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Rebel without a cause • TechCrunch

Rebel without a cause • TechCrunch

Superstrata’s e-bike is a strange specimen — there’s no two ways about it.

In some ways that makes sense; the bike’s concept, borne out in seamless 3D-printed carbon fiber, springs from an equally strange premise. We’ll get into that.

Talking to Sonny Vu, founder of Superstrata’s parent company Arevo, the bikes were crafted not out of a love of cycling, the hunt for a climate-friendly urban transportation solution or any traditional justification for going to all the trouble of making an e-bike.

Instead, Vu created the Superstrata e-bike (and its non-electrified counterpart) as a proof-of-concept for Arevo’s carbon fiber manufacturing process. In that light, how the bike wound up makes perfect sense — even if buying one probably doesn’t.

“Everyone thought we’re an e-bike company, but we’re not, we’re an advanced manufacturing company,” Vu told TechCrunch. We certainly can’t blame e-bike enthusiasts for being confused.

Superstrata is deep into what Vu calls “deep tech” — basically manufacturing processes so cutting edge that they haven’t even shown up in consumer products yet. “This isn’t your typical 3D printing system — it’s built for industrial speed and scale,” Vu said.

Arevo, Superstrata’s parent company, is exploring aerospace applications in the future and potentially UAVs. Superstrata and Arevo spun up the e-bike as a consumer proof-of-concept to fill the gap while they wade through the regulatory red tape that defines more complex industries. The company’s bike frames are currently printed in Vietnam, though Vu has plans for print farms in the U.S. and Europe to reduce shipping times and generally make its whole carbon fiber printing operation more efficient.

Superstrata e-bike

Image Credits: TechCrunch

So, carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is one frontier of climate technology, promising fuel-saving lightweight materials at the cost of a fairly energy intensive production process. Superstrata’s silky, unibody bike frames are made out of industrial grade 3D-printed thermoplastic carbon fiber composite rather than “thermoset” — a more common polymer process. While Vu was eager to dive into the technical advantages and the manufacturing process, at the end of the day what you need to know is: This is an e-bike and its frame is made out of very fancy 3D-printed carbon fiber.

Here’s the basic pitch. The Superstrata e-bike is a carbon fiber unibody bike that’s custom printed to meet your preferences, souped up with a 250W pedal-assist motor and shipped in an array of fun prints and colors. The sleek, angular design of the bike’s frame and its conspicuous absence of a seat tube — the part of the frame that would normally flow down from where the seat sits — is pleasantly futuristic or downright odd, depending on who you ask.

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A luxury price

While early critics raised alarms about Superstrata’s missing seat tube, which would normally connect the top tube and down tube to form a strong triangle shape to hold the rider’s weight, Vu assured us that the single, seamless piece of carbon fiber was rated up to 750 lbs. and more than strong enough to hold a cyclist. Riding the Superstrata, I wasn’t concerned about the strength of the carbon fiber, though the potential for smoothing the ride with adjustments involving a seat tube are a missed opportunity. The frame is strong and the ride is stiff — and that’s just how it is.

(The frame’s design is eye-catching even without the missing tube, and does bear some striking similarities to Greg LeMond’s excellent looking e-bike the Prolog. It’s possible that Superstrata printed those frames but the company isn’t listed anywhere and they do boast a much more traditional geometry.)

The missing chunk of frame turns heads, but Superstrata’s other aesthetic choices also set the bike apart visually. The company is all about customization and that applies to the paint too. My review unit was an intense purple, maybe a periwinkle. Honestly, as someone who wears all black most days, the color hurt my soul a bit but my wife found it appealing.

Some of the special paint jobs you can order are very cool — including two that look like starry skies and another designed to evoke the aurora borealis — but they’ll run you an extra $1,250. That extra cost would get you most of the way to a more affordable e-bike made by competitors like Charge or Rad Power. This isn’t a bike for the wallet conscious (most of us).

Superstrata e-bike company shot

Superstrata really needs to remove these misleading sample images with integrated lights. But: Cool paint.

That choice and other aspects of the Superstrata feel a bit “It’s one banana, Michael, What could it cost?” I’m not convinced the bike is really designed to be sold to much of anyone and that’s just a weird takeaway to have when reviewing something.

Superstrata’s e-bike is obviously meant to present as a luxury product, but the experience of the ride and the deeper design doesn’t exactly give off a luxurious, cohesive vibe. At the end of the day, if you asked the question: What is special about this bike? The full answer is “the 3D-printed unibody carbon fiber frame.”

