Isla Rowntree interview
31 October 2013
As a lifelong cyclist and the founder of children’s bikes specialist Islabikes, Isla Rowntree is one of the most influential figures within youth cycling. We talked to her about the explosion in cycling, British racing success, and how the market for quality children’s bikes is changing.
Read the interview to hear what Isla thinks about children riding on public roads, keeping racing fun, and how she manages Islabikes. And find out how the explorer Ernest Shackleton, the Mini and also furniture designers have played their parts in developing Islabikes!
How do you think children’s cycling has developed and changed over the last generation?
Isla: Well, it’s changed beyond all recognition. I started cycling as a child, in the ‘80s, so I had my first contact with a cycling club when I was twelve in 1981. I think my experience of cycling clubs was fairly typical of the time. I certainly wasn’t made unwelcome, but I’d say the welcome was more at a level of being tolerated!
There was definitely no specific provision for children at all, and there wasn’t really a great deal of encouragement either, although there were certain individuals who would offer encouragement and advice. I did time trials then and I wasn’t made aware of any alternatives. Yes, you did it because you enjoyed it but there was no channelling, no pathway, nothing like children have now.
I think it’s wonderful that it has changed. I felt the change coming and responded to it in terms of starting the Islabikes business.
What made you think that the sport was about to take off so hugely?
Isla: There were various threads that you become aware of and which you realise are going to create an event or a change. One of those threads was the growing elite success of British cycling. There was the amazing success of Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree in the ‘90s but they were very much trailblazers – they weren’t really a success because of the system itself.
The system started to produce its initial results at the 2000 Olympics. I think Jason Queally’s gold medal in the kilo was really significant and opened up that event for Great Britain, and Peter Keen was part of that. Then that was taken up by the subsequent managers and obviously Dave Brailsford came along and ran with it. That was at the elite end of the sport.
But also, in parallel with that, was British Cycling starting to push coaching schemes into cycling clubs. They were actively promoting kids’ packages to cycling clubs. It was quite primitive to start with but it was happening where there was nothing before, and that gathered momentum and attracted more children.
So, I think those are the two big threads. In parallel though has been a growing concern about children’s lack of activity in general – certain parents, at least, are concerned about that and want to encourage their children into a sport or perhaps to counteract “car culture”.
What is done for children’s cycling within many clubs now is just totally different to before. It’s just absolutely great to be a kid now getting into cycling. Their opportunities are amazing.
What do you make of such enormous British success in the sport?
Isla: It seems extraordinary to cyclists of my generation, whereas if you’re growing up within the sport now you just expect it. I can remember racing on the track in Leicester as a young adult in the national championships, and we couldn’t qualify anybody for the Olympics, never mind win anything if they got there – it would be a success just to get somebody to the Olympics! It’s moved on so far since then.
Do you think the growth of British cycling will continue?
Isla: At the elite level it has to flatten off at some point, because when you’ve won nearly everything there is to win as a nation, you can’t continue to do that. You can continue to do the same but that’s flat, isn’t it? There’s nowhere else to go with that really.
In terms of participation, I think we are experiencing a boom but I don’t think that means there has to be a bust.
There will be a degree of levelling off, but I see it as something that’s absolutely sustainable. I think national infrastructure investment in utility facilities is key. I know we’ve recently had a £94 million investment announced, but actually that’s not very much. It’s great that it’s happened but it’s only a beginning, I think, and that’s the area where we still haven’t really made a commitment as a country. I think it’ll come though because there are so many people riding bikes.
Do Islabikes customers tell you they are particularly concerned about road safety?
Isla: We have a very broad spread of customer types. We have club cyclists and enthusiasts of course but we also have a lot of people who aren’t. We have leisure cycling families and we have families that come to us where the parents don’t cycle at all, and who have probably not cycled since they were children themselves. Parents are not necessarily coming into cycling to have their children go racing – they just want a nice bike for their child, to give them the best experience of cycling.
So there’s a broad spread of concerns and different levels of fear around where their children cycle. Many of those families are happy for their children to cycle on the road, albeit chaperoned. Some will let them cycle on their own, unchaperoned, within a known area, and some won’t let them cycle on the road at all. We don’t have a strong thread of concern about the traffic, but most families would take their children out, chaperoned, or on quiet lanes and cycling routes away from public roads.
Do you have a personal feeling about when kids tend to be ready to ride on public roads?
Isla: It’s not an area of personal expertise but, anecdotally, I understand the brain typically isn’t necessarily developed to cope with the multiple inputs and decision-making needed for busy traffic environments until about twelve years old. That might be an indicator of when you would start to let a child go out on their own on the roads, but I think it’s very much a decision for parents to make themselves really, albeit to make sure they’re educated before they make it. They know their children best.
