Reactions from Constructor’s Design Challenge Judging Panel: “I see big changes.”

It’s a common perception, one that we heard this year from many world-class bike builders who took part in the 2011 Oregon Manifest Constructor’s Design Challenge: The bicycle is a mature design form. It was basically perfected a century ago with the double-diamond “safety bike” frame design, and it’s almost impossible to significantly improve on.

But it doesn’t appear that the builders had trouble coming up with innovations. And don’t try foisting that theory on the judges who reviewed the delicious variety of bikes and ideas at this competition. The judging panel is a group of guys who have a serious feel for cycling and design, and afterward they were energized and animated, talking about individual innovations and game-changing design shifts, using phrases like “glimpse into the future,” “tremendous diversity of ideas” and “relentless innovation.”

Tinker Hatfield, the renowned Nike product designer, maybe put it best: “We need to adjust our view of the cycling future.”

While that theme ran throughout a discussion of the entries as a whole, when Hatfield said that he was actually talking about bike built by the winner, Portland’s Tony Pereira. Pereira won the previous Manifest design challenge in 2009, largely based on his idea to integrate a U-lock into the bike frame. It was a bit of a long shot to think the event would have a repeat winner, but Pereira’s 2011 entry represented a giant leap in utility-bike thinking.

Pereira’s bike went to the core of the contest’s long-term goal: to change how and why people ride bikes, by building the ultimate modern utility bike. His design attacked the central conflict in this effort: get people out of their cars and onto bikes.

“When Tony came in for his presentation, he told us, ‘This is a replacement for a car,’” said Bill Strickland, editor at large for Bicycling magazine.

Pereira’s bike features an electric motor that provides power assist to the pedaler when needed. It has hard-shelled, locking luggage compartments. It even has an onboard sound system – an integrated boom box.

“It’s got an engine, a locking trunk and a radio,” Strickland said.
“It was like a party when he rolled into the check stations on the test ride,” Hatfield added.
“It was the spirit of this bike that stood out,” said Rob Forbes, founder of Public Bikes and Design Within Reach. “It was a little rough, but combining riding with music, making it fun, making it a community experience – that made it extraordinary.”

“Sometimes as old-school guys, we take a purist approach to cycling,” Hatfield continued. “Tony made us realize that maybe we’ve been a little behind the times. We need to adjust our view of the cycling future. This is the future of cycling for people who aren’t super-fit. He showed us a gorgeous way to introduce new technology and have fun at the same time.”

“The e-bike can be one of the biggest growth areas of cycling,” said Joe Breeze, founder of Breezer Bicycles and one of the early innovators of the mountain-bike concept. “It allows someone to incorporate cycling into their daily life. They can get to a meeting and not arrive all sweaty.”
The judges were impressed by plenty of bikes beyond Pereira’s. What came through in their comments was that the various design innovations presented here add up to a potential shift in the biking population.

“What I saw was the future of everyday people getting into cycling,” Hatfield said. “And that was the key to this contest.”

One of the most exciting aspects of the competition was the bikes produced by the student teams. A team from the University of Oregon won the student competition, which featured entries from design schools across the country. The judges were taken with the fresh perspectives the students brought.

“I was really taken aback by the student work,” Hatfield said. “We know the artisans who are here, the guys who makes bikes for thousands of dollars. This is the other side – students who have never done it. They may be naïve in their designs, but they’re tremendously excited.”
“I loved the fresh eyes of the students,” Breeze said. “It shows what they’re looking for in a bike. They’re 90 percent of the potential of who could be riding in America. To see what they want in a bike was exciting.”

“The U of O came in with a naïve, fresh, creative approach,” Hatfield added. “They weren’t locked in to a traditional version of a bike. There were more beautiful bikes out there, but theirs was fresh – the future.”

“It was in late in the game – #32, I think – when the U of O team came in with this telescoping kickstand,” Breeze said. “It was very different; it what the kind of thing I was hoping to see.”
Other bikes, and their builders, drew sincere praise from the judges as well.
“I loved the strutless fenders on the Tsunehiro bike,” Strickland said. “The bike was an amazing mix of classic looks and materials, with forward-looking technology.”

“And Frances Bicycles wasn’t even in my top 20 on Day 1,” Strickland added. “But then I saw the bike on the field test. It was fast, it can carry a lot of stuff, it has a rainfly… I was transformed.”
“I liked the Ideo/Rock Lobster collaboration,” Forbes said. “It’s an electric-assist cargo bike. It’s an elegant, beautiful bike. You can zip around town. It will make people change their idea of an urban bike.”

“The Ahearne bike was beautiful, and it had two whiskey flasks integrated into the frame – that was really cool,” Hatfield said. “But seeing Tony Pereira’s bike today – that opened my mind about power-assisted cycling. He was getting a workout, but he was also getting a little power assist. It was a futuristic scenario for two-wheeled cycling and practicality.”

“The Cielo bike was beautiful, and I could see myself riding it out to the airport to catch a flight out of here,” Breeze said. “But there were so many bikes that were really remarkable.”
And what about that idea that the bicycle is so perfected that true, big innovation is no longer possible? Oregon Manifest was all about proving that wrong, and the judges concur.

“I hear that all the time, and I don’t agree,” Breeze concluded. “It’s only because we’ve been habituated in America for so long about the role of bikes. Designs like we’ve seen here will let more people see the importance of bikes to us, and how we move around in the world. I see big changes.”