A Teachable Moment: Bike Design Arrogance

Background Reading

On the ChainLink a discussion erupted over the design entry posted by MINIMAL. It began like this:

Reply by h’ 1.0 on Friday
I’ve been frequent party to “best winter bike” discussions for over a decade and have never seen anything resembling consensus on what the best qualities for a winter bike are…. for every winter cyclist who thinks wide tires are best, there’s one who thinks thin tires are best, etc.

I can’t say any of the other main design points appeal to my needs….

I wonder how they arrived at their presumptions.

Reply by Kevin C on Friday

On their website they describe their product thusly:

VANMOOF 5.7 (Electrified)

VANMOOF 5.7 (Electrified)

VANMOOF is an ambitious young Dutch company that was born from a love for bicycles and a hunger for change. With a talented young development team and a fresh business approach, VANMOOF pursues only one goal: help the ambitious urbanite worldwide move around town by bike in style.

Reply by Simon Phearson on Friday
I agree. I might use this bike to go to the grocery store, but my commute? Only if I want it to take twice as long and to be twice as hard.

Reply by Fran Kondorf on Friday
‘This is the bike for Chicago”? Not without fenders it ain’t.

True, dat.

Reply by Koltraned on Friday
The lack of chainstays/traditional down tube solves the belt replacement problem.
Think a mud/snow/debris guard for the belt would be a necessary addition even with a center-drive belt set up.
Wonder what this weighs in at? The downtube and seatpost have to be pretty burly to keep the tolerances tight enough on the belt drive.

Reply by Koltraned on Friday
* The illustration shown is not the design of the better Chicago bike.
Perhaps a front fender is forthcoming at the unveil?

Reply by Simon Phearson on Friday
I have to figure that the fenders were such a no-brainer that the designers didn’t feel the need to be all design-y about it. Of course it’s going to have fenders – right? What is there to say about it?

Of course, that raises further questions – wouldn’t a utility-oriented bike designer mention something about the number of things you could attach to the bike, including fenders?

The silence that I find deafening here is – what about lights? There are certainly high-tech, utility-oriented lighting options that one could have considered and incorporated into the design. Given that a winter commuter is going to be in the dark most of the time, that’s a big consideration. But not a word on that…

I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

Reply by Tricolor on Friday
I’d rather have mounting points to attach my own lights than have a bike with lights built in to it. Case in point the near-useless rear lights on Divvies.

Reply by h’ 1.0 on Friday
One of my top criteria for a bike to use in Chicago is that it can be placed quickly and easily in a bus rack.
Start putting all kinds of baskets and accessories and super wide tires on it and you kind of blow it.

Reply by Simon Phearson on Friday
I think multi-modal commutes would blow the designers’ minds. People do that?

Reply by Kevin C on Friday
I expect any bike built by Method to be beautiful. Here’s one they built for someone I know. And believe me, it looks even better in person.

Reply by Dawn Wolfe on Friday
Someone on the Reader site said, “Way to go guys. You’ve built a Divvy.” I almost spewed my tea laughing.

© Jesse K Fixed Gear Bike Poseur

© Jesse K
Fixed Gear Bike Poseur

Ok. Let’s nip this blatant ignorance in the bud. One of the worst qualities of this pseudo-hip crowd is that they are largely ignorant of all things bicycle. Divvy is what you get when you need to provide something that lots of hipsters are either too cheap or poor or arrogant to care about and that is lighting (i.e. visibility). My take on this subculture is that it is often more into looks than substance. The ‘fixie bike motif‘ has grown tired and stale. If I should never again see ‘the look‘  of a fixed gear poser it will be too soon.

As the caption says this is the look of a poseur. A Divvy bike on the other hand is what you get when you try to plan for the actualities of city life:

