Bike design challenge struggles to find its aim

By Adam Newman, photos courtesy of Oregon Manifest

Tony Pereira was the odds-on favorite to impress the judges at the 2011 Oregon Manifest design challenge, and he had no trouble doing just that, repeating his win from 2009 in the now bi-annual event.

Pereira’s bike, pictured above, is a traditional design paired with the latest technology—in this case, a carbon fiber, lockable front trunk and a BionX electric assist system.

The Oregon Manifest Constructor’s Design Challenge is a one-of-a-kind design/build competition, in which some of the country’s best custom bike craftsman and select student teams vie to create the ultimate modern utility bike. The designs at this year’s show ranged from mild to wild, as the student design teams had no trouble putting their imagination to work.

Following the initial display, the bikes and their builders were subjected to a 51-mile field test of their abilities. This is where the show begins to get a bit confusing. At the last event in 2009, most of the bikes presented were randonneuring or porteur-style, capable of tackling such a route. This time around, in contrast, there were more step-throughs, townies and cargo bikes.

The show bills its challenge as "creating the ultimate modern utility bike", but there is a wide devide between being utilitarian hauling cargo in an urban environment and traversing the hills surrounding Portland, Oregon. Designing a bike that excels in both types of terrain is impossible.

Even Pereira’s winning bike was a bit of a disappointment. While the materials were high-end, and the execution flawless, there is little that differentiates it from several off-the-shelf e-bikes, including many that we’ve reviewed in our magazine.

The bike I would most like to ride was Ira Ryan’s porteur, above. Granted, it is hardly innovative, thus it didn’t impress the judges, but it goes to show that the bicycle’s ideal design was fairly close to being perfected a century ago.

The worst design, in my eye, was from designers at Manuel Saez and Partners, an industrial design firm. With adjustable head and set tube angles, their design has limited cargo capacity and the execution is crude. Adjusting the shape of your frame is an unrealistic expectation of urban riders who often don’t even bother to fully understand how gear changes work. Pretty far from a "toaster bike", I’d say.

In all, the Oregon Manifest seems like it has veered a bit off course this year. With a more focused design criteria, concentrating on short-distance, urban transportation, we might see more builders addressing an emerging market. As it stands now, most of the entries are over-designed, under-engineered show bikes.

I don’t think I’m alone in my feelings about the show. Portlandize wrote about having a similar reaction to the entries, though on Bike Portland you can read the judges’ explainations for why they made the choices they did. The Oregon Manifest site also published some of the judges remarks.

What do you think?

What’s your thought on the bikes displayed at Oregon Manifest? Is there any way to continue to improve the design of a bicycle? Check out all the entries in this year’s show and let us know in the comments below.



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