Stuart Crawford contacted me with some ideas about the possibility of developing a Cleland model aimed at a more touring-orientated potential market.

He raises a number of issues about how a neglected and, he suggests, large sector of the worldwide bicycle market could be catered for with a kind of machine that isn’t yet marketed by mainstream manufacturers.

There are, of course, niche brands that produce semi-custom machines all over the world, but none, he feels, really addresses the design issues in the same way that the Cleland philosophy does; I’m inclined to agree with him.

Well I would, wouldn’t I?

Is Cleland actually part of the cycling world? It doesn’t seem to fit anywhere amongst the various sectors of that market. Anyway, Stuart is suggesting some design features, which I’m sure will have crossed other people’s minds.

His submissions and my responses have been edited and re-organised into topic areas, so that our exchange reads more like a conversation. Please feel free to comment at the bottom of this post, or ask a particular question; it would be helpful if anyone doing so could copy and paste the relevant text in to their comment.

However, before we get onto bicycle design issues, Stuart begins with a little bit of UK cycling history. Hope you enjoy the read, it’s quite a long one, so make yourself comfortable, brew a cuppa maybe…

SC: My first experience of a Cleland was in 1982, at the end of the London to Brighton Bike Ride. I saw two guys riding them, and one, who had a similar height and leg length to me, let me try his machine. It was such an easy bike to ride, and I was hugely impressed with the ability to stop without putting a foot down whilst deciding whether to go right or left. The riding position was so comfortable. I asked the guy who lent me his bike how he had handled the ride up Ditchling Beacon. “No problem.” Said he.

GA: It’s a shame you didn’t get to buy one of the originals.

SC: Why didn’t I buy an Aventura back then? I was totally un-impressed with tubing used to create it. My second experience was at the first-ever mountain bike meet in Europe, on the bone dry chalk motocross course at Small Dole, on the South Downs.

GA: I well-remember the Small Dole event.

SC: This meet was organised by Shimano and their rep went mad when not a single mountain bike made it all the way down (all the riders fell off) but all your bikes did; the scumbags wouldn’t give you the prize because you hadn’t fielded six machines.

GA: We rode down to Small Dole from Guildford, it turned-out to be far further than we had anticipated, about 50 miles I think, we were all exhausted. That’s why the Cleland Team on the downhill could only muster five riders; none of us was very keen! Nevertheless, I couldn’t believe our time, it was more than ten seconds inside the winner’s time, and it was only a short run. I don’t think ALL the other riders fell off, but I’m sure that all the other teams had at least one rider crash. No-one was impressed with our performance, they said it was because our team was more experienced. Since when has experience been a disqualification?

SC: At first I couldn’t believe that. You were in business at the time, but there was no sensible business mentality operating either before or after the Small Dole event. You expected your team to ride from Guildford to Small Dole, on a sweltering day, on OFF ROAD tyres. Of course you were all knackered. And, of course, it felt like 50 miles when, in fact, it was only 30.5 miles because of the OFF ROAD tyres. I knew that road well, as I have ridden it many times on my road bike. You seem oblivious to revolving weight issues even though you encountered this in spades riding down from Guildford.

GA: The majority of our route to Small Dole was actually along a disused railway track bed that had recently been opened as a cycleway. However, it was far from properly finished and turned out to be more of a challenge than we had anticipated.

SC: Why didn’t you hire a mini-bus for the riders, and a Transit for the bikes? All tax-deductible and the only sensible way to arrive to compete!

GA: The minibus was organised for the return journey after the event; we had all the bikes on the roof, on a massive rack. Things were different in those days. Tax deductible? That’s a joke; of course, you wouldn’t know that Cleland Cycles Limited was the subject of a winding-up order, the bailiffs had recently been in to make an inventory of the business. My principle memory of the Small Dole event was that it marked the time when I knew for certain that the incoming tide of mountain bikes would leave me washed-up.

SC: Why didn’t you visit Small Dole a few days before the event to see what you would be handling? It’s a motocross track on bone dry chalk with a chalk powder coating on top, far trickier than riding on ice. My friend Camera John and I had tackled it more than a few times coming off the Downs. Had you taken a mountain bike and an Aventura with you, you would have known that it was totally unsuited to mountain bikes, but way easier with your Aventura – you could, and should, have felt secure in beating the crap out of the mountain bikes.

