Saturday, July 30, 2016

What Keeps A Bike Upright?

I've been seeing and hearing a lot lately about a recent article from Nature: The Bicycle Problem That Nearly Broke Mathematics.

The article mainly focuses on Jim Papadopoulos, an engineer who has spent much of his life studying the dynamics of bicycles in motion. I think the title might be overstating things a little when it suggests that the questions "nearly broke mathematics," though it is something interesting to read.

"Papadopoulos, who is 62, has spent much of his life fascinated by bikes, often to the exclusion of everything else. . . He could never ride a bike without pondering the mathematical mysteries that it contained. Chief among them: What unseen forces allow a rider to balance while pedaling? Why must one initially steer right in order to lean and turn left? And how does a bike stabilize itself when propelled without a rider?"

Papadopoulos, with friend and colleague Andy Ruina, studied these questions of bike balance and stability as part of the Cornell Bicycle Research Project -- an endeavor they hoped would attract research interest (and funding) from the bicycle industry, though according to the Nature article, didn't really pan out. The main interest came from makers like (Alex) Moulton and Dahon -- whose small-wheeled bicycles presented different handling issues than most regular bikes. With the apparent lack of interest from the industry, the Cornell Bicycle Research Project ended at the end of the 1980s. After the project ended, Papadopoulos wrote some contributions to the 3rd Edition of D.G. Wilson's Bicycling Science.
The riderless bike, in action. There is an annotated diagram
in the Nature article.

In 2002, Ruina teamed up with a scientist from the Netherlands, Arend Schwab, to set up a new state-of-the-art laboratory to pick up where the Cornell Bicycle Research Project left off. Papadopoulos joined the project the following year. The team worked out a full set of mathematical equations to take into account all kinds of bicycle design variables for stability. Gyroscopic effect, fork rake and trail, the caster effect, and weight distribution -- all are part of the picture. With the equations worked out, the team created models to put them to the test. One of these test models was a "riderless bicycle," built with small wheels, and counter-rotating wheels to cancel out the gyroscopic effect, a negative trail figure, and weighs that could be re-distributed in different configurations. Once set in motion, the bike would self-correct its balance and stay upright until it came to a virtual standstill. Understand that, at least according to some earlier theories on bicycle movement, the negative trail and lack of gyroscopic effect should have caused the bike to topple over almost immediately. The riderless bike essentially proves that weight distribution plays a role as well.

The research this team is doing builds on research that's been done for decades, but is apparently more maths-based than trial-and-error as a lot of earlier research had been. As the article points out, for much of the bicycle's history, gyroscopic effect was believed to be the main factor in keeping a bicycle balanced. Then in 1970, David Jones put that to the test with a series of "unrideable bicycles" -- one of which had counter-rotating wheels that should have cancelled out the gyroscopic effect. What he found was that the bike could still be ridden without much difficulty. By the way, there seems to be a discrepancy between the Nature article, and the account of Jones's work as it is described in the book Bicycling Science (2nd edition -- I don't have a copy of the 3rd). The Nature article says Jones had little difficulty riding the bike hands-free. Bicycling Science says it was very difficult to ride hands-free without the gyroscopic effect. In any case, Jones built more "unrideable bicycles" to test what we know about rake and trail -- which contributes to the "caster effect" where wheels turn in the direction of movement. Jones found that a bike with an extremely large trail figure was so stable that it was awkward to ride, and the bike he built with an extremely negative trail figure was impossible to ride no-hands. The "unrideable bikes" were all, however, rideable.

The work done by Papadopoulos and Ruina today seems to indicate that keeping a bicycle upright is a combination of many factors. Gyroscopic effect, caster effect, and weight distribution are all important. However, as the article seems to indicate, the hope was again that the industry would take notice and that their research might lead to new bicycle designs, and there may be some disappointment owing to the fact that it isn't happening.

"Papadopoulos can't help but feel deflated. 'It did not change everything in the way that we imagined,' he says. This year's bike frames look much like last year's. 'Everyone is still in the box,' he says."

One question many might be asking is what is the practical use here? Bicycles work quite well as they are. There is no need for a riderless bike. Understanding the mathematical equations on bike balance doesn't change the fact that riding a bike is a "second-nature" skill that we all learn and never forget. And maybe that's why basic bike designs are unlikely to change much regardless of what the research finds.

However, there may be some practical applications of the research, albeit with a fairly limited appeal, and therefore only a small marketing potential. Some of the projects "include a 'steer by wire' bike which separates steering movements from balancing ones, and a 'steer assist' bicycle which stabilizes itself at slow speeds." The article also mentions a "rear-steered recumbent that shows self-stability," the chief advantage of which is that it could have a shorter chain and better energy transfer." Other attempts at rear-steering proved truly unrideable. I can imagine that further research into such things could potentially lead to bikes that could be ridden by people with physical disabilities. But those kinds of applications probably aren't going to attract the main bicycle manufacturers. In the article Papadopoulos also mentioned working on the problem of speed shimmy, which has long been a bit of a mystery to bike designers and builders.

I did read a pretty sharp criticism of the studies and the Nature article by retired framebuilder Dave Moulton: When Science Finds Problems That Don't Exist. As Dave points out, in his no-nonsense way, "Bull$h!t baffles brains. And clever sounding waffle can impress. . . but analyze the piece and it says nothing of value." 

Dave points out, and I would have to agree, that understanding how a bicycle works isn't that much of a mystery, and people have understood a lot of the principals for long time without feeling compelled to work out the math. Consider that anyone who has tried to ride extremely slowly (or even track stand) has been able to recognize that gyroscopic effect is part of balance, but clearly not the only part. And that trail, or the caster effect, is again part of the picture - but not the only part - because again, one can balance at a standstill simply by shifting their weight appropriately - making constant small "corrections" - just as we can balance the end of a broom on the palm of our hand. So it would seem that a lot of the research into a self-balancing riderless bike just confirms what a lot of us may have already known intuitively.

I suppose if there is one fascinating takeaway from the article and the research, it's that the people who built the first bicycles really stumbled upon something pretty incredible, because the bicycle's basic design and layout hasn't really changed much in well over a century. The design, within a fairly narrow range of frame angles, fork rakes, and trail figures has remained pretty consistent. Angles have steepened somewhat (from the high-60s to the low-70s), but they've always been within a narrow range that works, and has worked from the beginning. Think about that when you're out for a ride.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The "Totally Different" Bike

"There are products that help you solve problems and products that help you enjoy life. . . LFN bike does both." Who on Earth has problems that would be solved by this contraption?

The LFN "Totally Different" Bike is on Kickstarter (the LFN stands for "Looking For a Name" -- No, really. You can't make this stuff up), but for some reason isn't anywhere close to meeting its fundraising goal with only days left to go. As of this posting, they've raised only about $1,800 of a $100,000 goal.

It's billed as "The only bike that lets you climb a mountain without the mountain." I'm not sure what mountain climbing has to do with this thing, since nothing about it makes me think mountains, or climbing -- unless it involves climbing stairs. Maybe somebody wanted to combine a stairclimber machine with a bike, not that there's any logic in putting those two things together -- I mean, when I'm on my bike, I never find myself wishing I could be in a gym on a stairclimber.

The makers say "The LFN pedal system is vertical that's why it simulates movements of running, walking, cycling, mountain climbing, and climbing stairs." OK - there's where climbing enters into it - but that doesn't exactly explain Why. And I'll give them stair climbing, but how exactly this machine simulates the movement of walking or running is beyond me. Unless the creators are members of the Ministry of Silly Walks.

The LFN does away with a normal circular crank, and instead has pedals that move straight up and down in alternating strokes - kind of like a treadle drive. Treadle drive bikes are not new (they go back to the very earliest days of bicycles, even pre-dating the safety bicycle) though the specific layout of this one is a little different than most I've seen -- the pedals move in tracks, as opposed to levers, but the biomechanical function must be similar. Nevertheless, such designs are inherently less efficient than a traditional crank when it comes to propelling a bicycle -- that is, in converting leg motion into the circular motion of a wheel.

