Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Chasing "The Next Big Thing" Is The Worst Thing For Cycling

A Schwinn Collegiate from an old Schwinn catalog
 NOTE: Large doses of "my opinion" will be handed out in gloppy dollops today. You've been forewarned....

I used to have a job as a jeweler where I sat at a bench making, fixing, and designing jewelry next to a man that was a good friend of mine. He was married, I was not. I wasn't in any hurry to get engaged either. He thought I was being complacent. He said I was like a catfish, waiting for whatever came downstream. He thought I needed to be more proactive in finding a mate. It caused no end of discussions between us.

Well, that may seem like an odd story to bring up to lead into a story about cycling, but the industry has, for decades, been like me in the 1980's. Slow or just not about looking for "mates". The cycling industry wasn't proactive, and it hasn't been very much good at getting out there and trying to find cyclists until recently. What it has done is to sit complacently and react, for the most part.

Take the 70's bike boom. The catalyst for the massive uptick in bicycle sales during that time was not a result of creative efforts of the cycling industry. It was a reaction to demand which was brought on by the fuel crisis of 1973 and the fitness boom. Then, after millions of bikes were sold, did the industry advocate for ways and places to use them? No. They just raked in cash and thought it was going to last forever, one would think.

Later, about a decade later, some enterprising Californians decided that off road cycling was fun, and that bicycles built on a mass production scale were a good idea. Grassroots growth caused a sector to flower called "mountain biking". It was a "fad" some industry pundits said wouldn't last. It wasn't picked up right away by some of the bigger companies in cycling, and in the end, they were wrong. Obviously.....because they eventually made these bikes all about racing.

Then a thing called "free riding" came along, an offshoot of mountain biking that was more about having fun. It eschewed the then NORBA type bikes and racing culture for that of one based upon back country riding and "fun". (Imagine that. Fun, like the late 70's mtb'ers were having, perhaps?) This morphed into the long travel mtb scene which was dominated by smaller companies, not the big three, not until much later. Meanwhile a counter-culture based on single speed mountain bikes was bubbling along, largely ignored by the cycling industry. Added to this was the beginnings of the 29"er craze, a grassroots driven move toward bigger diameter wheels. None of these things were picked up on by the cycling industry who were content to keep pushing out the same old 26"er designs and road bikes, both based upon racing styles.

Then we had "The Lance Effect". Nuff said.....

29"ers were resisted by many companies until they reacted to Trek/Gary Fisher's success with them.
The cycling industry finally did react, but not to all of those movements, especially after road bike sales started to fade. With the huge shift that 29"ers brought, it kind of stuck the industry in overdrive to find "the next big thing". Remembering the halcyon days of the bike boom of the 70's and the early  to mid-90's mtb boom, and the fading road bike sector in America, the industry reached for anything it could to recreate another boom. No way were they going to miss out again like many companies did on 29"ers.

This has led to "knee jerk" reactions in the industry which have led to over-saturation of product, consumer misunderstanding, and a general mistrust of anything actually good and new in the industry. The first haymaker the industry threw was fat bikes. Then when that bubble burst they sent up the 27.5"er long travel bikes, or "enduro" rigs. When that didn't take off all over the industry jumped on "plus" sized tires, and then gravel/all-road bikes. What was going to be next?

E-bikes, that's what. Specifically, e-mtbs. But once again, while sales numbers are reported to be wildly successful, you can bet your bottom dollar that just like all the other "next big things", this one will have the rug pulled out from under it too.

The e-mtb is what the industry is betting on now.
Thinking about mountain bikes, the industry should thank and continue to support the institutions that are keeping mountain biking alive. Without IMBA, several local associations, and newer developments like NICA, mountain biking access, and therefore the sport, may have faded away years ago. What's weird is that the industry doesn't get more behind how and where people ride other bikes. There have been efforts here and there, but for a long time the cycling industry sat on their hands and did nothing to help.

