A couple weeks ago we made our annual trek to Zeppelin capitol of the world, Friedrichshafen, Germany for the Eurobike trade show. Most bike nuts would wet their pants over the idea of some 15 former zeppelin hangars full of the latest carbon fiber race wheels that weigh less than your toenail clippings, extreme downhill bikes with a meter of suspension travel, our favorite pro racers’ bikes complete with real Roubaix mud still in its nooks and crannies and more buzzwords than you can shake a stick at. I, however, am jaded by 30ish years on and off around the bicycle industry. These days I go not to ogle the latest gear but to talk to suppliers and dealers, shake some hands and meet some new people. I also like to take pictures of the dumbest stuff I see but even that’s getting difficult because it’s mostly the same dumb stuff as the past few years, maybe copied by somebody else.
I was still amused by the following little interchange: I was ending my one minute tour of the giant, enclosed Specialized stand where two attractive young women at the entrance informed me that no photos were allowed while half the visitors were voraciously snapping pictures of everything but the carpet. What they’ll do with all those pictures of last year’s silver hybrids repainted in retro colors and renamed “city bikes” I do not know. As I was approaching the same two security ladies on my way out, Alberto Contador (3-time Tour de France winner sponsored by Specialized) was on his way in. The security ladies, apparently not recognizing Contador from the 20 meter tall images of him in the very same stand, asked to see his expo ID card. Contador stood there and smiled but did or said nothing. His brother produced their ID’s from his bag and they continued along silently. I found it funny but maybe you had to be there.
As a teenaged bike racer and mechanic I went to the shows full of excitement to see the very latest weight-weenie wonders from names such as O.M.A.S, Pino Morrini, Speedwell, Exxon Graftek (yes, that very same evil Exxon made some of the first carbon fiber frames), Bullseye, Weyless and Hi-E. Eddy Merckx autographed a poster for me while I tried in vain to think of something to say to him. A guy at the Benotto booth wrapped handlebars with translucent “Cello-Tape” in something like five seconds per side. Phil Wood, already advanced in his years, sat at his table cutting and rolling spokes with his lovely machine. One year Castelli or another Italian firm showed up with shockingly shiny Lycra bib shorts and bibs. I was happy to trade a chafed butt and legs in black wool for looking a bit too disco.
There must have been things other than mostly Italian racing bikes and parts at these shows but I hardly noticed them. I guess Wald was there with their galvanized steel baskets and training wheels, Bendix with coaster brakes. Nishiki, Peugeot, Schwinn, Univega, Ross, Raleigh and two dozen others were omnipresent with maybe a couple real racing bikes and the rest of the display filled with caricatures of them: frames of mild steel pipe, narrow handlebars, brake lever extensions, fat counterweight pedals, stem mounted shifters, pie plates to keep the bike from committing suicide by tossing its chain into the galvanized spokes loosely holding the potato chip shaped, chromed steel rim with embossed sidewalls that maximize water holding capacity. Ironically many of these BSO’s (Bicycle Shaped Objects) are now being rescued from suburban garages and fetching small fortunes as “vintage” bikes. Actually even we found a good use for these crappy bikes back then: We dug through the semi-broken parts bins to convert dozens of them into ratty, disposable cyclocross bikes for winter training and amusement. It’s good we worked in bike shops since our “death ride” sessions through the local woods rarely ended until somebody or their bike was too broken to continue.
There were also always a few characters (sorry: “inventors”) peddling new and better ways to convert one’s muscular output into forward bicycle motion. These were (and still are) typified by a myriad of machined aluminium levers, cams and pulleys operating a web of cables, springs and short sections of bicycle chain. Since pedaling in circles is obviously unnatural and inefficient we could now row, hop, treadle or oval-pedal our way down the roads so innocently free of bicycle infrastructure. The inventors are still at it, apparently still not satisfied with pedaling a single wheel, in circles, through trusty roller chains. In the Netherlands I learned that one could make that near perfect roller chain drive nearly maintenance free simply by wrapping a plastic or vinyl chain case around it. That, of course, hasn’t stopped the development of toothed rubber belt drives.
This one seems to have been inspired by the one below that has been displayed with much fanfare and many scantily clad young women for the last several years. Since bakfiets-en-meer is a family friendly blog Richard demonstrates it here instead of the scantily clad girls.
For a nice overview on most of the weird and wacky bike stuff I saw through the years check out mountain bike pioneer Charlie Kelly’s site.
Now this one below was actually at Eurobike’s nerdy cousin SpeziRad last year. The inventor seems to have accepted (for now at least) that pedaling in circles is OK. Perhaps a linear drive system is his next project. However he’s unsure of whether one should ride sitting or reclining… so he’s built a bike that can be rapidly switched between both on the fly with an amazingly complex system of interconnected hydraulic linkages. Perhaps with this development recumbent bikes will finally take over the world as their proponents have been predicting since I began riding bikes. I, on the other hand, predict that recumbent riders will continue to mostly be engineers with beards and dutch engineers with long commutes through the countryside.
