Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rational Cycles

How would one finance a company that offered simple platforms on the basic frame types and wheel sizes to knowledgeable shops where the technical staff could customize them for individual riders' needs?

Would it even be worth it?

In the olden days, the early 1990s, bike companies already offered too many models, but the models they offered were all based on simple and similar configurations.  Road bikes received little attention, but in the mountain and the emerging hybrid category you got a lighter, more precisely made version of the same basic bike as you went up in price point.  A rider could buy in at their chosen price level and have the shop fine-tune the setup from there.  It did not provide instant gratification, but a good shop could make a lot of changes quickly if the rider so desired.

Mountain biking rode the crest of its popularity right then.  It was a bike for the people in an inclusive culture far removed from the perceived snootiness of road riders or the obsessiveness of tri-geeks.  The mountain bike's simplicity and durability made it appealing.

Racing's warlike qualities brought down the inclusive culture along with the simplicity and affordability as hyper-competitive cyclists and sponsors formed a military-industrial complex with the bike industry to push the frontiers of engineering far away from the happy doofuses riding their fat-tired steeds on streets and trails like carefree children.

The industry will argue that the cheap mountain bike of today has many more features than the pig iron of 1990-'92. I have to agree, progress has been made.  But not every sweeping change has been real progress.

I digress, as usual.

To introduce a line of rational bikes, a business would need more buying power than a single shop can muster.  I've tried using Surly frames and bikes, as well as used frames and bikes as a basis for customization with only limited success.  Even with access to wholesale pricing on product, I can't glean enough margin to make a bigger play. Real custom bike customers are looking for more impressive products, as a rule.  The people who could benefit from the gradual enticement of an upgradable bike often can't get their heads around the initial investment.  Surly and similar offerings seem affordable to those of us who have been involved a while, but we're already hooked.

In Resort Town, our year-round cycling community is too small to support much of a shop anyway.  We have our knowledge and tools, but don't generate enough revenue to support a lot of inventory.  Using cross-country skiing as a winter line is just masochistic, given the way the winters and the ski industry have been treating Nordic.  High-zoot Nordic shops get sucked into stone grinding, but how many Nordic skiers really want to pay to have their bases surgically removed and then expensively rewaxed?  Drugs are the best analogy to that kind of commitment to speed, but drugs are more available, less weather dependent and, on the whole, less labor intensive.  That explains the larger number of drug addicts than performance-obsessed Nordic skiers.

Nordic is actually another sport with the fun technologized out of it.  It seemed so timeless and simple in the 1980s...a little wider ski, a little more rugged boot might make my exploring experience more fun.  What's this skating stuff? Hmmm. Wish the trails were wider and more uniformly smooth.

The bike industry has been groping for years for a product that will excite consumer interest as much as the mountain bike did.  We have production versions of all the variations shops used to configure for their customers, as well as motor-driven cycles in various guises for those who don't really want to pedal.  Maybe the thing to do instead is reinvent the mountain bike in its appealing simplicity with only a few genuine improvements, like better brakes, and a return to top-mount shifters.  Maybe all you have to do to get lightning to strike twice is put up the right lightning rod.

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