Nick Larsen is a straight talker, creative thinker and a first class designer with notable commercial success to attest to the strength of his ideas and opinions.
He believes that the consumer is king, and that the ‘enthusiasts’ who account for much of the cycle industry’s workforce only stifle innovation with their own fixed ideas.
He says that laziness is the industry’s greatest barrier to excellence, offering as examples product managers who routinely source items from the same factories, and factories interested only in making further iterations of designs they already produce.
“The only reason we don’t make our saddles in saddle factories is because saddle factories wouldn’t make them,” he says, in the tone of good-natured exasperation that dominates our three-hour conversation.
“We told them what we wanted to do and they said, ‘You can’t do it’.”
Larsen heads the Charge and Fabric brands from a semi-autonomous fiefdom in Frome, 50 miles from the Poole headquarters of parent company, the Cycling Sports Group (CSG), owned by Dorel Industries.
He has increased his team to 13 staff since taking on what might be his biggest challenge to date: creating parts and accessories for all of Dorel’s major brands, including the revered Cannondale, another marque synonymous with innovation.
Bicycle obsessive, consumer champion
Larsen admits to having been obsessed by bicycles from an early age. He surfed the first wave of mountain biking, moving from a Raleigh Grifter to a Muddy Fox Pathfinder in the 1980s, before swiftly graduating to racing.
His instinct for a winning design became apparent at an early age. As a teenager, Larsen won £1,000 in a design competition for his vacuum formed saddlebag. He learned to braze and weld as an A-level student, shelving plans to become an architect and winning a place at Brunel University to study industrial design.
“Basically, everyone [on the course at Brunel] wanted to work with Dyson. I was obsessed with bike stuff. I ended up doing a work placement for Pashley Cycles. It was maybe the second time they’d given a work placement to a student. I loved it.”
The placement led to a full-time position that swiftly bore fruit: Larsen’s first commercial success came with a youth-oriented range of trail and BMX bikes, made in Stratford-upon-Avon, called TVSeries.
He moved to the west country with his wife, and after a brief period with a design agency, struck out as a freelance, gaining Hotwheels International as a client, a BMX importer later acquired by Dorel subsidiary, CSG. He accepted a full-time post on the condition that he continued to work autonomously in Frome.
Larsen persuaded the board to let him create a house brand: one that did not conflict with their core BMX business. The scale of Asian manufacture, and its concomitant pricing structures, had been an eye-opener for Larsen. He now had the buying power at his disposal to produce a bike for as little as £400: a scale beyond Pashley.
Larsen identified an opportunity on which he might dine out forever, were he less driven. His vision for a stripped back urban bike – what would ultimately reach the market as the Charge Plug – would cause a small revolution.
“We focussed on the urban bike, but we were lucky to get there when the fixie trend happened. I’d seen some stuff happening, but it wasn’t trend prediction; it was just luck. We were two years up, specifically on Specialized, who were bringing out the Langster.
“We flooded London and suddenly people started calling – fashion brands, Red Bull, Oakley – and there were literally two or three of us. People thought we were a lot bigger than we were.”
Larsen talks of success gained despite minimal budgets: nothing for marketing, he says, or for tooling. “We had to think about what we could do to add value to the product without adding risk. There was nothing to pay back. It was a great way of learning.”
The story of the Plug carries us to the heart of Larsen’s belief that the consumer is ill-served by an industry of bicycle enthusiasts.
“Charge is all about trying to make products that are much more accessible, much more consumer driven. It’s very hard to get into store, because the whole of the bike industry is [run by] enthusiasts. They like to buy things that they like themselves. They’re not commercial people.
“They’ll pick up a bike and say, ‘That’s heavy’ and I’ll say, ‘The consumer doesn’t care.’ In fact, if you ask a consumer in London what they think of the Charge Plug, heavy doesn’t come into it. People have said to me, in the street, ‘I bought it because it’s really light.’ It’s not light. It just looks light [because] it’s got nothing on it.”
There is a twist, however: the first Plugs to arrive in the UK were the titanium model. The range embodied the Larsen dichotomy: bicycle obsessive and consumer champion.
“People buy [Charge] bikes because they look different to the other bikes; not because they know the brand. They’re not enthusiasts; they just like the look of the bike. It’s how they remember a bike looked, probably. It’s unintimidating. We simplified everything.
“But, very importantly, we continued to develop the high end. We were looking at 3D printing in titanium. We had to do all this stuff to make sure we had an authenticity, because without authenticity, you can’t sell to the bike shops.
