Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Ride + Design

In June I presented a talk at the West of England Design Forum 'Ride + Design' event. This was a full day at Bristol's Arnolfini venue which saw keynote speeches from James Fairbank of Rapha and Will Butler-Adams of Brompton. Also talking were Vulpine CC, The Bicycle Academy, Artcrank,  Charge Bikes, Genesis Bikes and AnaNichoola.

Here's a brief review of the day.

Photo: Adrian Barclay

Some of the above already had design and bicycle design covered so I had to slot into the Design and Culture section of the morning. I've never really delved too deeply into the topic of cycling culture and certainly never to the extent of finding something to talk about for 25 minutes. Below is a transcript of what I thought in the end, people might find interesting: 

I want to explore briefly why cycling is captivating the imagination and interest of so many people right now. And whether this boom in cycling is simply a fashion trend or whether cycling culture is making a lasting indent on society at large?

I'm going to begin by just presenting some of my own experiences from the last couple of years, to illustrate the extent that I think cycling has penetrated society.

As a London based cyclist and designer, working for Condor Cycles I’m fortunate enough to be in a position to observe all elements of cycling culture as it evolves around me, from people travelling to the Alpes to ride stages of the tour; to racing, commuting and even a resurgence of bicycle polo. I have to remind myself almost daily that what I see, is really happening; that this growth really is taking place, without seeing any logical reason for it to stop. Obviously our weather doesn’t help, but as most clothing companies will agree, there is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing!

Now, the bicycles we ride haven’t changed that much in the last 20yrs and it hasn’t suddenly become much quicker to commute by bike, so why the change in attitude now? True that our cities are becoming ever more crowded, and speed equals popularity, so people will always gravitate towards the quickest, if not always the easiest mode of transport. Perhaps a combination of that, mixed with affordability and safety in numbers is breaking down barriers that previously deterred the nation’s workforce from taking to two wheels. Or, maybe it just one or two of the cooler kids to catch on to what I was telling them all along…

That in itself is not entirely unfounded, as I spent much of my younger life not mentioning cycling within any social setting –very much NOT COOL! And yet now, 20yrs down the line I can’t venture out without friends and their friends wanting to engage with me all night about bikes and cycling; not that I’m complaining of course.

My friends and family now all seem to know about cycle sport as well! As well as our exploits at the Tour De France and the Olympics, in recent years we’ve seen a vast increase in input from multi million dollar brands such as Red Bull inserting their typical flair into grassroots events such as their minidrome competitions or the Hill Chasers; the first of which took place here in Bristol, up Park Street.

The point is that not since the 70’s have we seen city center cycle racing attracting crowds of spectators. We at Condor co-own Rapha Condor JLT, one of the UK’s only Pro-Continental cycling teams and if you want to see the epitome of everything that is cool in cycle sport today, look no further. And at this time of year you don’t have to hunt far through the TV listings to see them in action in coverage of events such as The Cycling Tour Series or The Tour Of Britain. For the first time in decades we are shutting down town centers up and down the length of the UK to hold and televise town center cycle racing. Suddenly cycle sport is being channeled to mainstream appeal.

Outside of the sport, the design industry is turning its focus to cycling and its culture, to the extent that last month I was asked to help judge the Design and Art Direction student awards –the Product Design brief set for the 2nd year running by Oakley, centered on cycle related products. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by some of the real heavyweights of the design industry, and judging student submissions from all over the world. It’s becoming impossible to ignore the widespread impact of design-led brands within cycling. As I was sitting on this panel of judges, at least half of the table was wearing an item of Rapha clothing, and I don’t think many of them had cycled there.
Another nice example of how far the effect has spread, is that a friend’s mother recently took the time to inform me of just how good the orange juice was at the cycling cafĂ© Look Mum No Hands.

This is all just anecdotal evidence and only suggests that really, it’s just fashionable to cycle at the moment. As such, anyone could argue that it may all disappear overnight as fashions change, leaving cycling to return to niche status.

For me, the linchpin of wider cultural acceptance will come not from bicycle design or cycle sport but through a more fundamental approach to the basic functionality of the way our cities are traversed.

The establishment of long-term or permanent infrastructures ought, by definition to out-live any social trends, so regardless of whether it remains fashionable to ride a bicycle in 5 years time or not, the UK has already begun addressing factors that will hopefully make cycling a more attractive option, be it as transport or as a leisure activity.

The redesigning of towns and cities, to reroute cyclists away from motor vehicles is a serious undertaking which will have a dramatic impact on all road users, be they on a bike, in a car or on foot. Dutch-style roundabouts, with their own partitioned cycle lanes, are being developed and refined with a view to being installed in London in the next 12 months.

