Peddling new ideas

The bicycle industry needs to move away from unsuitable sporty racing bikes and focus on the needs of non-enthusiasts if cycling is to become a mode of transport used by the majority. Anna Norman looks at the latest developments in urban bicycles

’Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race,’ said HG Wells, who was not alone in considering the bicycle one of the world’s most inspiring inventions. Considered the first democratic form of personal transport, the bicycle freed us up from reliance on the horse, accelerated the emancipation of women and broadened the concept of mass-market leisure at the turn of the 20th century.

Ask someone to draw you a bicycle and they will likely come up with a triangle, two wheels and a set of pedals. Yet the transformation from early 1800s wooden machines propelled by pushing your feet against the ground into today’s pedal-and-chain models took some 70 years of trial, error and ingenuity. In the first decades of the 20th century, the upright roadster was the standard frame. But with the rise of the automobile, cycling and bike design have become increasingly sport-oriented.

Last month’s inaugural London Bike Show was hailed as an industry showcase for new models, yet the fact that about 80 per cent of the bikes on show were track, mountain or touring bikes aimed at enthusiasts is an indication of how narrow the mainstream bicycle industry has become.

As an antidote, handmade bicycle shows like this June’s Bespoked Bristol are popping up to promote framemakers responding to the public’s thirst for simple, romantic, steel-framed models harking back to the 1960s and 1970s. The urban obsession with fixed-gear bikes in particular can be seen as a reaction to the multi-speed, sport-centric bikes that have dominated the market for 20 years. Independents like Bristol’s Feather Cycles and east London’s Brother Cycles and Racer Rosa are among a multitude of new, small frame-builders producing beautiful bikes that pay homage to the glory days of British and Italian track-racing with their stripped-back aesthetics and functionality. But does this vintage racing bike revival leave much room for innovation in the field of urban transportation? And is such innovation even desired?

British industrial designer Mark Sanders is one of the pioneers of the folding bicycle. He believes that innovation is desired. ’Design and innovation are vital to change the usefulness and image of the bicycle,’ he says, suggesting that if the bicycle is to become our cities’ principal form of transport – as it is in cities in Denmark and in Amsterdam – then designers must start to focus on the ’blue ocean’ of ’non-enthusiasts’. More bicycles are now produced than cars, yet ’the bicycle industry still continues to fuel trends towards using unsuitable sporty and racing bicycles around town’, says Sanders.

Upright frames are still in the minority among bike styles in the UK, and are mainly targeted at women. Yet in cities like Copenhagen, where cycling is a form of transport used by the majority, upright frames dominate and engender the best posture for everyday cycling in normal clothes.

Copenhagen-based Biomega is streets ahead of the mainstream in its promotion of bicycles for urban areas, seeing bikes as ’furniture for locomotion’. Boutique manufacturers such as Bowery Lane Bicycles in the US, Retrovelo in Germany and Sögreni and Velorbis in Denmark are also producing practical and desirable frames inspired by old-style ’roadster’ utility bikes – upright frames with cargo-carrying potential.

Other bike bods doing interesting things include Dutch designer Tjeerd Veenhoven, who has designed a back-to-basics upright carbon frame, Ben Wilson, who is working on prototypes for electric-assisted and cargo bikes, and New York product designer Joey Ruiter. The latter’s stripped back Inner City Bike, designed for short commutes, goes back to the beginning by dispensing with the chain so that you pedal the back wheel directly, aiding quick turns. Says Ruiter, ’Somewhere along the way we complicated simple machines.’

_London’s Boris bikes

The Barclays Cycle Hire bicycles in London that locals have come to know as ’Boris bikes’ are based on Montreal’s Bixi bikes. Controversy surrounded the hire scheme from the start, with English bike brand Pashley being superceded by a Canadian manufacturer.

The bikes’ excessive branding garnered further criticism when the scheme was launched last summer. But what do bike designers think of the bicycles themselves?
Ergonomically speaking, industrial designer Mark Sanders believes the hire bikes would be better if they were less stretched out, with the handlebars set further back like on classic Dutch bikes.
’However, I think the biggest missed opportunity is the aesthetics,’ Sanders says. ’The design seems to be based, like many of today’s bikes, on just using colours and branding to stand in for design. The bike could have been much more iconic and functional.’

With fashion designer Jean-Pierre Braganza designing a special Boris bike for London Fashion Week last September, perhaps there is still some scope for future innovation.

To read Design It partner Jim Dawton’s view, visit www.designweek.co.uk/features

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