Confessions of a Cycling Journalist, Part Two: Brand Prejudice
June 21st, 2017
June 21st, 2017
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As the founder of Rouleur, who edited the Magazine for nine years and wrote bicycle reviews for 15 years, as well writing many cycling-related novels, it's safe to say that Guy has learned a thing or two about bikes, but after retiring from the magazine, he needed to buy a bike of his own. Simple eh? Well, apparently not. Hence we've broken Guy's pop at the industry into a whole series. Enjoy!
Once upon a time you could study a degree in bicycle engineering at University. In the UK there were apprenticeships at all the main bike manufacturers and most frame builders, no matter how small, employed apprentices too (someone who got paid, mind, not an intern). In the 20th century the bike manufacturing industry was a very big deal indeed.
But in those days the industry was a European, not far eastern, based concern and at one point it was even one of the biggest employers in manufacturing in the UK. The Raleigh factory became so huge that it had its own post office in the middle of their plant in Nottingham. For a long while Raleigh was Nottingham. Here many post-war engineers started their trade at a cycle company, especially in the industrial east and west midlands. My dad was one of them, as a school leaver he worked for Chatter Lea, at a chainring machine shop in the outskirts of Birmingham. He’d cycle to work on his British built Bates bike, the bike that he rode to the pub on with his mates at the weekends, where they’d listen to live jazz and talk about the future…
You see, the bike industry wasn’t invented yesterday and neither was the idea of brand. The bike industry was once at the heart of our economy and the bike boom of the 1950s was even bigger than the one we have currently. It may sound strange, but cycling was probably a bigger lifestyle choice then than it is now. However, let’s remove those rose-tinted glasses for a moment and go back to more modern times and the final thread of the last instalment: Those pesky Mountain Bikes that ruined everything…
many big European road bike brands tried to jump on the band wagon and emulate the (mostly) American influenced MTB formula, but most got it rather wrong
In the 1980s, many big European road bike brands tried to jump on the band wagon and emulate the (mostly) American influenced MTB formula, but most got it rather wrong. So wrong in fact that some missed the boat completely and never recovered. Take UK based Raleigh as an example, their ‘ground breaking’ mountain bike range was based around a glued-together titanium tubed frame with aluminium lugged construction (which was destined to fail, as any metallurgist will tell you), within a decade the Raleigh factory was [literally] reduced to rubble, with many other big European manufacturers and bike builders following suit - or at least downsizing considerably. The global shift of engineering, machine shops and manufacturing had headed east and, despite some sentimental attempts to slow the tide, this shift was unstoppable.
Raleigh were not alone. In Italy they were panicking too, where some of the Italian attempts to catch up with the mountain bike craze were even more disastrous. Take Colnago’s first mountain bike. Sure it was most likely beautifully crafted in Cambiago by a superb artisan and finished in lustrous Italian enamel, but it’s geometry and weight was more suited to delivering pizza than hitting the trails in any serious fashion. As a result the Americans made mince meat of the old guard, they made affordable, great looking and exceptional quality off-road machines, they had fun marketing campaigns and they didn’t rely on what had gone before. For the next twenty years these maverick modern companies that started in the hills and trails of California took over. The road bike was all but dead. However, fast-forward to turn of the century and it all changed around again – The road bike bounced back.
These now big brands that fought out the spoils of the off-road cycling boom are now the brands that litter the professional road racing peloton today. Cannondale, Specialized and Trek – the big American three of the Mountain bike boom are now the big three in the Tour de France peloton and today the road bike market has become the main driver for these bike brands. (Interesting as a side ‘opinion’ that some of the US mountain bike marques really struggled to get the road bike market right first time too, but they had enough sense and internal horse power not to get left behind for a moment, once the trends started to turn). But the road resurgence meant that in the background some of the forgotten road bike companies started to rise up again, because they already had the design talent, the frame builders and they have the provenance too. Road bikes were easier for them, they have the huge history in Italy and Europe with the races and they needed the road bike market back and, luckily for most, they are now doing it again, with a vengeance and that is all about brand recognition.
