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Concept bikes: what are they for?

Concept bikes
Stu Bowers
25 Mar 2016

We discover the practical purpose of concept bikes, and why they provide a glimpse into the future of cycling.

Tap ‘concept bikes cycling’ into Google and you will be presented with a colourful patchwork of extravagant designs, some of which are barely recognisable as bicycles. The result of unleashed creativity and futuristic materials, they promise unparalleled levels of speed, comfort and versatility. But in reality few of these projects ever get further than the prototype stage, and many of the examples that adorn plinths at bike shows aren’t even working models. So, you might ask, what’s the point? Aren’t companies wasting a lot of time and money producing something that no one will ever ride, never mind buy?

Canyon, however, is one brand that strongly believes in the merits of its concept bikes, having developed several highly innovative examples over the past 12 years. ‘In normal circumstances our engineers are working at full capacity on up to six projects at a time, and that leaves little or no time to think out of the box for the future,’ says Sebastian Jadczak, Canyon’s director of road development. ‘Making concept bikes opens up the time and resources to work specifically on new ideas.’

Cannondale’s senior engineer, Chris Dodman, agrees: ‘While our daily jobs do involve thinking outside the box, working on long-term projects such as concept bikes pushes you to open the imagination much further and let go of many preconceptions.’ 

Most recently Dodman was working on Cannondale’s CERV concept bike, which can alter its geometry as you ride according to whether you are climbing or descending. It’s something he suggests is maybe 10 years away from actual production. 

‘This type of project is very stimulating and releases many new ideas that often trickle down to other products,’ Dodman says. ‘You may not recognise the direct connection but there is a good chance you are already riding technologies that five or 10 years ago were shown as concepts. Of course it takes discipline to distil such radical thinking into a concept bike that is stimulating to the rest of the world and actually executable, and on top of that it has to look stunning.’ 

The trickle-down effect is a big part of the justification for concept bike projects, and all of the engineers and designers we spoke to agree that if you want a sneaky peak into the future, then concept bikes hold a number of clues.

Future directions

‘For the Projekt MRSC Connected Concept road bike in 2014, we collaborated with a German telecoms company for smartphone connectivity and worked on an integrated electronically controlled suspension solution,’ says Canyon’s Jadczak. ‘Currently we don’t see things like this in the industry but I think it gives the cycling public a useful insight into what could be in the pipeline in the next five or six years.’ 

If you want some proof just look back to 2006 when Canyon’s full-suspension concept road bike - which may have influenced the design of the Slate - was the main attention grabber at that year’s Eurobike trade show. The following year in 2007 it was Canyon’s Speedmax aero concept bike that was the sensation. Jadczak reminds us that many of the features we saw on both of those concept models are now used on production bikes. 

BMC’s Impec concept bike, unveiled in 2014, also gave the world a preview of some forward-thinking solutions for integration of electronic components, as well as aerodynamic solutions for an enclosed drivetrain and disc brakes on a road bike. ‘The Impec concept bike was there to address the direction we see things going in,’ says BMC product manager Thomas McDaniel. ‘When we’re less concerned with function than we are with form, the designers get a bit more freedom to play with ideas. When we don’t have to worry about meeting the Shimano brake mount standard or drivetrain standards, it allows creative freedom. I think it’s energising to see what can happen when you throw the rules out and let designers and engineers really push the limits. It serves a really cool purpose because this often leads to some of the innovation we ride now. The point is to push the limits of the industry, and that’s surely a good thing? People forget that concept bikes are not about practicality, or whether it’s rideable, or if it would work or not – that defeats the whole purpose of it.

‘The Impec concept bike was meant to stretch the imagination but there is also no reason why we wouldn’t possibly see a bike like this in two to three years,’ he adds. ‘You go from toying around with ideas on paper to rapid prototyping and realising it three dimensionally, and that really helps to progress things. The concept bike has done that for us. Integration of electrification is something we are seriously looking at today. So while it was a concept bike and it looked and felt really futuristic, if you look at each characteristic on its own merit you could possibly see some of this in production in the next couple of years. More integration of disc brakes into aero frames is very likely. Long-term the concept bike definitely pays off.’