Do you have a view about the development of cycling infrastructure away from public roads, as opposed to making the public roads themselves more friendly towards cycling youngsters?
Isla: My number one goal is to have the roads safe for users and considerate towards each other, but I’m also a realist and I think there’s a place for both environments. There’s a danger that if you have segregated routes (and this is certainly a historical danger) then that can make motorists think the roads are just for them and that cyclists shouldn’t be there. I think that’s something that we need to be very cautious about. However, there are cycle routes that don’t duplicate roads, that just go somewhere else entirely, and they’re great. The Bristol and Bath cycle way is a perfect example of that. The goal is to have roads safe for all of us, and I think cyclists need to show consideration towards motorists as well – it’s definitely a two-way thing.
There are some roads that, while I feel I ought to be safe on them, personally I don’t choose to ride on. And there are some roads where I feel, actually, it would be anti-social for me to ride because of their nature, and where there are alternative, safer routes of a similar distance I’d be better on those.
Did you ride and race on busy roads yourself as a youngster?
Isla: It’s not something that I choose to do anymore, but I time trialled on dual carriageways as a twelve year old. That was considered safe, and my mum used to chaperone me around the turn. She used to wait for us at the turn, me and my sister, and take us around the roundabout because she wasn’t too sure about us doing it. Then she’d leave us on our own to race the rest of it. That’s a feeder road to the M5, so you wouldn’t put a twelve year old on there now, absolutely not!
Some of the bigger brands and one or two independent manufacturers now seem to be properly addressing the market for quality children’s bikes. Do you think the market is likely to become crowded?
Isla: It has definitely happened and I welcome it. I’m surprised it’s taken the bigger brands so long to react to what we’re doing. What Islabikes has done is actually create a market for quality children’s bikes that didn’t exist before, and it changed the perception of how much people are prepared to pay for a child’s bike. It has probably doubled the price people are prepared to pay. I think that’s not only because of the rapid growth in children’s participation in the sport, but also because of the market that we’ve created outside of competition cycling.
There’s room for other companies and I think it’s really healthy. It keeps us on our toes so we’re continually innovating
Although our range looks very similar to the one we launched seven years ago, the actual detail of the product is very different now. Our competitors’ bikes aren’t quite where we’re at now – they’re still a little bit behind. For me, the reason for starting the business was to give children better bikes, to give them a better experience of cycling in the hope that they would love it because it was no longer difficult or awkward, and then continue to do it through their childhood and hopefully into adulthood. That’s the reason I started it, and if lots of other manufacturers are making good kids’ bikes then that’s heading towards the same goal too, even if it’s not through sales that Islabikes necessarily makes.
Our business is successful and healthy, and there’s certainly room for that competition. If we continued without it for much longer it would actually be unhealthy for Islabikes as well, because competition does sharpen you up. After seven years it’s easy to think that our bikes are the best, so we don’t need to do anything to make them any better. That’s not true, because they might be the best that’s available now, but they’re not the best that they ever could be. There’s always something that we could improve. Perfection is an impossible goal but we continually work towards it.
Why do you think the big brands got it so wrong for so long?
Isla: I’ve got a theory on that, if we’re talking about the big, quality brands (rather than the non-quality brands). Those big, quality brands make some stunning adult bikes. They make absolutely amazing road bikes. The technology of the carbon fibre, the frames, the components – it’s so refined now. They make superb Downhill racing mountain bikes, again, with just incredibly developed technology on them. I think what happens internally in those brands, in terms of the personnel structure, is they’ve got product managers and designers working on those flagship ranges, at the top end of the price range. So, we’re talking £4,000, £5,000, £6,000 for the range of leading bikes in those categories. You’ve got a team of designers and product managers that are responsible for different areas, so you’ll have a road bike product manager with a team, and you’ll have a cross country mountain bike one, and then a downhill mountain bike one, and a time trial bike, etc.. They manage and design and develop those bikes.
Now, there will also be a children’s bike product manager and designer. In the company’s hierarchy the children’s bike product manager and designer is a junior person. So they probably won’t have been in the industry for that long – they’ll be a junior person who’s entering starting their career, cutting their teeth on kids’ bikes.
They probably don’t have their own children yet either, and what they really want to do is get promoted to working on the stuff that is their personal interest at that stage in their life. So they’re not wholeheartedly “into” the range that they’re responsible for.
Also, within the companies themselves, the children’s bikes are low margin. If something is selling for £150, a chunk of that is VAT, there’s the actual margin for the manufacturer, the dealer margin, and the national distributor margin on there too. The actual margin on the bike that the company is making out of it is tiny, so the company itself isn’t committed to putting lots of energy behind it.
