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Cyclist’s 31 Inspirational Women No10: Isla Rowntree

Maria David Sponsored
10 Mar 2021

Bike manufacturer, former cyclocross racer and active travel advocate

Cyclist's 31 Inspirational Women

To celebrate International Women's Month, we have partnered with Zwift to tell the stories of 31 inspirational women across 31 days

Words: Maria David

When Islabikes hit the market in 2006, it’s fair to say the company set a new standard for children’s bicycles.

The premium bike brand offered something that didn’t really exist at the time for small-sized riders, and people have had nothing but high praise for the bikes ever since.

It all began when cycle racer and design aficionado Isla Rowntree decided to produce a bike that children would want to ride.

Isle’s own relationship with cycling didn’t start there, though. As a keen cyclocross racer, Isla campaigned with others for a women’s UK national championship and a world championship race to take place in the discipline, the latter having its inaugural edition in 2000.

Though Isla herself has recently stood down as CEO of Islabikes, the outfit still continues under long-time employee Tim Goodall.

Isla talks about how she got into bike design, and why it was important to her to make a difference in cycling. 

I am an evangelist for cycling in so many ways – not just competitively, but also for active travel. That’s my absolute passion and I want to share that with others

‘My father was an industrial designer in the lighting, ceramics and glass industry, and involved me in his work when I was a child. I would see his glasses in pubs and his lights on public building walls.

‘Growing up around it gave me a sense of possibility, and I can’t underestimate how important that was, particularly for a girl.

‘At school, I wanted to do design, but the teachers didn’t let me because I was a girl. They said I’d be disadvantaged because the boys had done technical drawing, woodwork and metalwork for a year, whereas the girls had done cooking and sewing.

‘I negotiated with the school and eventually they let me switch, and design became my career. Being a girl in a boy’s world was my normal and having to push to do the things I was interested in, was my normal.

‘While I was at school I worked in a bike shop, and was always making stuff at home in the garage. We had a bench with my grandpa’s old tools, and I was always fiddling about with things.

‘As I’m 5’ 4’’, I struggled with certain aspects of bike geometry. I couldn’t reach the brakes, and the cranks were always too long so I ended up modifying existing parts. I then started building my own bikes that were ergonomically suited to my needs and I raced on them through my 20s.

‘Experiencing first-hand the difference to my confidence and competence just through having brakes I could reach made me recognise what it must be like for a four-year old on a bike that is totally unsuitable.

‘As a young adult my then partner, who had been a framebuilder, and myself manufactured trailer bikes for children, where the wheel could be attached to the back of the bike and the kid pedalled.

‘Then when my sister and my friends had young children, I saw that the bicycles available for children were awful. They were designed to look like adult mountain bikes, so had fat steel tubes that weighed an absolute tonne.

Find the rest of Cyclist's 31 Inspirational Women here

‘They had a suspension that wouldn’t move, and big fat tyres that were too hard for a child to ride on. The triple chainsets were too much for kids to understand, and added extra weight, the cranks were too long and children couldn’t reach the brakes. If it was for a girl there were tassles on the handlebar ends.

‘I really wanted my friends and family to enjoy riding bikes, and I felt that these bikes were so bad they would put them off.

‘Then I thought maybe all children are potentially being put off cycling because the bikes have reached this all-time low. And that was the moment when I knew straight away how to make better bikes.

‘The response from the industry has meant that other manufacturers have improved the quality of their children’s bikes dramatically over the last 15 years – and that’s a biggie for me.

‘I love cycling, and have done all types of racing, though cyclocross is my favourite. I am an evangelist for cycling in so many ways – not just competitively, but also for active travel. That’s my absolute passion and I want to share that with others.

‘My advice to anyone wanting to start a business is: if you’ve got an idea, you need to really feel that you want to do it, and be focussed. It needs to feel like an obsession – like being in love. If you haven’t got that, then the idea isn’t going to have legs.

‘Also, ask for help from people in the industry, and other industries. There are no silly questions. Getting help made a difference for me, and I try and pass that on.

‘If someone comes to me for advice, even if I’m busy I always try to find time to talk.’

For more from Zwift this International Women's Monthvisit here.