They say, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.”
Steve Christini would tell you that if the mouse-catching industry is run by cats—who have highly-evolved mouse-catching skills already—the world will probably ignore you. When that happens, you’ve got two choices: You can give up or, you can ignore the beaten path and ride out to convince the world anyway.
Steve started out as a bicycle guy. He designed an all-wheel-drive system for mountain bikes. By 2003 he’d patented and prototyped a reliable system for off-road motorcycles. That was right about the time that Yamaha despaired of turning their 2-Trac system into a viable commercial product.
I remember seeing the first ready-for-prime-time Christini kit, installed on a Honda 450, in 2004. It was parked down in the bowels of the building where Motorcyclist and Dirt Rider shared offices, on Wilshire Boulevard.
I remember thinking, “This is a complicated solution to a non-problem.”
It took me a few years to realize why I was wrong.
Five years later, in 2009, I tracked down Lars Jansson, an Öhlins engineer, who had worked on the 2-Trac system, and then developed an AWD Yamaha R1. He’d learned that riders on the novice-to-average skill spectrum loved the bike; it was far more confidence-inspiring. But Yamaha’s expert test riders didn’t like it.
Jansson convinced me that expert riders, like the guys who test bikes for manufacturers and magazines, have fully adapted to the feel and limitations of conventional rear-wheel-drive motorcycles, and that anything that changes that feel is deemed “worse”. And of course, any system that provides drive to the front wheel is bound to add a little bit of weight, and a little bit of drag. That was another negative, where experts were concerned. Unless it rained; in the rain, even experts loved the 2-Trac R1.
That’s the way expert off-road riders feel about Steve Christini’s bike, too. He’s had a few guys take him up on his system, in Endurocross or hard enduro settings where even experts’ skill and fitness can be exhausted, but most highly skilled riders have adapted to the limitations of rear-wheel only drive, and convinced themselves that rear-wheel only just “feels right”.
A couple of years ago, Steve took one of his bikes through a detailed military procurement procedure that involved a back-to-back comparison with a conventional off-road bike. To get an empirical comparison, the military datalogged riders, not bikes—measuring things like their pulse rates as the rode the same course on conventional and AWD bikes.
Most importantly, the testers were soldiers, not ex-racers. The military was stunned to see how much less effort soldiers expended when riding the AWD bike. They were sold, and Christini machines were quickly acquired by American (and British) special forces units.
More recently, the Border Patrol did a similar back-to-back comparison; Christini bikes vs. the Honda 450s that they’ve been using. They immediately started the paperwork needed to procure AWD bikes.
“They’ve got Hondas just sitting there,” Steve told me recently. “They don’t even want to ride them any more, now that they’ve tried ours.”
Whether they’re commandos or border patrol agents, what those riders have in common is, they’re not the kind of expert riders who test for OEMs, magazines, and web sites. They don’t know or care what bike just won the latest comparison test. They just want the ability to cross rough terrain, without exhausting themselves, so they can shoot straight if that’s called for.
“We expect that, going forward, a majority of our sales will come from military and fleet sales,” Steve told me. “There’s one customer, and a lot fewer headaches.”
Not that he’s abandoning the civilian market. He’s working to expand his dealer network here in the U.S. (with a goal of growing to 50 dealers by the end of the year and 100 by 2017) but at the best of times, American motorcycle dealer margins are thin.
“If you look at Harley-Davidson,” Steve lamented, “something like 92% of their net profit came from financing. Harley wouldn’t exist as a company if it wasn’t a bank. Being small, we can’t capitalize on that.”
For 10 years, he’s been almost a lone evangelist for AWD motorcycles. In that time, he’s had to make a couple of big course corrections. He started out selling kits to convert KTM and Honda dirt bikes to AWD. He nearly forged a strategic partnership with KTM, but when that deal fell apart, he realized it was time to do his own thing.
In 2012, he started selling complete bikes, mostly powered by Honda-pattern 450cc four-stroke singles made in China by Asiawing. (Christini still sells a few two-strokes too, powered by Gas Gas, but that company’s just gone into receivership!) The Asiawing motors are a generation behind the best Japanese or European stuff, but the cycle parts are top-shelf; they come with a WP fork and Elka shock.
The first 450s came with a CV carburetor that allowed the machines to meet EPA requirements, but clearance came at the expense of performance. The latest challenge the company faced was getting EPA and CARB approval for new fuel-injected versions. Christini’s small staff worked with a Michigan company to design their own EFI system, with a proprietary throttle body, push-pull brackets, and wiring harness.
“We did all our testing at Harrison Wolf [an engineering company that specializes in EPA/CARB certification—MG] right next to KTM and BRP, and we were successful at getting our 450 certified when BRP couldn’t even get their 450 approved,” Steve told me.
It’s worth noting that large-displacement singles are among the toughest models to make run clean. BRP has a whole bunch of different engines, and since they can average emissions over their entire fleet, any one engine may get approved on the merits of other, cleaner models. Virtually all of Christini’s fleet is powered by the same basic engine, so getting cleared was an all-or-nothing proposition.
“We were expecting to be done last September,” Steve said, “But we spent eight months tweaking the catalyst, the ECU—we did thousands of run files and tried thousands of maps—and in the end the numbers came in super-clean.”
The upside to all that work is that Christini’s cleared the EPA hurdle and, in the process, got emissions down to the point where the machines will also pass CARB and the next Euro standard.
So, the new fuel-injected 450 models will soon be approved for sale in California and around the world. Steve’s already got a solid distributor in Australia, and a network of guys importing his bikes into Brazil, Japan, the U.K. and several European countries, and the Middle East. Again, it’s easier to make money selling motorcycles almost anywhere else but the U.S.
The dual sport version, which he expects to be the most popular civilian model both in Europe and the U.S., sells for $8995 here.
Although it lacks the ferocious performance of an open-class KTM, Steve knows he’s not going to convert expert riders who bleed orange anyway. The guys who will—or at least definitely should—consider his AWD alternative are older dudes who currently ride a KLR or DR-Z, but who’d like to take on more challenging terrain or ride longer distances with less physical effort.
Over the years, Christini’s supplied examples of his patented technology to quite a few major manufacturers, but he’s fallen victim to that let-our-experts-test-it mentality. He told me about taking a system to Italy, when BMW was considering an AWD Husqvarna. “I told BMW’s head of development, ‘Don’t give this to a professional test rider. Test it yourself.’ Of course, he didn’t.”
After years of experiences like that—watching manufacturer after manufacturer trust their ‘experts’ opinions, when the machine really needs to be tested by ordinary riders—I wondered whether now, finally, Steve has reached the point where he doesn’t even want a major partner.
“We’ve got investors,” he told me. “If we got the right offer, it wouldn’t even be up to me.”
If his idea ever does catch on with a bigger manufacturer, it will probably be with one that either isn’t currently in the motorcycle business at all, or at least isn’t selling lightweight, high-performance dirt bikes. A company like Polaris or BRP, which has a big ATV business, might realize that Christini’s dirt bike presents a lower barrier to entry to new riders.
If that day comes, the work Christini’s doing now to create a real—albeit small—motorcycle brand will give him leverage in any future negotiations. And if it doesn’t, for the foreseeable future, Christini will remain the favorite brand… among U.S. Spec Ops soldiers.