Builder Interview: Living Life as a WorkCycles Bike, Part II
RKP: Tell us about the WorkCycles bike design? What’s unique?
Well, we make a lot of bikes for many different purposes so it’s hard to talk about THE WorkCycles design. Instead I’ll tell you about the Fr8 (pronounced “Freight”), a bike that typifies WorkCycles’ design philosophy. The Fr8 is actually not a single bike but a modular system of parts that can be combined to create a range of heavy-duty bikes suitable for many applications from internal transport in factories to carrying three kids and groceries. The design is clean, all business and timeless; this is a vehicle to rely on daily, not a personal statement. What’s unique is the focus on getting it all right: the ergonomics to fit riders of all shapes and sizes and the steering geometry tuned to ride confidently with enormous loads. We make sure that critical elements such as child seats and parking stands fit and work properly. Most of this is invisible and makes for really boring ad copy but it does actually enhance the experience of cycling.
RKP: By the way, what’s with the name “WorkCycles”? I thought working in this industry was supposed to be fun and NOT work.
Who said work isn’t fun? Studies have consistently demonstrated that people derive the most enjoyment and satisfaction in their lives from their work. The same can be true in cycling; Powering and steering a heavily loaded bike is fun and satisfying if the bike rides efficiently and handles predictably. But WorkCycles began by selling bikes for industry internationally and it’s still a large part of our business, thus the origin of the name.
RKP: So you do the designing of WorkCycles bikes, but do you actually build, cut and shape the tubing, lugs on all of your bikes too? Does it vary from bike to bike or are there stylistic elements people can find running through all your bikes?
I design frames, forks, front and rear carriers, parking stands and some special parts such as chain-cases, cargo boxes, handlebars, lids child carriers etc. For some other parts such as fenders, rims, spokes and tires we have made special versions made to our specs. For example we have rims made from an extrusion meant for downhill and BMX, rolled in 28″, with stainless ferrules for 12 and 13 gauge spokes. The parts existed but not in this combination. Now we have the most abuse-proof, trouble-free city bikes wheels on the planet … and they’re actually lighter than the stainless steel rims we were using before.
WorkCycles bikes are assembled in two Dutch factories, from parts sourced all over the world. Frames are made in Holland, Belgium, Taiwan and China, and then painted in Holland or Belgium. Rims, carriers, some saddles and lights are Dutch made. Fenders come from Italy. Spokes are from Belgium. Taillights and handlebars come from Germany. Shimano hubs and brakes come from Singapore. Quite a few of the simpler components come from Taiwan and China of course.
Stylistic elements? Dude, WorkCycles are the fine tools or tractors of the bicycle world. They’re not really “styled” like carbon racing bikes with fancy curves and graphics nor are they designed for obsessive bike purists like “porteurs” or handmade retro-grouch non-racers. Building bikes isn’t about beautifully cut lugs or sleek seat clusters for us.
Our bikes are stylistically conservative and usually almost all black because it never goes out of style and it’s easy to repair. We like lugs but many of our bikes have tubing and geometry for which lugs aren’t available. We generally use fat tires because they ride well with heavy loads and protect the rims from riders who can’t be bothered to pump their tires up.
RKP: The Dutch are the tallest people in the world. Do you find it a welcome relief when a “short” American (at 6’3”) comes in and starts asking about a custom bike fit? When fitting a customer for a bike, how do you usually work?
Custom bike fit? Again, these are utility bikes. They’re designed to fit many riders with few frame sizes and minimal adjustment. You’re not sitting on them for hours at a time and you ride in street clothes and various shoes so adjusting them to the millimeter is pointless. Many of our bikes are used by more than one rider, for example a family or a factory where dozens of workers share the same fleet of bikes. But don’t take that to mean that we don’t care about the ergonomics of cycling. In fact we believe very strongly in making bikes that are comfortable and pleasant to ride, but we’re just realistic about the precision appropriate for different types of bikes.
RKP: Is there a correlation between the height of the Dutch and the cheese here? If so, which cheese makes them the tallest?
I’ve often wondered about why the Dutch are so much taller than even the people of neighboring countries with what we’d assume to be similar genetic stock. We figure it’s either the flatness of the terrain or lack of sun that causes people to sprout up toward the sky… or the enormous quantities of dairy products they eat here. It might not be the cheese though, as the dairy section in a Dutch supermarket has a mind-boggling collection of cheeses, yogurts, buttermilks and other products familiar only to the locals.
As an American, this concept was completely foreign to me before I came to Amsterdam. I’ve moved apartments twice using one of these tractors! And it’s a fixed gear. Who would have thought someone was actually making bikes like this?
RKP: Let’s talk about the WorkCycles ride. Would you say your all your bikes have a consistent ride that is your signature, or does it really just come down to ease-of-use and utility or is all about toodling around enjoying the fresh air?
