Meet the Superstrata, a 3D-printed carbon bike that’s blowing up on Indiegogo
2020 is shaping up as the year of the crowdfunded bicycle.
Earlier this year, a company called FLX released a bike called a Babymaker (nope, not joking) that quickly became an internet sensation. Through a targeted social media marketing campaign, the Babymaker was suddenly everywhere, following people from Instagram to Facebook to YouTube and back again.
Lots of people saw the bike, and lots of people bought it. By campaign’s end, despite a sexist marketing campaign and a terrible name and a number of other red flags of various sizes, the bike had crowdfunded over US$13 million from almost 10,000 buyers.
That was also a record-breaking campaign for the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, which walked away with a sweet cut of at least US$650,000.
The Babymaker campaign may have been a crowdfunding success story, but there are plenty of similar campaigns that haven’t turned out so well. Perhaps the most notorious example is SpeedX. We covered that in a major 2019 feature article that shone a light on a catastrophic downfall that left hundreds of people out of pocket, thousands of bikes dumped in fields, and contributed to the collapse of the Chinese share-bike industry.
Now, to be clear, I don’t believe that’s where the Babymaker campaign will end up. But I do think there’s justified reason for scepticism when a bike from an unknown brand blows up on crowdfunding platforms, because the narrative tends to follow the same familiar beats:
- Oddball bike promises revolutionary advance with vague marketing
- Gets breathlessly covered by non-cycling media
- Nets a crowdfunded windfall
- Some months or years later, delivers something that’s ever so slightly underwhelming, or disappears into the ether.
All of which is a looooong but necessary preamble. Because, guess what folks? There’s a new Indiegogo smash called the Superstrata which is now stalking cyclists all over the internet!
It’s the “world’s first custom 3D-printed unibody carbon fiber composite bike and e-bike”. It’s completely custom-sized. It has generously proportioned valves. It’s … well, take a look:
In a handful of days, the Superstrata has raised over US$2.4 million, which isn’t quite on the Babymaker trajectory yet but also isn’t far off. It has (so far) exceeded its targets by 2,435%, with 1,700 backers lining up to buy a bike without a seat tube.
So what do we know about the Superstrata?
Originally called the ‘Strata’, this bike has been through seven design iterations over the years and is now, and I quote, “so much better we decided to call it the Superstrata.” A variant of it made its first appearance at the Eurobike show in 2018, as a showcase of the manufacturing capabilities of its parent company, Arevo.
Arevo is a Silicon Valley-based tech start-up with a claimed staff of around 50 people, and it’s managed by a team of heavy hitters from elsewhere in the tech (note: not cycling) world. The company CEO, Sonny Vu, is a start-up veteran who has had previous good fortune with the Indiegogo platform. He’s riding a career wave that took him from Microsoft, to creating an activity tracker launched through crowdfunding, to becoming the president and chief technical officer of the Fossil watch brand, all before moving to Arevo.
The Superstrata bike is just one application of Arevo’s technology, which “enables makers to create ultrastrong, lightweight, continuous carbon fiber products on demand”. Unlike most carbon fibre, Arevo’s take on it is a bit different, seeing as they’re using a different material altogether: what they call “Industrial Grade Thermoplastic Carbon Fiber Composite”, or CFRP (Carbon Fibre Reinforced Polymer). Rather than the traditional carbon frame production method, which involves the hand-layup of plies of carbon fibre into a mold, this carbon fibre reinforced thermoplastic is melted by lasers and extruded by robots into a single “unibody” structure.
A printed frame
3D printing is a growth area that, unsurprisingly, captures the public imagination. It involves lasers and robots, which is futuristic as hell. It removes human error from the production line. It allows things to be shaped in novel ways, like, say, a bike frame without a seat tube.
It’s also not new to cycling, with a growing number of brands using the technology in their line-ups. Moots, in Colorado, has fancy 3D-printed dropouts on its (very expensive) Routt RSL gravel bike. Bastion, in Melbourne, pairs 3D-printed lugs to filament-wound carbon fibre tubing in its (also very expensive) road bikes. Also in Melbourne, a major bicycle brand that may or may not rhyme with Shrek is developing 3D-printed titanium bike frames with the metal additive manufactured company, Titomic.
So, Superstrata’s 3D-printed foray into the cycling industry is interesting and different, but it’s not entirely without precedent. Nor is the fact the company’s gone to Indiegogo to secure the funds to develop the concept further (which to be clear, is exactly what is happening).
