Would you purchase a mountain bike based upon its performance only - if it wasn't outfitted top to bottom with name-brand components? Today, that answer would probably be "no," because the business model for the bicycle industry is completely dependent upon a name-brand supply chain that may be driving the cost of performance-level mountain bikes through the roof. Performance-level mountain bikes from the major brands are like supermodels - well recognized, sexy frames that, to a large degree, showcase expensive 'clothing' made by component suppliers like SRAM, Shimano, Fox, Renthal, Cane Creek, Mavic, and Enve. Bike brands have designers and engineers on board whose primary roles are to oversee that their frames are constructed properly in Asia and to ensure that they will interface with the latest and greatest suspension, brakes and drivetrain components, so their product managers will be unconstrained when they go on their annual shopping sprees to outfit them into complete bicycles.
By contrast, the automotive business model emphasizes name brand components to a much smaller degree. For example, should brand X suspension maker dazzle enthusiasts with a pricey new fork that features a composite air spring and 32 clicks of compression damping, Honda won't rush to outfit its 450 with the brand X fork. Instead, it would work with its existing fork supplier to add 33 clicks of compression damping and either develop or license a composite air spring to remain competitive. It should come as no surprise that your money goes much further when you purchase a car or a motorcycle. Consider the massive amount of technology that goes into a Honda CRF450r motocross racing bike compared to what it takes to build a Specialized FSR S-Works Enduro with a similar MSRP and you may begin to question the effectiveness of how bicycle makers do business.
Honda manufactures major components, like the CRF450r's engine and chassis and assembles it in-house, but similar to bicycle makers, Honda also out-sources a significant number of its components - like electronics, forks, shocks, body-work, radiators, cockpit items and brakes. But that is where the similarity ends. The automotive industry is much more closely linked with their component makers and their designers work together to integrate parts to fit specific models. There is no expectation beyond tires, spark plugs and electric fuses that parts made for Brand A will fit anything on Brand B - and customers are OK with that, as long as they are assured that spares and service will be readily available.
Honda either owns its key suppliers, or it owns a significant share in their businesses, which ensures a degree of cooperation and product integration that is beyond the comprehension of the cycling industry. As a result, Honda's engineers are free to solve problems and innovate without being constrained by artificial standards imposed by component suppliers simply to make one part fit everyone's product. If they need to change the bolt circle of a brake rotor, or widen the rear hub, they don't have to argue with a drivetrain maker or seek media approval to make the improvement.
If Honda wants a seven-speed transmission, its gear supplier isn't going to refuse because someone over there thinks a six speed is a better idea. But, Shimano had no problem blowing off the entire industry when bike makers begged them for a one-by-ten drivetrain. If Trek owned 30 percent of Shimano, you could bet your ass that Remedies would be sporting Shimano one-by drivetrains with narrow wide chainrings. As it stands, Trek had to pony up for SRAM drivetrains. It could be argued that integrated supply chains and the lack of strict standards for interchangeability of components between brands are the engines that power the motorcycle industry's stratospheric technological evolution. It could also be argued that imposing such standards may have had the opposite effect upon the evolution of the mountain bike.
The bottom line is that both motocross and mountain bike customers are interested in purchasing performance. The motorcycle buyer has learned to trust the likes of Honda to assemble a complete package that will deliver the performance they want. Mountain bike makers, however, have failed to earn that trust, so they prop up their credibility with brand name components in an effort to assure their customers that their products will perform well. For example: when the RockShox Pike fork and Cane Creek DB Air shock arrived on the scene, bike makers didn’t run back to their existing suspension suppliers and co-develop forks and shocks which could compete with the performance of the new leaders. Instead, they threw their old suspension suppliers under the bus and showed up at the bar the next evening wearing Pikes and DB Airs. The short term benefit was that their customers got the fork and shock of the moment, but a year earlier, those boys were telling their customers that Fox was the best - another breach of trust, and a lost opportunity to maintain parity in the suspension marketplace and to suppress price increases by bringing their existing suspension suppliers up to a matching level of performance.
The up-side of our reliance on name brand components and universal standards is that they have become an insurance policy which ensures wary buyers who have been burned by lame product specs and fads fanned by media hype, that they could replace their OEM components or even the frame, with a better-performing product in a pinch. The cost of that insurance policy is hidden in the inflated MSRPs of enthusiast-level mountain bikes. We pay huge premiums for elite-level branded products so we don't have to second guess whether the bike maker has done a good job on a non-branded alternative. We forego potential improvements to the frame and suspension because we would rather have the option to return to older, tried and true components.
As long as bike makers continue to follow the present business model, our reliance on name brands and component interchangeability may be as well founded as it is embarrassing. Honda has proven to its customers that they don't need to hedge, and its ability to sell a competitive motocross racer for the same money as a 160-millimeter-travel enduro bicycle could be perceived as a slap in the face and, at the same time, a GPS map showing an alternative route that the bicycle makers could take if they wanted to do a much better job of managing the costs and delivering on the performance of their elite and enthusiast-level mountain bikes. I've heard both sides of the story and I believe that using a strategy similar to the motorcycle industry, bike makers could drop the MSRP of their elite-level bikes by 30 percent without significantly eroding their performance or their profitability. They may not look as sexy, but you can't see the bike while you are riding it anyway. The real questions is: Would we trust them if they did?