Sonoma’s Ran-Ran Bikes brings the banana seat back

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A generation ago, kids lived outdoors. On broad summer days, with instructions to be back for dinner the only constraint, they would scour their neighborhoods in search of pint-sized adventure.

Negotiating the wide world of possibilities made kids flexible and brave, and they developed social intelligence that way.

Today’s kids live inside a series of boxes: Xboxes, phone boxes, laptops and tablets. Parents hover over them, over-schedule them and supervise their every minute.

Erik Ran has begun to worry about the kids.

“All these kids in their rooms, playing video games. On their phones texting rather than talking. It’s destroying conversation,” Ran said. “How did we learn social skills back in the day? We were on our bikes all day long. Home for dinner at 6, red-cheeked, super healthy.”

Ran, 51, is on a one-man mission to save childhood from technology, and he intends to do it from the seat of a bike.

“I’m bringing the banana seat back,” Ran said.

A design guy with a retro aesthetic, Ran’s been disguised as a wine businessman for most of his career. But when he found himself in need of inspiration a few years ago, he picked up his sketchbook and began dreaming.

Dismayed by his own son’s social shyness, Ran had been thinking about how to draw the boy out. He’d already tried lecturing, and modeling, and setting unenforceable rules, but nothing worked and he was concerned. Then a lightbulb went on, and Ran knew the answer: the boy needed to play outdoors with other kids more, and a cool bike would be his passport.

Ninety-five percent of the world’s bikes are fabricated in China, according to Ran, and he knew his designs would eventually end up there. But he started at a Santa Rosa factory with an order for two prototypes, one for a girl and one for a boy. They are low profile with a long wheel base for greater stability, and the front tire is smaller than the rear. They’ve got long, white leather seats with low chrome backrests, so two kids can travel on the same bike. They are sturdy and stylish and objectively cool.

“The target demographic is kids ages 8 to 14, but really, anyone can ride these bikes,” Ran said. He is 6-foot-7 and held the 100-yard freestyle swimming record at the University of Southern California for decades and, frankly, looks a bit ridiculous on a kids’ bike. But he pedals off expertly to prove himself right, and the thing turns corners well and rides smoothly.

Ran’s bikes are for discerning customers who care about quality. They come with a lifetime guarantee. “We’re using the best materials,” Ran said. “High end frames, high end components, Shimano brakes, pads and sprockets. This is an heirloom piece, not junk from Target.”

Sensing an opportunity among a new generation of consumers, Ran, who grew up in Holland, developed an old world buy-once/buy-right approach for himself. He sees a resurgence in retro-chic style among trendsetters, with vintage clothing and accessories burning up sites like Ebay. “There’s a movement going on in fashion and design right now. It’s a sneakerhead revolution. And the banana seat bike wants to make a comeback,” Ran said.

In its place for a generation of kids was the BMX bike, a low-slung, small-wheeled thing with an unforgiving seat. “For years, it’s been the only bike available for kids. But they’re super uncomfortable. You don’t want to ride through the neighborhood on it,” Ran said. “With the banana seat bike you can move two people comfortably. It’s got cool style. You feel like you’ve got your own little chopper.”

The first shipment of 200 Ran-Ran banana seat bikes is expected from a Chinese manufacturing partner in mid-February, and Ran plans to sell them at high-end skate and surf shops. He wants his bikes to be recognized as different from the rest, and prizes originality in all forms. “I’ve always been outside-of-the-box. I’ve always been very motivated to differentiate myself from others,” Ran said.

He has plans in the pipeline for an adult version of the bike, as well as a line of retro shoes and clothing. For now, he is straddling the gap between his old life and a new one, excited for what feels like a personal evolution. “I started from scratch and am totally committed. I don’t have a choice anymore,” Ran said.

Imagining happy kids pedaling his bikes through American neighborhoods, Erik Ran feels real satisfaction. He believes he’s helping to fix something broken. “It’s my future,” he said.

Find Erik Ran’s bikes at ranranbikes.com, or contact him at erik@ranranbikes.com.

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.

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