Then one could also say that with all the "every butt on a bike" sloganeering going on, that the industry is really pretty hypocritical. "Every butt"? Really? Then why all the misogyny? Where are we reaching out to women? Where are we trying to reach out to minorities? I'm not seeing the industry doing much here.

The industry needs to quit chasing "the next big thing" in cycling gear and start shrinking things back to sensible levels. I read a great line on Jonathan Fields Twitter feed yesterday, it said, "More isn't better, better is better. And, that often means less." Make better bikes, simpler choices, and infuse them with more value. 

 Stop chasing the next niche and create places and a culture people want to be a part of, not more models of the same old bikes, not "the next big thing" in cycling. Stop making everything about racing and make it more about the "everyman". It isn't sexy, nor does it appeal to machismo, and it certainly wouldn't fit "The Rules". But do it anyway. Don't sit around reacting to trends, don't wait to see what happens, but create the atmosphere where things can happen. 

Maybe the industry need one of those rants my old jeweler friend used to give me!


Phillip Cowan said...

The worst sins of the bike industry I see are the proliferation of proprietary standards. Do we really need 20 different kinds of bottom brackets or a dozen headset standards. They give us a lot of hot air about innovation but even Ray Charles can see it's just a thinly veiled attempt to limit backwards compatibility. They want to make anything over three years old obsolete. Also there's a certain amount of dumbassery going on with technical one-upsmanship (gee, I wonder when the new 13 speeds will be out?).If they really want to sell a lot of bikes they should be pushing for Dutch/Danish style infrastructure in our cities.Then they could sell millions of 35lb all steel monsters and leave the innovation to the small custom builders who are really good at it.

Guitar Ted said...

@phillip Cowan- Technical standards have always been a mess. I recall back in the 90's when I got my start as a mechanic that there were several bottom bracket thread "standards", so things aren't really all that different now in that regard.

I will give you the backward compatibility point, and that's been a problem for a long time. It isn't going to get better as road bikes move to a Boost spacing standard, but really, this sort of thing has happened in the past as well.

Now the point you make about Dutch/Danish style infrastructure is really where my mind was at with regard to why the industry doesn't advocate for cyclists, making new customers, as they do for offroad. That was one of my main points for this article.

Irishtsunami said...

It is funny how things go in a circle. I remember when it was hard to find a 29er tire on the shelf at a bike shop, then it became the "standard." Now I cannot find a 29er tire at the bike shop because they are all 27.5+.

100% concur with the infrastructure piece. I moved to the Miami area just over a year ago and I am afraid to ride pavement around here. Cyclists getting killed is a regular occurrence. Very sad really and a problem that could be reduced by putting in protected bike lanes.

Tyler Loewens said...

I would argue that chasing the next big thing is driving a lot of cool innovation. The fat bike "next big thing" actually was more about the every man right?

I get your point for sure, but like most things we are always continuously improving. Sometimes that means some failure, and thats OK.

Guitar Ted said...

@Tyler Loewens- Yes and no. Yes- early fat bike introductions were innovative and pushed boundaries. No- Then you had every Tom, Dick, and Harry introducing fat bikes to get a foot in the door and take a slice of the pie, (which wasn't being grown, or created by these same brands with marketing or investing in to the scene), and that subsequently flooded the marketplace with product which in turn killed the "next big thing" off and then we saw a move to "the next big thing".

This ultimately hurts the product development cycle and evolution of the niche since R&D and $$$'s get reallocated to whatever the "next big thing" is. In the case of fat bikes, we have seen a fall off of advancement in the tech side since there are limited $$$'s to go around. This money is now spent on gravel/all road and e-mtb bikes.

So, where you once had innovations in the fat bike niche you will now see a fall off on that front and where you see brands seeking to jump on with e-mtb, you will see tons of new advancements because that's where the companies think they can grab some $$$'s quickly by jumping a trend.

It's a big mistake. In the end, companies don't create a bigger pie. Which is what is needed, not a "new thing in cycling".