  • Theft — If you cannot secure a rental bike from theft then you have no possibility of financial success.
  • Non-Passive Visibility — Reflectors assume that the other guy has lights. The designer of Divvy left nothing to chance. The bike has a bright LED array on the front basked and near the rear axle there are two red ones.
  • Rider Protection — If you expect your clientele to be dressed in clothing that is designed for business environments then you need to protect him from himself. So you need:
    • Fenders
    • Skirt guards (to keep flowing clothing out of the spokes)
  • Drum/Roller Brakes — These keep the bike humming along despite water on the pavement or ice on the rims.
  • Dynamo/Internally Geared Hub — You need a bike sans a rear derailleur of any sort. This piece of equipment on a bicycle is easily bent or broken. And you need someway to shift gears that allows it to occur even when the bike is standing ‘stock still‘. And of course the dynamo or hub generator is required to power the aforementioned lights.
  • Hands Free Carry — The front basket is where a business person could place a briefcase and/or purse.
  • Wheels — The wheels on any bicycle have to be ‘bomb proof‘. That means the tires have to be thick and treaded to be nearly impervious to glass and metal shards. Because the urban bike is shoved into the worst lane possible (alongside the gutter) you need extra protection. The spokes for these wheels have to be 14 gauge or better on rims that are heavy and stiff.
  • Saddle — The beauty of the Divvy bike saddle is that besides being waterproof and bird poop resistance it cannot be simply pulled out of the seat post tube along with its seat post. And conversely when you ride these bikes picking the same saddle height position is simple.
  • Sizing — Divvy bikes are uniform in every respect. That means that you need a step through design to accommodate the ‘short stuffs‘ of the world alongside the ‘jumbo stuffs‘ as well.
  • Chain — I cannot remember whether the chain is steel or a rubber belt. Either way it is strong and needs little maintenance. In fact most of the things about a bike like this demand that one characteristic, low maintenance.
( HANDOUT / May 31, 2012 ) The heavy-duty bikes in the Divvy program feature a step-through, one-size-fits-all design; upright handlebars with the gear-changer on the grip and wide, adjustable seats for comfort; hand brakes; a chain guard to protect clothing; and a basket with an elastic cord for storing items.

( HANDOUT / May 31, 2012 )
The heavy-duty bikes in the Divvy program feature a step-through, one-size-fits-all design; upright handlebars with the gear-changer on the grip and wide, adjustable seats for comfort; hand brakes; a chain guard to protect clothing; and a basket with an elastic cord for storing items.

The ChainLink Community has to get over itself and accept the fact that the bicycle as such is a primitive design looking for a way to keep them going without the benefit of many of the high-tech features that automobile designers have a their disposal. In a word the ChainLink Community have to stop being pricks or in this particular instance bitches. If you had any skills, you would have been the one designing the bike. So STFU.

Reply by Dawn Wolfe yesterday
Drum roll, please …. Meet the Blackline:
Does it look like a Trimble?

Reply by Jeff Schneider yesterday
Did anyone test this design in the real world? For example did they:

  1. Carry it up a stairway;
  2. Carry it onto the El or Metra train;
  3. Lock it up to a variety of bike racks;
  4. Test the racks for compatibility with the best/most popular panniers;
  5. Load it up with groceries and ride around?

I’m interested to see their presentation on the bike design project website. As described in this article, it looks like some gimmicks that are individually sometimes interesting (dynamo powered USB charger, belt drive, wooden fenders) thrown together. Maybe it’s really more than that.

Finally, I’m assuming that the goal of this exercise is similar to that of designing a concept car – not to actually produce a marketable production machine, but to showcase ideas.

Reply by Thunder Snow yesterday

CHI: MNML x METHOD BICYCLE’S BLACKLINE from oregon manifest on Vimeo.

Inspired by the City of Broad Shoulders, the BLACKLINE bicycle has a strong spirit and is ready for just about anything. It takes its name from Chicago’s iconic elevated train lines that run throughout the city, non-stop. While the ‘L’ will get you from station to station, the BLACKLINE is the ride that gives you the freedom to get everywhere in between.

Tough yet refined, this bike has just the right amount of street savvy. A custom smart handlebar with integrated LED headlight and side blinkers utilize GPS enabled turn-by-turn navigation to help you safely navigate the urban grid. Once you reach your destination, the bike’s location can be securely tracked using a connected smartphone app.

The virtually maintenance-free drive train utilizes a sealed 3-speed hub, originally designed to endure the extreme conditions of rural Africa. It’s driven by a nearly indestructible belt drive able to withstand everything from the daily commute to the harshest winters.

Balloon tires smooth out your ride, won’t slow you down, and lessen the worry of roadside repairs during pothole season. The BLACKLINE’s bold yet simplified frame has a singular, angled 2” tube, which makes dismounting your ride a little easier in stop-and-go traffic. And thanks to the lessons from Ferris Bueller, it features a ready-for-anything cargo system that can be configured to help get you to lunch, a museum, the ballpark, a street festival, or anywhere the wind blows in the Windy City.

Crafted for the individual who prefers life on two wheels, the BLACKLINE is the ultimate urban utility bike.