The bike shops themselves weren’t behind it either, for the same reasons. Because if they could be selling a £500, £600, £1,000, £2,000 adult’s bike instead of a £150 (as they were then) kid’s bike, which one’s going to get their effort? And then when the bike’s prepared in the workshop, is it prepared by the best mechanic or by the trainee one? Every step of the way, there are minimums at every stage and I think, collectively, that’s my theory as to why big quality brands didn’t supply good kids’ bikes. It’s actually taken a company to break out of that and say “We take this market seriously”. Then, eventually consumer pressure comes back through to the decision makers in those brands whose shops say “Actually, all my customers ride Islabikes now and they’re waiting for us, so we want to be able to offer them something”.
What do you think are the most important things that parents should consider when their kids become involved with racing? How can families keep cycling fun and balance it with the rest of life?
Isla: Sport is great for kids, but I think parents need to be very mindful of striking the right balance when their children are participating in a sport. You do see examples in every sport, not just cycling, of the stereotypical pushy parent.
You’ve got to find that point where you’re providing healthy support and encouragement, but you’re not vicariously living out your own dreams through your child.
There are psychological negative knock on effects that can come from getting that wrong. If you were to speak to psychologists about people who present to them with problems as adults you might find a thread of childhood sport.
Of course, there are lots of positives as well though. No parent ever sets out to intentionally harm their child, but for whatever reason, perfectly understandably, some don’t quite get the balance right.
I’d encourage parents to give their children access to a variety of sports, that it’s not all about a single sport until their children decide that for themselves perhaps. The great thing about cycling is that parents can participate as well, and that’s more likely to produce a healthy family outcome. Take cyclocross or grass track racing, for example, where two or even three generations of a family can compete every weekend.
That’s where it really works well – if you’re getting your own adrenaline out of your system yourself it takes a bit of pressure off the children. Just being very neutral with your children regardless of the outcome of the race is important, I think. As a parent, obviously you want your child to do well, obviously you’re pleased when they win, and disappointed for them if it doesn’t go well. If your immediate interaction with them when they finish a race is quite neutral and is the same regardless of the outcome, that keeps the pressure off. My parents were great at that when I was growing up, and they were quite “hands off” when I competed through my teens. They were proud of me but not pushy, and I’m really pleased about that.
Is that parental support what gave you your passion for cycling generally, not just for the sport?
Isla: Racing never has been the “be all and end all” for me. I’ve been a moderately successful competitive cyclist on and off, over many years, but if there was never another bike race I’d continue to ride a bike.
One of the huge attractions of cycling for me is it can be so many different things in your life.
I ride a bike almost every day: I ride my bike to the shops; I ride my bike to work in wellington boots (because I walk it through through a farmyard in the winter); I ride to the theatre; I ride to meet my friends; I ride with my friends in the woods; I ride on the road; I put a tent on the back, occasionally, and go off for a few days camping. I take the Brompton to London with me because it’s easier when I get to the other end to get to a business meeting or whatever.
I’m interested in human propulsion and I’m a competitive person, and so there’s a competitive element to it, but my favourite sort of bike riding is one that doesn’t involve getting the car out first, and where I can do it from the house.
I don’t remember ever being driven to a time trial as a child, because I only did the time trials I could ride out to, because that’s what you did!
Which are the most important skills that children should develop when they’re young and just getting into cycling?
Isla: The very basics for children when they’re learning to ride, when they’re four years old, is starting and stopping and how to use the brakes well. We get quite a lot of children of all ages, even in their teens, who come along and who only ever use one brake. They will be trying out a bike and when they stop I’ll show them the two brakes, and to pull the rear one on very slightly before the front one.
They’ve got to thirteen and nobody’s ever told them things like that. We show them how to get on and off their bikes, how to swing their leg over the back, stuff like that – simple things.
Some children won’t even use the brakes to stop but will just skid their feet along the ground until they stop. They do that because they’ve had other bikes that they can’t operate the brakes on. We often have that with visitors to Islabikes. Because the brakes are really easy to operate on our bikes there’s a danger that the children will pull them really hard! They’re used to pulling with all their might on brakes that don’t work. If you’ve got the right stuff on there, and then you teach them to use it, then it’s not difficult.
Do you see any difference between girls and boys in the way they engage with cycling?
Isla: Not really, and I’m alert to this kind of thing. I’ve not observed any significant differences between the girls and the boys that we interact with in terms of whether they’re likely to be competent or otherwise on a bicycle. It’s much more to do with their own particular level of co-ordination skills and their own previous experience of cycling.
