Thursday, August 19, 2021

COVID's killing Specialized

 Specialized Bicycles is dumping small dealers like a centipede shedding injured legs, in a desperate attempt to save itself from the mess that the bike industry started making for itself back in the 1990s, when technofascism combined with outsourcing to create the repeated waves of obsolescence poured on consumers from factories in distant lands.

When the pandemic hit, it wiped out production first, because the factories were all in areas close to the source of the disease. Because of the nature of the disease, and the inertia of human greed, the illness managed to spread rapidly around the world, taking down all of the systems of the global economy. Then the guidelines of social distancing led to an unprecedented surge in outdoor activities, including biking. Shrunken supply met voracious demand.

I don't know how many -- if any -- of the other major companies, like Trek or Giant, are also shriveling under the strain. Specialized was our last major line. Major or minor, we have had no bikes to sell since the spring of 2020 anyway. Almost none, anyway. We received the odd token here or there as supplies dwindled.

Specialized thinks that it is acting in its own best interest, but how are the hundreds of customers who have bought Specialized bikes from us over the years supposed to get the proprietary parts that the industry has made the norm since the epidemic of "innovation" that hit us in the 1990s? Maybe consumers will be able to order directly from Specialized and then go to a derelict dealer like us to have the work done. Maybe the era of the independent bike shop is truly over, and customers with a bit of mechanical inclination will become their own mechanics, under the tutelage of online video experts.

Many more people are trying to do their own work now, bringing them face to face with the obsessive changes forced on them by an industry interested solely in pumping complete bikes out of massive factories, year after year. Maybe consumers will achieve what beleaguered shops had no hope of doing. Maybe they will rebel and vote with their wallets for technological stability and real product support.

It's a long shot. I tried to wise people up when the whole mess was getting started in the 1990s. Instead, they lined up in hordes to lap up the sweet bait that the industry poured out for them. Because riders in a boom don't generally last longer than the brief lifespan of an abused bike, most of them were gone too soon to have to deal with the ephemeral nature of the innovated bicycle.

Most of the innovation has gone into how to make mid-level and entry level bikes reprehensibly flimsy. A year or two ago I was saying that a good $500 bike was a thousand dollars now. Recently I had to revise it to at least two grand, and even then the $500 bike of the 1990s has much more solid basic componentry. It may not have all the moving parts and modern look, but it has a better shot at longevity.

Longevity is out of fashion. Indeed, as we screw up everything from the environment that supports all life to the democracy that supports diverse cooperation, longevity may be an unrealistic goal. Live hard! Die young! Have nothing but fun and go out in a fireball.

In the end, Specialized probably won't die from the pandemic. It will probably shrink to a manageable size, as other companies that have been in its shadow grow to similar size, and serve whatever there is of a riding public in smaller, more regional ways. One can only hope that this leads to some standardization of componentry and simplification of design so that riders are confident venturing beyond the reach of their specific brand's kingdom.

 In the 1970s and early '80s, bikes were simple enough and used enough similar standards to allow small shops to serve riders at all levels at least well enough to keep them riding. The first edition of Sutherland's Handbook was about a quarter the thickness of the tome by the turn of the century. Simplicity allowed for a broader base of support, spread among more manufacturers and independent retailers.

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