Thursday, 29 October 2009

BSNYC Interview: Dave Koesel of Felt Bicycles

(In an "Australian Interview," it is customary for the interviewee to strike the interviewer.)

In yesterday's post, I commented on a pair of new marketing videos from Guru bicycles. I did so not because I have any problem with Guru as a company or because I have any problem with their products. They're just a group of people who make and sell racing bicycles. Similarly, while I often make fun of bicycle marketing in general, the truth is even the most mendacious bike company probably wouldn't register on the scale of corporate unscrupulousness or greed. I mean, there are companies in this world that have sold poisonous baby food, so telling a bunch of recreational cyclists that a bike will make them faster really isn't all that bad. As cyclists, we need people to make bicycles and sell them to us, and marketing is an integral part of that process. There's nothing wrong with it. It's just that sometimes this marketing pushes the boundaries of truth, in which case it becomes offensive, or else the execution of the marketing veers off into the realm of the ridiculous, which was the case with the Guru videos. And as far as the execution of marketing goes, it's a creative endeavor like any other, and I believe strongly that all creative endeavor is subject to criticism and ridicule. Even more importantly, marketing is the art of making people want things that they don't really need, and this is inherently funny.

I'm not really a part of the bicycle industry, but I write about cycling so even I participate in bicycle marketing. Beyond this blog, I write a column for "Bicycling" magazine, and while they let me write whatever I want they are arguably a marketing-driven publication. Also, not too long ago I wrote some text for the "2010 Knogalogue" (Knog are a bunch of Australians who invented the "hipster cyst"), which you can download and read from Knog's website. (Just turn the sound on your computer off first--Knog follow the European Internet tradition of assaulting visitors with music.) You may enjoy what I wrote, or you may be disgusted that I engaged in a "collabo" with Knog. Either way, Knog simply wanted their catalog to be entertaining, so they traveled the world and took a bunch of pictures and then asked me to write some text about those pictures. Making fun of Knog in their own catalog sounded like fun to me, so I agreed. I'm sure some readers will feel differently, but in all, I think it's mostly harmless.

Last week, I wrote a post called "The Irrelevancy of Time," and it elicited a strong reaction. Clearly, while we all have different thresholds for marketing, many of us have strong feelings about the way bicycles are designed and sold. In fact, one reaction came from Dave Koesel, the road brand/product manager at Felt (I used their "Fixie" line as an example in my post) who took issue with some of what I had to say. As we corresponded, it occurred to me that this would be a good opportunity to have a person actually involved in producing both high-end road bikes and urban fixed-gears explain to all of us the process of designing and selling them. So I asked him if I could interview him, and he graciously agreed.

Be assured my intent here is not to promote Felt; rather, it is to provide some additional insight into a subject that comes up frequently on this blog, and to allow readers to draw their own conclusions. If this is insight you don't want, then I hope you'll at least forgive the departure. And if you do want it, and on top of that it also makes you want to buy a Curbside, all I'll say is I recommend at least taking off the top tube pad. It's basically just the trendy bike equivalent of a pie plate.

Thanks to Dave Koesel for taking the time to respond, and thanks to everyone else for reading.


What's your background in cycling, and what's your favorite kind of riding to do today?

When I was a young boy, my father would come home every summer with a bike he’d collected from the side of the road destined for the city dump. We would disassemble the bike and rebuild the hubs and headsets, free the chain of rust, and even attempted rebuilding a freewheel. My dad always was able to repair whatever was needed to make it functional. He built race cars and made metal sculptures among other fabricating talents, and repairing a bicycle was a good lesson for me he’d insist. My bikes would often have one or two of his custom touches, like handmade handlebars, or welded in top tubes and new paint jobs to convert a girls frame to my own. I remember turning 12 and being given the freedom to leave the neighborhood for the first time. I’d ride all over the county exploring new roads and discovered the joys of getting around by bicycle. I began racing just for fun in an occasional duathlon or MTB race in my early teens. I was seriously hurt on a mountain bike ride and later decided to focus on road racing during my college years. I’ve spend the last 15 years racing on the road and track and I still enjoy competing occasionally, although my favorite rides today are getting out on the local MTB trails with my kids and their friends: introducing them to the same joys I discovered around their age.

What's your background professionally?

