Puro Ciclismo has interviewed Alessandro Belli, Bike Intermodal project coordinator. The Bike Intermodal, the UE-funded project has developed a new prototype of folding bike that weighs only 7.5 kg and is folded to the size of a box of 50 cm x 40 cm x 15 cm, so that storage and transportation is very simple.
1- How difficult is designing a 7,5kg folding bicycle with a volume that is 1/5 of the average one?:
Mr. Belli: It was a complex problem, as there are FOUR bicycles in one.
All four with their specific set of constrains:
• The ERGONOMIC bicycle.
That is the configuration one expects from a well-designed bicycle.
With correct relations between body, seat, handlebar, pedals and so forth. And with a reasonable range of adjustments, as we chose a stature range from 156 to 192 cm.
Not only. A serious bike must show "neutral" steering reactions, be "stable" and not too "nervous", so that one can steer "no hands".
We dealt with this area allocating a good 15% of the budget; we even built a study model -ridable on the street- with twelve independent adjustments: head angle, wheelbase, center of gravity position, rake, tread, multi-parameter handlebars etc.
An absolute first in the bike ergonomics, that no one has never done.
• The COMPACTED bicycle.
Fitting in a 50x40x15 cm box, and -obviously- made by the same parts of the marching, opened up bike.
Must be compact, relatively "nice" and with a sense of order.
• The KINEMATIC bicycle.
It automates the transition between the two configurations.
Must be simple, have few parts (guess what, the same of the other two bikes!), and trajectories that avoid collisions among the parts.
• The STRUCTURAL bicycle.
When open and running, it provides the necessary stiffness.
It must be very rigid in order to give a good sense of control, comfort and safety. Bicycles are designed for stiffness, not ultimate strength (no one cares if the bike can withstand an impact with a truck), and again, must be made with the same pieces of the above three bikes…
The solution came by means of a hinged, "tensegrity", "space frame".
A "space frame" is a structure where all elements are loaded by perfectly rectilinear forces. Efficient, as all materials work best this way.
A "tensegrity" is a space-frame when some elements are in tension and play against other in compression in order to stay up. The more the tension, the stiffer it gets.
There are many examples of structures that rely to the same principle to maintain shape and efficiency: the boat riggings and the rim and spokes wheels, or with different materials, the car tyres (compressed air against tyre skin), and many others, some also found in biology.
Although our scheme is unique and original, there are at least three interesting historical "relatives": the Pedersen (1895 and still in production) for the cables, The Moulton for its space-frame, and partially also the Slingshot bicycle.
2- How long happened between the first design up to his sale?:
Mr. Belli: It did take a long time. It is the classic, slow-cooked "project in the drawer", that all designers have due to the continuous exposure to a multiplicity of contacts, experts, technologies and so forth.
Let us say we asked ourselves questions for a long time and then we had the last four years to answer them.
3- The bicycle needs little space so, do you think this will do it more attractive for the people?:
Mr. Belli: Definitely!
In abstract terms, a bicycle (folding or not) can be seen as "some technology added to the human body to go faster on its own power". If that technology had "Zero weight" and "Zero volume" (like a ring on your finger, for instance), everyone would have one, price considerations aside.
We just reduced the volume to 1/5 of mainstream and 1/3 of the record holder, and halving the weight per comparable performance.
We think it should have some effect.
4- Do you believe that this bicycle will revolutionize the urban transport?:
Mr. Belli: 1. Revolution. Let's not get carried away… I see our bicycle as a new "developmental platform", an enabling technology that can develop the full potential of the idea of "portable" or even "prosthetic" vehicles. It is a good idea that has been around for decades. It never flew because it remained captive of the bicycle industry and its supply chain, which is totally unfit to move beyond a certain image of "dwarf bikes", of contraptions like a smartphone with a rotary disc and a handset.
2. Revolution in the bicycle industry? It is possible, but only for the folding bikes.
Our bike is designed to take advantage of a modern, automotive-style supply-chain, and to be produced on automated assembly lines, with a short list of materials and parts for total traceability and recyclability.
We made such an effort to redefine the way folding bikes can be produced, because we believe that the promise of an "intermodal" synergy of bicycle and urban transport is a sound one.
3. On the other hand. If one embarks in a very innovative product has a moral obligation, towards all who believed in the effort, to produce something that is a game changer. Who developed the LCD screen, didn't expect to coexist with the cathode-ray tube televisions.
4. Also, something strikes me as very, very strange. No bicycle company has ever done research on folding bikes. Only individual inventors, or self-styled individual researchers as Sir Clive Sinclair. Few designers, like Sanders, Sapper and myself. Some became entrepreneurs -Daniel Hon and Andrew Ritchie the most successful in different ways-, but no established company invested a penny in folder's research. Why?
5- In a few years, do you think the bicycle will be the way of transport in the city?:
Mr. Belli: 1. "In the future, everyone but the wealthy, will be very healthy" (David Byrne)
I believe that all bicycles -rigid, foldable, normal or assisted- will have an ever growing impact on the urban transport. Maybe not "THE" way, but one of the three main ways: personal vehicles, autonomous self-driving vehicles, and high-capacity lines of trains and subways.
They will cover a larger spectrum of distances and transport cases, and will be part of a complex, gradual refinement in the urban transport in the next decades following the technologic evolution dominated by the end of the internal combustion engine superseded by the all-electric traction, enabled by the graphene-based capacitor-batteries.
Supercompacting-superlightweight folding bikes (weighing 2 kg and 5-cm thick, and of course built on our platform) will have the role of a sort of "lubricating molecule" in the system.
2. At some point the transport scenario will be re-organized downsizing all operations, as all natural and human phoenomena inevitably tend to a more efficient configuration.
"Efficiency" could be defined in more ways, the Wuppertal Institut defines it in terms of "cost of natural resources per Service Unit", that is: car companies eventually should sell you kilometers, not cars. Refrigerator companies should sell you time and weight of "food freshness", instead of refrigerators.
In this view a superlight vehicle as a bicycle would sell you a "kilometer" at an economic, social and environmental cost much lower than a car.
My definition of efficiency is more "industrial": if a CEO of any company would buy expensive and sophisticated capital assets to keep them unutilized for the 96% of the time, the stockholders wouldn't just fire him; they would execute him publicly in front of the headquarters.
But this is exactly what today's car industry is. An enormous parking lot full of unused, expensive, sophisticated technology.
6- Which will be the prize of the bike?:
Mr. Belli: When in fully-optimised production, the bike could cost €800 for a version without a motor and €1,300 for the power-assisted model. A very minimal, fixie -style version could cost as little as €500
7- Where we can buy the bike?:
Mr. Belli: Nowhere, is not in production yet.

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