Thinly Sliced, Generously Served - Interview: Volagi's Barley Forsman by Gary J. Boulanger
Original post at http://garyb.posterous.com/interview-volagis-barley-forsman
Barley Forsman is a designer and endurance road cyclist based in Sonoma County, California. The nearly 40-year-old holds several bicycle patents. He and business partner Robert Choi founded Volagi Bikes in mid 2010, and caught the attention of many with a head-turning, carbon performance road bike with disc brakes at the 2010 Interbike Show.
I interviewed Forsman days after he and Choi relocated the Volagi office from the South Bay to Sonoma.
Barley, how long have you been a cyclist?
Well, let’s see… I was given my first bike when I was 4 or 5 years old (at the time I was very proud to be the only kid in my neighborhood not to need training wheels – actually, I never remember using training wheels), so that would mean I’ve been a cyclist for 35 years.
My parents moved around a lot when I was young so there were several years that I didn’t have a bike. When we moved to San Francisco in 1977, I knew I wanted to ride again – as incentive for learning to read time on an analog watch (a watch with hands), I earned my second bike at 7; by 8 I had already completely disassembled that bike, hand painted it, and reassembled with new parts. At 11, I bought my third bike with my own, hard earned money, and my first 10-speed road bike.
In college in 1990, I bought my first mountain bike and spent most of my free time in the Marin Headlands across the Golden Gate Bridge. This was an exciting time to be involved in mountain biking – it was new and fresh (relatively speaking) and new ideas were encouraged and accepted (especially in regard to suspension; the crazier the better!). Through all of college, I rode my bike to get around – everywhere in San Francisco and surrounding areas. I fell in love with commuting and urban riding; as a design student, it was always a creative challenge to carry large supplies on the bike. Once, I even carried another bicycle on my back to school while riding (it was for a school project).
I bought my first real road bike used from Robert (Choi) when I joined CamelBak in 1998. He talked me into riding the famous Death Ride in 1999. I absolutely loved the adventure and the challenge of the event, and it was clear from that point that I was best suited as an endurance cyclist; I haven’t looked back since.
Where were you born? When did you become interested in design and engineering?
Ironically, I was born in Brunswick, Maine – about as far from the SF Bay Area as you can get and still be in the US. I only lived there for the first year of my life – as I said, I spent the first five or six years of my life moving all over the US with my dad in a green 1971 Dodge Dart Swinger (that car was awesome!).
Early on, my dad noticed that I had a talent for drawing and making things (not having much money, I made many of my own toys), so I usually had pen and paper readily available (as well as access to most of my dad’s wood working tools). When I was 7, I drew a Christmas picture and my dad liked it so much that he brought it to a local printer and had Christmas greeting cards made. Not long after that, I had my own greeting card business – I had to present myself and my business to a judge at the SF city hall to be the youngest licensed street artist in San Francisco. I had a booth and sold my cards at Ghirardelli Square near Fisherman’s Wharf on the weekends, but my best business took place at the UC Med Center where visitors would stop to buy a card before going into the hospital. I think I was around 10 when I quit the business – at a certain point it felt too much like “work”!
Through high school and college I explored many different disciplines: interior design, architecture, graphic design, figure drawing, painting, ceramics, and sculpture. As the son of a lifelong carpenter, it was clear that I had to use my hands during the creative process. After about five years of “exploration” I accidentally discovered industrial design while taking a sculpture class. It was very clear that this was a profession I could call home – I could create through sketching and building models and prototyping. The next obvious step was how to combine my love for cycling with my love of creation.
You’re an endurance cyclist. When did that begin, and what events have you raced?
Through college, because I didn’t have a car, I would do weekend rides in Marin – these rides would be 35 to 65 miles on a mountain bike and could take up the better part of a day. So in many respects that was an introduction into endurance cycling. But it wasn’t until I joined CamelBak that I really started to put on the miles – there’s no better way to test product than to use product! After doing my first Death Ride, I was desperate to test myself on a double (200 miles in a day).
