Design: the difference between chairs, bikes, and jetpacks

I’ve got this problem with “design” bikes. You know, the kind of bike you see in Wired or on some design blog. Sometimes I fear that I’m destined to be the crotchety naysayer, but it infuriates me that the general public cannot differentiate between a design exercise and practical product. A bicycle is not like some avant garde Danish chair: a chair can be uncomfortable but people still seem to like it but a bike is a vehicle for which design has consequences.

Z51/bn1.jpg image: christophe robillard

This “Victor Bike” is the current target of my ire. Two different design blogs vomited their irrational accolades on the bike design, followed by a wave of blissed out design posers. The gist of the design is that instead of having a traditional diamond frame, the Victor Bike has large diameter tubing manipulated in such a way to suggest a single continuous line that winds from the left rear axle to the bottom bracket up around the steerer, then aft under the saddle before finally diving down to the right rear axle.

Z51/bn3.jpg image: christophe robillard

I was stunned when I read one of the blogs state: “The various bends allow it to use less metal, and less welds. Ergo, the bike frame is green, in a way.”

I can’t believe someone who has any claim to knowledge of “design” could say this.

By looking at this design, I can show you how at just about every point on this frame where stresses are concentrated, the Victor’s designer chose a configuration that is weaker than a diamond frame. If you tried to use tubing thin enough in the Victor Bike to make it as light as a diamond frame, then the fanciful frame would distort or fail immediately. I can see how this bike was created purely for the aesthetic of a single line, and I understand why the designer chose to have the chainstay on the left side: the large diameter tube would have fouled the chainring. However, the Victor fails to offer the necessary support structure to counter the chain forces on the right side. Vertical loads created by the rider are an even more obvious problem. Since the Victor’s structure at each turn takes the less direct approach to countering the loads, the tubing walls would have to be massive to have any hope of maintaining dynamic alignment, and probably for the static load of the rider as well.

Some of the Victor’s “lavish” details include integrated front and rear reflectors as well as “gorgeously curved rear fender”. First: integrated reflectors? Really? Really? Does it really take so little effort to impress bloggers? Some molding putty and a pair of 25cent reflectors gets you a big write-up? And then, I think it’s time we all get over the idea that we could somehow put a fender on cow dung and call it practical design.

The blog further claims that the diamond frame is a “relic of the mid-20th century manufacturing capabilities. ” First, this is historically inaccurate as the diamond frame was well established by the late 19th century. Beyond that, the idea that manufacturing capabilities have changed significantly can at best be described as a matter of opinion, as the blogs claim that the Victor is made of steel. I’d bet money that the steel used is good ol’ ASTM 4130, aka “chromium-molybdenum steel” or”cromoly”, and it also predates the mid-20th century. I have no conception of what that blogger thinks is so different about the construction techniques employed for the Victor. Regardless, the laws of physics have not nor will ever change. Even if Tinkerbell waved her magic wand and created ecologically-friendly cromoly tubing from gingerbread and dreams, the Victor design fails miserably in a head-to-head structural comparison with a diamond frame.

Designers are taking the piss saying the diamond frame is a relic. Whenever you’re using metal tubes, the diamond frame’s structure deftly deals with the static and dynamic loads with an elegance that apparently cannot be appreciated with the eye. While there are numerous alternative configurations out there (eg step-thru frames, etc) that diverge from the basic diamond configuration, the fact is that its strength-to-weight ratio is boss.

If I’m looking at the Victor as a design exercise, I can appreciate the wit and visual elegance of the form, but it is laughable to read these “design” geezers laud it as the wave of the future. It’s the same lack of objective reasoning that fifty years ago promised jetpacks to the citizens of tomorrow.



30 Comments

Great piece of writing. Totally agree with you! Design can be eyecandy but not very functional at times. Though I must say that I did like some of the ‘design’ bikes @Tour de France this year ;-)

Hahaha…

At least the guy didn’t put in one of them hub-less wheels. :-)

Tanned leather brown wing-tips…and cut off jeans.  Design my-ass.

Crap, the hub-less wheel is the “jetpack of tomorrow” for bicycles.  Never gonna happen.

I’m gonna buy one of those, but a pair of R-Sys wheels on it, and wait for the bicycle to implode going around a corner.

Then I’m gonna laugh all the way to the Injury Attorney, and use the proceeds from my case to build a jetpack prototype.

And you need di2 to keep it the chain line straight with its sensors and shit. I described this to Mark V as “a noodle” and guess you could make a bike out of French bread too. What the designer did achieve was to actually build one of these vs the typical CAD drawing prototype that makes the rounds on the design blogs never to see a factory or bike shop.  If we could get these bikes, would do a face-off challenge between the Victor and [the Baubike](http://bikehugger.com/2009/06/baubike.html) and call it *the Noodle v SpongeBob Squarebike.*

Gah! I’m with you 100% on this one. I work in a shop that specializes in folding bikes. About a year ago, following a string of “OMG do you have it!? I totally want it!” emails and against his better judgement, my boss bought the bullet and got an IF Mode. It’s pretty, to be sure, but weighs a ton and rides like crap, and the $2500 tag drives off even the most salivatory fans.

