Bianchi. Giant. Pinarello. Sit down at the "Look Mum No Hands" cafe in London and you'll see these names etched on countless bike frames outside. Each company is known for building beautiful high-end racing machines, a tapestry of parts designed to maximise power and style. But look closer and you'll see that most are blemished by cycling computers bolted onto handlebars. To call them an eyesore would be exaggerating, but they do disrupt otherwise exquisite designs. It's a niggle SpeedX, a new cycling brand based in China, hopes to solve with a "smart" bike called the Leopard.
"We wanted to create a better experience that combines technology with pure cycling," SpeedX's Raggy Lau explains.
Before the Leopard, though, the company tried to perfect the technology side with a cycling computer called SpeedForce. Launched on Indiegogo last December, the product is unique in that it doubles as a bike stem. That means all components, including a basic color display, are packed into a traditional neckpiece that joins the handlebars and frame. You simply swap out the old stem for the one developed by SpeedX. It looks a little thick, but SpeedForce allows the original shape of the bike to be maintained, while adding GPS, a front headlight and a display for speed, distance and time. The company hopes to ship the first units to backers next month.
A few months ago, SpeedX followed up with the Leopard, its first racing bike. It was launched on Kickstarter and promised a ride unlike any on the market -- a seamless fusion of performance and technology. The new "Smart Control" computer is again built into the stem, only this time it sits in front of the handlebars, hovering over the front wheel. (It's a better placement, given road bikes position the rider quite far forward.) At $1,399 (roughly £1,035), the bike is aimed at amateur cyclists who want high-end components, such as a carbon frame, and better ride tracking.
The project attracted 1,251 backers and $2.32 million in pledges. SpeedX has since set up an Indiegogo campaign, where the Leopard has accrued another $386,000 from some 238 backers. A portion of these pledges were for optional accessories, however, rather than the bike itself.
SpeedX believes it can ship the first bicycles to backers next month. Last week at London's Regent's Park, I was shown a prototype of the Leopard Pro, the top variant that comes with electronic gear shifting and superior handlebars, saddle and wheels. The model I saw was finished in a dark gunmetal grey -- if Batman rode a bicycle, this would be it.
The frame is built using T-1000 carbon fibre, making it extremely light. It's an expensive part -- most cyclists will pay a grand or more for a comparable frame from an established manufacturer. When you factor in the rest of the bike, a SpeedX Leopard or Leopard Pro represents excellent value. That's all dependent, of course, on the parts performing to a high standard. SpeedX is confident in their durability at least -- to reassure skeptics, it's offering a lifetime replacement guarantee with every frame.
Most, but not all of the Leopard's parts have been developed by SpeedX. The saddle is made by either Selle Royal or Fizik, while the tyres are sourced from Vittoria. Almost everything else has been built by SpeedX in China. The company has its own factory and this, Lau argues, is the main reason why it can sell the bike so cheaply. By undercutting established rivals, SpeedX hopes to make a name for itself much like Xiaomi and OnePlus have done in the Android space. It wants to be known for exceptional quality, but at a price far below the industry standard.
I'm no Chris Froome, but the bike felt like a feather as I took it for a spin around the park. While I pushed on the pedals and leant into some light turns, I found myself thinking about the two-wheeler's smarts, rather than its raw performance. SpeedX says it's the first company to build both a bike and cycling computer in tandem -- normally, you have to buy a separate device from the likes of Garmin. Looking down, I could see my current speed and how long I had been riding for on a small color display. The resolution isn't the sharpest, but it's better than most cycling computers.
I could move through a few different screens by pressing a button at the top of the bike's stem. Some showed the time and the difficulty of the current climb, while others revealed my top and average speeds. Lau says the final version will let you customise one of the screens -- you'll be able to set and move different stats, rather like choosing "complications" on an Apple Watch. The bike's onboard computer has built-in GPS too, which lets you access turn-by-turn directions on the road. SpeedX is still working on its mapping system, however, so I was forced to navigate Regent's Park the old-fashioned way. Luckily, I've wandered its nearly 400 acres before.
Alongside GPS, the Leopard measures performance using independent speed and cadence sensors. The former is fitted to the rear tyre and the back of the frame, while sensors on the crank measure the rate at which the rider is pedalling. These two metrics are related but also crucially different; riding downhill can be both fast and effortless, for instance.
The Smart Control lasts up to 800 kilometres, or 40 hours on a single charge. On its body you'll find five circular lights, which visualise the bike's remaining charge, and a small light sensor. When our nearest star begins to set, this will automatically turn on a tail light built into the saddle post. A small micro-USB slot can be found just below, which acts as a charging port for both the light and the cycling computer. You'll need a screwdriver to take the saddle post out and charge the internal battery -- it sounds cumbersome, but Lau says the process takes one or two minutes at most.
Developing the Leopard as a single product, with bike and computer combined, offers SpeedX a new and largely unproven business model. Unlike Trek, Specialized and other high-end manufacturers, which make money on the components they sell, SpeedX doesn't expect to earn much, if anything from the Leopard and Leopard Pro. Instead, it's banking on sales that will trickle through after riders have made their initial purchase.
The cycling computer and companion app, which will be available on both iOS and Android devices, will give SpeedX a regular window to its consumers. On either screen, the company could theoretically try to sell you new products and services. These could include accessories like a helmet or bottle cage, as well as additional software features -- the company is staying tight-lipped on the details, but it's not hard to imagine premium metrics and coaching features, similar to how most running and fitness apps upsell on smartphones.
Such a model is dependent on a good foundation -- in short, the Leopard and Leopard Pro need to be good. SpeedX needs a reputation that people will want to get behind -- a difficult task, given the cycling industry is already full of old, well-loved manufacturers. That need is partly why SpeedX crowdfunded its first road bike. Like the smartwatch maker Pebble, the company used the campaign in part as a marketing tool to attract attention. The choice was a smart one -- with $2.7 million in pledges, it now has the money and interest to start building bikes. A fan-driven community has also been set up on Facebook; something SpeedX hopes can blossom into the sort of fan hysteria enjoyed by OnePlus.
On paper, the Leopard seems like excellent value. The carbon frame is an obvious lure and the integrated cycling computer gives it an advantage over traditional road bikes. But the company is an unknown quantity; it's yet to ship a product. The people who have backed the Leopard have done so at their own risk, and as with all crowdfunding projects, there's no guarantee that the bike will ever materialise. The signs are promising though; the prototype I rode proves the project has some substance. As such, I'm fairly confident the company will deliver. The question is whether it'll deliver at the level expected of a high-end manufacturer.
If it can? The likes of Bianchi, Giant and Pinarello might see a new name hanging around outside "Look Mum No Hands."
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