In 2021, Isla Rowntree stepped back from her role as the head of children’s bike brand Islabikes. Alex Ballinger sat down with Rowntree to explore how the market, and her life, has changed in the intervening years
This piece irst appeared in the May edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here
It’s quite a lonely space,” said Isla Rowntree on her role at the head of a company.
“To everybody within that organisation and externally you look like you’re in control, and you need to appear like you’re in control most of the time.”
In 2021 Rowntree, a former professional rider and founder of British kids’ bike brand Islabikes, announced that she would be stepping back from her role at the head of the company, after 15 years at the helm.
Leaving a role after that period of time is no small decision, especially when you were the founder of the company, and had built it into one of the most recognisable and successful bike brands for children in the UK.
Now two years after Rowntree stepped back, BikeBiz sat down to catch up with her on life and the bike industry.
“As with most bigger decisions,” Rowntree said, speaking from her home in Shropshire on why she decided to move into the background at Islabikes, “there are multiple inputs into it.”
“I’d been doing it for 16 years at the time, so the reasons were mainly personal.
“My parents live next door – my dad’s in his early 80s, my mum’s in her late 70s. They’re both well and healthy and still cycling, but I had a fear when I was working there would be a time when they would need me more, and feeling conflicted between that and the needs of the business. That was a really big one for me.”
After a decade and a half, motivation to keep progressing the business also becomes an issue for many founders, particularly as senior roles often carry people away from the reason they started in the first place.
“I feel a bit guilty about saying it, and I know that obviously I’m saying it to you a journalist, and you might write about it, but I get bored.
“It’s not that I’m not still interested in the product development. I’m enjoying still working with the [Islabikes] product team, I love it more now than I when I was there in the later years, but my experience running a business was absolutely relentless.
“You have to get most of the big calls, and a lot of the small ones, right most of the time.
“It wears you out, and some people seem to manage it for decades.”
The final factor in Rowntree’s decision to take more of a back seat with her company is the isolation that many entrepreneurs face at the top of their organisation.
“You’ve got to have this amazing drive to create something, but often there’s a psychological tension around the responsibility you’ve created for yourself.”
While she is no longer the face of Islabikes, Rowntree does still have some involvement with the company she founded, as a minority shareholder, attending board meetings and still working with the product development team to help deliver new bikes to the market.
So what has she been doing in the past two years?
“It’s a really hard question to answer because I do lots of bits and bobs,” Rowntree told BikeBiz.
“The adaptation to a much less structured life and the pressures were quite challenging in itself, especially in the lockdown environment, because getting out and about was much more difficult.
“[I’ve spent more time] cycling, although I was never not cycling. I do every kind of cycling, even though I’m known for my racing history, but actually I ride a bike for transport, I ride bikes to explore the countryside, and when I’m on holiday.
“I had a period of feeling a little bit disconnected and not quite knowing what I wanted to do, but in the last six months I’ve really found my love for the more practical end of bicycles.”
Since semi-retirement, Rowntree has started building her own custom frames from a workshop in her garage, purely for her own enjoyment and curiosity, utilising her knowledge of ergonomics and physiology to inform her designs.
During more than a decade in the kids’ market, Rowntree has seen the market change and mature significantly, as children’s bikes have become more sophisticated, and prices have increased dramatically.
“The most expensive bike for a four-year-old in the market at the time  was about £50,” she said.
“We launched ours at £100, so double the most expensive comparable product.
“We’ve created an understanding in the marketplace place that, if you can afford it, getting a decent bike for your child is a good thing to do, and it really makes a difference.
“That perception change was initiated by the creation of Islabikes.”
For a number of years, Islabikes was leading the charge alone in developing the kids market, and was also an early adopter of a direct-to-consumer business model in the bike industry, which is now commonplace across the trade.
The difference between Islabikes and many of the competitor brands in children’s bikes at the time, is that Rowntree and her team were focused on the details, striving to understand how a child’s riding experience differs from an adults.
Rowntree told BikeBiz: “I can literally talk to you for two hours non-stop about our four-year-old’s bike and all the details that cumulatively make it a different riding experience from anything else out there.
“I wanted children to have a better experience of cycling, so they weren’t put off by awful bikes.
“The mature market that we’ve got now is delivering that.”
For the future of the kid’s market, and for the future of cycling more generally, Rowntree said: “There’s definitely a good case for encouraging children to cycle, and that could be industry led.
“If people have had a positive experience throughout childhood, a lot of them will come back [to cycling] at some point.
“In terms of what those programmes look like, the huge barrier to children cycling, parents feeling comfortable about their children cycling, and adults cycling is the perception of safety.
“I feel that for the industry, lobbying for safe infrastructure is the hardest thing to do, but it’s also the thing that will have the biggest effect.”
While trade body The Bicycle Association and charities like Cycling UK are lobbying on behalf of the industry, Rowntree said that improving infrastructure to improve the perception of cycle safety is going to take more work: “It needs to be perceived as safe, and tackling that political monster needs to be done across multiple fronts.”
And finally, on what she wants to see for children’s bikes, Rowntree said: “There are still improvements that can be made.
“It’s more refinements, but what are apparently fairly small changes on a bike when you’re four, or six, or eight, can have a much bigger effect on the rider experience than they would for an adult.
“What I’d like to see across other brands is when they’re attempting to make premium children’s ranges, is a better appreciation of the detail.”