Electrify Magazine - 'Solé Bicycles: The Power of A Bicycle in Cuba'
Learning to ride a bike remains a nostalgic childhood memory for most. After a wobbly start and an eventual mastery of riding these two-wheelers, bike-riding continues to pose as a prime mode of transportation for many.
Whether you hop on your bike for some outdoor exercise, use it to travel to and from work, or ride to simply soak in some fun under the sun, bicycles are a routinely enjoyed necessity. The folks behind the Solé Bicycle Company share this same sentiment, and have dedicated their company to bringing hand-crafted, reliable bikes to peddlers around the world.
Founded in 2009 by a group of college students, the Solé Bicycle Company hassince strived to provide high-quality bicycles at an affordable price, delivered right to your doorstep. “At Solé Bicycles, we want to make the process of buying a bicycle fun and enjoyable, from start to finish. From the moment you enter our website, we showcase our way of life and the freedom that your Solé provides,” says Brian Ruben, chief bicycle officer at Solé Bicycle Co.
Solé takes pride in their carefully constructed cruisers as well as placing great emphasis on the active lifestyles of the Solé Bicycle cyclists. Taking a step beyond the bike’s unique physical hardware, Solé has also proudly participated in strategic collaborations, from partnerships withprominent companies such as Beats by Dre, Zico and Dollar Shave Club to carefully catered artist series with some of the industry’s leading creators.
The brand’s most recent venture took them on a mission trip to Cuba where they peddled their way through the streets of Havana, visiting with the locals and savoring the local Cuban culture. We caught up with Brian Ruben, the Solé Bicycle Company’s chief bicycle officer, to hear more about their trip to Cuba, how the company got their inventive start, and to see where they will peddling off to next.
The Solé Bicycle Company story says it was founded in 2009 by a group of friends who were “fed up with the state of bicycles.” How did you all meet and discover your shared distaste for the state of bicycles?
We all went to college together where every single person rode cheap, old beach cruisers, including ourselves. One day, we saw a group of kids riding bikes called “fixies.” We had never seen them before so we stopped them, asked them how much they paid for the bikes and where they got them. They told us $1,500 and they built the bikes themselves. We couldn’t understand why. We just wanted to ride those bikes that as broke college kids we couldn’t afford.
What was this allegedly, poor “state of bicycles” that you all disliked so much?
We didn’t like that we there was no in-between market for recreational riders. You either rode a shitty beach cruiser that would break down after a few months or you would buy a $2,000 bike that you either had to have the know-how to make yourself or the means to buy an ugly performance-focused bike at a bike shop. There was nothing in between at the time. In sum, there was either shitty cheap bikes, ugly, expensive, technical racing bikes or track bikes.
Your company breathes a very vivacious lifestyle, with heavy involvement in the arts. How did you make that first step beyond simply selling bicycles into the creative world?
I would say landing our first office space and storefront in Venice really was the spark that let our artistic flag fly. Venice is an extremely tight knit community as much as it is an eclectic, cultural melting pot. In order to truly be accepted in the Venice community, you have to give back and you have to be authentic with your purpose. Not only that, Venice really gave us a setting to explore our artistic endeavors with Solé. It’s easy to be inspired on your daily ride. There really is something to be in awe of by taking in the authenticity of this artistic town. Venice became our creative outlet to explore things we didn’t think were possible with a “bicycle” company.
One of your company’s most recent projects took you and the Solé Bicycle crew to Havana, Cuba. What was it like to visit a country that had been previously closed to U.S. visitors for over 50 years?
It was really interesting for us to be there when we were. We actually left the day Obama arrived. Hearing how the media portrayed Cuba and Cuban culture and actually seeing it first hand was fascinating. It was an eye opening lesson to see just how different something is portrayed compared to what it is in reality. The main issue was realizing just how far Cuba is from logistically being able to handle the supposed increased allowance of tourists, from five daily flights to 100. It took us four hours just to get through customs and baggage claim. There were only two small flights at the airport that time.
Another issue we found was the perception that Cuba will instantly become another tropical paradise getaway for Americans, when in fact the majority of Cubans are living on less than the equivalent of $40 USD a month, and are oppressed from same of the basic rights and principles given to us. For the most part, the only mainstream perception that was actually true was the notion that Cuba was stuck “back in time.” You see Cuba on a postcard or in a picture from the 60s and that is exactly how it is today. I would be hard pressed to find another place in the world that is still like that.
Aside from getting to see Cuba first hand by peddling through the country on your bikes, what other eye-opening things did you learn during the trip?
There were several that really struck when we landed. The lack of convenience and access to products and services we take for granted. In the US, the ability to grab a water bottle or fruit at a corner bodega or convenient store is effectively a foreign concept in Cuba. While every building and street was worn down, crumbling and antiquated, there was a complete absence of trash and garbage for the most part. Cuban’s are very resourceful and use every last bit of the limited resources they have. Our bikes turned heads everywhere we went. The new products amazed the Cubans. They are so used to used parts and components that our 30 and 40 years old, nothing is “new” in Cuba.
I also read that you swapped a bike for a nice box of Cuban cigars. Did you make any other interesting trades or donations of sorts?
Last March when we traveled there, you still couldn’t just book a flight and go. You need to travel for a certain reason that fell into one of several categories. For us, the purpose of our trip was mission work. One of our business partners and good friend’s Uncle organized this trip for us and had made a previous relationship with a local church group in Havana. At the end of our trip, we invited the pastor, his wife and son over to our host family’s house for lunch to present the bikes as a gift to his church. The pastor, tears streaming down his face, told us that the bikes would be used by missionary volunteers to help pick flowers in fields miles outside the city, to then be sold in the streets to help raise money so they could grow the church, etc. Without our bikes, it would take missionaries an entire day to walk to the flower fields, pick the flowers and return to Havana. With our bikes, they could make multiple trips in a day. To see the effect these bicycles had on someone else, in a completely different way than we are used to, really hit it home for us. It made us realize how truly powerful a bicycle is, how universal it is. It’s something that translates in any language, any culture, any way of life; The power of the bicycle.
Solé Bicycle has also participated in dozens of impressive collaborations, from company collabs with major brands like Zico, Rag & Bone, Beats by Dre and Dollar Shave Club, to an eclectic artist series. What has been one of your favorite or most creative collaboration thus far?
Great question. Actually my favorite collaboration is one that we are working on currently with WILDFOX. We are designing a line of completely custom cruisers with some really amazing and unique pattern work on the bikes. We’ve been working intimately with the CEO of the company and it has been inspiring to see how a process like this works from start to finish, especially in an industry seemingly completely different than a bicycle business. Being able to collaborate coming from completely different backgrounds yet working towards the same goal is as challenging as it is rewarding. Never a dull moment with WILDFOX. Keep your eye for our official launch in mid August!
What’s next for Solé Bicycle Company? Any upcoming trips, two-wheeled adventures or interesting collaborations on the horizon?
Nothing would make us happier. There are whispers of Cartagena, Columbia this upcoming October.
Where do you hope to see Solé Bicycle Company in 10 years?
We want to be the household name when you think of a bicycle, alongside the big giants in the industry. We truly believe we can change the way people think about buying a bicycle.
To learn more about Solé Bicycles, visit www.solebicycles.com.