Tuesday, November 26, 2013

On Trickle-Down Technologies And Canaries In The Coal Mine

As a self-proclaimed Luddite, I set myself up to be ignored. A lot. "Oh, there goes Old Man Nunemaker again, blathering on about how back in the day, they only had 6-speed freewheels and thumbshifters and rigid forks. Somebody distract him with an episode of Matlock to shut him up."

And yes, I am guilty of wearing my sunglasses with the rose-colored lens of nostalgia. It's one of the hazards of being human. I forget that the motor powering the bike was a lot younger and a lot stronger back in the day, so maybe it wasn't the equipment of the late 80s and early 90s that made the riding so much fun.

Still, as the big players continue to escalate the arms race of more cogs crammed into a cassette, electronic controls, carbon everything, and disc-brake-only frames, I worry that the trickle-down "ride the same stuff as the pros!" mentality is going to leave the Luddites in the lurch. For those of us who don't  want to ride the same stuff as the pros, what choices will we have?

The N=N+1 race in rear cogs has been going on so long that I've learned to live with it. Plus, the big players have (for the most part) continued to support the "outdated" standards. I don't like 5- or 6-speed freewheels, but if I did, I could get them. 7- or 8-speed cassettes? Sure. Chains? No problem. But unfortunately, as the old standards become the stuff of department store junk, the shifters that go with them go as well. Want a really well made 7-speed shifter? Better hope somebody has new-old stock on eBay, because current production is probably made for a bicycle-shaped object from one of the dash-mart (K- or Wal-) stores.

What really gets my chamois in a twist, though, is the way electronic shifting and disc brakes may change the way frames are made as they trickle their way down from "pro-level" to "everybody else." Take discs. First, you have to add the caliper mounts. Ugly, sure, but tolerable. And maybe manufacturers will keep making frames with the option to mount other brake styles (though I kinda doubt it, since it would cost more). But having those disc caliper mounts means you also need to beef up your stays and forks to handle the load of a disc brake, which changes the way the bike feels, discs or no discs. As an admitted princess-and-the-pea rider, it's a tradeoff I'd rather not live with.

Electronic shifting could have the same impact. Lots of new (and high-end, admittedly) frames are now coming "optimized" for electronics: No cable stops or guides, just entry and exit ports for a little wire. Now, I don't know if electronics will ever get cheap enough to trickle down... but if they do, and if "electronic-specific" frames become the rule, what's left for those of us who don't want to rely on a battery to run our drivetrains?

Admittedly, the picture isn't quite as bleak as I make it out to be. Between the interweb as a seemingly bottomless source of old and obscure parts and the increasing niche-ification of the sport cranking out kit to support all sorts of weirdos, I'm guessing the Luddites will do just fine. And even if the big boys stop making the frames we want, there are plenty of  small companies looking for unique markets, not to mention custom framebuilders more than happy to turn an idea into metal.

Now, if you'll excuse me, there are some darn kids on my lawn, and Matlock is about to start...


Steve Fuller said...

You hit the nail on the head there. Some framebuilder out there will always be willing to build whatever frame you want.

John Romeo Alpha said...

Fellow luddite! Based on a linear cog growth of one additional every seven or eight years, I project 13 by the year 2030. Since an 11-27 rear cog with current derailleurs is already with us, if nothing else changes in the marketing mind of the mega bicycle conglomerates, 16 rear cogs is not out of the realm of possibility eventually. Fortunately, there are still Silver Shifters, some Diacomp levers, and even the Shimano SL-TX30 Tourneys around when something in the six or seven speed setup wears out.