As I wrote recently, the Oregon Manifest contest was this week, showcasing the competition for the ultimate modern utility bicycle. As I wrote, the setting for their field test made me more than a little suspicious, and it turns out, for good reason. There were some amazing entries, some interesting ideas, and some legitimate innovations presented in the competition, but the three bicycles that took the top three spots, while made by talented frame-builders and very nice bicycles in their own right, in my opinion added nothing with regard to utility to the millions of already existing bicycles all over the world.
A few things that I feel were anti-utility about all three of the top picks: They all have aggressive geometry, for an urban utility bike. They are all “upright” in the sense that they don’t have drop bars, but they all have saddles even with or higher than the bars. They all use disc brakes which, while strong, are easily bent out of shape, and lose strength and squeal like mad if they are out of true. They are not as weather resistant as hub brakes, and they are more awkward to fit into a design, as you have to have braze-ons on the frame for them to attach to, whereas most hub brakes can simply use a generic clamp to clamp the brake arm to a standard frame. They all have completely exposed chains, not even a chain guard. They all technically meet the requirements for the competition, but just by a hair’s breadth.
The second place bicycle by Rob Tsunehiro was probably my favorite of the three top spots.
Image via BikePortland
This probably has the most carrying capacity of any of the three top spots. A small frame-mounted front rack, rear rack with reasonably sized panniers, a small pouch just under the top tube, and a reflective paint that, as you can see, lights up pretty nicely at night. It also has generator-powered lights. This is the only one of the three top bicycles that there might be any chance of putting a child on, or securing any kind of unwieldy load to.
The third place bicycle was this one by Chris King.
Image via BikePortland
Battery-powered lights, no racks, tiny panniers attached to a loop over the rear fender, and not much else to say about the utility of this bike. They awkwardly strapped a first-class post box and a tube to this bike by lashing them onto the outside of the panniers, a task which many people perform more easily with a cheap rear rack and plastic bucket panniers.
The winner of the competition, from Tony Pereira, is a nice-looking bike, has electric-assist, a sturdy front rack with a carbon-fiber box on it, designed to hold a stereo.
Image via BikePortland
I’m not sure if that box is removable, but that front rack would be more useful to me in most cases as just a flat surface, especially if the box has a stereo in it. This was the only one of the top three entries that used derailleurs rather than an internally geared hub, which has advantages and disadvantages. You can customize the gearing more that way, but you make the bicycle significantly less weather-proof, and less able to be weather-proofed.
So all-in-all, I think the winners of this competition were all nicely-made, well-designed bicycles, I just think the judges must have been judging for a different competition, without all of us realizing it.
It leaves me a bit sad that many of the really useful and innovative ideas that were presented at this competition went home with little to no recognition, while these three bicycles that really add nothing particularly interesting to the realm of utility cycling were held up as the example. I would be happy to see any one of these three bicycles win at a competition for perhaps best aesthetic design, or best bike gadget design, but not best utility bicycle.
It makes me realize that even in terms of perception, we have a very long way to go before a bicycle which really could meet all of a person’s transportation needs is even within the realm of imagination for much of the population. Those types of bicycles were presented at this competition, and honestly, have been around for the better part of a century in various forms, but instead, bicycles which can carry very little other than the person riding the bicycle were judged better utility bicycles.
This makes me thankful for everyone I see who is using a bicycle in their everyday lives as their means of transportation for all kinds of trips, not just to get to work and back, because they are the ones changing the culture, and they are the ones demonstrating the utility of the bicycle.
As reported by Jonathan at BikePortland, who had a chat with the judges about why they chose the Pereira bicycle as the winner, they chose this bicycle 1) because it had electric assist, 2) because it is a replacement for a car. Their rationale for it being a replacement for a car, is because it has electric assist, because it has a lockable “trunk” (the carbon-fiber box on the front), and because it has a stereo. They also, despite being adamant that the field test was not a race, made note of the fact that the electric assist allowed him to beat other contestants who didn’t have electric assist, in a 50 mile ride over a small mountain range with offroad sections – because that’s a common usage of an urban utility bike, right?
They repeated several times that they felt this bicycle was a look into the future of what transportational cycling could be in the future. I would maintain that it is more of a look at the very basic reality of what it already is. There are people all over the world doing far more impressive things with bicycles than carrying their lunch in a lockable carbon fiber box with a stereo in it, and for 95% of the population, there is no way the utility of this bicycle would replace a car, unless we’re just talking about going to work and back, which would be a serious mistake when talking about a bicycle to replace a car.