GA: The Cleland ethos doesn’t really embrace competitive riding. So, the idea of beating the crap out of anyone was the last thing on our minds, we weren’t there to compete. We’d planned to try out this new cycleway and arrive at the event once it was well underway. We rode into the arena slowly, along the main drag between refreshment and trade stands, kicking up a bit of dust with our tyres and covered in dust ourselves, all of us exhausted, probably looking a bit mean as a result. For most of the people at the event, off-road cycling was the newest thing; we looked like we’d been doing it for years, which some of us had. From the glances we received from the gathered fresh enthusiasts, I gained the impression we looked very competitive indeed, hardcore even.

SC: You do know that the Small Dole event was the very first mountain bike meet in Europe? A wonderful business opportunity for you.

GA: I’ll have to check dates, but I’m sure the event I organised, the Wendover Bash, was earlier in the year. Small Dole could have been a wonderful business opportunity; it was so frustrating for me, having completely run out of money, and more importantly, run out of energy; a few weeks later I was on the small dole myself! In some ways, I was finished before most people got started. It was on that day I realised the previous twenty years of research and development I had under my belt either left me up a blind alley, or twenty years ahead of everyone else. I knew then that I would have to wait at least a further twenty years before my ideas may begin to be taken more seriously. Prior to 1979/80, I had always been working in a complete design vacuum; there were no over-arching influences upon me. I drew my main inspiration from trials motorcycles, which I combined with bicycle components. I had to work these things out for myself; all the people I asked for help and advice thought I was an idiot, especially if I contradicted their views, which I frequently did, and still do. Nowadays, anyone attempting to design an off-road bike has a welter of prescriptive axioms, many of which are sheer bollocks, to work through and figure out, as well as working from first principles. Now, thirty years later, appreciation of the Cleland concept remains so minor as to be of no consequence. Anyway, Stuart, you seemed to have been impressed with the original Cleland Aventura back then, but you didn’t get to own one; how did you fare in finding a suitable bicycle?

SC: I never had a bike I was really happy with until I bought a Cannondale hybrid in 2000. So many features on that bike were pioneered by you. You were the first to use a sloping top tube. Your use of hub brakes is what all non-speed bikes should have; I’ve never thought that rim brakes were right for anyone, except professional road racers. Far too many gears, and triple chainrings! Having lost three years because of a terrible sciatic problem I am only now able to ride again and, for some reason, your Cleland Aventura came to mind; I googled; hence this conversation. Geoff, I have never understood why you don’t promote your design for touring and commuting; I for one would love to see a machine adapted for touring on-road as well as off-road riding.

GA: A touring Cleland? I think it may well look very like one of those Dutch fully equipped upright roadsters. The Dutch tend to use the same bike for everything; utility and touring. This aspect of the Dutch attitude to cycling was another influence into my design ethos. I developed the idea that if the design is right in the first place, one bicycle should be suitable for most kinds of cycling. I disagreed with the experts who told me that, for example, a utility machine should have a different posture to a touring bike. What seemed even more nonsensical to me was the then absolute necessity of using a dropped handlebar for touring; “To provide a number of hand positions”, they said. All that tells me is: if you need to constantly change your hand position, the layout of the bicycle must be wrong. In reality, most touring cyclists, most of the time, use only one hand position – close to the stem. So, I would ask the experts, “Why have the rest of the handlebar there, if it’s never used?”, and they would reply, “To provide a number of different hand positions”. Things are a lot more flexible now, and straight bars are probably as common as drops; there is generally a much greater free-flow of design ideas and components between the various disciplines in the world of cycling. Overall, this is probably a ‘good thing’, but leads to a lot of confusion as to very basic design principles.

SC: Your suggestion that I should buy a Dutch long-wheelbase roadster confirmed what I had suspected from your earlier comments – you know absolutely nothing about road riding. The old style Dutch bikes are superb for riding over cobbles, I know because I lived and worked there for a couple of years and used to have the embarrassment of old ladies gliding past me on their low pressure tyres and long framed machines, when I was riding my trusty old Viking Hosteller short-framed bike. Why? Because a lot of my energy was thrown back at me from the cobbles, instead of forward motion.

