Will Steve Christini's 10-year quest for a two-wheel drive change the motorcycle industry? Or push him over the edge?
by Brian Howard
Photos by Michael T. Regan
Flying down the Atlantic City Expressway at the wheel of his loaded-up Durango, Steve Christini looks a little peaked. He speaks in the clipped, rambling, caffeinated bursts of a guy who woke up an hour or four earlier than he'd have liked. He's juggling a slice of pizza, the steering wheel and a cell phone that's chirping reminder alarms at him. Winding toward the bowels of the Pine Barrens, through wooded areas dense with short, craggy, leafless trees—the kind of place a man or a body could get seriously lost—Christini looks like he's running down checklists in his head, trying to remember if he's tied up all the loose ends. He's peppering Justin Dodd in the backseat with questions: Is this the right road? We turn here? Do you remember the address? We're looking for blacktop, right? This is a bad place for a U-turn, isn't it?
Dodd's on his cell confirming directions for his boss. If Christini seems a little manic, you'll have to forgive him. A day or so of growth on the 34-year-old's boyish face and a sort of hyper-alert look in his eyes betray long hours spent tinkering the night before.
Christini has an idea. It keeps him up nights—not necessarily tossing and turning, though that happens. It's an idea of two wheels turning; one pushes, the other pulls. Christini dreamed up a two-wheel-drive system for a bicycle that gives riders much better control and climbing abilities on slippery terrain. He's spent the better part of the last 10-plus years making that idea a reality. It's been slow to gain a foothold in the bicycle or motorcycle industries, though it has been almost universal ly lauded.
The purpose of this trip is to test the latest iteration of the Christini AWD (all-wheel-drive) motorbike. Ron Lucas, an accomplished rider and skilled mechanic who runs a shop in New Jersey called Enduro Experts, will put some tweaked gears through their paces. It's also the eve of the Indianapolis Powersports Dealer Expo where Christini, with fellow engineer Dodd, will put his baby in front of the people who, if he has his way, will be selling it this time next year.
"This is go time," explains Christini, a Queen Villager whose company's history is a Job-like saga of close calls, near misses and a perpetual quest for a little more scratch. Christini's belief in his product has never faltered. His mettle, however, h as been tested, especially in the last year as his funding again came close to drying up.
"I'm an optimist by nature. Any entrepreneur has to be, or else you'd go crazy," he says, a waver in his voice hinting at how many times he's been to the brink.
All-wheel drive started for Christini as most inventions do: There was a problem.
"It was the summer between my junior and senior year of college. It was just a day where I was riding [my mountain bike] on the trail and it was wet and I couldn't get up this hill," he remembers of a 1994 outing near Bell's Mill Road. "I could barely walk up it, let alone ride it—but it was a hill I could normally make it up. I was spinning out. And I was just like, "Why hasn't somebody done two-wheel drive?'"
It had been attempted before—generally with clunky, gawkish chain mechanisms. Christini had spent that summer repairing remote control helicopters for Ardmore Hobbies. In helicopter technology, the engine propels the main rotor as well as the tail rotor with a mechanism that runs through the tail boom. And that's where it all clicked. "The first thing that popped into my head was, well, if you put a drive shaft right through the [front tube of the bike] frame …"
A mechanical engineering major at Villanova, Christini took on the challenge for his senior design project and made a working two-wheel-drive bike that's now mounted on the wall of his North Seventh Street office (where one of those inspirational model 'copters hangs above his desk). After graduation in 1995 he took a job as a mechanical engineer—a dream gig for most engineering grads—with Air Products and Chemicals in Allentown, an industrial gas and chemical company. In 1996, he applied for patents on his invention. Two years later when the patents were approved, he chose the road less traveled, quitting Air Products to form
Christini Technologies, a partnership with his brother and father, to set about making his bikes a reality.
TINKER TOY: Steve Christini examines
his all-wheel- drive mechanism after
the test ride. "We keep taking the
weakest link out of the chain," he
says, "and then you find a new
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
It started out more like a nightmare.
"I was calling every bike company under the sun, and lots of them laughed at me," he remembers. ""You're crazy.' "It'll never work.' "It's too heavy.' "People tried to do that before.' "You can't do it.' It's amazing—even in technical companies 51;how many people aren't creative. They don't think past the next step."