Here's something on the subject from the late Jobst Brandt, patron saint of all retrogrouches:

"The main problem is that the invention is based on constant-velocity lever pedals, instead of circular cranks on which the rotating foot presents no inertial problems and on which the leg moves in sinusoidal motion." Brandt was referring specifically to a treadle-drive bike called the Alenax, but the critique would be the same. He continued, saying that such a drive "requires the foot to reach full speed from a stop before it catches up to the load it is trying to propel, after which it must stop suddenly from full speed at the bottom of the stroke."

Our family had this exact model when I was little. Even as a
little kid, I figured out that treadle-drive sucks.
Older readers may recall riding little treadle-drive toy cars when they were young. We had one that was passed along through all the kids in my family. What I always remember noticing, even as a kid, was that pushing those pedals straight back and forth didn't work very well. One of the problems I noticed was that if you started pushing on one pedal before the other pedal reached the very end of its stroke, the forces on the two pedals ended up fighting each other and the little car would grind to a halt. I was probably no more than 4 years old when I decided that the little car had nothing on a bicycle.

Besides - what exactly is the proposed benefit of pushing the pedals up and down in a straight path as opposed to a circular one? The Kickstarter page doesn't really explain why "totally different" is "totally better." They do, however, claim that "the slider bars (that's their alternative to a crank) have 3 times more the resistance of the pressure applied when pedaling." I'm not sure what that even means. They also claim that "with the combination of gears in the gearbox, the LFN bike can ride faster than any regular bike, but we designed it to run similar in speed as a regular bike. We don't want riders to hurt themselves with a faster speed." Call me skeptical about the speed (or potential speed) claims.

As long as we're talking about not wanting to hurt riders, here's something else I'm trying like crazy to figure out about the "Totally Different Bike" -- the totally different handlebar ergonomics:

Start with a normal drop bar, but mounted something like upside-down-and-backwards. Add some MTB bar-end extensions, pointing straight up. Then mount brake levers in the most inaccessible part of the bars where a person can't even get a decent grip or leverage. I guess it's a good thing they didn't explore the full speed potential of the LFN bike.
And of course it's also an e-bike. One with a head-scratching range of 52 mph (?)

Here's another claim made on the LFN Kickstarter page: "We guaranty that our Bike is not on the market in any country, we dreamed it, designed it, developed it, patented it, and brought it to you to get your support." Spelling, grammar, and punctuation issues aside, I do sincerely believe this claim.

There's always the chance I'm being overly harsh on the LFN bike. Maybe there are hordes of people out there who would love to ride bikes if only the things felt more like a stair climber. If that's you, then better act fast before time runs out and the Totally Different Bike ends up in unfunded Kickstarter purgatory.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Cleveland, The RNC, Bicycles, Books, and More

I know that all the other bike blogs today will likely be full of news about the Big French Bicycle Race in France. Let me dispense with that right away - defending champion Chris Froome won, despite his momentary loss of higher brain function on Mt. Ventoux where, after apparently hitting his head in a rear-end collision with a stopped motorcycle, Froome got to his feet and somehow thought he was competing in the NYC Marathon. It coulda happened to anyone. That makes three wins for the likable but physically awkward Brit.

Poor guy is just a lanky bundle of jutting limbs.
. . . Even on foot.
But no, instead I'd like to talk about that other circus that just came to an end - the Republican National Circus (sorry) Convention - which was held last week in Cleveland. I'd have liked to have ignored that one too, but it was practically in my backyard. You see, Cleveland is kind of like Akron's bigger brother to the north - and the brotherly comparison is an apt one. To Akronites, Cleveland is kind of like that jerk of a big brother who held your head in the toilet when you were kids, and tells embarrassing stories about you to your girlfriend.

Sibling rivalries. If Akron is Kevin Arnold, Cleveland is big brother Wayne.
Yes, they can be jerks sometimes, but they're still family.

On the whole, the RNC defied most people's expectations. Oh sure, there were some memorable moments: Melania Trump's cribbing from Michelle Obama's term paper (or Twilight Sparkle Pony, depending on whom you believe).

"From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life. And one day you will be judged not by the content of your character, but by the luxuriousness of your rainbow-sparkly mane."
. . . Or the non-endorsement heard 'round the world . . .

"When I said 'Vote your conscience,' why did y'all assume I meant 'Vote for someone else'"?
And of course there were apocalyptic visions of an America on the brink of annihilation.

"There won't be any more crime or terrorism after January 20th. So we got that goin' for us, which is nice."
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the week, at least to most of America apparently, was that Cleveland turned out NOT to be the horrific third-world cesspool they all assumed it was.

Surprise, America -- This is NOT Cleveland.
Nor do the residents look like the banjo boy from Deliverance:

However, in true @$$hole older-brother form, many Clevelanders will try to tell you this is Akron. But we loaned them LeBron James, for which they should be on their knees thanking us every godd@mned day. 
In further defiance of expectations, there were not massive, violent clashes between opposing protesters. And apart from some dimwit who tried to burn an American flag and instead managed to light himself on fire, things in Cleveland outside of the Quicken Loans Arena were relatively calm. Major credit goes to Cleveland Police for that.

Actual police quote: "You're on fire, stupid."
And this is where bicycles come back into the story.

Cleveland Police relied quite a bit on bicycle patrols to help keep things under control. The advantages of the bicycle unit, which was only recently formed specifically for the convention, are said to be that the officers have better mobility and maneuverability through crowds while being "friendlier" and "less-intimidating."

The bikes are also equipped with gear packs, radios, lights, and
fire extinguishers (handy for extinguishing potentially
self-immolating flag burning protestors).
The CPD purchased 300 bikes with a federal grant they got for hosting the convention. The bikes themselves are Safariland Patrol Bikes, made by Kona. According to Outside Online, Safariland is a supplier of police equipment, including things like shields and body armor.

The Cleveland bike patrols received training from Seattle police, which have used bike patrols for some time now. Seattle police trained the new Cleveland patrols in tactical uses and crowd control formations. In some cases the bikes can be used to move quickly around the city, and in other cases, police used the bikes as moveable barricades to separate opposing protestors, or to help move and direct crowds.

Though the new bicycle unit was formed specifically for the RNC, the unit got to make their debut at last month's massive celebration parade for the NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers. That parade drew approximately 1 million people (!) easily making it the largest gathering in the city's history, and one of the largest sports parades in American history. It was especially noteworthy for being incredibly peaceful and non-destructive.
And in Akron we say, "You're Welcome Cleveland."
Overall, reactions to the bike patrol were generally positive. Though I did see a quote from one protestor who called the bikes a "cold weapon of steel" and complained that police rolled over someone's foot. Can't keep everyone happy, I guess. The bike patrol is set to become a permanent part of the city's police force.

Lastly, my favorite bike related thing to come out of the convention was this guy:

"Make America Read Again."
That's Jon Harris, a Cleveland-area librarian, who loaded his bike up with books and rode to the convention to distribute them to delegates and protestors alike. Declaring himself a "book propagator" and wearing a "Make America Read Again" hat from the famous Strand Bookstore, Harris said, "I've tried to make my pitch for what we do and how vital public funding for libraries is. The Tea Party crowd can say they love libraries, but they need to put their tax dollars where their mouths are."

Here's the best part. Harris was one of my former high school students. I gotta say, I'm proud of the guy. Last note to fellow bike retrogrouches -- if you look closely at the photo, you'll see Harris' bike is a vintage Austro-Daimler. I actually remember that bike because he brought it to school once (it's got to be 12 or more years ago now) so I could help him fix the brakes. I notice he's added a Brooks leather saddle since then. Nice to see he still has it.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Designed in America: Part Four

The Rise of Shimano

When IBM was developing its groundbreaking personal computer, the IBM PC, it turned to a relative newcomer in the business, Microsoft, to provide the PC's operating system. In the negotiations with IBM, Microsoft's young entrepreneur Bill Gates made what probably seemed to be an odd but benign request. He wanted to retain the rights to the software. IBM likely figured that the real potential for profit was in the computers themselves - the hardware, not the software - so they allowed Gates' request. I can just picture the IBM executives shrugging, "Sure, kid. Why not."

