Bicycle fever struck Pakhuis de Zwijger* Amsterdam during the 6th edition of the Indie BRANDS Event (28 March 2014). Bringing together an exceptional corps of bike makers, entrepreneurs, and enthusiasts to the bicycle capital of the world, Indie Brands on Wheels featured an extraordinary night of compelling talks, independent brands and their highly coveted products. The evening’s festivities rightly honored the Netherlands’ most beloved mode of transportation: the bicycle.
Once considered to be a cheap and primitive way to get around, the use of the humble bicycle has had a global resurgence in recent years, thanks in part to the rise of independent bike makers and increasing investment in bicycle infrastructure. “Bikes seem to be the new water bottle,” says Indie Brands author and founder Anneloes van Gaalen. “[Nowadays] There are a lot of good bikes being made.” Indeed, the remarkable proliferation of this two-wheeled transport can no longer be ignored. The Netherlands alone is home to some 18 million bicycles (more than 1.1 bikes per person), while the average Dutch citizen cycles an estimated 900 kilometers per year.
“We’re coming to an age where there’s more diversity,” claims Marc van Woudenberg, founder of urban mobility consultancy Amsterdamize. “Up until five years ago, it was the [bicycle] industry that dictated what people wanted. Because there are so many tools available for indie brands to make bikes, they don’t need to do mass production.” As a result, independent bicycle producers are rethinking the way conventional bikes are made, from the overall design, to the choice of materials and even the bicycle’s basic function.
Reduce, Re-use, Upcycle
No matter the industry, it seems that sustainability and social responsibility make for viable business models. Particularly in the bike sector, upcycling –the process of converting waste into new materials or products of better quality– has become a prominent trend in manufacturing. With more than 1 million bicycles sold in the Netherlands each year, just as many are thrown away, leaving behind a massive heap of discarded metal. Making good use of these materials, indie brands such as Roetz-Bikes, Upcycle and Recycle are paving the way for the foundation of a circular economy.
“We get rid of so many bikes because we treat them like an awful thing,” says Indie Brands veteran, Dennis Ebeli, co-founder of Alfredo Gonzales and Recycle. “I support every brand that is using old frames. There’s room for that. It’s for the greater good.” Convinced that the mass production of new bicycles is a total waste, Recycle offers a range of bikes sourced from upcycled frames and even custom-builds them for clients.
“We should not only make sustainable products, but also socially responsible products,” adds Roetz-Bikes co-founder Tiemen ter Hoeven. In five years time, the brand aims to build bikes that are 100% remanufactured. Besides constructing their bicycles with upcycled and natural materials, Roetz-Bikes collaborates with sheltered workshops (sociale werkplaats), proving employment opportunities to individuals as part of their rehabilitation into society. “[Social working places] are really dependent on us,” claims Upcycle’s Hidde van der Straaten. “They’re really looking for business models [like ours] to stay alive.” Subsequently, these social initiatives add far greater value to the upcycle principle.
In Wood We Trust
Wooden bicycles are another emerging trend among independent bike makers. “[These bikes] tell a story about sustainability,” says Bough Bikes co-founder Piet Brandjes. “It’s a conversation piece. It leads to meeting people.” Nevertheless, the actual sales of these bicycles are proving to be quite the challenge. “It was difficult for us to find someone who wanted to buy the bike. If our bike is in the shop with lots of steel and shiny things, than our bike is just a tree.” Be that as it may, Brandjes is convinced that the market for wooden bicycles continues to expand, especially in the United States.
At the same time, do-it-yourself bicycles are also growing in popularity. According to Sandwichbike’s Irene van As, the experience of assembling a wooden bicycle in the comfort of your own home strengthens your personal affinity with the product. “If you grew up in the Netherlands like me, you’re fine with [buying] a 100 euro bike. [If it’s stolen,] you don’t bother to go to the police and [you buy] another cheap bike.” In theory, assembling your own bicycle obliges you to take better care of the product, thereby combating society’s throwaway mentality.
