I’ve never designed a bike from the ground up, but I’ve been lucky to work with a few people who have and being around them and understanding the real-world challenges they face has been a real eye-opener for me as a person who loves bikes and always wants them to be better than they are. I don’t mean that last bit in a negative way, but there is a disconnect between what I think some bikes should be and what they are. A lot of the time, that discrepancy is explained by the real-world design constraints, mostly having to do with target price-points and average end-consumer.
It’s tempting to dive into a high-end road bike for the thought experiment, but that’s easier because there are fewer constraints at higher price points. I tend to think about the dreaded fitness hybrid, which might be the top selling category in the US market. It’s the bike you buy if you don’t like bikes…no…that’s not fair. It’s the bike you buy if you don’t think riding bikes is worth investing in…no…stop it. It’s the bike you buy if you forgot what it was like to be a kid…see…I can’t stop.
No other category bothers me as much as this one, because the bikes are SO NOT COOL. Let me reframe that. It is cool that there are relatively low price bikes with ample gearing and comfortable geometries for people to buy and ride. I own a couple of these that I bought for my boys to ride back and forth to school. In smaller sizes, many of the design issues with these bikes are less apparent.
None of this is fair. The product managers for these categories have a terribly small palette of parts with which to accommodate riders of wildly varying physiognomies. You get these dramatic stem rise angles and goofy bar rises. It hurts my eyes, but what are they supposed to do.
The perception persists that bikes cost too much, that you should be able to produce a long-lasting, smooth-functioning bike with wide gearing and reasonable comfort for less than $500. Given what materials cost and what a company spends to bring containers across the ocean from Asia, and then recalling that both the supplier and retailer have to make some margin, AND most consumers expect to pay 10% below MSRP for everything, there’s not much room in that $500. The product manager can really only use one stem (as in one length and rise) for a whole size run of bikes.
Let’s not even look at the terrifying challenge of producing a price point, full-suspension mountain bike.
This week’s Group Ride asks, if you were a bike industry product manager, what category would you like to create bikes for, how would you change what’s on the market now, and how would you achieve that change? As with all the best tricks, it’s easier in your imagination, than in reality.
Image: Benjamin G. Bowden (American, born England 1907-1998). Spacelander Bicycle, Prototype designed 1946; Manufactured 1960. Fiberglass, metal, glass, rubber, fox fur, 44 x 77 x 32 in. (111.8 x 195.6 x 81.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Marie Bernice Bitzer Fund, 2001.36. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2001.36_SL1.jpg)