Manifesting Innovation

Scott Warneke puts Duck-built bike through its paces. Photograph by Jonathan Bakke

It’s five o’clock, and the team looks worried. Six product design students and two professors stand in a pothole-pocked parking lot in industrial northwest Portland, anxiously straining to make out the features of each cyclist who appears in the distance. Is that him? Is that? Nope.

Nine hours ago, Scott Warneke, the seventh member of their team, left Portland to complete the fifty-one-mile Oregon Manifest Field Test, riding the hand-built bicycle University students have labored for six months to conceptualize, refine, and fabricate. One by one, two dozen other contestants have pedaled their entries across the finish line, “utility bicycles” of all colors and shapes created by professional industrial designers, craft bike builders, and student teams from design schools across the country. But the minutes pass, and there’s still no sign of Scott. The University team looks at each other. A few fat drops of rain splatter the pavement. Someone says it out loud: “Where is he?”

Oregon Manifest, a Portland nonprofit organization, dedicated its 2011 Constructor’s Design Challenge to advancing the art and craft of the utility bicycle, and called on the country’s top builders and designers to create approachable, adaptable, human-propelled car alternatives. Each Design Challenge utility bike would be designed to safely and comfortably carry both rider and cargo, and would feature an antitheft system, fenders, lights, and a sturdy kickstand to facilitate loading or unloading. Finally, to ensure all that design flash was backed up by plenty of substance, the bikes would be subjected to a rigorous field test, replete with gravel, dirt roads, puddles, traffic, and hills.

Creating the University’s answer to this challenge was a project that consumed the passions of a total of nineteen product design students over two terms. Their efforts were guided by a pair of professors who also happen to be professional industrial designers at well-respected crucibles of innovation: Christian Freissler of Ziba Design and James Molyneux of Nike’s Innovation Kitchen. After a spring term spent researching and designing four prototype bikes, the summer team refined that “sea of ideas” into one ideal vehicle, engineered to meet the needs of any university student. The Campus Bike would be flexible, user-friendly, customizable, and almost completely maintenance-free, thanks to enclosed gears, a belt drive system that eliminates the grease and potential snags of a traditional bike chain, and airless tires filled with a high-density foam. No more greasy jean cuffs, no more squeaking gears, no more flat tires. With bike guru Dave Levy of Portland’s Ti Cycles acting as mentor (and generously providing use of his workshop), the summer team built their bike from the ground up, doing every aspect of the construction themselves except the welding. As none of the students had ever built a bike before, countless new skills had to be acquired, and quickly. But their fresh, user-oriented approach also resulted in a finished product that’s a bit unlike any bike you’ve ever seen.

On the first morning of the competition, thirty-four gleaming bicycles are wheeled into the atrium of Pacific Northwest College of Art for formal judging. A hubbub of builders, designers, and students wander up and down the row of bikes, exclaiming over the impeccable craftsmanship on display. Perched near the end of the long row, the completed Campus Bike looks both sturdy and nimble, with its bright green accents, angular frame, and small tires setting it instantly apart from the other bikes. The students proudly answer questions and demonstrate their creation’s modular cargo rack, built-in storage compartment, and retractable bungee system. They explain how the badges that cover the modular system’s attachment points when not in use can be customized (theirs feature the Oregon mascot and a stylized version of the leaping White Stag), how the green pedals, seat, handlebars, and frame inserts can be produced in any school’s colors and easily interchanged to create a custom look. And they show off the bike’s retractable fenders, which roll up like a window shade when not in use. Everyone’s nuts for those fenders: by noon, photos of the bike are already making a splash on cycling and design blogs around the world.

At their presentation to the panel of four judges, the team demonstrates how their interpretation of “utility”—that is, whatever a university student needs right now—is answered by the Campus Bike. They show how quickly and easily the bike can go from hauling groceries to carrying a student’s morning coffee to being optimized for rainy weather. They hand the judges the waterproof map of Eugene that folds into the perfect shape for storage in the bike’s locking compartment. And as a grand finale, the presentation ends with a demonstration of how, with the push of a button, the spring-loaded kickstand slides up and into the hollow frame of the bike, out of sight and out of the way. The judges’ eyes widen. “Let’s see that kickstand again,” someone says.

Panel judge Tinker Hatfield ’77, Nike’s vice president of innovation design and special projects, was greatly impressed by his first look at the students’ bicycle. “I really felt like they had an inordinate amount of great ideas,” he says. “[Their] ideas, execution, and presentation . . . all together, it was extremely impressive. So I’m proud to be a Duck right now.” He grins. “As usual.”

But unlike most University product design classes, where the presentation of a prototype marks the finish line, one large and looming obstacle still lay ahead for the Campus Bike team. Would their bike (and its engine, Scott) stand up to the rigors of the field test? The next evening, waiting anxiously at the finish line, they still weren’t certain.

Finally, a little after 6:00 p.m., Scott rounds the last corner and is greeted by the cheers of his team, their fellow bike builders, and a crowd of local cycling enthusiasts. Scott glides into the final checkpoint, climbs off the bike, and gratefully hugs his teammates. He’s exhausted and dehydrated, but both he and the bike finished the course intact.

At the awards ceremony, while each of the winning bicycles in the professionals’ category generated appreciative oohs and applause for their astounding elegance and craftsmanship, the student category’s champion created a special stir in the audience. One voice in the crowd managed to sum it all up as the University’s award-winning bicycle was held up for all to admire: “Oh, that’s cool.”

By Mindy Moreland, MS ’08

The People's Nag

Just 140 years ago, the ultimate in bicycle design was the penny-farthing, a mammoth-front-wheeled contraption upon which a rider precariously balanced. An attempt to learn to ride one inspired Mark Twain to remark, “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.” Fortunately, an Englishman named John Kemp Starley introduced the Rover Safety Bicycle in 1885, and established the basic silhouette we picture when we hear the word bike. The Rover Cycle Company was the first to attach a chain-drive system to the rear wheel, thus allowing both wheels to be of the same size and greatly increasing one’s chances of surviving a ride on the thing.

Starley envisioned that the safety bicycle would become “the people’s nag,” a utilitarian means of conveyance as well as recreation. But as bike builders like Henry Ford and the Wright brothers turned their attention to perfecting other means of transport, the bicycle was banished to the realms of children and athletes for the majority of the American twentieth century.

—MM