Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Why the reluctance?

Disclaimer: I run TwentyNineInches.com and have very strong feelings on the superiority of 29 inch wheeled mountain bikes.

What is it about the bike industry that keeps people stuck in their ways?

One of the biggest movements right now in the mtb world is the 29 inch wheeled mountain bike (actually 700cc, but who's counting?). For those of you that don't know, historically mountain bikes come equipped with 26 inch wheels. What's funny is the size of 26 inches was chosen out of convenience... not usability.

In the past few years people finally began questioning why we run cross country mountain bikes on small wheels. Big wheels are faster, roll over stuff easier, more comfortable for adult sized people... seems logical.

A lot of independent builders started jumping to 29ers and then Gary Fisher became the first to make production bikes running 29 inches. And currently they are still the only major manufacturer, other then Kona, that makes them.

Now let's look at the market:

MTBR.com runs a huge mountain bike forum that, I would guess, takes at least 60% of the market in online mtb forums. The third most popular forum on the site, only under two general forums, is the 29er forum.

Also, according to my sources at Gary Fisher, and not exactly a secret anyway, they can't keep the 29 inch wheeled bikes in stock. Everything is back ordered and being sold out before it even hits the showroom floors.

So people are constantly talking about them AND buying them... yet the industry still treats them like an annoying bastard child. The users and riders... the ones that spend the money keep asking for them and nada. I continually hear arguments out of different companies arguing why they aren't as good or it's just a fad...

This makes no sense to me. In any other industry companies would be tripping over each other trying to get involved in a niche that was making mad money, yet in the bike industry people drag their feet and have to be forced into markets that are turning a profit.

I always hear people complaining that it's hard to make money in the bike industry. Maybe cause you let your passion and preconceived notions get in the way of your business sense.

Posted by Tim Grahl at 7:15 AM


  1. Anonymous Anonymous posted at 9:53 AM  
    Perhaps the biggest reason more companies aren't jumping on board with 29ers is production costs.

    The industry is tooled up for 26" wheels, frames, forks, etc...and there's a big reluctance to suddenly invest in new production equipment to handle this new size.

    But I agree, it will cost them more in the long run if they don't cater to this niche in time.

    I get this feeling that many companies letting the innovators like Fisher be the guinea pigs. Once the market is more mature and the dollar signs are obvious, others will jump in.

    But still, in the end there's a big difference between a hot niche that's getting a lot of forum traffic, and a viable market that companies can justify risking huge production expenses on.
  2. Anonymous Anonymous posted at 11:14 AM  
    My guess is that it's because the mtb market is in the tank. Road bikes are where it's at right now.
  3. Blogger Yokota Fritz posted at 1:21 PM  
    Just because people talk about something on an online forum doesn't mean that's where they're spending their money. There's a lot of difference between cyberspace and meatworld.

    I think there's just as much reluctance to change among consumers as there is among builders -- perhaps more so.

    Lennard Zinn talks about 29ers at his site.
  4. Blogger MG posted at 7:12 AM  
    i have to agree with you on that one tim. i only recently 'discovered' the benefits of larger wheels, especially for my 6'1" frame.

    there are a lot of small framebuilders on the fringes of the sport that are staying alive because specialized, trek and other major players have shied away from the 'niner market, and personally i think that's a good think. guys like matt chester, rick hunter, wes williams and others have achieved cult hero status because they've figured out how to make 29-inch mountain bikes that maximize the benefits of the big wheels with subtle tweaks to frame geometry and sizing/fit.

    ironically, it was a similar 'head in the sand' attitude that helped perpetuate schwinn's downfall in the 80s, and eventual bankruptcy in 1993 (perhaps '92 - memory is foggy).

    here in eastern nebraska, i would estimate that we're approaching a 50/50 split among 29- and 26-inch wheels on virtually any off-road group ride (unless we're riding freeride bikes that day, of course). if specialized doesn't want a piece of that action, that's fine by me.

    i'm sure our proliferation of 'niners is just a geographic thing... (lol) yeah right!

    matt gersib
  5. Blogger Tim Grahl posted at 10:11 AM  
    while I do agree there is a difference between forum chatter and actual buying patterns... there has definitely got to be a correspondance.

    The mtbr.com forums aren't just a small sampling of the mountain bike community. It is a huge percentage of them and a whole lot of them are talking about 29ers. Logically... that is going to transfer to money being spent in the market.

    Also, that wasn't my only argument. You combine that with the fact that 29er Fishers are flying off the shelves and I believe that builds a strong case for others getting involved.

    I think a lot of it defaults back to being in an industry where people are passionate about what they do.

    While this is a good thing in a lot of cases, it causes people to be set in their ways and make business decisions based on what they like and not on what the market is calling for.

    Also, to clarify, I don't think this is wrong or stupid. People are obviously free to make whatever business decisions they see fit.

    It's just bothersome when you hear people complain about how hard it is to make money in the industry and how the big, wicked companies like Trek/Fisher are making all the money when they are the ones willing to take the risk.
  6. Blogger MG posted at 1:32 PM  
    well put tim.

    i know of one pretty darn hip bike company up in the pac. northwest had a hard time pulling the trigger on their 'niner frameset because, for the type of conditions they most frequently ride, they mostly prefer small wheels. for them it was a pretty big leap of faith.

    they had the nutz to do it though, and today they can't keep the framesets in-stock.
  7. Anonymous Anonymous posted at 4:35 PM  
    Nice blog. Just a few notes that may be of interest to those interested in learning who the true Guinea pigs were:

    Dirt Rag published an interesting article on 29ers over five years ago:

    And a 29er bike review in the same issue:

    Sorry, don't know how to insert the hyperlink into your blog, so you'll have to cut and paste.
  8. Anonymous Anonymous posted at 9:38 AM  
    Aren't people in the car bizz passionate about cars? Recently on Discovery I saw a program on BMW and how they developped their new sports car. Clearly they were using all the current knowledge in the complete market to make the car as good as they possibly could, within the budget.

    It saddens me that in the bicycle industry, it's NOT about making the best bike. It's about giving your customers the idea that you've come up with something completely new, and your old bike is basically rubbish now.

    So in '99, 29" hits the market. $50 buys you a pair of tire to lab test with, another $50 buys you the identical WTB tires in 26" for comparison. Press was writing about this intriguing new standard. But who was actually testing it? One very un-cool German brand (Nishiki, of better Asian heritage), and a Mr. Gary Fisher. Gary had multiple prototypes done, and showed up to countless events on them. Now Gary has a thing for seeing new market potential. He hads made bald statements on how the MTB would change the cycling market, and no-one believed him. Now the same guy can't be bothered to ride 26" anymore (and a former UCI Masters XC World Champion too). So you'd think the big brands would take notice. And they didn't. Too passionate about what they're doing themselves, or just not real innovators anyway?

    In a changing market, and this undeniably is one, money can be made by not being the last to make the change.
    Maybe behind the scenes more is going on than we realize. Perhaps specilized is just adding some carbon models, but keeping all AL stuf identical, to not invest in unnecessary 26" tooling anymore.

    It's seen with most small brands already, once they start offering a 29" model, sales go up. A very modest FS builder can all at once become a busy man. A small fork maker can survive and go forward in a hostile market.

    It's no rocket science. A bunch of welded tubes, and parts stuck to it. Bike brands get to be original for the welded tubes part, the rest is done for them.


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