September 19, 2016
By Ian Bailey
I love football…
Bear with me here, this article is about mountain biking but I just want to make a point. For footy lovers of a certain age the number 302 will forever hold a nostalgic importance. For those of you who have no clue what I’m talking about, tough! Maybe Google will hold the answer but that number has long been rendered obsolete by the inevitable march of progress. (You’re welcome – Ed)
We live in a world obsessed with the concept of continuous change and as with most products ‘advances’ in mountain bike technology seem to be on a rapidly rising curve. I’ve always happily sought to keep time with the latest biking trends, obsessing over the way new equipment might improve my ride. Over my thirty year involvement, the mountain bike has witnessed numerous improvements which I’ve gleefully kept time with, and for the most part I’m still happy to part with my cash as long as I feel that the bikes I ride are continually improving.
However, and this is a big HOWEVER, of late I must admit I’m starting to feel that things are moving a little too fast for their own good.
It all started with the wheel size (yawn) debate as the arrival of 29ers fractured the industry with some manufacturers immediately championing the bigger wheels while others sat on the fence or buried their heads. A few years down the line and 26 is pretty much dead (awaiting resurrection!) as a result of a mass, industry-driven market shift. And yet it was actually the ‘invention’ of the supposed mid-size 650b wheels that largely killed 26in, not the arrival of the really big hoops.
Speaking personally, I see that as the moment where marketing hype overtook functionality. I’m waiting to see any objective evidence that 650b is markedly better than 26in and yet virtually all serious bike manufacturers have transformed their ranges to suit the newer wheel size, rendering all previous incarnations of their bikes outdated. It seems that the 27in wheel is proof that evidence of genuine improvement isn’t required in order to make fundamental shifts in bike design as long as the marketers can convince riders of the benefits.
So maybe it’s just possible that the supposed technological advance of 650b was merely a marketing construct and a handy way of convincing thousands of people to buy new bikes. Still don’t believe me that the bike industry is getting ahead of itself to the detriment of the biking public? What about Boost?
I’m your classic upgrader, always going for the frame only option, transferring parts over from previous bikes and changing components whenever the time is right. Who thought it’d be a good idea to necessitate new wheels and cranks next time I change my frame and new forks if I ‘upgrade’ my front hub? I’ve got no issues with 142×12 or 100×15 and yet it seems that a new standard will be forced on me if I want to continue to ride top of the range kit. Can that move be justifiable for an imperceptible enhancement in strength? It’s obviously great for the huge bike companies pushing hard to make it a standard but not all that great for the consumer or the smaller scale operators who aren’t shifting hundreds of thousands of units to offset the price of new jigs and carbon moulds.
Recently I was chatting to the owner of one such rider-owned company and enquired whether they’d be going Boost 148 for 2017. He replied that they wouldn’t, firstly because it offers no performance advantages over 142×12 at the back of a hardtail and secondly because the costs involved are too prohibitive. Now I have to admire that stance but if 148 sticks then I wonder how long it will be before he has to re-think this decision and follow the new fashion pushed by the big manufacturers?
You may be reading this and thinking how irrelevant it all is. After all, nobody is twisting anyone’s arm into purchasing the latest ‘big new thing’. You might also reference disc brakes and tapered steerers which also forced us to change frames but in both those cases the adoption seemed a bit more phased and gradual than recent wheel changes. I’ve not even touched on plus sized tyres either, largely because they’ll probably always be an optional alternative rather than a forced standard.
Every time the industry adopts a new ‘standard’ it leaves behind swathes of obsolescence, destroying re-sale values and limiting bike’s lifetimes through a lack of decent replacement parts. As an ‘early adopter’ I rely on selling on bikes and parts to fund my habit but when my shiny carbon wheels crash in value because the hubs are a few millimetres too narrow then I may no longer be prepared to take the plunge on new kit in future. The industry needs consumer confidence and that’ll erode fast if buyers fear new products eclipsing their purchases within a couple of months.
Unfortunately, the whole industry does have to respond when a new trend becomes the norm, whether that process has been progress driven or marketing driven. Capitalism is brutal and as much as we like to believe the bike industry is controlled by riders who do it for the love, the truth is that acquisitions companies and large corporations are pulling the strings. Those organisations will do all they can to damage the opposition, including forcing expensive change on them. A few years back, many of the smaller niche names that were so desirable when I started mountain biking were swallowed up by bigger companies. If corporations can’t buy the opposition then they’ll do all they can to drive them out of existence, that’s the nature of big business. I can’t help but suspect that recent developments are, in part, a cynical attack by the really big players on the rest of the industry.
I love bikes, adore their aesthetics, the way they ride and make me feel. Part of my enjoyment definitely comes from the pride I take in ownership. I’ve always sought to keep up with advances because, purely when it comes to MTBs I suffer from that affliction of wanting the latest gadgets to keep that warm glow going. At the moment I feel I’m at my personal tipping point and if I’m already worrying that my next bike is going to be outdated before I even get it then something is wrong with the industry.
If riders stop buying because they fear their new kit will be rapidly outdated and incompatible then the industry will suffer in its pockets. Maybe that’s no bad thing; maybe it’s about time the big companies got an expensive slap in the face and reality check. I used to crave changes in bike technology but right now I’d love it if the next big trend is consumers on a mass scale saying ‘enough’s enough’ prompting a period of consolidation.
When it comes down to it, I don’t want to own the number 302, and I suspect that many others feel the same way. Maybe it’s time for the big bike companies to hit the brakes for a bit. I just hope that consumers can hold fast against the inevitable marketing barrages to come and send that message loud and clear.
Or maybe I’m just becoming a cynical old grouch…