Petaluma bikemaker's humanist sales pitch

Ben Sarrazin isn't just trying to sell stylish cargo bikes. He's selling a better future.

For Sarrazin, the 39-year-old founder of Petaluma-based Yuba Bicycles, the sales pitch isn't just a cool, new bike for commuting, running errands and even bringing your children to school, but the prospect of an eco-friendly lifestyle that makes the world a better place.

"We're trying to be evangelists here," Sarrazin said. "It's often a slow sales process. Because for many people, it's a big change from what they've been doing. They look at it and look at it and ask themselves, 'Am I really going to do this?'"

"This" is buying one of Sarrazin's elegant, somewhat pricey bicycles with names like Mundo and Boda Boda. With longer wheelbases and stiffer frames, they are capable of carrying a lot more than typical bikes, like groceries and even people. They are designed to do the kinds of in-town errands that most people only do in cars.

"I like to tell people I had a baby so I could get one of these bikes," said Santa Rosa resident Sarah Hadler, who teaches bike safety for the Sonoma Bicycle Coalition and bought a Yuba after the birth of her son, Sylvester, who is now 2. "I ride it pretty much everywhere. I love the idea of carrying things and doing errands under my own power."

It's an idea that is slowly catching on. Companies like Yuba and Oakland-based Xtracycle, which is where Sarrazin worked before starting Yuba, are cropping up around the country. Even large bike makers, like Trek, are jumping into the cargo bike market. Xtracycle, like Yuba, can be customized with a variety of add-ons like bags, platforms and even electric motors.

Xtracycle founder Ross Evans was in Nicaragua in the 1990s when he first came up with the idea of a cargo bike as inexpensive, adaptable transportation that could help poor farmers and craftsmen get their wares to market, often over poorly maintained roads.

His revelation came when the locals would ask him about his car back in America.

"It was the biggest thing that hit me," Evans said. "They were saying, 'Those bikes are cool but we want what you have.' I knew we weren't going to effect any change until we started that change at home."

Evans started Xtracycle in 1997 and eventually hired a young Sarrazin as part of his team. He describes them as a group of young, active people who loved the outdoors, especially cycling and kayaking. They were adventurers with a shared passion: convincing people to bike more and drive less.

A native of Strasbourg, France, Sarrazin grew up in a culture where bicycles were not uncommon. But they were limited to hauling perhaps a bag or two of groceries. Like Evans, he wanted people to think of the bicycle as a car alternative.

"You go to the school in the morning and everybody is dropping their kids off in cars," Sarrazin said. "These are people who probably live close by to the school and they think they have to drive there. We're showing them an alternative."

Nature, cycling and business were part of Sarrazin's early life. In 1984, he said, his father sold the first mountain bikes in France, and later, as he got a degree in environmental studies in Europe, he spent vacations traveling the world to hike and bike and kayak.

His love of the Yuba River in the Sierra Nevada gave him the idea for the name of his company, which he started in 2006 after parting ways with Xtracycle.

He wanted his new company to reflect his love of the outdoors and his desire to do something to make a difference.

"We have a product we sell, but it's part of a bigger mission," he said. "Climate change from burning fossil fuels is destroying our planet. If I can help people trade car rides for bike rides, I'm doing something good for the world."

The Yuba bikes are stylish rides in colors like bright green, orange, blue and white. The two basic models are the smaller Boda Boda, which weighs about 35 pounds and starts at $1,000, and the larger Mundo which, at 48 pounds, starts at $1,200. Depending on configuration, the bikes can carry payloads of up to 400 pounds. The gearing is similar to mountain bikes, which helps make pedaling them up hills — with those payloads — easier.

The bikes are available with electric motors and a host of set-ups and add-ons that allow cyclists to carry almost anything, from a surfboard to people. Sarrazin says his customers often share the various items they have lugged on their Yubas.

"One guy said he carried his old toilet to the dump," said Sarrazin, who commutes to work every day on his Yuba and, yes, drops off his young daughter at school. He says riding a bike through town gives him a view that he wouldn't get driving a car.

"My daughter and I talk more when we're on the bike," he said. "I always tell people that part of the benefit of riding bikes is connecting more, not only with the natural world but with people."

Sarrazin began his company in the East Bay, but when it needed more space last year, he chose Petaluma. He was impressed by the bicycle-friendly culture of Sonoma County.

Even so, he says his best market is Portland, a city that has gone to great lengths to encourage cycling. But with a new commitment by Sonoma County to add bike lanes and trails, bicycle advocates are hopeful that a growing trend will become a way of life.

"I do feel it's very new," said Hadler of the bike coalition. "I think part of it is making that mental switch. It's a cultural shift that needs to happen. Look at Amsterdam where 40 percent commute on bicycles. In America, it's 1 percent. Portland is 7 percent. But we're seeing more and more people out riding. And they're using their bikes to do things they used to do with cars."

Sarrazin says his company has benefited from this growth, doubling the number of bikes it sells each year — in 2013, it sold 2,000. But he says there's a long way to go before he can afford to hire more than the half-dozen people who work out of the downtown Petaluma headquarters.

That means Sarrazin himself may be the customer service person who answers the phone when potential customers call to inquire about buying a Yuba. Every call is a chance to convince one more person to help him change the world.

"It's a product that actually solves so many of the problems we are facing," he said. "There's a health crisis and it gets people to be more active. It's clean and sustainable and it replaces car trips so it's good for the environment. And it's fun and it connects people. It's really perfect."

(You can reach Staff Writer Elizabeth M. Cosin at 521-5276 or elizabeth.cosin@pressdemocrat.com.)