Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Competition and Monopoly

 Capitalism always trends toward monopoly. Competition only seeks to increase market share. Once market domination is achieved, the "winners" become very hard to dislodge. In general consumer markets, the appearance of many companies often masks the fact that most of them are owned by a larger corporation that says it operates them independently, but still uses its mass to control pricing to its own advantage. 

Competition still appears to exist in the bike industry, because bikes are parity products, and there's never been enough money in them to attract major corporate consolidators. The competition is an illusion, because bikes for each purpose use parts from the same menu of suppliers, which is itself pretty small. Some might be slightly better made or better equipped within a price range, but you still have several relatively balanced companies milking the dying market at pretty equal rates. It isn't really competition as such, because they're just divvying up the customers over cosmetic details or accidents of proximity. Trek or Specialized? Who cares? Which shop is closest and maybe offering a little promo?

Competition did exist in the 1990s, and it was brutal. The losers were the riders and the many small shops, as well as small builders who had to find the right size to survive. Some sold out to a bigger player, notably Bontrager, Gary Fisher, and Klein. None of those are sold under their own name anymore, if at all. 

It took a while for the collapse of small shops to spread. It lasted into the 2020 pandemic. It was a steady rolling wave, as technological complication made the service side more and more expensive for retailers already struggling with the tightened margins that came out of the cutthroat warfare of the 1990s. Riders suffered because all of that technology has made what passes for a quality bike much more expensive and made mid- and low-price bikes trashy knockoffs of the expensive ones.

In the mid 1990s, Specialized went through The Great Cheapening, during which they seriously downgraded the spec on the Hardrock series, and even the Rockhoppers. These two models had been great buys from the end of the 1980s, building a name for Specialized quality and durability. They started gutting the Hardrock as early as 1991 or '92, largely due to the cheesy quality of Shimano's low-end Rapidfire shifters. The frames were still decent chromoly, but gone were the replaceable chainrings and solidly built derailleurs. Those were disappearing from the whole industry as the manufacturers scrambled to make bigger profits off of the influx of inexperienced buyers that they cynically assumed would never figure it out anyway.

The real Great Cheapening hit with the adoption of aluminum as the frame material of choice. The reputations of the model categories were well established, so customers would come in with an existing good opinion of the bike they'd generally already decided that they wanted. It was around this time that I started avoiding the sales floor more and more, because I couldn't do anything to stop the general rot in the industry. We needed to sell what we had, but I couldn't stand in front of it with a big smile and say it was a great buy. You could still make a case for some of the bikes on the basis of the serviceable features they still had, like replaceable chainrings and halfway decent derailleurs at price points that still didn't scare off buyers. Specialized snapped out of it when Raleigh re-entered the market with absolutely sweetheart spec at all price points and bought a lot of friends in a short time. Specialized went back to providing solid spec (within the choices available), leaving Cannondale as the perennial high-priced bike with embarrassing components.

Cannondale's excuse was that you should be happy to pay for their excellent US-made aluminum frame, the costs of which prevented them from dressing their bikes with the same level of parts you'd get from those "offshore" bikes. Cannondale subsequently changed hands a couple of times, nearly went under, and are now just another "offshore" brand.

As for consolidation, Trek and Specialized are now trying to control huge swaths, but they're hampered by the ubiquity and disrespect of bikes in the developed world. There are a lot of bikes out there, and only a tiny minority of riders who will pay for the good stuff. Among those, there are good little technolemmings who will queue up for the industry's latest marvel, but also grouches like me, who will own a simple bike for decades and do our best to duplicate it pretty exactly if we ever want to supplement or replace it. The industry could make money off of us if they were willing to keep selling the stuff that appeals to us, but the industry chose to emulate drugs and electronics instead. They foster addiction to passing highs and offer replacements frequently to anyone who can still afford to play.

Then there are e-bikes. While the major bike companies are trying to claim market share, the electric bike has too many variations that serve their users well, but are almost nothing like a conventional bicycle except for the coincidental use of pedals. They are much more like the true mopeds of old: a motor vehicle using bike parts to sidestep regulation. The category includes some very bulky vehicles that do useful jobs. Meanwhile, the traditional bike industry can offer the sexy e-road, e-mountain, and e-gravel bikes that just add a little zing to existing bike categories without inviting competition from a newer e-bike specialist with no heritage in that area or interest in farming that minuscule market.

Before long, e-bike competition will settle on a few strong players, like the car business. Cars are another parity product in which the major differences end up mostly being who has produced the most glaring manufacturing defects in a given model year. The stage from genuine evolutionary improvement to flashy gimmicks takes place sooner and sooner in this electronic age. On the other hand, small companies may hang in there just because everything comes out of enormous factories in Asia, even the frames that are painted and labeled to match whatever brand ordered the batch. This will always come at a cost to the consumer. That unbelievably affordable e-bike might have no-name brakes you can't get pads for, or proprietary parts that you can't replace because the company either dissolved after it sold through the first load of crap or changed the spec and don't stock the old version. It's annoying enough when it happens with a bolt or something that a good mechanic can devise a substitute for, but I've also encountered it with control units and wiring harnesses that are more difficult, if not impossible, to fake.