GA: You raise some interesting points here. I didn’t mean you buy a Dutch roadster; I meant about the influence the Dutch approach had on my own ideas. It strikes me that having those ‘old ladies gliding past’ you tells you something about bicycle design. What it tells me contradicts the experts: that old ladies in Holland, or anywhere else for that matter, have something to contribute to bicycle design. Bicycle design experts focus on what is being ridden by FYSCAMs, vis: fit, young, single, competitive, affluent males.

SC: You used to be a motorbike trials rider but you badly smashed your knee and were advised by the medics to take up cycling if you didn’t want to be crippled in later life. I then realised that you have never stopped being a trials rider – fair enough but not everyone wants to have a trials bike without an engine.

GA: The accident that wanged-up my knee occurred long after I had ceased competitive motorcycle observed trials. Apart from that period in my life when I was confined to a pram, there has been no time when I have not been a cyclist, in one form or another. It is true that I have never stopped being a trials rider in some senses. It is also true that not everyone wants to have a trials bike without an engine. However, in my quest to refine the Cleland concept as a reasonably priced machine that is well capable of being comfortably ridden in a wide range of terrain and weather conditions by an average cyclist, whilst remaining as reliable as possible and requiring minimal maintenance, I feel it is critical to first take developments to the absolute limit, as far as possible. Only once those limits have been reached, or even exceeded, that experience achieved, will I, as the designer, know which elements may be justifiably altered or dispensed with, to make a more touring-orientated Cleland model. I haven’t reached that goal quite yet. Of course, it is also a true that once you venture off-road, there is no telling what kind of terrain you are going to encounter. I know of green lanes that would make classic trials sections.

SC: You’ve realised that you will never get backing and, hopefully, you understand why; a great shame, because nearly all your ideas are commercial winners if only you could bring yourself to forget about trials bikes. If you could put that to one side and concentrate on developing your ideas in a workable way you would have a very successful business. By all means go on working on an engine-less trials bike for yourself and a few like-minded souls.

GA: Yes, I understand why I will never get any backing. It may seem as if I’m preoccupied with trials riding; my design and development focus is principally on ride-ability – the ability of the bike to be manoeuvred over and around hazards relatively easily and efficiently, without sustaining significant damage in the process. But there the comparison ends. The only kind of bicycle a commercial backer would be interested in is one that sells, whereas I’m creating a bike that works. These two concepts rarely fit together very well.

SC: Your not being able to get financial backing in the UK surprises me not at all. If only you had been an American! Any chance of Cannondale taking an interest? In the past, did you have some kind of commercial relationship with Cannondale? I see that Cannondale has stopped using their RockShox (HeadShok?) adjustable head tube suspension. A brilliant idea that is way better and lighter than using fork suspension – I know, my Cannondale Silk Path is equipped with this, this function can be used or stopped without dismounting; could this be incorporated? It’s so much better than fork-leg suspension.

GA: Over the years, I have given much thought to the role of suspension in bicycle design. I am in no way anti-suspension, but after much consideration, I realised that those occasions when I thought to myself, “I need suspension!” were few and far between; most of the time it would be redundant. Therefore, to my mind, any mechanical suspension system is not worth the cost, weight and maintenance requirement. Additionally, mechanical suspension constantly alters the basic steering geometry and overall weight bias of the bicycle; front-end dive with heavy braking, for example, makes the frontward weight transfer much more problematical, and requires additional effort on the part of the rider to overcome the effects. On the other hand, designing the handlebar/pedal/saddle relationship to take full advantage of the natural flexibility of our arms and legs to provide a low-frequency suspension effect ensures that the overall handling characteristics of the bicycle remain consistent. A high-frequency suspension effect is provided by using robust tyres at very low pressure, albeit at the cost of higher rolling-resistance.

SC: Also, I remember there was a guard/mud defector for the chain – is it possible to completely cover the chain? Your current drive train is simple and effective – how do you know that enclosing the drive train would be expensive, have you tried to get any quotes? – ABS plastic or thin plate aluminium. Having this means a virtually maintenance-free system – Geoff, this is what the vast majority of people want.