Bamboo bicycles, on the other hand, are meant to bolster the industrialization of the African economy, albeit on a small scale. “We developed something innovative from a developing country and brought it to the Netherlands as a design product,” says Taco Temminck Tuinstra, co-founder of BlackStar Bikes. In order to diversify the country’s exports (from raw materials to finished goods), the brand manufactures their bamboo-frame bicycles in Ghana. “This is not really a cheap bike for Ghanaians, so we started selling them in Amsterdam.” Their profit is apparently shared more equally across the production chain, ensuring that their bicycles are made on the basis of fair trade.
Can’t Touch This
There is no denying that design plays a critical role in innovation. For independent bicycle brands, the bike is so much more than just a two-wheeled vehicle. “The archetypal bike is simple,” says Bart van Heesch of Van Heesch Design. “It hasn’t changed for a hundred years.” Inspired by it’s sturdy make and unique aesthetic, the designer has elevated the iconic Dutch bicycle into a work of art by plating it entirely in copper. “This is a bike that gives more questions than answers,” Van Heesch reveals. “When people touch it, it will oxidize,” leaving personal imprints of how the bike was used. “[Museums and collectors] really buy the bike as an investment, not to bike on it.” Once sold for $9,000 in the United States, these one-of-a-kind pieces challenge the tradition concepts of what a bicycle should be.
Among the other new bikes on the block, Minute was born out of a quest for the ultimate city ride. Under the impression that times have changed, indie bike-maker Elian Veltman has overhauled the conventional bicycle, adapting its overall design to suit the urban environment. “Maybe smaller wheels are the perfect option for the city bike,” Veltman claims. Although smaller wheels are nothing new to the world of bicycle design, they are commonly seen on more cumbersome, foldable models. In contrast, Minute bikes are “more agile, more durable and more compact,” and are ideal for the metropolitan commute.
For the Young at Heart
Bicycle technology has come a long way over the last few years, specifically in the field of electricity-powered vehicles. Of the 1 million bikes sold in the Netherlands in 2013, 19% were actually e-bikes. “It’s our mission to get people cycling in New York, Shanghai, Bangkok, and Barcelona,” says Niels Bark, Marketing and Sales Manager for VANMOOF. “We believe bike manufacturers should be leading to improve urban cycling.” With this in mind, VANMOOF has engineered an electric bicycle that mirrors the look and feel of their commuter models. By trimming the excess fat and incorporating the electric motor into the existing frame, the brand’s forward thinking design serves as a new benchmark for the e-bike industry.
Furthermore, VANMOOF has integrated GPS tracking devices into their bicycle frames to repel theft. According to Bark, solving bicycle theft will spark a revolution. “People will start buying better [quality] bikes,” the manager claims, further reducing the amount of bicycles being disposed of each year. “We believe with [modern] solutions, we can improve [how bicycles are made].”
In truth, compared with standard bicycles, the concept of an e-bike seems unappealing to a mass audience. After all, physical exercise is an obvious benefit of cycling. That being said, e-bikes are geared towards a completely niche market. “It’s for people who haven’t been riding a bike for years,” argues Leon van Spijk of Spijked Cycles. “You’re not the target market.” As a matter of fact, current e-bike patrons are aged 50 years and older, meaning the bicycle’s uncanny construction and automated acceleration are especially designed to accommodate their needs. “It’s a completely new ecosystem of mobility,” claims Vincent Luyendijk, editor-in-chief of Soigneur magazine. “The bike is a platform for designers.” As the Netherlands’ aging population continues to grow, the demand for electric bicycles will rise with it.
Given the myriad of indie bike brands in existence, it suffices to say that not all bicycles are the same. “It’s hard to say [which one is the best] because they are all different,” says journalist and bike expert Richard Mooyman. “It’s a risk to be the first customer [of new bicycle brands] because they’re expensive and you don’t know if they’re reliable.” On the other hand, customer patronage is crucial for an indie brand’s growth. “We have our own community and brand loyalty,” claims Veloretti founder Ferry Zonder. “People see that we are a start-up and we make mistakes.” Indeed, this continuous cycle of trial and error is fundamental to any brand’s success. The fact that these indie brands dare to take risks and are pushing the envelope in terms of innovation truly makes them a cut above the rest.
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☞ All event photographs featured in this post and in the Indie Brands Blog are courtesy of Phillip Q. Gangan ©phillipqgangan2014