the front and some short 155 cranks, I think, on it and his legs just went round and round and he shifted through the gears to keep getting that narrow human power band and, helmet kind of cocked off to the side a little bit. It kind of did my heart good to watch that. And that bike is still going strong, it’s now the go-to bike for my middle son, which, he’s 6 now and it’s worked out well. Still performing very well of course. And now my 11-year-old is on the small Stratus XP, dual 26 with the cut-down Hoagie seat action, cut down Zephyr seat. And so he’s in a recumbent, my oldest is. My youngest daughter is still on a Strider bike. She hasn’t graduated up into pedals yet, other than the tricycle.
Yeah, we did. Essentially, building that bike up at three-quarter scale, that Dynamic at three-quarter scale has been a win-win situation for us and then RANS offers this small Stratus XP, which really does go small, it’ll fit a short person and so that just factory built bike right there fit him. I cut the chopper bars down and had to do a little seat-bracket modification. It worked well. It is working well.
Martin Krieg: So he was 8 years old you said, when he rode the first recumbent?
Jarrell Nichols: No, no, let’s see he would have been a little older than that. That recumbent’s probably 2 years old at this point. He would have been 9 years old, it was close.
Martin Krieg: And he rode 15 miles!
Jarrell Nichols: On the Dynamic which is crank-forward… we went on 10-15 mile rides right off the bat where…and a decent pace.
Martin Krieg: So he was on the Dynamic you say, that was crank-forward.
Jarrell Nichols: Yeah, that was the first bike, that was crank-forward. Scaled down, crank-forward.
Martin Krieg: Okay, so his first recumbent though was the XP, is that what you were going to say?
Jarrell Nichols: It would be crank-forward at six and rode that for about three years to where we now have the XP for him, the Stratus XP. Yeah he would have been 6. Well, he went through…at 22 months he was diagnosed with leukemia.
Martin Krieg: Holy moley.
Jarrell Nichols: And so he went through two and a half years of cancer treatment.
Martin Krieg: Wow.
Jarrell Nichols: And so there was a little bit of rocky time there, but even in that time, biking was a part of what we could do. We couldn’t go into restaurants. We were pretty careful with germs and the environment we were in, but when he felt like it, why we could be outdoors. So biking was something we did as a family, as much as we could, and so as that cancer treatment was finished, why we tried to have this bike ready for him shortly thereafter. And so he rode that, started riding that, five and a half, six years old, and rode that for three years and now his younger brother is riding the same bike and he’s in the XP.
And he’s pretty tall, his mom and dad are both pretty tall and so he’s already dabbling in full-size bikes. Full-size crank forwards, one of the beauties of the crank-forward and I should back up a little bit to describe why I chose to go with the Dynamic, crank forward geometry is because one strong point of those bikes is that the bicycle frame grows with seat adjustment, so as the seat moves away from the pedals, it also, due to the angle of the seat tube, it moves away from the bars. So that right there justifies a higher dollar investment in the bike. In other words let’s go ahead and build a good bike because it will grow with the child a lot longer than a regular bike.
Martin Krieg: Wow, awesome.
Jarrell Nichols: So right there was proof as children grow, the bike frame continues to grow with them and…
Martin Krieg: So by that you mean that their orientation to the ground with their feet, because the frame size increases as they move away from the pedals, it’s always growing with them.
Jarrell Nichols: It is, it is. So it adapts to their growth.
Martin Krieg: Awesome, wow. That’s a huge selling point about that machine, geez, wow. So, tell us about your bike shop and what is a car repair shop and how you had everyone in town riding RANS recumbents.
Jarrell Nichols: Okay, in the automotive shop which I worked in for 20 years, like we may have already covered. Ten of those, I owned the business myself and thought, “You know hey, let’s put a bike shop in.” And, as a sideline, which is exactly what I did and contacted RANS because they are a Kansas built bike and thought, “Hey, that’d be cool. Why not sell a Kansas built bike in small town Kansas?” And so we made a trip to Hays and got set up as a dealer for RANS and got our first initial order in, fell in love with the bike, fell in love with the product. Enjoyed working with the guys at Hays and felt like we had something going on there, you know as far as a good relationship and knew that I had come in contact with a good product. And nonetheless, put a few on the floor and set out to sell them and they did sell. Yeah, we don’t have everybody in town on a Ran’s, but a strong representation in town, definitely. A town of a thousand people, maybe we have 250 people on some type of recumbent for sure.
Martin Krieg: That is amazing.
Jarrell Nichols: Most of them RANS and a lot of crank-forwards, a good number of recumbents and it’s changed the cycling scene in this little town. I envision changing the cycling scene in small towns and big cities. It’s ambitious I realize but if it can happen in a small farming community, think about the potential out there. It’s a proven solid, comfortable, efficient platform for cycling. It’s sustainable and proven in a small town even in spite of skepticism, “Hey you’ll never sell a bike over a thousand dollars in a small, frugal farming community.” And proved that theory wrong because we sold lots of them, a high percentage of the bikes sold were well over a thousand dollars and people don’t talk about how much they cost, they talk about how much they enjoy riding the bike. That’s what’s pretty neat.