I guess when it comes to consumer goods you have to choose your poison: a small company that will jerk you around because it doesn't have the finances to establish a rock-solid customer service department, or a large corporation that feels it's big enough to ignore the faint whining sounds of aggrieved customers. Look at how long it took Shimano to acknowledge their latest iteration of exploding cranks. Classic example of arrogant, monopolistic corporate behavior.

Friday, October 06, 2023

Beautifully crafted, reliable mediocrity

 Like finding an old friend's obituary on the internet when I'm looking for something else, I noticed posts reporting that Surly had discontinued the Cross Check. I knew it was on the way out when they discontinued the complete bike. You could still buy the frame, and I considered trying to stock up, but I have two already. Don't be a neurotic hoarder. But now they're gone. The ones in the wild will quickly command collector prices. 

The end of the era got me thinking about how misguided popular perception eventually destroys everything simple and true and good. I don't worship everything done the old way. I don't miss road brake levers with the cables coming out of the top. I don't miss downtube shifters. Compared to the targeted perfection that consumers are fed today, older bike technology is horribly primitive, and an actual impediment. Only in the long view does its superiority emerge. But who bothers with a long view anymore?

Riders decide what is superior for their purposes. Some will purchase their bike without thinking about how to care for it beyond a place to park it. Others will budget some amount of money to pay a technician to maintain and repair it, the way they would with a car. A few will work on their own machines with varying degrees of success. Or maybe they have a friend who can help them, who will actually take on the more intimidating tasks in their back room or basement work area.

As far as I'm concerned, hydraulic brakes, finicky shifting systems, tubeless tires, and suspension do not add enough value to make up for the increased upkeep. Someone in love with those things will put up with their many flaws for the beautiful moments they spend together. Someone brainwashed by marketing into thinking that those elements represent laudable progress will endure the troubles for as long as they want to bother playing with bikes at all. In the meantime, like some unconquered tribe that has evaded assimilation for generations, we who ride The Old Shit, keep pedaling through the background, patching and replacing inner tubes as necessary, changing cables when they fray, feeling for the chain to engage correctly on the next cog, mile after mile of pleasurable utility interrupted by simple tasks to keep the machine going and going and going.

Love is work. Love is compromise. What feels like love can be temporary. The end of a relationship depends on the type of relationship. When it's with a bicycle, it's not consensual between parties with equal freedom. It's more like a pet, only this pet can be rejuvenated many times, especially if it's an old, steel-framed pet with rim brakes and friction shifting. You have to decide whether to give it the lethal injection, or abandon it on a country road, or turn it in to a shelter, or take advantage of the bike's near immortality to rebuild it. You can even modify it, which was one of the Cross Check's greatest strengths. One of mine has been a fixed gear since I put it together. The older one has been a commuting, exploring, and light touring bike with 24 speeds (initially 21), for 23 years. It has evolved more and more practical features. And I plan to put a multi-gear setup on the fixed gear 'Check as soon as I get around to it.

With long horizontal dropouts, the Cross Check offered not only an easy setup for single speed and fixed gear riding, but an adjustable rear wheel position to change the ride and load handling, as well as accommodating some cassette and derailleur combinations that should not officially work. But versatility requires thought, and any option has its drawbacks as well as advantages. The bike industry wants you to buy multiple individual bikes perfectly set up for their latest version of each particular riding style. They'll abandon you next year, but don't think about that right now. Your bike will probably last two or three before you have enough problems to need expensive work...unless you're a mountain biker, in which case you might have stuffed it in the first three days and need a $300 derailleur. In any case, the industry hopes that you will weigh the cost of service on something they've already forgotten the spec on, versus buying the Shiny New Thing, and pick the latter.

I always approached gear purchases like they were the last one I was ever going to buy, in a life with no end in sight. Now I'm closer to the statistically likely end than the beginning, so I see the changes in the bike scene more in the context of the era that will die with my generation. I can feel sorry for the young ones who have never known the self sufficiency and reliability of simple componentry that is well made, but I can't say I'll be there to help any of them who might seek to reinstate it. There's a subculture of old steel bikes, but less and less coming into the field unless it's expensively hand built by dedicated fabricators. And even in the practical steel bike subculture there are devotees of disc brakes, and probably poor bastards beguiled by tubeless tires as well. I don't want to ask for details, because knowing would only annoy me.

For the riders who demand the ephemeral performance of the latest technology, it is vital. They could not ride in the style they have chosen if they didn't have the technological support of those machines. It's a devil's bargain that would not concern me if it hadn't invaded my profession by forcing me to decide whether to keep toiling to help them pursue their bad decisions or look for some other line of work in which I have no experience. So far, I just do the best I can to make bad designs work as well as they can, and enjoy the schadenfreude when they fail anyway due to inherent flaws. It's nowhere near as fun as fixing something that can actually be fixed and sending that rider happily back out for more pleasant adventures, but stuff like that is increasingly going the way of the Cross Check: withdrawn by the manufacturer due to decreased demand.