If no one else out there does, I’ll come out and say it point blank – without Taiwan, there is no bike industry. Everyone who makes more than a few hundred bikes a year (ie. everyone but custom builders) sources though Taiwan, it’s that simple. There are exceptions but they are exactly that, exceptions. Hell, even DT Swiss is now making all but their most expensive products in Taiwan (or Poland!). To highlight this, one factory we are now working with makes bikes for Bianchi, Cervelo and Colnago to name a few, so you get the idea. Anyone out there who turns their nose up at ‘made in Taiwan’, is living in a fantasy land and the bike you are riding is in all reality probably made by one of the handful of ‘factories’ that make bikes for everyone else.
So the total need as designer and product manager for a mtb company, to head to Taipei for what is one of the world’s largest industry shows and hit it up from a ‘we need to build bikes’ perspective, meant that the trip not only promised to be busy, but also rather interesting. What I was not prepared for was, how should I say this….. how much the industry seems to have peaked.
I’m pretty sure they were serious…
I had grand plans to do a photolog of all the cool shit I was going to see but instead I took two pics.* I saw a lot of stuff, two and a half massive floors of it in fact. Of those two and a half floors, I and others I spoke with felt you could easily bin 50% of it as it was made up of replications of the same thing (ie. same item, different colour, different name), blatant copies or just plain junk. Of the remaining 50%, I think there was some really nice stuff and maybe 1% of which made you think, ‘damn, that’s cool’. It was this that made me come away thinking that the industry has matured to the point that the achievements we are going to see from this point on will be either in the form of really well designed ’solutions’ or really well engineered ones; the days of knock your socks off leaps and bounds are gone, as the technology that drives bikes seems to have finally hit the plateau.
So what did I see?
Well, overwhelmingly product design has entered the bike world in a serious way and there were many really well considered designs on the floor, both in the form of bikes and components. Frame wise, the little details are where it seemed to be at combined with carbon and hydroformed frames, technologies that allow designers to ’sculpt frames’ much like they do cars and as a result, there were a lot of really nice looking bikes. I have no apprehension in saying that if a company is not investing in good design, its days are numbered.
Anodised is back (finally) but now included as part of the finishing kit as more than one company is using custom anodised hardware with laser logo etching – Lampierre had really nice custom cable guides that hold full length housings in a considered manner. The results are that a bike is becoming a complete brand package, such as a car, and self branded parts are almost a normality, which seems to be causing a lot of discussion.
We are all used to the likes of say Trek (and it’s million sub brands) and Specialized including a plethora of self branded parts on their bikes but this is no longer the domain of the big boys. With so many companies in Taiwan producing everything from pedals to seat collar clamps, sourcing something and slapping your name on it is a cheap no brainer. Where it falls down is when the parts sourced are not to the same quality as the bike to which they are fitted, which sadly is often the case. We saw more than one bike where a massive effort was placed into the overall design package but the ’self branded’ parts, beyond their anodised finish and laser etched logo, were just cheap and somewhat nasty. The net result was that the parts pulled the bike as a whole down. Funnily enough, the quiet talk seems to be revolving around the actual value of putting your name on a part, when, if you have gone to a good supplier, the component’s brand actually adds more value to your package than you turning it into a ‘no name’ component by putting your brand on it.
Maxxis does shoes and very orange they are.
Component wise, Shimano was making noise about its electronic Dura Ace but wasn’t that called Mavic Zap nearly a decade ago? SRAM made lots of noise about everything it did and had an attitude to match. There was though serious apprehension displayed at SRAM when Shimano did not drop their 10spd system as expected and to be honest, I walked away from SRAM feeling they have become the company they once opposed so strongly. Personally I felt their products have gone backwards design wise, relying on basic ‘paint and graphics’ rather than ‘real’ design, while Shimano have shot ahead light-years (I never thought I’d say that) – the big S’ new kit is just so damn nice.
Suspension too has seemingly tapped out. The bike industry can say what it likes but the truth is there’s no where really left to go with it unless someone figures out a totally new way to make it work; and no, Cannondale’s electric valving is not a contender and there’s a good reason for that – the idea of putting such a system in the average punter’s hands and expecting them to keep it working for more than a month seems a bit far fetched. Again, like everything else, the design and details are becoming more refined but the tech has slowed right down.
So what really stood out to me in 5 days of show?
FSA. Material combinations such as carbon and aluminium (in a new and unique way) to achieve strength, weight, looks and best of all cost savings was really clever. The 2011 offering from them is looking really great and represent a nice progression to an already good line.
DT Swiss…. just because they make such nice wheels… and know it.
TW based Aerozine, who’s cranks are to die for being beautifully engineered and look good too. Unfortunately they have missed the whole marketing thing and have not handled distribution very well, which has soiled their image somewhat. Believe me though, their cranks are industry leaders.
Gates’ Carbon Drive belt drive system. I will say that this is the way of the future – internally geared bikes with belt drive. Judging by the uptake, the future is not too far away. Enough said.
FSA’s ‘Metropolis’ internally geared cranks. Sure SRAM makes a big deal of their Hammerschmidt system, but at the price they are asking I feel it’s going to remain the domain of ‘true believers’ only. The FSA offering, while aimed squarely at the city market (for now), is simpler, better looking and a fraction of the price. Watch them in a year or so, I feel they will do more than they want to let on with the system.
The Ashima PCB brake system really knocked me over. Pistonless brakes so simple in design, thus maintenance, yet so bloody powerful and progressive, you came away thinking “why did it take so long?” (this needs to happen in the suspension area for it to move out of it’s current funk). Not only that, add that each and every brake is tested and serial numbered to ensure quality and performance, and they have by far one of the best engineered and produced disc brakes on the market. Judging by their rush to put together OEM pricing, something Ashima had not anticipated nor intended, a lot of other companies also thought the same thing. Can’t wait to test them on the bike.
So in five days, that was it. We missed some things we wanted to see, not through lack of trying, it’s just that I am sure they had the magical moving booths (ie. we saw them on passing and could never find them again). We saw lots, and lots of carbon and we achieved what we set out to do – specify builds for late 2010 and early 2011 and sort out our factories. Overall though, it’s was lots of bikes most of which was more becoming more and more refined (and sometime totally absurd) rather than revolutionary.
On to Interbike….
*Disclaimer: There was a bunch of stuff people might have found interesting, just to find interesting, such as the huge variety of folding bikes etc. but I was interested in finding products that pertained to mountain biking only. I am sure there is more than enough stuff on the web that will cover off the plethora of stuff on display.