I started working in a small mom and pop bike shop in high school and eventually managed the store until moving away for college. I began road racing more seriously in college where I went to work at a high end pro shop in Ann Arbor, MI called Cycle Cellar. It was a great place to work with the very best equipment and mechanics on staff. It was there where I learned steel frame fabricating skills, and while I never sold any of my frames, I did build a couple road frames, and a full suspension MTB frame. I moved on from Cycle Cellar and together with Dennis Pontius, Gary Guzialek, and James Huang (of fame) opened Two Wheel Tango. I worked at Two Wheel Tango through the late 90s when I began my own independent sales representative group. I worked with a variety of brands including Colnago, Ciocc, DeBernardi, and Orbea bicycles, several clothing lines from Craft, Nalini, and Biemme, and component brands Ritchey, Tufo, Zipp, and many other small specialty brands. During this time I continued to race on the road, track, MTB, cyclo-cross and even a few tandem events. I had been upgraded to a Category 1 but realized I didn’t have the talent to make bicycle racing my career and stopped racing consistently in 2002.

How did you come to Felt?

In the winter of 2001, Felt had emerged with a line of complete bicycles and I reviewed what their plans were for sales representation at the Interbike show. I had an interview with company president Bill Duehring and began working with Felt in 2002 as a sales rep for Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. After growing the territory and looking to expand my coverage in the area, I was offered a sales management position in Felt’s Lake Forest, CA office. I accepted the job and moved to SoCal in October, 2005. After a year as the regional sales manager, I began to contribute to the product development of some of our emerging categories for Women, Triathlon, and track. One year later I was promoted as the product manager for all the road models and was the product liaison for our professional cycling teams and athletes. As my tasks encompassed areas of product development, sales and marketing, I earned the title of ROAD Brand Manager.

What's the history of Felt, and how large is the company in terms of employees and volume?

We’ve got this covered here on our site.

What are Felt's long-term goals as a company?

From the very same link above:

"Our mission is quite simple: To design, develop, and deliver the best bicycles in the world. Period."

If I'm a road racer, why should I buy a Felt instead of a Specialized, Trek, Cannondale, or Giant?

Now here is where I could get into trouble with our sales and marketing guys, but the fact is you shouldn’t buy a Felt instead of a Specialized, Trek, Cannondale, or Giant if one of those brands makes a model that better suits your fit requirements, better meets your budget, or has a retailer with greater after sale service. Buying a bike is so much more than a downtube decal. Felt makes 4 different geometries in our ROAD line up. F, Z, AR, and ZW models all have different fits, design intents, and a wide range of models, but even our extensive line up doesn’t cover every possible option. Does Felt make comparable model to most of the ones offered by these brands? Of course. I feel the Felt AR1 may be the best example of technology in our industry. The design and execution of that model amazes people outside the bike biz. From the CFD and wind tunnel development of the frame, fork and seatpost shapes, to the Shimano Dura Ace Di2 group, the bike represents what bicycle technology is capable of. I think the Felt Z85 might be among the most versatile and the best bang for the buck road bike on the market. Our women’s line of road bikes range from $700 to $7000 and we offer full carbon models with women under 5’0” tall. I could go on and on going into details about each bike in our line. Despite our coverage in the road segment, it is possible that some people simply want the integrated seatpost of a Giant TCR advanced or the LiveStrong Livery of the Trek, or perhaps the Specialized suits a need for a 105 bikes with a triple crankset. Maybe aluminum is your frame material of choice or Campagnolo your favorite group. Cannondale offers a few high end models with these options.

Felt has a long history of making high performance road bikes, if one of our models suits your needs, you’ll be very pleased and soon agree we’ve done our homework. Felt isn’t the only brand making innovative bikes. Nor is Specialized, Trek, Cannondale, and Giant. It is crowded at the top and emerging brands like Kuota, Ridley, Focus and others are making nice bikes as well. It is a great time to be shopping for a road bike. Consumers have plentiful choices, each with their list of advances.

Felt started out as a pretty specialized brand but now has as wide a range of bikes as any of the big bicycle companies. (Felt has a café and a cruiser line!) What's behind this approach?

