Marc Vischer handles this cheap Renault rental car pretty well around the fast paced streets of Cologne. Cheap and not that cheerful he navigates this underpowered and underwhelming blob through the city and out the other side as we head toward Caterham Cycling’s test facility an hour away in the German countryside, the grey wall of rain making me glad we didn’t opt for the company car. Talk drifts in and out of design consciousness seemingly always back to motor sport. He has a background in F1 design and engineering which I figure explains the handling ability, but it turns out he isn’t actually that interested in cars. Downforce yes, but the best model era of the 911, not in the slightest. “My car is a 500euro banger” he informs me, “it gets me from A-B cheaply, I’m not interested in cars much”. I wonder if this is maybe something F1 does to a person but then conversation shifts to bicycles, old ones in particular and he lights up. Marc is quite an authority on vintage bikes and their bits, in fact, he makes a pretty tidy living sourcing and dealing in old parts, a common ground that sees us the last leg of our morning outing.
I met Marc and the other half of the Caterham Cycling project Andreas Winkler late in 2014 somewhat by accident at the Eurobike trade show. Chasing the trail of a friend through the myriad of similar tin sheds and almost maze like stands of red and black and white and flashing screens with aero stats and power numbers or flouro appendage, I stumbled upon the stand everyone had been going on about all week, tucked away at the back of one of the identical halls. Unlike most, it was a clean ultra modernist space with virtually no data and glitz instead relying on a lot of white illuminated minimalist furniture, space and some glowing green bicycles standing quiet and proud but subtle.
The test facility is a small and unremarkable building in the middle of nowhere. Probably a good thing given the noise it produces, but it is, as these places always are, interesting. Nowhere is not quite fair as next door (a few hundred metres away) is some sort of Volvo restoration shrine. Orange 1970’s 240s line up against battleship grey Amazons in a slightly surreal museum of sorts that surely must be more of a pilgrimage than a local attraction. Small operations like Caterham Cycling can’t afford many broken mules so there is a real sense of get it right first time as often as possible at work here. Prototypes from major manufacturers are hurridly covered up as we walk through the various stages of development of the flagship Duo Cali, the owner of the facility serious and respectful of the business these guys bring her way but enthusiastic at the same time, genuinely loving her work. It’s interesting that Germany insists on testing in country, even when it doesn’t have to presumably, but I suppose that’s the point here in a way integrity matters to these people with their reliability and tolerances and shut lines. Sometimes it can seem like a soul less culture of numbers but there is classic history here too. Munich and Stuttgart and Ingolstadt have of course their fair share of handsome lines in the archives from which to draw upon.
Later that afternoon back in Cologne Andreas talks me through the idea behind the project. The Duo Cali show bike was initially born of a marketing intention from the now defunct Caterham F1 team. Originally wanting a sole bike to compliment their impressive but ultimately doomed venture into the notoriously difficult world of Formula One, they set up a project and drafted in these two young design engineers to make it happen. In an almost parallel nod to F1, the project has seen it’s fair share of ups and downs, stalls, development issues, model changes and shifting horizons, but unlike so many from the pit lane, the tree is starting to bear fruit.
The idea of the initial bike was decided upon from three basic principles. British heritage – Italian passion – German engineering. Not a bad trio for any starter, I ask if it was the sole intention to build a purely Euro bike? “That came more from isolating what we wanted to use in the project and how we would approach the different aspects of building a specific bike. Various component parts were sampled and tested, some stayed, others were re-engineered in house, but Campy was always on the table from the beginning. We just thought it was the best shifting solution available and of course, provided ample Italian passion. For us it was an easy transition from a large motor sport company to this project, here was a small new team of people with great intention for exciting projects like this one and a dream call up for Marc who was bike obsessed from an early age.”
I ask Andreas about the design influences of the Duo Cali, as although it seems a pretty much standard bicycle shape, it does stand out and when you look at the detailing, there appears to be a lot of different thinking in there. “There are no real influences inside the bike, I purposefully wanted to avoid current style influence and design elements from contemporaries and approach it with a fresh pair of eyes. This is my first design work on a bicycle, so it has been a great learning process working with Marc who is an incredible engineer and could say instinctively when something would not be practical from one of my drawings.” Talk drifts to the distinctive shaped main triangle with it’s bevelled inner angle, “My main intention was to create a really clean shape with one key element – the chamfer – even shown as the logo. The seat tube is visually not part of the main frame which reflects that this seat tube is nearly unloaded during cycling and the load is going through the main frame – following that chamfer – illustrating one of the technical aspects of the frame in an abstract way as well”
The fact that these two managed to not only keep interest alive after the passing of the project’s father figure – the F1 team, but then create a small range of bikes differing wildly from the ultra up to date carbon rigs to the decidedly retro looking filet brazed stainless cyclocross frame is testament to their commitment and love for the project. This really is their baby and every time I have caught up with them over the last year it’s always felt like getting updates on the progress of the kids.
Looking back at those early prototypes there appears to have been not much straying from the path to be honest, but one clear change is that distinctive double top tube into seat stay bow section has become a filled in solid block in the top tube. “That was really disheartening” explains Marc, “that was such a nice aesthetic for us, but we took it for testing with former Pro Marcel Wuest who quickly dispelled our hopes of ample stiffness for racing. It has since had the Wuest seal of approval post bolstering, but you can tell how much they loved the original design by the way the episode is recalled. Carbon masters AX Lightness who were chosen to produce the woven hardware for the development quickly managed to solve the stiffness issue from their original design even managing to use the same tooling which for a small operation like this could be pretty crucial to survival at development stage.
10ft away opposite us a built prototype Duo Cali leans against a vending machine, the harsh flourescent light behind it’s tropical scene reflecting awkwardly off the clever angles of the frame. It’s too big for me but I sit on it, leaning on the flexy front of the drinks machine for balance. Looking down it looks almost normal and I step off and back and decide the best angle to view it at is actually probably the front three quarter, often a slightly awkward angle for road bikes. The green and green and white, that chamfer, the beefy tubes, it is certainly as striking as it is a delicate colour. It looks fast yes, but it doesn’t feel vulnerable. Picking it up it’s not super light either. In the way that it feels like you imagine it ought to rather than a surprise featherweight catching your brain off guard. Admittedly it’s not a finished bike, but it feels like it actually suits the weight it is. Like that was all part of the plan for this unique creation. Fresh thinking from the ground up has created a genuine stunner. Careful parenting and a good upbringing will mean this thing hits the market ready, apparently in autumn 2015. There’s no rushing it but that must be not only a good thing, but kind of crucial. It would have been easy to have made a prototype that became a reality and should’ve really stayed a museum piece, but they want this thing to race, for the memory of it’s forefathers that didn’t get the chance perhaps? Maybe, but I get the impression that the road although rocky, and not yet finished, has been worth it every step.
Conversation shifts to design in a wider spectrum as we flop into beautiful but not overly comfortable sofas and replace the earlier missed lunch with yet more coffee. As the light fades outside and the few remaining die hards call it a day, we seem to be still hanging out bouncing architects and furniture designers off each other in a silly game of ‘the league of extraordinary aesthetes’. Name checking ticks the minutes away as Mies van der Rohe and Charles and Ray Eames share space with Giugiaro, Gandini and Bangle. Generally I think when talk tuns to bike parts and tyre choice, it’s passed bedtime, but here in this company, when the option of a job lot of classic tubs, and NOS Campy Record shifters and hoods comes into Marc’s inbox with a sudden chime, the evening’s only just beginning.
©Augustus Farmer 2015