SEE MORE AT oregonmanifest.com

Reply by JM 6.5 yesterday
Voting is live: http://oregonmanifest.com/vote/ You’re required to watch each team’s 15 second video before you can vote. Not sure why, since they offer so little about the bikes. The CHI video is about 12 seconds of the El and maybe 3 of the bike – Why? At least there are 2 minute videos about each bike on the page as well offering a little more information.

Of all the bikes, I’m digging the NYC and SF bikes the best. The integrated or interchangeable racks, fenders, etc. are all pretty cool. I like the low-maintenance inspiration for the CHI bike, such as the sealed SRAM hub and the dropouts, but that’s about all. The PDX video tries its hardest to reinforce every stereotype about Portland, including the use of a British accent for the voice over because WEIRD. The SEA integrated handlebar/lock is an interesting idea.

Reply by Duppie yesterday
Not Chicago, but at least 3 other cities copied a VanMoof verbatim.

Reply by Andrew N 21 hours ago
Can somebody please point out to me why I shouldn’t outright dismiss/ignore the bike with the integrated cable lock? Am I missing something?

Reply by KevinM 21 hours ago
Being more interested in classic and KOF style bikes, this year’s Oregon Manifest is a huge disappointment to me. Only 4 entries, and they all seem very similar in the way that they look like more of a design exercise instead of focused on true practicality.

Reply by Tominator 21 hours ago
Looks cool. What other criteria is there? Love the one tube frame look.

Reply by Jeff Schneider 20 hours ago
The frame on the Chicago entry looks like the VanMoof women’s frame (F6) with the down tube removed:


VanMoof Women’s Frame

The rack cantilevered from the top tube is also a VanMoof idea:

VanMoof with Front Rack

VanMoof with Front Rack

Reply by h’ 1.0 20 hours ago
I would be interested in a single beamed frame in which the beam was lower in front and higher at the seatpost.

Reply by Jonathan Quist 19 hours ago
“I get e-mails from women who want to, say, ride to work in a pencil skirt, but can’t on designer bikes. We wanted to create a bike that lends itself to all types of user experiences or needs.”

Okay, I get that not everybody wants to wear windproof cycling tights on every trip, but how does inspiration from “the worst winter in decades” connect to riding in a short skirt? Or how does the arguable small subset of potential customers who’d want to bike to work in winter wearing summer attire determine the design criteria for the whole year-round riding population?

(Yes, I had to look up what a pencil skirt is. Most of the pictures I found were shorter than calf-length.)

Did I get that right, he had to ‘lookup a pencil skirt‘? Why not just wait until the World Naked Bike Ride and forego the craning of the neck? Sorry. I know what he meant. But I think the Urban Cyclist Community deserves all the heckling it can handle over its obsession with riding modestly in skirts while baring it all for a protest ride. Makes no sense to me whatsoever.

Reply by T.C. O’Rourke 12 hours ago
Pretty much how I though it might play out.

A visually striking design at the expense of structural integrity, with some “integrated” but useless accessories, all for an astoundingly high price.

Innovation doesn’t come from a bunch of smart dudes sitting around a conference table trying to improve upon a simple utility design, especially for the sake of “accomplishment”. This whole thing comes off as really arrogant to me. Unless the end product is hype, in which case it’s just disingenuous.

Reply by Jeff Schneider 12 hours ago
My feeling is a bit similar. I dislike most things integrated. Usually that means something that will break and be difficult to replace years hence. Simple is best. Compatible with common standards is best.

To assemble a really good bike takes experienced cyclists more than professional designers.

Reply by Jennifer on the lake 11 hours ago
Oh my dog, don’t ALL “designer bikes” have step-through frames these days? Because Copenhagen and whatnot? You can even get cheapo Euro-style bikes at BigBoxMart. Skirt-ready bikes and bicycle-shaped-objects are almost like a normal thing now.

Reply by Duane Waller 5 hours ago
Totally agree. A designer circle jerk is what I’m seeing. And evidently designers only like black and white. And matte finishes. And what’s with both SF and NYC have seat posts that have little, if any, adjustment?

The prices shown are just what Method charges to have a full custom steel frame made; it has nothing to do with a one-off designer contest bicycle. And if costs WERE an issue for this contest, I don’t think we’d be seeing anything made from ti, like the 3D printed bicycle.

Once a winner is chosen, Fuji is going to “cost-engineer” it until it’s just your basic aluminum-framed commuter. I highly doubt they’d be 3D-printing a bicycle out of titanium.