You can sit on a one-legged stool, but 4 equal legs offers a much more stable platform. With a line of high performance road models, we only appeal to the dealers that can support a full line of bicycles and a 2nd high end brand, or a dealers that only focuses on ROAD, limiting our dealer base and sales options. BMX and Cruiser sales are a big part of our brand, and the beach communities and the shops these models are sold in are often a different outlet that our performance models. When we introduce a line of bicycles, we make them uniquely Felt. That is to say, even our aforementioned cruisers and Café models use our own frame designs, with our frame shapes, tubing profiles and wall thicknesses, and other proprietary parts.

You had some issues with my post called "The Irrelevancy of Time." What were they?

I was surprised to see you come down on the brands and guys that market and grow their brands, while you embrace other products that seem stagnant and use some clever spin to explain why they only offer one model or one product altogether claiming they are “keeping it real”, when it may be just as accurate to say they are “keeping it undercapitalized."

There are countless examples of annual innovations in cycling and the jump in selling price only reflects the technology used to produce and develop these bikes now. 10 years ago there were a handful of guys designing with FEA [Finite Element Analysis], now it is commonplace along with CFD [Conceptual Fluid Dynamics], Fibersimulation Layup, wind tunnel testing ($15/minute in SDLSWT), and advanced composite materials.

The most important thing written about the bike biz in 2009?* From an unexpected source: Bikesnobnyc. He's not his usual cynical-comic self here. Rather, it's his take on something that has long driven us batty: The bike industry's annual need to issue new model years on everything. Please, industry, quit devaluing our inventory investment in August every year!

*[This strikes me as kind of like making the best burrito in New York City.]

It would seem at least one retailer feels that a yearly cycle works against them. What do you think?

Model years seem to be a necessary evil. We suffer the same fate as the guys in retail stores with carryover inventory being sold below our cost at the end of the year. While many of our models do not change year after year, we do update most of our performance line as the component brands introduce new products, technology advances, and market conditions evolve. It would make more sense to me to introduce new models in January of that model year, not June/July/August. Sales are soft in January for much of the country and inventory levels could be kept low for reduced overhead in the slow months and ease of inventory for tax reasons. Stopping the influx of new models during the busiest part of the selling season is logical, but it takes a unanimous effort on the part of everyone industry-wide. We can’t seem to agree on a bottom bracket standard, let alone a universal product launch date.

In 2007 Felt introduced the Curbside. How did that bike come to be?

The Curbside was a creative exercise executed by collecting ideas from a couple decades of fixed gear riding and emerging color, fashion and cycling trends. Felt has made a track bike for about 15 years. Jim Felt used to hand build custom oversize aluminum rigs for customers in the 90s and when it came time to launch the Felt brand globally, the Tk2 was a great addition. The Tk2 developed a fan base among fixed gear riders, but it was never intended to be a well mannered bike on the road. With ample toe clip overlap and super steep angles, the bike just wasn’t suited to novice riders. As single speed mountain bikes grew in popularity and many Felt employees spent their off-season on their fixed gear road rigs, we decided it was time to make a purpose built single speed road bike. We blended the handling of our F-series road bikes with a slightly taller BB and the sloping top tube of our Z-series frames. We developed an FSA road crankset with the outer chainring replaced with a cyclo-cross style guard. Wheels were assembled with flip-flop sealed hubs and bulletproof ACS Chrome-moly BMX freewheel and genuine Dura Ace track sprocket running on a KMC Rustbuster chain. Long reach front and rear brakes were added to the frame to allow for huge tires (up to 35mm) or fenders. We added our BeerNuts tool so the lack of quick releases didn’t prevent a speedy flat tire fix.* Finally we sprayed on matte gray paint with small understated graphics, the perfect camouflage to blend this new bike in with the rest of the urban landscape. I had ridden a variety of fixed gear “Franken-bikes” for commuting and logging winter miles for 15 years and never had a bike with so much utility. My Gitane Track bike was never drilled for brakes and was plagued with French threaded everything, My 3Rencho couldn’t fit tires bigger than 22mm tubulars, My Panasonic rusted through those super thin Ishiwata 019 tubes after only a couple Michigan winters. This new Felt model was named the Dispatch, and the initial reaction from our dealers was mixed. All of them understood the concept, but many of them asked for a version that was closer to the bikes they saw in downtown SanFran, or Chicago, or at the beach in SoCal. The Curbside was the evolution of the original concept and used the bright contrasting colors, cut down MTB handlebars, and as an homage to our Slipstream Argyle, a custom saddle and matching top tube pad.

