Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Bike Industry

The bike industry is one of cycling's biggest problems.

The threat became clear during the mountain bike boom. I said I blame Shimano, but they were just the leaders of a movement most other suppliers were all too ready to join. All of a sudden there was money to be made in the bike business. The battle for shares was fierce and continuous.

Many bike industry companies were run by cyclists. They carried the competition from the roads and trails to their corporate strategies. The free market is supposed to thrive on competition, right?

Things got out of hand. Shimano seized control of the drive train market with products that weren't always the best, but were good enough to avoid a bad reputation most of the time. They took a hit during the great Cranks of Death recall in the mid 1990s, but by then they had crushed most other competitors. How? Why? Many customers coming into the shop where I work found the new shifters confusing. The fact that Shimano changed them every year or two only made matters worse.

Competitive cyclists might replace equipment often enough that the product changes didn't bother them. But ordinary riders, who might keep a bike longer than two years or refurbish an old one suddenly found out how miserable the manufacturers' technical support really was.

It comes back to the cocaine analogy. If you're really hooked you will pay what it costs to get your high. But that is not a sustainable lifestyle.

The bike industry sells products, not an activity. It feeds off the activity. It manipulates availability of products to suit its desire for cash flow. The smart money ran like hell from the bike business by 1998. By 2000, mountain biking was solidly a niche sport again. Other forms of bike have grown, but the glory days were over, crushed by the technofascist juggernaut.

Bikes launched the age of mass-produced transportation. In many ways they are the grandparents of everything that rolls or flies today. They were high technology in their day. I don't want to ride a 90-pound hunk of iron-mongery. But watch out lest the slogan "Innovate or Die" becomes "Innovated to Death."

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