How a pencil beats the cycle industry

How a pencil beats the cycle industry

By Neil Sutton

Neil Sutton is as likely to be talking to customers as he is in the workshop. And when he’s designing, he arms himself with pencil and paper.

This last bit’s important. It’s heart-warming in this modern world that one man can take on the might of the cycle industry and win. Neil’s latest is the Colibri Ti, which won 2020 Women’s Bike of the Year in Cycling Plus magazine. Neil designs every Sonder bike. He listens to where you ride, what you like to do and what you love about the bikes you ride; he is painstakingly meticulous in the details.

So how is Neil able to take on the biggest names in the industry? Let’s ask him:

Obsessive Design

I start with the journey a bike is for. If I’m designing a bike to take to the mountains I ask questions like, “Will people be pedalling a few hours or all day?”, “Is this a bike for flat-out speed?”, “What about fun on tight, twisty trails?", or "How about the things you carry with you?"

This means I am clear and specific about the character I want from each bike. It lets me focus on ride quality so I can get the materials and components right from the start. Character comes from mixing the big decisions with the small details. With the Signal, I knew it was a trail bike built for riding fast. So it had to be a 29er for pace. But it had to be a good pedaller too and somewhere you’d want to sit all day. To give that comfort, I knew it had to be a titanium frame. Those are the big decisions.

Then it comes to the more subtle details. Things like wheel base, reach, stack height, chainstay length. Small changes here massively change how a bike rides and handles. Here’s an example. You need a long wheelbase to make a bike that’s stable at speed – a 20mm change in wheelbase will dramatically change stability. But you have to be really careful where to add that 20mm. To keep the bike playful, you need to keep the chainstays nice and short. So the 20mm needs to go into the front triangle. But again, you can’t just make the top tube longer because then the bike won’t climb so well. So tweak the seat angle to add that 20mm and keep the ride character. It's the details that are important.

Built in the best factories in the world

I’m picky too when it comes to the build quality of our bikes. I spend time making sure factories meet our exacting standards. We want bikes to last for years and we want them to look great. We work with amazing factories where craft and workmanship are outstanding. It’s a pleasure to see my designs built by the people we work with. We once made a custom belt-drive titanium bike for a customer so needed a hidden join to pass the belt through. Honestly, if I didn’t show you where the join was, you’d spend a long time finding it.

Testing in the real world

We test by riding. In the places and conditions the bikes are designed for. We have some quite incredible Sonder riders that test our bikes and give feedback so each bike is spot on.

I ride all bikes myself to make sure they ride as I intend. For the Evol I was up in Fort William, pedalling round the red route then up on the lift to ride fast down Top Chief. It’s only when you spend long hours on a bike and really pushing it that you really know whether you’ve got it right. The Evol’s amazing – I got it up to 58kph on two-foot wide board walk at the top of Top Chief.

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