Oregon Manifests Nothingness

OM Bike

The manifested, Kickstarted Faraday in production as seen at Sea Otter

By Patrick Brady, the chief judge for the North American Handmade Bicycle show, a Bike Hugger magazine contributor, and the publisher of Red Kite Prayer.

Ed note: when the press release for the latest batch of Oregon Manifest’s (a heavily-promoted design contest) bikes arrived in my inbox, I was troubled by the visual echoes of previous winners and the Vanmoof. Discussed it quite a bit with industry insiders, saw commenters mention it, exchange email with the organizers and designers, and Patrick recalled his time judging NAHBs… Here’s his take.

Our world is changing. The economy of our parents, where people worked for a company for 40 years, got a gold watch and then lived well on a pension is effectively history. The nature of the jobs we do and how we do them is evolving faster than some of us can manage. Five years ago no one was talking about social media and now every corporation on earth has a social media director. Go figure.

How we get from place to place is changing as well. Witness the rise of services like Uber. Even the car itself is changing, for good reason. Fossil fuels are going to go extinct the way the source of those fossil fuels (dinosaurs) did. At some point in the future, we are going to be without our beloved, gas-sucking cars. We are likely to have electric cars, but from our current vantage, it’s hard to know how the automotive landscape will appear in 20 years. It may be that many of us who currently own cars won’t.

To many of us, the bicycle is an obvious answer to many of our needs. It is the single most efficient mode of transportation man had devised. It uses no fossil fuels (unless you count your own imminent mortality), takes up little space when in motion or at rest and can be accessorized to carry a load, say a bag of groceries, or two.

Sketchy

HUGE sketch

However, most bicycles sold today are meant for pleasure riding, not service. Chances are, 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. They 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 to 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.

The Oregon Manifest started out with a clear mission: It was “a design/build competition to create the ultimate modern utility bike.” That’s a laudable endeavor, full stop. That’s exactly what we need.

The Manifest served multiple functions. First, it 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? Utility is not a constant. 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.

The next thing the Manifest did was to create a megaphone for these builders to show that they were capable of making more than racing-oriented road and mountain bikes. It gave them a way to show they were capable of fresh ideas, and it did so in a relatively low-risk setting. The Manifest, in bringing together a bunch of builders, created a forum to talk about custom bike making and utility. It was a marketing bonanza for a bunch of people much better at the torch than the keyboard.

And so it went for a couple of years. 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. I was unaware at the time that the bikes had been built for the Manifest, not NAHBS, and I struggled to fathom the wealth of entries. It proved to be one of the toughest categories to judge.

From Tony Pereira’s electric-assist city bike to Curtis Inglis’ kid-carrying cargo bike, the 2011 Manifest was full of creative builds using widely available materials.

There was just one problem. Those bikes were all custom, one-off creations. And while they were fantastic bikes that would easily become family heirlooms for the purchaser, they were effectively only prototypes that were wildly unaffordable for most of the population. They were perfect for NAHBS, but they weren’t going to solve any of the world’s problems.

If we are to address the needs of the many, that massive population spread from Maine to Mojave, then at some point, 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. Sorry folks, but making the donuts ain’t sexy.

At some point I’d hoped the Manifest would do more to encourage practicality over cool. Don’t get me wrong, I’d maim, if not kill, to have Inglis’ Retrotec he showed at the ’11 Manifest, but unless we find a way to produce 100,000 of those per year, we really haven’t done anything but engage in a self-congratulatory build-off.

And so when I saw a post on Facebook about this year’s entrants in the Oregon Manifest, I realized that whoever is now running the show there must be more interested in partnerships and synergies than really addressing a transportation problem.

They’re hooked in with Levi’s and Fast Company. Fine. But all those one-man bike builders that made the 2011 edition an overdose of amazing? That’s been overthrown in favor of what was a small feature of the ’11 Manifest: design teams paired with a single builder. Now it’s five teams each representing a different city—Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and, yes, Portland. Why just five teams? And why does what city they are in matter? They claimed they were “bike heavy cities.” Do tell, how is Chicago a more bike-heavy city than, say, Los Angeles or Philadelphia?

Nevermind.

It’s easy to conclude from the fact that the designers outnumber the builders by more than five to one that this competition is long on style and short on substance.

There are ways to address this. Hosting a contest in which design teams who have never worked in the bike industry before design bikes is the wrong way to go. Why couldn’t they have approached design teams at actual bike companies? I’m sorry, but dressing like a hipster and posing for a black and white photo and listing Google as a previous client does nothing to establish your bona fides within the bike world.

