The Bike of the Future

The Bike of the Future

Author’s Note: I wrote a lengthy piece about the Oregon Manifest and the needs of the utility bike for Bike Hugger recently. I decided to boil it down and add a bit more now that the Oregon Manifest has announced the winner of its competition, a bike that Fuji has agreed to put into production. 

Our world is changing. How we get from place to place is changing. If the bicycle is to augment our transportation needs in the future it will need to offer levels of convenience and utility that recall a car, though we may have to forego the windshield wiper and iPod jack. It will need to accommodate loads beyond ourselves. We will not stop needing groceries and if the human race is to survive, we will need to keep making babies. So at minimum, any bike we expect to augment or replace a car will need some capacity to carry groceries and kids.

I can hear it now—“Don’t make me pull this bike over.”

Clearly, we need fresh ideas about what a bike is, what a bike can be. Enter the Oregon Manifest bike design project, which started out with a clear mission: “a design/build competition to create the ultimate modern utility bike,” a laudable endeavor, full stop. The Manifest gave a bunch of very creative frame builders license to go pursue some wild ideas. It posed the question: What is your idea of the ultimate utility bike?

When I was 20, the most important thing I might move by bike was beer. I’m a parent now; I like to move my kids by bike.

In bringing together a bunch of builders, it created a forum to talk about bike making and utility. It was a marketing bonanza for a bunch of people much better at the torch than the keyboard. In 2011, I was serving as one of the judges for the North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Sacramento. Many of the bikes from that year’s Manifest made their way into the City/Utility bike category. From Tony Pereira’s electric-assist city bike to Curtis Inglis’ kid-carrying cargo bike, the 2011 show was full of creative builds using widely available materials.

There was just one problem. Those bikes were all custom, one-off creations that were wildly unaffordable for most of the population. They weren’t going to solve any of the world’s problems. If we are to address the needs of the many, new bike ideas will need to collide with reality. By that I mean making frames in a mass-production environment, banging out dozens of frames per day in a factory setting so that the production costs can be more easily managed.

I’d hoped the Manifest would do more to encourage practicality over cool, so when I saw a post on Facebook about this year’s entrants, I realized that whoever is now running the show is long on style and short on substance. Hosting a contest in which design teams who have never worked in the bike industry before design bikes is the wrong way to go. Problems I saw with the entries were numerous. Some used expensive-to-replicate curved tubing. The Pensa/Horse Cycles entry employed a size-limiting seat mast. The HUGE/4130 Cycle Works bike had a 90-degree seat tube angle, which meant the bike would fit a narrow range of people—same problem as the Pensa/Horse Cycles bike. The Minimal/Method Bicycle entry had some fillet brazing, which is arguably the slowest possible means of building a bicycle frame. The HUGE/4130 Cycles Works bike featured a front rack mounted to the frame, rather than the fork; this is an old idea that every experienced builder has abandoned because it shares in common with Justin Bieber’s ego the fact that when loaded both are virtually unmanageable. Only one of the entries—the Denny—embraced electric-assist technology. Maybe these design teams haven’t seen the obesity stats for this place called America.

Ultimately, the Denny from Teague/Sizemore won the competition. The prize? Seeing the bike put into production by Fuji. To the degree that cyclists sometimes criticize bike companies for allowing their marketing department to lead product development, this is one of those occasions where I think that perception can be imparted, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong. According to Fuji the product development team has yet to get its hands on the bike and so there’s no target for delivery or pricing yet—sometime is 2015 is all we know.

I’d like to think that Fuji will bring solid manufacturing intelligence to this bike, but I have concerns that the design might hamstring smart choices. I’d have more faith in the bike if Fuji had done the judging rather than them agreeing to build the winner of the popularity contest.

This has gotten me to thinking about what the winner ought to be. There are real problems to be solved if you hope to “create the ultimate modern utility bike.”

The rider’s needs:

  1. The bike needs to be practical. It needs to be able to carry loads appropriate to your life.
  2. The bike must be efficient. It needs to allow you to arrive at a destination without looking like you just walked out of a gym. An electric assist isn’t a bad idea.
  3. The bike must fit. It needs to be comfortable to pedal around and your weight must be distributed adequately so that it handles well in turns.
  4. The bike must be relatively light. It needs to be light enough that you can ride it up a hill with a load.

The production needs:

  1. The bike must be easy to produce. It needs to be quick to weld together in a factory setting.
  2. The bike must be reliable. It needs parts that will last through daily usage, and should be widely available.
  3. The bike must use no more tubing than is necessary. More tubing means more weight, more welds, more to align, more time spent in production and more cost.
  4. The bike must be no more expensive than is necessary. Getting millions of people on utility bikes means making sure they are as affordable as possible.
  5. The bike must fit as many people as possible. The more one-size-fits-all a bike can be, the easier production is and the easier stock control and planning are for the retailer.

The ultimate utility bike should fit more people, handle better, carry more, be easier to produce and cost less than any of these bikes. And it should still be beautiful. They said, “ultimate,” remember?

We need the bike industry to take on the goal of producing several different models of utility bike domestically. Solving this problem will require people who have worked in production. By that, I mean people who have had to build things over and over on a daily basis, logistics people who have figured out how to source needs as locally as possible and purchase only enough to last for the next 60-90 days, and product managers who have spec’d bikes to simultaneously manage performance and price so that they can include a disc brake on a bike without causing the retail price to rise by $50. Finally, they will need to be backed by a sales team that knows the market, understands the principles of bicycle retailing and can work with retailers to make sure that once built, you can actually find the damn thing for an affordable price in a bike shop in your town.

