Singletrack Issue 126 | Colour Wheels

by 2

Sim Mainey goes behind the scenes to find out who decides what colours you’ll be wearing and riding next year, and what will be old hat the next.

Words Sim Mainey Photography credited

While most of us would like to believe that we base our bike-related purchases on performance, value and fit, the truth is we’re heavily swayed by a far less quantifiable, but no less important factor – colour.

Whether you are a firm follower of fashion whose wardrobe changes in step with the seasons or you’re an ‘any colour as long as it’s black’ kind of rider, colour likely has some bearing on the bike you ride and the clothes you wear. Manufacturers are all too aware of this and spend huge amounts of time and resources making sure their colour choices are in line with, or just ahead of those of their customers. Picking the wrong colours can mean a warehouse full of unsold stock, no matter how good the product is. Conversely, an average product can become the ‘next big thing’ thanks to some smart decisions on colour.

But who decides which colour is going to be big in the bike industry for next season? Why do some colours come and go while others are perennial favourites. And wouldn’t it just be easier for everything to be black?

Game of tones.

Colour forecasting is big business. There are agencies whose sole job is to take the colour temperature of what’s going on in the world and predict which colours will be fashionable in the near to long term. These agencies filter and funnel emerging trends into a set of swatches and colour reference numbers that can be sold on to clients. Industries such as fashion, automotive and tech rely on being as up-to-the-minute relevant as possible, not just with product features but with styling too, relying heavily on outside guidance as to what’s going to be hot in six to twelve months time.

Like it or not, the outdoor sports industry is to a large extent a fashion industry, so you can bet your bottom Pantone swatch that there are plenty of brands who rely on the information gathered by colour forecasting agencies to make big decisions on how their product range will look season to season.

Scott Sports is known for its coordinated approach to colour, with its bike and clothing range allowing a customer to get a complete look without straying from the brand.

“We usually do not work with external agencies,” says Josh Gibson at Scott. “Our designers do have access to trend databases. More importantly, as bikers, skiers, runners or MX riders, they are all deeply involved with their products, being aware of the latest trends in each category. They are also interested in other industries and the sum of all those influences allows us not only to be up to date with current colour trends, but also to propose new colour directions to the market.”

A company as large as Scott that can completely outfit a rider perhaps feels it doesn’t need to rely on external help to choose colours. So what about smaller brands – how do they use colour to stand out against the much larger competition?

Off the Pantone charts.

Since its relaunch, Ibis hasn’t been afraid of doing things its own way, zigging when others zag. Through frame design, colour and marketing, the Californian brand has been quite happy to blaze its own trail.

“For most of our history I really didn’t look at formal colour trend guides or have any prior knowledge of what our competitors were doing,” says Tom Morgan, co-owner of Ibis.

“However, on several occasions the colours that we thought would be unique to us – you might call them signature colours – were not, because other brands came out with the same colours we had. When following our process, or should I say lack of process, that seemed mysterious, but probably really isn’t. I’m probably looking at all the same source material as all the other designers, and I think there some natural progression to what we’re all doing.”

It certainly seems that some colours follow the ebb and flow of mainstream fashion, surfacing in one brand’s range to quickly appear all over the place.

Gary Rough is design manager at Sportline, responsible for overseeing the look and feel of Genesis, Ridgeback and Saracen. “It’s increasingly difficult to be original these days and I do not believe there is a single source for trends in our industry. Sometimes it can be as simple as one of the big boys applying a perceived risky colour to one of their large run commercial models for people to see it works, and then the whole industry follows suit. Companies like Santa Cruz have inspired a certain amount of this in recent years, but were they really the first or did they see one of the niche brands doing it and apply it on a large commercial scale and give it to the world to create the perception of being first?”

Emperor’s new colours.

Being first, or certainly being perceived to be the first, is a big deal. Every brand wants to be a leader. But whether it’s a change in wheel size or the use of colour, being first can be risky business and often it’s easier to let someone else go first.

Tom Morgan from Ibis again. “Back when we made the first Mojo carbon, the bicycle industry had embraced a colour spectrum that had been reduced to black, white, silver or red. So we could do almost anything and it would look creative and original. Over time it’s become more of a challenge as the rest of the industry has become more interested in colour.”

This balance of being on-trend and yet unique, reacting and innovating, is something all brands struggle with – whether that’s with geometry, application of a new must-have ‘standard’ or in terms of how a bike is marketed. On the shop floor, or more lately online, it’s colour that catches the eye and being unique without being too outrageous is a fine line.

It’s common for a brand to launch a bike in a colour that initially goes down badly, but soon becomes the must-have colour for the season, proving – as if proof were needed – that we’re all susceptible to the push and pull of fashion. But if one colour is clearly becoming popular is there a pressure to follow the herd for fear of being left behind?

“We will rule out colours because we think that it’s surely something that somebody else is doing,” explains Kelvin Owers, Cotic’s graphic designer. “​It’s not because we’re afraid of being the same as the competition, it’s more of ‘well that’s what they’ve got now‘ and we’re designing a bike that’s going to be launched in six months, nine months, a year’s time. There’s no point us looking like something that was brought out eighteen months or two years ago. It would just look old.”

