Wheels of Empowerment
Reinventing long-tail bikes for people at the grassroots level, Caleb Spear is empowering communities in a way big organizations never could.
Text by Aakash Pant
I first met Caleb Spear on a rooftop party at a friend’s house. After pleasantries were exchanged, he went off on a excited soliloquy about his invention, Portal Bikes. This, I felt was a man who was proud of what he was doing. I’d seen his bikes around Jhamsikhel before, and had been silently impressed at this Frankenstein's monster that seemed so odd yet so effective, yet never had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Frankenstein himself.
Caleb was born into a humble family of contractors in Colorado. Growing up around tools and scraps, he was always tinkering, designing, and building things. He graduated from Colorado College in 2005. There, he invented what he calls the Power Take Off (PTO). The PTO is a device that can be hooked up to any bicycle and harness that pedal power to make a stationary machine that, in essence, could provide mechanical energy to any machine with moving parts.
He shares an instance where he and his wife Emily spent their entire day removing corn kernels. Hands raw and blistering, Caleb thought to himself, there must be an easy way to do this. They found a corn sheller that they could join to their PTO. This was the start of a new chapter in their lives.
The next I heard of Caleb was when my friend was talking about an epic biking trip that they were planning that would take them across Tilicho lake and the Annapurna range. Caleb is an amazing mountain biker, or so I’ve heard (I’m probably not good enough to keep up with him), and talking to him, his love for mountain biking really shows. So, it’s only natural that his second idea, of manufacturing long trail bikes, also was in relation to bicycles.
To be fair, long-tail bikes were not invented by Caleb. It is not unfair, however, to claim that the long-tail bike in this form was reinvented by Caleb. Most long-tail cargo bikes that are available to the public cost over a thousand dollars. Caleb sold all his businesses in the U.S., and with his family, flew to Nepal, a country he and his wife had fallen in love with. In a makeshift workshop in the corner of Epic Mountain Bike’s shop, they set out to build their first prototype.
Portal Bike’s charm is the fact that is was invented in the grassroots level for the people at the grassroots level—“A social business that wants to help the community,” as Caleb puts it. The prototype for Portal Bikes was developed in Nepal, and when they finally launched their bike in September 2017, they made sure that the bike was perfectly suited for Nepali needs. Simply explained, the Portal Bike is a cross between day-to-day bikes and load-carrying rickshaws, as Portal’s bicycles have the functionality of a city mountain bicycle along with the ability to carry a reasonable amount of heavy load at once. For example, the Portal Bike’s seven-speed gear system makes carrying heavy loads much easier, compared to an everyday bicycle, so people like Bharat Koirala, a home products wholesaler, can make their round in half the usual time.
The product is not only made for businesses, though with enough creativity Portal Bikes can be used for everything from work and shopping for groceries to peaceful rides with a friend around the city. In fact, the foundation of Portal Bikes is its ability to inspire creativity and innovation. All the bicycles consist of a PTO unit that allows the owner to develop machines that can be solely powered by the bike, presenting endless opportunities and ideas. The idea of the PTO is to be able to convert a bicycle into a pedal-powered machine, while still maintaining its function as a bicycle first. The PTO works by having a rotating shaft that provides power whenever the rear wheel is in motion, with the bike on a kickstand to keep the bicycle in a stationary position.
Tools can also easily be connected to the PTO, so it can be used to generate electricity, pump water, grind grain, wash clothes, and so much more. The list is endless. The rule is, “If it rotates, chances are pretty good you can power it with a Portal PTO”. Thus, any problem that can be solved by a machine can be solved by a Portal Bike, such as Portal’s very own Portal Bike-run washing machine. It just takes a little innovation.
Cheap and ergonomic, Portal Bikes are easily accessible to the public. As the company continues to expand, the company aims to make their bikes more economical. Portal desires for people of all economic backgrounds to be able to afford a top-notch quality bicycle. Perhaps shunning the culture of big offices making huge projects for small communities without talking to them, it designs its products with the people who will use them. It can then be modified to fit individual needs. By doing this, Portal has created a structure in which buying one isn’t the end of the story, it’s the beginning. Portal leaves it to you where to take it.