GA: To design and make a fully enclosed and sealed transmission is a goal I have had for many years. It must be very effectively sealed, because if contaminants do get in, they won’t get out. A sophisticated active seal is required at the rear end, between the sprocket and the hub. However, the main difficulty is devising a seal around the crank boss; this aspect requires a special crank design to allow a space between the crank arm and the outer ring where the seal can be positioned, which will also increase the Q-factor and allow only one chainring. I’m not sure how much a special crank would cost, but I doubt there’d be much change out of a few thou for the first prototype, which may not work. Moreover, the construction of the casing is critical; ABS or thin aluminium; with the kind of riding I do, would be smashed in no time. A possible beginning to a design solution involves the basic support framework of the encasement being an integral part of the frame design – effectively two chainstays, above and below the transmission run, with some form of removable covering in between. One day I may really get this nailed, complete with an internal chainwheel shifter. However, as you rightly say, my current transmission system is simple and effective, and I’m going to stick with it for the foreseeable future.

SC: A brazed-on rear carrier is a no-brainer. Get in touch with Tubus, the German company that makes very, very strong cro-moly ones.

GA: The original Aventura design included a brazed-on rear carrier. People quite rightly pointed out that any damage to the carrier requires a major repair operation, whereas a bolt-on carrier can be removed for repair or replacement. There is also the issue of changing requirements over the life of the machine. It’s an interesting concept, and one I’m not done-with yet but, for the time being, I’m keeping this aspect on the back-boiler.

SC: Once I envisaged a brazed-on rear carrier, it became obvious that a brazed-on ploughshare-type mud ‘disperser’ was another no-brainer. Made of stainless steel, it is exactly shaped to leave only 1mm around both tyre and rim (remember my comment about revolving weight issues?). Also there would be no mud falling onto the drive train. This would be something to farm out. Expensive? Not if made in numbers, and what off-road rider wouldn’t want one fitted to their bike? If you make brazed-on low rider fittings you could also use the same device on the front wheel – something that no other bike has.

GA: Few people realise just how much a bicycle wheel flexes. First of all, there is the rider’s weight that alters things. Once you begin to pedal, your centre of gravity is shifted from side to side; so, the mass of the bicycle and rider is constantly pulled from side to side. Where the tyre contacts the ground, it cannot respond to this sideways movement, therefore there is a reaction transmitted to the area of the wheel furthest from the restriction. There are other sources of movement and restriction as you apply weight and muscle force, particularly when riding over varied and challenging terrain. Thus, nearly the whole wheel is subject to constant potential lateral flexing, and to a surprising extent – more than 1mm.

SC: You use narrow rims – great! That means that the rider can ride on-road to where they want to go, carrying off-road tyres on the carrier, change tyres before going off-road and reverse the procedure before going home.

GA: For myself, I fit the tyre/tube combination that will never let me down, and that’s it for a long, long period; I have to accept the inevitable higher rolling-resistance. That’s a compromise I am OK with; I am rarely in a hurry. A ride that includes four tyre changes is not my idea of pleasure, although it may be yours.

SC: The rear carrier also means they can carry wet-weather gear (or take it off should the weather change), a flask, or stove for a brew up and to cook a high-energy meal if they want to. How do you deal with a change in weather Geoff, get wet or sweat like a pig?

GA: On the whole, these days, my rides are shorter than they used to be. The last five years have been a period of intense research and development, so rides have a dual function, quite often having to be cut short so as to get back to the workshop to work on whatever aspect of the bike is being tested. Anyway, I try to avoid going out on rainy days. If I do get caught out, I usually look for shelter, even if I have lightweight waterproofs with me.

SC: Oval chain wheels – many are using this now.

GA: Not that many really, despite their use in the TdF. Most of those I have seen are nowhere near as radical as those fitted to the AventuraTT and Landseer. Even so, I constantly have to explain the reasoning behind the design, and I’m rarely sure that people do understand it.

SC: Mountain bikes are for head-bangers, but there are far more people who don’t want that. In my view, these are the features they do want:

  • A comfortable upright riding position without all their weight on the wrists.
  • A machine that allows them to enjoy the landscape they are riding through.
  • A machine equipped with a strong brazed-on rear carrier.
  • Braze-ons for low-riders on the front forks.
  • Not to tear-ass around, either off-road or on-road.
  • To ride off-road (green lanes)
  • To ride on tarmac.
  • To ride to and from work
  • To ride to and from shops etc.
  • Not to spend time forever cleaning it.
  • Protected drive-train, longer lasting.
  • Front suspension, but not overly heavy.
  • A suspension seat-post, because the riding position is upright.
  • A quick-release handlebar adjustment, to suit conditions without dismounting.

