Read the small print on your IFMA entry ticket, and you'll discover a neat
bonus: all public transport within the Cologne regional network is free.
Trams, buses, local trains are all covered - can you imagine anything so
integrated in Britain?
The trams run all night, too (punctually!) and that was how (last night) I
got to a meal/gathering organised by the VSF - http://www.vsf.de. This is an
interesting dealer group: the name means 'Association of Self-Managed Cycle
shops' and it pulls together some of the most forward-thiking retailers in
Germany. The emphasis is on raising the level of service and satisfaction
with cycles as transport, and various initiatives have been developed to
support this, including the VSF-Congress in Bremen (a sort of mini-trade
show), free 'Abfahren' magazines for the retailers, and national publicity.
They've also kicked off a distance learning course, which offers the chance
for staff to become qualified in both technical and business aspects of the
bike trade. The VSF even have their own manufacturing branch,
VSF-Fahrradmanufaktur, who make the sort of high-reliability (and relatively
high-price) city bikes which are the VSF trademark. They do also promote
themselves as the real 'specialists', so VSF shops also tend to be where you
can get out-of-the-ordinay bikes such as folders and recumbents. A few
manufacturers of such machines also join the association, partly through a
wish to support it and partly for the links it brings with a qualified
Saturday morning, and hardly a hangover at all thanks to the quality of
the'Koelsch' beer, produced on the spot in a micro-brewery behind the pub.
Prices for food and drink were a bit lower than in York, UK, and at DM60 per
night (about 20 pounds), the hotel wasn't too pricey either. So it's not an
expensive place to visit or stay. Getting there is probably fastest by air,
but I (luckily) avoided the air-traffic disruption by going Eurostar: a
through ticket to Cologne was just 89 pounds return, and the journey took
about 7 hours (going from Waterloo, and changing at Brussels).
For visitors arriving with a bike, there's a guarded parking area
provided... I managed to sort of cyle in this morning, hitching a lift with
Ben from Xtracycle - http://www.xtracycle.com . He's the European distributor for
this sort of extending subframe which bolts onto most any bike and gives a
nice platform behind the saddle, wide enough to give relatively comfortable
seating or, of course, to carry significant loads. One of their best target
markets is, he told me, the surfing crowd, who find it perfect for carrying
their boards...he was a bit disenchanted with IFMA, seeing too many boring
dealers in suits not open to new ideas. The young, multisport outdoor crowd
is where he wants to be...
So, back to the halls and I'm collared more or less immediately by Ruedi
Frey of ZEM - http://www.zem.ch. If you don't know this machine, it's a rather
stunning design of four-wheeler, four-seater people carrier. It's a techical
tour de force, with all rides having independent pedalling and gearing - and
he's cunningly used the back-pedal brakes in the hubs to provide a reverse
gear. That's even more of a head turner.
So far, you're probably thinking that this has got to be a weird, complex,
expensive and unreliable novelty, perhaps one for eco-freaks looking for
family transport. Frey told me he's already sold over 100, and the
biggest market is bike dealers!
Between the seats there's room for a huge advertising banner. What this bike
does best is attract attention: he showed me a letter from one German dealer
who'd bought one purely as an eye-catcher. With the letter he'd included a
thick pile of press cuttings: by taking it along to most any event, parade
or whatever in their area (a fantastic picture from a gay rights march
sticks in my mind) they reckon they've benefitted considerably in terms of
increased awareness and actual business. They also lend it out free to
regular customers, and apparently there's quite a demand. The latest ones
have been equipped with hub gears all round, and seem pretty robust. And
series production had brought the price down (!) to about £3300...
From there, past Ortlieb, SRAM and various pump manufacturers (nothing much
I hadn't already seen in brochures etc) to an intriguing stand from a
charitable trust (I'm not sure that's the correct translation) who have a
mission to make bikes part of everyday life. They are tackling this rather
ambitious aim with (as a first stage I presume) some nice developments in
cycle trailers: they work with manufacturers to bring new technologies to
market. They were displaying quite a few ideas which, I think, deserve to
take off. Let's hope someone can make them pay:
- with Weber (long-time European trailer manufacturers) they had developed a
fine two-sided trailer hitch, with a BOB-like fork and vertical pivot. It
looked really rather cool, but there was more to come. They'd built
electrical contacts into the hitch, so that the towing bike's rear light
(dynamo systems are compulsory for most bikes in Germany) is automatically
switched off as the trailer is connected, and a light on the back of the
trailer is switched on. A system to achive the same thing with more usual
couplings was also displayed on a child trailer.
