Cycling - ride out of shape

A new generation of bikes might look weird, but they could help you get fit, ski down a slope or just make cycling in the city more fun. Luke Blackall hops on

Every bike shop has one slightly futuristic model that even the gearier-than-thou staff don’t seem quite sure what to do with. Rather than take it for a test drive and risk toppling off in front of the fixie crew and the Lycra-clad racers, we usually opt for a nice sensible diamond shaped hybrid that won’t attract a second look in the cycle lanes.

The latest funny-looking pair of wheels to hit the stores is the ElliptiGo, a mixture of a traditional bike and a cross-trainer. It’s one of a number of nontraditional bike shapes currently being marketed to tempt exercise fiends away from the gym and their normal cycles.

The ElliptiGo certainly manages to confound people in the in the open air – a half-hour ride around Hyde Park managed to elicit strange glances from passers-by, cheeky shouts from school children and envious enquiries from other cyclists. Once you’ve mastered the art of not tumbling off the nearly two-metre-long bike (and ignoring the gawping pedestrians), it is a swift and straightforward ride, giving the same slightly floaty feeling you get from a cross-trainer. Inclines seem easier to manage as you are already standing up, although on your first downhill you find yourself leaning back to a saddle that isn’t there.

The overall feeling is like cycling, only harder – the makers say that while a fit person might need to be out for 90 minutes to get a good workout on their bike, you can get the same effect in just 45 minutes on the ElliptiGo. That’s not to say the bike is solely for those with Chris Hoy and Lance Armstrong- like levels of fitness.

This bike has become most popular among an older and more injury-prone clientele. Particularly those with injuries to their backs or joints that stop them from running or using regular bikes. It may look radical, but those who keep up with cycling trends will recognise that the machine is the latest in a long line of challenges to the traditional diamondframe shape of the bicycle. In the 1970s, with its unusual riding position and back wheel that was larger than the front, the Raleigh Chopper became a must-have for children in the UK. And it has recently been enjoying a resurgence, with an owners’ club and annual meeting bringing riders together.

In the 1990s the Trek Y-Foil turned heads with its lack of seat tube (the link between the saddle and the back wheel). At the same time, Scottish champion cyclist Graeme Obree was challenging design norms with the bikes he used to set a series of records. But since the “safety bicycle” designs that emerged from the UK in 1885, no designer has ever succeeded in producing a lasting competitor to the diamond-shaped frame. Not least because the sport’s governing body, the UCI, insists that racing bikes must adhere to the traditional shape and have two wheels of equal diameter. Bella Bathurst, author of the forthcoming The Bicycle Book, believes the shape fits our bodies perfectly and is here to stay.

“Basically, it works,” she says. “It fits the human frame, and quite simply, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. It’s like a pencil, unless the shape of the hand changes nor will the shape of the pencil.” Tell that to radical Danish manufacturer Biomega. The firm is challenging the received wisdom of bike design using new technology and materials to create some extremely odd-looking new rides. One of their models is the MN, which they call “the most innovative city bike ever built” and looks like it has been ridden straight off the set of a futuristic film.

More radically, the Canadian company K-Track does away with the front wheel, replacing it with a ski and puts the back wheel on a caterpillar track so that the bike can be used on the snow. California firm Pi Mobility produces an electric bike with a sleek, bow-shaped frame, which is kind to the environment while still letting you burn calories. Taking it a step further again is the Yike Bike, which is a foldable, electronic bike, with handlebars fixed behind the seat (to view an i staff member trying it out, go to ind.pn/fdqrfI).

While recumbent bikes might not have converted the mainstream, manufacturers in the UK are reporting growing sales and they have also found a place among those with injuries and disabilities. Chains, meanwhile, are being replaced on some bikes by belts, which require no lubrication and to have less chance of falling off on your way to work.

Then there are those challenging the the materials bikes are usually made from. Magni Vinicio sells beautiful wooden bicycles, inspired by da Vinci drawings, which are meant to restore “the beauty of the bicycle’s wooden origins”. And there’s the Bambike, with a frame constructed entirely out of bamboo from the Philippines. Perhaps weirdest of all is the Airbike.

Developed by scientists at the European Aeronautic Defence and Space group, the Airbike is made entirely from nylon. Those behind it claim that it is as strong as steel and aluminium, but weighs 65 per cent less. The most remarkable thing about it is that rather than being built in a factory or workshop, it was designed on a computer and then printed from layered nylon powder, becoming a fully rideable bike.

Whether any of these off-kilter contraptions will reach bike-lane ubiquity depends on a lot of things, not least of all their price – the ElliptiGo starts at $2,000 (£1,241). But if they can add a bit of much-needed colour to the nation’s cycle racks, they’ll be well worth it.

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