Oregon Manifest: our Quixotic collaboration

This year’s Oregon Manifest Constructor’s Design Challenge, 23-24 September, aims to coax into being “the ultimate modern utility bike” through a design/build competition. With high-caliber design teams joining top bicycle artisans and Levi’s® as a sponsor, the event will bring to widest attention a set of problems and opportunities near our heart.

We have partnered with Jonathan Reed of Quixote Cycles to create such a bike, now in final stages of finish and testing, and are excited and grateful for the chance to show it in such company. At the same time, we have some misgivings about the format and evaluation criteria of the event, the way they seem likely to influence the results, and the public messages they may send about utility biking. Utility bikes are our life, passion, and livelihood, so naturally we consider any related promotional activity worth criticizing.

An earlier published version of this post raised some hackles among interested parties as rudely critical in tone coming unhelpfully late in the long process leading to the event, and more seriously flawed in propagating false hearsay, rumor and innuendo, some undead from 2009′s inaugural event, such as that this might be another Rapha-flavored race-with-six-pack pretending to be something else, that child passengers and other large loads might be barred, etc. After reflection and discussion, we, or rather I, (Todd) acknowledge laziness in some of my thinking, immoderation in seeking to entertain, and I apologize sincerely for the bad feelings resulting among people whose goals we share. Keep reading for criticism, always meant constructively but this time better informed in head and heart.

Mandatory OM entry features include:

  • Anti-Theft System
  • Fender System
  • Lighting System
  • Load-Carrying System
  • Freestanding Under Load (while parked) System

Since almost all of the thousands of bikes we’ve sold since 2007 have met most if not all of these criteria, not as accessories but as integral features, we were intrigued by the emphasis on innovation in the program’s materials. Modern (and old) utility bikes incorporating such features in a high state of refinement are, in fact, quite normal in some parts of the world, increasingly including Portland. It will be some time yet, probably never, before most of the utility patents issued for bicycles in the 1890s come to market. Is it lack of innovation preventing utility bikes from becoming “the transportation mode of the future for millions of Americans who want to live healthier, more sustainable lives, but don’t think of themselves as ‘cyclists’”? We don’t think so.

Having sold so many utility bikes to just such Americans (and just as importantly, having failed to sell many more), we think the main challenges are not design related as much as psychological and sociological. And to focus on design imperfections only reinforces the real problems: few are ready to acknowledge that the problem is us, in our sense of entitlement to effortless speed, in our alienation from our bodies’ evolved locomotive function and historical living patterns of proximity to daily needs. As Jonathan says, “the big shift we’re after is in the mind of the public, not the design of the vehicle.”

We think the foremost obstacles to utility bicycles going from thousands to millions, to them replacing the 82% of all car trips in America that are less than 5 miles, are the false beliefs that bicycles can’t, needn’t, shouldn’t carry children and a household’s weekly groceries such distances, because bicycles are a youthful pursuit and American adults — parents especially — need to own cars anyway. And if bikes could or should be up to family duty, they would need somehow to be light enough to offset the weight of the cargo, their riders’ lack of physical conditioning, and to make them easy to lift onto car racks. And finally, useful bicycles need to cost less than bicycles designed to win races, because, well, utility bikes aren’t something grownups who can afford cars aspire to rely upon, right?

It’s a quixotic challenge, countering such beliefs. Frankly, we don’t think any bicycle design innovation will pierce these and many more plates of interlocking car-cultural armor. Real progress will continue with independent-minded people tilting these windmills with tools already existing (if sometimes hard to find) to live better, defying and dispelling myths of inadequate design.

Bikes can and will continue to evolve in small ways, tracking industrial design, process and materials development as well as the restless currents of fashion. Occasionally many small steps, most traced already in the past, will occur together and appear to be a leap. Striving for better is grand, but diminishing returns are the norm, and actual regression a too common result. (As when, for example, features are integrated in so design-school cool a way that they are not serviceable independently of more costly structures, nor interchangeable with current and future functional equivalents. Modularity is a more practical design virtue than what the organizers seem to call for with “each design element/feature should meld seamlessly with the entire bike.”)

This is the same as it ever was since the bicycle’s big-bang Jesus moment in the 1880s when two roughly similar size wheels with pneumatic tires and an indirect pedal drive to the rear wheel came together in a triangulated frame to make what everybody still instantly recognizes as a bike. If it could speak, it would say “I have forgotten more than you will ever know.” Many other OM entrants have voiced similar opinions, describing as arrogant or futile briefs to reinvent the wheel.