We do get a fair number of people who walk in after seeing it in the window, but after hearing the price no one even wants to test ride the thing (which is probably good, since it would likely scare them off ever riding a folding bike again). We usually end up steering them toward something like an Espresso, which may not look as cool but still has the 26” wheels, offers a much better ride, and retails for 20% of the price.

I was going to mention the IF Mode earlier—see [Mark V testing riding it here](http://bikehugger.com/2010/05/spokeless-bicycle.html)—or how [Alex Pong’s Magic Motorcycle](http://bikehugger.com/2010/05/spokeless-bicycle.html) will forever get redesigned, much like George Nelson furniture.

Ah yes.  This sort of stuff makes me froth at the mouth too.  It’s not nearly restricted to to bikes either.

What pisses me off the most is people who make claims to have revolutionized energy production, power gen, etc in ways that basically violate thermodynamics.  Those cases are not merely ignorant in a silly sort of way, they are downright fraudulent.

Also, something people don’t seem to grasp that design does not equal engineering.  The two are merely related and engineering design is quite different than what is the exclusive design discipline.

The double triangle design is,bar none the most efficient design possible with basically isotropic materials.  Things get far more complicated with anisotropic composites and I’d actually argue that the double triangle design is emphatically not the optimum in that case - especially when you are interested in aerodynamics.  You can thank the UCI for stagnating at the double triangle.

Space frames from Moulton I’m ok with, btw, as well as experimenting with different techniques like hydroforming or materials. I saw a beryllium frame once. I share what @PJ88 is saying in regards to USA cargo bikes and the utter lack of product design and engineering. It’s stunningly bad with unbridled enthusiasm to load up a bike with kids and hurtle yourself down a hill while the front end shakes like the earliest mountain bike forks. Some real engineering could resolve that issue for cargo like they did with mtbs.

(note revised the comment so the last sentence made sense.)

@Byron

Even with radical hydroforming you still end up with a bike that is similar in overall structure to a double triangle - the sides of the triangle are just all weirdly shaped.  Improvements can be brought with that to the structure, but it’s still the same basic game.

Even with all of the improvements brought to materials, one of the best strength to weight ratios would is stil the highest strength steels - but the tube sets using those steel alloys are rare and prodigiously expensive for what you get.

What shocks me about cargo bikes is that you see much longer wheelbases and bike loads but using tubing that is similar in diameter and wall thickness to what is seen on a regular road bike…

Designers and bikes. Grrr. You said much of what I like to say on the topic. Nice post, man.

I went on a similar but different rant last summer, here:

http://rantwick.blogspot.com/2009/06/concept-bikes-notes-from-future.html

Check the just spotted [Giant Halfways](http://www.flickr.com/photos/huggerindustries/4873495901/), [Dahons](/tag/dahon), et al. for some innovations that push bike design and often overlooked.

FORGET you ever heard of beryllium as a bicycle frame material.  like lithium-aluminium alloys and aeromet steel, it was just another attempt in the 1990s for defense department suppliers to diversify in wake of the cold war’s collapse.  cross examination of a materials science & engineering perspective to a practical manufacturing analysis, beryllium is useless in a way that might exceed that of the Victor bike. 

note that i was careful to limit my praise of the diamond frame (aka double triangle frame) in the context on “isotropic” materials (like metals), which are materials that exhibit the same physical characteristics (esp stiffness and strength) in all directions.  composite materials, particularly those with fibrous components like carbon fibre (long fibre, not chopped matt), are anisotropic; that is, they are stronger/stiffer in certain directions (parallel to the long fibre) than others. 

with a nod towards comments by PJ88, i would say that the jury is still out on whether or not there is an optimal configuration for composite frames.  and yes, so long as the UCI keeps certain rules in place, manufacturers might never find that optimal configuration, if it exists.

Well-written, well-thought-out, well done.

Green marketing is dumb if it’s not backed up by quality.

That frame was in your shop, before your time . . . light, scary light brittle too. Beryllium is out in favor of [amorphous, non-crystalline structured metal alloys](http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/10/08/09/apple_obtains_exclusive_rights_to_custom_super_durable_metal_alloy.html) poured into molds! My point wasn’t that specific material but experimentation with materials in well-engineered designs is good. Remember Specialized MMC? That idea was to make aluminum stiffer!

AAARRHRHRHHGGHGGHHHHHHH!!!!!!!  Byron! stop!

just like beryllium and those other materials, just because you can make an aircraft aileron shaft, a landing gear strut, or tiny flip-phone hinge out of a material doesn’t mean you can fashion a practical bicycle frame out of it.

did you know that a spiderweb strand has phenomenal physical properties? it’s true! let’s make bike frames out of it!

tons of wonder alloys are no good for bike frames because 1) you can’t form it into a tube, or 2) you can’t weld it for shite.

ask frame builders who built with aeromet what they thought of it. i mean, the framebuilders who were around long enough to deal with the frame failures. 

specialized’s MMC was close to success, but you’ll notice how much they use it today.  why? ask those in specialized QC about welding. also, the shit tore up the tooling.