As we now know, Gates saw the future, and his MS-DOS, and later Windows operating systems, would come to control roughly 90% of the world's personal computers. Since the '80s, the term "PC" has become just a generic term for any computer that runs a Microsoft operating system, regardless of whatever brand name is on the case, as opposed to, say, a "Mac." (Trivial disclosure. This blog is composed on a Mac).

The bicycle industry has its own version of Microsoft, a company that has grown to such a position of dominance that their components have become more important than the name on the bike. Obviously, the Microsoft (or the Intel, or the 800 lb. gorilla) of the bicycle industry is Shimano.

In the previous installments of the Designed in America series, I've mostly discussed the loss of American bike manufacturing, and in that specific context, the rise of Shimano may seem less important than some of the other factors already described. Shimano only makes components, and America never really had much of a bicycle component industry -- at least not for lightweight, multi-speed bikes. But Shimano's dominance came at the expense of most European component makers, and their rise hastened and facilitated the shift of the center of the world's bicycle industry to Asia.

Up through the 1950s, Japanese component makers, Maeda Industries (aka SunTour) and Shimano, were both almost entirely focused on bicycle parts for their home market. But in the '60s, they were looking to expand into lucrative Western markets. Early offerings from both companies were mostly inexpensive knockoffs of European components. French designs were a typical source. By mid decade, both companies began to innovate, and one of the most influential of the Japanese innovations was SunTour's slant-parallelogram derailleur of 1964, the design of which would become the basis of all modern derailleurs. That patent-protected design gave SunTour an early edge against Shimano, but both companies still needed some help breaking out of the Japanese market.

It just so happens that, once again, the American giant Schwinn would play a significant role in helping Shimano establish itself in the U.S., though it didn't begin there. The American company that first gave Shimano a foot in the door was Westfield Mfg. - better known as Columbia.

According to Frank Berto's The Dancing Chain, the Western Auto Supply chain, which did considerable sales in bicycles in the '50s and '60s (some older readers may recall the Western Flyer brand of bikes. Yeah - that's them), imported Raleigh 3-speeds from England for their lightweight line. In the early 60's, Raleigh cut off their relationship with Western Auto, leaving the auto parts chain scrambling to find a replacement supplier. Westfield/Columbia stepped up. They couldn't make a profit if they equipped their bikes with Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hubs (Raleigh owned S-A, and got the hubs at well-below market value), so the company looked to Japan. Westfield's president, Norman Clarke, was practically given a hero's welcome when he arrived in Japan. One of the many parts contracts he came back with was for Shimano 3-speed hubs, at roughly half the price of Sturmey-Archer.  Shimano's 3-speed hubs, named the 3.3.3, had cold-forged internals, making them light and durable.

Throughout the 60s and 70s, Schwinn's
main supplier of derailleurs had been Huret
with their Allvit model, which was
notable for its steel shroud to protect the
rather flimsy parallelogram.
A few years later, it was Schwinn's turn. In Crown and Coleman's book No Hands, it tells how Schwinn dealers were having to replace too many freewheels on their multi-speed bikes - from 5-speed Sting-Rays, to the 10-speed Varsity. The problem was due to the intrusion of dirt and sand inside the mechanism. When Schwinn asked for a sealed-mechanism freewheel, their main supplier, Maillard, either wouldn't or couldn't provide it. Shimano had been trying unsuccessfully to court Schwinn for a couple of years at that point, and Schwinn finally took an interest. They asked Shimano if they could make a sealed freewheel, and a short time later, the thing was done. It was the beginning of a very beneficial relationship -- particularly for Shimano. During the bike boom, Shimano was equipping all of Schwinn's Japanese imports, as well as supplying replacement parts for the company's domestic models. The Shimano-made derailleurs were a nice replacement for a worn-out Huret Allvit.

Clearly at Schwinn's request, Shimano modified their Lark
derailleur to include a very Allvit-like steel plate. The result
was re-branded as the Schwinn GT-100.
Shimano's head of U.S. sales in the '60s was Yoshi Shimano, son of founder Shozaburo Shimano. Yoshi Shimano developed a close relationship with Schwinn's management, particularly Al Fritz (the man usually credited with bringing America the Sting-Ray), typically serving as Fritz's translator in meetings between Schwinn, Shimano, other Japanese suppliers, and even the Japanese government.

The relationship between the two companies could be seen not only in Shimano's sealed mechanism freewheel, but also their derailleur designs, some of which were obviously requested by or influenced by the American giant. Shimano made versions of their derailleurs with the Schwinn name, and some bore Schwinn-specified modifications. The derailleur database website, Disraeli Gears, has a whole page of Schwinn derailleurs, many of which are re-badged Shimano units.

The Shimano Crane GS, which was one of the best touring derailleurs of its day (only the SunTour V-GT shifted better) was re-branded for Schwinn as the LeTour GT-300. According to Disraeli Gears, the Schwinn version may have outsold the Shimano-branded one. (photo from Disraeli Gears)
Shimano was, no doubt, given a considerable boost from Schwinn, and by the 1980s, had grown to the point that they really didn't need the American company's help anymore, and the cooperation between the two gradually faded.

During the '70s, Shimano's line of components expanded, and they quickly adopted the "gruppo" concept, inspired by Campagnolo of Italy, whose full line of components included nearly every part needed to build a complete bicycle. Still, their competitor SunTour continued to control more market share for derailleur-equipped bikes.

One of the things the company became well-known for was its constant innovation. Those who are less charitable might refer to it as a commitment to planned obsolescence. If anybody had been trying to copy Shimano's lead, they would have found themselves trying to hit a constantly moving target. According to Berto, Shimano had a company policy that 10% of their workforce must be graduate engineers, and 10% of the employees worked in research & development. Through the '70s and '80s, some of the company's notable innovations would include: several versions of Positron indexed shifting, FFS freewheeling cranks, Dyna Drive pedals, BioPace chainrings, 10-mm pitch chain and drivetrain (normal chain pitch is 12.7 mm), AX-series aerodynamic components, and Freehub cassette hubs (not actually new, but a refinement of an older idea). Many of them failed to catch on and quietly faded away after a couple of years.

Then, in the 1980s, two things happened that combined to make Shimano the dominant force in the industry. The first was mountain bikes. Both Shimano and SunTour jumped in early to provide components for the hot new trend. SunTour got a slight jump on Shimano with their mountain-bike-specific MountTech derailleur. However, the MounTech, with its extra linkages and pivots, was too complicated for its own good and didn't hold up under hard use. Many users replaced it with the Shimano Deore, which was a simpler, more robust design. That gave Shimano an edge in the burgeoning off-road market.

The second thing was indexed shifting. Indexed or "click" shifting was really nothing new. SunTour had already tried a system they called Mighty Click. Huret offered something they called the Commander. In fact, some of the earliest gear-shifting bicycles from the turn of the 20th century had some form of indexed shifting. Shimano had made several attempts at indexing with their Positron system, but they were all aimed at entry-level cyclists, and didn't work reliably enough to catch on. Then in 1985 Shimano introduced a redesigned Dura-Ace SIS, which stood for Shimano Index System. The new Dura-Ace utilized the slant-parallelogram derailleur design (SunTour's patent had just expired) and two spring-loaded pivots, along with a special shift lever with very distinct detents built into it. It was a revelation. Introduced at the top of the line, it was poised for trickle-down appeal. Best of all, it worked reliably.

Suddenly, everyone had to have indexed shifting. A common expression was heard at the time: "If it don't click, it don't sell." SunTour responded in 1987 with AccuShift, which worked reasonably well, but not as well as SIS. Campagnolo responded with Synchro, which really didn't work well at all. What Shimano had figured out, and which their competitors took longer to realize, was that SIS was a fully integrated system, relying upon the derailleur, shift lever, chain and sprocket profiles, and even the cables and cable housing to achieve the most reliable performance. By the time their competitors figured that out, Shimano -- the constantly moving target -- was already onto something else. By the end of the decade, most of the European component makers were flailing and failing. Campagnolo managed to hold on, mainly because of loyalty among the racing elite. Even SunTour was greatly diminished. Shimano's once-formidable competitor was sold, combined with Sakae-Ringyo, re-sold, and moved to Taiwan. SR-SunTour is only recently starting to re-enter the U.S. market, but with a much smaller range of components.

