Traversing the top of the globe, what we have dubbed the Nippon Nordic alliance, there are a clutch of bike companies quietly tinkering away in their workshops and producing the highest quality two-wheelers in the world. Here we profile five of the finest.
“When we bought Skeppshult, in 1989, we didn’t know bikes,” says Kjell Sture, who purchased the small bicycle firm with partner Peo Helge. Skeppshult was founded in 1911 by Albert Samuelsson in Skeppshult village. In 1920, he opened a factory but the company was largely unknown until Sture’s and Helge’s arrival.
“Skeppshult was in good shape when we turned up, but it was little-known to the rest of Sweden,” says Sture. They have always held provenance as their defining value. “We installed machines and taught the employees more skills to up the quality,” adds Sture. “When other companies were heading east for their frames, we stood our ground and invested money in our Swedish operation,”
Again, while the rest of the world was buying mountain bikes in the early 1990s, Skeppshult shunned the fad. “We have always stuck to our guns and it has always paid off,” says Sture. The company’s most recent model, the Z Bike, designed by longtime design collaborator Björn Dahlström, is an update of the traditional frame. “Our steel-framed Z Bike is one of the most comfortable rides,” says Sture. “Björn’s design absorbs shock effortlessly.”
This single-speed bike is the result of a combined Norwegian effort. “We wanted something back to basics,” says Sondre Frost, of design consultancy Frost Produkt. After a chance encounter at a tradeshow, the Oslo-based company drew up a prototype from scratch with help from furniture designers Norway Says. Additional feedback on the Alta came from graphic artists Bleed and a local ad agency. The Alta is a hybrid between a classic courier and a mountain bike.
Its single-speed design means it performs better in the urban jungle. “You seldom have enough speed to need to change gears, and the specially designed handlebar functions as an extra gear‚ as it is optimal for a rocking motion when you are accelerating or climbing,” adds Frost.
Another advantage for commuters is the Alta’s light weight (just over 9kg), something to consider if you live on the fifth floor with no lift. The first run of 125 sold out quickly to design-savvy riders in metropolises from hilly San Francisco to pancake-flat Stockholm. One has even taken up residence in the Norwegian National Museum.
Jinbei Yamada has been selling his cult bikes from a corner shop in Tokyo since 1972. The sign above the door says it all: Simple is Best. Customers can choose from basic designs in 18 colours. They can also buy the bikes in kit form – hence another shop sign: “Your bike made by yourself”. Many opt to buy the kit and build their bike in the Arrow shop under Yamada’s watchful eye. He is adamant it only takes a couple of hours. “I realised, if I could do it, anyone could,” he says.
Yamada’s view is that a town bike should be strong, narrow and light; popular styles include the Yamajin and the Classic, the simplest of all, with a foot brake and no mud guards. Working to a soundtrack of modern jazz, Yamada doesn’t take life too seriously. Arrow only makes around 1,000 bikes a year and Yamada has no plans to employ more people: “Too much stress,” he says.
Yasuhiro Yamagami builds the frames in Okutama and four franchises have been opened around Japan. “There are plenty of cheap bikes out there,” says Yamada. “I buy the best parts and that’s why the bikes are so good.” Yamada takes a strict line on branding: there’s not a hint of a logo on an Arrow. “You’ve already paid for the product; I don’t see why you should advertise it too,” he says.
A couple of years ago, Rasmus Gjesing was talking to a bike designer, who was showing him his latest model, “He asked me what I thought about his bike. I didn’t like it and I told him so.” The designer scurried off and produced a streamer, which he attached to the handlebar. He asked Gjesing what he thought of it now, to which the straight-talking Copenhagener replied: “Well, it’s the same bike with a streamer stuck on, so it still looks like shit.”
Gjesing is big on simplicity. Having studied bike mechanics during the late 1980s, he opened his workshop on Nørrebro. His design style is as plain as his speech – pared down and with a half-turn of irony. His first bikes, which remain largely unchanged, are bought by a loyal fanbase of aesthetes around the world. At present, he only sells his bikes in Copenhagen and Moss, the industrial design showroom in New York.
Besides his being a charismatic spokesman, Gjesing is also a detail obsessive. Working with nine employees, he produces 500 bikes a year from his workshop in Klampenborg and oversees every aspect of production – something he will never let go of. “Although I’d like to make lots of money, I will never mass produce.” Presumably to prevent his own masterpieces from ever looking like shit.
In 1964, Helkama launched the Jopo. Just as the Chopper defined 1970s Britain, the Jopo became an icon of 1960s Finland, with a one-for-all egalitarian philosophy. Jopo took its name from the first two letters of Finnish words jokaisen polkupyörä, meaning “everybody’s bicycle”. Employing a new technique – two pressed-steel frames, as opposed to one welded piece – Helkama gave the bike a new form, which became one of its selling points.
Markku Autero, Helkama’s head of design, describes the original Jopo. “The first only required one gear and a coaster brake.” Helkama’s creation was a huge success and they sold 214,000 before the company ceased production in 1977. “In 1997, we decided to reintroduce the bike, but renamed it Pojo after reducing the wheel size from 22-inch to sync with the European standard 20-inch. But it wasn’t until 1998 that we reverted to the classic 22-inch wheel because of problems.”
Autero and his team utilised modern techniques, such as laser cutting, to make the frames sturdier. In doing so, they corrected the original Jopo’s wobble and produced a new model for the 21st century. “It’s as popular as ever,” says Autero. “This season, we’ll manufacture 8,000 for the Finnish market – a good sign for our 1960s classic.”