Oregon Manifest’s Field Test for the ultimate utility bike is not one or a series of 5- or 10-mile rides with a household’s typical loads, but a 50-miler at “a brisk pace” with off-road sections and steep grades, carrying… “a small bag of groceries, an oversized postal box, poster tube, and/or a six-pack of beverage containers.” Small stuff, maybe only a six-pack. Only flat-fixing tools may be carried. Time to the finish line may be recorded, but appearances to the contrary it’s not a race: no points for quicker finishes within the cutoff times to each control station. This is to help identify the design that will appeal to non-cyclists as practical transportation for everyday life?

We think it is misguided to evaluate utility bikes in a test appropriate to sport bikes, such as any brisk, hilly, 50-mile ride with minimal cargo represents.

Organizers affirm that the Field Test is no race, but an imperfect attempt to simulate the stresses of perhaps a month of normal riding in a torture test. Since riding fast is harder on a bike than riding slow, so much the better for culling weak entries. We acknowledge this rationale, and the honest difficulty of doing better in a single festive day rich in awesome, sweat-kissed, countryside photo opportunities.

Snark aside, the Hawthorne effect refers to the influence of an act of measurement upon the things being measured. If the test for a bike meant to be ridden only 50 miles a month will be 50 miles in one go, fast and hilly, the kind of bikes offered up for testing will tend to skew toward what the test demands, not real-life use cases. If tests show that it is good to drink 2 glasses of water a day for a month, what about 60 glasses in 4 hours?

This matters because a bike that is nearly ideal for the most accessible, low-intensity, short distance utility applications will tend strongly to suck for hilly 50-milers, and vice versa: bikes that are great for fast steep extended effort tend … not to be ridden day to day, least of all by the non-cyclists this competition ostensibly aims to innovate toward. There’s some crossover, of course. But we sell some brilliant, popular utility bikes meeting all entry criteria the likes of which would be extremely difficult if not impossible even to complete the OM Field Test while bearing the loads for which they are designed. Thus the test effectively excludes design approaches of great demonstrated utility, favoring instead those of the same old, vastly overplayed sport-oriented priorities. If we’re touchy about this, it’s because every single day we talk to casual or non-cyclists ostensibly interested in a utility bike for daily errands, but who balk at features that would likely make the bike unpleasant or impossible to ride 50 hilly miles.

Bicycles are frequently superior to motorized transport over urban distances. But over 50 miles, for the vast majority of humanity their relative slowness will always make them vehicles of recreation, duress, or the mix that is sport. Those non-cyclists, what do you think they might make of this challenge? These many people who do not know, and might even be terrified of the truth that they actually can ride a bike 10 or even 50 miles? Will they trace in the smiles and grimaces of the torture test riders hope that any day now, the bike that will integrate seamlessly into their modern lifestyle will be invented? Or will they dis-identify, recoil further from the dramatic spectacle these sweaty riders present? Are we overthinking?

More troublesome than the distance and terrain for a utility bike is the lack of meaningful cargo. It’s not about a six-pack of beer versus water versus a poster tube, a melon or a dozen eggs: it’s about all of those things being almost nothing. Even the most non-utilitarian triathlon bikes can be fitted with 72-oz aerodynamic hydration systems, or pull well-designed trailers to carry much more.

Since every bicycle can carry its rider and a little bit of almost anything, every bike is a utility bike to an essentially meaningless extent. As Kierkegaard said “When all are Christians, Christianity eo ipso does not exist.” We feel strongly that meaningful utility in a bicycle is almost entirely linear with cargo capacity, to the extent that it remains otherwise attractive to use in daily life conditions. More isn’t always better, of course, but if there’s a problem in general with bikes in America being not useful enough, it’s that they can’t carry enough, well enough. And the Field Test doesn’t test this seriously.

We know the test will be fun in the way any athletic event is fun, but fun also in the opportunity to challenge the biases inherent in its conception. We can’t show our bike to best advantage with only the cargo required. Therefore, our Oregon Manifest bike will complete the 50-mile course carrying in addition to the little stuff six twelve-packs plus a little girl, a payload weighing about 5 times what we expect may be the lightest entries. The bike will be heavy, but more to the point, we guess the lightest in relation to its payload of all entries. It will be ridden by the girl’s car-free mother, whose broken thumb is in a cast (may be a splint by Field Test day).