Reply by Alan Lloyd 1 hour ago
Note that the footage of old Schwinns was takes at Working Bikes …


Reply by skyrefuge 57 minutes ago
Yep, the bike and its creators got featured on Chicago Tonight last night, and I definitely got the feeling that this is more a masturbatory art project than a practical engineering pursuit. The answers to many of Phil Ponce’s questions on why they decided to do something in a particular way often seemed to be “um, I dunno, because it looks cool I guess”.

Reply by Jeff Schneider 25 minutes ago
This interview gives the best info yet on the design of this bike.

The SRAM 3-speed hub and belt drive both seem intelligent and practical for Chicago.

The navigation system might be useful occasionally, especially when you are trying to wind around on side streets in an unfamiliar area to avoid fast car traffic (like I just did in the suburbs yesterday).

The racks front and rear are attached to the top tube. I would be really interested to know how it feels carrying a couple of bags of groceries up high on cantilevered racks. My guess is it would be wobbly, but it’s a cool looking idea.
The wooden fenders are pretty, but way too short. Both the front and rear fenders will dump water/slush/snow right on the bottom bracket (and the rider’s feet). Perhaps proper fenders wouldn’t be MNML enough.

The custom panniers are waterproof, just like the ubiquitous Ortliebs. Like Ortlieb, they also have a carrying strap. I am wondering why the panniers had to be custom…

Rather than disc brakes, I would prefer roller brakes. Less expensive, essentially no maintenance, less prone to making noise, and they stop well enough for city transportation riding. But they wouldn’t have been compatible with the SRAM hub, I suppose.

Reply by Anne Alt 8 minutes ago
Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.

Reply by Anne Alt 6 minutes ago
Roller brakes might be lower maintenance, but I haven’t been all that impressed with their stopping power, especially compared to good disc brakes.

I also thought the fenders were pretty but not so practical – way too short.

Reply by Jonathan Quist 3 minutes ago
Thanks, Jeff. I’ll take the time to watch the interview. The other video was more or less as expected…

I’m kind of surprised they made the claim Schwinn is headquartered in Chicago. Or is there still an office in town? I was under the impression there was nothing left of the original company, at least under the Schwinn name.

I’m a relative newbie at bicycle commuting, but those panniers didn’t look like they’d hold a 15″ laptop and change of clothes. I’m highly skeptical of their practicality claims.

GPS? Well, if their nav system was linked to public works to indicate which streets had closed bike lanes… 🙂 But in Chicago, with streets for the most part falling into the grid, I’d rather focus my attention on hazards than a nav display, and my experience with smartphone-based GPS in the loop suggests that a low-end nav system simply won’t be accurate. Too much interference and too many reflected signals.


Once again it ‘shows to go you‘ that attempting to do anything in the City of Chicago is likely to gain you ridicule. Remember the ‘Curbeediscussion a few days ago?

What always surprises me about Urban Cyclists is their sense of aesthetics or lack thereof. To begin with the entirety of their existence they owe to the Dutch. Everything or anything really that you see in the city which is painted green is that way because that is what the Dutch did. So to slam anyone for copying a bike design from the same source is ‘a bit like the pot calling the kettle black‘.

If you are a designer trying to enhance a bit of street furniture to provide a rest place for those tired and weary Urban Cyclists who are near collapse after their 1.5 mile commute from home you get grief. Of course to be fair the ‘Curbee‘ idea was stolen from the folks who have made a living stealing from the Dutch and stamping their names all over it.

In fact the really funny thing is that the Copenhagen Bikes shop that once graced the Milwaukee Avenue stretch in Wicker Park was get this:

  • Selling bikes under the name ‘Copenhagen
  • Using an updated design of an antiquated ‘Dutch‘ bike
  • Manufactured in ‘Germany

Very little about the ‘modern movement‘ towards urban cycling is either truly modern or even unique. The guy that got this whole thing started probably was the last fellow out of the spat factory and was looking for a way to get back at the world for dumping spats. So he glommed onto the idea of bringing heavy, slow-moving, bikes which were all manufactured in India onto the market again just for spite. It meant that Brooks saddles (from England) could be kept alive and he could stand on the corners of North, Damen and Milwaukee and laugh up his sleeve at a world that thought of itself as moving forward by reaching behind.

Meanwhile the ‘knuckleheads on plastic bikes‘ that race up and down the lanes of Barrington Hills get to think of themselves as members of the Tour de France (Lite). Everyone is happy, save the folks whose lawns are stained with human feces and urine because their visitors couldn’t bother to ride up the Tourmelet of Barrington Hills to relieve themselves. It’s as if every Walter Mitty on the planet has gravitated towards bicycles as proof that their inner dreams are relevant. Sheesh!