A closer look at Fourty Bikes
Fourty Bikes is a new Australian bike company that was created to bring a street-savvy urban cruiser to market for a very different demographic: 7-12 year old kids. I recently spent some time with Simon Coates, the company’s founder and managing director, to learn more about what inspired him to create a new bike brand.
More than one million bikes have been sold each year in Australia since 2002 but it is still unusual for a new brand to enter the market, especially if it is Australian. Fourty Bikes was born in Perth and debuted its range of urban cruisers for kids at the 2011 Ausbike show. Simon Coates created Fourty Bikes about four years ago when he was training for a marathon. They say that necessity is the mother of all invention and in this case, Coates wanted a bike that was both comfortable and efficient so that his kids could join him on some of his long training runs. “The bikes we had were pretty slow, meaning I would always be stopping. We ended up getting some old BMX race bikes, which absolutely flew. From there I kept thinking about a bike that had all the benefits of a BMX race bike but was set up more like a conventional bike for kids, so that they could ride longer and could sit and pedal as opposed to standing.”
If Coates had worked in any other industry, the idea may have stalled, but as a long-time sales rep for several bike brands, he was primed to explore the possibilities. There was also the influence of racing BMX in the 80s, reading the magazines, and watching rider-entrepreneurs such as Bob Haro take their ideas for a new bike and turn them into a great company. If there was any reluctance, the interest of parents at his daughter’s school put it to rest and he set to work on finding a manufacturer. “The first sample bike was a disaster–probably the ugliest bike I have ever seen. It scared me. From there I took my ideas to another manufacturer that I knew made reputable bikes and we worked on getting the design sorted out. Funnily enough, some of the things that I thought would be a struggle were fairly painless, however other things were a real grind.”
The most important aspect of the bike’s design was finding a wheel size that would be fast and efficient but also relatively inexpensive to maintain. In this regard, his final choice of 24 x 1-3/8-inch wheels may seem odd but the tyres are fast and as the standard size for wheelchairs, easy to source and replace. “I anticipated resistance from bike shops selling bikes with this wheel size, so I included a free replacement tyre with every bike at the start. The wheel size is perfect as the tyres are thin, can pump up hard and are cheap for kids to replace.” The other aspect of the bike that Coates concentrated on was keeping the handlebars as low as possible for both a neutral riding position and a better looking bike. Coates like many bike-builders, has a clear idea of what makes for a good-looking bike and devotes himself to realising that vision.
“The shops I discussed the project with all suggested that $400 retail was probably about the upper end of where the bike should sit. I wanted the bike to be ridden by hundreds of kids whose parents could afford it, rather than a boutique bike only available to a few. I figured that in order to get kids riding, you needed to have a good solid product at a good price.” The bikes in the 2011/12 range were all built with steel frames with a choice of a single-speed or a three-speed internal hub. Both choices make for a robust bike that is simple to maintain, but it was the latter that proved the most popular. “I wanted these bikes to be like a Holden ute–affordable, dependable and still going in 10 years. Looking at kids’ bikes, I see a lot on the verge during roadside pick-ups and that is sad. Using better cranks, sealed bottom brackets and double wall rims, you can make a bike last.”
Coates paid attention to every part of the bike when deciding on the final build. He chose side-pull caliper brakes so that the crown for the forks could be kept as low as possible; they are also easy to remove (kids will always want to customise their bikes) and rather than compromise braking power, dual pivot brakes are used rather than cheaper single pivot brakes. The stem has a standard 22.2mm clamp common to all BMX stems so that swapping out the part for something in a different colour will be simple and inexpensive (once again, to allow for future customisation). Similarly, the stickers are applied to the frames without a clear coat to allow easy removal. Finally, cable guides rather than stops are used so that there is no break in the gear and brake housing and therefore better resistance to the weather and muck.
Just as the design and geometry was important to Coates, so was the final finish, and for this part of the project, Coates was able to draw on his experience as a sales rep along with his love for music and art. “I know that kids like cool colours and an individual look. With my bikes, I try to offer something a little more individual. It’s a punt because the more risky the style, the higher the chance of a fail on a big production run. I aim to do smaller production runs with more colours on offer, that way all the kids can have different colours.” Some of these runs have included collaborations with local artists. For the first collaboration, Coates approached the Australian pop artist Johnny Romeo to feature some of his artwork on a bike. The result was especially pleasing for Coates. “I love Romeo’s work and wanted to join his artwork and my bikes. I think the bike is really unique–a painting on a seat tube with his trademark lettering–more than just a bike.” The 2013 range will feature collaboration with Rob James, the artist behind the online game Cyclomaniacs then others including a screen printer/gig poster artist from San Francisco and a famous comic artist from Southampton, England. “I think by collaborating with these guys, they have an opportunity to have their art displayed somewhere they would have never usually considered, and the kids get to own something really unique.”
For 2013, Fourty Bikes have replaced the steel frame with an alloy frame, but the price has remained the same ($400). The change was driven largely by market standards and consumer expectations, but it also affords a little more real estate for graphics and stickers. The company is also expanding its range by adding a 20-inch model for 4-7 year olds and Coates is keen to explore some international markets where there is a high demand for kids’ bikes. “At this stage, we are a relatively small boutique brand and only distribute our bikes within Australia but I believe we are delivering the future of kids bikes. I can see that other brands are moving in this direction, so with that comes competition. My focus will remain on quality, affordability and definitely a unique and individual look. It is very time consuming but I am passionate about the project.”
The greatest challenge for any interview is to capture the presence of the subject. Coates was enthusiastic about sharing his passion for Fourty Bikes but it was difficult to get him to talk about himself (or even get a photo). His concerns about the quality of his bikes, his attention to detail, and his devotion to getting kids on bikes speak volumes about his intentions. We spent most of our chat sitting on bikes and it is this that conveys some of his presence: a bike rider that enjoys talking about bikes.
A word about the bike
I love the look of the bike, the BMX race styling appeals to me as much as the clean presentation, but that means little when it comes to buying a bike for your kids. My 9-year old daughter didn’t have much to say about the Johnny Romeo edition when I asked her to take it for a ride–it was her first experience on a 24 and with handbrakes, so I anticipated some reservation, but once she was rolling, she had no trouble with handling the bike. At first, she ignored the gears, but after a few rides and some encouragement, she started making use of them. The brake levers proved a little troublesome when adjusting the reach to suit her small hands, but once set, they’ve worked without fail. My daughter loves the colour of the bike and thinks it is pretty fast. I’m impressed with the quality of the componentry and after a few of my own sprints around the block, I agree that it is fast bike that has a smooth and robust feel. This bike won’t appeal to all kids–some girls may find the styling too boyish–but for those kids that show an interest (and ultimately, that is what decides the fate of any bike for this demographic), they will benefit from a classy bike that is fun to ride and likely to withstand all sorts of treatment.