Studies are being undertaken to investigate and research how best to adapt and redesign the way we behave in our urban environmental. For example, in Copenhagen they reprioritized their traffic lights along major arteries so that if you cycle at certain average speed, you only hit green lights on your way in to town.

Most cities evolve and grow organically with very few designed and built from scratch, so it’s testament to the emphasis being placed on cycling, that we’re willing to tear up our roads and pavements and fundamentally alter way in which we move from place to place. On the outskirts of London, over a £100m has been allotted to the redesigning of 4 boroughs to align them with cycling cities like Amsterdam.   

In London, Barclays Bikes are now an integral part of people’s daily commute. No longer just dipping into the scheme on an occasional basis but now structuring their journeys and commutes to work around the system.
This in itself has led to a marked increase not just in the number of cyclists on the road but also….smiles. London’s hardly renowned for the joyful smileyness of it’s commuters, but barely a day goes by now where I don’t see someone riding a Boris Bike down the road, grinning to themselves, as if they just discovered part of their psyche they hadn’t visited since they were a child.

And perhaps that’s also the key. 

In times of gloom and austerity I would challenge anyone to bring me one single object capable of providing it’s owner with such a broad scope of capacity for joy and fulfillment. You might haul a bike from a skip and for little or no money create your own sustainable, pollution free transport, cutting costs, improving your own wellbeing, health and happiness. That same bike could take you on your own adventures away from the city, into the countryside. Or it might see you achieving personal goals, slicing down your time into work or scaling and descending mountain tops. The satisfaction of reaching an alpine peak, after toiling and sweating for an hour and a half is unparalleled –not to mention descending down the other side. Suddenly a whole new world opens itself up to you and all you had to do was rescue someone else’s knackered old machine. –Obviously, this is a slightly romantic notion, the likelihood of that all happening at once is a touch unrealistic BUT there is no reason why it shouldn’t all happen, just over a longer timespan.

While people revert the old ‘make do and mend’ philosophy and take to refurbishing and restoring old machines it is not wholly surprising to see a change in consumer attitude.

In today’s age of online purchasing and home delivery, mass manufacture with built-in obsolescence, previously high-value products now saturate the affordable end of the market across all industries. I’m a firm believer that everything has it’s place and if you do want cheap, then, for the most part you simply have to be prepared for it to break sooner rather than later.

Legendary bike builder and designer Keith Bontrager said of the bike industry “Cheap, Light, Strong; pick two.”  and at a time where we’re seeing a global resurgence of bicycle frame builders, never was this adage more relevant than now.

For at least the last 10 years the artisan industry has felt the pinch of larger corporations as they strive to develop and evolve technologies to create faster, lighter bikes, often priced well beyond the means of your average wage earner. More recently though, they in turn have been undercut by the availability of cheap and light ‘open-mould’ carbon frames from the far east, allowing virtually anyone to create their own brand at the drop of a hat. Pushing these generic imitations, out on the market in a mail order fashion, also added to the pressure on the man turning out one frame a week whilst trying to cover all his overheads.

Manufacturing in the UK has been in steady decline for many years but, it is my opinion that a change in consumerism is mirroring the beginning of a full circle turn from British manufacturing. As we slowly, painstakingly drag ourselves from recession, consumerism is gradually shifting to align itself with an age where things were built to last. People enjoy hand built, the touch of a craftsman, the idea that your bike is not the same as everybody elses, that it was lovingly crafted for you and you only, by someone took the time to discuss with you at length, your wants and needs. The idea that your hard earned cash is being invested in something which may not be superlight, but can be repaired if damaged and that represents longevity.

Only a month or two ago we came back to exhibit at Bespoked Bristol, the UK’s only handmade bicycle show, and what used to be the niche corner of the market saw something like 10 thousand visitors. On display was the broadest range of manufacturing that I’ve seen for some time. From out and out plain functionality to the most ornate of hand worked details. There were bicycles for children, there were bicycles for bike-packing there were bikes made from Ply wood, Bamboo and even cardboard.

So, the future really is bright for cycling. At the same time that our nation as a whole is reconsidering the very way in which it goes about its daily business, both supply and demand are slowly but surely increasing on parallel planes as the consumer market embraces its burgeoning industry and I for one will be doing my utmost to keep designing and creating products that people want to buy, that make people happy and help ensure that cycling and its culture make a lasting impact on the world that we live in.

No comments:

Post a Comment