I looked carefully at your latest design and saw that, as far as it goes, it can, with ease, fulfill all of these, with minor modifications:

  • The bottom bracket doesn’t need to be quite so high.
  • The seat tube can be lengthened.

GA: There is no logical reason why a touring machine should not feature a high bottom bracket. The Landseer uses a stock frame, so the modifications you suggest would be inappropriate for that. However, when I eventually design a bespoke frame, it will, inter alia, have a longer seat tube. Your quick-release handlebar adjustment sounds like a means of altering the dimensional relationship between the saddle, handlebar and bottom bracket axis. My view is that if you need to alter this relationship whist riding, the overall design of the bike is definitely wrong.

SC: Who would be interested in such a machine? Those who want to commute/shop/green lane and tour – all encapsulated in one machine.

GA: I certainly use the AventuraTT for a range of purposes, even though it is designed for off-road riding. The protected chain and bash-plate avoid oil or grease from the chain getting onto everyday clothes, and the mudguards also protect clothes; these features make it a reasonably useful for utility purposes, especially when a q/r rear carrier is added, such as the Topeak TMX system. However, it remains difficult to identify just who would be interested in a Cleland bicycle. Nearly all existing cycle enthusiasts, understandably, have prejudices dictated by marketing and media. People who don’t yet cycle are certainly not going to be recommended a bicycle that contradicts most received mainstream design wisdom. I use the word ‘received’ because many experts, and most so-called experts, repeat the wisdom they have received from some other ‘expert’, without questioning or investigating its voracity.

SC: I live in France and it has thousands and thousands of kilometres of GRs – open to walkers, cyclists and horse riders. In places you can ride off-road for days only occasionally having to cross roads. Did you know that there are many companies all over France that cater for those who want an easy cycling holiday? Those companies would love to be able to buy virtually maintenance-free machines that their clients would enjoy riding.

GA: In the early years I felt strongly that bicycle hire companies would be very interested in a low-maintenance machine to make their businesses more cost-effective over the long-term. I soon discovered that those I spoke to did not understand the concept of low-maintenance or how it could benefit their operation. Their principle interest is low initial cost with an eye to perceived quality; in other words, entry-level branded bicycles. It is important that the machines on offer appear to be new, or nearly so, therefore a high turnover of bicycles makes sense, they have to last about six months, a summer season effectively; so long as they hold together, by whatever means, for that long, it’s all that matters to them. That’s commercial reality, unfortunately. Now, Boris Bikes, and that entire ilk, show a quite different design strategy, and you can see why.

SC: There are also lots of off-road touring possibilities in Spain, not to mention those high-disposable-income countries like Norway and Sweden – fat tyres to ride across the spongy pine needle floors of the vast first growth forests. How about the vast redwood forests of northern California and Washington? The desert trails in Colorado and New Mexico? Geoff your markets could be limitless. How about presenting a business plan based upon such a machine to the Norwegians? With the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund – they would jump at such an eco-friendly idea, investing in you would be less than pennies.

GA: Many thousands of people, from all over the world, have visited the Cleland and Landseer websites, yet the number of people who show any enthusiasm for the concept is few indeed. Apart from Brant Richard’s brief flirtation with the idea of a small production run several years ago, there has been not the vaguest whiff of interest from anyone else even slightly prepared to get behind the Cleland idea and help get it onto the market.

SC: I can take it that you will sell whatever machines you intend to make online with a properly designed website? This means you can both make a bigger profit and cut the selling price.

GA: Without any form of back-up, I have no current plans to build and sell complete Cleland bikes. For the foreseeable future, I’m simply going to concentrate on developing the Landseer as a replicable machine; replicable by me or anyone else who is taken by the design concept and wants to build one.

SC: I had no intention of buying another bike but, should you ever get any backing and become able to build bikes to sell, incorporating some of my ideas for a touring version, I would be your first customer! Where I now live, in France, there are so many thousands of green roads for walkers and cyclists, not to mention green lanes used by farmers. Should you ever make it to the Aveyron, you would get a very warm welcome and good food and wine.

GA: I’ll remember that! Thanks.