Erik Nohlin. Industrial designer. Swede in San Francisco. Specialized´s man, when it comes to adventure. One of the guys behind the AWOL, seen in fahrstil #13. But there is a new ride in town – or out of town. Talking bikes with someone, who literally has chain lube flowing through his veins.
Interview and photos: Michael Ziegler
What is so fascinating about the bicycle?
How a manmade object can give you such natural highs. The more power you put in, the more sense of freedom you get and the more you connect with the surrounding topography and nature. The ability to to travel in 40 mph only paying with your own resources is so brilliant and way more efficient than running or driving a car. The bicycle is so basic and pure as an invention, it’s the perfect tool that can take me anywhere I want to go, physically and mentally. I’ve survived, and caused a lot of hardships in my life on the bicycle.
The bicycle´s role in US society?
California, San Francisco where I live, has a very small and very loud bicycle scene that makes you think more people actually ride their bikes more than we do. Bicycle infrastructure and awareness is still embarrassingly slow and this whole country is built around the car but it’s going in the right direction. San Francisco is small geographically and even small improvements in infrastructure makes a big difference. You can really ride everywhere faster than driving a car or getting into any kind of car based or public transportation. Most of my friends in the city are Millennials who never bothered getting a car and with such a loud grassroots movement we all know the future is bright for the bicycle. Also we see an interesting trend of racing licenses being flat and adventure and open road type riding increasing dramatically and I got nothing against that. Cycling is slowly getting back to a lifestyle choice and the era of cycling being held hostage by the sport of cycling seem to be over. I’d love to see the sport of cycling as one facet of cycling but in a bigger context, folks getting out of their pickups and onto bikes will have a way more positive effect to the role of the bicycle in society.
How does Specialized contribute to that?
Pure size of sales and portfolio is a big change driver, getting people on bikes by doing great bikes. Specialized is big in California for natural reasons. The last couple of years, we’ve done a big push around entry level bikes, making them better, listening more to rider needs and providing better product to our riders. Also, there’s a lot of work being done behind the scenes, advocacy work with communities and schools to get kids on bikes, no doubt they’re our future. In terms of adventure and open road type riding we have a solid offering and a lot of exciting product in the pipe that will enable riders to go exploring outside of today’s formats of riding and racing. It’s cool to be with a company that can focus on a complete experience rather than just a bicycle. We do bikes, helmets, shoes, apparel, and lights and can offer a holistic solution to the rider needs.
Do you think the bicycle (or E-Bike) can challenge the car in terms of transportation any time soon?
Yes, definitely. Cars are still stupid and inefficient even though good things are happening at a fast pace. Owning a car in San Francisco is hopeless no matter what propulsion system and I see families investing in e-transportation bikes to get their kids to school and daycare. It’s been happening in the last -3 years, product get better and it’s definitely happening. The climate situation in California with more awareness and no rain is probably favorable for the bicycle to and the way it is with the whole city in a car gridlock twice a day, the bicycle is a way more efficient mean of transportation with benefits both in the bigger environmental health as well as your own health.
E-Bikes are super big in Europe, will they have the same impact in the States? When? If not, why?
Yes, in a couple of years. European riders are driving that change and the US is slowly coming along. Just give it a couple of years and my prediction is that most bikes will be able to adapt to some kind of e-solution. Not saying that all bikes will have a motor but with modular and smart systems, e-mobility makes too much sense for the average and recreational rider not to see the change coming. The social status of the bike outside the sport of cycling is still way higher in Europe but it’s changing at a fast rate and we haven’t reached the tipping point for e-bikes like in Europe yet. Being a global brand with a strong European presence, we’re already driving that change deeply embedded in the European trends, it’s not like we sit around rolling our thumbs.
What has been the latest game changer? Technical or social?
Probably cities embracing the bicycle as the most sustainable mean of transportation and adapting city streets to be safer for cyclists. City planning around the bicycle has a far bigger impact than any sole technical improvement. We can talk tubeless and airless tires, aerodynamics and visibility for days but for the average cyclist, none of these matter more than a safer environment to ride in.
What will be the next game changer?
We’re not going to see any game changers in a close future. The bike will develop slowly to get better in a lot of areas but cycling is too diverse to talk about one game changer in general. Materials develop, manufacturing methods improve and we see some fun technology in both steel, aluminum and composites but I don’t see a paradigm in the near future. As a designer I always strive to make the bike better, more sustainable, more affordable and we make incremental changes every day to strive for that but I don’t believe in game changers, it’s too much of a cliché and reality is too complex. Maybe when bikes has the same status as cars and riders are willing to spend the same money on a bike, then we can start talking game changers.
And what will bicycles look like in 5 years?
Exactly like they do today, only being slightly better and a more valid choice for way more people. We will see the biggest changes in the status of the bicycle as transportation, whether it’s kids, groceries or bike packing gear. Most new products will still be desperate attempts and marketing BS in the name of differentiation and market shares without any valid reason of its existence other than just being a new bicycle. I will do everything I can to make better, more accessible and useful products, cut the crap and make a difference by doing rad, real shit.
Where is your company headed? Plans/focus for the next years?
We’ve got a huge portfolio of different bicycle experiences and cater for so many it’s hard to speak about one general direction. We want to earn the position as the rider’s brand of choice by doing the best product, no matter what kind of rider you are. The general approach is to focus on providing solutions to real rider needs and make a difference no matter what material, rider type or experience we’re designing for. Like I mentioned before, with the current plateauing of racing, there’s definitely a big trend in not telling people exactly how to ride but letting them explore their backyards and providing product to do so. I’m super appealed by the wandering and exploration side of bicycle riding and will definitely put a lot of focus there.
If you only get to keep one bicycle – which one would it be?
The new Specialized Sequoia I and my team has been working on for 2 years. It can be my beater town bike, take me on a 600k brevet, go shred dirt in the Marin Headlands, and be my touring or bike packing rig. It’s one of the most versatile bikes on the market and a hella good bicycle for most people. I don’t really have the space for 4 different bikes and just having one for all my needs makes a lot of sense.
What was your last ride?
I just finished my 6th Super Randonneur title by doing the 600k brevet to Fort Bragg with San Francisco Randonneurs last weekend on the Sequoia. Part from that, I ride my bike every day to work, on the lunch ride and back from work. I’m a serious bikeholic that have bikes around me 24/7 and there’s a new ride to be made several times a day.
Your favorite riding spot?
Anything that has a combo of dirt and tarmac north of San Francisco. The riding in Marin Headland and around Mt Tam is world-class and only 30 minutes from my house and I can do endless combinations of roads and trails to satisfy my needs. The fact that the terrain is super challenging and right on the edge of the Pacific makes every ride beautiful.
The interview dates back to may 16, when our editor Michael Ziegler met Erik in San Francisco, just one day after E had a crash and broke a rib. Not the best preparation for Sverigetempot, the length of Sweden, 2.100 kilometers from north to south. Check it out on the The Radavist or Erik´s Instagram.