In Business Life Cycles

Listen to Life Cycles (08/04/2010)

The wonderfully observant Michael Flanders, late father of my colleague Stephanie Flanders (as revealled in Radio 4's Flanders on Flanders), used to quote an old lady who – he said – was of the opinion that if God had intended us to fly, he would never have given us the railways. You can say the same thing about cars and bicycles.

Bikes are civilised, silent and small. At least they are on their own. Put people on them and things get more complicated.

There seems to be a cycle boom in London, induced by recession and the congestion charge. Commuter cycle routes are clogging up at rush hours, just like roads and railways.

Bikes and pedestrians normally don't seem to mix (though there are one or two places where they are made deliberately to share crossings and whizz across pavements together, and both sides cooperate, just for a moment).

Parts of London are now almost like Shanghai 15 years ago, such swarms of cyclists that they overrun everything in their path.

But now China, once the land of the bicycle, has taken to the merciless motor car. In Beijing and Shanghai there are streets where cycling is banned, a heart-wrenching sight.

This programme is not so much about the ethos of cycling as the ways people keep building businesses around the idea of new kinds of bikes.

We hear from Andrew Ritchie, the man who spent years wrestling with the idea of building a better folding bike than was generally on offer 35 years ago when he started work on what became the Brompton. He seems to have succeeded; Brompton's well orchestrated factory in Brentford in West London is now the biggest bike maker in Britain.

Ice Cream

In the intriguing once mafia-dominated New York neighbourhood of Ozone Park in the borough of Queens (it seems a long way from Manhattan, even though it's only half an hour's drive) we hear the story of Worksman tricycles, a company 111 years old.

Worksman were lofted to national fame by being picked to make the Good Humor Ice cream carts decades ago. Then in World War Two a member of the Worksman family discovered the vast size of industrial plants outside New York ... particularly those of the aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing. Trikes can carry loads of up to a quarter of a ton, ideal for engineers with tools to cart around the aircraft plant.

Industrial tricycles have been in demand ever since. They were green long before the idea was invented. Tiny family-owned Worksman has long outlasted the great native American cycle makers such as Schwinn, whose brand is now put on bikes made in Asia.

The most intriguing insights into the bicycles business in the programme come from Mike Burrows, still building bikes by hand in his small workshop on the outskirts of Norwich, England.

Mike is an acknowledged bicycle revolutionary. He created the Lotus carbon fibre 108 time trial bike on which Chris Boardman won a British gold medal in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

In the 1990s Mike worked with the Taiwanese company called Giant that has single-mindedly become the biggest bicycle corporation in the world. They built a series of prototypes from Mike's designs that might have revolutionised cycling ... with one prong "forks" for the wheels, for example, giving immediate access for wheelchanging.


Mike's moulded monocoque carbon-fibre bicycle bodies are light, strong and include everything in the frame including the powertrain. They are very impressive.

But, he says, he was working in a very conservative industry.

Parts suppliers working on huge volume production proved unwilling to change their designs to pack parts such as gears into the moulded frames. The cycling sports authorities – says Mike Burrows – rejected his radical reshaping of the bike.

I must say I like the traditional sit–up–and–beg bicycle, but designers are always trying to improve on its more than 100–year–old design.

Based in Ely, in the flat Fenlands of Cambridgeshire, Richard Thorpe has recently started his Gocycle company, adding a battery-powered booster engine which cuts in as soon as the weary commuter presses the red button on encountering a headwind or a hill.

Richard Thorpe says that powered bikes are a really expanding part of the marketplace in Europe, and his magnesium frames make the Gocycle the lightest there is.

They certainly whoosh off impressively at up to 15mph when you press the red button. But, rather sniffily, I suggested that this was really cycling for people who didn't want to cycle.

Of course Richard Thorpe rejected this, forcefully. We bikers are so-o-o-o conservative.

Listen to Life Cycles (08/04/2010)

Previous Programmes

Watch Your Language - Peter Day joins a group of enthusiasts determined to improve the language of business.

Keep it Local - As pubs struggle to survive, Peter Day travels through villages in Yorkshire and Cumbria to talk to local activists.

Space - Peter Day asks what happens next on the USA's journey into space.

German Pencils - Peter Day asks Faber-Castell and Staedtler how they both stay sharp ...

Building BRICS - Peter Day finds out about the BRICS - Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and China

Over A Barrel - Peter Day contemplates the turmoil in the Middle East and fears it will affect the price of oil

Reconstructing Capitalism - Peter Day hears all about the challenges to the way capitalism works.

All at Sea - Peter Day hears all about sea transport.

China Dispossessed - Peter Day hears about some of the problems caused by China's rush for prosperity.

Back on the Road - Alan Mulally tells Peter Day how he changed the way Ford works and how it is now back in the business of selling cars.

Asia Bling! - Peter Day ponders how the rise of the Asian comsumer will change business.

Euro on the Rocks - Peter Day asks what is the future for the Euro?

Bitter Pills - Peter Day looks at changing face of drug development.

Operation Robot - would you allow a robot to operate on you? Peter Day looks at robot-assisted surgery.

Growing Pains - Peter Day asks, what is the main component of growth?

After the Crunch - Government funding and regional development: the view from Newcastle.

Chips off the Old Block - Computing in the UK, past, present and future.

Hidden Depths - Graham Hawkes, DeepFlight and exploring the oceans.

Sociability - How social technology makes new business models possible.

Are CEOs Up to the Job? - Two thirds aren't according to Xinfu's Steve Tappin. Peter Day investigates.

In at the Start - Saeed Amidi and Silicon Valley

Power Play - Is the 'smart grid' the start of something big?

Now Wash Your Hands Please - How a simple idea can transform lives in the developing world

Coming Soon - What can the experience of previous financial crises tell us about the current one?

Ticking Over - Can the Isle of Man rejuvenate the business of watchmaking?

Not Just Silicon - what can Silicon Valley teach us about innovation?

Press under Pressure - what lies ahead for the world of newspaper publishing?

Remembering CK Prahalad - in a world of change and multiple opportunities, how does a company keep up?

Rwanda Rising - building a clean safe state where business can flourish.

Life Cycles - building businesses around the idea of new kinds of bikes.

Who Sets Our Standards - the business and social benefits of standardisation.

Ready to wear - the ethical issues of the international clothing industry.

Doing It Wrong - what's wrong with the way business works?

New Age - the business of aging.

Project Alcatraz - rehabilitating offenders in Venezuela.

Selling Salvation - Peter Drucker and the Salvation Army.

Let Me Entertain You - office parties and away days.

Brazil's Sugar Rush - Brazil.

Small Wonder - microfinance.

Unlimited Company - organizational models.

Credit Crunch - cash and credit.

Student Startups - student entrepreneurs.

Media Mayhem - changes in the newspaper industry.

Squeaky Clean - branding.

Battery Power - Bolivia.

Women's Work - women in the city.

Hell For Leather - John Timpson and Timpson's Shoes.

Learning Curve - organisational culture.

Let's Start a Bank - banking.

Goodbye to Intel - Craig Barrett and Intel.

Location Location - So?

Iceland feels the Heat - the credit crunch in Iceland.

The Cisco Kid - Mike Lynch and John Chambers.

Grand Design - business schools.

Power Drive - the car industry.

All New - innovation.

Europe on the edge - What is this thing called "Europe"?

For more programmes visit the In Business programme archive.

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