Five minutes with: Kalle Nicolai…

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    Five minutes of your time with Kalle Nicolai by Marcus Farley and Karen Hewitt.
The man himself, Kalle Nicolai

German Über Designer extraordinaire, Kalle Nicolai, talks to Singletrack about his recent and near future product developments. He also gives his views on the merits of handmade design as well as that old chestnut, the function vs form debate.

You’ve had a busy year with bikes and design, what were the highlghts for you…?

That’s a difficult question to answer. At Nicolai, we don’t feel the need to make changes for each product year, rather we make changes only when we have something genuinely new to release. A good example is the Helius AC – It has filled the gap in our range for the modern trail rider who wants the ‘one bike to-do-it all.’ Someone who wants more than the Helius CC but less than the Helius AM, but with the best bits of each thrown in. With its 120mm, 133mm and 146mm rear suspension options coupled with an adjustable fork upto 150mm, it also makes economic sense in our credit crunch times. I believe it will be well suited to your UK terrain.

Another highlight was working on the Grace e-motorbike project I am pleased that we are able to build the frames, not only because it means involvement in such a great product but also because it has been fun to stretch ourselves beyond our usual remits.

What’s in the pipeline?

There are many interesting new projects in the pipeline. For example, we are working hard on a more lightweight G-BOXX-3 with trigger shifters, and we would would love to finish this in April 2010 in order for our racers to have the ability to test it in the 2010 season. Although the B-Boxx (Nicolai’s rival to the Hammerschmidt – Ed) is progressing well in trials, we have not found the right investor yet to set it towards production. Everybody is talking about the credit crunch, which has made this task harder. But, I am hopeful we will find the right partner eventually.

Welds and gussets. Nicolai trademarks.
The powdercoat bay

Handmade design vs mass production, why should we buy your bikes?

I would argue that our products offer a longer lifetime based on true craftsmanship. We offer 5 years warranty, even under racing conditions, and install “extra love” in all of our parts. I also believe our carbon footprint is less as we tool, machine and paint in-house.

Of course, handmade design can be more expensive, but I think it is better to spend less on your car and more on your bike! Seriously, though, I believe that here at Nicolai we build bikes that will still be relevant in many years time, rather than just be the latest fad. I was lucky enough to be part of the team under Horst Leitner who came up with the legendary suspension system and, in my mind, I have perfected it on frames that are capable of lasting in relevance and longevity.

Nicolai were (along with Orange) one of the first companies to adopt the Gates Carbon belt drive system on some of their bikes.
This is where those big fishscale welds come from
First G-Boxx, now here's Nicolai's new G-Clamp design.

Bicycles help us reduce our carbon footprints, how carbon neutral are your production facilities?

As mentioned above, we produce all parts in-house. As a result, for the European customer at least, we avoid contributing to long ocean freight. We also use state of the art CNC machines that run on low power consumption. Our frames are designed to be long term durable, and as they are aluminium, the frames, and any wastage from manufacturing, are easy to recycle compared to carbon!

Air filters in the paint shop
Testing machines and natty T-shirts. Who wants to work there?

Looking back on your career so far, which was your most innovative design?

Like I said, I was very fortunate to be part of the team that was involved under Horst Leitner. But, since running Nicolai, I think that the G-BOXX (see and has been my most innovative design so far. I am immensely proud of it, and continue to strive to make it better and better.

What was the coolest product you saw at Interbike/Eurobike?

A long time ago, a guy called Stijn Deferm raced downhill on Nicolai bikes. He has now started his own brand and I was very pleased to see what he has come up with.
Stijn Bicycles

Function vs form, discuss?

Ha, that is an interesting question for sure, that could take up a whole interview on its own, yes! My starting point is with Sullivan, the 19th Century architect who famously said that “Form follows function.” It is a statement that I have battled with internally and externally since I started my own bicycle and design businesses. From a purely engineering background, the form of the object is nothing if the physics of it do not stop it from falling apart! But from a design perspective, I believe that form is in every detail of the function. Put simply, what for me is aesthetically beautiful is also what is physically engineered to tolerate its given application. We apply our moniker of “Extra Love” to all of our parts and frames, and I believe it is an expression that perfectly encompasses my belief that our engineering is intended to be beautifully delivered. As a result, i believe that Form and Function are not opposite cases, it is more that they balance each other like heart and soul.

How much riding do you get to do a week? And any plans to come over to the UK any time soon?

Unfortunately I don’t get enough ride time, only 2 hours on Sundays. In regards to the UK, I have no schedule yet for 2010. Mike and Simon, the guys from Nicolai UK, are doing a good job ( and it would be good to come across to the UK to catch up with our friends and the Nicolai owners there. I like to ride all over Europe, and count some of the riding I have done in the UK as amongst the best.

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