Not that Christini necessarily did back then, either. The company's early days had a general seat-of-their-pants ethos. In 1998, preparing to bring a prototype bike to Camp Jeep, a carnival of off-road events where people can also present new products, Christini worked 72 hours straight, during which he fell asleep while operating a lathe. They finished the bike but arrived in Charlottesville, Va., to discover that nobody had bothered to book a hotel room. With no vacancies in the entire city, they decided to drive until they found a room. "So we get in my car," smiles Christini, "and the radiator blows up. And it's 10 at night. And none of us had slept."
At a nearby bar, a bartender informed them that the "fraternity house up on the hill is empty."
"So we go up the hill and there's this big fraternity house and the door's cracked open and there's a couch in the front yard," Christini recalls. "We push the door open and the place is trashed. There's nobody there. We turn on the light and cockroach es [scurry]. We go upstairs and we're like, "OK, if the shower's working we're staying.'"
One of the sponsors of Camp Jeep showed an interest, which Christini used to obtain a matching-funds grant from Ben Franklin Technology Partners, a foundation that supports Pennsylvania technology entrepreneurs. He hired Villanova friend Mike Dunn, two 'Nova engineering interns and two Drexel MBA interns and set up in a 600-square-foot office space at 1241 Carpenter St.
By August of 2000, Christini was in negotiations with Raleigh Bikes: Raleigh planned to buy Christini's technology, and Christini would be charged with developing a line of all-wheel-drive bikes for the company. Just two years after quitting his day job, Christini appeared to have hit pay dirt. Until, of course, Raleigh went bankrupt, killing the deal. Most of the staff was laid off.
Things weren't about to get easier.
Former British Olympic cyclist Chris Church "was going to put a crapload of money" into the company, says Christini, but died of a heart attack as his test bike was en route. "We never even got the bike back."
A local investor they'd been warned about tried to muscle Christini out of his own company, explaining to a guy whose business was founded on the money of friends and family, "You shouldn't be so upset, this is just business."
DEVIL MAY CARE: Ron Lucas puts the Christini AWD through its paces at his
test track in the heart of the Pine Barrens
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
And then there was JustBalls.com.
In the dizzying whirl of the dot-com boom, Christini regularly attended events where "three or four companies would give five-minute presentations, basically [paying to] pitch their ideas to 15 to 20 rich guys in a room."
"We got a trophy once," he recalls. ""Best Company to Exhibit.' There was another award, "Company Most Likely to be Invested In,'" which went to a site called JustBalls.com, an online store where one could ostensibly buy any type of ball. JustBalls, as Christini recalls, walked out with millions from investors. He walked out with his trophy.
JustBalls.com had vanished from the Web by 2003.
At another event, he showed up with one of his bikes and was told he couldn't bring it into the building. "But we make bikes," he explained.
"Oh," replied the convention employee, "I just thought you were a Web site that sold bikes."
Which explains why most of the approximately $2 million that's gone into the company since they incorporated has come from family, friends and people known as "angel investors." Unlike venture capitalists, angels invest in products they believe in, understanding that the payoff may not be immediate or even great. They're investors like Philip McLaughlin, a professor emeritus at Villanova and Christini's one-time gearing mentor, and David Boyer, former CEO of Limerick aerospace and marine products company Teleflex. Boyer now serves as Christini's managing director and is the company's resident "gray hair," or investor wrangler.
Though the going was never easy, there were always enough people who believed to keep the company going.
"To have money from my cousins and uncles and college friends," says Christini. "It's like running a marathon and you break your foot, and people are like, "He'll keep on going.' Sometimes it feels like that. I can't leave this. I'm either sailing off into the sunset or I'm going down with the ship."
In 2002, after Christini laid off the same engineer for the second time, it appeared that the bicycle idea had reached a plateau. Fifty bicycles had been delivered to Jeep, but they didn't seem poised to capture serious market share. The benefits of all-wheel drive on the bicycle, it seemed, weren't great enough for a man-powered vehicle, or at least not great enough to convince a critical mass of consumers to shell out a couple thousand dollars for the bike. The plan for the small research and development company had always been to create enough of a ripple in the marketplace to get a big player interested or scared enough to license the technology or partner with Christini. Other than the Raleigh non-deal, that just wasn't happening.