By the end of the '80s Shimano had gained a Microsoft-like near-monopoly in bicycle components, controlling approximately 85% of the market.

The idea of integration appealed to Shimano, and their next innovations took that concept to new levels. STI, or Shimano Total Integration, combined shifting and braking controls into an integrated package - which meant that if someone wanted the company's drivetrain components, they needed to get the company's brakes as well. The days of mixing and matching components from different manufacturers (and even different countries) were truly gone. More to the point, Shimano took steps to seriously discourage bicycle manufacturers from even attempting to mix parts from different makers.

In the same way that Microsoft would bundle their own software, like their own Internet Explorer, with their Windows OS on new computers, Shimano would bundle all their components into packages that discouraged bicycle manufacturers from equipping their bikes with any competing products. If a manufacturer wanted to include a different brand of shifters or brakes, for example, they were slapped with a surcharge on the Shimano components. Both mega-companies were sued in similar anti-trust suits for stifling competition. SRAM Corp, makers of Grip-Shift shifters, sued Shimano for their bundling practices. The case was settled out of court, and the price penalties were dropped, but ultimately few companies would choose to break up a Shimano group.

The result of the company's dominance is that most bikes are now marketed and sold based on the level of their Shimano group set. Sales people will tout, or buyers will ask for, the "Ultegra-level bike" or a "105-level bike" and the name on the frame is of minimal importance. And that shift of power, from the bike manufacturer to the parts manufacturer, made it harder for buyers to notice or even care as more and more bike production moved to the same handful of suppliers in China and Taiwan. Ostensibly competing bike brands are overwhelmingly selling bikes that have frames that are made by the same factory, equipped with identical components. Choosing from different bikes in the showroom has become a matter of choosing which color or graphics package a person prefers.

Yes, there is still Campagnolo - but good luck finding a Campy-equipped bike in the average bike shop. And SRAM has managed to take away some of Shimano's market share, but even their story manages to fit into the same "design it here - import it from there" business model, as the American-based component maker, just like the rest of the bicycle industry today, imports most of their components from Asia.

From a retrogrouch perspective, the saga doesn't exactly have a happy ending. But I hope readers enjoyed the 4-part series.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Designed in America: Part Three

The Fall of Schwinn

In parts One and Two of the Designed in America series, I began looking into the factors that led to the shift of the American bicycle industry from "Made in America" to "Designed in America - Built in Asia." I mentioned that the various factors are so intertwined that it's almost impossible to talk about one without mentioning the others. In fact, one name that keeps coming up again and again in the discussion is the Schwinn Bicycle Company, as the fate of Schwinn in so many ways helped shape the fate of the American industry overall.

The friendly neighborhood Schwinn dealer was a major
part of the company image, and part of the brand's quality
reputation. (from the 1971 catalog)
For generations in America, the name Schwinn was synonymous with bicycles. The family business, founded in Chicago by German immigrant Ignaz Schwinn in 1895, grew to become the dominant manufacturer of bikes for the better part of a century. The company's share of the American market was so large that Schwinn had the power to influence the whole U.S. industry. For example, if Schwinn demanded higher quality components from its suppliers, they got them. And that improvement in quality parts and bikes led to improvements from Schwinn's competition as well. By the 1960s, Schwinn was also the preeminent "bike shop" bicycle. Whereas most other American manufacturers sold their bikes through large retailers, auto-parts stores, hardware stores, toy stores and the like, Schwinn began focusing on exclusive dealer contracts to keep better control over bicycle sales, assembly, service, and ultimately their image. As a result, Schwinn bikes had a well-earned reputation for quality.

That Schwinn no longer exists.

Exactly how Schwinn as a bicycle manufacturing giant collapsed is such a long, detailed yarn that one could write a book about it. In fact, there IS a book about it: No Hands: The Rise and Fall of the Schwinn Bicycle Company, An American Institution (1996) by Crown and Coleman. Unfortunately, that book is now out of print, but it is still recommended reading for anyone who can locate a copy.

Given the limits of a blog post, let me touch on some of the main points that keep within the context of this Designed in America series.

As already discussed in Part One, on the American Bike Boom, Schwinn was unable to keep up with the massive demand for bicycles in the early 1970s, which had essentially doubled in just a year or two. In order to meet that demand, the company quietly turned to Japanese manufacturers National Bicycle (Panasonic) and Bridgestone -- an action that helped give a major boost not only to those particular companies, but to the Japanese bicycle industry as a whole. The high demand for bicycles, combined with the credibility of the Schwinn name meant that bicycle buyers in America's heartland, who previously might have been skeptical of a Japanese bicycle, ended up buying them without question. The problem with the strategy was that it helped to sow the seeds of Schwinn's demise as a major manufacturer.

The Japanese-built 10-speeds were in many ways superior to Schwinn's own Chicago-built bikes. Yes, Schwinn had their top-of-the-line Paramount and the middle range Superior and Super Sport models -- all hand-built with chrome-moly tubing. But these only accounted for a small slice of the company's production. The mainstay Varsity and Continental models, flash-welded from thick-walled steel, were tanks - durable, but heavy, and equipped with components that were outclassed by the Shimano parts bolted onto the Japanese models.

Here is one of several times the word "complacency" is going to come into play. Schwinn dealers and probably even some in management had to have recognized that the Japanese-built models were more desirable than bikes like the venerable Varsity. So, did the company do anything to improve the American-built models to make them more competitive? Of course not. It was cheaper and easier to simply contract with their Japanese suppliers to make more bikes, and to offer models that moved higher and higher on the Schwinn lineup. In the mid-'70s, the Chicago-built Super Sport was dropped in favor of the Japanese-built LeTour. A Super LeTour was later added, and along with the imported Voyageur models eclipsed the Chicago-built Superior/Sports Tourer. Later, the Panasonic-built Volare notched in just below the top-tier Paramount, with a beautifully made lugged frame, Reynolds 531 tubing (just like the Paramount) and Shimano DuraAce components instead of Campagnolo. From top to bottom of the lineup, the imported bikes were outshining Schwinn's home-built models.

The Schwinn factory in the '40s (from the 1940 catalog)
The failure to invest in the Chicago factory was another problem. By the 1970s, Schwinn had a massive industrial complex that also happened to be on the verge of obsolescence. The company had not made a significant investment in new machinery in decades, and the plant was almost entirely set up to weld durable but heavy bicycles out of thick-walled seamed steel tubing, while the major market growth during and after the bike boom was in lightweight 10-speeds. Despite what Schwinn called them, "light weight" did not describe most of the company's 10-speed bikes. There were a number of calls within the company to update the factory -- and given the amount of money that had to be pouring in with the bike boom, there was an excellent opportunity to do it. But apart from the addition of a warehouse and some new rim making equipment, no such investment was made in Chicago.

A task force was convened in the mid-'70s to explore the idea for a new factory in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was expected that the price tag would have run up to about $50 million. In order to get the money, the company could have easily acquired financing, or sold public stock shares, or some combination of these things, but the family-owned company refused to consider such options. They didn't want to cede even a small amount of control to outsiders. Not only that, but according to No Hands, there was always pressure from members of the Schwinn family, descendants and relatives of founder Ignaz, to increase dividends to the Ignaz Schwinn Trust Fund. Given the choice between updating the factory and equipment, or satisfying the family's demands, the family won out.

Labor difficulties became another issue. Even as the Chicago factory fell farther and farther behind the times, worker dissatisfaction started to increase. In 1980, the plant workers organized with the United Auto Workers, and near the end of that year, went on strike. That strike lasted about a 13 weeks and hastened the end of the line for the Chicago factory, which would close for good in 1983. Although it would be easy (for some) to blame the plant closing on the UAW or the labor strike, the fate of the Chicago plant was already written on the walls long before. The strike may have been the "straw that broke the camel's back" but that doesn't make all those other straws blameless. Bad decisions at the corporate level, management problems, and the long-term neglect of the factory all have to be considered.