Over at Specialized, Robert Egger is officially creative director, but his business card simply bears the title ‘Trouble Maker’. It’s indicative of his determination to challenge the norms of the bike industry, which he believes are too conservative. It could explain why he decided to name his concept bike the Specialized fUCI. 

‘It was an opportunity to poke some fun at the UCI,’ he tells Cyclist. ‘Not in a malicious way – it’s all in good fun – but I wanted to light that fire under the industry and say, “Hey, what if bikes looked like this, and what if it did this?” We are all way too conservative. There are lots of people that want to ride bikes who don’t follow pro racing and don’t know anything about the UCI rulebook, so we wanted to show them how great bikes could be, and we threw this out there to see what the feedback was. And we have had so much interest. I believe that’s because it’s different.’ 

Egger also suggests the importance of this kind of project for the development of the bikes you and I will end up riding in the future, saying, ‘I’m working on a bike right now that is pulling a lot of those ideas out. For sure it won’t be as radical as the fUCI bike, but I can take a lot of the DNA from that bike and present something really exciting. So the concept bike may never see the light of day in production, but pieces of those bikes, whether it’s a frame shape or even just a colour or graphic, can be elements that actually improve the production bikes.’ 

Like Canyon’s Jadczak, Egger also hints at integration with our mobile phones as a likely new direction: ‘Some of the things you see on the concept bikes will come to fruition. The big issue I see now is the integration of things like your phone, with training and mapping plus other apps and smart technology. We can possibly find ways to get cyclists to better communicate with cars on the road to make them safer on a busy street. There are so many new avenues that the cycling industry has never let itself think about.’

Drawing the line

With the usual restrictions lifted, engineers could be tempted to go wild with really outrageous designs, but some constraints are still needed to give these projects validity. When we ask Cannondale’s Dodman if ideas often get dismissed for being too crazy, he is unequivocal: ‘Oh yes! Usually a couple a week in our office. Ultimately what we make has to be relevant to our customers and provide real benefits.’

McDaniel points out that plans to make the BMC Impec single-sided – wheels and drivetrain attached to just one side of the frame – were thrown out for being too impractical. ‘That was just too much of a stretch of the imagination,’ he says. ‘Some of the early sketches were really radical, but you don’t want it to be too crazy. You want people to be like, “Yeah, that’s an interesting approach,” and not just dismiss it.’ 

Specialized’s Egger says, ‘When I do something conceptually I want people to believe it. I want people to make that jump to be able to say, “Wow, that could happen, right?” If I do something that people can’t believe to be true, then that’s hard to digest so I try not to leap too far, just far enough to make them ponder on it. It’s a fine line of course between something that’s intriguing and still believable.

‘I was working on ways to have the bike completely illuminated,’ he adds. ‘People have started riding with lights during the day to make themselves more visible, so I thought about making the whole frame light up. But there wasn’t time to do that on the fUCI bike. In another year or two I will be somewhere completely different. Things are changing so fast.’

Join the club

If the benefits of concept bikes are so apparent, why are there not many more of them springing up? Dodman is succinct: ‘They require significant resources and a company committed to innovation at its core.’ 

Jadczak suggests it’s more a manpower issue, saying, ‘Concept cars are common in the motoring industry because those companies often have big teams of engineers and huge marketing departments, but in the bicycle industry it’s not the same. Quite often bike brands are limited to only a single person in marketing and only a handful of engineers. But I do think we will start to see many more concept bikes in the future, especially from the big brands.’

‘It’s not an easy thing to do,’ Egger adds. ‘Several things have to fall into place. You need a leader in the company who is open to this kind of thing, but you also need the facilities to make it, and to get materials that are not available to everybody, and of course you need an engineer that wants to do it. You need some luck that the idea you have is going to be fruitful. But it’s also having an opportunity to make mistakes. I have a whole shed full of mistakes, but you have to try things. Sometimes concept bikes work and sometimes they don’t.’ 

The ideas that work could very well find their way onto the bike that will be sitting in your garage in five years’ time. As for the ideas that don’t work? Well, they still look amazing sitting on a plinth at bike shows.

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