Modern Bicycle Technologies - Helping or Hurting our Industry?

5 minute read

I’ve written extensively about bicycle technology in forums, magazines, and for manufacturers.  I love bikes.  I love what they do for us and what they represent – an efficient, low-cost means of vastly increasing a human’s speed, ability to do work (i.e. carry things), and travel considerable distances.  As a piece of sports equipment, they help us express ourselves, have fun, achieve great heights, make friends, and learn about what it means to find the edge of our mental and physical potential.  These tools are one of the most significant inventions of the past century.

But they’re just that – tools.  A means to a greater end.  And I think the bicycle industry has largely forgotten that.

We want bikes to help us – to serve us.  The average person sees their bicycle just like any other piece of equipment in their garage – a surf board, a rack of free weights, or even the lonely old set of golf clubs in the corner.  The bicycle is competing both in the marketplace and in each individual’s garage for its place in the pecking order.  How much time, money, and attention does the average person have to dedicate to each item?  The statistics are out there, and tell us that most people hardly ride their bikes. 

We – the ‘high-end bicycle industry' – ignore these statistics.  It’s an elitist sport, and those average chumps aren’t real cyclists.  They’re not good enough.  They don’t count.  We don’t need them. 

This snobby attitude is one of the biggest holes in the hull of our sinking ship.  Those folks – the spin class participants, gym-goers, and recreational 5k runners – are exactly the people who gave life to our industry during its boom in the early 2000’s.  We had Lance.  Ironman was surging in popularity.  Aspiration and inspiration were everywhere you looked, and people wanted to get involved. 

So they did.  They went to their local bike stores and purchased hybrid bikes, low-end road bikes, accessories, clothing, and even the occasional super-fancy $3,000 road bike equipped with Shimano Ultegra.  Some got serious and stayed with it.  They came back next year to buy race wheels or a heart rate monitor. 

These bikes went in to the owners’ garages, right next to the tennis racquets, running shoes, and swim bags.  Participation was steady, and the machine hummed along at an incredible pace – one which the retail industry got accustomed to very quickly… too quickly.  Prices increased.  Complexity of equipment increased.  Cycling companies finally started getting involved with triathlon in a big way, seeing it as a bottomless pit of gold, filled with wealthy consumers and an unlimited budget.  Technology?  More is always better, and of course people have limitless time and appetite for more gear in their lives. 

This, of course, is only true for a precious few hardcore cyclists and triathletes, for whom the sport has melded with their identity (and that’s no knock – if people truly enjoy it, I’m agnostic towards their behaviors and buying patterns).  They’re the tip of the spear – if I’m being generous, the top 10% of the customer base.  For everyone else, the 2008 recession hit hard and smacked cycling right back into the thick of the pecking order for our choices of sporting and hobby equipment.  Compared to other sports, cycling requires a lot of time and money (double that for triathlon).  When everyone is working more hours and budgets are tight, it should be no surprise that this type of sport would suffer compared to something less expensive and time consuming.  Yet the industry has fought kicking and screaming, with most continuing to push the same messages – singing the same old song.

Prices are high.  We justify it with a really great technology story – we really do.  There is some incredible equipment out there.  However, what we’re doing is fighting over the same 10% of the customer base that are serious cyclists.  We keep telling ourselves that we just have to find the others like them.  They have to be somewhere!  Someone has to buy these $8,000 bikes!  The customers tell us they want to go fast – so we give them this great equipment.  Why aren’t they buying more? 

The people saying that they want to go super-fast-at-any-cost are a small, vocal minority.  I’ll add to that: “any cost” isn’t clear enough.  Everyone has a financial limit.  But there is another clear cost – that of the users’ time to understand and maintain complicated equipment.  Most will say that they do want to go fast, but if you explain to them that the fancy brakes on their new bike will realistically require 5x the time or money than the less-sexy brakes over the lifetime of the bike, most of them would opt out.  I know this because I’ve explained it very plainly to people, and the vast majority had no idea of the mechanical complexity that they were signing up for.  There’s a lack of education about this cost before the purchase happens.  I want to be clear – this is my opinion.  I think it’s well-founded from years in the business and many, many conversations with customers and smart individuals in the cycling world.  

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I saw an article recently (and wish I had bookmarked it) about how most technologies reach a saturation point, and then back off.  Back when nuclear power was new, it was assumed that eventually everything would be nuclear-powered – cars, homes, and so on.  But Father Time revealed that these weren’t practical applications for the technology.  Today, there are more companies selling “de-teched” cell phones.  Vinyl records are back.  For cycling to get back to anything even remotely resembling “thriving”, I believe that the same de-teching will have to happen. 

There are some people (mostly professional cyclists) for whom it makes sense to have a bicycle featuring every conceivable technology – tubeless carbon wheels, BB30 bottom bracket, thru axles, hydraulic disc brakes, internally-routed everything, power meters, computers, batteries, and integrated carbon fiber handlebars.  The incremental gains from these technologies could mean something real if you make a living from racing your bike – and the equipment is provided for free by sponsors… *cough*... and you have a team of professional mechanics to manage everything (however, there is surprisingly little good test data showing that some of these technologies provide any gain at all... and I'm ignoring the greater potential for mechanical/software/battery failure with complex bicycles).  Such a bike could literally require 20 times (or more) the amount of work as an off-the-shelf road bike from 2005.  The average recreational athlete doesn’t have the time, money, or patience to deal with it.  Last time I checked, nobody is driving an F1 car on their morning commute… and a Tour de France time trial bicycle is likewise inappropriate for your 5:30 a.m. group ride.  Many see the technology and get intimidated, so they never even initiate the research or buying process.  They go do yoga instead.

It has been argued to me that technology advances for a reason.  Or that when all of the major manufacturers adopt a technology, that’s because of the clear advantage it offers.  They cite the “benefits” of the new technology (often without listing what they actually are) and downplay the costs.  If _______ wasn’t better, why don’t you see manufacturers going back to the old way?  In some cases, you DO see them go back – threaded bottom brackets are a great example.  Consumer push-back was so great that it became too much of a liability for some manufacturers, so they were forced to retreat to the old standard (and I applaud those with the balls to do so). 

There is a reason that most manufacturers jump on the new bandwagon.  They don’t want to miss it or be seen as low-tech luddites.  Manufacturers aren't going to waste time and resources developing technology for a segment that they're fairly certain that the industry-at-large has given up on (regardless of whether the reasons for doing so are good or bad).  The bigger the company, the more this drives their decision-making. They're doing the math and want to make money.  That doesn’t make them bad people, but it certainly highlights the need for all of us to vocalize our opinions and ask questions. 

I want to get back to a point where bikes were affordable.  We could understand them, and the sport was mentally attainable.  The biggest purchase decision was whether I want the red paint job or that sweet baby blue.  Maybe the technology story was at least partially hocus pocus (our carbon fiber is 10% stiffer than the other company), but it didn’t matter.  All you needed to ride your bike was a tire pump, some chain lube, and maybe a couple allen wrenches for an occasional adjustment.  The good old days.

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