Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The Irrelevancy of Time: Bicycle Products Don't Spoil

As a rule, I make a point of not troubling readers with details pertaining to the corporate machinations integral to the production of this blog. For example, after a lengthy board meeting with myself yesterday, I authorized the purchase and subsequent consumption of a lunch in sandwich form--which, I'm pleased to report, was delicious. However, while this obviously falls under the category of taediae (unless you have abnormally high interest in other people's condiment "curation"), some developments are simply too exciting not to share. As such, I'm pleased to announce that, ITTET, this blog is on the cusp of receiving a cash infusion to the smell of (I refuse to use the expression "to the tune of") 3.6 million dollars:
That's a lot of sandwiches. While a more skeptical person might have received this email and deemed it spurious, I am quite confident it is legitimate. Firstly, the sender prayed to God about me, and anybody who's read the Bible knows that the Lord never leads anyone astray. Secondly, you'll note I'm only to recieve 40% of the nine million dollar total; if it were a scam, he'd surely bait me by offering me the entire sum. Most importantly, while I don't know Mr. Hadji Kagome personally, his cousin Heywood Jablome has a titanium reputation. (A titanium reputation is even better than a sterling reputation; it's laterally stiff, vertically compliant, and the last reputation you'll ever need to buy.) As such, I've already sent Mr. Kagome my banking information, and I look forward to seeing a lot more zeros soon. In fact, since sending it, my bank account is all zeros, but I'm sure that will change once the banks open tomorrow in Burkina Faso.

Let's just say though that this did turn out to be some kind of scam. Well, you really couldn't blame me for falling for it. After all, I'm a cyclist, and as a cyclist I am a member of one of the most easily misled group of consumers in the world. The bicycle is one of the simplest and most efficient conveyances ever devised, yet somehow we are willing to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars more for certain bicycles or components simply because they bear the name of a certain "manufacturer"--even though that "manufacturer" is often just a designer that sends its drawings to the same overseas factory as a bunch of other designers whose names may be more or less desirable based on products they once actually made themselves like 25 years ago, or else based on a sponsored rider's victories or even on the creative content of a marketing campaign.

Oh, sure, some of this stuff is better than others, and even if it isn't some of these designers have better warranty coverage than others, or better customer service, or a more extensive network of dealers. Even so, it's surprising how abstract the process of selling bicycles can be. A bicycle is a machine, and as such its "success" as a machine depends on its ability to be operated repeatedly. In a sense, it's the opposite of entertainment such as popular music or TV shows, whose "success" depends on the fact that it's always changing and remaining fresh. Ideally, you'll ride your Trek thousands of times, but you can only enjoy an episode of "30 Rock" so many times before they give you a new one. Yet, strangely, designers sell bicycles in the same way that producers sell entertainment--by refreshing them constantly. Moreover, the act of refreshment is far more brazen in the world of cycling, since the episode of "30 Rock" is more or less free, while some bicycle designers will charge prices to the smell of almost $10,000 for their latest offerings.

This was underscored for me recently by a VeloNews article, which included a quote from Ibis founder Scot Nicol:

Regardless of whether or not you feel the need to own a carbon fiber dual suspension bicycle, you've got to admit this approach makes sense. What is the point of updating a line of bicycles every year, especially when those bicycles can be so expensive? A year is hardly enough time to wear out a pair of tires, yet every year most of the big designers will change most of their bicycles and charge accordingly. In the year since I wrote about the "road bike bubble," Specialized has managed to increase the price of its most expensive road bike from $8,500 to $9,900:

Granted, this bicycle has the new electronic Dura Ace, which is itself astoundingly expensive, but even the most expensive "analog" bike for 2010 costs $9,200. As for the rest of the line, sure, the prices are about the same as they were last year, but this comes at the expense of every Specialized bicycle sold before them, which are now, in the eyes of both consumers and Specialized itself, totally outdated and worth far less what they sold for new. Last year they were state of the art, and now they're excess inventory to be blown out in end-of-season sales. Essentially, bike designers like Specialized must devalue everything they've ever made every single year in order to justify keeping their prices the same. This makes sense with things like bread and dairy products which must be bought and consumed within a time period of a few weeks, but one would think that when you're dealing with a product whose service life should be measured in decades you'd derive at least some of your value from your product's longevity. With machines--even racing machines--continuity, reliability, and longevity can be its own marketing. However, if the focus is on the freshness of the marketing instead of on the longevity of the machine, you can only resell that freshness so many times before your customers start to figure it out what it is they're actually paying for--something they just don't need.

The truth is, as both buyers and sellers we've moved from an "evolutionary" to a "curatorial" approach, and this is particularly visible in cycling since the simplicity of the machine allows you to easily see the marketing and design that's been laid on top of it. The Bianchi Pista was one of the first affordable, off-the-rack track bikes, and for many years it did quite well. Some people bought them to race on the track and other people bought them to ride around the city, and they changed them around themselves to suit their own needs. The model established a reputation and it became a mainstay, and it succeeded by virtue of the fact that it stayed the same. Naturally, then, Bianchi started doing the one thing they didn't need to do, which was start marketing the bike as an "urban fixed gear" and offer a bunch of different pre-curated versions, which is the opposite of what made the bike a success in the first place. And as soon as you start "curating" something, you stamp it with an expiration date.

Then, the process keeps repeating itself, but it gets faster and faster. In 2007, Felt unveiled the pre-curated Curbside:

Two years later, they've got a whole "Fixie" line:

So what's wrong with this? Well, nothing's wrong with it. They're just relatively inexpensive bicycles that are pleasing to the eye (to some people). But there's also nothing really right about it. There's nothing to actually buy into or invest in or grow into with this line of bicycles. It's just an attempt to sell bikes with a built-in expiration date to people who want a certain look and don't yet realize they'll grow either self-conscious of or bored with it by next year. And it's not the consumer who suffers, either--after all, nobody makes you buy anything. Rather, it's the companies, who essentially become trend forecasters instead of manufacturers and who run the risk of putting an expiration date on themselves as well as their products. Selling trends essentially ends them, and if you keep on packaging trends as fast as people can come up with them, eventually everyone's going to get burned out.

Cycling simply doesn't need new product lines every year. If you let things grow for awhile instead of harvesting them on an annual basis then sometimes you can yield something of actual value. Plus, interesting product developments don't follow a calendar or come from where you'd expect. In fact, just as hallucinogenic mushrooms grow on cow dung, inspiration can sometimes come from repugnant sources. For example, as a cyclist I have no interest in engaging in fixed-gear freestyle, nor do I have much use for the clothing and bicycles that come with it. However, it just so happens that fixed-gear freestyling requires something that's useful in the cycling world beyond doing tricks on bikes: a form of foot retention that is durable and works well with sneakers. Not too long ago, some local fixed-gear freestylers started making a form of foot retention called "Hold Fast" specifically for that purpose, and out of curiosity I bought a pair:

While I'm not quite prepared to say that the dung-ridden pasture that is fixed-gear freestyling has yielded a revelatory magic mushroom, I will say that so far despite some issues they work pretty well (provided you use the right pedals, and provided you don't wear pink open-toe slingbacks). Presumably also, the makers will continue to refine them. In the meantime, while big bicycle designers try to sell the most useless aspects of the fixed-gear trend, there are occasionally useful products that develop organically.

I wonder if Felt will spec these on the 2011 Curbside--if there is a 2011 Curbside.


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