A lot of older bike riders have been considering e-bikes these days; even fit aging boomers decline in strength and flexibility. But what if what they really need is just a better bike, designed around their changing bodies and needs? That's what Isla Rowntree of Islabikes has done. She tells Peter Walker of The Guardian that her new bikes are designed for "people who want to ride under their own steam for as long as possible, and then might switch to an e-bike when they need to."
The first and most obvious difference in these bikes is the dropped or eliminated top tube or crossbar. One 76-year-old cyclist noted that the step-through frame makes life a lot easier, telling Walker: "Apart from an artificial knee I also have a bit of arthritis on the hip, so raising my leg a full balletic lift would have been possible but definitely uncomfortable."
This is not a new idea; TreeHugger covered how a Dutch foundation (VNN) recommended eliminating top tubes on all bikes because they are safer:
VVN claims that, based on a Swedish study, women’s bikes are safer because cyclists assume a better posture while riding women’s bikes and they have a lesser chance of getting a serious head injury when they are involved in traffic accidents.
And because they are easier for older riders.
"As people get older, getting on and off the bike isn’t as easy. It’s the moment when most accidents occur, especially on e-bikes, and the consequences of a fall can be very serious for older people," VNN spokesperson José de Jong says.
But the Islabike Icon bikes don't stop there. For one thing, they are light, because weight really does matter. The Janis (they are all named after icons from the '60s) is only 9.4 kilograms (20.72 pounds). They also have really low gearing; Rowntree notes that "if you give them a low enough bottom gear they’ll winch their way up just about anything, but they don’t have the muscular strength to heave it up. All this isn’t rocket science, but it makes so much difference."
There's also twist-shift gear changing because that's easier than paddle shifters, and hydraulic brakes designed for high brake force with reduced power. The wheels are easy to remove and the tires are easy to fix. Even the cranks are re-thought, now shorter and with a narrower Q-factor (the distance, perpendicular to the bike, that your feet are apart).
There are three models, ranging from the very low step-through designed Joni, the more traditional looking Janis designed for urban biking, and the mountain bike wannabe Jimi. Road.cc reminds us that only one of these three icons "made it past their sixth decade with the others falling victim to living fast and, erm, dying young." And Janis famously drove a psychedelic Porsche, not a bike.
The advertising and marketing is interesting too; these are not actors or models in the video. Rowntree tells Walker:
"I’ve been really assertive with our marketing colleagues that we will picture genuine elderly people on these bikes, we will say who they’re for and we’re going to celebrate what those people represent – that they're active, important, relevant and to be listened to," she said. "I said I wanted people who really look their age, and look fabulous."
I find this particularly fascinating, because when I bought my last bike, I intuitively tried to incorporate many of these ideas into my purchase. It was the lightest one I could find, had lots of low gears, and a small frame with the lowest top tube. When I grind my way home (a slight uphill all the way), it's clear that I am in a much lower gear, and going much more slowly than most of the much younger riders in the bike lanes. This has embarrassed me, so I haven't dropped to the lowest gear ring. I've been thinking about going electric because it's a slog getting home, but perhaps I should just accept the slower pace and drop the gears even more.
Isla Rowntree has redefined what a bike for older riders should be: light, easy to get on and off, easy to operate. And not necessarily electric, which makes a bike heavier and more expensive. I think she's on to something big here.