Interview with David Cleaver, founder of Inspired Bicycles and designer for the trials riding world.
You might have seen trials riders in rapid, blink-and-you-miss-it action on a Town Hall steps near you (and the YouTube video featuring trials hero Danny MacAskill riding one of Cleaver's frames is nearing its ten millionth viewing).
Riders jump their bikes on to, over, across, to and from obstacles: steps, columns, railings, walls, trees, rocks, using brakes and body weight for balance, never putting a foot down. It is jawdropping, awesome stuff.
For Cleaver, and the riders who spend hours, obsessively, on each move, it approaches normality. And so there is workaday precision in the way Cleaver talks about the sport and its requirement for a “massively over-engineered frame”: “I could do the majority of my riding on a £200 bike, but it wouldn’t survive more than one hour of riding without one or more components failing; the geometry and weight of the bike would also limit the rider’s ability.”
Trials is an offshoot of mountain biking with a cluster of governing bodies worldwide, competitions, championships and a growing body of riders, including a few thousand in the UK. It's a competitive sport although Inspired's target market, who ride on 24” wheels, are largely street-based (see panel).
Cleaver, who is from Hull, started mountain biking at 12 during a trip to the Lake District with his father. “We rented mountain bikes one day and went on a long ride. I got absolutely soaked and covered in mud but loved every minute of it. Within a week of getting back I had my first mountain bike magazine and within a few months I was trying to do my own frame designs, they were very much based on looks as opposed to function,” he says.
“I was forever taking things apart, normally never to be put back together again. Lego and sports were my main interests for years, I would spend hours either making Lego models or out playing cricket and football from first thing in the morning until it got dark. But when I started becoming interested in mountain bikes and motorbikes my interests switched to more mechanical products and increasingly complicated assemblies.”
A degree in engineering seemed the obvious choice but Cleaver missed the necessary maths A-Level grade to study mechanical engineering. Instead he studied sports technology at Loughborough University, graduating in 2004.
“I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do after uni. I had originally wanted to go into motorsport, but I knew that without a high maths grade that would be tricky. I did some work in bike shops and importers during university holidays, that helped me to start up a retail business with a friend, and with connections I made in that field I was able to go on to working on my own products.”
Trials bikes are, says Cleaver, “a bit of a nightmare from a design point of view”, although not as technical, as “mechanical engineering-based”, as you might think. They don't require complex suspension design, but there is a tricky balance to achieve between strength, stiffness and low weight.
“The requirements for a trials frame in terms of strength are very different to normal bikes, each contact point between the ride and bike comes under a lot of stress due to the physical nature of the sport, this can make designing a strong yet light frame very challenging.
“I didn’t do any training or studies to do with bike design specifically, but the engineering and scientific knowledge my degree gave me worked well with my keen interest in the sport as well as the technical aspect of the equipment.” (Check out his website for a technical discussion of Inspired's Fourplay frame and how it enables riders to incorporate more dynamic moves into their routines.)
He was put in touch with a manufacturer in Taiwan, and went out to look at the factories. “It was unbelievable. It's supposed to be work but I have almost never had a more unbelievable three days in my life. I got to see as far down the process as you can see; I'd got to see where the vast majority of the high end mountain bikes parts in the world get produced.”
He got a couple of frame samples made, tested them, and went into production. Because he'd let the trials world know what he was doing through Internet forums the retailers and potential customers already knew his product, effectively taking care of marketing and sales.
He now runs Inspired from Loughborough, working seven days a week on getting frames and components made, imported, distributed and sold, and refining and creating new design - his current to-do list of design ideas runs to several pages of bullet points.
“Trials is very geeky. I would say I am quite a geeky person. I like bikes. I like that little detail most people don't care about and trials is like that in terms of the sport. It's attention to detail, every tiny thing makes a difference.
“If I was a true hard-nosed businessman then I think a lot of my products would be quite different to how they have actually turned out. The key is often in the small details that other manufacturers sometimes don’t fully appreciate; if the company was too focused on profits I am sure the products would suffer as a result.”
The only disadvantage for Cleaver is that his work, and passion for riding itself, are so intertwined.
“If you are working 12 hour days and then your preferred way to wind down is to do an activity based around the same topic it can become very hard to switch off. It works both ways though; it can give you extra insight into how to improve your products, due to your appreciation of it all as an end user, but if you are not careful it could also spoil your hobby.
“But if you are lucky enough to make a career out of a hobby you love, then you will basically be getting paid to do something you love day in day out, so your leisure time can be filled with other hobbies.”