“Our bikes are definitely influenced by Helsinki and its environment. Pelago builds convenient and reliable bicycles. Bicycles for commuting and touring that are easy to maintain and work in the summertime and in deep winter. Still, they should look good,” that is how co-founder Timo Hyppönen introduces his company. The other founder is his brother Mikko. This is their story.
In the early years of the 21st century the two started to restore and rebuild old steel frames, adding new parts and then they tried to sell those bikes. With little financial success – parts were expensive, so were the prices – the brothers had a hunch and an idea: “There were only cheap city bikes or sport bikes, nothing in between, nothing to support a lifestyle, like you would see it regarding clothes or cars. We felt there was a need for something that made commuting and urban cycling attractive. Bikes that combine functionality, design and budget.” A long digestive period followed ideas, researching manufacturers and partners, weighing the pros and cons, and with this the vision of their own brand got clearer. The process resulted in the founding of Pelago in 2009. The company started with two models, the ‘Brooklyn’ for female and the ‘Bristol’ for male customers, both plain and classic city bikes, available as single speed or with hub gears.
Seven years later this Finnish company now offers a ten-model range which also includes the standard or fully equipped city and touring bikes such as the ‘Hanko’, as well as the all-purpose model ‘Stavanger’. At Pelago, now evolving on an international level, a key word is “multipurpose”. Two road disc racers, the ‘Saimaa’ and the ‘Sibbo’, complete the portfolio from the sporty perspective. Even though you can order the bikes online, a close relationship with their retailers is very important to Pelago, and always has been.
Today there are more than 130 bike shops around the world carrying the brand from Helsinki. Most of the retailers are located in Europe, 25 in Germany and also a few in Japan. Due to its international appeal, often people transform the evenly pronounced company name into a passionate Italian-sounding “Pelaaaaggio”. In actual fact it’s an abbreviation of the word archipelago which would be unsuitable as a dynamic brand name due to its length and sound. Archipelago describes a group or chain of numerous little islands. Those geological clusters are responsible for the characterising landscape of the Scandinavian coastlines. The makers chose the name to express their appreciation for Finland´s nature. Since then all of their models have been named in reference to waterscapes.
In addition to the company´s headquarters Pelago runs its own bike store in the centre of the capital. Arriving at Kalevankatu 32 we look at inviting inner city architecture. The front of the building’s five large stone arches captivate the viewer. A couple of bikes are lined up in front of them. The entrance is in the middle, flanked by the two huge arched windows, the residents’ entrance is on the right, and on the left a passage leads across the backyard to the workshop and service area. Entering the shop, we´re welcomed by Kaisa Pohjapelto. She is in charge of Pelago´s flagship store. “We always ask our customers how they want to use their bike. What is your route? Where do you ride? This is important to us. The bicycle has to serve its purpose. ‘Serve The Purpose’ – that is the catchy company credo. “We nearly have all models in all sizes stocked here for test rides.” Quite a lot – Pelago offers frame sizes between 47 and 67 centimetres. Perhaps because Pelago’s staff represents the whole range? Apart from the bikes the modern-stylish but unpretentiously designed retail space convinces with a well-curated choice of products. Whether market leader or independent label – quality, functionality and design have to be to the point. One can clearly recognise the brand´s philosophy. A nice detail on the Pelago multi tool – it comes with a corkscrew.
In the mean-time Timo and his marketing man Nikita have arrived. The five of us get on our bikes and head over to the headquarters, located in an old harbour district, less than five minutes away. With emphasis on the creation of new living space, this is one of the areas currently being regenerated. On every corner there is construction or renovation work going on, only to be outshone by the tall shell of the almost finished designer hotel. The aging and charming brick stone building in front of us does not indicate a place where bicycles might originate. There is a pungent smell in the hall. The walls are papered with posters, stickers and other cultural heralds. On the second floor a metal fire door marks the threshold to a totally different world. Suddenly we find ourselves standing in bright office and meeting rooms. The window frames a spectacular view of the harbour including an icebreaker. Next to the office wing, through a couple of doors, there are assembly and storage areas. The production line assembly and large-scale logistics have been outsourced to rural Finland a while ago. “Regarding time, the production is very cyclical, for that we can´t employ people all year-round,” Timo explains the market rules with typically Finnish serenity – and again – in flawless mastery of the English language. A colourful bunch of 15 people, who in marketing jargon would probably be classed as “young and dynamic” are on Pelago’s regular pay roll.
Overnight team trips by bike to enhance ideas and creativity are not unusual. The crew works well together and is ready to pull their weight, and carry responsibility, although it is the Hyppönen brothers who run the company. There is a close fraternal relationship, but also a strict division of roles. Timo, 40 years young and equipped with a diploma in graphic design, creates and develops the brand, he is in charge of PR and handles communications. Three years younger, his brother Mikko works on the product. He designs and engineers the bikes and even spends several weeks of the year in Asia, to ensure production and quality of the frames on-site. The material of choice is steel, a durable and versatile material, which goes well together with the Pelago philosophy. Strategic decisions are usually made jointly – the two brothers share the same ideas and values. The whole enterprise seems very down to earth – family business meets creative agency meets bike shop.
Timo´s personal roots reach into the skating and snowboarding culture. This gained him an appearance in fahrstil #17 – elite, in a collaboration with global clothing player ‘Carhartt’ and the Californian bag specialists of ‘Mission Workshop’. The special edition single speed, dipped in turquoise-green hammerite paint, known from old toolboxes, is the eye catcher in the entrance area. In early August a limited collection, consisting of the bike, a bag matching the front rack and some selected garments, was launched in Detroit, Los Angeles Paris and Helsinki. Does this harbour the risk of an unhealthy vanity? “We never wanted to be exclusive, we make ‘democratic’ bikes, quality bikes, accessible to many people – the plan is to raise everyone´s quality of life.”
Our bikes are definitely influenced by Helsinki and its environment.“
– Timo Hyppönen
The people of Finland are generally described as cool, distant and polite. We witnessed a detectable restraint that was never meant to repel, however, in nearly all of our encounters including those at Pelago. In our case, it was probably due to two near-strangers suddenly appearing in the company’s ‘inner sanctum’. After spending four hours in the most intimate Pelago circles, we were chattering casually while standing on the stunning ledge of a terrace on the back of the building – just a stone´s throw away from the harbour basin.
Pelago moved into these premises in 2012, at the same time they opened up the store in the town centre. Timo recalls: “That was a big step for us. A big risk. We started out in Vallila, a northern part of Helsinki, on 20 square metres, then 40. We did not know what to expect in the city centre.” In the meantime, Pelago sells several thousand bikes per year and is outgrowing its investment phase slowly but surely. Looking back the expansion was the right move and the company feels good about the coming years – another relocation is not planned. However, one would hope, that the listed harbour building does not fall victim to the wrecking ball of some slick building contractor.
At Pelago the city administration´s efforts to promote cycling have been well received. “The whole atmosphere in the city is positive. Pro bicycle – it is growing,” says Timo, but adds: “There are still so many gaps in the infrastructure. You ask yourself, why does that take such a long time? But then you discover something new and you think; oh, that’s really good!”
This is the first of three features about Helsinki and its cycling culture. More soon.