“The idea was that there was no input from enthusiasts. I thought that was the weakness of other brands: they were listening to what South Africa said, listening to what the UK said, but they weren’t listening at all to what the consumer wanted.
“That’s fine when you’re in an enthusiast’s market, at a high price point, but it doesn’t help to grow the entry level. They constantly try to make the entry-level bike look like the poor person’s version of the expensive bike.”
Are you sitting comfortably?
Saddles are the other great success story of the Charge brand, which continues to sell hundreds of black, Spoon saddles a week in the UK alone. There were years, Larsen says, when the revenue generated from saddles was greater than from bike sales. The basic version costs £25, yet is routinely fitted to machines costing several thousands.
Larsen’s saddles carry us to the second of his brands: Fabric. His goals of simple design and of championing the consumer’s needs above those of the industry remain, but there is a performance aspect too.
Fabric was born of internal change, namely the purchase of the Hotwheels business by Dorel Industries. Larsen maintains that he has retained autonomy for the Charge and Fabric brands, but refuses to say how. In any instance, Fabric has been tasked with developing parts and accessories for some of Dorel’s major brands, including the revered Cannondale.
Saddles are routinely cloaked in the mystique of complicated fit systems, but Larsen is an evangelist for simplicity here too. Make the foam softer, the base more flexible at recognised pressure points and the saddle will be more comfortable, he insists. Yes, an understanding of physiology is essential, and the long process of a honing a shape unavoidable, but he maintains that a component in which a 5cm difference in width covers an entire industry is too frequently overcomplicated.
He points to three examples from the combined Charge/Fabric stable where comfort was achieved by different methods, whether from shape and materials, or by integrated design. The latter refers to Fabric’s deeply impressive ALM saddle, at once a study of simplicity and sophistication, its carbon base and rail formed as a single structure.
Larsen’s latest design has a cover vacuum moulded over a base of soft, plastic pyramids, easily depressed and surrounded by air pockets. The vacuum moulding removes the hard surface that results from stretching, stitching and stapling a cover into place. It will be made in a shoe factory, the result of another of his philosophies: that opportunity in the cycling market lies in the study of parallel industries.
He has another significant card to play in his quest for innovation: the industrial designers he employs are recruited from outside of the cycle industry. Ian Redfern, who headed development of the ALM saddle, once designed kitchen knives. And Rebecca Crowder joined from a business making clay models for the likes of Aardman Animations.
“In the interview, I said to Nick, ‘I have a bike, but I don’t know what the bits are called’,” she recalls. “He said, ‘No, that’s fine. That’s what we wanted’.”
Crowder has worked closely with Larsen on the development of Fabric’s cageless water bottle, a system of beguiling simplicity. A groove in one side of the bottle slides on to two plastic ‘hats’, one each mounted on the downtube bosses. It is an improvement on similar, but failed designs from past eras.
Larsen has high hopes for the product, one he claims is the lightest and most aerodynamic on the market. It is also among the most versatile, easily swapped from bike to bike, and soon to be produced in numerous iterations, including with a handle.
He compares the cageless bottle to the SPD pedal, both in terms of the initial reservation of enthusiasts and Shimano’s dogged extolling of its value to the consumer until it became the norm.
Larsen admits that enthusiasm within the company for his bottle system was scant, and that many were reluctant even to try it. Those who did, however, were impressed. He gambled by sending it to Pinkbike.com – “probably the most cynical group of people I could have sent it to” – but the gamble paid off. They liked it.
Bike shops, however, have proved harder to convince. Larsen returns again to the dichotomy between the bicycle industry’s enthusiasts and its consumers. There is a phrase he uses often when describing his attempts to convert the insiders: “It’s not for you.”
“It’s a very simple product,” he says of the cageless bottle. “It’s very easy to get the consumer behind it. What’s hard to do is to get the enthusiasts – buyers, bike shops – to support it. They’re very traditional in the way they think. I wouldn’t say they’re not entrepreneurial, but they’re not open to different things.”
Man of many parts
The scope of Larsen’s vision, and of his designers’, has broadened as he sets about expanding Dorel’s parts and accessories market under the Fabric banner.
He claims that such products – saddles, bars, stems, and the like – account for as much as 20 per cent of Specialized’s sales. Why should it not be the same for Cannondale, for example, a brand with a near matchless history for innovation among cycling’s major players? Larsen intends that it will.
His staff will focus on specific categories, rather than brands: a person designing a saddle for a Cannondale road bike might also do the same for a Mongoose BMX. The strategy is deliberate.