Her name is Diana Rempe, and she has ridden an early Portland-made Metrofiets cargo bike with her daughter and groceries aboard for years. She, and people like her represent the social innovation and inspirational example that transform not just industries, but societies. She’s the secret weapon. She’ll wear a skirt, sit upright, and she just might cross the finish line early.

Our strategy? Cheat. Diana is strong, and no stranger to racing, but to reset the tare after shouldering a proper utility bike load, our entry integrates our Stokemonkey electric assist system. To our thinking utility is about pragmatism, about the bike’s ability to bear loads gracefully instead of the athleticism of the rider. Besides, it’s not actually cheating except in the minds of the pure. Our entry remains legally a bicycle, breaking no contest rules. Because it’s not a race.

The point is certainly not that electric assist is essential to a modern utility bike, nor even often desirable. But neither is the ability to haul big weight over 50 miles with hills alongside people carrying almost nothing on far less substantial machines. We feel compelled by the structure of the event to show a more elaborate solution than we would recommend for most common real-life scenarios, at least in the flattish bike-estuarial calm of inner Southeast Portland. We’re not in the sporting goods industry. We wouldn’t even show up for a spandex knife fight. But if forced into that ring, we’ll bring a gun.

In spite of all the critical opinions expressed above, we wouldn’t be participating in this event if we weren’t confident that great good can come of it, far broader good than our narrow, biased perspective as Portlanders, parents, sellers and users of utility bikes permits us now to understand. We can’t wait!

Coming shortly before the event: full disclosure of our design. It has some innovative bits, even, but is mainly a novel conjunction of existing design elements: 5 or 6 old stones bringing down a dozen birds.

10 thoughts on “Oregon Manifest: our Quixotic collaboration”

  • David Chase

    Maybe we should propose a different context for the next go-round. My modest proposal, that would incorporate more of the spirit of utility biking yet also do some thorough testing, is a relay. 50 miles, in 25 2-mile segments, changing cargo at each stop. This allows a variety of cargos, not all of which will be specified before the contest begins. Probably 30 of them ought to be various piles of groceries, 10 ought to include children, and the last ten would be random weird stuff.

    What I would hope to capture here is some feel for ease-of-loading, variety of loads, and raw capacity. I think there is some tradeoff between the ease of tossing stuff into a bucket, and the ridiculous flexibility that you get from an xtracycle.

  • michael downes

    Excellent commentary. I couldn't agree more and while I am quite happy to ride my entry 50 miles it has, as you've pointed out, very little to do with 'utility'. My choice would be to give the contestants a shopping list and send them of to Fred Meyer to pick up the chips, dips and beer for the gala. That would save money (and carbon emissions) otherwise spent on catering the event.

    Can't wait to see your entry.....

  • Allan Folz

    "We wouldn't even show up for a spandex knife fight. But if forced into that ring, we'll bring a gun."

    :-) I like it. I lift my glass to you, Todd, from one Mr-says-what-needs-to-be-said-guy to another.

  • Ross | Xtracycle

    Having been working at this utility bike thing for a while, I'd agree that the most challenging part has not been the design. My intended outcome is changing culture via millions of individual/personal transformations - and we've got a long way to go! If I'm not mistaken, Xtracycle positively influenced the course of Todd's life - and he's gone on to inspire and lead in this movement. So I guess this stuff works :)
    I look forward to riding your entry Todd! And I'm looking forward to getting a hit of inspiration from the many creative minds coming together in this wondrous pursuit/event/competition.

    • Todd (admin)

      You are not mistaken, Ross: your invention is largely to blame for my crazy ideas about the sufficiency of bicycles as urban family vehicles. Thank you. http://clevercycles.com/blog/2007/01/20/thirteen-minutes-of-2000/

  • AllanF

    "Few are ready to acknowledge that the problem is us, in our sense of entitlement to effortless speed, in our alienation from our bodies' evolved locomotive function and historical living patterns of proximity to daily needs. As Jonathan says, "the big shift we're after is in the mind of the public, not the design of the vehicle." "

    This is a very important point. It separates the tree-hugging, sackcloth-wearing, negative-population-growth, dooms-dayers from what our larger goal should be, quality of life.

    Thought experiment time: if liquid fluoride thorium breeder reactors and a breakthrough in super-capacitor technology made electric vehicles cheap and environmentally sustainable such that the economic and environmental cost of driving 100 miles was unequivocally negligible are all our problems solved? Can biking become a quaint hobby and nostalgic sport akin to sailing or equestrian?