Problems I saw with the entries were numerous. Some used difficult-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—now there’s a way to run up production costs. 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.

More insidious is how the Huge/4130 Cycle Works entry looks rather like the Faraday created by Ideo/Rock Lobster that won the People’s Choice Award in ’11. Manifest is maybe nothing more than an echo chamber; at minimum they should give a shout out to their influences.

More insidious is how the HUGE/4130 Cycle Works entry looks rather like the Faraday created by Ideo/Rock Lobster that won the People’s Choice Award in ’11. It also recalls the Dutch city bike by Vanmoof, a point driven home in a recent post by the Bike Snob Aren’t design teams supposed to be overflowing with original ideas?  It suggests the Manifest is maybe nothing more than an echo chamber; at minimum they should give a shout out to their influences.

There are real problems to be solved if you hope to “create the ultimate modern utility bike.” I’ve been writing about cycling for more than 20 years and have worked for manufacturers in the past, so permit me to make a list of some of the priorities, based on my experience.

The rider’s needs:

  1. The bike needs to be practical. It needs to be able to carry loads appropriate to your life. For some, that’s groceries, for others that may include kids.
  2. The bike must be efficient. It needs to have sufficient gearing 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.

So that’s one set of priorities. But to meet those and really solve some problems, there’s another set of priorities and needs that ought to be addressed.

The production needs:

  1. The bike must be easy to produce.
  2. It needs to be quick to weld together in a factory setting. To keep costs low, the frame design should require a minimum of new tooling for production. Wild curves and bends can be difficult to reproduce consistently and increase production costs, so most of the tubing should remain straight.
  3. The bike must be reliable. It needs parts that will last through daily usage, but that’s not all. The parts should be widely available so that if one breaks, you don’t have to wait two weeks for a new one to arrive.
  4. The bike must use no more tubing than is necessary. It needs to be light (see #4 under rider needs) so that it is easy to pedal. More tubing means more weight and more welds and more to align and more time spent in production, and more cost.
  5. The bike must be no more expensive than is necessary. Look, a great utility bike that can carry kids and groceries, and has gearing enough to get a rider home will never be cheap, but getting millions of people on utility bikes means making sure they are as affordable as possible, and right now that means overseas production, not some dude in an industrial space in Brooklyn.
  6. The bike must fit as many people as possible. While it’s possible that multiple family members might use a single bike, the greater reality is that 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 economic pressures we face from the future are significant. Rising fuel costs and the impact of pumping more exhaust into our atmosphere will make producing goods overseas increasingly unattractive. We would do well to undertake an examination of how to mass-produce utility bikes here in the United States. Unfortunately, labor is the single biggest cost in producing a bike, and welding a frame and assembling a bike are considerably more difficult skills to impart than how to put toilet paper on the shelf at Wal-Mart.

If I haven’t been blunt enough, I apologize. I will rectify that now. These design teams wouldn’t have lasted a month at Apple. They would have been personally fired by Steve Jobs. When we think of great design, no one will argue that the iPhone is a rare achievement. It’s Brazilian-model attractive. It’s more versatile than a Swiss Army. No, the whole damn army, not just the knife. It’s more affordable than a college education and has taught an entire generation how to text and chew gum at the same time. Not one of these bikes approaches that level of utility and affordability. 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?

What we need is a coalition within the bike industry to seriously 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.

Of course, without talented PR people behind such an effort, there’s no chance that Fast Company will report on it. That’s okay; if you solve a real problem, you don’t need a PR agency for the world to take note.



Rapha’s Summer Wool

Rapha Summer Wool

Living in the Pacific Northwest, I’m wearing wool year round, except for the summer because it’s too hot and the fabric sweaty. Rapha’s Super-Lightweight changed that and I wore it and the liner on our ride last weekend. The jersey is remarkable good and what I’m wearing now when not in Hugga gear. Also, hey I share the feeling that it’s a lot of money for a made-in-China kit at $160.00, but when a product works that well it deserves recognition. A large chunk of their margins go back into the sport too.

How the summer wool even got worn and tried, is when Chris DiStefano (Rapha’s hype man) insisted I try their liner. In one ride it became a new fav and was included in a review of liners written by Jim Merithew for Issue 14 of our Magazine. The mesh weave and blend is why it breathes so well and is comfortable. Also, because it’s wool, you can Febreeze it, and ride with the jersey again, before another wash cycle.