“We’ve got huge possibilities and advantages. We’re trying to find out if there’s anything we can do differently. There are two ways of doing that: one is to speak to the consumer and find out what they want. The second is to look outside of our industry. There are lots of parallel industries to cycling, whether it’s a different sport or a different manufacturing industry. Those are where the biggest opportunities come from.”
Each Fabric product begins life as a very tight design brief, with price the most critical aspect. There are a host of other categories too – weight, for example – in which the design must be competitive if it is to make it off the drawing board.
For all Larsen’s championing of the consumer on the one hand, and elegant design on the other, he is realistic. Fabric will explore other categories in which it might hope to be competitive, but will not try to force opportunity where none exists.
”Let’s take for example Garmin: would it be sensible to start looking at computers when we have 13 people here who are specialists in design and graphics? Probably not: it’s technology based and our strengths aren’t in that area. Let’s not make something for the sake of it. Let’s go after a category that works.”
Sourcing is another area in which Fabric can find an advantage, he believes. How and where a product is made makes an enormous difference to the realisation of the designer’s vision.
“I think the bike industry has been fairly lazy in the way in which it’s sourced parts and accessories, because all the pumps come from three factories, all the saddles come from three factories. Really, most of the products in those categories I’ve just mentioned, and others, are just iterations of what the factory offers and not true innovation.”
He seems mildly exasperated by a status quo that sees product managers visit the same factories, and factories produce much the same product again and again. Crowder concurs. While Fabric has now found a factory who understands and is enthused by the cageless bottle, it took a while, she admits.
Design comes first for Fabric, Larsen says, then engineering. And the consumer comes before the design. They are not making products for the sake of it.
“This is what we keep coming back to – that it’s much more important to listen to consumers than to listen to ourselves. We’ve got plenty of examples of products that are successful that some of us didn’t like.”
He tells the story of a multicoloured pack of allen keys, designed by Fabric for Dorel brand GT.
“I said, ‘We can’t do this – they look like they’re from the Early Learning Centre’,” he laughs. “And then we showed them to a few people, and they were like, ‘Wow – what an amazing thing! We now know that the red one is for the seatpost…’
“There is nothing different about these tools; they’re just coloured. Those are the times when you have to keep saying to yourself, ‘We’re not right. We have to ask someone else.’ We nearly didn’t make those tools, until we asked a few people.”
Pure and simple
If Larsen’s best ideas, and those of his team, are simple, it is not to suggest they are simplistic. Simplicity is “a constant goal”, he says, but argues that it comes in many forms, some of which can be expensive. It may be that a simple design reduces production costs, but this not always the case.
He is an admirer of POC, Stefan Ytterborn’s Stockholm-based snow and cycling brand (see 1 #61). There is a key difference, however. Ytterborn is not interested in making products for “mid-market someones”. The ultimate goal is to make a design classic, which he defines as “the best representative of its time”. Fredrik Hallander’s Octal helmet might be taken as the clearest example.
Larsen’s view is subtly, but significantly different. He is driven by making the cheapest product in the range as attractive as the most expensive. Anyone can make a £3,000 bike look good, he argues; it takes skill to make a £300 bike desirable (as well as significant buying power).
We return to Larsen’s Muddy Fox Pathfinder, bought with hard-earned savings as a teenager, and far from the most sophisticated bike on the market, even by the comparatively crude standards of the 1980s, but one that he could race and repair.
Larsen was revolted by the MAMIL-isation of mountain biking: a process begun long before the same happened in the road market. The largest categories when he raced as a teenager were for people of his age. The market has diversified, become elitist, and lost its youthful cohort, he argues.
“You could race competitively on a £400 bike, but it had become so elitist that the level of the bikes had changed. It wasn’t inspiring a youth area. It had become more like golf.”
Larsen has something of the iconoclast about him – he has strong views and is not afraid to voice them – but his confidence is counterbalanced with a wry sense of humour, self-effacement and a modest assessment of his achievements, which he argues are magnified by the general awfulness of the bicycle industry.
“In any other industry, we would not be able to succeed as well as we have,” he says. “I’ve thought that right from the start. We’re not amazing. And if we looked at ourselves in another industry, another discipline, we’d be the norm. The bike industry isn’t very good at it [innovation]. That’s our strength.”
He has his chance now to right some of the wrongs he perceives in his industry, with the backing of one of its biggest players and a small team sprinkled with handpicked outsiders. The results could be worth noting.