Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Why I hate the Bicycle Industry

I started riding the bicycle before Greg Lemond won the Tour de France. Put simply, I'm old school. But the funny thing about that is, I wasn't always 'old school', once upon a time (or several times as the case may be), I was new school.

When I first started riding bicycles back in the 1980s, I was a lot like many cyclists today. I caught the bike bug and I was into the technology and the new things that might help make me a better cyclist. My first bike was a Cannondale, a cutting edge aluminum racing bike. I also started with the first generation of Shimano's new SIS, or shift index system. This system, with gears that click into specific positions, was the drive-train that would define all other bikes going forward.

I rode the newest and the latest (for a year or two), always looking for ways that technology and innovation might help improve my ride. I had my first pair of Oakley's (Factory Pilots) and my first pair of Look pedals the Christmas that they came out. I also went jumped through hoops at the bike shop to get my bike set up with one of the first BioPace chainring sets (oval chainrings that are now out of fashion). And who can forget burning through two Cat-Eye Solars over the course of about two years.

How I Became 'Old School'
After about two years of riding, I started seeing changes that I couldn't afford to keep up with. For me, the first big break was when Shimano's DuraAce line moved to seven speeds. While traditional 'friction' shift levers used tension to position the derailleur and select gears, index shifters used a ratcheted mechanism that required using a matched derailleur, shift levers, chain, and freewheel for the system to work. In all, an upgrade to the system could cost several hundred dollars, a steep upgrade for the college student budget.

Early index shift systems were also tough on components -- I was burning through a freewheel and chain in a single season (lots of miles, lots of shifts). Somewhere in there, I discovered that when I turned the indexing off, the bike would still function flawlessly -- the only thing that was broken was the indexed shifting. Shifting old school also enabled me to put a seven speed freewheel on my bike, making it as good as a modern one, without using the latest technology.

Over the course of the next ten years or so, I found myself trending toward the traditional cycling direction. I replaced my BioPace rings with round ones. While the industry marketed the latest advances in clincher tires, I rode my sew-ups. And while the ads frequently talked about the latest generation pump, my original Silca kept working flawlessly (with the occasional replacement of a serviceable part).

My understanding of bicycles also changed. While my early years of cycling found me ogling and dreaming about the first generation carbon fiber frames, my Aunt got a custom-fitted, hand-built Serotta frame. As I watched her go through the process, I saw the value of getting a bike that was built to fit you. I also learned the importance of frame alignment, and getting a bicycle made from materials that a trained mechanic could true on an alignment table.

Working At The Bike Shop
I also spent a couple of years working for the local bike shop, and it changed the way that I viewed the bike industry. As cyclists, we see the world through the lens of our community -- when someone has a mechanical problem on the road, you offer to help them. Through the lens of the community, selling a bicycle is about educating the customer and working to fit their requirements and size. Sometimes that means that the customer needs a product that you don't carry. If you're building an honest long-term relationship with a future cycling customer's business -- service and repairs, accessories, etc. -- you direct the customer the the correct fit. However, many bike shop 'businesses' depend on moving inventory. That often means pushing bikes and product on customers when the fit really isn't there -- sometimes because standard sizes limit how close you can fit someone's requirements, sometimes it's simply because you have a customer with money and a product that you need to move. There are exceptions, but the dynamics of the bike-shop-to-customer relationship is a tricky one.

The challenges of this relationship are magnified by an industry that focuses on promoting technology like it was color in the fashion industry. On the road bike, this year's technology goes on a season-long advertising campaign through professional bike racing -- if you want to see what the high-end bicycles will look like, watch a few stages of the Tour de France. And it's not just the bikes, it's also the sunglasses, helmets, tires, cycling computers, energy bars, you name it. Today's bike racing innovation is product that they're probably going to try to jam down your throat nine months from now, knowing that you won't want it by the time next years race rolls around.

Distributor controls and product line limitations are another factor that's shaping your bicycle retail experience these days. Blame it on the economy, on Internet sales, or possibly just the age of the industry, but when you go into most bike shop these days, you'll probably see fewer choices than you might have in years past. For a bike shop to even carry certain products, distributors require them to stock their shelves with percentage of their selected brands. As I wandered through the area bike shops last week, most stores ONLY offered me a choice of lycra-backed gloves from Pearl Izumi. And several limited my choice of water bottles to these new Camelback bottles with a bizarre drinking valve.

I like crochet-backed gloves with a medium-thickness palm pad. What store did I find a pair like that (and a normal water bottle)? Amazon.com. It sucks trying to give back to the community and not having an outlet.

When Old School Finds a New Ride
Just so that you don't think that I'm some crazy retro-rider, I did finally upgrade my bike to a more modern one several years ago. My original, technologically outdated Cannondale served me admirably for 15 years. Drive trains had expanded to nine speeds, shifting had moved to the handlebars, and yet somehow my bike still seemed to roll across the miles. It didn't prevent me from occasionally wandering into the old Wheelworks in Palo Alto, dreamily ogling one of the Serottas that they used to display. And then, back in the year-2000 time frame, the start-up that I was working for went through a successful IPO, and I finally found myself with enough spare cash to get a new bike -- the top-of-the-line Serotta (at that time), a Legend Ti.

Before I actually ordered it, I remember once again becoming infected with the technology bug, imagining riding an ultra-light, comfortable titanium frame, flying up the hills like I was being pushed. Of course, it never actually works out that way -- the great promise of the technology is always outweighed by the lumbering fat guy sitting on the bike.

That being said, it probably won't surprise you that the new bike also brought in a new wave of gear -- new shoes, new shorts, a heart rate monitor, and expensive tires. In preparing for the Death Ride one year, I even upgraded my drive-train from 9-speed to 10-speed (next time you're climbing five mountain passes, ask yourself how much you'd pay for one just one more easy gear). All that being said, I've become very selective about the products that I use and the specific reasons why I prefer them. In most cases, the gear and the accessories that I choose have been proven through miles, hours, and daily use. Once upon a time, that 'level of selective' might have put me in the category of "I ride a Brooks Saddle" crazy; but once upon a time, your neighborhood bike shops all carried Brooks saddles. That doesn't really hold true any longer.

Six years ago, when I found crochet-backed gloves with moderately thin palm pads (at Sportmart), I bought a second pair a month after riding in them. They were nowhere near worn out, but I knew that it might be a long time before I was able to find another pair of cycling gloves that worked as well.

Ultimately, I probably don't hate the bike industry. What I really hate is the idea of product churn simply for the sake of churn. My gloves weren't overcome by software bloat. They weren't replaced by some technologically superior product. Like so many other cycling products, they were simply phased out because there is a segment of the market that buys into the new technology dream. But what worries me most is that, for all of it's technology and innovation, bicycling is a market that depends upon some classic products and some classic brands. It's a market where ultimate quality wasn't the technology, it was the artisan craftsmanship. What happens when there's just no room in the market for those types of products?

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