When the labor difficulties first started brewing in Chicago, Schwinn got serious about opening a new factory, and in 1981 they opened a plant in Greenville, Mississippi. The prime attraction for the location was that it was far beyond the reach of organized labor unions, in a state that had no love for such things. Unfortunately, however, locating far from labor unions also meant being far from a trained industrial labor workforce. It also meant locating far from industrial centers, with their supporting industries, infrastructure, and supply lines. I mean, there's a reason that most of the American auto industry, along with the supporting steel, glass, and rubber industries, all centered around the Great Lakes region. And that much of the bicycle industry was located in and around the same region.

From the 1984 catalog. The Super LeTour was a mid-priced
bike built in the Greenville factory. 
The Greenville factory was set up to produce modern lightweight lugged steel frames, and in fact, production of some of the brand's mid-range bikes that had once been built in Japan, like the Super LeTour was moved to Greenville. Still, the new factory was plagued with problems almost from the beginning. It was far from airports and major highways. Getting materials and components to the plant was difficult. Few Chicago managers or engineers wanted to spend any more time in Mississippi than absolutely necessary. Worker turnover was high. Quality control suffered. I've read from several sources that the Greenville factory lost money every single year it operated, and it was closed after 10 years in 1991.

Another factor in the fall of Schwinn was a failure to keep up with trends. Here's another area where that word "complacency" comes into play. Whereas the company was setting the trends in earlier decades - with bikes like their balloon-tired, streamlined Aero Cycle of the '30s, the Black Phantom in the '50s, or the Sting-Ray in the '60s. By the 1970s, they were slow to even follow the trends.

The Scrambler (left) was no BMX bike. The Competition
Scrambler, released a couple years later, was closer to the
mark, but still far behind the competition. (1977)
When California kids started stripping down old Sting-Rays, cutting off anything unnecessary, adding gussets and reinforcements, and knobby dirt tires, the new sport of BMX was born. Companies like Redline and Diamond Back were quick to pounce with light and tough race-ready machines. Schwinn's lawyers were afraid the sport was too dangerous and the company waited on the sidelines. By the time they finally decided to launch their own BMX bike (the Scrambler, which was really just a Sting-Ray with knobby tires) they had already given up much of the market share and had to play catch-up. Fun fact: the weight of the original Scrambler was listed in the catalog at 38 pounds! The chrome-moly tubed Competition Scrambler, introduced in 1977 was a slightly less porky 32 lbs.

The Sidewinder, from the '82 catalog, was more
Varsity than mountain bike.
At the end of the '70s, when a bunch of Northern California hippies were bombing down Mt. Tamalpais on modified Schwinn Excelsiors, which they dubbed "klunkers," West Coast Schwinn dealers were clambering for the company to take notice. Schwinn sent some executives (many of whom probably didn't even ride bikes if they could avoid it) to check out the scene. They scoffed at the contraptions and flew back to Chicago. It would be several years before the company would offer something to compete, and just as with BMX, Schwinn's first attempts at the mountain bike, like the Sidewinder and the King Sting, really weren't in the same league (picture a Varsity with knobby tires and BMX handlebars). Their hesitance gave companies like Specialized and Diamondback a head start at grabbing a big part of the market, and once again, Schwinn was having to play catch-up. In both BMX and in mountain bikes, Schwinn did eventually offer some products that were truly top-notch, but those typically came too late. It's really an awful irony that both of these major industry trends actually got started by people tinkering with old Schwinn bikes, yet Schwinn was left behind on both of them.

Finally, Schwinn had developed an unhealthy practice of building up small suppliers into major competitors that would later crush them. First it was the Japanese. Then in the '80s, as the rising Yen was making Japanese imports less cost-efficient, the company turned to Taiwan to cut costs. There, Schwinn chose Giant, which at the time was a pretty small company - a giant in name only. Schwinn helped the small manufacturer by lending them a tremendous amount of engineering, development, and manufacturing expertise. More and more of Schwinn's lower-priced bikes were being manufactured by Giant, while the quality of the Taiwanese products continually improved. By the later part of the decade, Giant had truly become a giant, and the relationship with Schwinn began to sour. Schwinn tried to buy a share of the company, which it probably should have done before they built it up. By this time, the Taiwanese company was so big that they could more realistically have bought Schwinn. Giant started selling bikes under their own name -- bikes that sold for less, but were basically identical to the Schwinn-branded bikes that were also built by Giant. Did Giant start selling their own brand because the relationship was souring, or was it the other way around? That probably depends on who's telling the story.

It didn't help matters when Schwinn started up a new business relationship in mainland China. With a failed bid to buy a share of Giant, Schwinn turned to another small supplier, China Bicycle Company. Schwinn bought a minority share in CBC, and just like they had done with Giant, gave the company an infusion of engineering and manufacturing expertise, and helped to grow it into a powerhouse. Later, CBC began building bikes under contract for a number of other brands, acquired shareholder stakes in others, and helped undercut Schwinn in the bike shops, just as Giant had done a few years earlier.

Schwinn lost money and lost market share, and much of it at the hands of companies that they themselves had built up. The closing of their remaining factory in Greenville in 1991 meant that America's biggest bicycle manufacturer had truly become just an importer, sticking their name on somebody else's bikes.

Through a 4th generation combination of poor management, complacency, hubris, inflexibility, and more complacency, the well-known iconic brand filed for bankruptcy in 1992, just a couple of years before their centennial. Purchased by investment bankers and reorganized, the company got a second lease on life in the '90s, following the kind of "design it here and import it from there" business model perfected by companies like Specialized a decade earlier. During the '90s, Schwinn was sold and merged and re-sold, and in 2001 filed for bankruptcy again. Today, the brand is owned by a huge multinational conglomerate, along with a lot of other brands that really exist as nothing more than names on decals to be affixed to rather generic bikes made in China (probably by CBC) and mostly sold through big box merchandisers.

It's really a sad fate, not only for the iconic Schwinn brand, but for American bike manufacturing as a whole.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Designed in America: Part Two

The Rise of the Importers

There's an interesting anecdote in Frank Berto's bicycle history, The Dancing Chain, that rivals some of the industry's best creation and innovation legends.

A 1970s Raleigh Grand Prix.
Mitchell Weiner, a West Coast sales agent, was trying to work out an agreement with Raleigh's American operations. American interest in lightweight "10-speeds" was just starting to increase (though the full-scale boom wouldn't kick off for another year) so his timing was quite good. The idea was to import a Japanese-built version of the popular Raleigh Grand Prix - to bear the Raleigh name and color schemes, and equipped with Japanese components. After production got started on the bikes, Raleigh's parent company in Nottingham suddenly killed the deal. You can't build a Raleigh in Japan, was their incredulous response. So Weiner found himself stuck with a couple thousand Japanese bikes painted just like the Raleigh Grand Prix.

So, what did he do? He got some new decals made, stuck them on the bikes, and sold them for handsome profit. The Centurion brand was born.

Here's a nice old Centurion in green and black.
(picture from Flickr user Evan Moss)
Weiner soon partnered up with a California bike shop owner, Michael Bobrick, and together they formed Western States Imports. As the bike boom accelerated, their Centurion brand was well-poised for growth. They also had the flexibility to respond to trends quickly. Soon after the bike boom ended, when the BMX craze hit, WSI was on the trend quickly with a new label, Diamond Back (later modified to "Diamondback"). In the early '80s, as mountain bikes began to transform the industry, Diamondback was quick to expand into that new market as well. Through its Centurion and Diamondback labels, WSI would become a big player in the American market, selling good quality at an affordable price.