Mood boards, like the example above help companies like Specialized narrow in on the ‘design language’ for a product or range. By getting influences from automotive, running, fashion, even found art and popular culture, a baseline of colours and styles can be decided on. Is the product going to be bold, angular and futuristic? Or smooth, rounder and organic? Warm or cold colours? Complimentary or clashing?

With these big questions answered as a start point, the designers are then free to explore within those parameters and to turn those thoughts into finished bikes.

Paint it black.

With so much risk involved in getting colour right it’s understandable why there is a temptation for a company to play it safe. Brands will often hedge their bets by offering a product in two colour options – one on-trend and edgy colour and one safe colour, typically black. This allows the consumer to choose between being seen with a season’s must-have colour and a timeless classic.

Morvélo has made a name for itself as a brand that isn’t afraid of applying mainstream fashion to cycle apparel, but is there a pressure for them to play it safe? Founder Oli Pepper: “There is, especially if things are going well. You’re tempted to take your foot off the gas and go with what you know. That is the worst mistake to make as it stops creativity and removes the adventurous and rebellious spirit.”

With the lifespan of a bike far exceeding that of a jersey, a lot of consumers are traditionally more conservative with colour choice when it comes to buying a bike. So does this, coupled with the timescale of bringing a bike to market, mean bike brands are more inclined to play it safe when it comes to choosing a colour?

Kelvin at Cotic: “Safe for us isn’t going for the darker one or the black option, it’s going for the one we thought was successful recently then making sure we’ve got different options for different people.”

“Given the lead times involved in completing a whole model year, we tend to work well into the future so can’t react to quick-fire trends as well as maybe custom builders or clothing brands can,” says Sportline’s Gary Rough.

“My team are currently working on bikes that the public will not see until 2020, so we have to try to limit the chance of a dud colour by playing it moderately safe. That’s not to say we don’t take certain risks.”

Nominative determination.

One brand you’d imagine takes colour very seriously is Orange. “While orange is the name of a colour, in our case Orange is the name of the bike company. Lots of people like an orange Orange, but many other colours are available,” says John Chennells, Orange’s design maestro.

Orange’s full suspension range is built in Britain with frames powder-coated in the factory, allowing customers to choose from any one of ten colours. But does passing the choice of colour over to the customer take some of the pressure off Orange having to get their colour forecasting spot on and – more importantly – does it help sell more bikes?

“We certainly think it helps with sales. It allows Orange bike buyers to make their ride a little more personal. There are definitely popular colour schemes we see more than others, as well as some very individual looks. We generally shake up the colours a little each season, sometimes popular colours from the past make a comeback. The nice thing is there is something for everyone, and as we build a lot of our frames in the UK we can adjust supply to demand. Plus, we offer a respray service so customers aren’t stuck with a colour they might have grown tired of, or that looks a little dated.”

Colour and the shape.

This ability to respond quickly to changes in fashion is something not every brand has the luxury of, making accurate colour prediction important. But just because a colour is predicted to be big in the future doesn’t mean it’s going to be right for use on a bike.

“​You need to see it on a tube.” says Kelvin at Cotic, which uses exclusively steel tubing for its frames.

“A lot of colours look good on a car or on something you’ve seen in the design or clothing world. Then you get them onto a tube and you think, there’s no way that’s going to look good.”

While most bike frame engineers probably don’t give colour a second thought, the design and construction of a frame has a huge bearing on colour choices made further down the line. While some colours may not work on a steel tube they might be the perfect match for a slab-sided swingarm, and carbon’s raw black finish and ability to take on previously unachievable shapes provides a new kind of canvas away from traditional tubes. As frame construction, materials and aesthetics change so do colours.

Avocado bathroom.

If style is forever and fashion is fleeting there are colours that were the height of mountain bike fashion and – as with all fashions – there were definite cringe moments. You might remember mountain biking’s avocado bathroom moment from a few years ago when brown frames and white components were all the rage. Thankfully you’d struggle to find either in anyone’s line-up today, or indeed get anyone to admit to owning them. However, fashion is both fleeting and cyclical, and much like the resurgence in popularity of purple anodising, it’s probably only a matter of time before brown bikes specced out with white handlebars start to appear on shop floors again – but we can hope not. Like avocado bathrooms, some things should just stay in the past.

Colour Gallery

Comments (2)

    Great feature, well written and good choice of contributors.
    Would have been nice to ask the designers what their worst mistake was, as we know some of those interviewed have put out minging looking bikes.
    Also… “With the lifespan of a bike far exceeding that of a jersey” – totally the opposite in my case, I’ve got 10-year-old jerseys but have had dozens of bikes over the last decade. And yes, I had a problem.

    I want bikes to have interesting colourways, like Shan’s heritage motorsport designs. Choice of designs with historic meaning would be good. Check out what Heel Tread are doing with socks for example. With frame design becoming optimal, I suspect wider choice and customisation will become more prevalent.

Leave Reply