For much of the 15-plus years Islabikes has existed, the UK company’s managing director Tim Goodall recalls, adults with dwarfism would regularly get in touch, asking to come in to try out one of the bikes they make for children.
The company, he said, was happy to oblige, if aware of the implications: “It was the best option out there, but it was still pretty awful. It did feel like it was a problem that could be solved through better design.”
And that, in the end, is what has happened. The Ludlow-based business has become the first bike manufacturer in the world to mass-produce models specifically designed for the requirements of people with disproportionate dwarfism.
The final result, which took several years of work and various incarnations, was developed in association with the Dwarf Sports Association (DSA), which campaigns to make sports and activity more accessible. Delays included finding a manufacturer who could produce steel tubes strong enough to support the frame, which has an ultra-low, step-through design.
People with disproportionate dwarfism, or achondroplasia, tend to have similar-sized torsos to people without the condition but shorter arms and legs, meaning that traditional-shaped bikes will not work – for example, even if a child’s bike is the correct height it will be too cramped for length.
Steve Scott from the DSA worked closely with Islabikes over the design. This included a weekend riding his own bike, a bespoke-built model, with the company’s founder, Isla Rowntree, so she could see what worked for him and what did not.
“Islabikes stayed with us, and they got it right,” Scott said. “You can’t just lop bits off, which is what my dad used to do when I was a kid, which is great when there’s nothing else, because the proportions are different.”
While Scott stuck with cycling, in part because of the efforts of his father, he said many other people with dwarfism found it too hard, or simply could not afford a custom-built model.
“That’s the sad thing about trying to cycle for dwarfs. If you can’t find a bike you give up. You can’t just walk into a bike shop and say, ‘Can I have a bike that fits me?’”
The two models made by the company, with 20-inch and 24-inch wheels, are aimed at adults with disproportionate dwarfism, with the smaller one also usable for older children. For younger children it offers amended versions of existing children’s bikes – the disproportion of torso to limbs tends to be less pronounced before adolescence.
As well as the special frame, the adult bikes have design elements such as shorter cranks, handlebars that curve back slightly and brakes designed for use with smaller fingers.
Goodall said that as far as he knew, the company’s new bikes were a world-first. Aside from bespoke models, the only other option was one US manufacturer, which built bikes to order for people with dwarfism, but with long lead times.
He said there had already been strong interest from around the world. While the company, which sells its bikes from its website, normally ships only to Europe, for these models it will do so worldwide.
Islabikes’ models for children are known for their durability, but also for their relatively high cost, and the new models for people with dwarfism cost £900 each – although the price tag is still much less than that of a bespoke machine.
The company is known also for its social conscience, with other projects including a range of children’s bikes designed to be rented and, when outgrown, renovated by the company and re-sold, reducing waste. In 2019 it launched a range of bikes aimed at older riders, also with low, step-through frames.
Goodall said he hoped that with the bikes for people with dwarfism the company would at least break even, but that even if it did not, the project was worthwhile.
“I’d be loath to describe it as a social enterprise, even if it never does make any money for us,” he said. “It doesn’t sit comfortably with me. How would we like to be described as a charitable cause because of the physical attributes we were born with?”