During last winter's polar vortex, the brave souls who cycled through the ice, snow, salt, and sludge could be viewed as examples of midwest resiliency. They also could be seen as bundled-up question marks, daring us to explain why we endure a Hoth-like landscape.
To a team of Chicago designers participating in a five-city competition to build a better bike, those cyclists were something else entirely: inspiration. As part of this year's invite-only Oregon Manifest Bike Design Project, Minimal, a Chicago design firm, along with Garry Alderman, a local frame builder who works under the name Method Bicycle, teamed up with the goal of building a city-specific ride, one that would beat competing prototypes from similar teams in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and New York. The winning team will see their bike produced in a limited run by Fuji.
While starting in January—with a blank slate and a fresh blanket of snow—may appear to be a disadvantage, the shitty timing inspired the radical, high-tech prototype the Chicago team will reveal this Friday night at Minimal's West Loop studio. All five teams will host simultaneous release parties, the first time the bikes will be seen by the public (which is why we can't show final photos or describe superspecific design details in this article; we'll later post those on the blog).
"We found a lot of people riding at 20 below," says Chris Watson, a project manager at Minimal, recalling the team's early research. "We didn't want to focus on winter, because that was a downer, but it does exist, right? It's an obstacle to biking year-round."
The contest focuses on urban utility bikes and encourages both iterative design and a fusion of craft and technology. Alderman's collaboration with Minimal went according to script. When the firm submitted a series of frame designs—reflective of the aesthetic found in tech products from Minimal such as the TikTok + LunaTik iPod Nano watch—Alderman pushed back, suggesting ways to achieve a minimalist design while respecting weight, balance, and practicality. The result, a frame with a single main tube that cuts an impressive-looking profile, does just that.
"It was a very collaborative effort," says Ishmael Adams, a Minimal senior designer. "We were originally thinking about some pretty crazy tubing profiles. Gary gave us really positive remarks while teaching us about frame geometry. We came up with a compromise that pushed design forward."
After months of field research and interviews, the team entered the design phase in March and settled on a theme of rugged refinement, seeking to build a bike that was more Range Rover than Jeep. The single, final prototype was completed less than two weeks ago. Public voting on the five teams' bikes begins on Oregon Manifest's site on July 28, and the winner will be announced on August 4.
During a promo video for the Minimal bike shot last week, the top-secret prototype turned heads rolling past Millennium Park, Lake Shore Drive, the 18th Street bridge, and the Art Institute. But as the team discovered, it takes more than looks to craft a truly Chicago bike. The prototype had to be as tough as it is sleek.
"We're competitive and want to win this, but there's a big element of civic pride here," says Watson. "If we had been located somewhere else, or if this was the nation's bike contest, we would have arrived at a much different design. This is the bike for Chicago."
While the team can't take away the fear of getting hit by a taxi or doored, they can build a more approachable, balanced, and functional bike. According to Alderman, the single-stem frame makes their prototype more accessible to men and women of different sizes and heights. "I get e-mails from women who want to, say, ride to work in a pencil skirt, but can't on designer bikes. We wanted to create a bike that lends itself to all types of user experiences or needs."
The team considered but then discarded the idea of coaster brakes (or back-pedal brakes), since that wouldn't fly with Chicago traffic. The prototype incorporates a hub system that provides the power of hydraulic disc brakes, but doesn't shift down when you stop, so you can bleed off speed without having to upshift through the gears when you restart.
During user research, riders articulated their different needs, whether it was to store a bag in front or to put a pair of panniers above the back wheel. Minimal built a flexible, modular system to incorporate various configurations, styled in a truss pattern that recalls an industrial past as well as a few of their signature products, such as the Taktik iPhone case.
Ice, salt, and snow aren't going anywhere, and during West Loop test rides, team members usually discovered patches of potholes whenever they swerved away from an errant meatpacking truck. To provide stability, safety, and fewer flats, the team started with superfat four-inch tires on the initial prototype, which were slimmed down for the final design.
