– ‘Custom geometry’: A PRO phenomenon that died out right around the same time as hairnets. A shame, really, since in all the impenetrability of PROness perhaps the most subtle is a special rider’s special preference in the handling of his bike. Whether it was Steve Bauer’s late-career revelation about the wonders of a 66° seat angle, or the magic of Tafi’s one-off Paris Roubaix Colnago, who amongst us wouldn’t want an hour on a frame tailored to a PRO’s mad idiosyncrasies?
A while back I did more than just test ride a custom PRO bike -- I went ahead and bought a Pinarello Paris ridden by Kai Hundertmarck of Team Telekom ca. 2001. The Paris was a mainstay of the team in its best days -- think Riis’ Tour win in ’96 and Ullrich’s win in ’97. Unlike the Dogma Carbon ridden by Team Sky & Caisse d’Epargne nowadays -- made in Asian carbon molds that cost a billion dollars per size, thereby making customization an impossibility -- my Paris was made from welded-in-Italy aluminum. Based on how it rode, Kai either plowed it head-on into a guardrail before I bought it, or its custom geometry evinced unfathomable preferences in the steering habits of his bike.
I’ve never ridden a twitchier machine. I couldn’t reach for my bottle for fear of the bar whipping sideways due to its seemingly-90° head angle. The one time I sneezed -- at 8mph uphill -- a crash seemed assured. By comparison even the touchiest track bike had the slow stability of 4WD. It was the very worst bike I’ve ever ridden. After 90 minutes of ride time, it went back on Ebay.
– I did a wicked hot, fast 200km ride last weekend. We broiled in an Arkansas summertime stew of heat-and-humidity and as a means of survival I took a chapter from the Book of Floyd in pouring bottle after bottle of icy cold water on my head. By the time we were done the bodily misery was worst in a most unexpected place: My nipples. The salty sweat + the sheets of water made my bib straps like emery boards. For the next 3 days -- each a short recovery ride, each a horror show of chafing -- I wondered why men’s bibs have never once been offered like women’s. I’d try them at least once -- wouldn’t you?
– Speaking of clothes, we booked our Rapha winter order last week even though we kept tripping up on one detail: Their bib tights are made in just one way -- with no chamois. Which means, of course, you need to wear bib shorts beneath them. Why the lack of a chamois? Does anyone prefer to layer up like this? No-chamois bib tights seem about as useful as no-chamois bib shorts. Am I missing something?
– Once upon a time Keith Bontrager made some darn nice True Temper steel hardtail frames. When Trek acquired his company/name/likeness in the early-90’s it topped off their bike brand stable: Trek, Lemond, Klein, Bontrager, and Gary Fisher. Five different brands for five different niches. Five different budgets to manage and five different images to cultivate. Five different marketing programs to execute, and five different ways of looking at your dealers.
Bontrager soon lost any association with framemaking. Instead it became (and continues to be) Trek’s house brand for non-drivetrain components: It’s their C+ riposte to Zipp wheels, and one of two-dozen indistinguishably uninspired bar/post/stem outfits. In its disconnection to what the brand once was (and, perhaps, what it was originally acquired for), it’s not too far removed from where Klein and Lemond are now (DOA) and where -- based on last week’s surprising announcement -- Gary Fisher is heading post-haste.
Trek’s decision to smother the Fisher brand effective 2011 makes good sense. Fisher is known for little other than mid-to-high end 29ers and in their excellence there they’ve proven one-dimensional and ultimately unsuccessful in other market segments. The utter inauthenticity of their recent road bike intro was either painful or comic (based on your perspective). And in the sub-mid-end market -- a torrential Trek profit center -- Fisher had no traction. The 29er craze is a uniquely American fetish. By and large Europe won’t bite, and given that the majority of Trek’s revenue comes via export to foreign markets, it marginalized Fisher that much more.
We applaud Trek for doing the right thing. Maintaining multiple brands is expensive and it’s operationally complex. Did the existence of Fisher make the Trek footprint any bigger than it would’ve been otherwise? Is there a sizeable Fisher dealer in America that isn’t a big Trek dealer too? Competing against yourself is senseless. And in the case of Trek -- a company that paid real money to purchase 3 nice MTB brands in Bontrager, Klein, and Fisher -- they never achieved what, presumably, they set out to do through their acquisition strategy: Gain widespread respect & desirability in the MTB marketplace. The best point of comparison is Specialized, who did one straightforward acquisition (buy the IP for the Horst Linkage ), and then channeled all of their marketing might into one brand (Specialized). Whether you base it on marketshare or mindshare, Specialized lords over MTB with unquestioned dominance, proof that the ‘suite of brands’ strategy is a loser -- whether you’re talking about Wisconsin & bikes, or Michigan & cars. For all of us with the money & the susceptibility for acquisition, let’s consider ourselves warned.
In its unwinding of Fisher, Trek seems to be taking a page out of the Specialized playbook. They’re trying to create brand alignment with solid technology (in this case, 29′ wheels), and they’re preparing to pour all of their marketing dollars into one monolithic brand. It’s just a shame they had to buy, build, then bury four brands to get there.