- Two mechanisms for trailer self-braking were on show: one mechanical and
the other hydraulic. These should stop trailers 'shoving' the towing bike
when you brake hard with a heavy load...
- they are also lobbying manufacturers to adopt a unified hitch system.
- A neat trolly-like trailer which if I'd understood correctly was
purpose-designed to carry beer crates!
They take their trailer evangelism seriously, setting up stalls in shopping
malls and supermarkets, offering two-week free trials of trailers to the
punters. If after that time they decide to buy, they're sent to a local
All very commendable stuff - who could argue with displacing car journeys
with bike+trailer ones - but I doubt if better (expensive) technology is
really the answer. In the UK at least, road conditions and town planning
need some attention first...
OK, back to the mainstream a bit. Ortleib had their usual fantastic range,
Rohloff were their with Speedhubs aplenty, and the big European trailer
distributors Zwei plus Zwei had a big stand, showing off in particular
improved trailers from Chariot in Canada. Nothing very new at suspension
specialists Riese und Mueller (who make town bikes along with the Birdy
folder). But a nice fully-enclosed drive system was on show at Utopia, the
high-end purveyors of semi-custom ultra-reliable touring and town bikes.
They're just getting their catalogue translated, apparently, in preparation
for a UK launch...
Another lot interested in the UK market is Biomega - http://www.biomega.dk - from
Denmark, whose bikes are very much 'designer'. Some of their nicer-looking
machines use cast aluminium frames - don't throw up your hands in horror,
these are quite nice, if more for posing than performance. They do also do
some very 'clean' tubed bikes, with the lines unsullied by a chain: a shaft
drive is neatly integrated.
Anything else? A design consultancy had a height-adjustable stem, and a
silent roller-clutch freewheel, there were several hi-tech racing-type
wheels, carbon spoked mostly, which I'd not seen before, and the Worksman
industrial bike range imported to Germany by Speedliner. They had a new load
trike and a rather ungainly full-size folder flagged up as new products.
Now to the heavy-duty big boys of the bike trade like Shimano, Cannondale, Giant and so
on. March right through the final hall and you leave the exhibition space
proper, walking across to a giant warehouse known as the 'event area'. As I
came in, roadies were erecting a huge set for a party later tonight,
organised by what is apparently the German equivalent of MTV: Viva TV.
Alongside that was the huge BMX area for the 'IFMA Bike Challenge': in an
effort to inject some youth and life into proceedings the best and brightest
of Europe's acrobatic BMX talent was competing, with speakers pounding out
really quite good music and the warehouse setting giving the whole event
plenty of atmosphere. All of the different BMX disciplines had their own
areas: it's not all whizzing up and down a half-pipe.
A break in the drizzle gave me the chance to take a quick wander outside,
too: the organisers had erected a truly impressive mountain-bike course,
with extensive earthmoving to landscape 'hills' and drop-offs. If this
wasn't enough, wooden jump ramps had been erected, and some riders (by their
accents, from the USA) were doing regular shows. Most of the big suppliers
such as Giant, Trek and the like had doubled up their stands, with a tent
outside here to cater to the enthusiastic youth audience, and a stand inside
for the dealers.
Unfortunately, all of this seemed to be a bit lost on most of the IFMA
attendees: not many visiting dealers looked to be lingering amongst the
audience. A few did, though, think that putting on this sort of attraction,
rather than just raking in the money from exhibitors and delivering nowt but
a standard show, is a good effort from the IFMA organisers.
Back inside, and on to the last big hall. Trek, Giant, Cannondale, Scott USA, Corratec and a host more were all there. So were Shimano, a couple of stands selling tools, the test track, and also a test ride area for the 'Extra Energy' stall-holders. We might as well start there first...
Extra Energy - http://www.extraenergy.org - is a non-profit organisation (I think -
translating the different varieties of German charitablenon-profit groups
is tricky) aiming to encourage the development of electric-assist bikes. In
recent years it's become perhaps the definitive source of info for electric
bike purchasers, and the main marketing channel for electric bike producers.
