“Truly, the bicycle is the most influential piece of product design ever.” So said Hugh Pearman in Design Week in 2008. I agree.

Small is beautiful? Bugger that

After last month’s profile of Pearson Cycles went live on BikeBiz.com a customer of theirs got in touch, sent me a pic of his Pearson bike in front of the shop, and proudly stated: “I’m happier to advertise Pearson Cycles than a massive generic bike manufacturer.”

This stick-it-to-the-man mentality – that small businesses are good, big ones are bad – is sweet, and great for Pearson, and perhaps brands such as Edinburgh Bicycle’s Revolution and even Boardman, but not exactly accurate. Many of the “massive generic bike manufacturers” are, in fact, family-owned, and started small.

Take Trek. This was started from a small industrial unit in Waterloo, Wisconsin in 1975 by Richard Burke. The firm made 900 steel touring frames in its first year. Trek is still owned by the Burke family and is run by John Burke, the son of the founder.

Specialized may be part owned by Merida, a Taiwanese corporate, but it had humble beginnings (unlike Merida, which was founded in 1972 by Ike Tseng who based his factory on Raleigh’s Nottingham plant because it was to produce Raleigh bikes for the North American market). At cycle trade shows Specialized now often wheels out a replica of the VW van that founder Mike Sinyard sold to fund the European bike tour that would lead to the foundation of his business. Sinyard started in 1974 by selling high-quality European bicycle parts to US dealers. Famously, he schlepped the first parts in a bicycle trailer. This trailer – don’t snigger – was the Bugger. And who made the Bugger? Cannondale. This is yet another bike company started in the early 1970s, except Cannondale was originally a manufacturer of hiking backpacks. The Bugger was a backpack on wheels.

Cannondale may now be corporate-owned (by Dorel Industries of Canada) but it was started above a rural pickle shop in Wilton, Connecticut, in 1971. Giant of Taiwan was spawned in 1972 after a typhoon had wiped out King Liu’s eel-breeding farm.

The bicycle boom of the early 1970s – fuelled by authors such as Eugene Sloane and Richard Ballantine – inspired a bunch of blokes to create companies that now dominate the bike industry.

No bicycle-related companies – not even Shimano – are “massive” when measured against global multi-nationals such as Apple, Ford or Colgate. OK, so a small bunch of factories in Asia may churn out the majority of the world’s bicycles and these could be considered “generic” but give me a massive generic bike manufacturer over a massive generic manufacturer of almost any other thing any day.

As author Iris Murdoch put it in The Red and the Green: “The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.”

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