So Christini motorized. He had been turning the idea of an all-wheel-drive motorbike around in his head for a while, and with the Interbike 2002 trade show in Las Vegas quickly approaching, he sprung into action. He finished the design for the first Christini motorbike in one week and, borrowing $5,000, made the parts in three weeks. The bike was finished just in time. (Trade shows, for the uninitiated, are industry group gropes where companies set up foam-core booths in convention centers and make deals over drinks at after-parties.)
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
The response there and ever since has been a revelation.
"We have not run into anybody who's been like, "What the hell are you smoking?' Which was very common with the bicycle," says Christini. "Everybody with the motorcycle just gets it, and it's really been amazing to have that happen."
Paul Clipper, editor and owner of the Medford, N.J.-based off-road motorcycle magazine Trail Rider for the last 20 years and a rider for 35, is a believer.
"In the past 20 years there hasn't been that much in the way of technological advances in motorcycles," he figures. "Two wheels with an engine in the middle. The natural progression is that we should be going toward two-wheel drive. It makes an awful lot of sense, in the same way cars went to front-wheel drive."
The physics behind two-wheel drive are simple. As with a car, the more wheels being powered by the engine, the better your traction and control, especially in slick conditions. And in the same way all-wheel drive on a car only kicks in when the primary drive wheels start slipping, the Christini system only delivers power to the front wheel when the rear wheel starts spinning out.
The benefits are similar, says Clipper. "It's a matter of control more than anything else. Especially on an off-road motorcycle where you're driving over loose and changing surfaces and things that are naturally slippery. With a normal motorcycle, the back end is pushing. It's like having a rudder in front of a boat. When you transfer drive to that front wheel, you're always going in the direction you intend to go in."
"My belief is that it's the next big thing," says Clipper, noting that Christini's not the first to try this—Yamaha introduced an all-wheel-drive system in Europe based on hydraulic technology that broke down frequently. He also imagines that bigger motorcycle companies are anxiously biding their time, waiting to see what kind of groundswell the bike might cause. "I'm fairly well convinced that the major companies like Honda and Yamaha are researching his patent very carefully to see if there are ways around it."
Clipper figures the technology would apply equally well to the woods-centric riding of the East Coast and desert-based riding on the West. "When you first ride it, the initial impression is that it's not doing much. It's very transparent," says Clipper . Transparency is a good thing because it means the system is not sapping power. "The bike feels exactly the same as rear-wheel drive. But when you get into a situation where the traction is compromised, you can feel the front wheel taking over."
Some people are skeptical that all-wheel drive has applications beyond off-road riding, though Christini thinks it makes sense across all facets of the motorcycle industry, road and dirt.
When does Clipper see all-wheel drive making a dent in the industry? "Not soon enough."
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Clipper rode and reviewed two Christini prototype motorcycles, most recently in fall 2005, writing, "If we weren't convinced before, this second prototype nails it." He compared riding the bike to a "religious experience."
Last September, as Christini readied for the EICMA international cycling expo in Milan, a trade show that was being viewed within the company as make-or-break, he experienced a bit of deus ex machina: The phone rang.
The guy on the other end had read Clipper's review. He said he was a recreational rider and was interested in a bike. He also said he might be interested in a little bit of the action, if there was any action to be had.
"We get calls like that and there are a lot of people who say investment things and they're thinking, oh, stocks, or something," says Christini. "They don't understand that with private companies you can't just buy stock. It's a lot more involved."
But it turned out the guy, Matt Trattner, was a Wall Street trader who deals in energy futures. As such, he had some serious capital. Trattner's business is to determine value, selling what's overvalued and buying what's undervalued. In all-wheel drive , he saw a technology that was uniquely, classically undervalued.
Before departing for Italy, Christini dashed the motorbike up to Bergen County in New Jersey for Trattner and some friends to test ride.
"I could automatically see the benefit of all-wheel-drive technology," explains Trattner of his reaction to Clipper's review. "Then we rode the bike. After one ride, the rider will know."
Trattner's also got friends with bucks, one of whom is Vinny Viola, part owner of the New Jersey Nets. Trattner assembled a group of investors who are now a bit of legal lingo away from a staged investment deal that could sink some very serious money into Christini's company.
"Christini has offered a very rare opportunity," says Trattner, who claims he wants to make Christini a household name for motorcyclists. "There will be competitors, but there aren't any now. He's going to have 100 percent of the market share, because we're starting it. It's the equivalent of the Sony Walkman. It dominated. Everybody else slowly caught up, but when [the Walkman] came out, it was the only one. What I'm looking to do is help revolutionize a market."
