Bikes designed to keep us riding into old age

Rob Ainsley welcomes Islabikes’ Icons range designed for older riders

Cycling’s new age illustration

I started riding when I was four. The roads were busy with kids playing football, and you had to dodge the milk floats. My first bike was a cheap, heavy monstrosity that weighed half as much as me. Mind you, my current runabout’s the same.

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I’m a lifer. Always cycled, always will. No car, which means social exclusion at parties when people talk about fuel prices, or how impossible it was to park. And I hope I’ll still be cycling in old age. (My nephew’s reply: Don’t worry, you are.)

Anyway, cradle-to-grave-cycling has been in the news more recently because Islabikes, which makes ‘proper’ children’s bikes, has this year turned its attention to old people too. The company came about in the mid-2000s when Isla Rowntree’s sister asked her – as a downhill champ who clearly knows bikes – to recommend a quality kids’ option, not a toy. She couldn’t find one, so she started making them.

Islabikes are tailored to the junior physique: light frames, brakes for small hands and simple gearing. Perhaps another of Isla’s relatives asked her to recommend an older person’s bike, and she couldn’t find any of those either, because she’s started making bikes for us. I mean, er, them.

The range aimed at riders aged over 65 include the Joni, Jimi and Janis bikes

Islabikes Icons range

The three bikes in the oldies’ ‘Icons’ range are called Janis, Jimi and Joni. While Joni Mitchell is still around at 75, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix are members of the ‘27 club’ of musos who died tragically at that age. Arguably less encouraging role models for cycling into maturity. At least they didn’t call the other bike ‘Jim’.

The bikes in the Icons range are characterised by lightness, comfort (step-through frames), low gearing (1×11, 30/40 lowest), and less obvious touches such as small-lipped rims that enable ageing hands to get tyres off easily. If you don’t appreciate it, your local mechanic will.

I enjoy the novelty and comfort of sideways mounts and dismounts when I’m on my own folder

Not every oldie needs a special bike. Take Robert Marchand, the engaging French supercentenarian who holds all the world cycling records in the 105-plus age category. (Well, he’s the only competitive cyclist in the 105-plus category.) He rides a conventional frame, and perhaps other people mend his punctures while he gives interviews. Perhaps he also has a weary smile for journalists who say, “So, Monsieur Marchand, 107-year-old cyclist, what is your secret for living so long?”, and replies, “Ah, mon brave, you’ve answered your own question.”

Other longevity-friendly bikes are available of course. E-bikes extend riding days when the spirit is willing, but the flesh wants to stay in and watch Countdown. And Dawes has been doing ‘low-step’ frame versions of all its models – road, town, touring, mountain bike etc – for two years now. Much kinder to old hips, or old hipsters.

That’s a bit different, admittedly: such frames have always been around (if not always on display in shops). They simply used to be called ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’. The change is not virtue-signalling; rather an acknowledgement that, actually, there’s little evidence for ‘women’s frame’ bikes. Parts, yes – brakes, bar width, certainly saddle shape – but simple data shows that, contrary to what most think, women’s leg and arm lengths in proportion to height are identical to men’s. (Though shorter people of either sex have proportionally shorter limbs, and women tend to be shorter.)

Some older cyclists I know still use their full-frame road bikes for longer runs, but for hop-on hop-off town trips, they switch to a folder for its step-through frame (and bus-pass possibilities). At the extreme, Dahon’s Ciao step-through is lower than some supposedly dropped kerbs I’ve seen on bike paths here in York, UK.

And I enjoy the novelty and comfort of sideways mounts and dismounts when I’m on my own folder, not having to cock my leg constantly like a territorial dog. It rides well, and sometimes I forget I’m not on a full-frame bike. Until I stop at the lights, place a foot either side, and expect the top tube to rest against my thigh.

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But chapeau to Isla for recognising that we all want to keep riding, on decent bikes, into old age. Time may be marching on – but on a bike, we can usually outpace it.