The Cleland design philosophy
By Crispin Sage
One word describes it:
U T I L I T A R I A N
… a principle of simplicity, reliability and manoeuvrability.
This produces bicycles for relaxed off-road riding, although well able to meet the challenge of even the most demanding terrain; a pleasant ‘hike with a bike’; varied terrain, fast and slow, sun and rain, difficult and easy, day and night, winter and summer ~ each factor demanding design compromise.
It is unusual for any bicycle design to ignore speed as a critical design factor. Instead, the Cleland Design Philosophy places durability and low maintenance at the heart of its ethos; reliability is the priority. The current AventuraTT prototype consolidates over forty years of development, “… if the AventuraTT were a car, it would be a Land Rover ‘Defender’…”
Geoff’s competition motorcycle observed trials experience was his key influence. Back in the 1960s, when he was forming the layout of a practical off-road bicycle, Observed Trials was a winter sport, with a circuit of 20 or 30 miles taking a competitor all day to complete and routed on normally legally inaccessible tracks and paths with linking road sections. The motorcycles had to be capable of handling the variety of terrain, as well as getting you to the start, and home again after the event, all in typically British winter weather; a very useful template for his design goals. Nowadays, trials are usually run on a circuit of less than a mile or two and the machines are far more specialised, being carried to the venue in a van.
In this sport, the competitive element of the riding is done ‘standing on the pegs’. This position provides a high centre of gravity for manoeuvrability, allowing rapid and extreme upper-body moves to adjust balance, traction and steering, with a minimum of effort.
In his bicycle design, Geoff placed the saddle and handlebar so as to replicate this ‘standing on the pegs’ stance. Despite the presence of a fixed saddle, the resultant upright riding position still allows plenty of upper-body movement, proving gentle on the wrists, is perfect for low-speed technical riding, beneficial to long-term spinal health and allowing the rider to easily observe their surroundings.
Unlike the Fairfax bikes, the Cleland design is not concerned with racing and fast downhill descents. Its ethos is rather to keep going, whatever the terrain or difficulty of the conditions. It is designed for all-weather exploration, where you need to reach your destination without breaking down, getting stuck in mud or having to stop continuously for fallen logs that block the trail; all achieved with maximum riding efficiency and minimum rider fatigue; totally reliable with ultimate functionality.
The conditions in the forests of the Chiltern Hills, where the original Cleland designs were developed and tested, can be very technically demanding for both bike and rider; deep heavy clay with the constant passage of horses combines with wet chalk to produce a very uneven surface consistency akin to deep half-set cement mixed with the finest axle-grease. Water-filled ruts, slimy logs buried under wet leaf-litter, tree stumps and fallen boughs; tight, narrow bends with unexpected steep climbs and descents are typical. It was this kind of terrain that determined what the Cleland machines should be capable of negotiating. However, this kind of going is commonplace in the UK, whereas California, the home of the mountain bike, could not be more different. To cope with these typical British conditions, the Cleland’s tall and upright riding position allows for the rapid shifts in body-weight needed for this kind of technical riding. It has a very high proportion of the rider’s weight over the rear wheel for traction control and the light front-end reduces dig-in, allowing the tyre to float over deep mire and to easily climb logs and steps. This very same philosophy is applied to the design of the very latest version of Aventura, and is explained in more detail on Geoff’s blog.
For its time, the original Range-Rider was a remarkable cycle, responsive, sure-footed, and able ~ in the right hands ~ to clear almost any trail hazard. In October 1981, one of these machines was ridden up Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales, and thus achieved ‘Bike of the Year’ status in the International Bicycle Guide. Despite this success, Geoff could not find financial backers for the bike’s production. Time and again he was told that off-road cycling had no commercial future. This letter, from Dawes, was typical. Geoff seems to have contacted everyone he thought likely to be interested.
It is difficult to tell how much influence this may have had, but this letter was in response to some drawings Geoff had sent them. These were of a superseded ‘Range Rider’ frame and fork. Dawes subsequently produced ‘The Ranger’, which proved remarkably similar and without any reference back to Geoff. Unfortunately, the concept had been mis-interpreted by Dawes and The Ranger was not a successful design.
As a footnote; Geoff has always been enchanted by traditional and modern Dutch roadsters; it is easy to see this influence as well. In fact he has been heard to say, “…the Cleland? Off-road bike designed by a dutch lady.”