There was no debate, however, about the best approaches to building bike lanes in the 1970’s and 80’s in the USA; Actually I don’t think I’d heard of a bike lane until I moved to California a decade later. Helmets? We strapped leather hairnets on only when we raced and it was hip to wear a cycling cap over your hairnet, brim to the rear. I still have my shiny, patent leather (vinyl I assume) Saavedra helmet and two year old Pascal thinks it’s funny to bump into things while wearing it. Isn’t that a sort of proof in itself that helmets are bad? There were actually a few plastic helmets available by then: Bell made an enormous, white mushroom with two red stripes (had one but never wore it). ProTec made one that looked much like the current skate/multipurpose helmets, except dorkier. Skid Lid made a very creative helmet that looked kind of like a big phillips screw on your head. In 1980 or so I got an orange Brancale hardshell. It was trim and light though it probably didn’t offer much impact protection… certainly not after I bored out the many ventilation holes to about double the original size (FYI: I was 14). At Eurobike these days there’s an entire hall dedicated helmets, glasses, pads, gloves and the likes. That was handy for us since we could simply skip it. We did still see several more companies showing helmets disguised as bulbous hats in other halls though.
I’m a little unclear on these “hatmets” from Denmark. If I absolutely had to live in a place with traffic conditions dangerous enough to warrant wearing a helmet while cycling around town I wouldn’t have any problem just wearing a helmet like the other cyclists there. The same is true for going fast on a racing bike with a group. In a safe cycling place such as the Netherlands or Denmark a helmet is simply unnecessary, which makes me wonder about a Danish company’s motivation for making helmets for cycling around town. I guess it’s just a vanity thing so unfashionable people like me just can’t get it.
A decade or so later in the early 90’s I began going to Interbike while I worked for Avocet, the company that (amongst other things) got cyclists hooked on putting little computers on their bikes to monitor their performance. I was always super busy building and working the booth as well as visiting their last remaining OEM customers so these shows were just a blur. This was the golden age of mountain bike garage innovation (which Avocet steadfastly refused to accept) and try-athlons were really popular amongst moneyed, type A 30-40 plussers but I actually don’t remember seeing anything at all at these shows. I only remember talking to justifiably cranky Grant Peterson when he was at Bridgestone (now Rivendell), skeptical Sky Yeager at Bianchi (now Swobo) , and my friend Ross Shafer when Salsa had soul and rockin’ parties. The Southern California contingent showed off lots of crazy neon yellow, purple anodized, white tired, elevated chainstay mountain bikes… and my memory begins to fade about there. I guess somebody must have been making road racing bikes in the early 90’s but it has since disappeared into the ether that exists between latest-greatest and classic.
But wait, just for the sake of balance here’s a gratuitous shot of some scantily clad women promoting something at Eurobike:
And city bikes, Dutch bikes, cargobikes, utility bikes, even just comfortable bikes with fenders etc? Nope, aside from cheapo beach cruisers I don’t recall seeing any of it at all until I began visiting IFMA (Cologne) and Eurobike in Germany. Practical bikes have always been available in most northern European countries, particularly in The Netherlands and to a lesser extent in Scandinavia and Germany. The bike expos though, like most of the bike industry, are much less about practical bikes and gear than bikes as sporting goods, lifestyle accessories and just plain old stuff to sell to make money. Thus 95% of those 15 Eurobike halls is dedicated to showing off the latest recreational gear. Here and there are a few firms making bikes or parts intended for normal people to ride as transportation. Real city bikes for daily use in all weather, for carrying kids and groceries and whatever, can practically be counted on your hands. Sometimes the focus on play bikes is laughable, such as Shimano who decided to not even bother showing ANYTHING from their utility oriented Nexus and Inter lines this year. The only internally geared hub to be found in their huge stand was the new 11 speed Alfine, which is disk or rim brake only. I couldn’t find a single coaster or roller-brake in their entire stand. There was a specially marked “disk brake zone” though.
Shimano did show their new E-bike components called “STEPS”. On the bright side it’s all nicely integrated into the component set and works very smoothly and naturally (I rode it for 15 minutes). On the downside it’s not at all torquey at low speeds and some of the components (which have to be used as a complete set) aren’t suitable for the harsh, outdoor life of a city bike. No, Shimano proudly points out that this system is designed for recreational cycling.
Each year at Eurobike brings a new hype. The buzz about E-bikes has been building for the last several years but the bikes themselves have been pretty wonky. This year was absolutely the year of the E-bike, or alternatively “E-Urobike”. Not only did Shimano show off their new STOPS system, Bosch introduced their creatively named “e-Bike-system” that they claim to have invested €440,000,000 in. Panasonic and Yamaha’s already well developed crank motors were fitted to bikes offered by several manufacturers and Heinzmann and Daum in Germany each showed new systems. Of course there were also tons of hub motors from China and Taiwan mounted as unmarked, original equipment on bikes of many brands. Even Specialized proudly showed off the e-bike Fabian Cancellara used to win Paris Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders.