If you are a cycling fan these older, mainly Italian, brands may well say something to you. I’m probably not alone in saying that Italian road bikes are a little bit special, the names alone conjure up memories of countless Tour de France victories, from Bottechia and Bianchi to Casati and Colnago there’s a big race win in the 80s and 90s that had their name on it. That’s because winning is important to Italians. Therefore sponsoring young local riders or big professional teams is massively important to them too. Once upon a time the winning manufacturer of the Giro d’Italia even won the contract to make all the bikes for the post office and the military the following year and that was a big contract in the bicycle-powered post-war rebuilding of Italy, where the Giro was a very big deal indeed.
In the 20th century, these bike brands all had their heroes too. Bianchi had Fausto Coppi, Felice Gimondi and Marco Pantani. Colnago had Eddy Merckx, Guiseppe Saronni and Johan Museuuw. Pinarello had Pedro Delgado, Miguel Indurain and Jan Ullrich. The big French brands became synonymous with their charges too, with one of the biggest of these ‘constructors’, Peugeot. They had some strong UK talent that spread to building a very solid following in Britain with Tom Simpson, Sean Yates and the Scot Robert Millar. Each bike brand became reliant on one of their heroes, because all these brands know that being a part of the race culture, part of the peloton and part of winning is as important as making a good bike. And in some cases it’s more important.
all these brands know that being a part of the race culture, part of the peloton and part of winning is as important as making a good bike
Ask any team of professional riders which bike they would choose to ride and you’ll get a dozen different opinions – they are fussy and fastidious beasts. When steel bikes were all there was, a pro would often turn to their local frame builder to make them a better bike than the standard-stock team issue, then they’d have it sprayed in team livery. With the onslaught of mass-produced carbon, this custom option has all but disappeared, yet there are still some who prefer to have a bike hand-built by ‘another company’ then finished to match the look of a bike that they are sponsored to ride.
The choices for us consumers are enormous and the brands are all trying to win races, which gains endorsement and thus retaining market share. Bike shops promote and sell all the Tour-ridden bikes these days because apparently that’s what people want – these days even Halfords sells Pinarello. Good for them, but I’m not that shopper, I almost see that as being too easy. But why wouldn’t you buy the bike that Chris Froome rides? That makes sense to some, but not me. I’m not Chris Froome. Not even close. It would be like my dad buying a Ferrari to take to the newsagents to buy the papers: showy and not very practical.
Brand is important to all of us, but with the modern racing bike becoming even more specialised with aero-speed, weight and technology being the current buzz words for pro team bikes, whereas comfort, fit and price would be more the appropriate choices for us lesser mortals. It’s hard to decide when most of the pro peloton bikes are either ludicrously expensive, impractical or just damn ugly. Or all three. But where does that leave us, the consumer?
I’m not Chris Froome. Not even close. It would be like my dad buying a Ferrari to take to the newsagents to buy the papers: showy and not very practical.
Which brings me back to 'what bike do I buy?'. I’m still fretting on the fitting issue and the custom option that the pros choose is now haunting me. I’m still searching eBay for the C40, yet something’s bothering me about that now. I had a Colnago many years ago and I rode it into the ground, it was great and eventually I gave it away, possibly because nowadays riding a Colnago ’says' something else. I probably fit that demographic, in that I’m middle aged, balding and occasionally dressed in Rapha or Assos, but I’m not 100% comfortable with that either. I’m not a dentist, a doctor or a lawyer and I don’t want to be one of a crowd, not that the crowd is a bad one, I just want to be a bit outside of it. Not for the sake of it, you understand, it’s just because by doing what is expected, I expect there to be something uncomfortable about it. First world problems, eh?
I’m not proud to say that this is just the start of the confused brand prejudice I carry and it’s a real struggle: One day it matters, the next it doesn’t. Anyway, eBay had a couple of tatty looking C40s… but they simply don’t quite have the extra 5% I wanted. And how much?!
I'm not sleeping now, this plan is taking over, but in part three, we’re back on the frame builder trail…