Bangkok poses a special set of challenges to those brave souls who choose to travel on two wheels. The mixture of narrow streets, typically choked with heavy traffic, and broad, multi-lane avenues that cover large expanses, but which can be hazardous because of speeding motorists, makes this ever-expanding metropolis of ours a very difficult place to negotiate with a single-purpose bicycle.
A folding bike is most suitable for Bangkok commuters because it allows them to make the best use of Skytrain and underground options. A city or mini bike is best for getting through areas clogged with traffic. A road bike is ideal for sprints on those long-distance, multi-lane routes, but sometimes the road surface is so bumpy that a mountain bike is what is really required for the job. So, for a smooth, minimally stressful ride across Bangkok, a cyclist would need several different sets of wheels.
Frustrated with the mismatch between Bangkok's street topography and the selection of specialised bicycles available on the market, long-time cyclist Phongsathorn La-iad-on has come up with his own version, the Angl, a bike that combines several functions, can assume various forms and which was designed specifically with the Bangkok cyclist in mind.
His invention, which went on sale here in November last year, is designed both for sustained bursts of speed and for zigzagging around obstacles in narrow streets. Its chic look and pastel colours should make it even more attractive to fashion-conscious city slickers.
There are quite a few local bicycle-makers around, some filling the need for reasonably priced, mass-produced bikes, others catering to those who want a lovingly hand-assembled set of wheels.
But what sets the Angl apart is that it was designed by a Thai national, and it is being manufactured in a Taiwanese factory which meets international quality control standards.
"Never before has there been one single bicycle that could cater to the mix of street features that you get in Bangkok," said Phongsathorn, a product designer by training who is the founder and CEO of Angel Bike Co Ltd. Earlier designs of his include those for industrial products like an air-conditioner, washing machine and an electric car.
"Angl" is Phongsathorn's play on the words "angle" _ the angles in the frame of a bicycle which is what makes one differ so much from another _ and "angel", as in Krungthep (City of Angels), the Thai name for our capital.
A graduate in industrial design from King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang, Phongsathorn owns more than 10 different types of bicycle, which is how he familiarised himself with the different capabilities of each sort. While cycling only became a major means of transport for him five years ago, he says that he was a keen recreational cyclist for a decade before that.
If the Manhattan bike messengers in the 2012 film Premium Rush made you wonder why zipping through Bangkok's rush-hour gridlock is so much harder than squeezing past New York City's notoriously rude motorists, take a closer look at the road surface our poor cyclists have to contend with.
This is sometimes as uneven as an unpaved rural track and rainfall gutters that run parallel to the left-most lane pose a risk for the unwary.
To zigzag between snaking lines of cars on narrow streets, a cyclist needs to be very manoeuvrable and for this task a dynamic bike with smaller wheels _ like the mini, folding or city types _ is recommended. But Bangkok also has many long, 10-lane thoroughfares where cyclists need to be able to move quickly in order to contend with motorised vehicles; to master this situation, a sprinter with narrower wheels, like a road bike, is the best choice. But the latter type of bicycle does not perform well in the former set of conditions, and vice versa.
A standard bicycle has wheels that are 26 inches in diameter and 1.5 inches wide, but the wheel diameter for a mini bike is 20 inches and for a roadster it's 27 inches. If one was riding a mini, it would take forever to reach the next set of traffic lights on Vibhavadi or a recently opened road like Kaset-Navamin. But the larger wheels of a road bike make it harder to zigzag through gridlocked traffic, and their width, usually only 1 inch, makes them susceptible to getting trapped in those road-side gutters.
Mountain bikes have wide-gauge wheels and tyres designed to provide increased grip on off-road trails, so they would be able to cope with the most pot-holed of Bangkok streets; the only drawback, however, is that they're much too heavy for urban commuting.
"You need a bike that's dynamic, but also stable enough to get into the narrow spaces between lines of traffic. Nor should it require a great deal of strength to produce a burst of speed," Phongsathorn explained.
To make it go faster, the triangle on the rear of the Angl frame has been minimised. To provide better balance and control, the front of the Angl has a lower head-tube to enable a lower sitting position and its wheelbase is also shorter than normal.
"Cyclists tend to feel more confident when the seat is closer to the ground," he said, adding that he had learned from a survey carried out during the product-development process that the reason most people give for not cycling is fear for their personal safety.
And anybody who has ever bought a bicycle knows how difficult it can be to find one that fits your body size precisely. A person's height and inside-leg measurement are important, of course, but other factors have to be taken into consideration, too, like torso and arm length.
Some serious types have their bicycles tailor-made, just like commissioning a gown or suit for a special occasion.
But to build a bike from scratch, one needs to find components designed to fit a specific frame-set, the collective term for the actual frame plus parts like the wheel forks and seat post. Some parts are made for fixed-gear bikes, so they can't be replaced with items meant for multi-gear hubs. Many components fit only a certain size of wheel. Other parts only mesh with disc brakes and can't be used on models which have old-fashioned V-brakes.
After two years of research and design _ and the construction of no less than three prototypes _ Phongsathorn finally solved all the problems confronting him. His frame-set is designed for Asians (or people between 152cm and 178cm in height) and can be given either a vintage or super-modern look with the use of appropriate parts. One of the unique features of the Angl is the curved toptube on the model intended for men; this makes it a good deal easier to get on and off the bike. Phongsathorn isn't only targeting Thai cyclists; he hopes to sell the Angl in other parts of Asia, too, and has produced a larger version for sale in the European market.
Nor is the 40-year-old content to rest on his laurels now that he's designed a revolutionary two-wheeler for urbanites. He is currently working on his next project, a folding bike. Most of the commercial models available these days fold up perfectly, but don't perform so well on the road, or vice versa; Phongsathorn's dream is to create a vehicle that fulfils both functions well.
"If we can't design something better," he said, "we should stick to what's available on the market. There's far too much much garbage in this world already."
About the author
- Writer: Sirinya Wattanasukchai