While Superstrata seems confident it’s got the pieces in place to shift into production – company CEO Sonny Vu says that they’re “in the process of setting up a print farm with hundreds of machines in place” – there’s also an important disclosure right up the top of the Indiegogo page that “The project team has a working demo, not the final product. Their ability to begin production may be affected by product development or financial challenges.”
It’s worth pointing out that now the product has reached its funding goals, the 1,700 people who have thus far pledged thousands of dollars to the project are in this to the end, without recourse for a refund – even if, or when, the project runs into any of those aforementioned “product development or financial challenges”.
As the backers of the never-delivered SpeedX Unicorn found – many of whom believed they’d bought a bike, rather than just the hypothetical promise of one – a happy ending does not conclude every crowdfunding story.
If the Superstrata delivers on what it promises, however, there appear to be some interesting possibilities at play. Rather than a small selection of frame sizes, the use of 3D-printing allows the company to produce frames in a wide range of custom sizes – at some points described by the company as ‘infinite’, and at others described as ‘500,000’, which is conspicuously not the same thing but is nonetheless a lot more than Small, Medium and Large.
Superstrata has thus far announced two models. The Superstrata C is a single frame that can be configured as a town bike, a road bike or a gravel bike (with an early-bird price of US$1,499). The Superstrata E is an e-bike variant of that, which squeezes an internal battery into apparently the same frame shape (at an early-bird price of US$1,999).
As a possible sign of how much the company seems to be flying by the seat of its pants, these bikes had completely different model names – the ‘Terra’ and the ‘Ion’ – when the campaign launched late last week. There are renderings of both models, but real-world photos are a little scant.
The Indiegogo page follows the template of previous crowdfunding success stories, with easily digestible claims that sound impressive but don’t mean all that much:
Of course, there are also abundant comparisons to the competition, which show Superstrata in the best possible light.
The Superstrata C is compared to models from “High-End Alternative Brand 1” and “High-End Alternative Brand 2” – AKA Specialized’s S-Works Tarmac and Cannondale’s Supersix Evo – and emerges triumphant on most metrics, because marketing.
The Superstrata E, meanwhile stacks up alongside a familiar foe:
Superstrata claims that the bike can be built to fit riders from 4’7″ to 7’4″ (1.4 m to 2.2 m), but it’s not entirely clear whether those are hard limits or whether it just sounds catchy. The custom-sized frames are “individually crafted according to 18 precise measurements”.
Fortunately, because height can be a confusing concept to grasp, there is a helpfully marked (and outstanding) visual representation of what short and tall people look like. It is the light I need in these dark times.
However, when it gets to the nitty gritty about the spec, or what you might get if this thing ever reaches production, details are a bit more scant. The groupset is specified only as ‘Shimano’. Due to the lack of a seat tube, we know it’s by necessity a 1x setup, but a Shimano Metrea commuter-level crankset is the only identifiable component.
Of the few images of samples in the wild, there are plenty more details that don’t exactly check out. In one giddy, 10-second stretch of the Superstrava’s promotional video, the hits keep coming:
Here, let’s play bingo! Did you spot the completely different frame design with no seat stays and a seat tube (1:45), or the broken freewheel that keeps those pedals spinning (1:48) or the geared bike, set up as a single-speed (1:53)?
Astonishingly enough, that last example is even featured elsewhere on the page as an illustration of the brand’s attention-to-detail and bike savviness:
But, as Superstrata tells us, the frame weighs less than both an entire element and two bottles of water of unspecified volume, so there is that.
(For whatever it’s worth, our attempts to contact Superstrata, and the person credited as the frame’s designer, have thus far yielded no response.)
A glimpse of the future?
Ambition is a wonderful thing, and technological advances don’t happen through following the status quo. One hundred and forty years ago when the first safety bicycle was invented, penny farthing riders probably snorted into their moustaches. In the 1970s, when carbon fibre frames were pioneered, a bunch of riders looked at their steel frames and thought, “this is, and ever will be, the pinnacle of bicycle technology.” Grumpy people are always trying to tear down the dreamers.
I get that, and I wish the fine people at Superstrata all the best. But based on some renderings, bold yet vague claims, and clumsily outfitted prototypes, I won’t be investing thousands of my own dollars just yet.