Monday, November 3, 2008

Wine, cheese, and bearing grease.

Cycling is on the rise. To hear about greying locals talk about the sport twenty, thirty, or forty years ago, it was a blue-collar sport. Al Toefield was a cop who managed Olympic Teams, got the Kissena Velodrome built, and founded the Kissena Cycle Club; David Walker was a cop too, working in community relations, who started one of New York City's biggest and most enduring races, the Harlem Skyscraper Classic Criterium. Pete Senia, it seems, organized most of the races in the 70s and 80s that laid the foundation for the cycling scene. I hear stories of these men driving vans full of young, aspiring racers - just kids - to the races in the pre-dawn hours of the morning. The scene consisted of a lot of dedicated, working-class men, a lot of immigrants. Circling Prospect Park on a Saturday afternoon, there are still groups of older Caribean men, and mustachioed Latino men, riding bikes from the 70s and 80s - Nuovo Record, downtube shifters - wearing faded colors, muted kits from bygone days.

The working-class flair that local bicycle racing had matches the technology from the time - when you're talking about a lugged steel bike with 32-spoked wheels and downtube shifters, there's really not a huge technological gap between entry level and high-end (leaving out, of course, the 1970s era Bike Boom's drive to create cheaper and cheaper frames and components). Sure, there were ways to ramp up the cost of a bike - get the frame custom made, rely on Cinelli and Campagnolo parts - but at the end of the day, the manufacturing process and the final product between basic and bling were going to look a lot alike.

These days, the price-to-quality graph looks a lot more exponential - the higher you climb, the faster the prices increase, and the less you get for these increases. Campagnolo's new Super Record 11 groupset - cranks, cogs, front and rear derailleurs, brake/shifter levers, and brakes - cost upwards of $2,000, while last year's midlevel groupset, Veloce, sells for around $600. One can get a great frameset for well under a thousand dollars - indeed, just several hundred if you're looking for somethins used - but high-end, specialty carbon fiber framesets can readily run to several thousand dollars, even climbing over the $10,000 mark. The higher up on the scale you go, you pay more and more for smaller and smaller improvements in performance, quality, or manufacturing - a rapidly declining value system.

Ironically, the growing popularity of cycling is turning it into a more exclusive sport. Case in point - I was recently at an event featuring one of the world's greatest cyclists. As the event's attendants inconspicuously crowded around and waited for a pin-sized gap in the conversation so that they could speak to (to, not with) a consistent high finisher in the Paris-Roubaix, the conversation somehow turned to high finance, and almost everybody in this circle - barring myself, a journalist, and Big George Hincapie - chimed in. Not just everybody bearing an opinion about the collapse and the bailout - instead, it seemed that everybody present was in the industry. "Oh, so you must know so-and-so at Big Firm, then." These are the consumers in the new cycling industry, an industry of "it goes to eleven," of this year's model, of custom carbon fiber, of powermeters and high-end aero wheels for the casual racer.

Threads on the internet asking when you know your frame is obsolete. Though people know that while the industry churns out "improvements" each year, the bike that you bought two, four, or ten years ago is still just going to rely on the juice that's in your legs - and yet, the industry plows on and people buy the bikes with the newest graphics. Friends, it's an economy of wine, cheese, and bearing grease, but unlike wine and cheese, I fully plan to turn this to our advantage by looking at the resale markets of so-called "obsolete" components.


  1. I told you... we need to put together a classic-road-bike classic for the spring. Downtubes only?


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