Saturday, September 27, 2014

Vintage Bikes of the future, 26 inch wheel mountain bikes?

Why you should start collecting 80's and 90's mountain bikes

They say 30 years makes a classic. So pretty much, judging by my time here on this earth, I'm pretty much a classic myself. Classics enjoy the respect of enthusiasts and turn heads when being showed off in a modern environment. The mountain bike as it originally was has also become a classic. 

Crested Butte, 1980. There was a repack mountain bike race that day-viewed the first generation of mountain bikes, a far cry from what we would consider to be a mountain bike today. Cantilever or drum brakes, bull moose bmx-style handlebars, and heavy frames with long rear triangles were on the forefront of technology back then. Many of these bikes have sadly not made it into collector's hands after decades of rigorous thrashings on the mountain bike trail. The ones that have made it will soon be as valuable as the most expensive vintage Italian road bikes.

With the recent popularity of vintage road bikes and fixies, old ten speeds have enjoyed a vast number of avenues for replacement parts and upgrades. Most tire manufacturers still make 27" tires, for example. 27" and 700c wheel replacements are still to be found for many of these bikes, even replacements for rear wheels that require a freewheel instead of a cassette. In fact, ever since 700c became the popular wheel size on road bikes, they have been able to co-exist with 27" bikes until this day. I'm guessing back then bicycle companies respected the consumer's wallet, that or 27" wheel touring bikes were seen as benign and not a threat to 700c wheel racing bikes. 

Never in all of bicycle history has there been an attempt so blatant to eradicate a wheel size option than what the bicycle industry is doing with regards to the 26 inch mountain bike. A year ago, I wrote an article saying this would happen, based on market trends and feedback from working at a bike shop. It seems that overnight, all of the good, mid-school wheels and components have either been bought up or priced up at a 300% inflation rate. This is an unexpected outcome to the 650b and 29er wheel craze of the last few years. I can't seem to find anyone who sells good 26" freewheel threaded wheels anymore, unless they are heavy bolt ons for cruisers. The only wheelsets I find available are cassette compatible and top end brands like Mavic. What ever happened to the Zac 19's?

I can only compare what is happening to the 26", unsuspended, steel mountain bike to what happened to film photography. All the powers that be in the photography industry got together , and in less than a decade, film photography was gone. I saw my first digital camera around 2001, a box-like object that used a floppy disc and could only take five pictures at a time. By 2004, 3 mega pixel cameras where starting to become common among most people. In 2009 when I took my film camera to Germany, I received a few impressed looks and one person even told me that they had forgotten what a film rewind sounded like. I had to take my film to a specialty camera store to get it developed, and that was 5 years ago. I still have my film cameras (good ones, at that) but seldom use them because I don't know where I'll develop the little film that I have left in my refrigerator. Were film cameras that much more inferior than digital cameras? No, in fact a 35mm camera with a really sharp lens could get the equivalent of 64 mega pixels in image resolution. My medium format camera could get an even much higher resolution still. So why did the industry have to force film into obsolescence?

For the same reason why the bike industry is forcing out the 26" wheeled mountain bike: to make money. By forcing everyone to upgrade across the board, the bicycle industry is forcing consumers to buy their product, because all other options have been eliminated. As much as I loved my film camera, once all of the one hour photo labs started closing down, I really could not use it anymore. So let's say I were to break a wheel or a 7 speed shifter on my mountain bike. There may soon come a time where that will mean the end of that bike's lifespan as a mountain bike. It will from that point forward have to become a beach cruiser, because those will be the only wheel and tire options that will come in 26 inches. As a desperate measure, I may just have to buy a Wally World bike or a Magna bike from Target with 26 inch wheels, just to swap parts onto my old mountain bike. 

As consumers, we can choose with our wallets whether or not we like what the bicycle industry is doing. When I say bicycle industry, I am not including bicycles found at department stores, many of which still come in 26 inches. I'm including The two big American owned companies in the industry and the one big but still emerging Taiwanese "giant" who are driving the change. "The Big Three" currently own most of the patents in the industry and are known to buy out other companies just for the sake of eliminating the competition. If we don't like what they're doing, then we don't need to buy their mountain bikes, it's that simple. When we start seeing more aftermarket parts available for our old-school rigs, then we can entertain the idea of buying their products again. 

In conclusion, forced obsolescence is never a good thing. Look what that did to letter writing, no one writes hand written letters anymore. Fewer people read the printed page, now you see people reading on their tablets and "eBooks". People don't invite other people over to look at their photo albums anymore, everything is shared online and invitations are kept to a minimum. When something becomes obsolete, our values and manners suffer. Some people will say that it's just a wheel size, that it's just a hobby and that truth be told all bikes were meant to be disposable anyway. But it's much more personal than that. Pricing out the consumer or forcing an expensive change on them is taking advantage of their long time integrity and the fact that they're cyclists. It's telling them that there's a cost of entry and a economical barrier to doing what they love to do. It's telling the consumer either pay up or quit riding a bike. It's an underhanded and indirect way of pre-qualifying people to do something that everyone should have the right to do; ride a bike. Straight up class warfare, if you ask me. 

Here's my answer to what the bicycle industry is doing. I'm going to start collecting vintage mountain bikes and components. I hope to accumulate enough parts to do my own maintenance without ever having to step foot in a boutique, hipster-owned bike shop. Once I can no longer do maintenance on my bikes, all future mountain bikes will come from Target. That's how I'm going to choose with my wallet and I'm sure others will follow suit. The modern bike boom is over, it's been over for about 3 years now. With this forced change the specialty bicycle market will not keep enjoying it's temporary run of sales for very long. Once the bicycle demands of the upper echelon of society are met, they will not derive any more profit from the rest of us. Until another Lance Armstrong comes along and gets people into Tour De France fever, most people will no longer see the need to buy an expensive bicycle again. 

End of rant.

1 comment:

  1. "So why did the industry have to force film into obsolescence?"

    because time and technology march on?

    that said, i need to dig my old film pentax out of my unused electronics drawer, find out where to buy some film and teach myself how to use it again.

    it'll be like riding a fully rigid single speed...