That radically original British Cycling track bike might not be so original

Patent docs dating back to 2016 bear striking resemblance to the Team GB Lotus x Hope machine.

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The Team GB Lotus x Hope track bike used by the British cycling team at the Tokyo Olympics certainly generated a lot of buzz when it debuted in October 2019, given its highly unconventional design (we even paid Hope a visit right after its debut). More recently, however, the bike has also generated some serious controversy as renowned cycling engineer and aerodynamicist Richard McAinsh — together with Dutch brand Kú Cycle, which McAinsh founded with Alex Bok — is now claiming the design was stolen.

Bok’s history with McAinsh dates back more than a decade, to when the former was running professional triathlon teams, and when 3T — for whom McAinsh was working at the time — was a sponsor. 

“During those last few years of the team — 2012 and 2013 — that’s when Richard said the idea came about of things he had learned from Formula 1, about the front of the car, how some of those concepts could be transferred to bikes,” Bok said. “He left 3T in 2013 and then started to sell his engineering services from then onwards. By 2015-2016, he knew he was on to something, so in 2016, he filed his patent.

“By 2017 and 2018, he went to the UK to work with various research partners, and started to tune the model; there were already two or three models done. In 2018, he thought he really had something here, so he started to look for investors and partners. He did speak to people in the UK — people quite close to British Cycling — but it didn’t happen. And then in January 2019, he reached out to me as an old pal from the triathlon team days.”

Team GB’s bike sure looks a lot like this drawing from Richard McAinsh’s patent, but stranger things have happened.

McAinsh continued to develop those earlier ideas, and Kú Cycle was just about to get off the ground with an innovative triathlon bike that looked like nothing else out there. 

And then October 2019 came. 

“We were sitting in an office,” recounted Bok, “and then suddenly, it was like flames coming out of [Richard’s] ears. He was furious. I could see he was really affected as a person, because somewhere he feels, in that search in 2018 to find investors, he shared maybe a bit too much.”

The British Cycling track bike being used at the Tokyo Olympics is undeniably radical, but at least one company is claiming it’s not so original.

It doesn’t take a professionally trained eye to see some suspicious similarities between the British Cycling machine and what’s depicted in McAinsh’s patent, such as the radically wide spacing and general shape of the fork blades and seatstays, the dual-crown fork, and the way the seatstays attach high on the seat tube.

Interestingly, Bok says the British team bike actually missed out on a newer aero feature — Kú Cycle’s triathlon bike hides its raised head tube behind the rider’s arms — presumably because the design was inspired by an earlier iteration of McAinsh’s concept.

“They had actually implemented things that we deliberately didn’t use [from the original patent documentation] because we knew it was a bit slower,” Bok said.

Why now?

Given McAinsh’s reaction when he first became aware of the British Cycling track bike, and what seem to be clear “borrowing” of his intellectual property, it’s fair to wonder why the pair waited so long to sound the alarm. In this modern age of social media, it’s almost unbelievable there wasn’t even a mention of the dispute on Twitter (and I will certainly admit that I don’t think I would have displayed the same level of self-restraint).

Shortly after that fateful day in October, Kú Cycle’s investors suggested to the pair that they embark on a thorough research and fact-finding mission before initiating any official legal proceedings. During that process, Bok says they discovered British Cycling actually filed for its own patent in late 2019 — one Bok says was ultimately declined due to McAinsh’s prior claim to similar technology.

This image from the patent British Cycling applied for in 2019 raises a few eyebrows.

“One thing that came back was a secret filed patent by British Cycling,” Bok said. “Our patent lawyers couldn’t look inside the patent because it was filed as ‘secret’. Nobody can look into it during the application process. We found that a bit surprising but we didn’t think too much of it.

“In March of this year, the [British Cycling] patent wasn’t approved because the examiner found our patent relevant. In other words, it was too close [to ours] to get theirs approved. Since the Olympics didn’t happen [in 2020], we said to let it rest and see if the bike gets used later.”

What supposedly pushed McAinsh over the edge was when he and Bok were approached by a UK filmmaker who was asking permission to include the patent in a documentary as an originating source for the team’s design, when clearly no such agreement was in place. “That’s when he said we have to put a stake in the ground,” Bok said.

The other side of the story

You’ve likely noticed at this point that only the direct perspectives of Kú Cycle founder Alex Bok are included here. Bok told me he and McAinsh agreed that there should be just one point of public contact over this matter, and in fact, I first contacted McAinsh, who deferred to Bok (Bok also mentioned McAinsh is currently on holiday).

But what about British Cycling, Lotus, and Hope? I wasn’t able to get in touch with Lotus, and Hope declined to provide an official statement, instead passing me over to British Cycling. I did manage to get a hold of British Cycling’s head of communications, Scott Dougal, and while he was willing to provide some information strictly on background, he would only offer the official line from the organization:

“The design for this bike has been in the public eye for almost two years so we were surprised to only hear of this through the media, and on the first day of the track program in Tokyo. We are confident that the bike does not infringe any patents and we are happy to deal with any challenges through the appropriate processes.”

Still a chance for a happy ending?

It clearly remains to be determined whether British Cycling did, without a shadow of doubt, inappropriately use McAinsh’s intellectual property. There’s also the concept called multiple discovery, which describes how very similar findings or inventions can legitimately be the result of truly independent peoples and processes. 

However, there’s also the principle of Occam’s Razor, which says the simplest and most obvious explanation to a problem is most often the correct one. I’m no design engineer or expert in patent legalese, but at least to my nose, the sniff test in this case … doesn’t smell very good. That said, it’s important not to jump to conclusions, and it seems likely this is something the lawyers will ultimately figure out.

As for McAinsh and Bok, they insist they’re not trying to extract money out of British Cycling, Lotus Engineering, or Hope (though I’d be surprised if some didn’t exchange hands when the dust finally settles). 

“We’re not overly aggressive in this,” Bok said. “But if we’re right, then at least come and talk to us, and let’s be sensible and professional about it, and find a solution. I don’t think a solution needs to be found in a court of law.”

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