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Where nature leads, trendy businesses follow. Cross-pollination is cool. And not just the plant-to-plant variety. I’m talking about innovation. In this age of fast-moving tech businesses and intellectual capital, innovation is no longer a wacky bolton that businesses wear like a badge. Every serious business now expects to have innovation at its core. And one route to innovation is to encourage a diversity of ideas. Companies are beginning to understand that a monoculture severely limits idea generation. Only by using different viewpoints and looking for inspiration beyond a firm’s immediate field of enterprise will it find innovative solutions for the modern world. Unfortunately for bigger corporations, trying to create a culture of innovation and risk is troublesome. The true innovators are mavericks.
In sport, cross-pollination between businesses can be mutually beneficial. Red Bull and GoPro signed a partnership deal in 2016 that has become well-known as one of the most successful examples of co-marketing, a collaboration between two brands. The products of these two brands—energy drinks and action cameras—are not intrinsically linked but the brand identities of both companies are related to action sports, so their audiences have a lot of overlap. Both brands want to convey a sense of adventure and thrill-seeking. Storytelling through compelling content is central to this. Working together, Red Bull can use GoPro’s cutting-edge film technology to capture live action and tell stories with more immediacy. As well as jointly raising customer-awareness of each other’s brands, the two firms agreed to terms that benefited them financially. The lesson? Look for your partners beyond your own backyard.
Prior to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, Great Britain had not won a cycling gold medal for 72 years. Apart from a few outliers like Tom Simpson and Robert Millar, Britain was not considered a cycling nation. In Formula One, however, Britain’s pedigree was proven. Most of the F1 teams were based in Britain, and British engineers and designers proliferated. Lotus was one of the most respected companies in motor sport, and when the UCI changed its rules to allow monocoque frames in 1990, Lotus acquired the rights and the mold to a futuristic frame design that would go on to make history.
The frame had been designed by Mike Burrows, a pioneering and radical bike builder based in Norwich, just down the road from the Lotus headquarters. Burrows had been working on monocoque frame designs for many years, and Lotus brought Formula One engineering and wind-tunnel testing into the mix. The result was the Lotus 108, an outlandishly sleek and aerodynamic track pursuit bike. Paired with the Lotus 108 was the 23-year-old time-triallist Chris Boardman, a talented and meticulous rider coached by Peter Keen, the godfather of British Cycling’s success story.
Boardman came to the Barcelona Games in peak condition and, aboard the Lotus, destroyed the competition. In the final of the 4,000-meter individual pursuit he humiliated Germany’s Jens Lehmann by catching him for half a lap of the velodrome. The British public, watching on television, were shocked and delighted. The British media quickly latched on to the F1 connection, and Boardman’s gold medal was colloquially awarded to British engineering genius. I don’t think Boardman minded too much.
Bicycle manufacturers have often flirted with motor sport companies. De Rosa has worked with Pininfarina, Colnago with Ferrari and Pinarello with Jaguar. And while some of the partnerships have been more about marketing than engineering, the most recent example of cross-pollination to benefit cycling does have more substance. In late 2019, the INEOS team announced that it would be collaborating with the Mercedes F1 team that INEOS co-sponsors, along with the INEOS sailing team (which competed in the Americas Cup), to jointly develop “engineering, human science, simulation and data analysis.” It’s important stuff that may lead to some performance breakthroughs, although not quite as sexy as a bike built in Italy by Colnago and Ferrari.
Perhaps the most successful examples of cross-pollination in cycling are product specific. In the early 1980s French company Look had a ski division, an innovator in the ski bindings market since 1948, and a fledgling bicycle division. Look’s chief designer, Jean Beyl, had been instrumental in developing modern ski bindings, and when he turned his attention to cycling he saw a way to make a safer pedal system. By replacing the traditional metal toe clip and leather strap system with a spring-release mechanism, triggered by a sideways twist of the heel, Beyl invented the first successful clipless pedal. (Purists may argue that Cinelli’s M71 pedal, invented in the 1970s, was actually the first clipless pedal but a rider could only release his foot from the M71 by operating a hand-release lever, and ultimately, the pedal was a commercial failure.)
