Recently Bicycling magazine's Matt Phillips and I were lamenting the lack of bold risk-taking in bicycle technology these days. For sure, bike gear is better than it's ever been, but is incremental improvement all we get now? What happened to 'go big or go home'?
Perhaps the dialogue was fueled by the fact that we both came up in a unique time that saw the debut of some truly radical concepts: Cannondale/Magic Motorcycle's Alex Pong-designed, CNC-machined mountain bike; frames built from exotic materials like beryllium, AerMet and various metal matrix composites; the Black Hole spokeless front wheel; USE's single-sided SUB suspension fork.
For sure, all of those ideas ultimately either failed or never saw the light of day. But they got people talking. They got other companies thinking. And if nothing else, they at least challenged the notion that all we can expect next year is slightly better version of what we had last year.
The lion's share of this year's trade show buzz seemed to focus on a small handful of utterly predictable concepts: disc brake-equipped road bikes, 27.5in wheels, fat bikes, better aerodynamics, less weight, more stiffness. Oh, and neon. Lots of neon. (So naturally, a fluorescent orange ultralight and super stiff aero bike with 27.5x4in tires and disc brakes would have won everyone's 'Best in Show' prize.)
What's the common theme here? All of them are virtually guaranteed to sell well. Okay, maybe not the fat bikes. After all, consumers are usually amenable to plopping down money on something generally accepted as an improvement over what they have now but there's much more hesitation when it comes to something more unfamiliar and untested. It's sort of like how tourists will venture to the far reaches of Earth but still pay homage to the local McDonald's.
Meanwhile, the more off-the-wall ideas of late seem to mostly come from smaller outfits that have little to lose but lots to gain: take the innovative Lauf Trail Racer suspension fork, Delta 7's carbon fiber truss frames, and that crazy Scurra long-travel 29er, for example. Primarily software-based companies such as Wahoo Fitness are also putting out some fresh ideas that stir up the status quo pot – perhaps because developing innovative code doesn't require as big an initial investment as creating groundbreaking hardware de novo.
Will any of these concepts make it? Only time will tell but for sure, not all of them will. So be it.
Interestingly, it’s the bigger companies in the industry that actually have the resources to rigorously explore a wild hardware idea and, if necessary, absorb the cost of a market bomb. However, those industry titans are also often among the least likely to take such a chance. Bicycles have been and will forever be a business of passion but when it comes down to it, business is business – and the business of business is to make money, especially when it comes to publicly owned entities whose primary goal is growth.
Betting big can indeed pay off big but we all remember Cannondale's ill-advised foray into motorsports, right?
It's easy to advocate risky behavior when I'm not the one putting money down on the table. But while continuing on a path of overly calculated caution may make more financial sense, it's boring!
At next year's trade shows, someone will invariably ask me, 'What's the coolest thing here?' Recently, the only thing going through my head in response has been tumbleweed rolling to a background of chirping crickets.
Do I think companies should be reckless with their R&D money? Of course not. But it'd sure be nice to see some genuine chutzpah again. I won't promise to like it but for sure I'll applaud the courage.