The team didn't want to make maintenance easier; they wanted to make it obsolete. The stripped-down design removed as many parts as possible that could rust, freeze, or break. In that spirit, they swapped out the standard chain with a carbon-fiber belt drive that wouldn't lock up in winter weather.
Rather than reinvent the bike lock, the team incorporated a built-in carrier for a U-lock as well as high-tech tracking technology that works like a LoJack for your bike.
Brand director at Minimal
Branding, strategy, messaging, and promotion for the prototype
"The guys at Minimal ride here year-round. We felt it was important, with the roads being as harsh as they are—potholes, bridges, construction, ice, salt, snow—to make something that wouldn't break or corrode, a utility bike that would actually work year-round. I'd argue if we started this in the summer, you would have found a different bike sitting here. Since we started in January, winter was staring us in the face."
Founder, fabricator, and designer at Method Bicycle
Hand-built and welded the bike's custom frame
"This bike should allow you to have a spontaneous experience. You should have everything you need: a rack to carry things if you want to go to the grocery store, technology that allows you to navigate where you want to go in the city, and features that act as a theft deterrent. A bike helps you see and explore the world around you. We ended up with something that really holds up to that ideal. My aesthetic is traditional, so this collaboration pushed my idea of what a bike frame should be. Using a large tube like we did for the main frame, that was something I hadn't done before. It showed the nice blend between craftsmanship and the minimal style that Minimal has."
Senior designer at Minimal
Front-end ideation, detail refinement
"We saw a great opportunity to create a bike that truly spoke to the city of Chicago, something that was built well and was weather- and street-proof. The biggest inspiration for the design was to create something unique and iconic; my favorite part of the process was the prototyping process—seeing the designs on the screen and our sketches come to life by Garry's craftsmanship."
Senior designer at Minimal
Bike and frame concepting and design
"We wanted to keep it clean, but make it tough enough for the winter. We added tires that were a little more substantial than the average tire, so it could take on the potholes and the harsh winter. We also looked at making something that was simply disruptive. If you look at the bike from the distance, the whole profile just looks badass. We tried to get rid of the secondary tubing and make it one clean solution, so it only has one stem in the middle. Initially, Gary was afraid it would break. But after making a few prototypes, we were able to come up with a very unique profile."
Project manager and new-product strategist at Minimal
Oversaw bike design
"Integration with technology was a big theme for us. We're burying tech in the handlebar, and don't want it to look like some 1980s boom box. It has to be well considered. Our themes are reduction—everything you need, and nothing that you don't—and Chicago. The Faraday electric bike that won the last Oregon Manifest competition had a battery-powered hub. We considered it—it's cool technology—but Chicago is flat. A three-gear hub for a commuter bike is all that you need. Also, considering the winter, it needs to be low maintenance. Nobody wants to be fixing things when they could be out riding, so we looked for a sealed internal hub and a carbon belt drive, which makes it easier to maintain."
Product designer at Minimal
Conceptualization, bike features, architecture, look and feel
"I wanted to move away from the trendy, hipster, vintage two-wheelers. I wanted a bike that proposes a new type of architecture, something that's never been seen before, that integrates features seamlessly to obtain an iconic and minimalistic bike. I was inspired by the Nike FuelBand, a product that is simple but dynamic, cool, and obvious."
Creative director at Minimal
Design team troubleshooting, innovation opportunities
"Traditionally, bikes have followed a strict formula. We set out to break the rules. The actual making was the best part. Bike design is driven by proportional relationships and critical dimensions; working through these design challenges in CAD and realizing them in physical prototypes was exciting. We took inspiration from architectural trusses and Chicago River bridges."
Founder and chief creative officer at Minimal
Adviser, creative instigator, and investor
"We wanted to make something that enabled year-round riding and enhanced safety and biker awareness on the road. When I was thinking about what the design could be, considering the harsh environment in Chicago, I proposed the Honda Ruckus, Defender 90, and various military vehicles that are durable and have a utility-informed aesthetic. It's always fun seeing various parts of the design come together into a holistic thought."