Holistic design

The process of designing any bicycle is a series of interacting compromises. Compromise is often perceived as a negative term, but actually it’s more a case of offsetting different and sometimes competing needs to find the sweet spot for the type of riding or the type of rider that the bike is being designed for. 

For example, one compromise might be tyre choice, where comfort has to be offset against rolling resistance. Another compromise might be riding position, where wind resistance has to be offset against long-distance fatigue. Then, when you start looking at the more technical details, similar compromises are appearing all the time with steering, handling, geometry, or any number of other factors.

When a bike is being designed for a child’s much smaller body, the sweet spot is often in a different place than it would be for an adult. At Islabikes we know that all the different decisions we make about our bikes have knock-on effects and can influence things elsewhere. Designing bicycle parts in isolation offers no reward at all because we need to be thinking about all the interactions.

It’s even possible to turn those interactions to our advantage. That’s why we believe our holistic approach to bicycle designing makes Islabikes the best children’s cycles available.

“What’s different about our range of bikes is that it’s not about components on the spec sheet; it’s absolutely about how all the components interact.”

We’re not going to give away all our secrets, but let’s look specifically at how we approach the issue of contact points ― the areas where the rider is in closest contact with their bike ― to demonstrate how our holistic approach to bike design and cycling technology helps give your child a better experience of cycling.

Handlebar, stem and clamp size

We fit our own design of handlebar to all Islabikes. These are fully scaled down in all respects; they’re not just narrower versions of adult handlebars, which is what we see on a lot of other children’s bikes. Of course, it is important that they’re narrower because children don’t want to be riding with their arms wide apart. What’s most important, though, is that every other aspect of the bars is in proportion, too.

A perfect example of our approach to holistic design involves our choice of handlebar stems with our Luath range of drop-bar bikes. Luath handlebars use an old-style 26mm clamp diameter. Modern road and off-road bars use a much bigger clamp diameter and you’ll see these appearing on children’s bikes as well now. But there are some good reasons why we have chosen not to use it.

The central section of these bars is much thicker than the bit you put your hands on. If you’ve got a really fat bulge in the middle and an overall handlebar width that’s much smaller than an adult’s handlebar, it leaves very little room to taper the bar diameter down to a width that is comfortable for children to hold. Children end up with their fingers overlapping the bulge in the centre and they’re back to a ‘fat grip’ scenario, where they can’t get their hands round it safely.

Holistic design - making Islabikes special

That leads on to another problem. With a bulge in the middle of the handlebar that then changes the angle at which a little rider’s hands hold onto the bars. They end up with their elbows pointing outwards in the wind, which is not an efficient riding position and attempting to tuck them in puts their wrists at an awkward angle. With our Luath models, though, riders have a far wider range of places to comfortably hold the handlebar.

Brake arms, brake levers, handlebar and grips

Following on from that, handlebar design also has a vital role to play in an Islabike’s braking performance. We get quite a lot of customers who ask us if they can buy our brakes to fit to another make of bike. In most cases, they bought another bike but then discovered its brakes don’t work as well as the brakes on their friend’s Islabike. However, simply fitting the brakes alone won’t have the same effect.

There are a huge number of reasons why our brakes work so well with smaller rider’s hands. It’s not just about the specific length of brake arm, or our exclusive brake levers, or the diameter of handlebar, or our custom-made super-slim handlebars grips. It’s not even to do with the special modifications our mechanics make when they set up every Islabike.

It’s to do with all these things working together. It’s only when you have all of these components combined that you can feel the benefit of an Islabike’s effective braking.

Crankset, bottom bracket, pedals and saddle height

For child cyclists crank lengths have to be just right. That’s relatively straightforward as long as you’re prepared to invest in the tooling. Saddle height has to be right to correctly stretch the rider’s legs to the pedals for efficient pedaling. However, a child also wants to get their feet on the ground so that they can set off easily and feel safe coming to a stop. Just to further confuse things, the pedals also can’t be so low that they are likely to catch the floor when the bike is leaned over while cornering.

How can we satisfy all those requirements?

Before going further, let’s think of the shape of a cyclist in the saddle as an isosceles triangle. The point at the top of the triangle is the rider’s bottom. The two sides sloping down from this are the rider’s legs. And the flat side at the bottom is the bottom bracket shell between the crank arms, which has a big influence on how wide apart a rider’s legs will be.

This bottom bracket shell is a fixed size so there’s nothing we can do to alter it. That means a rider with shorter legs will find their legs going out to the side at a far greater angle than a rider with longer legs. This increased angle is uncomfortable and also makes it less efficient for pedaling because part of the pedaling force is going off sideways rather than down.

Holistic design - making Islabikes special

However, with Islabikes we’ve custom made our cranks to narrow the Q-factor ― the horizontal distance between crank arms ― bringing the feet closer together and instantly improving the pedaling ergonomics. That’s not the only benefit. Because the distance between the pedals is reduced, and because we also fit custom-made thinner-shaped pedals, it means we can also lower the bottom bracket closer to the ground and still maintain a safe lean angle. Then, because the bottom bracket is closer to the ground, children can get their feet down when they want to stop, thereby feeling safer in the saddle, too.

So, a bit of intelligent design makes for more efficient and comfortable pedaling; safer lean-over height; and a better sense of security in the saddle. As the cherry on the cake, thinner pedals save a little bit of weight over fatter pedals, too.

Chainguard, crankset and pedals

A further equation in the crankset conundrum can involve chainguards. Chainguards are very popular on small children’s bikes because they stop little fingers from getting hurt and little legs from getting oily. However, the constraints around fitting them are often the tightest because the bikes and the riders involved are the smallest. We fit an exclusive chainguard to our Cnoc learner bikes, which we spent time and effort developing in conjunction with specialist manufacturer Hebie in Germany.

One of the reasons we went into so much detail to develop this chainguard was because we didn’t want it to be like the big box chainguards that you see fitted to many small children’s bikes. In order to fit those, the cranks have to placed wide apart with the chainguard slipping into the available space. That’s why the pedals on many young children’s bikes are so far apart.

“We didn’t want to compromise the ergonomics of our bikes so we came up with a completely different chainguard that allows us to keep the pedals just where we want them.”

The knock-on effect of fitting this unique chainguard and our narrow Q-factor cranks is particularly interesting. Having a rider’s feet wide apart is not only uncomfortable and inefficient; the sideways force that comes about as they pedal also has the effect of turning the handlebars. Imagine trying to learn how to ride a bike with your feet miles apart, the bottom bracket really high, your saddle set too low with your knees around your ears as you pedal, or your saddle set too high which means you can’t get your feet down, and when you push on the pedals it’s helping turn the handlebars to one side. That’s not easy to ride!

With our Cnoc range it’s a situation that just doesn’t come about.

But even with our bigger bikes, all the same lessons are enforced to make sure an Islabike rider feels comfortable setting off, stopping, and being able to pedal smoothly in a straight line.

These are just a few examples of the kinds of details and design elements that go into making sure every Islabike feels great to ride. Pick up any of our bikes, study it carefully, and you’ll see intelligent, innovative children’s cycling technology being put to use throughout. It’s taken us years to bring our bikes to this unique level of development. So remember: if you neglect any one of an Islabike’s special ingredients, you simply won’t get an Islabike’s performance.