You mean like 3-2.5 or 6.4 Titanium?

um, what about those titanium alloys?

you can weld both of those, as demonstrated by a long history of those two alloys being welded.  6Al-4V Ti not so easy for seamless tubes, though.

admit it…you’re just randomly throwing out names of engineering alloys at this point, right? that’s the academic version of throwing buttermilk biscuits to stop a main battle tank.

but of course you haven’t asked me about adamantium yet.  surely, this would be the ultimate bicycle material, a group of man-made metal alloys that possess varying durability, but are all nearly indestructible. Adamantium was (inadvertently) invented by the American metallurgist Dr. Myron MacLain. (see wikipedia).

Not sure exactly where we are on this thread, my point was: experimenting with frame materials while using solid design is acceptable v. this ridiculous noodle bike. Then you got all in my face about it so my come back was, “ti.”

ok, i guess my point is that material selection can very rarely make up for bad structural design, and “wonder materials” are often red herrings. also, “ti” as a one word response to an argument can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

There was a time when Ti was a wonder material and that spawned much of the, “which frame material is best.” I owned a GT prototype made by Sandvik that was the least stiff of any frame I’ve ever ridden, even with the crazy double rear triangle.

But clearly the problem here is with the design press and not the designers. Part of the design process is to experiment without judgement with ideas of all sorts. You could certainly argue that a designer with more experience in the world of frame design would not have bothered to produce this. He could “see the stresses” without going to proof of concept production. But everyone needs to learn, and some learn by making things.

The problem here is not the “general public” either. How the hell are they supposed to know that this idea is flawed? Frame design is a specialized craft.

The problem is exactly with the design press. The design press is skewed towards the visual. That’s why this journalist writes about “gorgeously curved” details. He’s written a review of what he could see. And design journalists, for many reasons, typically do not see the kinds of things that seem obvious to the posters here.

And in that regard, bicycle frames are EXACTLY like “some avant garde Danish chair.” A chair that is uncomfortable is a failure in its major function. But chairs have other functions: they function as visual elements within an environment. And for the design press, the function of the chair is to look good in a magazine photo. A chair design that succeeds in that regard can be made of razor-sharp shit-covered spikes and still be considered a success. Or it can be made of chromoly tubes bent “gorgeously” to resemble a “bicycle.” In both cases, it’s a failure of journalism if the discussion never gets past, “Ooh pretty!”

Well said and a good point on this is a crazy folding bike last year made the rounds—it was a CAD drawing and had a Specialized logo on it. Checked with our contacts at Spesh? Nope not them, but it was considered a concept from their lab. In a related note, the industry itself does not do this or even leak anything. They’ve got this odd cloak of secrecy on new products as if it was some groundbreaking carbon layup process unique to them. As if any of us couldn’t issue a PO for the same thing from a Taiwan factory. As early as this year we were treated to a new e-bike . . . it was a re-engineering of Bionx.

“razor-sharp shit-covered spikes” —well said, indeed.

Sing it, my brother!

From the Pong bike (Trailing link front suspension? For real?) to the Copenhagen Wheel (Don’t they teach you that aerodynamic losses aren’t linear at MIT?) this stuff drives me crazy.

You had me until you said “design geezers”. Unless “geezer” means something different in your universe, it’s highly unlikely that any actual geezers weighed in with praise for this bit of entertaining but inefficient design. It’s the young fashionista mindset that drives design for design’s sake. Old school is form follows function.

I do agree it takes incredible ignorance of bike design history to call this design a break from mid-twentieth-century manufacturing techniques. I daresay that no technology used in production of this bike was invented or perfected in this decade. The design falls short of it’s visual impact potential. To top off the exercise, it should use an asymmetric fork ala Cannondale.

Check this out—the [Giant Halfways](http://www.flickr.com/photos/huggerindustries/4873495901/) and in person those are very solid with the design done to make it fold even more compact. The half is one fork leg and one chainstay.

Halfways also have a seatstay on the same side (drive side) as the chainstay. small detail, but the details are what engineering is about. 

the first of the Lotus Superbikes that Chris Boardman rode to a gold medal in the 92 Barcelona Olympics had a single fork blade and single chainstay (albeit a massive chainstay with a deep vertical cross-section).  both blade and chainstay were on the drive side.  however, later versions, including the one he rode to the absolute hour record were symmetrical.  i don’t remember if this was prompted mainly by changing UCI rules or design practicality. 

the point is that there is a very broad chasm between having an interesting idea and creating a a good design.

Right—symmetrical and those things are beefy on the 1/2.

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