We spent about half a day riding various bikes with the systems most promising for Workcycles bikes. In a nutshell the motor has to offer good low-speed torque from a near stop, be durable in a rough outdoor life, and compatible with gear hubs, roller or drum brakes, a chaincase and a rear baggage or child carrier. Since most systems are intended for “play” use very little of what’s available meet even those basic requirements. Some impressions on the systems we were able to spend considerable time with:
We each rode a couple bikes with the new Bosch crank motor and found it good but not awe-inspiring considering the investment and hype. Probably most impressive was the well developed software which offered four different modes, each tailoring the various behavior parameters to a certain type of riding situation. Oddly enough the Sport mode was the best we’ve seen yet for load carrying since it kicked in with lots of torque from a standstill without feeling out of control. On the downside the Bosch motor was surprisingly rough and noisy and the arrogance of the reps staffing their stand was staggering. The Bosch guy I talked to basically ended our conversation when I told him that Workcycles builds just a couple thousand bikes a year.
Daum is a German manufacturer of exercise equipment who displayed a promising, new crank motor unit. Overall the feel was quite similar to the Bosch or perhaps even torquier though the software management wasn’t nearly as polished. At low speeds the reactions of the Daum were jerky and sometimes disturbing. The people at their stand took our commentary seriously though, and promised full access to tinkering with the control parameters. Daum is incidentally happy to sell either one or a thousand systems.
Several Japanese firms have already been building e-bike crank motors for a decade and this experience was obvious in the Panasonics we rode in expensive but butt ugly Swiss Flyers. These are the first e-bikes that have ever performed well enough to make me think I could willfully ride one… though definitely NOT one of the Flyers since, like most e-bikes, they’re criminally ugly. The Panasonic motor is smooth, quiet, about as torquey and powerful as any of the 250W systems and pretty much invisible in use. You just feel very strong, like Spartacus Cancellara. Since the Flyers are built for the Swiss market they’re not governed as severely as the EU spec bikes. That doesn’t influence the pulling power but it did enable us to cruise along effortlessly on fairly upright bikes at 35km/hr. Yamaha’s crank motor is very similar to the Panasonic unit though I haven’t ridden the latest version.
So if I’m writing about e-bike motors the obvious question is whether Workcycles is going to introduce one. Yeah, good question. I’ve expressed my general dislike of both the existing models and to some extent the concept itself. On the one hand I’m absolutely in favor of anything that extends the usefulness of bicycles as practical vehicles. I’m perfectly happy to ride around in wind and weather on a bakfiets loaded up with kids and stuff but I’m not so arrogant to think or expect that everybody else is, especially if they live in a town with more elevation variation than a lot of steep, little bridges.
On the other hand the addition of a motor, a bunch of electronics and a big pack of batteries almost guarantees the end of the bicycle as a timeless, durable vehicle that can be inexpensively kept on the road for decades. When those batteries wear out or fail in a few years bike owners will discover that replacing them, often along with the battery management system, will cost as much as a decent non-electric bike. Control units will die and since there’s precious little standardization in the bike industry there will often be a slim chance of finding a replacement after a few years, never mind the question of who is going to diagnose and carry out these repairs. I can assure you that we won’t be seeing lovely old electric bikes like these still in trusty service after 70 years, or probably even ten years for that matter.
So did I see anything interesting at E-Urobike aside from the electric stuff? No, not so much. Below are a few of the pics I took with some commentary:
Here’s the Urban Arrow, whose bottom is shown as the example for the Daum motor. This is a new two-wheeled e-bakfiets from an(other) Amsterdam firm. The design is by Wytze van Mansum whose neato Cannondale Dutchess concept bike got lots of publicity. The partners are an experienced team who’ve previously been with Kronan and Bugaboo. I haven’t ridden it but it’s quite attractive, generally seems well considered. There’s nothing to point and laugh at, such as most of the johnny-come-lately’s in this field. I’m thinking mainly of the various 2-3-4 in one monstrosities, all marketed as the perfect solution to a transport problem parents weren’t aware of.
There was plenty to see on the cosmetic end of “cargobikes” though. A couple of the better examples hail from Denmark, the designer bike capitol of the world:
I think this one is called the “Handlebrack”. Crappy handling dynamics and parking instability aside it is pretty good looking.
This Pumiomega gets my vote for Most Pointless Poser Utility Bike. We have here a long bike with a not very big or usefully designed cargo rack, exposed derailleur gearing, cheap V-brakes, uncomfortable ergonomics, no fenders/lights/chainguard or even a darn bell. It’s sort of a Bilenky cargo/ Kemper Filibus mashup with all of the functionality removed and built with a single aluminium tube to leave it’s rider wondering when the inevitable catastrophic failure into two halves will occur. Fortunately few children will get hurt since it’d take somewhat more creativity to install a child seat than the typical buyer will possess.
A couple Workcycles employees would jizz in their pants if they saw this spread of Phil Wood goodies. Yep, that the same Phil Wood as described above. Sadly Phil, who genuinely enriched cycling with several handy innovations (sealed hubs and pedals, cartridge bottom brackets…) passed away earlier this year.
And I think that’s enough words and pictures for one post so I’ll leave you to contemplate the following: