Cyclocross is a funny little segment of cycling. While the niche is small when compared to the total size of the pie, its adherents are passionate to the point where many view the seven to eight months of glorious weather in the off-season merely as prep for the four to five months of suffering-filled racing in the wet and cold. Moreover, it's one of the only categories that are actually showing strong growth – at least in the US. So why do bike companies consistently have problems actually delivering 'cross-specific gear in time?
Part-time BikeRadarcontributor Michael Robson may be among the more fervent of the bunch but in my mind, he's still representative of the breed: deeply enthusiastic about the sport but with real-life obstacles to overcome, such as a full-time job and a family, that dictate that all of his gear needs to be in place before the start of the season. With the sport growing and the season expanding, that oftentimes means races are held beginning in early September, right when many companies are more concerned with getting through the annual trade shows.
"Frankly I'm doing bits and pieces and working on position and setup all summer," Robson said. "But by September 1, I have all my bikes dialed and matched to each other and pretty much ready to race."
At least in theory, cyclocross racers like to have their gear dialed in before (or at least near) the first races of the season but it doesn't always work out that way
Unfortunately, that September start date doesn't always jive with standard annual production cycles, plus cyclocross's comparatively short season doesn't provide enough leeway to make up for shortcomings in forecasting. Trek admits that production on its fantastic Boone is behind schedule, for example, and BMC's promising return to cyclocross is only hitting stores around now.
"When we unveil new bikes to the world, we make sure we have those bikes on the store floors for riders to go and rip on them that day," said Trek road brand manager Michael Mayer. "That being said, when we introduced the Boone and Crockett, we underestimated the amount of demand that was going to be placed on those bikes and immediately sold everyone we had plus future builds. We still are not meeting demand today."
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Even Giant – which actually manufactures its own bikes and thus theoretically isn't at the mercy of a separate partner factory – hasn't been able to figure out the magic formula.
"Every year, we push hard to have our cyclocross specs completed first and submitted to the factory to ensure mid-summer delivery," said Giant global senior product marketing manager Andrew Juskaitis. "And every year we're disappointed (by varying degrees) by the actual delivery dates of 'cross product.
"We know we need bikes in stores by mid/late summer in order to ensure proper sales before 'cross season, but unfortunately, our factory can sometimes have alternative priorities," he continued. "Honestly, sometimes it's a particular component issue that delays production (Shimano or SRAM), but sometimes it's our fault, not producing the frames in time for summer delivery. We all push hard to make it clear we need to have 'cross product hit stores earlier than any other bike in our upcoming line, but sometimes that message doesn't resonate as strongly as we'd like."
Even Giant – who dictates its own production schedules – has problems meeting its own deadlines for new cyclocross bikes
That's not to say, of course, that companies don't at least try to hit that critical window on the calendar.
"We are very sensitive to this, and knowing cyclocross is seasonal with a tight window, our ’cross bikes live on their own effective timeline," said Felt marketing director Doug Martin. "This year for example, we unveiled our 2015 line at the Sea Otter Classic in mid-April and had a number of models in stock less than eight weeks later. As with most bikes, the higher end models tend to arrive later, but we strive for mid-October delivery on everything."
Even the best of intentions are subject to the mercies of modern just-in-time manufacturing, though.
"We show at Sea Otter the first samples," said Redline's Tim Rutledge. "Sometimes a few small tweaks are made but the bikes are ordered to be here July 15. Most times we hit August and all is alright. Sometimes we're late, too – due to a new SRAM or Shimano part delay – but every effort is made to have the bikes here in time to be at the shops before the start of the season."
"It's tough," echoed Edwin Bull of perennial 'cross cult favorite Van Dessel Sports. "Lead times are really long with many opportunities for delays, and at times unpredictable production time schedules. We've been late a lot over the past few years, so we're no strangers to the struggles. We aim to have new cyclocross frames and bikes in stock and shipping in July [but we're] happy if it's August."
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The growing popularity of cyclocross seems to be helping matters, however, and although the change may be happening slowly, it's still happening to some degree.
"We know that having 'cross bikes in stock for cross season is critical," said Eric Schuda of Specialized. "For this reason, we have produced our CruX models early in April for the past two years and have had bikes in stock before/when the season starts.If you miss this window, sales will be noticeably less and riders will go elsewhere to find a cross bike."
"The Pivot Vault actually became available in August – wonder of wonders – and Pivot still has inventory as of October 1. They've got it figured out," said Chris Jacobson of Boulder, Colorado retailer Sports Garage. "But BMC's bikes became available last week, just in time to be closeouts."
"We got everything that we wanted from Focus that was equipped with SRAM hydro – pretty much on time – but we're still waiting on bikes with Shimano hydro," echoed Boulder Cycle Sport owner Brandon Dwight. "They are supposed to be available for shipping now but they're quite late by our standards. We like to have cyclocross bikes on the floor no later than August 1."
Cyclocross bikes may be growing in popularity but as it turns out, that doesn't tell the entire story as that only reveals how many 'cross bikes are sold, not how many of them are actually used for racing. Moreover, as far as the sales figures are concerned, sub-niches like gravel grinders and so-called 'adventure bikes' are often lumped into the same category. Accordingly, Mayer contends that while cyclocross as a segment is on the rise, many of those buyers are using them for everyday riding as a more versatile alternative to traditional road bikes.
"Riders are not just buying these bikes just for ’cross racing," he said. "They are buying them earlier as their road/commuter/gravel bike and then racing on them during the season. The peak sales of these bikes are not in August right before cross season starts. They are actually more in line with other bike categories."
"In some parts of the country like in Boulder, New England, and Portland, 'cross is very important, both to the riders and to the bike shops," said Dwight. "But in other parts of the country, it's not that big of a deal. It's still such a small percentage of the market that the bike companies don't give it a top priority."
Unfortunately, what that means for cyclocrossers is that while our bikes might be gaining in popularity, the sport on the whole still isn't growing enough to influence production schedules. In other words, don't bet the farm just yet that you'll actually find that new race bike you want by the start of next season. This isn't a trend that's going to completely correct itself any time soon.