For the bicycle industry to grow, we need to attract more of the 90 percent of the world’s population who choose not to cycle, argues Mark Sanders, designer of the iconic Strida bike.
For Sanders, this vast 'Blue Ocean' of potential cyclists is a huge opportunity for the bicycle industry.
But, he believes much of the bicycle industry remains fixated on sport bicycles; bicycles which aren't appealing to a mainstream audience. This article by Sanders was first published in the Eurobike Show Daily.
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Bicycles are designed for people to use, so like chairs and most things we sit on, they need to be comfortable and healthy. A well designed chair supports the natural curve of the spine. The lumber support seen on car seats and modern office chairs encourages the spine to curve into its natural ‘S’ shape. Children are encouraged not to slouch, because with age this can cause back problems. Poor posture is outlawed in the workplace, with back problems accounting for over 100 million lost work days per year, just in the USA.
For racing cyclists, speed is more important than good back posture, so riders crouch down and the spine is unnaturally curved to avoid wind resistance. Fortunately, as these athletes are powering along, tensed muscles protect their bent spines. Unfortunately, when bicycles set up for sport are used casually for leisure and transport, bent spines unsupported by athlete-style muscles are vulnerable to strain. Although more upright than racing bikes, mountain bikes and hybrid bikes do not give good posture for everyday, and around town use; the lean forward posture, still strains the back, neck and wrists. Only the upright posture is really suitable for a pleasant journey by bicycle.
For parts of the bike industry to pretend their sports products are also suitable for everyday use is absurd.
So, how have we got into the situation where new, urban and non-sportive cyclists are sold bikes which are unsuitable, uncomfortable, probably harm the back and neck, and are bad for viewing the road ahead?
Historically, when the bicycle emerged over 110 years ago as affordable personal transport for everyone, comfort and good posture were more important than outright speed. The upright riding position evolved as the optimum posture for everyday cycling in everyday clothes. Since then, in countries and cities where cycling has continuously been used as personal transport, the upright posture is still preferred. But in countries where cycling is just re-emerging as ideal city transport (USA, UK, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, etc.) sports bikes predominate.
The mountain bike, and its cousin the road hybrid, have been successful in many countries because, apart from bringing back fun to adult riding, they also released the strangle-hold that drop-handlebar racing bikes and their ‘bottom in the air’ posture held on the market. Riding a mountain bike with flat handlebars around town is much more comfortable than riding a racing bike. Taiwan and China emerged as the bicycle factories to the USA and the world. This led to lower costs and many bicycles becoming commodities, for example the mountain-bike-style bicycles, sold cheaply through supermarkets, and now ubiquitous worldwide as rusty, around-town rides. Sadly, supermarket mountain-bike-style factory overruns, being so cheap, have replaced the traditional upright roadsters in many cities (even in Beijing, and other Chinese cities), in spite of having inferior ergonomics for urban use.
Amazingly, with more bicycles being produced than cars, the bicycle industry still continues to fuel trends towards using unsuitable sporty and racing bicycles around town. This is crazy. But is it a result of laziness, or pure inertia? As a designer I know the temptation to simply re-use the same stretched out geometry that the (enthusiast) market seems to accept – even though I know it would be better to properly research the best ergonomics for the intended users. Even Velib, Biki, and other city hire bikes have stretched geometry – no doubt specified by cycling ‘experts’.
Fit for use
Who best understands the postural needs of a new, casual or urban bicycle user: a cycling 'expert' or an ergonomist?
The bicycle geometry and the posture a new cyclist will be forced into will most likely be chosen by a cycling ‘expert’, such as a salesperson, a marketing manager or a buyer/specifier; somebody who is part of the industry, probably an enthusiast, a long-time, long-distance bicycle user. Many bike brands even boast of using famous racing cyclists to design their frames, and some even become brands - good for racing but totally inappropriate for town bikes. Some bicycle shops even have a ‘fitting’ service using an adjustable frame. This sounds very positive, except that the most obvious fact is usually missing: this equipment is to fit a bike for sport or racing, not for casual everyday use.
An ergonomist matches products to the human anatomy and needs. Significantly, an ergonomist's guidance is unbiased. They are not interested in 'converting' someone to do the same hobby as them, nor encouraging a user to race. For around town, casual everyday use, ergonomists recommend that a bicycle should have handlebars close to and above the saddle. The ‘bottom in the air’ bent back, bent neck, poor view ahead is provably the wrong posture for everyday around town use. Just compare the x-ray pictures shown in this article.
But, I hear the industry respond: “There is an exciting trend; sporty fixie riders are fashionably cool.” True, this is the cycling equivalent of 1960s motorcycle 'cafe-racers'; cool derived from exclusivity, easier to do than ‘natural cool’. Natural cool takes standard elements available to all and with style, elevates them to special. Natural cool is best seen in places like Milan. Italians in suits, gently riding upright bikes are effortlessly cool (even in 30 deg C heat). They demolish a huge myth and objection to cycling: that it makes you sweat. You only sweat if you cycle fast, racing against the clock. ‘Natural cool’ can be mainstream – and make cycling mainstream. Portraying cycling as normal rather than sporty is surely the best way forward for the industry?
Think about the automotive world. The majority of cars are promoted as normal family cars, not Formula 1 race-cars.
We need to raise a whole generation of children to rediscover the joy of the bike, and appreciate its benefits. Forget going green. Forget sport. We need to do what generations of marketeers have done for cars: promote the upright bicycle as sexy, exciting and cool for all.