December 10, 2011

$10,000 bikes?

As much as I hate to admit it, it’s cold out, and I am killing time before going out to the shop to suffer (yes, on a Saturday! I’m like some kind of bike-building monk in my Waltworks hairsuit!) so, I have to shamefacedly admit that…. I read something on Bikeradar.com.

And yes, that’s a picture I took of myself this morning. The skull is the skull of one of my enemies. Probably Feldman.

Specifically, I read a pretty vapid article about $10,000+ road bikes.

The author makes some good points – namely that A) rich people buy crazy stuff and don’t care much about the price, and B) companies make money selling the bikes. Both perfectly legit reasons for them to exist.

I have a bit of disagreement with the third major point he attempts to make, though – that the technology “trickles down” to cheaper bikes. This is certainly what it might seem like to the average consumer – XTR or Dura-Ace or Record comes out in 10 speed (or 11, or whatever) and not until a year or two later do the more-reasonably priced Ultegra/XT/Chorus versions come out. Sweet! Now I can have 11 speed for cheap, thanks to some rich folks buying lots of expensive bikes with Record, right?

Not so fast. IMO this kind of innovation could easily be applied across the range of components – there’s not much that is inherently more expensive about a 10 speed cassette versus a 9 speed one, so if Shimano wanted to roll out a new system across SLX/XT/XTR at the same time, they could easily do it. They’ve made an upfront investment in doing some new design work, and that cost is relatively fixed – to make the XTR derailleur into an XT one, just use a bit less fancy rollers, make some stuff from aluminum instead of crabon, and don’t spend as much machine time taking off that last few grams of extra material. There’s a little extra design time/cost there, but not much.

No, Shimano (or whoever) rolls out 10 speed in XTR first because they want lots of people to buy XTR, because they will make more money that way. Once the novelty has worn off a bit, and they’ve gotten everyone who will buy XTR purely for 10 speed to do so, they’ll roll out the SLX and XT and get some more money from the less spendy crowd. It’s purely a sales and marketing strategy (note that I am not saying there’s anything wrong with that), not a case of super-expensive parts somehow driving everything forward. If nobody on earth bought XTR, Shimano would still make money hand over fist and still roll out new stuff for us average Joes to buy on a regular basis.

The really new and innovative stuff comes out of left field (Stan Koziatek, Wes Williams, I’m looking at you guys…) Road bikes are pretty much the same as they were 100 years ago, except for the materials used to make them. More gears? Sure, big deal. More aero? Yeah, but the position of the rider is still the most important thing, big deal. Lighter? Yes, there have been some impressive improvements there (remember, though, that Major Taylor used to race on a ~14 pound bike – in the 1890s!) These are incremental improvements, not radical innovations, and the people who say that their old Peugot from 1982 is just as good as your $5k crabon wonderbike are half right. So there’s really not that much trickling down.

Lighter weight isn’t innovation. More gears isn’t innovation. Here’s some stuff that would really be game-changing:
-Frame materials that can change their stiffness (or other characteristics) on the fly.
-Something with better traction and toughness than rubber. Don’t laugh, I would be surprised if it doesn’t eventually happen.
Telescoping foot “wheel” systems that can handle suspension duties/change effective diameter at the same time as they provide traction. Yes, I got that idea from YT’s board/Hiro’s moto in Snow Crash.
-Low power onboard radar/infrared/navigation/something that assists the rider in picking lines (like following your fast buddy down the trail?) or warns of other users around blind corners.
-Or probably something else I’m not smart enough to think of.

Most of my (not original) dumb ideas will probably never happen (and I imagine some people will argue that what I’m describing isn’t really even a “bike”), or we’ll all be too busy playing World of Warcraft to actually ride bikes in 20 years, but my point is this – the really cool new stuff is not going to happen because a lawyer wants a bike that’s 50g lighter than his dentist friend.