The bike industry has endured a tough decade. Shops have closed in record numbers. Profits are down, and depending on to whom you speak, the average sale price of a bike is down as well. Still, good bike companies are making their way. There always seems to be room for quality.
However, the specter of tariffs on goods coming from China have rattled what is an already easily rattled market. It’s not hard to fathom how anyone would look at the prospect of a 25 percent tariff and think, “Oh, great! Just what we need.”
To my eye, the bike industry is less the victim than collateral damage. As more and more wealth gets concentrated in fewer and fewer people, there is simply less money moving through the economy, and like a river, to stay healthy, it needs to keep moving. The victims here are American workers who haven’t seen the bulk of the gains the economy has made since our last recession.
But that’s just a theme, not a verdict. People save up or sell old bikes to be able to buy new ones. It’s not like the entire bike industry has shut down.
Yesterday, though, Bicycle Retailer and Industry News published a piece that revealed how Huffy’s CEO Bill Smith plans to tell the U.S. Trade Representive and other members of the Section 301 Committee that tariffs should have happened long ago. In a statement filed with the USTR, Smith said, “The assumption the proposed 25 percent tariff provides competitive relief to a domestic industry is 20 years too late.”
Oh, I needed a good laugh.
Seriously, Chinese bikes aren’t why Huffy needs help selling their bikes. Their bikes are an antidote to cycling itself. Faced with riding a Huffy and taking up another sport … I wonder if I still have inline skates in my garage?
Huffy lost the race to the bottom more than 20 years ago. They actually lost that race sometime in the 1970s, by my reckoning. So Smith is wrong on that point. Huffy dug their own grave when they commissioned a study back in the 1990s that revealed how most of the bikes they make are ridden less than 100 miles during the entire life of the bike.
If that’s the sort of bell curve you aim for, you’re going to make a crap product. What Huffy appears not to have done is to ask themselves, ‘What can we do to inspire the purchasers of our bicycles to ride more?’ That question could have resulted in a different sort of product, one that might have encouraged people to ride more regularly.
Hell, in my days in retail I always told people to buy the best bike they could appreciate. That is, to buy the bike that wowed them. If in moving from the 105-equipped bike to the Ultegra-equipped one they didn’t notice a difference, then stick with 105. But if they noticed the difference in a test ride, that was the bike to buy for the simple reason that the more they enjoyed the bike, the more they’d dream about going for a ride after work and the more they’d ride, and as every cyclist knows, the more you ride, the more you enjoy it. I never once had someone come back to complain that I sold them too much bike; I did, however, have plenty of people come back and thank me for encouraging them to go with the better quality bike.
Smith’s comments are emblematic of the result of so many American companies making cost-cutting as a means to boost profit their biggest priority. If the only way to make a Huffy competitive is to tax Chinese imports 25 percent, maybe the product was never all that competitive.
Of course, it’s unlikely Smith would ever appreciate such a perspective.
The real rebuttal, the unimpeachable raspberry in the wind, is illustrated by companies like Seven Cycles, Co-Motion and Moots. And it is reinforced by carbon fiber manufacturing from Allied Cycle Works and now Ibis, who recently began making the size small Ripley LS in Santa Cruz. Think about that: a carbon fiber bike being made in one of the more expensive places on earth. And that’s the team behind the Ripley LS small in the image up above. The guy on the left is Preston Sandusky who was one of the founders of Kestrel, some 30 years ago. There’s really no substitute for expertise.
Manufacturing can happen in the U.S., and it is likely only to get better, no thanks to Huffy.
Images courtesy Ibis Cycles.
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