Not only do they organise displays such as this one at IFMA, but they also
take a roadshow around Europe. And, every so often they do quite valid
comparative tests of electric bikes, perhaps the only accurate source of
such info. Manufacturer's 'range' figures and the like are usually not pure
fiction, but they are kind of meaningless without a very exact description
of how they're measured.
As to the bikes themselves, I don't really feel qualified to comment. I'll
report the Extra Energy results when they come out. I can comment on the
looks and image: this year did see a certain improvement: some are still
ungainly lumps of course, with huge black battery packs piggy-backing onto
spindly frames. But quite a few more were starting to look 'designed'. And
going by the number of stalls (about 30) the trade seems to be flourishing.
But it's not I'd say growing explosively. Electric bikes aren't the Next Big
Thing, at least not yet.
A company rather keen to be at the forefront of the Next Big Thing is
Cannondale, and as has already been confirmed all over the internet, they've
got a recumbent in their range for next year. I spoke to the head of their
European operation, Ricciardi Fulvio, and tried to get an idea of what
they're trying to do with it. Aside from Trek's half-hearted effort, they're
the first really big manufacturer to go for the recumbent market.
Their vision is of a very different cycling landscape in a few
year's time. They see this sort of bike being a commonplace sight in
European cities, as increasing numbers of consumers start to value style,
comfort and relaxation over the imagery of traditional mountain and racing
bikes. This year's single model will eventually expand into a full range,
making it an important element in their overall line-up, said Fulvio. Cannondale is fully
committed to it as a product and (he would say this) is convinced that
they'll do it better than the rest. Fulvio said he expects other big brands to start to
compete in a year or two, but is rather proud that Cannondale is setting the
The bike itself is very nicely done: it's a non-intimidating semi-recumbent,
along the lines of a BikeE but with a definite Cannondale 'feel': big alu
tubes nicely-finished. This bike layout is beginner-friendly and
town-friendly. Most people can ride straight off without practice, and it
isn't low enough to cause worries in traffic.
Shimano: another huge stand and all of the latest groupsets on display. It was
interesting to see in the flesh the ever-more-elaborate 'cockpit' displays
with gear ratios, speeds and the like. And of course the increasing
electrification and automation of the town bike Nexave groupset, with
shifting and suspension so far controlled by wires not cables: how long
until the brakes join in?
Before the show I'd arranged to meet Peter Schoenle from my German namesake
Velo-Vision, a bike shop not too far from Cologne, so I had to rush off to
make the appointment. We'd been corresponding by email since I'd started
Velo Vision magazine (he was very friendly about sharing the name) and it
was nice to puta face to the name. As is the way at these shows, he knew
someone I should meet, and we went off to have a fascinating conversation
with Christophe Dietman of Crazy-D - http://www.polorad.de - who had arranged a
spectacular display of chopper/grifter style '70s bikes. There is, apparently,
even within Germany, enough of a fanatical following for these machines for
him to make a living dealing in them - rare ones can fetch several thousand
pounds. He does a brisk trade commissioning and selling in new 'gearstick'
shifting units: the first parts to fail on these machines.
Winding up for the day, I bumped into an old friend from the UK, who passed
on one new-to-me nugget which may be of interest to some. It appears that
ZAP, US manufacturers of add-on electric assist kits for bikes, are no
longer producing them. Instead, they're concentrating on the ZAPPY scooter
and complete machines. Checking out http://www.zapworld.com seems to confirm
this...digging around also found mention of a fuel-cell bike they're working
on. Be that as it may, I think a few customers will rather miss the ZAP
kits. They were a relatively affordable way to add electric power to a bike,
and despite some reports of reliability problems in UK weather, had plenty
of happy users.
Talking of matters US, the recent events in New York and the consequences
have never been far from us here at IFMA. Television screens around the
halls were provided, tuned to news channels to keep both visitors and
stallholders informed. The opening party was cancelled, replaced by a
more informal gathering. There are, of course, a considerable number of
staff from the US amongst the exhibitors.
This was my final report for bikebiz.co.uk: I'll be at the show for just a few
hours tomorrow (the public day) before getting off to the station for the train home. I hope you've enjoyed hearing about my personal take on the show - I'll be back
next year. And of course, a fuller report on many of the items mentioned,
and more besides, will appear in Issue 4 of Velo Vision magazine, published
on the 4th December.