I found a local ride called the Terrible Two in Santa Rosa. It was advertised as one of the hardest double in California at 200 miles with 16,000 feet of climbing in the middle of the summer (100+ degree temperatures are not uncommon) – this would be my first double century. I told Robert I would be doing the ride, so he decided he would do it as well, unfortunately he had a business trip on the weekend of the ride. He couldn’t stand that I would do the ride without him (more importantly before him). He secretly went out and did the ride solo without support the weekend before the ride.That was his first double! So, from that time forward, I like to say that Robert got me into cycling and I got him into ultra-distance cycling. It’s been all downhill (and uphill) from then; here are some of the bigger events (centuries don’t count):
•Triple Crown winner (5+ doubles in a year)
•Completed 29 official double centuries in California (in the last 10 years)
•Triple Crown Stage race (completed 3, and finished 2nd place in 2009)
•Full brevet series 200K, 300K, 400K, 600K (2002, 2003, 2004, 2010)
•Paris Brest Paris 1200K – finished in 58:50 hours (2003)
•Furnace Creek 508 race (finished 1st place in the fixed gear category) (2004)
I’ve also done a handful of shorter races (criteriums, cyclo-cross, track, etc.), but I’m much more adept at distance.
You have a slightly similar career path as Robert. What is it like working together? How do you complement each other’s gifts?
I’ve known Robert since 1997, when he hired me at Bell Sports. Then he hired me again at CamelBak in 1998, where we worked together for almost 10 years. And then we worked together at Specialized for a little over two years, before starting Volagi cycles.
It was really a “no-brainer” to start a business with Robert; he’s a great guy. We get along and share many of the same ideals in design and in life. It became clear while at CamelBak that we worked well together and that we could accomplish great things. We share a core passion for both cycling and creation – deep down we’re both inventors and entrepreneurs, and we’re not afraid to take a chance and do something different (or more specifically, better!).
We’re both extreme bike nuts and work-a-holics, who enjoy testing product and much as creating product. We have created Volagi to be less of a company and more of a lifestyle; we believe that work shouldn’t feel like “work”.
We complement each other very well. Robert is very business and market savvy – he has been around for a long time and has a great deal of experience. He has a very good idea of not only what to do, but what not to do (which can often be more important), based on his experience starting and running his own company in the late `80s (VistaLite). He also has a very intuitive sense for the cycling market for determining what could be successful – I can’t say what his exact success rate is, but I am certain that it’s very high. With an engineering background, he also understands product and function very well – better than many engineers I have worked with. It’s a very natural process to discuss product function (what works, and what doesn’t) with him – our best ideas have come from informal conversations, where we can brainstorm concepts and feed off of each others’ ideas.
Finally, Robert is a “numbers” guy – he understands business, and what it means to make sound judgment based on rational decisions. He is great for keeping us honest – everything we do has to make product sense as well as business sense.
My job is to take an abstract idea and transform it into a visually appealing, functionally superior product (or at least, that is the goal). We have a great synergy working together and I can’t think of a better partner as we begin this journey.
Which bikes have you ridden and raced over the years, and what did/do you like most about them?
Being a self-described bike nut, I have, and have had many different bikes – road bikes, mountain bikes, BMX, track bikes, cross bikes, folding bikes, cruiser bikes, Frankenstein commuter bikes, you name it (if it has two wheels and you pedal it, I definitely have an interest in it!). I have bikes made from most materials (steel, aluminum, titanium, carbon), although I don’t yet have a wood or bamboo bike (I said “yet”).
I would say that some of my favorite bikes have come from Jeremy Sycip – a small one-man bike builder in Sonoma County. Not only is Jeremy a great guy, but he makes great bikes – I own two and my wife owns one. I highly recommend Jeremy as a frame builder – his attentiveness and attention to detail are second to none.
I also have a 1987 steel DeRosa that has S&S couplers – this has been my go-to travel bike. My wife and I own a Calfee tandem; (owner) Craig is one of the best carbon guys in the area (again, highly recommended!). My wife and I have ridden the Davis Double Century many times on this bike – once we finished in 10 hours (not bad for straight 200 miles). One of my other “favorite” bikes is probably also the least expensive – a Surly Crosscheck. This bike is a functional marvel. I’ve had it set up as a cross bike, fixed gear, single speed, road bike, and do-all commuter – it’s the workhorse in the stable.