In 1975, another new player in the industry was getting his start as well. The bike boom had just ended, but the American market for lightweight multi-speed bikes for adults had blossomed to become a much bigger share even after the bubble burst. During the boom, the bulk of sales was in the low-end part of the market. After the boom, interest grew in better quality, higher performance bikes. Mike Sinyard started importing better Italian components from brands like Cinelli and Campagnolo, for dealers on the West Coast. By the end of the decade, his new company, Specialized Bicycle Imports, was bringing in high-quality parts from Japan. More and more of the components were being made to Specialized's own specifications and bore the Specialized brand name: cranks by Sugino, pedals by MKS, headsets and bottom brackets from Tange/Sekei, bars and stems from Nitto. Though most of the components bore familial similarities to other products from their respective makers, they were by and large Specialized-specific designs. One of the company's first big successes was in tires, where their Turbo line became some of the first high-performance clinchers to seriously challenge tubulars.

In the early 1980s, Specialized expanded to importing whole bicycles. These bikes included the Allez racing bike and the Sequoia sport-touring bike. The Expedition grand tourer followed soon after. But the one that really caught fire was the Stumpjumper, introduced in '82 -- one of the first mass-produced mountain bikes to hit the bike shops. Up until that time, the only way to get a real mountain bike was to have it custom built (probably by Tom Ritchey) and expect to wait a few months for it and pay well over $1000. The first shipment of Stumpjumpers, built in Japan with a price of around $800 - $900, sold out almost immediately, and the line soon expanded to include the Stumpjumper Sport, then the Rockhopper, and later the Hardrock, each aimed at a progressively lower price point. It wasn't long before everyone had to have a mountain bike.

These early '80s Specialized bicycles had lugged steel frames and featured wonderful workmanship for the price. Their frames were sourced from several different companies in Japan. Some of the first Allez racing frames were actually built by Yoshi Konno, known for his high-performance 3Rensho brand. The Miyata factory built a lot of Specialized bikes in the early '80s. The early Stumpjumpers were built by Toyo, which in more recent years would make some models for Rivendell.

Both WSI and Specialized had something in common in the way they established a business model that would eventually sweep the industry. Neither was actually a manufacturer in the traditional sense. There were no Centurion or Diamondback factories, and no factory bearing the name Specialized either. Never was. Never would be. Both companies essentially designed products to be manufactured by someone else, and which would be stamped, painted, or emblazoned with decals bearing the logo of the companies that would market the goods. And the actual suppliers could change from one year to the next, or from one product line to another, and the consumer would never know. By keeping no actual manufacturing plants of their own, having no machinery or tooling to maintain, and by using a variety of Asian suppliers, these American-based importing companies gained a lot of flexibility, which combined with good market instincts probably accounts for why they were able to quickly respond to the market trends.

On that point, I'd like to interrupt myself for a moment. I don't want to dismiss the active role that these companies played in bringing out great products even though they didn't actually manufacture them. Specialized, particularly, hired noted framebuilders like Tim Neenan, Jim Merz, and Mark DiNucci to design their frames and components. These men and other product specialists with the company spent a great deal of time in Japan (and later Taiwan and China) working closely with the suppliers to make sure that the products were first-rate. I think that's one of the reasons why they are so well regarded even today.

So, wasn't this the same thing that companies like Schwinn were doing? Yes and no. When discussing the role of imports on the market, Schwinn really got the ball rolling by importing bikes from Panasonic and Bridgestone, which were two well-established companies in Japan, and re-labelling them as Schwinn World Travelers, LeTours, and the like. But by going with these well-established manufacturers almost exclusively, Schwinn didn't get quite the flexibility that WSI and Specialized would enjoy, and that would be a factor that would hurt them later on. It didn't help that Schwinn's top management became complacent enough to dismiss the trends they should have embraced - but that's another installment in the series. Even more to the point, Schwinn was still predominantly a manufacturer, with a massive factory and with a long history of actually building bikes. The imports helped augment or supplement Schwinn's own manufacturing capacity, but was not a stand-in for it - though that would change.

There's another element to the role American importers played in changing the balance of power in the bicycle industry. And here, one should look at Schwinn, Specialized, WSI, and anyone else placing their branding on imports from Asia. As already mentioned, engineers and product specialists from these American companies worked closely with their Japanese counterparts, sweating details, and making sure the quality was top rate. The Japanese quality was already very good, but the cooperation with these importers, and the demands they made, pushed the Japanese makers to even higher levels, and helped them grow into a position of power. The income they got from their American dealings didn't hurt either.

But it doesn't end there. Japan's domination would be short-lived.

When the Yen swelled in value against the Dollar in the mid-'80s, Japanese manufacturing was no longer the bargain it had previously been. Importers had to find cheaper suppliers to protect their profit margins. The first place they turned for cheaper labor was Taiwan. At first, the quality of the Taiwanese products wasn't up to the level that Japanese goods had been, but with help and input from the designers and engineers from the importing companies, they were able to close the quality gap. In turn, the Taiwanese bike industry experienced tremendous growth and improvement. One of the major beneficiaries of this cooperation was Giant, which would eventually grow to become a household name and one of the largest bicycle companies in the world. Japanese bicycle and component companies were also turning to Taiwan to lower their costs, the same way American and European manufacturers had turned to Japan in the previous decade. The Taiwanese industry grew to the point that by the end of the decade, and into the early '90s, the story was repeating itself.

The industrial growth of Taiwan meant that it was no longer the cheapest source of bikes and components, and so the importers started looking to mainland China. Just as was done in Taiwan, bike and component makers started flooding China with orders, and the factories there, which previously had been building inexpensive, heavy, basic-transportation bikes for the home market, had to start gearing up to make the kinds of lightweight, higher-tech bikes that Western markets wanted. Even Giant in Taiwan would open a plant in China.

Most bicycle brands today, even those with prestigious names and those that built their reputations on their own workmanship, have shifted to the same "design it and import it" business models described above. Pick up almost any bike in any bike shop with any brand on it, and chances are, that bike is made under contract by a company like China Bicycle Co., Giant, Merida, or one of a handful of other suppliers. Even the American giant Trek has the majority of its bicycles built in Asia by the same factories that build their competitors, despite their heavily marketed "Made in America" image. Trek's huge Waterloo Wisconsin facilities primarily house marketing and research & development -- only a handful of their top-of-the-line models are made there, accounting for about 1% of their total production. Other notable brands, like Cannondale, were simply swallowed up by huge conglomerates with no interest in running manufacturing facilities, and their production has shifted to Asia as well.

By the 1990s and up to the present, factories in Taiwan and China would be producing the vast majority of the bikes sold in America and around the world. And these companies have grown to such a position of power that they could start buying sizable shareholder stakes in the very same companies that they are both building for, and competing with. Think about that when you're in the bike shop trying to decide between bikes from two different brands -- they could actually be the same bike from the same factory, different only in the decals.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Designed in America: Part One

So meaningful.
The other day I found an old mountain bike in the trash at the curb. It was rusty and looked like it had spent most of its life parked outside. It was a low-end Specialized -- a cheap model aimed at teens or tweens -- but I took it home anyhow. I figured if nothing else I might be able to scavenge a few useable parts off of it. A headset, bottom bracket, hub axles and cones, etc. -- all of which I figured were probably in decent shape beneath the rust and grime, as the bike probably hadn't seen much actual use in its lifetime.

After I'd gotten what I'd wanted off of the frame, I was preparing to dump the rest back in the trash when I noticed a sticker on the seat tube. "Designed in California - Handmade in Taiwan." Oh, how meaningful. I've seen these stickers a lot on bikes from the last decade or so, but it got me thinking about how much the industry has changed since I first got serious about bicycles.

Apart from a few top-of-the-line models, some low-volume specialty bikes, or exclusive custom builds, very few bikes sold in America are actually built here these days. That wasn't always the case, and it really wasn't all that long ago when things were very different. But today, many supposedly American bike companies are little more than importers and marketers, designing decals and color schemes for bikes built in China and Taiwan, and bolting on whichever Shimano group fits the intended price range.

Here's another one. Can't miss the red, white,
and blue - but isn't it a little misleading?
Obviously, the shift of manufacturing away from the U.S. is something that has swept through almost all industries, but in the bicycle industry I believe the causes of that shift can be traced to several distinct factors: The American Bike Boom, the fall of Schwinn, the growth of importers (like Specialized), and the rise of Shimano. All these factors are inter-related in a number of ways, so any discussion of one is almost certainly going to overlap with others. It's also a subject that warrants at least a multi-post discussion. You've been warned.

