22 July 2008

Specialized gets all Cannondale

What on earth is going on over at Specialized? An owner of a couple of their bikes over the years, I liked the handling, suspension (on my second generation Enduro), and decent value offered by the company. After dabbling in proprietary rear shocks (and tweaked/rebadged front shocks in the early '90s) and a rough debut year for their dual-crown forks, the company seems to be jumping into the world of proprietary componentry with both feet.

Why?

Sure, we understand that by having more control of the bicycle as a system rather than collection of parts they can (in theory) create a lighter/stronger/more harmonious product. Bicycles are unusual in that respect. It's not common or easy to swap major automobile or motorcycle components between various manufacturers. Sure, consumables (tires, windshield wipers) are largely standardized, but you don't (often) see folks putting Honda suspension on their Chevrolets. From the bicycle industry's and customer's standpoint this is both a blessing and a curse. Few companies have the resources to design and manufacture the entire bicycle- from frame to handlebars to saddle to grips. As a result, component suppliers specialize in one or a few parts and do them well. This also means that there is competition and market-driven development between those companies. If Manitou has a bad year, folks are free to go to Fox. If you snap a pair of Easton handlebars, you may feel better giving Syntace a shot. If your local Trek dealer is an ass, the Giant shop down the street can still work on your bike. In a small-ish industry, this sort of arrangement makes a lot of sense. If an idea is a good one, it is often standardized and is eventually adopted by multiple suppliers. Post-mount disc brakes, ISIS bottom brackets and threadless headsets are all very good examples of this kind of evolution. While not all new standards succeed (the e-type dérailleur, for example), the better ones tend to do alright.

So, now Specialized, in addition to a wide range of house-brand components (bars, saddles, Roval wheels, etc) is producing their own suspension forks and cranks which (at the moment) won't fit anyone else's frames. What makes them special? The forks use a steerer tube that tapers from 1.5in at the fork crown to the more standard 1.125in at the top race. This makes a lot of sense from a strength and materials standpoint (carbon fiber, in particular likes this kind of gradual transition from the meaty crown to the steerer tube). The cranks are similar to the emerging BB30 standard but feature wider spacing. Their frames make use of 'special' Shimano front dérailleurs that look suspiciously like E-types minus their mounting plates (BB-mount front dérailleurs won't work with their new cranks standard). Again, this makes sense from functional, packaging and structural standpoints, but at the expense of interchangeability.

While Specialized's stated arguments make sense, I have a feeling that their motivations aren't so clear. Taiwanese manufacturer Merida paid $30m several years back for a "minority stake" (somewhere between 19% and 49%) in the company. Could it be that Merida has developed suspension manufacturing capabilities and Specialized is the logical outlet? Maybe- they do have wheelbuilding capabilities, so there's little doubt where the Roval brand is coming from. The other big reason for Specilaized to do things by and for themselves is to prevent cross-shopping. It's easy to compare bikes with similar componentry and decide if one represents better value than another. When house brand components are perceived as being innovative or of high quality, it's easy for the manufacturer to charge a premium. Who's to say that their forks aren't worth $1,100 and the cranks $500...
That would go a long way toward justifying X7 shifters or $30 Taiwanese hubs on a $3,500 bike.

Open standards do have a chance at success- ISIS BBs, post-type disc mounts, external bearing cranks and 20mm thru-axles are great examples of industry-supported evolution. Shimano and Fox are trying another with their new (open) 15mm thru-axle standard for 2009. Cannondale had themselves painted into a corner for a while, with proprietary components requiring substantial R&D funding and polarizing riders- either you're a Cannondale person or you're not. Over the past few years, though, they've begun to work their way back toward the mainstream. As we all know, especially when it comes to complicated (to design and to manufacture) products such as suspension components, no company is perfect. All have good years and bad. By tying their dealers and consumers to one brand they're tying their sales and their customers' experience to the fortunes of that brand. Will customers be willing to go along? Unless things go horribly wrong for Spez, I imagine that the answer is yes. Is it a good thing for the industry as a whole? My gut says no.

marc

images from www.bikemagic.co.uk and www.bicycling.com.

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