What better time to lust for bicycles than during our present woeful urban mobility ones? Before the advent of industrialized methods to produce low-cost steel and metals, bicycles were made from bulky wooden frames, sometimes reinforced with bronze, brass, wrought and cast iron. Those days are long gone!
The greater availability of steel and experimentation with other materials over the years introduced new adaptations for bicycle production (and therefore design) evolving it into an opportunity laden fetish for designers worldwide. We take a look at some interesting bicycle designs made in steel and aluminium – two materials that have emerged as favourites over the past century.
About two decades ago, most bikes in the commercial market were made of steel. That figure still exceeded the number of aluminium, carbon fibre and titanium bikes put together until a decade ago. Solid steel is ten times denser than wood and if shaped into hollow tubes, still provides the same stiffness and strength as wood while remaining as light. Steel is easier to work with as it is malleable and ductile and can be drawn into tubes which are later brazed together for assembling a bicycle frame.
However, producing a lightweight steel frame compromises its longevity and flexes a lot more under pressure which makes it lose valuable drive from the rider. Steel’s stiffness also decreases as it ages but it is also easily repairable in case of damage. The material has good absorption qualities which is essential for specific conditions such as mountain biking.
In more recent times, steel has been optimized to overshadow issues of its weight and appeal. Danish bicycle manufacturer, Biomega’s ‘Boston DownTube’ inventively uses a steel cable in the bicycle frame to dually serve as a structural member and locking system – so a person trying to steal the bike will have to cut the cable (which is also it’s lock) and will thereby make the bike structurally incomplete and therefore useless to steal.
UK based Brompton also firmly places its trust in steel and because of their ‘small’ sized bikes, they weigh between 9 – 12.5 kgs only! Brompton is legendary for selling bicycles that can be folded to slightly larger than a wheel size and easily carried anywhere its rider goes. This superpower of a Brompton to become compact makes perfect sense to the urban dweller. So finding a Londoner comfortably riding his Brompton in the city or carrying it with him into a pub or the underground metro is no less delightful.
Since the early 1970s aluminium and its various alloys have been used to produce bicycle frames that have low weight and high rigidity. Its popularity increased over the years for its low cost and ready availability. However, it is not a very shock absorbent material which may be a major drawback for some. Since aluminium is not very pliable, such shocks not only damage the bike but also affect the enthusiastic riders with nagging neck, wrist or shoulder pains.
Thus, aluminium emerges as a choice of material for short term racing or riding that is not bumpy and subjected to shocks or simply for economical appeal. It is also a material that is very flexible to work with and therefore often picked by designers to make a style statement.
Dutch design firm VanMoof created an aluminium bicycle that uses solar head and tail lights by night. Using smart tweaks to conventional design, this bicycle comes across as simple and functional. Similarly, Biomega’s MN series designed by Marc Newson, is made from super plastic aluminum with an option for powder coating it with fluorescent paint to provide it a ‘night-glo’ to enhance rider safety at night. The color is called ‘Raging Green’ in Biomega’s catalog.
Several other materials such as carbon fibre (Mike Burrow’s ‘Windcheetah’), acrylic and stainless steel (Neil Foley’s ‘Jelly-Fish’), bamboo (Ross Lovegrove’s ‘Bamboo’) to molded plastics have been used for bicycles and their forms often follow their material’s characteristics. Many of these have either been discontinued or are not preferred for either environmental concerns, costs or manufacturing limitations but new composites regularly find their way into markets to keep the sector exciting.
Two exemplary bicycle designs that deserve mention are: ‘Two Nuns’ by Ron Arad and the ‘Inner City Bike’ designed by Joey Ruiter. Firstly, the Two Nuns rids itself of the ancient round wheels and substitutes them with looped sprung steel. Then, the bike ceases to appear ordinary when a rider pedals it – the rotating wheels almost disappearing – transcending the bicycle into a piece of art, charming anyone who looks at it go! On the other hand, the Inner City Bike is a contemporary ‘bare-essentials’ version of what a chic, functional city bicycle can mean today. Although prospective riders may look at it and say: “This thing actually goes?”
Future explorations continue to develop a functionally viable product that might find a suitable material for itself or vice – versa but the endeavor to optimize stiffness, weight, durability, costs and user – friendly features (not to mention looks!) is perhaps a common thread for the urban mobility bicycle design.
Text By Aftab Jalia