Biking On Water

 Unabating Inventor Finds Believers

6. Schiller

Schiller Bikes founder, Judah Schiller, guides me through narrow channels between rows of polychromatic Sausalito houseboats on Richardson Bay as he shares his story of trial, error, and success.

“When I first launched Schiller Bikes, I had a lot of skeptics,” he says. “Nobody believed in the vision…nobody really ever saw a waterbike before, did you?” I certainly hadn’t. And neither had the prestigious San Francisco design company that Schiller initially hired to create the first prototype two years ago.

After that first setback, Schiller brought the design and engineering in-house. He hired a team of bike designers, hydrodynamic experts and fabricators. They created a second prototype: a water-jetted aluminum frame bolted together with twin foils and propellers that broke while Schiller was riding the waves of South Beach in Miami. “I immediately sent everyone back to the drawing board,” Schiller tells me as he points to the “wall of shame”— an area of Schiller’s Marin offices filled with failed, pretty water bikes.

He wanted to build a water bike that would be compact enough to carry on a flight and capable of assembly in under 10 minutes, yet durable enough to withstand salt water corrosion. “And it had to be fast,” he explains. “Fast enough to make anyone say: ‘That’s awesome.’”

The team drew inspiration from an array of forms for inspiration, including dolphins, sharks, water bugs, yachts and a variety of bicycles. They ultimately took design cues from the horizontal mast and vertical boom of the sailboat. The cantilevered frame was sleek and modern. It gave the rider an unobstructed view into a marine world below, yet it was barely functional on the water and far too costly.

A few months later, the company launched its third model, the X1 Founder’s Edition. The X1 was fast and gorgeous. But it was impossible to scale given the complexities in manufacturing which included nearly three-dozen custom made components within the drive train and steering system.

Finally, Schiller brought on industrial designer and kite board pioneer, Bobby Frick. Within two weeks, Frick reinvented the X1’s complex drive train and propulsion system— the final element that kept Schiller from launching the bike at scale. They called it the S1, after Schiller’s son, Satya, who had been a believer of the waterbike since the beginning.

Today, Schiller has achieved a bike that allows for a true cycling experience, delivering the handling, speed and virtues of traditional cycling. There’s a sense of calm on the S1 in the expansive bay.

Land bikers reckon with traffic, pedestrians and concrete falls. By contrast, a rider on Schiller’s waterbike is only affected by swells in the bay— more lulling than ominous due to the bike’s sturdy pontoons. The glossy S1 now boasts customers in more than 25 countries and a myriad of luxury resorts, including the Four Seasons, Viceroy, and Andaz.

While the execution was technical and complicated the outcome was singularly focused on creating a simple and compelling rider experience. For Schiller, kids’ reactions have long been a key metric to longevity. “Now that I’ve seen how teens and kids react to it, I know I have a unicorn that has the potential to transform the face of cycling and water sports.”

How did you create the first Schiller bike?

The overall form factor of the bike has been pretty consistent since the first prototype. Really I sought to invent the world’s best water bike and the one that would truly inspire a new frontier of water biking on a planet that is two-thirds water. I used a 20 year-old Italian made kit that attached to a road bike to make the first ever bike crossing of the San Francisco Bay and Hudson River in Fall of 2013. This type of design or any other was not appealing to me—and in my mind, to any discerning consumer…They just didn’t function well, the salt water corroded the bike, and on top if, no athlete or cyclist would find these compelling let alone want to have their picture taken on it. But I bit the bullet because I wanted to prove that cycling across a large body of water was possible.

What was the initial reception to your invention?

Everyone thought the first prototype looked bold and sexy. Really something with no point of comparison, other than the sluggish pedal boat on the lake or those hideous big wheel aqua trikes. Media loved this from day one. That proved to be a huge blessing because no investor thought it would ever go anywhere. In the heavily tech-focused SF investment community, nobody would even take my calls and the few that did told me not to waste my own money. A tough reality check to be sure and raising capital in the first year proved to be very challenging.

Which elements of the traditional bicycle did you decide to keep in the design?

We designed the bike so that any bike mechanic around the world could easily recognize and service the bike. The geometry of the bike is slightly different than a land bike or a mountain bike. Kind of a hybrid. Our S1 bike is very similar to bicycles at large. It features commonly found handlebars, saddle, cranks and pedals used on millions of mountain, leisure, and hybrid bikes. And they are interchangeable based on customer preference.

What were the winning changes that you and Bobby made to the X1, which led to the S1?

We got rid of the entire twin-prop and double looping belts in favor of a drive train that featured a sealed right angle gear, single belt and the scorpion-like outdrive— our proprietary rudder and propeller. This allowed us to reduce drag in the water and eliminate a good 20 parts. Performance was noticeably better – thrust, speed, cadence, maneuverability, and user experience. The S1 could now be transported inside of most medium sized cars and assembled in less than 10 minutes without any tools save a pump for the inflatable pontoons. The bike itself was much simpler from an engineering perspective with about 65% fewer parts. And the S1 was also 25 pounds lighter than the X1 (totaling around 88 pounds today). We took out a custom extrusion die for making our frames. There is an immediate sensation of thrust as you start pedaling and put out a wake behind the bike.

What sorts of tricks can the S1 do?

The bike is really so maneuverable. With the pivoting outdrive you can literally do donuts in marina slips and reverse pedaling makes it really easy to do three point turns. There is also a shallow water mode that the rider can put the bike into by doing a hard reverse pedal then gentle pedaling forward. [It] needs only about 8 inches of water. Plenty of tricks that people can do— I’ve seen some great backflips off the pontoons!

How fast can the bike travel?

Top speed of the bike is 8 miles per hour. Most people will cruise around at about 5 to 6 mph. Way faster off the line than a kayak or stand up paddleboard, which makes it a really revolutionary kind of watercraft and bike.

Are you thinking about ways to make the bike faster?

We’re not too far off from an electric assist package that would deliver 200 watts at the cranks and increase top speed to over 15 mph.

Which features do you want to improve?

We are already doing considerable R&D for new, high-pressure inflatable pontoons and rotomolded rigid hulls—similar to most kayaks. Both of these will be compatible with the existing bike frames and be an accessory for increased speed on the water. The new inflatables will be a higher performance version of the existing ones with a more streamlined shape. The rigid hulls will be primarily for consumers who keep the bike on the water more or less year round as well as hotel and beachfront operators. Other models we are working on include a step-through cruiser frame as well as a tandem version; only this one will be side-by-side unlike land bikes. We’re trying various different platforms and decks for carrying cargo on your dog. At the end of the day, there will be as many variations of Schiller bikes as there are of bikes built for land. This is the start of a new era in biking across a blue planet. We really have unlimited opportunities to design a whole new generation of water bikes in the years to come.

Text by Valerie Demicheva