Martin Krieg: Wow. That’s amazing, so in a town of a thousand people, you’d say there’s a few hundred…
Jarrell Nichols: I’m just throwing that number out, I could go dig up files, the thing is it can be a little hard to pin that down because like I mentioned earlier there’s other small communities around here that we draw from. There’s a lot of people that live in the countryside. So it’s definitely not confined to just within the city limits, which, that’s where that thousand population number comes from. There’s more people that live around. But yeah, it would be fair to say that I’ve sold a couple of hundred bikes in this area…
Martin Krieg: Oh my god.
Jarrell Nichols: …of RANS, either crank-forward or recumbent and I’ve sold other lines as well, but for the most part, I’ve always been a RANS enthusiast. That’s what I’ve rode, consequently that’s what we tend to sell. As a bike shop owner, that’s what I tended to sell. What I was enthused about, what I rode.
Martin Krieg: So if I were to ride a bicycle through Kansas and stopped in Montezuma for example, I probably without question would see a few recumbents, if not a whole bunch of recumbent bikes on my way through?
Jarrell Nichols: Yeah, there would be that chance. For sure if it was in the evening. You’d see a lot of blinky lights and you’d see some…definitely a fair representation of crank-forwards. You’d probably see more of those, actually on the streets at any given time than you would a recumbent. Crank-forwards kind of lend themselves to more of an urban style, or city style, town style, cruise around town type riding. So yeah you would see the RANS logo. It wouldn’t be…it’s not an uncommon sight in town at all.
Jarrell Nichols: Wow. Well you know what struck me about you, when we spoke the other day was that it seems like Randy almost cloned himself when he found you, and I’ll say this from this place. You can ride a unicycle, and you can juggle, what, four to six balls while doing so. And I know my own self, having lived with a fellow named Jeff Napier who can do that. I knew that when I was talking to you I was talking to a pretty unique individual. Jeff himself was a street performer in Santa Cruz and he was well known all up and down the West Coast and widely, largely appreciated as a genius. Can you tell us how a guy in a little town with a thousand people can learn such, what I’m gonna call ‘paranormal’ skills?
Jarrell Nichols: Well, for one thing is there’s an interesting, and I’ve heard this more than once but there’s this kind of interesting concept that if you come from rural America, you’re potentially…your skill set may be somewhat subdued, which doesn’t really hold water, for one thing in a small community like this, we have to be diverse to survive. In other words a farmer does a lot of things. His days of labor consist of a wide variety of skill sets that he does all in a day’s work. And that translates into a mindset that, if it needs to be done, I can do it. That’s the attitude. And a small town doesn’t have easily accessible types and forms of entertainment. You kind of provide that for yourself. As a boy…what boy doesn’t know…my mom said as a little child, I had to see how everything would throw. Anything I got my hands on, I had to give it a toss. Well, that’s kind of typical. I have two boys myself, that’s not an uncommon thing. A lot of us can relate to that and watch our own children grow up and think of our own childhood, but yeah…throwing a ball, you just think, yeah, somewhere you see it in a book or even in an encyclopedia I think I remember looking up juggling and reading the description of that and thought that’d be cool to learn.
It’s a frustrating experience because it takes a while to translate that knowledge into muscle memory and really there’s an element there, there’s a key that is extremely important but I don’t care what you are learning, and what type of occupation or vocation, is the fact that knowledge alone won’t get you there. It takes the practice, and it takes the stick-em and it takes the personal effort applied to actually get that knowledge applied into something that’s usable and of service. So yeah, I realize we’re talking about juggling and riding unicycles but those are the same. In this, that if you practice, if you want to, and you’ll stick with it long enough, you will get there. I don’t know really anybody who doesn’t have the average skills and coordinations of what we call average that can’t get on a unicycle and with some diligent practice, learn to ride it, and couldn’t pick up two or three objects and learn to juggle them.
So it’s something that is fun to do, it passes the time, it occupies the mind and it actually has some decent learning, positive learning side-effects. Left-brain, right-brain, you know those type of things, it definitely does, in theory and sharpens up the senses and it’s fun to do. And it’s just fun to show off. Ride a unicycle, a three-wheeled giraffe unicycle while juggling three clubs. Yeah it definitely gets people’s attention but it just starts at one place and ends up at another if you stick with it. That’s how a lot of things are, that’s openly what is the key to making anything work. Whether you’re fixing a car, fixing a bike, building a bike, running a business, no matter what you’re doing. Taking a seemingly big task, breaking it into small pieces and developing a progression from a beginning point to a desired goal in small bite sized pieces is the key to getting to that goal. I think that’s fairly universal.
