Building a bike is an expensive and time-consuming process, traditionally reserved for devoted hobbyists and the very wealthy. But as cycling gains a stronger foothold in American cities, it’s likely that such skills will become more commonplace in design education programs. Leading the way is Nicholas Riddle, a designer at Easton and the founder of the Urban Mobility Lab at the California College of the Arts.
Since 2010, Riddle has headed up a two-course curriculum in CCA’s Industrial Design department that teaches students to design, prototype, and fabricate bikes. Students learn oxy-acetylene-brazing, the industrial welding technique traditionally used to made frames, as well as emerging fabrication methods like 3-D printing. Riddle’s co-teachers are well-known custom bike builders, like the owner of Raphael Cycles Rafi Ajl and bakfiets fabricator Matthew Feeney. Together, they are teaching a young generation of designers the tools needed to develop a better urban bike.
"I’m hoping we can evolve the bicycle further," Riddle says. "These classes are teaching fabrication techniques that will allow students to prototype new modes, and new proposals, of transportation." In particular, that means developing a more diverse set of solutions for the urban commuter. Right now, the average cyclist picks their bike from a relatively short list of off-the-shelf road and hybrid frames. Cargo bikes—aka bakfiets—are difficult to find, and often very expensive. And commissioning a custom frame is a major undertaking. At CCA, Riddle is exposing a broader range of designers to the myopic bike-building community. More designers means more ideas, and eventually, a more diverse and adaptive market. The program has already produced a range of bikes, from hemp frames to cargo bikes designed specifically for delivery people—the most under-served (and at-risk) category of urban cyclist.
Riddle’s own bikes reflect his goals at CCA. He got his start like many of his peers, building forks and frames in his spare time. Over the winter he completed his first commission, a custom cargo bike for husband-and-wife graphic design team Shape Field Office, with whom he shares a studio. The Shape Field Bike is an unusual hybrid of road and porteur frame. It was modeled after the client’s beloved 1978 Cinelli Supercorsa, adapted to carry their office’s heavy materials and books around San Francisco. Riddle designed a lugged frame that mimicked the Cinelli’s geometry, but extended the bottom tube out over the wheel to create a removable wooden cargo bed. "The front rack was perhaps the most challenging as we wanted something removable, stable and yet blended in with the dominant lines on the frame," he tells Co.Design. The frame can carry up to 80 pounds. Little details like Honjo fenders and inverse Paul breaks—not to mention the laser-cut wood signage—give the bike the air of a luxury custom build. But it’s the frame that makes it truly unique.
As his program expands, Riddle hopes that more planners and designers will investigate urban mobility within the framework of the bike. "It’s something that has a rich history, is accessible to the masses, something just about everyone had as a child and yet is this beautifully refined structure that demands attention in your craft," he explains. "Frankly, there’s no object on earth I love more."