 

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18 comments

  1. peter lin

    the one neat feature I like about the winning entry is incorporating the lock as the handle bar. the rest of it looks nice, though it hard to know how practical it is without using it for real.

  2. Champs

    I could call upon many clichés to describe this, but alas, they could not be awakened. Suffice it to say that history has many tales of explorers seeking wonders that were nothing more than myth. If such a thing is possible, I think the cheap, one-size-fits-most, low-maintenance, load-carrying, electric-assist bike would already exist.

    Steve Jobs never tried to make everyone happy. The legacy of features he put into and kept out of Apple products still frustrate me and countless others. Yet here I am, typing from an Apple computer.

    What I’m trying to say is that this bike may exist. It does not please everyone today, nor will it do so in the future, but it’s good enough. Maybe we can figure that out without enduring a century of economic devastation and international conflict like northern Europe.

  3. Weylandsmith

    A quibble:
    “Some used expensive-to-replicate curved tubing.”

    Curving tubing, for steel at least, can be a very inexpensive means of constructing rear triangles, and can save a significant amout of time in fabrication. Not that expensive to replicate for small to medium sized production either – the tooling is very straightforward.

    1. jorgensen

      I read that too, but I think it is referring to many of the arced main triangle tubes that seem to show up as styling features on bikes. A straight tube is going to be cheaper in most cases. Where you mention that it can be effective on a rear triangle (seat/chain stay alternate) one has just to recall the Yeti mtbs. of a few decades ago. (how time flies).

    1. Anonymous

      “I really don’t feel like the thing keeping more people off bicycles is the lack of the perfect bicycle.”

      Exactly that, Andrew.

      Infrastructure, traffic enforcement (both vehicles and bicycles), and laws that put an end to the vehicle bias when there’s a bicycle-vehicle collision will do far more to put more people on bikes than redesigning something that is – generally speaking – already excellent transportation.

      Build meaningfully safe cycling communities and they will come.

    2. SusanJane

      I agree with Andrew. Until there really is a sea change people won’t be looking to buy the perfect bike anything.

  4. Full Monte

    I read about these Manifest bikes, the build teams, the features of each entrant. Missing from virtually all the coverage: How do they ride?

    I mean, slick tricks like handlebars which convert into bike locks, integrated lighting, iPad/iPhone docking are all great n’ stuff, but if the bikes ride like crap, none of this matters.

    Did the organizers not let journalists/reviewers swing a leg over each? And if so, for goodness sake, why?

  5. Miles Archer

    I would have liked to see more innovation. Who needs two triangles. What if a trike made more sense? Cranks and chains are the best we can come up with?

  6. Quentin

    The ultimate utility bike I’ve been designing in my head for a while now is a tandem that looks something like a Co-Motion Periscope. I envision a cargo rack that is compatible with Xtracycle’s longtail standard that can be installed in place of the rear seat, somehow using the rear seat tube to anchor it in place. The drivetrain should be single side drive, to keep costs down by using stock road cranks, and to make it easier and cheaper to swap the rear cranks for different crank lengths. The bike should use disc brakes and the frame should be designed to accommodate 700c road wheels as well as smaller wheels with fatter tires. Drop and flat handlebar configurations should be available. This bike could be marketed as the minivan of bikes, something that can easily be reconfigured for a variety of different needs.

  7. Steve

    There is no one-size-fits-all bike.

    We were in The Netherlands in June. What works there wiill not work in, say, Pittsburgh PA, for the simple reason that Pittsburgh is hilly. In Pittsburgh I might want an electric-assist bike. In Amsterdam, or in Charleston, SC, I don’t need it and would rather devote the cost of a motor to something else.

    Good luck to Fuji, but I’m not optimistic.

  8. wayno

    the bike is fine, any bike. its the infrastructure, the general population’s attitude and govenrments allocation of funds that is the deciding factor. See Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Davis, Madison, Twin Cities, Portland etc.

  9. DavidA

    Has anyone spent time in Holland or Denmark??? Everyone commutes on comfortable city bikes. E-bikes are the next wave….with gas prices and petroleum-based products going up and up Americans need to shop closer to home, run errands on city bikes, embrace the health and enviromental benifits cycling offers and not feel like freaks.

  10. Conrad

    Christ, what a joke. I predict Fuji will lose a lot of money if they build that piece of crap. I think the focus needs to be on engineering, not “design”. While there is not one bicycle design that will be right for everyone, there is major room for improvement in the current offerings. Its not rocket science! Bicycles are relatively simple. How about generator lights, properly mounted alloy fenders as standard equipment, a well designed rack as standard equipment, relatively lightweight steel frame, and clearance for 32mm tires? Maybe even hydraulic discs? Is that so hard? Do we not have the technology for that? Aside from hydraulic discs, we had the technology in 1940. What is the deal? My commuter is an old Bianchi Volpe; even with that and an old Burley D-lite trailer I could lose the car. The bigger obstacle to more riding for more people are unsafe roads.

  11. SusanJane

    O.k. I’m stupid I admit it. But is the current geometry of the bicycle actually broken? Is a complete redesign necessary to deal with loads? Or is it actually cost that drives other geometry? Materials costs I can understand visa production and replacement costs — there is a price point out there for both now and in the future. Just trying to get this sorted out in my head.

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