Ronin of the Spirit

Because reality is beautiful.

The next illusion of choice

So I need to buy a new bike.
First, let me say, its not that I am obsessed with money, its just I value my life very highly. Money is what I trade with my employer for the hours of my life, so I take any large purchase very seriously. Since I don’t make that much, a large purchase is anything over $100.
So I begin to research this thing we call the bike industry.

First, a person isn’t a just a bike’s payload, its also its engine. Though capable of outputting a full horsepower (755 watts) for short periods, the average joe can only output between a 1/5 and 1/12 of a horsepower for any length of time (about 65 to 150 watts). All the way back to the 1820’s (when bikes were made of wood and had no peddles) the goal of biking has been to cover more distance with less effort. Specifically, the challenge has been to make something that can use those 750 W bursts of power as efficiently as those long 100W stretches. Items that maximize functions of input that vary by 1000% but aren’t to heavy to be carried by a engine that only outputs 100W are the chief design goal. The secondary design goal is price, because you have to sell a high enough volume to pay for the design of those special parts.

Bicycles are on the short list of machines about which historians get very heated. Some argue the bicycle may be the single most revolutionary invention of the last 200 years. Steam engines changed industry, but the bicycle had far greater effect in personal lives. A bicycle can cover more ground in a day than a horse, consumes no fuel at work and consumes no fuel at rest. Compared to the cost of a maintaining a car or horse, the bicycle maintenance cost is nonexistent.

Truly, the bicycle is a machine of revolution featuring predominately in most wars that occurred since 1890, with the Boer War being the first. (Their role in Vietnam is indisputable.) They changed work, play and sex (anthropologist say that the extended courtship range of the bicycle did more to change sexual behavior than any religion.) The appearance of feminism and cheap bicycles at the same time is not mere coincidence, the increased mobility changed everything. (When male students of Cambridge protested the admission of women to the school in 1897 they burned a woman on a bicycle in effigy.)

The Wright brothers were not “mere” bicycle mechanics. They made racing machines, not mass market drivel, and they made them very well. Bike building was sort of the aerospace industry of the late 19th century, with engineering’s best and brightest working on the latest way to go faster. Every technology the nascent auto industry needed was pioneered first on bikes. Pneumatic tires, advanced metallurgy, the sprocket, washer, and ball bearing were invented for the bicycle. If you don’t think ball bearings are important, you don’t know your history very well. When Allied military commanders had a to chose a the most effective target for their causality and equipment losing heavy daylight bombing runs they chose ball bearing plants.

And thats where the story of modern bike manufacture starts to come into focus. Any schmoe can weld some tubing together and call it a frame. Producing ball bearings and precision sprockets is another matter all together. A five foot section of 1/2″ pitch roller chain (standard for bicycles) consists of 960 moving parts, 480 of which must be precision ground to .000 025″.

The numerous sprockets on the back of multi-speed bike (called the cassette) must have each of the 150 some teeth ground to 1 of 5 angles, turning axially around and imaginary radial line passing through the center of sprocket tooth, as well as have ground or stamped into the sprocket itself a series of “ramps” which assist the chain of off and onto adjacent sprockets. These ramps must be accurate within only to a very sloppy .005″ or about 5 times the diameter of the the average human hair.

To make something like that takes deep pockets, and a wide industrial base. Also, cheap labor if possible. Assembly line construction is very difficult for very small high accuracy components, automatic quality control even harder, so even in this day and age, bicycle component manufacture involves a lot of elbow grease. And in this day and age, cheap labor means Asian labor.

Shimano is the mother of all bike part companies, posting $1,400,000,000 in sales last year. If you’ve ridden bike cheap or nice in the last 20 years it probably had some Shimano on it somewhere. Shimano is definitely the market leader and as such has been accused of monopolist practices several times. (They were sued and settled out of court for an undisclosed [but presumably large] sum, by Sram, the number 2 player.) Shimano was founded in Japan in 1921 and has over 7000 employees.

They build for every market, placing there top of the line road racing components in the winner’s circle of the Tour de France for over a decade. At the other end of the spectrum their “un-labeled” components are on every Wal-Mart bike that hits the road. Like all consistent winners, the host of also rans oft cries foal play, but the fact is, Shimano offers more pure quality per dollar than any other component manufacture on the planet. Others may offer more, but at so much more cost. Shimano achieves these economies of scale by having the vast portion of its production in Taiwan, Thailand, and China.