The American Bike Boom

In the first part of the 1970s, sales of bicycles in the U.S. shot skyward beyond anyone's best expectations. Sales in 1970 were about 7 million bicycles. By 1972, bicycle sales had doubled to 14 million, peaking at 15 million in '73, then dropping back to 14 million in '74. The bubble burst the following year, with sales dropping back to 7 million in 1975. Although relatively short-lived, one permanent change that happened to bicycle sales through the boom was that adult bicycles became a significant piece of the pie. Prior to the boom, bikes for adults never accounted for more than 10% of the American market, which was overwhelmingly geared toward children's bikes. That percentage of adult bikes would peak at over 70% at the height of the boom, and remain at around 50% ever after.

Isn't a massive boost in sales a good thing for business? Well . . . yes, and no. On one hand, any company selling bicycles in the U.S. was suddenly making money hand over fist - at least for a couple of years. On the other hand, the short-lived nature of the bubble meant that a lot of companies tried to take advantage or get established during the boom and got caught badly in the bust. That rapid boom-bust cycle proved to be a massive shakeup to the whole industry. Those that couldn't ride it out didn't last. Another question to ask is what happened to all those profits that were flowing in the boom years? Were there significant investments in newer factories and updated equipment that would help move the American industry into a new era? Hmmm. . . apparently not. And this next thing might be a big reason as to why.

Manufacturing capacity was seriously put to the test during the boom, and most established bike companies simply could not keep up with the demand with their aging factories and tooling. Huge companies like Schwinn, Raleigh, Peugeot, and others were running at full capacity and quality suffered. The major component makers, such as Huret and Simplex were likewise at full capacity and could not keep up with orders. What this led to was a search for other suppliers of bikes and components, and Japanese companies were ready to fill the void.

Schwinn was the biggest of the American bike companies, and was a major influence on the industry, so their response to the boom is instructional. In order to meet demand, Schwinn started importing some of their bikes from Japan -- built to Schwinn's specifications by companies like Matsushita/National Bike Co. (Panasonic) and Bridgestone. The World Traveler was the first of these imported models, built with a lighter lugged steel frame and Shimano derailleurs, and priced near or just below the popular Varsity. Many buyers probably didn't notice or care that their bikes were built in Japan. It came from Schwinn -- a name synonymous with quality (Interestingly, the first imported models didn't actually say Schwinn on them - at least not prominently - but later models would proudly bear the trusted name). The number of Japanese-built models, and their quality advantage over the American-built bikes, would only increase from there.

Given a choice between updating their Chicago factory, or just importing more bikes from Japan, Schwinn decided to import - and that short term solution to a temporary supply problem ended up becoming a long-term plan for survival.

Other companies would follow a similar path. If not placing their own name on complete bicycles from Japan, they were at the very least building them with Japanese components from brands like SunTour and Shimano. In the previous decade, these companies were just starting to make major improvements to their component lines. Derailleurs were a notable example. No longer content to just produce cheaper versions of old French designs, SunTour and Shimano were both beginning to produce more innovative designs that increased shifting range and reliability - at a lower cost. But up until the '70s, there was a reluctance for bike companies outside of Japan to use these components. The American bike boom happened at an opportune moment for Japanese companies eager to enter the established markets. Suddenly, bikes that previously came with entry-level Huret or Simplex derailleurs were being equipped with Japanese pieces that worked better for less money.

Whereas previously, Japanese bikes and components were not taken seriously by bicycle buyers outside of Japan, millions of buyers during the bike boom were happy to give them a try. With Schwinn's help, companies like Bridgestone and Panasonic both grew tremendously, even though many American customers knew their names for tires and radios, respectively, and probably had no idea who actually built their Schwinn LeTours and Voyageurs. Likewise, Americans became far less skeptical of brands with distinctively Japanese-sounding names like Fuji, Miyata, and Nishiki -- all of which got a boost from the boom.

Giving the Japanese companies this foothold into markets previously dominated by American and European manufacturers was, I believe, the first step toward shifting the bike industry to Asia. Japanese manufacturers showed they could provide better quality at a lower price, and they eventually grew to dominate the industry.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Tour de France Coverage, Retrogrouch-Style: 1986

Since I'm only just barely paying attention to this year's Tour de France, I thought now would be a good time to drop back in the pack by 30 years and take a look at one of the most drama-filled races in Tour history: 1986, with its showdown between French legend Bernard Hinault and rising American star Greg LeMond.

The backstory to the '86 Tour is very familiar, but let me give a quick synopsis. In 1985, Hinault was the undisputed leader of the powerful La Vie Claire team, and offered Greg LeMond a $1 million contract to join the team and help Hinault win his 5th Tour de France. The plan, with LeMond as top domestique, came unravelled when Hinault crashed in stage 14, breaking his nose. In the next big mountain stage, on the Col du Tourmalet, Hinault was suffering and in danger of being dropped by the peloton, while LeMond was well ahead with a breakaway group. LeMond was gaining time on his leader, while Hinault was faced with the possibility of losing the Tour. At that point, a team car pulled up next to LeMond, with orders from team director Paul Koechli to slow down and wait for Hinault. LeMond was reportedly told that Hinault was less than a minute behind, but in reality he was more than 4 minutes back. By the end of the stage, Hinault was still the race leader, but it was clear that LeMond had sacrificed his own chance at victory for his leader. Hinault, recognizing the sacrifice, promised to help LeMond win his first Tour in '86. Whether Hinault actually made the promise is hardly disputable. But would he, or could he, keep it?

With or without the backstory, the 1986 Tour promised to be a special one as the race would be the first to include the participation of an American team, the 7-Eleven squad. It would also mark the return of 2-time winner Laurent Fignon, who had missed the '85 race due to Achilles tendon surgery. Another change included two new additions to the La Vie Claire team -- American climber Andy Hampsten, and Canadian sprinter Steve Bauer. The addition of so many English-speaking riders in the Tour would prove to be a turning point in the race's history. The '86 Tour would also be a very difficult one, with more climbs than previous years, including four major summit finishes, four time trials (3 individual, 1 team), and only one rest day.

Stieda won yellow, white,
sprinters, mountains and
combination jerseys
all in one day.
The opening stages of the '86 edition would be a good indication that the race would be dramatic. The prologue time trial was won by Fignon's teammate Thierry Marie, with Hinault just 2 seconds back. LeMond and Fignon both finished about 4 seconds behind Marie. The second day actually included two stages -- an 85 kilometer road race, followed by a team time trial in the afternoon. In the morning's race, 7-Eleven's Alex Stieda, of Canada, went on a solo breakaway and picked up so many time bonuses along the way that, even though he was eventually caught and finished 5th, he was shocked to be pulling on the race leader's Yellow Jersey (along with all the other prized jerseys) at the end of it. The celebrating wouldn't last long however, as the 7-Eleven team's performance in that afternoon's team time trial would mark them as Tour rookies. Eric Heiden crashed, several members suffered flat tires along the course, and Stieda, worn out from his earlier effort, had trouble finishing within the time limit. He was not only the first North American ever to wear the Yellow Jersey, but he narrowly missed having the unlikely distinction of being the first rider to win the Yellow Jersey and be disqualified in the same day.

The third stage would mark a redemption for 7-Eleven, as Davis Phinney would win after being involved in a breakaway for most of the day on the roads of Northern France. He would be the first on that team to win a TdF stage.

With several days of mostly flat stages, time gaps between the General Classification favorites stayed close until the individual time trial of stage 9. Bernard Hinault won the TT, and LeMond finished second, 44 seconds back. However, LeMond's performance was better than his time would indicate, as he had flatted on the course and some estimated that he lost nearly a minute as a result. Fignon was struggling with his post-surgery form and lost more than 3 minutes to Hinault.

