During last winter's polar vortex, the brave souls who cycled through the ice, snow, salt, and sludge could be viewed as examples of midwest resiliency. They also could be seen as bundled-up question marks, daring us to explain why we endure a Hoth-like landscape.
To a team of Chicago designers participating in a five-city competition to build a better bike, those cyclists were something else entirely: inspiration. As part of this year's invite-only Oregon Manifest Bike Design Project, Minimal, a Chicago design firm, along with Garry Alderman, a local frame builder who works under the name Method Bicycle, teamed up with the goal of building a city-specific ride, one that would beat competing prototypes from similar teams in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and New York. The winning team will see their bike produced in a limited run by Fuji.
While starting in January—with a blank slate and a fresh blanket of snow—may appear to be a disadvantage, the shitty timing inspired the radical, high-tech prototype the Chicago team will reveal this Friday night at Minimal's West Loop studio. All five teams will host simultaneous release parties, the first time the bikes will be seen by the public (which is why we can't show final photos or describe superspecific design details in this article; we'll later post those on the blog).
"We found a lot of people riding at 20 below," says Chris Watson, a project manager at Minimal, recalling the team's early research. "We didn't want to focus on winter, because that was a downer, but it does exist, right? It's an obstacle to biking year-round."
The contest focuses on urban utility bikes and encourages both iterative design and a fusion of craft and technology. Alderman's collaboration with Minimal went according to script. When the firm submitted a series of frame designs—reflective of the aesthetic found in tech products from Minimal such as the TikTok + LunaTik iPod Nano watch—Alderman pushed back, suggesting ways to achieve a minimalist design while respecting weight, balance, and practicality. The result, a frame with a single main tube that cuts an impressive-looking profile, does just that.
"It was a very collaborative effort," says Ishmael Adams, a Minimal senior designer. "We were originally thinking about some pretty crazy tubing profiles. Gary gave us really positive remarks while teaching us about frame geometry. We came up with a compromise that pushed design forward."
After months of field research and interviews, the team entered the design phase in March and settled on a theme of rugged refinement, seeking to build a bike that was more Range Rover than Jeep. The single, final prototype was completed less than two weeks ago. Public voting on the five teams' bikes begins on Oregon Manifest's site on July 28, and the winner will be announced on August 4.
During a promo video for the Minimal bike shot last week, the top-secret prototype turned heads rolling past Millennium Park, Lake Shore Drive, the 18th Street bridge, and the Art Institute. But as the team discovered, it takes more than looks to craft a truly Chicago bike. The prototype had to be as tough as it is sleek.
"We're competitive and want to win this, but there's a big element of civic pride here," says Watson. "If we had been located somewhere else, or if this was the nation's bike contest, we would have arrived at a much different design. This is the bike for Chicago."