Sram is the number 2 player in the market. (I can hear the Campy fans yelling already. Sigh.)
Sram was founded in 1987 by some Chicago businessmen, who apparently were some pretty slick salesmen. Their first year goal was to sell 100,000 units. They sold less then 1000. Not withstanding, the following year they managed get Sram parts on the bike of Bob Mionske, who won 4th in the Individual Road Race in the Seoul Olympics. They got Sram parts on the winner of the Race Across America and the World Biathlon Championship as well. They also debuted the “Grip Shift” an indexed shifter than one turns like motorcycle throttle to change gears. All in 1988. From zero sales in 1987, they would hit $25 million in 6 years.

As mentioned, Sram sued Shimano for the “unfair business practice” of offering a discount to customers who purchased Shimano components in whole sets. By 1991, Sram, the “American company” expanded in production facilities not in Illinois, but in Taiwan. Sram would continue its growth not through expansion of existing facilities, but through the acquisition of other companies, notably Sachs (netting their lucrative internal hub) and RockShox.

RockShox was run by the founder, Paul Turner, a motorcycle racer turned machinist who made suspension forks in his garage with the help of his wife Christi. With vision, grit and skill, they invented an entirely new market. Sram bought the company in 2002, keeping the Colorado corporate head quarters intact and moving all production to Taichung, Taiwan.

If it seems like I am picking on Sram, I’m not. They too make some good stuff, but don’t buy the “American company” sound bite. All but the very best parts are made in the same towns and similar factories as “Japanese” Shimano. A lot of people seem to think that Sram is the plucky little American company taking on the big boys and winning with good ole’ American gumption. Not hardly.

Campagnolo (or Campy) is the last big player, though they have little presence in Mountain biking. Campy is famous for building equipment which cost more because it can be repaired, rather than cost less so it can be replaced. Well maintained campy parts can be passed on to grandchildren. They also have long history of innovation, being the first company to build derailers in any quantity, and the inventors of the quick release mechanism.

Senior Campagnolo, when he got to old to race, would still go to races and talk to the racers, seeing what ideas they had to improve the product. For
a long time, Campagnolo was it, if one raced seriously, however…

Remember that Campy parts are made to be repaired not replaced? Well that means for a long time they tended to be heavy. When Campy saw the expanding mountain bike market in the late 80’s the decided to jump in it. Unfortunately, they stepped in it instead. Campagnolo lost a huge amount of money on their off-road debacle. For a while it looked the world might lose Campagnolo to the likes of Sun Tour, Shimano, and Sram.

But Campy fought back. They formed a partnership with Taiwanese parts peddler Fulcrum. Keeping there design headquarters in Italy, but using cheap Taiwanese labor. (Sound familar yet?)

And there you have it. Remember the old joke about Model T’s? You can have any color you want as long as its black. Well, you can have any brand of bicycle components you want as long as it comes out of 1 of 20 factories in Taiwan.

And if Shimano, Sram, Campagnolo, Fulcrum, ect are building all the parts, then what do companies like Trek and Giant actually do???

Well, they don’t build the frames, for starters. The frames are made in China. In fact, 40 – 60% of all bike parts are made in China. Trek uses Chinese frames for all of their “made in America” bikes. The Felt brand, purveyors of fine carbon fiber racing machines, buys its frames from China.

In essence, the bike builders simply serve as purchasing agents buying large lots of parts cheaper than the average joe can, and putting them together. If the bike cost more than around $1500 its partial assembly is in the US. If the bike is going to cost less than that they assemble as much of it as possible in Taiwan where the all the components are made in the first place.

Buy what you like and can afford, but don’t think that you are doing anyone any favors, or supporting the little guy, or the big guy, or the scrappy guy, or the company who cares. Money buys quality, that is. Sram’s cheap cassettes get loaded side by side with Shimano’s cheap cassettes, Fulcrum’s cheap cassettes, and Campy’s. They all get loaded into the same shipping containers, ride the same train out of the same town in Taiwan, and get on the same container ships to Europe and the US.

December 29, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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