From the tiny Rothan balance bikes and Cnoc first pedal bikes with 14-inch wheels that have started so many cycling lives. To the Luath and Creig bikes that still make up the vast majority of bikes at any kids road, cyclocross or MTB race and have made countless school runs, family rides, touring adventures and first solo rides easier and more enjoyable. Even if you don’t have kids yourselves you just can’t help smiling when you see a bike related grin on a young face. Isla Rowntree and her Islabikes have genuinely revolutionized kids cycling forever.
Isla Rowntree rang me with the news about Islabikes winding down on Tuesday. She knew how pivotal her perfectly designed lightweight, bikes had been to my two girls to loving their bike time while growing up. Freya is even the same age as Islabikes at 18, and many birthdays and Christmas’s in that time revolved around a frantic unwrapping of a new bike and then a first ride - often still in pyjamas - immediately after.
First rides that were easy even for the tiniest legs because the bikes weighed a fraction of the other kids bikes available at the time. First rides that became fearless descents shortly after because Isla dived deep into scientific papers on the proportional growth patterns of kids to develop perfect fit and geometry for each size. Superlight alloy frames that rode smoothly and joyfully made climbs something to be conquered and proud of, not a guarantee of tears and “I’m never riding a bike ever again” breakdowns.
Changing the world one tiny bike at a time
Minimal weight was what first grabbed you about Islabikes. The fact your child could pick the bike off the ground themselves and then the gearing meant they could get started without a hefty adult push was a huge help in establishing independence. It also meant you could get a few minutes to sit down yourself when you got to the mid-ride snack or playground stop, and you could pick an Islabike up to put in a car without busting your back. But that was only a tiny aspect of the amount of detail Isla and her team invested in the designs.
She’d scour the darkest back pages of supplier catalogues to find tiny versions of proper tires and rims, arrange to have suspension forks tuned for the appropriate rider weight and modify shift levers for small hands. Something Isla had to do herself on the bikes she built to win multiple MTB and cyclocross championships over the years. And if Isla couldn’t find what she wanted ‘off the shelf’ she’d have it made. That’s how Islabikes came with custom super short alloy cranks for easy, efficient pedalling and miniature brake levers for comfortable control even on adult-sized descents.
Isla had her own saddles made after studying pelvic structures in kids and created her bulbous bumper-ended grips so that handlebars, hands and hallways were protected from scrapes and scratches. Ultralight wheels were handbuilt with the fanatical attention to detail of a hill climb specialist and lightweight QR skewers were used to make popping wheels off to transport bikes easy. And on the subject of wheels good luck trying to find a lightweight folding cyclocross tire in a 24-inch size if you can’t get one of the tires that comes as standard on Islabikes drop bar racers.
While this investment and Isla’s refusal to compromise to save cost made them look initially expensive, their resale value was as strong as their reputation. Because Isla fitted proper bearings (some ‘Pro’ versions even had titanium bottom brackets) the bikes could be passed through kid after kid as they moved up to the next carefully calibrated size. My long-time testing wingman Dave from Iwanttoridemybike.co.uk uses Islabikes as the core of his fleet for teaching kids to ride and told me this, “Islabikes were the first bike to be designed by someone who had met a small child and thought about riding from their point of view...not some bloke with a welder, some lead piping and pretty paint. She led the way and everyone followed. Teaching over 8000 kids to ride on "Trigger" a 17-year-old Islabike Cnoc 14, in all weathers day in, day out is a testament to what amazing products she created and what a revolution she started. Thank you, Isla, from me and many thousands of other kids big and small for making cycling fun x”.
Isla's in the storm
Not only did Isla prove the economics worked to parents, but she also proved it to other companies. She’d tried to convince Halfords and Raleigh - who she worked and raced for - that it was possible before starting Islabikes herself, but both independent start-ups and major brands have now followed her into the quality kids' bikes space. And while in my opinion (and more importantly of my girls who tested most of the opposition while growing up) nobody ever matched Islabikes for performance and incredible attention to detail, parents and their pedaling offspring now have a much bigger range of better bikes to choose from.
In recent years Isla has created a range of bikes for the senior end of the cycling age span, and she’s been using all her experience and engineering ingenuity to explore the concept of truly sustainable bikes through her ‘Imagine Project’. Isla officially stepped back from day-to-day involvement in Islabikes after a management buyout by Tim Goodall two years ago. However, like many other brands, the past two years have been an increasing fight against a perfect storm of supply, manufacturing, shipping, cost of living crisis and crippling export complications have placed an exhausting strain on operations. Other life priorities mean that while the company is still a going concern and doesn’t have any creditors the current batch of Islabikes being assembled in Ludlow will be the last available from this iconic brand.
Speaking to Isla earlier this week she hasn’t lost any of the passion from when she started designing and welding the beautiful and innovative Zinn mountain bikes back in the 1980s. How that will be translated into practical reality and whether that’ll be in a commercial or consultancy format going forward she doesn’t know yet, but while the news that you’re going to have to be quick if you still want an Islabike is undoubtedly sad, it’s not the end of the story.
But to end, I’m pretty sure the massive thanks I want to give to Isla and her team isn’t just a personal one, but a standing ovation from riders of all ages all over the world.