    I submit no, our problems are not solved. Cycling will remain the solution to many, though obviously not all, our problems. The sprawl and community alienation that come with a car-centric growth policy is the same regardless of the efficiency of the car. The unhealthiness of a sedentary lifestyle made possible (necessitated?) by suburban tract housing and strip malls likewise would still be present. The time wasted in snarled traffic, the public spaces given over to moving large numbers of vehicle at high speeds, the area wasted on parking and storing the vehicles would all be with us still. The death of friends, family, and loved ones due to inattention and intoxication would remain. It is the bicycle that addresses these ills.

    Sticking it to OPEC and their dysfunctional societies (should we call them our co-dependents) is icing on the cake.


    Todd - Thank you for such a great post.

  • Joey Korkames

    Todd, I think you've described exactly the kind of mind-changing utility bike I want to build for use in super-sprawled car-centric places like my town, Phoenix AZ.

    I'm fathoming the only kind of bike that an average person out here would seriously consider swapping a car for LONG-TERM: an electric-assist, all-weather, landing-geared, just-drop-the-cargo-in-the-box machine.

    The existing production longtails (which are now in local shops, couldn't say that even 2 years ago!) get promising interest from on-lookers...until they watch a rider do a "whoa-horsey" wobbling-start while under load, or see how compressed groceries get in those saddlebags after you spend a few minutes (!) arranging and lashing them up, or see how tenuously any single-bolt-mount kickstand holds a big bike up.

    I share the view that commuting on a less-than-rider-weight e+HPV that holds a $0.25 charge is not cheating. The alternative to "cheating" for Average Joe is to start a car. The alternative for Eco-Mike is to structure commutes as one would train for a race (and hope they have enough leftover energy at the destination). The growing attrition of my fellow cargo-commuter/athlete faithful out here to scooters, car-sharing, and our (strained) mass transit over the past year is foreboding. Current utility bikes, panniers & trailers are good gateway drugs, but the tolerance wears off and the trip is unsustainable. Any new utility bike worthwhile should make bike commuting less about these issues of glycogen replenishment rates and tolerance of crappy and overpriced non-integrated (but cargo-hauling essential!) accessories.

    As much as I like the framecraft that OM brings out, I grow tired of the NAHBS-style bike parlor culture that it seems to cater to. We don't need more cost-is-no-object cu$tom-built-and-will-never-see-mass-production bling-bling for 1/3-life techno-weenies looking to go conspicuously BMW-lite, we need the bikes that everybody should (and could) have. I prefer David's idea of a commuter's alleycat for separating the pretty machines from the functional ones :-)

    Good luck! Can't wait to see the bike!

  • David Chase

    Seems to me that there might be some room for aerodynamics, too. Riding a Big Dummy, I notice that I ride faster when I wear less flappy clothing, and also (unintuitively) when I sit up and put my hands behind my back. Years ago, I noticed a similar effect on a regular bike if I was carrying an umbrella and opened it facing in front of me while riding. This is not directly relevant to carrying cargo, etc, etc, but it is almost "free money" waiting to be picked up off the street. For example, imagine the camioncyclette ( http://www.christophemachet.com/?p=6 ) but with a simple fairing (even just tight fabric) wrapped around the front.

  • Erik Harper

    What I think is desperately needed in this country is greater innovation and compatibility between bikes of various makes and styles and robust cargo trailers.

    I don't consider long-tail or bakfiets-style bikes, (at least not now) because I don't have the room to store them, they don't fit onto the bus racks, and are generally harder to move when something goes wrong with them and they have to be schlepped to the bike shop to get worked on.

    I am looking to buy a common-sense heavy duty city bicycle, like the Workcycles Oma or the Gazelle Toer Populair. I already own one of the Gazelle innergy e-bikes and I have had supreme frustration finding a suitable trailer solution, both for a child transport scenario as well as more heavy duty carrying applications like large amounts of groceries, building supplies, gardening supplies and other bikes.

    It seems that the trailer industry in this country only designs their hitches to work with quick releases, even the classic burley design seems to be clunky when I tried fitting it to the back of our Gazelle Innergy.

    I hope to see more innovation in this regard because I feel that the sweet spot when it comes to carrying large amounts of cargo by bike is by using bikes with standard geometry (as opposed to xtracycles and other longer bikes), combined with the ability to tow a trailer that can handle most of that extra load. The bikes are simpler, easier to maintain and, with an array of trailer options to choose from, the end configurations are much more flexible for particular uses.

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