Map of a Steady Hundred Miles or So


Sharing an annotated map of our steady hundred miles or so ride from West Seattle to the rural roads of East King County last weekend. On this ride I ran over a slug, a snake, and saw Sir Mix-A-Lot’s house. Also dived right to avoid a distracted driver and cleared an unseen drainage ditch that unsteadied our bikes like an IED had gone off. Shaking that off we continued to pedal and…

When we turned out of the trees into the sun, it was like the opening sequence of an action flick.

A cross-dissolve transition from shade to the sun and into a fast descent with twisties.

He’s the climber and me the rouleur, and I did what was expected in this section.

Shift+click, click to a lower gear, and put the hammer down.

Curves ahead

That curves ahead sign is my cue to GO!

Read the rest of the story in a free preview article from Issue 15 of our magazine that drops next month. It’s shared ad-free in the Medium Bicycles Collection.



Issue 15 Preview: Steady for a hundred miles or so

Steady for a hundred miles or so

Here’s a free preview article from the next issue of our magazine that’ll drop in August like the hammer did when we saw a curves ahead sign. It’s shared here in the Medium Bicycles Collection.



Scott Week in Deer Valley

I spent a week riding hardtail, enduro, trail, freeride, downhill, AND road bikes with Scott. Here’s my take…

Apparently I never used my T-Rex-style, cyclist-adapted arms for anything but steering and steadying myself on bike, cause they hurt after 3 days of lift riding during the first 1/2 of Scott Week. 

Twinlock control on the Genius locks out the suspensions while the XTR stops the break and the SRAM XO-1 propels it.

Pushed, clicked, and shifted every knob and lever hanging off a bar so wide, crows could flock on it. At times, that meant I wasn’t in the right gear at all, and my seat was dropped too low or high. 

Genius LT Tuned (long travel and the best spec)

Eventually I forget about the rear wheel, realizing it’ll follow the leader, I just steered the front, focused on the good lines. Letting go of all I knew about keeping a cross bike upright in the mud helped too, it was like I’d unlocked the next level. On a CX bike, it’s a constant balancing act between the wheels and always pedaling for traction. Leaning into a berm with the Genius, my thoughts were only on the distance from A to B, and the next turn.

After the Genius, I rode a Scott Gambler and caught some air with it, about the width of a credit card. It maybe the most appropriately named bike since the Tarmac. On it, I broke even.

Compared to levers and switches hanging off the wide-as-a-church-door bar on the Genius, the fewer controls on this bike can be summed up as muscle memory.

Gambler on top of the mountain, near the microwave towers.

A well-designed, big-hit bike allows you to just point and shoot; there’s no need to pick a line, just roll across the terrain like you’re in a Desert Storm driving a Hummer.

I finished my mountain runs on the 2015 version of a Voltage. The Swiss engineer that designed it for freeriders, asked how it went. I tried to sound like I had some authoritative knowledge with, ‘A bit tight.’ Then he told me in extensive detail how the suspension coil was too large for me and I should try a medium next.

“Alright,” I replied and took a big pull from a hydration pack bite valve. 

I just thought it was super fun with my arms up and out in the attack position, standing on the pedals, demanding, “what else this double-black trail got?”

Voltage in the Aspens before a double-black trail

Scott’s road engineer assured me with thru-axles, there was no brake steer or fork shudder, and he wasn’t lying. Descending from the lodge on a twisty road towards Silver Lake, I pushed it until the Contis felt twitchy. On the big hits, the seat cluster took the brunt willingly, and with the next turn of the pedals the bike was back in line, tracking true.

Impressive.

The Scott marketing language describes the Solace with “zones.” One for comfort and the other power. Translate that to mean Scott has found a fine balance between horizontal stiffness and lateral compliance. A bike that accelerates well with all-day comfort is what all manufacturers are chasing now. In the past couple decades, the bike industry figured out stiffness, and now performance comfort is what their CAD programs are crunching. 

Solace with disc balances performance and comfort

Speaking of the back in the day, their was a time when getting a new pair of shoes for road or mountain was a two-week ordeal. You had to break them in, they rubbed you raw for a while, and not anymore. Scott handed me these shoes at the start of the week and I rode them everyday. The fit was near perfect with no breaking in. 

Team comps MTB fit great and are very comfortable

When you look at Scott’s complete line of road and mountain, it’s no surprise they’re staffed with industry veterans and making products as good or better than any other company in the industry. They don’t refer to themselves as the other S, but if you’re interested in a quieter company spending less on marketing and more on engineering and development, find a dealer near you. I recommend them for the shoes alone.

The only complaint was their water bottles are a few generations behind the big-pour, soft-squeeze version standards on the market today, like the Purist or Camelbak Podium.



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