Raiooo Wicla: Portugal’s wheels of change

Cargo bikes usually are designed for service, not to make a statement. They’re more sturdy than stylish, more practical than pretty. But a group of university students in Portugal are rolling out a completely different animal: the Wicla, a wooden, electrically assisted urban trike that carries parcels and produce with panache.

Some of the Wicla’s allure stems from its understated elegance, a byproduct of its primary components, such as two plywood main-frame panels sandwiched around a cork core; laminated wood forks and handlebars fashioned from beech, mahogany and eucalyptus; a seat made from recycled black cork; and a leather handbag-pouch.

Don’t let such rustic materials suggest the Wicla is a low-tech beast of burden. Behind that minimalistic exterior lurks high-tech features, including an electric hub motor inside the front wheel, powered by lithium-ion batteries wedged between the plywood panels. Sensors inside the pedals automatically engage the motor when they sense the rider needs assistance. The fender on the front wheel features components produced via a 3D printer in the students’ digital-fabrication lab.

If a rider engages the handbrake levers while in electric-assist mode, the motor shuts down immediately, says Ermanno Aparo, a professor helping direct the project at the International Polytechnic Institute of Viana do Castelo.

“We wanted to design an alternative mode of locomotion for cities,” says Aparo, who heads up an integrated-design master course at the institute. Aparo and two colleagues, Manuel Ribeiro and Lililana Soares, supervised the so-called Raiooo academic project that spawned the Wicla. (Raiooo is an amalgam of “rai”, Portuguese for spoke, and three “O’s”, which symbolise the trio of tires, while Wicla is a playful, abbreviated take on “bicicleta”, the Portuguese word for bicycle, in which the “b” is pronounced like a “w”.

“It’s important for cities, particularly in Europe, to find new ways of locomotion,” Aparo says.

“The students wanted to design something in the middle between a traditional bike and a cargo bike. They felt a tricycle would provide both stability and more possibilities for carrying cargo… and appeal to people who are afraid of riding bikes.”

Cargo bikes are gaining acolytes, especially among businesses and urban residents seeking more ecologically friendly ways of trundling groceries and running kids around town. Consider the variety of options now available: utilitarian Worksman Cycles, built in New York City; longtails made by California-based Xtracycle or Yuba; the sleek “built-to-tilt” trikes from Copenhagen-based Butchers & Bicycles; and long-wheelbased bakfiets (Dutch for “box bike”) – also known as “long Johns” – manufactured by companies like De Fietsfabriek in Amsterdam, Larry vs Harry in Copenhagen and Metrofiets in Portland, Oregon.

But the five-speed Wicla prototype is more than just another minimalist three-wheeler. It also reflects a move toward sustainability of a different kind: employment for workers in industries hit hard by outside economic forces. For example, Aparo notes that the city of Viana do Castelo used to be a wooden furniture maunfacturing centre, and if the Wicla ever achieves mass-production status, it could put unemployed carpenters and leather craftsmen to work. 

Related story from BBC Travel: A hope for happiness in Porto.

In addition, it uses local materials, such as cork (Portugal is one of the world’s largest producers). In short, the Wicla as currently conceived is a think-global, act-local project.

“Yes, we want to make the bike as sustainable as possible, but not just in terms of materials used,” Aparo explains. “We also want to give opportunities to smaller handcrafters to make parts of our bicycle and give materials new possibilities. This was a very important objective – to develop a new system of production behind the bicycle, not make everything under the same establishment.”

The 83lb (38kg) Wicla was featured recently at the 2015 Berliner Fahrradschau bicycle show, and the students who designed it have formed a company, also called Wicla, that is affiliated with the institute and monitored by the three professors involved there. The company is seeking funding to defray the costs of developing a more refined, 2.0 version of the bike to sell locally, featuring better functionality and higher-quality components, Aparo says.

A base version of the Wicla costs around 2,500 to 3,000 euros, or about $2,650 to $3,180. Currently, the company can produce about 40 Wiclas per year. Should it ever occur, mass production would not begin with the flip of a switch.

“I don’t know if it’s possible to serve a large market,” Aparo says, noting that the main Wicla components are hand-made by local craftsmen. “But the bike is important, even in a small way. It’s proof that we have people in Portugal who can build something that is of high quality. And if we can do this with a bicycle, maybe we can do it with other products, too.”

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