Earlier this year I spoke with bike industry stalwarts to get a sense of the industry’s direction. I asked a series of broad questions and received some interesting answers.
My first question focuses on the industry’s ever-changing landscape. New categories are evolving, direct-to-consumer sales are growing, and every week, some new innovation is marketed as an industry game changer. Which of these innovations and inventions are part of a long-term trend, and which are simply a fad? It’s harder to differentiate between the two than you might assume.
Here are some thoughts on how to tell if an innovation or movement has true staying power.
These responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Gary Fisher, founder Gary Fisher Mountain Bikes
You’d like to think that [you have a trend], and its inception, the testing you’ve done around your idea has proved out your theory that the technology actually works. With the 29er, it was about six months of using a Polar heart rate monitor and riding two identical bikes, only the wheel size was different, to prove it. We got some data that said we should move forward. Then you think this can’t be a fad! But then, of course, the recumbent bicycle, that the UCI outlawed in the 1930s, is a damned fast and efficient machine. Because of its geekiness, it has never caught on with the mainstream. California is one of the last places to catch on to these new ideas. We’re much more controlled by the coolness factor.
John Parker, Underground Bike Works, founder of Yeti Cycles
If I could do that, I would move to Vegas and put a hurt on the financial center. Growing up in California where fads turn into trends, be it hula-hoops, skateboards, whatever, mountain bikes, it’s sad but it’s the financial success that determines whether it’s a fad or the latest craze.
It has to have heart, it has to have soul, it has to have appeal, it has to have a look, it has to stir something in you. The more it energizes you and draws to your emotion, then it becomes more than a fad.
Sometimes at Yeti, we were rather trendsetters. But that wasn’t our goal. Our goal was more, ‘Hey this is a new deal, there’s no rules.’ I was working with two really talented guys, Frank the Welder and Chris Herting. Just our dreams and our vision reached out and became trends, but not intentionally, just by our tenacity and our vision I guess.
Richard Bryne, Speedplay pedals
I think if it’s based in science and physiology, it will be a trend. If it’s based in fashion, it will be the opposite. The keys to performance in cycling are physics and physiology. Anything that helps with either increasing power or reducing resistance will stick and the others will be here today and gone tomorrow.
Scot Nicol, Ibis Bicycles
I think if there is a bonafide advantage, then it’s going to be a trend. If there’s not something you can speak of as an advantage, it will be a fad. There have been just a ton of incremental improvements of bikes over the years. We’ve gone from 100-millimeter quick releases in the front to through axles, and from straight 1-inch forks to 1 1/8-inch forks to tapered forks. Every time that happens some people say it’s a fad, but they have all really improved the way the bike rides.
Chris Chance, Fat Chance Bikes
I like to think that I have enough experience to be able to tell some of these things, but sometimes people get on a fad, and they need to ride it through. I remember back in mid-90s the market was really leveling off and we started getting a lot of customers that all they were concerned about was what it weighed. They wanted to have a low number to impress their fans about how light their bike is. To me, that was like a fad.
The whole thing about light weight to me that was a phase, I don’t know if you call it a fad. Those things cycle through. Sometimes fads are like that like, a fashion. What’s the fashion of the moment? They just come and go. To me, elevated chain stays was like that. We’re talking way back now. People asked me when I would make an e-stay bike, and I said never. I come from the connect-the-dots school of framebuilding. You got a bottom bracket, a head tube, a seat, and a rear wheel, and all those dots get connected and you’re fine. That’s the way the structure works its best. That was a fad. Of course now we hardly ever hear about chain suck thanks to the component companies.
I do my best to not get in with the fads unless I think it’s fun. Sometimes fads are fun. If it is about some serious function of the bike, I don’t give it much credence unless I believe in it.
Joe Breeze, Breezer Bikes
I imagine if it’s a fad it might not have the function of the next thing that’s coming. If there isn’t some use in the idea, it’s only going to have a certain shelf life, not as long as something useful right? I’ll be looking at the utility of it, the beauty of it, whatever way that makes it useful at the time.
Maybe that’s rather abstract. An example, that’s kind of in this category, I think of as I’m going through the Marin Museum of Bicycling, especially the hall of fame section with the mountain bikes. My favorite is Charlie Cunningham’s prototype aluminum bike that he made back in 1979, 1980. Charlie was an aeronautic engineering student at Cal at Berkley where he first learned that aluminum was a viable structural material for one thing, but also to go with the big diameter. He also has a sloping top tube. He was doing all these things outside the box, including a one-by chainring, ways to grease the parts, boost hubs, even back in 1980.
Each one of these ideas was seen as ugly — that’s ugly, that’s ugly, that’s ugly, that’s ugly — or you could say that’s a fad, that’s a fad, whatever. That ain’t gonna fly. Of course, it flew. Whereas today people look at that bike as beautiful. That’s the test of time. Charlie, of course, knew it all along being a smart cookie and just realized, ‘Hey I don’t care what you think this is the way I want to do it.’ And look what it is today. It’s my favorite bike in the hall of fame.
Tom Ritchey, Ritchey Design LLC
That’s something that [cycling engineer and wheel building pioneer] Jobst [Brandt] used to think about. He used to go through Hewlett-Packard’s product development definitions that decided what was worth spending product development dollars on. It had to be completely unique and never been done before. That’s a tough one. It had to solve a problem that was solvable in an economic and affordable way. Expensive solutions were not part of the engineer’s mind. There were five total components, and those were the two that were most important. We now live in such a breakneck era of product development culture. It’s not necessarily based on whether a product is needed or not. Does it solve a problem?