Is it “unsuitable” for building bikes indoors? Velo Founders Talk Outsourcing, Frame Materials, and Rebuilding the Folding Bike.

Velo’s Valentin Vodev tells us why they’re moving production to Taiwan, and why they’re anti-carbonโ€ฆ

Over the years, there has been no shortage of engineers and designers who have taken a stab at redesigning folding bikes to varying degrees of success.  Despite that, the market continues to be ruled through the equal hooked up names However, Valentin Vodev – the man behind Austrian folding bike maker Velo – thinks he has the recipe for something different and better.

Certainly the design installation seems to think.  After writing his first sketch for what would become a Vello bike frame in 2013, Valentin and Vello won the Red Dot Design Award, the European Product Design Award and the Austrian State Award for Design.  Ahead of our upcoming review of the Vello bike, we spoke to Valentin to find out moreโ€ฆ

Can you tell us a little about your and Velo’s background…?

Valentin Vodev: I studied product design at the Royal College of Arts.  Interestingly for the cycling business, Mark Sanders [creator of the Strida folding bike] was tutoring there but not in my class.  I heard from a friend who took his class that Mark Sanders basically said don’t make bikes too complicated.  So I’m probably lucky I’m not in their classes because it means I can cycle!

I started making bicycles in 2007 and we have always worked on micro-mobility and electric bikes, electric scooters โ€“ anything that moves on wheels is my passion.  In 2014 we introduced our first folding bike called Velo.  Our company philosophy is focused on micro-mobility and car-free cities, which are now closer than ever.  A folding bike is accessible to everyone and thus it spreads our philosophy of having the ultimate freedom of mobility within the city โ€“ the core concept behind our product.

So what is the secret behind an effective folding bike?

Wello’s DNA has always been cycling first.  We come from a cycling background so we know the importance of having a good bike first.  Then, when you need to fold it, it should be quick and easy.

Since the beginning, the frame geometry of our bikes has remained the same and it has been designed to provide a better ride.  We have a monocoque frame so it doesn’t split in the middle, it’s very stable – it’s like an imaginary triangle frame instead of a step-by-step frame, which provides a less stable ride.  That was very important to us.

The folding mechanism we used on the first generation Velo bikes was not particularly compact.  We have continuously improved it every year so that now the folding system is very small for a 20in wheel bike.  In fact, the Velo is a very small folding 20in bike – you can fit it under a table and it’s slightly larger than any other size of small folding bike.

The folding system and easy folding of the bike is crucial.  How does yours work?

With Vello, the fold does not run in the middle.  That’s easy in the beginning – not easy in terms of construction, but easy for new owners to understand.  Our bikes fold vertically just like a Rice & Muller Birdie or Brampton.  This is a specific folding system for us.  That means you have to learn the steps required to fold it.  We tell our customers, don’t try to fold it for the first time as you’re on the train because you’ll get confused – it’s better to learn how to do it the evening before with a glass of wine and try it a couple of times.

We say you have to practice about 20 times, and after 20 folds and unfolds, you’re an expert.

Your frames are made of steel – why?

Chromoly steel and titanium are our passion.  We don’t like carbon – sorry!  And definitely not carbon for city cycling.  Using our titanium frame, in April we introduced lightweight electric and non-electric folding bikes that are mass-produced and use off-the-shelf components.  Of course, they are very light units, but they are off-the-shelf.

The electric version is less than 10 kg, the non-electric is 6.5 kg, which is like the weight of a racing bike.  The titanium frame we used for that is the same frame that every customer buys and the steel frame is only 1 kg heavier than titanium.

Why did you use off-the-shelf components?

Our philosophy is that Velo owners can use standard components, so you can get the frame and then customize everything.  The concept is that the bike can be serviced anywhere without needing special attention.  You don’t have to buy anything specifically through us – it’s not a locked system.  It was very important to us.  The derailleur, the wheels, the seat, the handlebar, they’re all great components, but they’re all standard components.  That’s why anyone can strip the bike down to its frame and make a superlight version if they want.

If you want to go even lighter, we also have a titanium version.  The difference between the steel frame and the titanium version is 1 kg.  It’s not that much of a difference – it’s a combination of weight savings but a bit of bragging rights for consumers.

Your frames are unique – where are they made?

Our concept in 2014 was to actually make it in Vienna.  It soon became clear that that was not possible, so we looked at production within 500 miles of Vienna.  We did it and we are manufacturing our first frames in 2015 in a small factory in the Czech Republic.  But they imported the tubes from Taiwan, so it was the most logical step for us to move production to Taiwan to improve the technology.

We developed a lot of die casting molds for the frame, so there’s a lot of R&D on that frame โ€“ we do all our R&D in Vienna and we assemble all our bikes in Vienna โ€“ but we had to go to Taiwan for production and develop these diecastings.  We are pushing the boundaries of possibilities in bike manufacturing.  For example, the ISO standard for tolerances is 6mm, our own standard is 0.1mm tolerance โ€“ so our manufacturing process is similar to watchmaking.

How easy is it to find a factory that complies?

It’s hard to do – you have to find someone who wants to push the boundaries.  Our factory is a family owned factory, it is a small factory and we have been working with them for years.

We didn’t go to Taiwan because it was cheap, we went there because it was the only place possible at the moment to weld our frames to the quality we needed.  I think it made us flexible because in Asia it was possible to push the boundaries of bike manufacturing without having to explain why.  In Europe, if you want to do diecasting, people ask if you are in arms manufacturing or the aviation industry.  When you say bicycle, they don’t understand.  European factories were not interested in making items for the cycling industry.

That’s probably why some of our competitors have to make their own frames, but that leaves you flexible.  Some of our competitors have stuck to the same design for over 30 years – it’s hard to invent and improve and implement new technology on bikes if you have your own factory.  We are very obsessed with having the state-of-the-art viable era with the state-of-the-art, maximum green designs.

I have just returned from Italy and there is a resurgence of old school frame building, including brazing.  He basically found some old guys to teach welding to the younger generation.  Italy is a good place for this as these old welders are still alive.  I was very surprised and this is a very new thing – they started last year – but maybe this is the next step for us.

I interviewed people in Brampton and I remember one problem they faced was overseas companies copying their designs and stealing their intellectual property. 

Does that concern you?

We have technical patents on folding system, we have patents on design and we patent them in major countries of the world.  If you try to produce a bike in Moldova and sell it in Moldova, we may not have a patent there.  But if you try in UK, Germany, France, you have to break our patent.

But it’s a important deal.

In China, we’ve Chinese Patent Office lawyers.  We are a completely small company, however we attempt to shield our highbrow belongings in China, and China is a large marketplace.

I generally think, and this is something I tell my colleagues, that if someone tries to copy you, it’s usually your neighbor.  And if they copy you, they’re only copying one part of your brand.  They cannot copy the story behind your brand.  The company is not just made of the product and everything else is irrelevant – the passion we have for our bikes and the connection we have with our customers, the connection we have with our retailers – that’s what made the company.

So you can make a copy of the Brompton – and there are copies of the Brompton – but I doubt many people will want to buy one because it’s not a Brompton.  And in our case, our bike is very hard to copy!

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