The Look PP65 debuted in 1984 and instantly won the approval of Look’s star rider, Bernard Hinault. At the 1985 Giro a crash in the peloton brought down many riders but with his new ski-inspired pedals, Hinault was able to quickly release his feet and stay upright. Look filed a 20-year patent for its new technology in 1983, during which time it made clipless pedals for other component manufacturers. And even though the patent expired some time ago, the basic design is still present in most pedals on the market. So, when you next swing your leg over your saddle and clip in, spare a moment’s appreciation for Jean Beyl—who died in 2008 at age 82.
And if you happen to be wearing Lycra shorts as you swing your leg over the bike you can also thank the skiing world for another innovation. When Toni Maier founded the ASSOS company in 1976 he was already well-established in the bike industry. And being Swiss, he was also a fan of downhill ski racing. When the Swiss national ski squad began using Lycra in their clothing, Maier instantly saw the potential benefit for cyclists. He contacted DuPont, which held the Lycra patent, and with its blessing began designing the first pairs of Lycra cycling shorts. A canny businessman, Maier gave his new shorts to Swiss professionals Daniel Gisiger and Urs Freuler, knowing he could depend on them to tell their colleagues in the peloton just how comfortable their new ASSOS shorts were. When Gisiger won the 1981 Grand Prix des Nations time trial in an ASSOS Lycra skinsuit, the professional peloton began to understand the performance benefits too.
With the technology that underpins contemporary cycling gear, the world of toe clips and wool shorts can seem a long way back. Cross-pollination continues within cycling’s disciplines: Disc brakes, tubeless tires and push-fit bottom brackets all started life in mountain biking and moved across to cyclocross, road and gravel. A central part of mountain biking’s DNA has always been to develop new technology to better cope with the demands of hammering a bike across rough terrain. In the early West Coast days of the sport there was no history, no benchmark and no governing body. Anything went. Remember John Tomac riding a Raleigh mountain bike with drop handlebars and a rear disc wheel?
As mountain biking became more structured as a sport during the 1990s and the engineering of its bikes became more consistent, several companies began working on prototype disc brakes. In the mid-1990s most riders were using V-brakes, which were only marginally more effective than their rim brake cousins, as seen on road bikes. Cross-country racers were happy with their V-brakes and when the breakthrough disc brakes came along, most significantly the Hayes Mag brake, they were dismissed. It seemed too much. Who needed all that braking power?
We do, said the downhill racers. When you throw yourself off the side of a mountain and want to ride right on the edge of control, with potentially fatal consequences if you get something wrong, you want good stopping power. You also don’t care about adding weight to your bike. So disc brakes took hold and became ubiquitous in mountain biking before making the jump to road bikes. Not that roadies seem to really appreciate the technological advances that mountain biking has given them. Somehow, the aerodynamic glamour of Formula One seems to be much more attractive.
Today, the biggest bike manufacturers cover all the categories: road, gravel, ’cross, mountain biking, leisure. Cross-pollination is built into their design process. If a fabric is developed for a mountain bike jersey, it will likely also find a home in the road apparel collection. If a new tire tread pattern is designed for a ’cross bike, the engineers will look at whether it can also be used on a gravel or mountain bike. Arguably, drop-handlebar bikes are becoming virtually the same across the three categories, with only the tires substantially different. This is good. It provides us riders with consistently high-quality design.
Perhaps, however, the bike industry needs to be careful it doesn’t become too inward-looking. Only by looking out into the wider world will new moments of inspiration come along. We need the radical thinkers, the innovators and the idea-poachers. Corporations cannot create such people because they are independent, free-spirited. They are busy innovating. And I know one thing for sure: They don’t sit at home and watch Ted Talks about cross-pollination.