The Number 302

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By Ian Bailey

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Twelfty, twelfty, twelfty…

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have transformed their ranges to suit the newer wheel size, rendering all previous incarnations of their bikes outdated.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.

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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…

Comments (15)

    Wise words and i take my hat of to you for sticking this out on open forum

    I highly doubt MBUK or MRB would have the balls to publish this

    I agree with this wholeheartedly, unfortunately consumers holding fast isn’t all that easy when you go to your lbs and they can’t sell you a 26er inner tube as they don’t stock them any more. At the end of the day it’s turning into a farcical arms race… those that don’t jump on the band wagon run the risk of being left behind or going pop… it’s just sad really

    as a wise man recently said to me….. MTB is the new Golf….. lads who otherwise would be comparing ti golf shafts are now discussing eagle cassettes…….

    I own 4 mountain bikes – they all have 26in wheels. Not because I cant afford to upgrade or because I’m stubborn….they are just better. I embrace changes that are genuinely useful…dropper posts, tubeless, 1×11, short stems, wide bars, modern suspension all feature on my bikes. This stuff all works perfectly on slightly older 26in frames. I have always liked longer top tubes and my bikes are all a size up on recommended…so that’s forward geometry sorted. Its perfectly possible to filter out the BS and adopt the genuine advancements. I genuinely cant understand this constant feeling of being left behind that everyone seems to have. Ebay, the forums, online retailers are virtually giving away top end kit from years gone by….but someone apparently cant find a 26in inner tube!!……www.google.com….or go tubeless

    Agreed.
    Bit late now though, isn’t it?

    I’m overdue for a new bike but to be honest I was waiting for the dust to settle on all these new standards but in the meantime I’m still loving the trusty 11 year old steed with 26″ wheels (still 3×9 setup) and practical upgrades such as tubeless and dropper post. In fact, when you can catch some of the new bling boy toys, the sense of fun is even more cos’ you’ve done it on an old rig that you’ve honed and tuned yourself. Sure, getting the tyres etc you want may be a bit more expensive, but the money saved on the price of a new bike offsets this and I have a healthy stock of ‘part worn’ kit to keep me going.
    I’ve always thought that there was a healthy degree of fashion in our sport from bikes to tyres ( amazing how last years super performing tyres are rated as average/crap this year), it’s one of the reasons I stopped buying some of the more frivolous magazines mentioned above.

    I have a made-to-measure steel HT and half share of a tandem, both 26″. Neither were cheap, both were expected to last. Now they won’t, so when they they can’t be fixed I’ll buy cheap.

    The industry might be about to eat its self — Theres too much of everything right now

    I do think 29ers offer a real advantage for certain types of riding. The different axle standards is driving me crazy though! How many people will be able to tell the difference between 100/110 f or 142/148 rear?!?

    I agree with the article but I have to say that the MTB press is part of the problem. New stories are required every month (or day) and the press is understandably keen to pick up new product releases. The advertising revenue also funds the mags. This influences the readers. Personally I will only purchase something when it wears out or breaks rather than having to have the latest thing. There’s too much of a throw away culture and I’m sure cycling isn’t as environmentally friendly as we think.

    I have to say well said. I have a 29er Carbon hardtail, which isn’t boost and as such is outdated. What’s annoying is I’m still paying for the chuffing thing and it’s deemed old. Er hell-the-fuck-o. What is going on?

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