With his win in the TT, Hinault must have decided that he didn't need to hold to his promise to help LeMond. If he could prove himself to be the strongest on the team, who would blame him for racing to win? So over the next stages, it was like internal warfare on the La Vie Claire team. In stage 12, with four major climbs in the Pyrenees, Hinault took French teammate Jean-Francois Bernard with him on a breakaway attack, leaving LeMond stuck in the peloton. By the end of that stage, Hinault was in 1st place, with more than 5 minutes on 2nd place LeMond. The day's temperature and the pace were both so hot that many riders (including two from 7-Eleven) abandoned before the end. Even Laurent Fignon abandoned the race the next morning.

In stage 13, with another 4 major climbs including the Tourmalet, Aspin, Peyresourde, and a mountaintop finish at Superbagnères, Hinault again went on the offensive, attacking on the first major descent, leaving LeMond in the difficult position of not being able to attack his own teammate. Though the group managed to catch Hinault, the offensive wasn't over, as he attacked again and again. Gradually, the five-time champion showed signs of weakening, though the good news for LeMond was that most of the rest of the field was also weakening. On the final climb of the day LeMond, with the help of the young climber Hampsten, was able to take off and win the stage, also gaining back much of the time he'd previously lost to Hinault. The French champion was still in 1st, but now only 40 sec. ahead of LeMond.

The next few stages continued with little change in the overall standings until stage 17 in the Alps. On the descent of the 2nd climb of the day, the Hors Category Col d'Izoard, Swiss rider Urs Zimmerman got a gap on the other favorites -- except for LeMond who managed to latch onto his wheel. Zimmerman pushed hard up the final climb up the Col de Granon, while LeMond hung on for the ride. Together, they gained time on nearly everyone, including Hinault who continued to attack but could not reduce the deficit on the road. The stage was won by Spanish climber Eduardo Chozas, who had gone off in a breakaway earlier and managed to stay away even from LeMond and Zimmerman -- but Chozas was not a contender for the overall lead, and LeMond had moved himself into the Yellow Jersey. Zimmerman had moved into 2nd, with Hinault now in 3rd.

LeMond and Hinault destroying the field
on Alpe d'Huez. Nobody else stood a chance.
Tensions on the La Vie Claire team were high, and to some extent, spread throughout the peloton. Loyalties on La Vie Claire were divided along national lines, and riders like Hampsten and Bauer were caught in the middle. Across the race, it seemed many European riders weren't ready to see the young American win the Tour. According to the book and documentary Slaying the Badger, there were some thinly veiled threats against LeMond. Even in the Tour coverage of the day, Phil Liggett reported "80% of the riders want Hinault to win. There's a nasty hint that LeMond could be nobbled." Although they rode for different teams, LeMond was able to get emotional support from longtime racing friends and fellow Americans on the 7-Eleven team, along with teammates Hampsten and Bauer. LeMond's wife, Kathy, was also there as a major source of support. After Tour organizer Jacques Goddet told LeMond "Watch your food. Watch your water bottles," Kathy was the one reportedly buying groceries and preparing food for her husband.

The 18th stage was another monster in the mountains with four big climbs: the Galibier, the Télégraphe, the Croix de Fer, and the summit finish on Alpe d'Huez. Hinault went on the offensive, attacking again and again, but always being caught. Just as in the Pyrenees, those attacks weakened everyone except LeMond.

It's one of those unforgettable moments from the Tour.
The difficult descents in that stage were an element that worked in LeMond's favor. By all accounts, LeMond was amazing at riding downhill, and on the descent from the Télégraphe, he dropped Zimmerman for the rest of the stage and caught up with Hinault. By the climb up Croix de Fer, Zimmerman worked hard but was unable to close the gap to the La Vie Clair leaders. On the descent of de Fer and the final climb of Alpe d'Huez, the duo of Hinault and LeMond buried all of the competition, and Hinault was moving himself past Zimmerman into second place in the overall standings. Reportedly on the climb of Alpe d'Huez, Hinault began feeling the heat and asked LeMond to slow up. LeMond, apparently taking it as a concession, stayed with Hinault to the finish. As they finished the climb arm in arm, right at the line, LeMond pushed Hinault ahead for the official stage win.
Hinault: "The Tour is not finished."

If LeMond was thinking that conceding the prestigious stage win meant that Hinault was going to honor his promise from '85, he was mistaken. In an interview following the stage, Hinault told reporters "The Tour is not finished yet . . . it's a sporting war . . . we'll let the time trial decide." The look of disbelief on LeMond's face could not be concealed. In any case, at this point in the Tour, LeMond was in Yellow, with Hinault in second, 2 min. 45 sec. back, and Zimmerman in third, well over 7 minutes back and essentially out of contention. As another bit of good news for the Americans, Andy Hampsten was fourth, but over 16 minutes behind LeMond.

The stage 20 time trial at St. Étienne was another contest between the two La Vie Claire teammates. Hinault rode a perfect race and won the stage. LeMond had another bout of horrible luck, with a crash that required a bike change and finished second, 25 seconds down from Hinault.

Stage 21 was another mountain stage with a summit finish on Puy de Dome. On the final climb, Zimmerman managed to gain back a small amount of time against Hinault, but LeMond extended his lead over both men and had an overall margin of more than 3 minutes. There were just two more stages to go.

On the final stage into Paris, LeMond once again crashed and needed a new bike. Luckily, any tensions that might have been in play during much of the Tour were set aside, and several La Vie Claire teammates, including Hinault, helped escort him back to the main field. Hinault contended for the final sprint on the Champs Elysées, and finished 4th in the stage.

When all the dust had settled, it was official. Greg LeMond had won the Tour de France. He was not only the first American to win it, but the first rider from any English-speaking country. The final standings were LeMond at 110 hours, 35 minutes, 19 seconds; Hinault @ 3 min. 10 sec; Zimmerman @ 10 min. 54 sec; and Hampsten @ 18 min. 44 sec.

La Vie Claire had three of the top four spots, and not surprisingly won the teams competition. In addition, Hinault won the Polka Dot Jersey for King of the Mountains, and Andy Hampsten took the White Jersey for the Best Young Rider competition. Rarely had any one team so overwhelmingly dominated the race.

For their first Tour, the 7-Eleven team had a brief stint with the Yellow Jersey and a notable stage win to feel good about. On the other hand, half of the team's roster ended up abandoning due to injuries, illnesses, or flat-out exhaustion. Bob Roll, who would become a commentator for American television coverage of the Tour, was the team's highest placed finisher in 63rd place - despite a punishing stomach flu. Other finishers for the team included future stage winner Jeff Pierce (80), Ron Kiefel (96), Raul Alcala (114), and Alex Stieda (120). Still, the Americans had arrived.

The 1986 Tour de France proved to be an incredibly tough race, with only 131 riders finishing out of the 210 who started. It's still a race that generates a lot of discussion and even some arguments after all these years. For instance - the "promise." To this day, Bernard Hinault insists that he always intended to honor his promise, even as he continually attacked LeMond. In fact, he has at times made the claim that by attacking continually, he was actually helping. In an interview in the documentary Slaying the Badger, he says "He won. So I kept my word. If I had not wanted to keep my promise, it would have been easy for me to race for victory." I think he may even believe that.

I, for one, believe Hinault was racing to win, despite whatever he may have said then or now. Still, I wouldn't vilify him for doing so. Hinault was an era-defining racer - the best of a generation. He was an amazing competitor, and when he felt he had a chance to become the only person to get 6 Tour de France victories, how could he ride for anyone else? I think he went into the race - particularly the individual time trials - thinking that if he could prove himself the stronger rider, then there was no reason for him to ride for LeMond, regardless of what he might have said a year earlier.

Not only that, but what kind of victory would it have been for LeMond if Hinault wasn't giving his all to win? Or if he appeared to truly be helping his younger teammate? Considering how many people weren't ready to embrace an American Tour winner, imagine how people would dismiss a LeMond victory as nothing more than a gift from a great champion to an undeserving outsider. Greg LeMond clearly didn't get the help he was hoping for, or that he felt was promised to him, and I don't know if he is bitter about it, or if he truly feels betrayed, but when all is said and done, he proved he really was the best and deserved victory by his effort, not as a gift. It makes the win all that much better.

1986 was an unforgettable Tour de France - and to think it all happened 30 years ago.