At this price point — the e-bike starts $3,500 — Superstrata’s base offering gives you a lot less for your money than what you’d get with a much more fully-featured electric bike like the Cowboy ($2,990), VanMoof’s new model ($3,498) or even its last generation models, which float around $2,000. Those tech-forward bikes pack perks like built-in interfaces, companion apps, embedded automatic front and back lights, phone chargers and alarm systems for at or around what you’d pay for a base price Superstrata bike.

A feature that illustrates this well is the fact that Superstrata initially planned to have integrated front and back lights — many of the bikes pictured on its website still misleadingly show this — but that idea was scrapped in the finished version. The lights, the little computer for the electric motor and any bells and whistles are all after market, not integrated into the bike’s design.

After speaking to Vu — who was transparent to the point of admitting the whole e-bike idea was just kind of for the hell of it — it didn’t particularly feel like Superstrata was trying to actively mislead people about the headlight situation or anything else. The fact that Superstrata’s website shows a product you literally can’t buy just further demonstrates that it isn’t this company’s main thing. The problem with that is that most people making a purchase this big would feel safer buying from a company that lives and breathes bikes — not carbon fiber.

Superstrata e-bike

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Custom carbon fiber

Back to the frame — the meat of the innovation here. The Superstrata bike is custom printed to order and that’s a huge boon for people who are on the extremes of the height spectrum, including adults under 5’2”, who apparently ordered the bike with gusto. For these folks, who are hard-pressed to find properly sized bikes elsewhere, Superstrata’s frame size options are probably genuinely a big deal. If you’ve searched high and low for a bike to fit your unusually small or large stature, Superstrata’s bikes might be a great choice.

For anyone who falls in the normal-ish height spectrum, the rest of the customization process is relatively shallow. When relying on a bike for commuting or urban transportation purposes, the real customization options that matter offer utility — things like baskets, front or back racks and tire width.

Building the bike, you can choose from an “urban” or “sport” configuration for the bars, yielding a casual upright ride or a more aerodynamic drop bar road bike style. You can opt for a single speed or multiple gears, an option that most people would probably prefer but one that also adds $500. You can pick whether you’d want tires for the road or for “paths” — maybe gravel and light offroading — but there’s not much detail offered here. Superstrata buries the components list, but the review unit we had packed Shimano disc brakes, Bafang powering the electric side of the bike and a grab bag of brands for the rest.

After that stuff is dialed in, you can input your specific height and measurements for a custom-sized frame. On that count, we couldn’t really make a determination — my review bike was designed for someone a bit taller though was still rideable and okay. What else? The experience of riding the bike is fine, but nothing particularly sophisticated. The frame’s design makes for a very stiff ride so watch out for being jolted by uneven terrain.

The battery life is more than adequate for normal needs. Superstrata claims that it will last for 60 miles, but on a higher assist setting you’re going to get significantly less than that. Still, the battery would serve you for at least 20 miles even when drawing more power, which is more than fine for most around-the-town needs. It’s also worth mentioning here that the Superstrata e-bike doesn’t have a throttle — basically a button that gives you a burst of speed to power the bike along. A throttle is a really nice way to scoot quickly through dangerous intersections or to get your bike to maintain a higher speed and it’s tough to go back once you’ve used one. The Superstrata e-bike can go up to 20 miles per hour but you’ll have to work for it.

On that note, Superstrata’s state of the art frame might be carbon fiber, but the e-bike doesn’t exactly feel like a featherweight. Because the bike is so light in the front and so heavy in the back where the motor lives, it actually feels heavier than it is. It’s also more awkward to carry than a bike that’s uniformly weighted and you’re not going to want to be lugging this thing down more than a few stairs at a time.

The Superstrata website claims that the e-bike weighs 24 pounds but there’s no way this thing weighs that much less than my regular ride, a VanMoof X3 that’s a hefty but evenly weighted 45.8 pounds. Vu noted that the final version’s weight varies, but the e-bike weighs in around 38.5 to 39.6 lbs, enough to pretty much obscure the weight savings of the carbon fiber.

Ultimately, the Superstrata could be a solid option for someone who falls outside of normal height parameters and desperately wants an e-bike. Superstrata’s bikes might also be a good choice for someone who wants a custom-printed carbon fiber bike frame and is confident about dialing in the rest themselves, though buying the frame alone isn’t an option on the website.

In either of these cases, the advanced carbon fiber technology doesn’t come cheap and neither does this bike — especially when compared to competitors building feature rich, cohesive e-bike experiences. Superstrata should probably focus on its custom unibody carbon fiber frames and let other companies — or people — build the bikes out. And since this whole thing was an experiment anyway, that might very well be what the company plans to do.


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