*[When it was introduced some people pointed out that the design of the Curbside's track end required either a socket wrench or Felt's special tool to loosen or tighten the axle nuts.]

Felt's "Fixie Series" now consists of four bikes and a frameset. One would assume this is due to substantial sales. Can you share any numbers, or at least give us a sense of the growth in this segment?

Like the first two models, these later models were built on the demands of dealers and consumers. Our Brougham provided a Chrome-moly frame offering with real cold-forged 144mm BCD track cranks. The Gridloc was the culmination of two years of working with Sturmey Archer on the development of the re-introduction of their 3 speed fixed gear hub.

Who buys Felt's "Fixie Series" bike? Is there a particular age, gender, or city with which they are especially popular?

I think like most of our models they appeal to a wide audience. They have been well received by our dealers in all of our major markets in the USA as well as Japan, Australia, Germany, UK, Canada, etc.

Part of the fixed-gear trend's appeal seems to be that riders enjoy customizing their own bikes, and the Felt line-up would seem to pre-empt this behavior by pre-customizing the bikes. Do you think this is a danger, or is this what the market seems to want?

Our complete bikes are an out-of-the-box alternative for retailers and consumers that would prefer to buy a packaged product. For those that want to build up a frame with their own parts, we make our Brougham, Gridloc, and Tk2 as a frameset. I understand that a large part of the fixed gear market is creating something unique. I admire the guys that spend time finding a vintage Masi or Merckx frame and adding their own creative touches. I know that for some a new frame doesn’t appeal to them and the thought of a complete out of the box bike is out of the question. Some people are the same way with their computers or houses or hamburgers. I am thankful there is room for both.

It would seem that a bicycle as simple as an urban fixed-gear doesn't necessarily need to be updated as frequently as a competitive road or mountain bike, and aesthetic changes are easy and cheap for the rider to make. Do you think that allowing a bike to become "venerable" or "classic" by leaving it unchanged for a few years can increase it's appeal in that the bike does become "dated?"

The fixed gear models do not follow the normal pattern of Interbike introduction and 10 month model years. Our Curbside went two years without a color update, and the Brougham has only ever come in gloss black, although we are adding a raw color later this winter, but the black bike remains as it was introduced a couple years ago. I’m not sure a bike can become “classic” without other historical factors. A 1972 Chevelle SS could be considered a classic, so could a 1972 Corolla, but I doubt the same person would find them to be equally representative of a classic 1970s performance car. There is little chance anyone would consider a 2007 Corolla a classic.

What do you think the future will bring for urban fixed-gears?

I expect the growth to continue and for more brands to use these models as a medium to express a more creative outlet. Initially there was a “race to the bottom” it seemed with many brands trying to find ways to create a $259 fixie. Now there are new bikes like the Gridloc, Roll, Ritchey Breakaway...

Are you noticing any new trends now?

I am pleased to see the variety in the offerings and the influx of new brands making Urban Fixed Gears their medium for creativity.

Will Felt make a fixed-gear freestyler?

Felt is fortunate to work with amazing BMX street riders like 2 time X-Games Gold Medalist Scotty Cranmer and Josh Betley. Both of these guys are riding Felt fixed gear bikes for some high speed urban transportation. If we were to tackle the freestyle segment, you can be sure our experience with BMX, Street and Flatland bicycle production the last 10 years will pay dividends.

What are a few of your favorite bikes ever?

That’s a tough list to create. I’ll narrow it down to just bikes that I’ve owned. I could name hundreds of models that have inspired me and that I’ve admired over the years.

Royal 3 speed (made in England by Raleigh IIRC)
Gitane/Omelenchuck mid-1960s Track bike
Eddy Merckx 7-11 Track bike ridden in ’92 Olympics
Croll Custom 853 Road bike
Jim Felt T2 TT bike
Coppi Galaxy Altec
GT Superbike III prototype
GT Titanium Edge Track frame w/ Hooker Fork
Colnago Custom Rabobank Dream Cross bike
Ritchey BreakAway Steel Road bike
Felt DA Track prototype
Felt Tk1 prototype
Felt F1 2009 Tour de France edition
Santana Fusion Tandem


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