Martin Krieg: Okay, great. Let’s talk about Randy Schlitter for a second. You called the RANS company up. You want them to be able to sell Kansas based recumbent bicycles. How did you and Randy ultimately connect?
Jarrell Nichols: Well, there’s a geographical advantage, 140 miles away from Hays. And when I needed three or four or five bikes it was just as easy for me to get in a vehicle at 5 or 5:30 in the morning and drive over there and pick them up myself. Save some freight at the expense of mileage and time but it was also a little trip to get away and in that I was introduced to Randy and we just hit it off right away. Connected, realized, walking through the factory that there was a unicycle hanging up there and when the break bell rung over there, why, hacky-sacks would come out and we’d all stand in a circle and play…kick the hacky sack around and footbags. And we talk bikes and ride bikes and brainstorm and talk about ideas and modifications and this and that.
It was just fun, we just connected and enjoyed each other’s company and became friends. I don’t know what makes friends friends, well there’s a number of things but we became…he and I became friends and acquaintances and I continued to sell the product and he sensed my enthusiasm for the product. And I respected his genius and I still do and always will. He’s just…I’m definitely in his shadow when it comes to that. And I feel honored that he did pick up the phone one day and called me with a proposal to take over the bike side of it, I mean I never saw that coming. I just never did and he’s somebody that, we relate well with each other and mutual respect. I know I respect him and I feel the same from him and we get along well and have a transparent and open relationship working, business relationship. Working with each other over the years as he provided us with the product and we sold the product and that whole deal just worked out well.
Martin Krieg: Wow. As you raise, really what amounts to his child, for him. How often do you and he still talk?
Jarrell Nichols: Oh it can vary. When we do it’s usually a lengthy phone-call. It would average probably several times a week. Or at least text message each other and comment on Facebook and those kind of things.
Martin Krieg: Do you think he’ll ever be able to replicate any of his magic?
Jarrell Nichols: Well that’s…yeah to fill somebody’s shoes like that would be a momentous task. It’s definitely something that I would still need to be who I am and not necessarily who he was. He has developed a strong line-up of time-tested and tried bikes that really need to be presented to the American public…continue to be presented. There needs to be effort and ingenuity put into educating and making…educating the public and making them aware of what’s available to them. We’re still too hidden, we’re still not well known enough and various ways of solving that problem are available to us so that’s where I see my immediate energy going. Into “raising this child” as you call it, is to let it mature. Let it grow.
As far as coming up with new product and the innovations and design, I am a problem solver or critical thinker by nature. That’s my…that’s what a good car mechanic does as he solves problems. If it’s an existing piece of machinery, something that’s been built and used that comes into my shop, when I was running and owning the shop, it came in there and something was broken. Something didn’t work. So I took, and figured out what that was and figured out what it would take to fix it and if possible fix it better. And so that ultimately is my natural inclination. Not saying that there’s things broken in RANS, I’m just saying that with that mindset, with the way that, that’s the way my thought process leans. I recognize the amount of ingenuity and the brilliance in the product that he’s created and feel like the problem is not the product, if there’s a problem. The problem is connecting people with the product.
Martin Krieg: Correct. Yes.
Jarrell Nichols: So let’s work on that diligently and then as I get feedback, as I connect, personally connect with the cycling community I want to place myself on the same side of the fence as my customer. In other words, we both have our shoulder to the same load and that load is, let’s make cycling comfortable, efficient, safe. Let’s make it these things that it needs to be and can be and this product solves a lot of problems already. Recumbents and crank-forwards that we have in our line-up address those things, they’re comfortable, they’re efficient, they’re body friendly, they make sense.
When you think of these bikes dovetailing well with the way we’re built as humans it makes perfect sense. If car manufacturers tried to build bikes they would build cars where you put a bunch of weight on the steering wheel and sat on a narrow seat and had to lift your head to look out of the windshield, it’s questionable how many cars you would actually sell. So Randy has solved a lot of those problems. So now the next step or phase is to let the enthusiasm I had for the product, and my personal mindset which were all different, and again, I probably can’t be Randy. But hopefully I am the guy that fits what this business needs moving forward. And if we need to come up with a new product there is still Randy. He’s a close friend and mentor and he still loves the design and he’s as good at it as he ever was, or better. He’s always getting better.