The Volagi Liscio is a radical departure from most bikes we’ve seen, especially production bikes. What is your goal, and how did the design come about?
In the beginning, we didn’t really think about what product we would make, but more objectively about what was missing and what was needed in the cycling community. We thought about the kinds of rides that we do and the people that we ride with. It was apparent to us that there was a void, or disconnect between what is currently available and what people really need, or want. We knew from the beginning that our approach would be different – we would design and build product for the real world for real people.
As we honed in on a direction, it became clear that there really was no other option than to do a bike – to fundamentally change the concept of what a performance road bike should be. We know that most cyclists take themselves seriously – they work hard for their fitness, spending hours in the saddle and they expect the most from their equipment. Right now, if you want the best bike money can buy, utilizing the best technologies on the market, you have no choice but to buy a bike designed specifically for the professional racer. A sponsored athlete has considerably different goals than the average cyclist, they are probably in their 20s, probably weigh about 140 pounds (if they’re fat!), and could care less about anything that doesn’t get them across the line first – I am certain that comfort and safety is not on the list of necessities.
Our goal was to redesign the endurance road bike from the ground up – we started with a simple gateway question: “is it better?” Every design feature, every specification had to answer “yes” to that question. With that as a guideline (as simple as it is), the bike was born – a high performance endurance bicycle build to go as fast and as far as you want to go, without compromising comfort, control, or good looks.
Tell me a bit more about the bike’s details, including the component highlights. Where did you apply your expertise?
The heart and soul of the Volagi Liscio in the Longbow Flex seat-stays – this is really where the magic happens. It’s based on a very simple concept: a long tube flexes more than a short tube. We wanted shorter tubes for the chain-stays to reduce unwanted flex at the rear wheel (we didn’t want to compromise power transfer).
Conversely, we wanted longer tubes for the seat-stays to provide flex, or compliance. In order to do this we had to change the point where the seat-stays connect from the seat-tube to the top-tube (the seat-stays do not touch the seat-tube). Obviously, there’s a little more to it than just that, but it’s best to experience the ride than describe it: the proof is in the pudding (and we wouldn’t want it any other way!).
The other obvious highlight has to be the front and rear disc brakes. To us, it was a decision that made itself: is it better? Yes, in almost every way! Road bicycles are really the only hold-out to disc brakes – every other performance form of transportation currently available has adopted disc brakes for a reason – they are better. It’s obviously about safety and control, but also about going faster, with more confidence.
Once you try discs on a long twisty downhill, we’re convinced you won’t want to go back to rim brakes. Outside of that, they’re better in the rain, work with a broken spoke, work with a dented rim, work better with carbon rims (no heat build-up), won’t roll a tire on a hot day, fits larger tires, easier to change a flat (cleaner), last longer, consistent performance, etc, etc…
Everything we’ve done is really just based on common sense: taller head-tube, aero tubing, clearance for larger tires, fender mounts, compact handlebar, compact cranks, reasonable gearing at the cogs, 25C tires standard, BB30 bottom bracket, tapered head-tube, and we’ve even made our own saddle for comfort over a range of positions.
We’re also shipping our bikes in a reusable corrugated plastic box that the customer can use for travel (so there’s less waste at the bike shop), with a couple of extra spokes and nipples, because, well, you never know.
Who is your ideal Volagi customer?
A free-thinker looking for a common sense uncompromised performance endurance road bike, basically.
You just introduced the line at Interbike last fall. Where can folks buy a Liscio?
We’re signing up dealers now. If people are interested, they can contact their local dealer and we’ll work with them to set up a test ride; no matter what folks might think about the concept, always ride before you buy (we’re confident they’ll love it, but we want them to be the judge).
Stay tuned for my interview with Volagi Bikes co-founder Robert Choi.