Pole Bicycles is a new brand that has gained a huge amount of interest over a very short period of time, due to either appearing with a bike that met the mode of extremely long, low, and slack at the right time, or being part of pushing that movement. The brand's Finnish founder, Leo Kokkonen, showed me some renderings of a carbon version of the 29'' wheeled Evolink 140mm that I tested earlier this year, followed by a scale 3D printed model. He then headed full steam ahead to a carbon factory in China to sign-off on the project.
He was excited about going carbon, like many brands are—the lure of lighter, stiffer, stronger, less limitation and poor ethics. Hang on... touting a product as unethical isn't something we hear in the marketing brochures and I am not here to say one way or another what I think of this material; industry stalwarts like Max Commençal and Gavin Vos (of Spank and IXS clothing) have been vocal in the past about sticking with aluminum production for various reasons, and there are some clear up, and downsides to this black art. The following is a short interview with Leo on what he found in China and how that affected his decision to cancel the carbon project.
You showed me a sneak peek of renderings of the carbon Pole project earlier this year, but how much time and effort did you invest in that?
Our goal is to create bikes that ride amazingly good. We started with the kinematics and geometry. Second, we choose the material that is strong enough and gives the best feeling to the ride. The third most important aspect for us is the aesthetics. We started the process in 2014 by ordering a study from a university student who was doing his master's degree. We needed first to understand the carbon design and manufacturing processes. Then we started to design the carbon frame. Carbon frame design differs from aluminum bike design a lot, and that means more 3D work than in individual tube design. There were two years of concepts, mockups, and two complete frame 3D printouts, so I would say that there’s a lot of work that is almost thrown away. Although the conceptual design will carry forward to our next aluminum bike.
What did you discover when you went to China to view the factory and sign off on the project?
Carbon fiber frame manufacturing is labor intensive work. We learned that there’s no way of automating the carbon fiber process. This means that all the labor in carbon manufacturing has to be in low-cost countries; Myanmar, for example. We found out that also the carbon waste is not handled properly. The factory where we visited stated that the carbon waste is “ocean fill.” I guess it means that they dump it in the ocean...
That might change in the future, but still, we are not interested in a process where you need to invest a lot in something that is so risky in many ways.
Did you just choose a crappy factory by accident that wasn't doing a good job? The big brands must use facilities with higher standards?
I think that there is no point in visiting crappy places. Personally, I hate wasting time on low-end processes. The factory we chose to visit makes frames for many big brands in MTB industry. My business ethics says not to tell which but let’s say that they have made one of the lightest full suspension frames on the market recently for a big player in Europe. Their process is as professional as it can be in my opinion. The factory was clean, and the workers looked relatively happy. The only thing they didn’t do professionally was the recycling. Lack of recycling is a big problem in the Middle East, and China is one of the worst.[Failed to load Instagram embed]
What do you think the environmental/ethical costs are of producing a carbon frame in China over your alloy bikes that are made in Taiwan?
Aluminum is 100% recyclable, and there is a growing need for aluminum in the world. This means that even though aluminum needs a lot of electricity and the mining of Bauxite is not safe; we are helping society in the long term by adding more aluminum to the pool of material available to recycle. This means that every bike we make is going to be recycled to a different product after its life has ended.
Carbon is not recyclable, and the resin used in the frame is toxic. Most of the jobs that involve resins are ranked high in the health risk jobs. There is no need for recycled carbon fiber at the moment, and there is not a worldwide process that would recycle carbon fiber products. I can’t say how much of this problem is from bikes as the biggest carbon waste comes from airplanes, but still, there's not enough carbon waste that it would be a business – it's landfill material after use. The most toxic part of the carbon frame is the resin.
Besides that it's not really recyclable at the moment, what do you think the other disadvantages of carbon are?
The biggest of them all is that carbon frames really don't seem to give as big of an advantage that we might think. By our standards, the frame should take a real beating. The light full suspension MTB frames we have seen recently are close to the weight of road bikes from ten years ago. That’s insane from our perspective. We think that you should be able to ride fast with the bikes that we make. We want the frames to take a beating so that you don’t need to worry when you crash if the bike is ok or not. I personally have spent thousands of Euros on components and gear that I thought would last at least one season but they have failed because they have been designed with lightweight and not longevity in mind.
When we wanted to make a frame that is strong enough by our standards, the weight difference between metal and composite on trail bike seems to be fairly low. If riders invest their hard-earned money on properly choosing their parts, there will be a far bigger advantage than losing 1–2kg on the frame. For example, you can use light cranks to save weight and your budget is not going through the roof if they fail. And the best part is that if you break your cranks, they’re easy to replace and continue the season. If you break the frame, you won’t be able to get a spare as quickly as cranks.
How hard was it to can the carbon plan after so much of your time, money, and energy was invested? How close were you to saying "F-it, let's just go ahead with the project"?
Personally, not very hard. We want to do the best, and if we find out that the concept we have does not follow our philosophy, it’s easy to terminate it. It was a relief, actually. Big companies play it safe because they need to. We can lead the way because we can ditch stuff that we don’t like. Pole’s business is to make riding more fun by experimenting with the stuff that nobody has bothered to look at yet. We have already seen now that bigger companies start to turn their boats to new school geometry, slowly.
What are your plans for the future of this project, and what else are you doing to make your company more environmentally friendly?
We think that robotics, artificial intelligence, and digitalization are the keywords of modern business. If we harness these, we can make the world a much better place for everyone. We have a plan that is quite radical, and if it works, it will revolutionize the industry.
If you care about the environment and human rights, you should ask your brand how they make sure that these things are taken care of. Pole is a small company, and we cannot change the Chinese factory's strategies. We choose to use our brains over our wallets and create our own future. We have created a manufacturing method that is going to be the next big thing. It’s 98% ready, so you can expect news later this year.
Leo certainly has some strong opinions on carbon fiber and why he won’t be going down that road. Do you agree? Or is carbon the right material for the job?