Friday Group Ride #88

A 1980s Slim Chance by Chris Chance

One of my co-workers showed me a magazine photo of a 7-11 rider, Davis Phinney, on a Huffy. The year was 1987. The bikes were white and red, and the builder was none other than Ben Serotta. As with so many of the things we see in pro cycling, appearances were not quite what they seemed.

With effective marketing, you can put a label on anything and pass it off as a gold nugget.

But where does the quality of a thing live? It is one thing to take a pair of super light, super stiff wheels, for example, and redecal them with the logos of another maker of super light, super stiff wheels. Clearly the decals are just decals. The wheels are where the quality lives. It is easy to heft them in one hand and know what is there.

But what happens when a company gets purchased? New management comes in. Designs and procedures change, but all the while the label stays the same. In fact, in many cases the new ownership has simply purchased the label to pump out lower cost crap at high prices, trading on the company’s prior reputation. And how many once-great bike companies have we seen blunder down this path? I’ll let you supply the names.

Is the quality of the thing in the hands of the creator, by which I mean the founder or lead designer at the company? Is it in the people on the factory floor who turn out the products? Is it in the ephemeral style of the object? Or is it a combination of many intangible factors?

New management isn’t always a bad thing, but it is always a different thing. Is a bike company, founded by one charismatic and inspired individual, the same company when its ownership passes into the hands of a conglomerate, when its factory moves from one country to another? All of these things pass by beneath the stoic label on the component box or the impassive crest on the head badge.

We regularly see vintage brands reborn under the guidance of a new set of investors/operators. What are those brands? Are they consistent with the originals? Does the quality of the thing live on in the idea of what once was? What do you think?

12 comments

  1. Jonathan

    I think the emotional relationship is with the brand and the physical relationship is with the product. In the act of riding the physical relationship is what impacts you – are the shifts crisp, is the steering precise. However, we all probably spend far more time thinking about bikes than we do riding them. At which point the brand, the emotional thing that excites us to ride, is probably more important.

  2. Phil

    Any brand (in cycling at least) that has moved to a majority carbon fibre bicycle lineup has gone down the proverbial tube.

    High quality bicycles were once the product of a craftsman or craftsmen. Now, they’re the combination of layers of carbon fibre and resin injected into a mould produced in large quantities with an expected half life of 3 years. Welds can have personality, whether they’re large, yet smooth welds, or amazingly beaded welds that are an art unto themselves.

    Then there’s lugs, which bore the name of the brand and could stand for decades or centuries if the needed to. Now, a plastic sticker is applied in colours that will fade in a few years.

    With the bicycle industry saturated with new models and products every year, this gives no time for the truly great products to stand up and be counted, and thus, quality has suffered in the name of profits and the ability to “stay ahead of the game”.

  3. randomactsofcycling

    I can speak for an iconic Australian bicycle brand – Malvern Star. Reborn three or four years ago with generic carbon fibre frames and an owner clearly happy to trade on former glories.
    Were the original steel, lugged bikes really as good as legend leads us to believe? And therefore are the new carbon offerings actually doing the legend a disservice? I don’t know. But never having ridden one of the old bikes, I would like to think they are more than the new ones seem to be.
    Resurrecting a brand is never a winning situation. Memories are always more powerful than marketing.
    Buying a brand and ruining it – that’s an all too familiar scenario.

  4. jorgensen

    Masi mentioned in an earlier comment is an interesting case. Transplanted to America in 1973 to lead a dual factory life, with the bikes from Carlsbad arguably every bit as good as the frames from Italy. But not a financially successful operation. Downsized, it lived on for almost 20 years, with some curious twists, as for a while the lesser models were made in Italy and imported raw.
    Continued evolution to be primarily Asian sourced. Quite a story, much more convoluted than my brief synopsis. Many other brands have ended up in Asia and survived with a bit more marketing credit to the original founder. So it goes.
    Ultimately it comes down to design. If not the driving force the smart editor of other’s work that is the foundation for success. Now, can the marketing guys tell a compelling story?

  5. slappy

    Having the last name of Cooper I was pretty floored when my Ron Cooper circa early eighties arrived at the consignment shop where i wrenched. Thousands of miles later it is the sweetest roadbike i’ve ever had. Thanks to a Roleur cover story i learned more about Mr. Cooper than the interweb knew and my respect for the bike grew. Come to find out that the recently launched Cooper bikes is yet another car company attempt to capitalize on hipster bike style and it makes me sad.

  6. Scott G.

    As crack cyclist Alfred Korzybski once said, “The Brand is not the Bike”.

    Phil, if you’d like to buy a carbon bike, Mr. Crumpton will build you one,
    he signs his work, right on the down tube. If you want a Masi, Alberto is still working at the Vigorelli.

  7. mark

    Waxing nostalgic over hand-made steel is in many ways tantamount to Uncle Rico pining for ’82. We remember things as if they were better than they actually were. Steel can be beautiful, but it’s heavy and it rusts.

    A good friend rides a hand-made, filet brazed steel MTB frame with all the refinements so many seem to long for. He broke the top tube within a month of getting it. The builder fixed the frame, but now it’s broken again, this time at the chain stay. Mind you, it’s breaking at the tubes, not the welds. Meanwhile those of us on Taiwanese, mass-produced aluminum and carbon frames keep riding our bikes, not a loaner. And our bikes are lighter, for whatever that’s worth.

    An Italian sports car will turn heads and is no doubt fun to drive. But my Subaru wagon gets me to work and back every day much more reliably and economically. For a working man whose ride time is stolen from other commitments, reliability and economy matter.

  8. Wayne

    A craftsman can make a great frame out of many materials including carbon or steel. It is not the material but the design and fabrication that make a quality bike.

    For reliability and economy it is hard to beat aluminum. For that plus a long term quality ride, I like steel. Craig Calfee’s makes great carbon bikes, but the are not cheap and he would admit not as durable as a quality steel bike. See the comparison of material on his web site.

    There are many 20 year old steel bikes that still ride great. Time will tell if many carbon bikes make it that long.

  9. JClev

    An interesting case to follow is the fate of Independent Fabrication, now moved to Portsmouth NH under direction of relatively-new management. While I don’t see IF ever being a large-scale, cookie-cutter bike operation, they have experienced significant changes in the last couple of years, primarily in the people who staff the shop and build the bikes, and the direction of the company. As an owner of a Somerville-made Crown Jewel, I do hope the brand survives and thrives while building ever-better hand-built bikes. On the other hand, it’s hard not to see the changes that occurred and feel at least a little nostalgic.

    If I were to be purchasing a new stainless bike in the near future, I suspect I’d be leaning more toward a Firefly than an IF.

  10. Dan O

    Slim Chance pictured – sweet. Always wanted one back in the day, never happened. I do have a ’86 Fat Chance and ’91 Yo Eddy hanging in the garage however. If a brand could be reborn, Fat City Cycles would be it – if done correctly. From what I understand, Chris Chance is completely out the bike biz however, and relaunching would Fat City would require some sort of blessing from Mr. Chance himself to make it legit. Many old school Fat fans, me included, would love to see this happen.

    Ibis had a similar story, old school goodness goes belly up after being sold, then reincarnated a few years later. Scot Nicol still very involved to keep it real. Yeah, the old school steel replaced by off-shore carbon, welcome to the new world. Ibis still makes some damn cool bikes though. I keep two Ibis bikes in rotation to straddle old and new – ’97 Hakkalugi and ’07 Silk Carbon. Both are fantastic in their own right.

    So I guess the key is keeping some kind of legit tie from the old brand to the new one. Just purchasing the name and applying a decal to a generic frame usually won’t fly.

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