Yes, all of the above, thanks. I’m a firm believer that all kinds of bikes should be a pleasure to ride. Even the simple city bike or heavy load transporter should be well balanced, handle neutrally and simply disappear beneath you. I’ve spent far too much time on perfectly sorted road, track and mountain bikes (and plenty that weren’t) to accept that utility bikes should be any less carefully engineered. Unfortunately most of the city/utility bikes on the market aren’t designed by enthusiasts and it shows: inappropriate steering geometry, too steep seat tubes, uncomfortable handlebar bends… I could go on for hours.
That’s only the geometry element but bikes for daily transportation are actually much more complicated than bikes for recreational use. WorkCycles produces bikes complete with all the gear you need to ride year-round in a northern climate in normal clothes, carrying whatever stuff you might need to bring along: fenders, full-coverage chain cases, integrated lighting with hub dynamo and wiring through the frame and fork, front and rear carriers, locks, stable parking stands… and it all has to fit and work properly together, and with a broad range of third party accessories such as child seats.
RKP: Who does your paint? What’s your pricing like on the bikes?
WorkCycles frames, carriers, fenders and other parts are painted by an industrial coating firm in the Netherlands and a Belgian powder coater who does actually specialize in bikes. Both of these firms do ridiculously tough paint with zinc-based primer layers to prevent rust even under the worst conditions. The Fr8 and our heaviest duty bikes are actually first zinc-phosphated and then primed inside and out with a very special, underwater, anodic process called KTL. Then they get the color powder coat. The emphasis here is clearly on toughness and corrosion resistance, not the perfect, gorgeous, fluid colors of an American custom painter such as Joe Bell. That would be a waste on a bike that’s going to live the life of an outdoor dog.
RKP: Educate some of Red Kite Prayer‘s readers here for a moment. What exactly is a bakfiets?
Bakfiets is a compound word; “bak” means tray, box or bucket and the latter two are etymologically related. “Fiets” mean bicycle. Thus “bakfiets” is a box or tray bicycle. Say “bakfiets” to the Dutch and they generally think of huge, fixed-gear trikes with hardwood boxes between the front wheels as have been used here for 100 years. Elsewhere bakfiets has come to refer to mom’s long wheelbase two-wheeler for carrying kids as a result of the success of the Bakfiets.nl Cargobike and the dozens of bikes it has “inspired”.
RKP: What keeps the work fresh for you, gets you up in the morning (or out in the evening) and excited to build and design?
These days I spend more time designing and building the company and all the things that help it run smoothly than the bikes themselves. I delegate everything possible to employees but WorkCycles consistently grows more than 20% each year. The challenge is to have the people, infrastructure and systems in place in time to maintain or improve the quality of service. We do screw up sometimes but all in all we’ve generally improved even as we’ve grown. It all seems like it happens in slow motion to me but when I stop to look at what we’ve accomplished in just a few years I’m rather surprised. It’s mostly this sense of progress that motivates me, but also that I just enjoy the daily work: helping employees develop, talking with customers… and yes, designing and developing bikes.
RKP: What’s your life away from work like? Are you racing or do you have outside interests?
Most of my non-work time is with my family and our friends. I quit racing about 15 years ago but I still ride as much as possible, often with my wife and 19 month old son. The road cycling in Holland is great: quiet, safe, beautiful roads along rivers, through farmland and old villages. You just have to accept the wind and frequent lousy weather.
RKP: What’s your favorite bike to ride in Amsterdam’s Jordaan, where your shop is located? Why?
I guess my favorite city bike is whatever city bike I’m currently riding. I use my own bikes for product testing so every few months I change the hubs, handlebars, child seat, frame or something. I don’t get too attached to these bikes since they just feel like loaners. Right now I’m riding a prototype of the WorkCycles Gr8. It’s a lighter, less over the top version of our popular Fr8 and it’s probably the sweetest riding city bike I’ve ever had. But it’s also built with weird test parts such as a special folding, 2-leg parking stand, pre-production Sturmey Archer hubs and a strange front child seat from OGK in Japan .
RKP: What’s next for you and WorkCycles? Where do you see yourself and the company and your bikes in, say, five years?
What WorkCycles will do in the long term depends how the bicycle industry reacts. If building quality, thoughtfully designed, practical bikes becomes normal practice then perhaps WorkCycles’ role as a bike maker has been fulfilled. In that case we’ll focus more on special components and subassemblies to make better utility bikes. But after 32 years around the bike industry I suspect that in a few years we’ll only see many more bikes that are only silhouettes of real utility bikes while missing their point entirely.
Regardless, WorkCycles will just keep growing at our current pace. A new factory to build our bikes is now being completed here in the Netherlands. At full capacity, we should be able to produce close to 10,000 bikes per year there at the same level of quality as now. That seems high enough to aim for now.
Photos courtesy WorkCycles