I was in a discussion recently about the difference between what we say and what we do. The topic was what bicycle dealers tell us they will buy and what they actually do buy. The numerous reasons for the difference may make for an interesting Being Frank in the future, but for now we will just accept that there is a difference. I am not an exception to this phenomenon. For years I would claim that I was a form follows function guy, but my behavior in terms of buying things many times was driven more, if just a little bit more, by the form or design. Certainly the item had to meet a certain functional requirement, but once that hurdle was cleared, the one that looked better to me usually got the nod.
Furthermore, I will admit at times to be so taken by a beautiful design that I cheated on my functional criteria. Some products are definitely about the function. For example, a hammer should be chosen based on its ability to drive nails into wood – rather than inlaid pearl in the handle. However, jewelry is all about the looks. Bicycles fall somewhere between hammers and jewelry on the form and function continuum.
Function is clearly a very important aspect of bicycles. They are among the most efficient machines ever created, and most every part is there to serve the mobility requirement. Pedals, handlebar, tires, etc. are not discretionary. However, the dilemma is to what extreme should incremental function be sought and to what degree does that limit the expression of form. If one is employed as a professional cyclist who specializes in time trials, then it is understandable that extreme measures are taken to save three watts here and two there. But few of us make our livelihood racing bicycles, so going to extremes makes little sense. Don’t get me wrong, everyone can make their own choice to buy and ride what they wish. The problems arise when choice disappears and/or consequences are not conveyed or understood.
It is increasingly hard to make bicycles better, and the marketing need to introduce “new” models every year has product managers scratching for every angle possible. While the time trial specialist may accept the consequences of extreme design in the name of marginal gains, applying the same extreme design to other cycling disciplines can be asinine. For example, routing control housing through the bar, stem, and headset bearing cleans up the air flow around the TT bike to save precious watts, but the same concept on a mountain bike intended for non-professional riders to enjoy at speeds and in conditions that bear no resemblance to a time trial in the Tour de France flips the form follows function concept on its head. The internal housing routing on the mountain bike is primarily there for appearance and justification of the model being new. There are significant adjustment, maintenance, and longevity consequences due to delivering this new “clean” look on a mountain bike. In this case the form benefit (clean look) undermines the function.
If we look at the majority of performance road bikes on the market, the case is reversed – the form has become universal as brands skip almost any design element that does not help the fittest cyclist in the world win the Tour de France. Without paint and graphics, one is hard pressed to discern one brand’s frame from another. To make matters worse, I argue that more and more bikes are down right unattractive. Quality bicycles cost a lot of money, and honestly we are spending the money on things we want rather than need. I am not excited about spending money on less attractive and less unique bikes. As a non-professional cyclist, I am looking for fun, inspiration, pride, beauty… and yes performance in my riding. Function is absolutely part of the formula, but so is design. Form and function do not have to be mutually exclusive, at least for the non-Tour winners among us. Ferrari is a good example of balance between form and function – their cars deliver sex appeal and high performance at the same time.
Whether function being sacrificed in the interest of form in the case of through-the-headset housing routing on a mountain bike or form being denied for extreme marginal gains of a performance road bike, the result is a form/function imbalance. Instead of just sitting on the sidelines or forum ivory tower ranting, we have made it a priority to find a good form/function balance in all the products that we develop at Cane Creek. We believe that a quality product should work and look great. We appreciate that no one is obligated to choose our products. But we firmly believe that riders will want our products if we honor function and form.
P.S. I would be remiss in not acknowledging the impact Robert Egger had on me in this area. Robert is a visionary in design and likely the most accomplished designer the bicycle industry has ever seen. Robert would say “you want people to walk into the store and say oh my god, that is badass, what do I have to do to get one of those. When that happens people then rationalize their requirements to fit their emotion.” Seeing that in action and how it would be crafted crystallized the importance of form for me.