walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

A Few Less Obvious Observations About Bicycles

It took me quite a while to understand why I wanted a crank forward design, and why just adjusting the handlebars and/or seat height and having a girly bike would not adequately correct what was bothering me. It _really_ bothers me, however, that I kept explaining to bike folk what I wanted (foot on the ground without getting out of the seat) and there was such an obvious solution (the Townie existed when I started asking for this) and no one figured that out. In fact, bike folk have consistently tried to talk me out of the Townie. Of course once I have the Townie, I'll be able to say for sure whether it is what I hoped for, and whether there is some other problem.

In the meantime, I have tentatively concluded that the real issue is the bent-over thing. At some point, we went from riding bicycles more or less upright, to riding bicycles all bent-over. The recumbent crowd clearly fought through this by going very far in the opposite direction. Getting back to upright and crank forward, however, has been difficult to impossible.

I asked R. what happened in the late 1970s/early 1980s to cause the switch (because my recollection says that is when it happened). He had a heavy, more or less upright bike as a kid for delivering newspapers. He bought his first bent over Japanese bike in the relevant years because it had ten speeds and would Go Fast and it was light. A lot lighter than the American competitors. People who waded through my previous article on bicycles might find this familiar. His sister, A., got a ten speed around the same time period, which caused me to ask why she did that. He knew it was because those suckers were hugely popular; he was not so sure _why_ they were so popular. So my dates are not horribly off, but we're still at sea in terms of which celebrity/public figure/thought leader to put on the dartboard.

A lot of people, apparently, bought a ten speed that then sat and got flat tires instead of being ridden. Partly this is because there was a strong trend to multiple cars in a family -- there was no longer a mom-market, and over time, there wasn't really even an older-teen market for bikes as transportation. That left the "enthusiasts", and they _liked_ their weird position, their crazy gears and general finickiness. And those are the people who have been running the bike shops for the last quarter century. When I asked R. why those people didn't recover their senses when they got married and had kids, he said, those people never got laid. Wow. Don't know if that just slid out or what, and it is no longer true, judging by the guy at Belmont with the 7 month old who is waiting for the kid to be old enough to try out on the I-bert.

I said in the previous whinge that Trek owned the floor space at a lot of those bike shops. The shops are really up against it, because it costs money to have stock. Despite my remark that the bicycle industry did not influence presidential elections so far as I could tell, the bicycle industry did have enough clout to hang out to some stiff protective tariffs for a lot longer than other manufacturing segments (like the airplane industry in that respect -- so anyone who points at their survival as an example of excellence should be reminded of the value of protectionism in nurturing industry). An artifact of the high price of components (which is _really_ a good thing) is the necessity of having a strong dealer network (because the makers gotta sell, and the middle folk can't afford to buy and hold). An artifact of a strong dealer network is that the shop tends to focus on what the maker wants to sell -- not on what the customer wants to buy. Thus, US fleets include small cars, but the lots are full of larger, more expensive choices. Thus, Trek makes bikes that cost a mere few hundred dollars (ha!), but the shop is full of more expensive choices.

What gets really hinky about this is what happens when you add the internet to it. Disintermediation, sure -- everything is getting shipped onsies and twosies anyway, so dropping it to the end customer isn't that much worse. But things still go wrong and need to be adjusted or whatever. The LBS gets that business; it's the maker owning the shop floor that gets completely screwed because they can't sell over the internet or they lose the bike shops entirely.

How does all this add up to not being able to see the utility of crank forward? Because despite the rampant variation in every component imaginable, the major service supplied by bike shops in selling maker provided bikes was in _fitting the customer to the bike_. The customer had to be taught the riding position, the clothing to wear -- how to fit into this complex technological system with the goal of efficiency, speed and power.

Let's just stop and contemplate _that_ for a moment.

What killed Schwinn and Raleigh and all the other Greats of the postwar period was their unwillingness to adjust to a new market that wanted something very different from what they were making. They were making bikes that were for fun and for transportation. Their customers wanted to race for hours up and down hills. (Their customers, in fact, are such jackasses they'll enter charity rides to "win". And the tribe thinks it's funny.) And there was a big adjustment back then in terms of where you went to buy a bike as a result. We're seeing the exact same thing happen again: customers are showing up wanting something. Initially, the bike shops didn't sell it at all. Then they _did_ sell it, but the customers weren't showing up. Then they _did_ sell it and the customers were successfully being directed to their doors -- and there's still a problem, because this matching between the customer and the bike is being driven in entirely the wrong direction.

The _bike_ has to match the customer. Not the other way around. The customer who shows up looking for carry a kid or the groceries, or for something that's easy to get on and off of and possible to park and walk away from and return to find it still there -- that customer needs to be sold a bike and equipment that helps them do what they want to do. Even if it does not involve racing up and down hills, for hours. Because a world in which bicycles are reserved for the acolytes of a man who can't stand to ride when his (now ex-) wife is driving because she is cautious, and calls her "a skirt" is a bad world and has to change.
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