Mountain bikes are expensive. We could argue all day about whether a $5,000 mountain bike gives you more enjoyment for your money than a motocross bike, an all-leather sex swing or a full-blown crack habit. At the end of the day, none of our bikes are logical purchases, they are complex, personal equations of available money, emotional attachments and downright stupidity.
When I was sixteen I worked Saturdays in the local bike shop for £12 a day (roughly $15 at current exchange rates). At that time things like minimum wage laws were strange things that happened to other people in far-off countries. Looking back, it worked out to earning about £1.50 an hour and the rancid stench of the cheap, plastic coffee machine I cleaned at the end of each day still haunts my nostrils. What I remember more clearly is what the job gave me: The owner let me make a trade order. Back then, this was the greatest thing in the world, me and my friends had heard of older kids ordering parts at "trade", but this was the first time one of us had access to this mythical luxury.
The morning I went to the shop to place my order remains clear in my mind. Stopping at the bank machine, I took out more money than I had ever seen in my life, certainly more than I had ever spent on a single item (about £200). Carefully carrying the money in my back pocket, scared in case something happened to me with such a fortune on me, I nervously crossed the town centre to the shop. The owner opened the suppliers' catalogue, scrawled a reference in his order book with a dog-earred pencil and took my money.
One of the few surviving photos of me riding my pride and joy. Bonus points are on offer if you can name all the questionable products here in this photo.
Several, agonising weeks of waiting later it arrived: A black, Azonic DS-1 frame. It was one of the greatest days of my youth and was without question my proudest possession, staying with me the best part of a decade before fears about aluminium fatigue finally retired it from service. I loved that bike. Hours and hours were spent searching the adverts at the back of the magazines (online shopping didn't exist then), trying to find good parts at a price I could afford. When birthdays and Christmas came around all I ever wanted was another upgrade for it; a fork, brakes, new handlebars. In the first few years of owning it there's a good chance I spent nearly as much time trying to find upgrades I could afford as I did riding it. Some evenings we would huddle round the catalogue from a local bike shop, daydreaming about what bikes we'd build if we had the money.
My story isn't a special one for anybody but me. Surely everyone who started riding at that kind of age has a similar story? It is part of the coming of age as a mountain biker - struggling to put together the best bike you can with what little you have. Some fifteen years separate me from the nervous teenager ordering my frame and in the intervening years life has changed. Everything became complicated at some point and, like every adult, my time seems to fill with never-ending commitments. I look around at my friends and we are all slightly fatter, slightly sorer and a hell of a lot busier.
Setting aside partners, children, houses or the million other small things that fill an adult life, the biggest single reason we are busy is work. This usually has the benefit of earning you more than £12 a day, even if it doesn't feel like it sometimes. So it should be a surprise to nobody that the majority of people who go out and buy new mountain bikes fall into this kind of bracket. The truth is that it's not teenagers, students or elite racers who keep the mountain bike industry turning, but slightly older people with decent jobs. People who have worked hard to have money to spend, people who maybe don't have time to scour the modern small ads (the internet) for bargains and, most importantly, people who might feel a little bit happier about the world by owning a bike they are excited about
We ran a poll last year asking how readers bought their mountain bikes
- the majority of people who replied said they hunted around online for the best bargain for their new bike. Don't get me wrong, I get it. In fact, virtually everybody working in the mountain bike industry gets it. While Mike Sinyard may not be living on economy beans and pre-flavoured pot noodles (or maybe he is, I've never had the chance to ask him), the truth is that if you want to make money you don't work in the mountain bike industry. Almost without exception, people who work for bike companies, the mountain bike media or anything to do with bikes do it for one, simple reason: they love bikes. And it's no secret that being in a position to buy bikes and gear you would never be able to afford otherwise is one the most-liked perks of working for a bike company. Why else would you take a job that pays a lot less than the equivalent role in a more mainstream industry? Not to get off track, but the point is: the mountain bike industry is filled with people who understand what it's like to struggle to feed your bike habit.
But there is one thing that seems to be overlooked these days, lost in a torrent of angry comments aimed at all kinds of aspects of bike design. Mountain bike companies are just that, companies. They make their bikes for the people who buy them. So, if you're not in that group of people who are buying new bikes at somewhere near the original retail price, you're not who they are making those bikes for. It may sound patronisingly obvious, but on the evidence, many people seem to have forgotten this simple truth.
No matter how you feel about them, bikes like this one are what are selling now
Wheelsize is one of the best examples of this phenomenon. No topic is as sure to produce a barrage of anger from certain quarters than a bicycle with a larger diameter wheel. People proudly proclaim they are "26 4 Life" or that it's a "conspiracy" by the blood-sucking corporate lizards of the bike industry. You are entitled to not want to buy a bicycle with bigger wheels. Your current bicycle's value should be measured in the fun it offers you, and this cannot be diminished by anybody but you. Nothing the bike industry does can change this. But, the reality is that in bike shops, the people who are walking in asking to buy new bicycles are saying, very clearly, that they want bigger wheels.
Speaking to a friend from the UK who runs a small bike shop in an area close to London, one that is synonymous with more affluent, older riders (ie. the ideal market for a bike shop), he was unequivocal about the shift in peoples buying habits. At the start of 2013 he bet against larger wheels, buying in stock of 26" wheeled bikes. He lost that bet. By the end of the summer he found himself having to discount the bikes heavily just to get them out of the shop. His customers wanted 27.5" or 29" bikes. Looking further up at the foodchain at the bike manufacturers, there is no better example of this trend than the 27.5"-wheeled Santa Cruz Bronson. There is no question - it was the right bike at the right time. People wanted a longer-travel trail bike with that wheelsize and Santa Cruz got the jump on the competition, getting their bike to market before the bigger players. Since its launch, they have sold as many of them as they can make.
There will always be more changes, bike design is going to keep evolving. Once everyone has accepted the whole wheelsize change (and in case anybody has not realised: it's s done deal) there will be something else that will surely piss some people off just as much. Whether it's electronic suspension, the death of the front mech or a new trend in geometry, there will be something. Inevitably progress doesn't please everybody. But, this progress has taken us from sketchy converted road bikes to advanced, relatively affordable mountain-eating machines in less than 30 years. Companies that have not only survived, but prospered, have done so by producing bicycles their customers want to buy. If you find yourself looking at new bikes and not liking what you see, then ask yourself, "Am I the person these bikes were made for?" The answer might be that you aren't. And remember, the by-product is that old products that didn't sell are discounted and second hand bikes trickle down the tree, so if you're not lucky enough to be in a position to lay down the money for a new bike, there are ways you can still build yourself a bike and go riding.