Yesterday Clever Cycles brought to my attention the Oregon Manifest Challenge to design and create the ultimate modern utility bicycle, for which they are collaborating on a bicycle build with Quixote Bicycles.
I think this is a brilliant idea, something much needed, and I think Oregon Manifest’s motivations and goals for the project are excellent. As stated on their website:
Our mission is threefold
FIRST, to inspire and foster real design innovation around a bike that recognizes the needs of modern living. SECOND, to celebrate and champion the resurgence of American craft—bicycle craft in particular. THIRD, to show riders and enthusiasts that a well-crafted bicycle isn’t just for sport and recreation, but can also be a tool integrating seamlessly into everyday life.
Why a utility bike?
The two-wheeled revolution won’t come on the saddle of a race bike or a specialty bike. The utility bike is 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.” The key to realizing this future is thoughtful, innovative bike design that fills multiple needs and fits into their lives.
Here’s where I think they go a little bit awry: the field test for the bikes will be a 50 mile course, including some off-road sections, and the riders will be carrying a 6-pack of beer on the bike, to show off its utility. Here is the blurb from their website:
This rigorous road trial will assess the real function of every bike in the challenge, in real world environments including hills, byways and off-road sections. It will include several on-road check points where mandatory features of each bike will be evaluated. The Field Test requires riders to keep a brisk pace that will stress their bikes to the limit, and demands a well-crafted, expertly assembled entry in order to complete the route in good time. Final evaluation and point tabulation will occur after all bikes have completed the Field Test.
Here’s why I think this field test misses the mark. Firstly, Americans who want to live healthier, more sustainable lives, but don’t think of themselves as “cyclists” are not typically going to be the type to ride these bikes 50 miles at a time, strenuously, and go off-road, etc. I realize they want to stress test the bicycles here, but a bicycle that can’t go 50 miles without breaking should be at Walmart, not in the Oregon Manifest bicycle building competition. Any of these bicycles should easily be able to stand up to that test with flying colors. Secondly, I can carry a 6-pack of beer home from the store using just my own two feet, or on a $100 bike from Target. The ability to carry a 6-pack of beer is not adding any utility to a bicycle, in my view.
What I think would be more interesting than testing the durability of these bicycles in a sweaty 50 mile competition, is to test them in terms of what can be carried on them, over a reasonable 2-3 mile distance in an urban setting. A ride from, for instance, New Seasons Market on 20th and Division, to Laurelhurst Park (just to provide a convenient stopping place in a residential area) with a full bag of groceries, a 10 lb bag of cat litter, and a 3 gallon jug of water or some garden compost or something would provide a normal, urban route, give some substantial hills to ride up to test the bike’s rideability, and test how the bikes would handle with a substantial load on them. Those are all things I need to carry on a regular basis, and being able to carry all of them at once on a bike would add real utility to that bike, for me, since I couldn’t carry them all without a bicycle, and more than that, without a bicycle meant specifically to carry things.
So, it’s not that this contest is misguided or off the mark or anything, but if you’re going to have a contest to design a practical utility bike, then judge the bikes based on the things that make a practical utility bike practically useful to the average person – that’s who your stated target market is, after all.