The Torqued Wrench: The Myth of Origin
I have a problem with the North American Handmade Bicycle Show.
No, it isn’t the preponderance of handlebar mustaches, nor the vast seas of off-the-bike cycling caps, or even the chainring tattoos that are, highly ironically, often actual tattoos. That whole offbeat culture is endearing, if a bit comical at times.
My problem is with the name, in relation to the show’s contents, or, more specifically, what can’t be found there. NAHBS is filled to the brim with the most beautiful two-wheeled creations in the world, custom-built metallic art from mankind’s preeminent frame builders. Everything there is, indeed, handmade. Problem is, so is just about every other medium-to-high-end bike on earth, and none of those are allowed in.
That’s right; your pretty carbon Specialized, Trek, Cannondale, Giant, Scott, Colnago, Pinarello, Orbea, Bianchi, De Rosa, Felt, Fuji, Kestrel, Kona, Masi, or Jamis (I’m going to stop here because I think you get the point) is handmade. Its carbon plies were laid down with care; its paint and decals were applied with pride by highly skilled hands. The only difference is where those hands are located — a big factory in Asia, most likely, rather than some guy’s garage — and their handiwork’s exclusivity.
Perhaps they should call it the North American Unique Bicycle Show. That would soothe my pedantic soul.
The vast majority of bikes sold today are manufactured in Asia in a handful of factories that each cater to multiple brands. The notion that Specialized has its own factory in Taiwan, and Trek has its own, and Scott its own, is simply false.
Modern bicycle brands — the ones that most consumers would recognize, anyway — are really just engineering and marketing centers, not manufacturers. They partner with and send designs to OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers), who are then responsible for fabrication, which can range from sending a bare frame back to the brand for finishing, to a complete, boxed bike ready to hit shop floors.
Multiple brands often work with a single OEM, and each of those brands may be working with multiple OEMs to build different bikes. The web is wide, and quite tangled.
For example, OEM firm ADK is partnered with CSG group, which owns Cannondale and GT, and is also partnered with ASI, who own Fuji and Kestrel. So you have frames from Cannondale, GT, and Kestrel, among others, all coming out of factories owned by the same OEM company.
Giant Bicycles is unique in that it started out as an OEM, and still partners with other brands (Colnago’s M10 frame is built in a Giant factory, for example), but has also spread into doing its own R&D and, more importantly, its own marketing.
Across this wide web of manufacturers, there is one constant: the bikes are still built by hand. Location may have changed, but the process of building bikes has not. In fact, carbon frames are even more human-labor-intensive than their metallic brethren, requiring high precision and skilled labor. Taiwan has proven through the last decade that it has both in spades.
So why are bikes built by Western hands more valuable? Yes, higher labor costs mean they cost more to build, and so prices must be higher, but that doesn’t mean consumers have to buy them. But we do.
The Myth of Origin
Origin is powerful. It taps into romanticism, into nationalism; it spikes some piece of our brains that connects objects with status. Included in this definition are both the where, and the who.
The calculation of value is not related strictly to performance per dollar. We put a price on relationships, on knowledge of the process and the people behind a product. That’s where the Myth of Origin fits in.
Origin is a key element in the popularity of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show: beautiful bikes on display with their human originators standing within reach. Relative to these works of craft, huge Asian bike factories are more akin to massive, human-powered copy machines. They pump out duplicates, not originals.
Because of this perception, major bicycle brands won’t detail the origins of the vast majority of their frames, which are not exactly romantic. Asia is not a classically dreamy cycling location, nor are these factories romantic places. Brands seek to maintain their own Myth of Origin, associating themselves with a more romantic history rather than their more pragmatic economic present.
Details of OEM relationships are therefore extremely difficult to pull out of brands. A cynic would presume that these OEMs, it seems, are good enough to build their products but not good enough to publicly associate with. Their location does not match the origin story put forth by the brand’s marketing department.
From a pragmatic view, this makes no sense. Today it is understood that Taiwanese production is as good, if not better, than anything coming out of the United States or Europe. It is clear that origin has zero relevance to end quality. But Trek reserves its top-tier frames as the only models still built in Waterloo, Wisconsin, and Colnago’s beautiful C59 is still built in Italy, while the rest of its production has gone overseas.
But the act of purchasing, particularly something as expensive as a high-end bike, isn’t pragmatic. When someone tells you they bought their bike because the hunk of carbon has more “soul,” you know any straggling vestiges of practicality have been hurled out the window.
For the high-end market, the origin story is worth the extra cost to a brand, the ability to continue telling the “made in the USA,” or “fatto in Italia” story, to hold fast to their own Myth of Origin. The frames built in Asia are assembled with care by highly skilled workers, and the production quality is excellent, but they don’t carry the same romanticism.
To put it simply, origin adds value. The Myth of Origin makes money. Don’t expect it to disappear anytime soon.