People pay a premium for all-wheel drive on their cars, says Trattner, even though it snows maybe six times a year. "On a dirtbike, you're using it every second."
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Though the deal is not finalized, Trattner says he and Christini are both "very much committed with going forward."
Jumping from a small R&D outfit to a full-fledged motorcycle manufacturer is impractical, so stage one is to enter 10 Christini bikes in competitive rides in New England to spur demand for after-market conversion kits that would allow motorbike owners to upgrade their current bikes. The staged deal would stipulate that as Christini hits milestones (for instance, selling a certain number of kits), he'll get more money. It's a safe plan for the investors, and the closest thing to job security Christini's had, knowing for maybe the first time in this whole tale that there'll be money in place to "finally do things the right way." It's something like a thousand-pound stone lifted from the back of a guy who's been "scrapping forever."
Christini's had to compromise a lot to get this far. Engineers at industrial product and chemical companies are well-paid, today averaging $57,000 to start in Philadelphia; Christini's lived hand-to-mouth. "People think business owners have all this secret money," he laughs. "Every cent I ever saved is in this company." At this point, Christini isn't even the majority stakeholder in the company. He has progressively given up control in the interest of seeing his dream come to fruition.
"There's a simple analogy: It's better to have a slice of the watermelon than the whole grape," he says. "A lot of engineers and tech people make the mistake of being, like "No, y'know what, I can figure out how to do this myself.' Well, 80 percent of nothing is nothing. If you put the dollar value on all my time, and the fact that I've forgone another career. I mean, it's "I got screwed.' But I also made the choice to do it."
The concessions haven't been just financial.
"I've had girlfriends, I've had some serious relationships that have gone awry," he says, admitting he's broken things off and been dumped because he's more or less married to his business. "I've been overwhelmed by this."
While the light at the end of the tunnel is now a little brighter, its distance is still indeterminate. One of a few things can happen from here.
The company could flop; the technology could fail under repeated stress like the Yamaha version.
The company could settle in making and licensing after-market conversion kits.
The company could be bought up by or merge with an existing motorcycle company, most likely a smaller manufacturer (Gas Gas, Sherco and TM are all possibilities) looking to gain competitive ground on big players like Honda or Kawasaki.
Or the splash could be huge, attract more investments and hoist Christini to the throne of a motorcycle empire.
But one way or another, Christini hopes eventually to find time to think about something other than the one thing he's been thinking about exclusively for the last decade. He'd love to one day have his own design house and maybe consult with people on their own innovations.
"I've learned my lesson. If you're going to make something mechanical, make it so that it can be sold for $100 or less," says Christini, whose after-market conversion kit will sell for in the neighborhood of $6,500. "One thing I've learned is that this [product] is super complex. We started with the most complex thing. It's not just a widget where we have one thing to make. We have 50."
Back in the Pine Barrens, Ron Lucas is giving one of those 50 parts, the modified gear, a good workout. A white covering left over from the most recent snowstorm has made an already tricky test track treacherous. And yet Lucas zip s through trees, flies through hairpin turns, hops ditches, scales dirt mounds—kicking up a mixture of mud and snow at every turn—like some kind of Jersey daredevil. He takes a spill (even all-wheel drive won't help when you hit a fallen tree trunk buried in the snow), pops back onto the bike and continues to throw mud with glee, with each pass getting closer to coating Christini and Dodd, who are watching from "the mule," a golf cart bred with an ATV that keeps stalling out.
After the test ride, Lucas and Dodd sip Coronas, Christini a Yuengling Lager. They dismantle the front fork for assessment. The modified gear performed fine, but caused something else to function strangely. "We keep taking the weakest link out of the chain, and then you find a new weakest link," Christini says of a process that would be frustrating to most, but that he actually likes. There's a theory in the invention biz, he explains, that it's less expensive to build something and break it than to try to calculate the breaking point. Which is why madmen like Lucas are so important to guys like Christini. They'll need to figure out all the ways to break this thing before selling it to a demographic that breaks things by nature.
Seeing his bike tear up the test track, does Christini feel like a proud parent?
"Yeah, proud parent," he grimaces. "Well, it was a problem child in the beginning."
Reprinted with permission from the Philadelphia City Paper 2006
Visit Steve's website at www.christini.com