At the same time I can design too. I come at it, probably less from a visionary standpoint and more from problem-solving. I would get feedback from the cycling community, which, these people are my friends. And the dealers, I enjoy visiting with our dealers a lot and I just love the feedback. I don’t care if it’s in the form of criticism, I don’t care how it comes across. Because I like to hear what they’re experiencing, I like to hear their side of it, their viewpoint. It’s all educational to me. So that comes into the picture and upon their request and a lot of times they’re building off of customers’ feedback from our product. And here’s what we’d like to see different, here is a complaint we hear, so as need be, as those things start taking shape, then we can develop or edit something we have to answer that question. That’s a little more, I mean I know this is lengthy but that’s a little more…
Martin Krieg: I’m glad for that, geez thank you. As an example one of my NBG sponsored dealers, recumbent dealers was asking me when I spoke to them, they wanted to know if you foresee adding a 700c wheel option to your extreme model.
Jarrell Nichols: Well something like that is a possibility. Actually, my personal Extreme, I put 700c on there. Now that the fork that we use allows that if you use either disk brakes or something like that and you’re confined to a 23 millimeter tire. So it does work, even on the existing bike, but it wouldn’t take a significant frame change to make it 700c. And the bike handles it well, it does make it just a tic taller. It makes it just a bit longer, taking up more space. But it is very doable and it’s something due to simply the fact that there’s so many more tire options.
Probably more than rolling resistance or increase or all those things that people chase is the fact that there’s a lot of options, tire options with 700c, which that would be the big complaint with 650. So I would come at it more from that angle is, okay, I probably can’t fix the fact that tire manufacturers aren’t making a wide range of tire selections in 650. But I can change which wheel size we put on the Extreme, moving forward, if we decide that’s a big enough problem to address, yeah. It’s a problem that can be addressed. It’s a bike built here currently and so in answer to that question, sure it can be done. Will it be done now? Well that, it’s weighted. It gets weighted with the other issues that I face. As far as which one do I prioritize?
Martin Krieg: Let’s talk legacy for a second here, as we wind down. Randy’s legacy. We’re starting for example, you see Easy Racers doing that with all the photos they’re putting on Facebook and all about their Gardner Martin and Fast Freddy what they did as they chased their speed records. Lightning, at their site they’ve got a pretty rich history section. Is there anything in the works for Randy, I mean he arguably can be considered to be first to get the recumbent idea out there with the Sail Trikes. Do you have any plans on capitalizing on that, at your website? Or just in general?
Jarrell Nichols: I don’t know. I tend to be…yeah I don’t want to overlook any part of that. Like I said, I respect immensely, and I really probably don’t verbalize that enough. What he’s done and what he’s done for the cycling and recumbent community in general, and yeah he needs to be recognized for that. Definitely no question about it. I find myself, and there again we’re five months into taking over this business, so I’ve been putting out a lot of fires now and trying to look forward, and spending less time looking back, if you follow my point.
Martin Krieg: Sure, sure.
Jarrell Nichols: But definitely there is that element that needs to be capitalized on and put out there and make people aware of where RANS has come from and how much of an impact it’s had on cycling in general and for sure, obviously the recumbent community. I don’t know if that answers your question or not but yeah I think it’s something that you need to put some energy into.
Martin Krieg: Yeah so in other words you do acknowledge the fact that something’s got to be done that just right now you’re too new in the business, no active steps right now just yet in preserving that history of what Randy’s meant to not only your product line but to recumbents in general but that sounds like that will come just not right now.
Jarrell Nichols: That’s right, yeah exactly.
Martin Krieg: Okay, awesome.
Jarrell Nichols: And it may be sooner than we think.
Martin Krieg: Okay, wow, awesome. Well listen it’s been awesome talking to you Randy…I’ve got Randy on my brain here, Jarrel. It’s been wonderful getting the chance to speak to someone that…it’s easy for me and I hope my listeners can see why Randy has chosen you to continue his tradition of building awesome machines, so that’s about really all we have time for right now. Did we miss anything? Is there anything you’d like to add for example?
Jarrell Nichols: I think we’ve covered some key points, Martin. I believe we have and yeah we could talk for a long time. I can get carried away and too wordy here but anyway we’ve covered some key points and I’m always available to, I like to talk to people, I like to answer questions. I like to connect with people, so yeah we’re a phone call away.
Martin Krieg: Awesome, wow. It’s been…for me it’s really been fun and in many ways educational, talking with you and I thank you for your time Jarrel so much, here on a Saturday morning no less. That said I’m just gonna say goodbye and we’ll catch you down the road soon and thanks to you guy, okay Jarrel?
Jarrell Nichols: Well, take care. Thanks for calling and going to the effort and making this work and we look forward to talking to you again.
Martin Krieg: All right guy. Thanks so much Jarrel, talk to you soon. See you later, Bye.
Jarrell Nichols: Goodbye.
Martin Krieg: That wraps up another edition of the National Bicycle Greenways Mountain Movers Podcast series. We hope you enjoyed it. This has been NBG director and “Awake Again” author, Martin Krieg. For more info about the NBG or to access this podcast in the future, and to hear other shakers and movers that we have interviewed, go to bikeroute.com.