I’ve picked up no gender specific pattern at all with that, pre-puberty, but by virtue of the fact that they’ve come to us, they’re already a pre-selected group of people, aren’t they? So, that’s only my observations of the people that come to Islabikes.
We have no stats on the gender breakdown of Islabikes customers but we see a lot of girls. We’ve got a new computer system that will allow us to collect that kind of information, and I really want to see that, yes, because I don’t know it right now. I’ve only got anecdotal evidence, and I would guess that we have a few more male customers than female, but it’s not a huge difference.
Have you had any role models yourself in the sport, the industry, or in life outside cycling?
Isla: Yes, influences just come from all over the place. My first sporting heroes, I guess, were Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. We didn’t have a television and I can remember watching the Moscow 1980 Olympic finals with my mum through a Kidderminster television shop’s window.
Then, when I got into cycling at the age of eleven or twelve, my great uncle (who was a cyclist) gave me a pile of old cycling magazines and I read about people who inspired me in those.
When Mandy Jones won the world championship in 1982 it was an astonishing moment – out of the blue, and with no support from the system really. Robert Millar, of course, was another one who just did the impossible. Those are the two people that stick in my mind.
And then the women’s Tour de France came along in the ‘80s, with riders like Maria Canins and Marianne Berglund. Then there were other British cyclists who came along like Lisa Brambani. Those are the people that I remember.
Going into adulthood, other wider inspirations of leadership include Ernest Shackleton who led the unsuccessful Antarctic expedition with the ship “Endurance”. They didn’t get very far at all with that, of course, as they got their ship ice-locked right at the beginning of the expedition, but what Shackleton subsequently did was just absolutely amazing.
Also the 19th century enlightened entrepreneurs and philanthropists. They tended to be from non-conformist religions like Quakers and there was a political reason for that – people from non-conformist religions weren’t allowed access to university, so they applied themselves to something else instead. People like the Lever brothers, Titus Salt, Huntley and Palmer, Cadbury – and the Rowntrees… So, they’ve been an influence and an inspiration.
Does the Quaker philosophy influence how you run the Islabikes business?
Isla: Yes it does, I think it gives you a much longer term view of things, rather than short term. I think that’s commercially sound anyway, actually – it doesn’t mean that you’re non-commercial, but you make business decisions slightly differently, for slightly different reasons. I’m not personally driven by wealth. I’ve only recently become a Quaker but I think the values come through your family.
Are there brands or designers outside cycling which share your philosophy of innovation, lightness and fitness for purpose?
Isla: My father is what’s now called a product designer, but who was called an “industrial designer” when he qualified in the ‘60s. So, although I’ve had no formal training in design, I have been around design my whole life. He taught me to draw in perspective when I was two and a half years old, so the houses that I drew in school weren’t a square with a triangle for the roof! I’m not particularly talented at drawing, but that inculcation through childhood and through adolescence was there. I had an awareness of design and appreciation of design before it was fashionable. Because it was very unfashionable, actually, in the ‘70s and ‘80s but it was a part of my life. As a child I remember my father would take me to furniture designers’ degree shows at universities, and I was seeing the students’ work. I found it interesting because the design students were very varied.
I admire Sir Alec Issigonis. The Mini is obviously a bit of a cliché now, but it was such a breakthrough at the time, and also a commercial breakthrough.
He wasn’t given a clean sheet of paper – he was told “You can make any car you want as long as you use an engine that’s already in production”. So, he took the Morris engine and turned it around. His was the first transverse engine installation – that’s why it was such a breakthrough, but he had to take an existing engine off the production line, so was totally constrained. Instead of putting the engine into a car like everybody else always had, he turned it round, and that totally changed the direction of car design. It was completely “outside the box” thinking.
In the cycling world Mike Burrows has done some amazing stuff. He’s older than me but it was all going on as I was growing up. I mean, I don’t agree with everything that he does, or has done, but he’s done some incredible things. I think it’s absolutely fantastic that the industry has got someone like him. You really need people like that, even if they don’t get it right every time, to really challenge the status quo. It’s really important to move things on, that’s when you get your “step change” which is what he precipitated within bicycles.
Do you think bike development is held back by UCI regulations preventing more radical designs like monocoque frames being raced?
I think the UCI has really lost its way with the design restrictions that it puts on the elite end of the sport, and I think most of the industry and most racing cyclists would agree.
They just seem to come up with ridiculous and arbitrary rules. Ergonomically they’ve got it wrong so, for example, I wouldn’t be able to ride a time trial bike that fitted me, you know? It only caters for Mr Average – and it is Mr Average, not Miss Average even. I just don’t get that all.
I’m all for innovation and allowing it to run its natural course. Some innovations will reach dead ends, and some of them will be amazing. You need the dead ends to get to the amazing points too.