Wednesday, March 12, 2014

From Bike to Band Wagon: Fat Bikes are the width of fashion

As a small shop, the place where I toil is always trying to find a niche product that fits our expertise and cash flow. So I had been monitoring the development of the fat bike market in our area.

We're located in an outer province of what might be called Snow Country. We did a good business in the mountain bike boom and managed to survive without over-extending or humiliating ourselves. Our weekly mountain bike ride was known as moderately hot -- sporty but not ferocious. We did not follow mountain biking down its intensely technical and increasingly expensive path. But I did try to maintain a good relationship with Surly. We saw the Pugsley come onto the scene. It seemed like an amusing piece of overkill for our locale.

As cross-country ski seasons became more and more unreliable we reexamined the fat bike as a tool less dependent on snow cover. But as cross-country ski seasons became more unreliable our budget diminished.

Thank goodness the fat bike has gone from a subculture to a movement. We no longer need to regret missing the niche because the niche has blown open into a fad. You can get a fat bike from Bikes Direct to the Repair for under $700. Specialized has peeled the Fat Boy name off its old BMX bike and slapped it on a production fat bike. Kona's playing. So is Trek. And that's where I quit looking, because I got the gist.

You can even get one from WalMart. It's only a single speed, but it's only $199!

Are fat bikes going to recreate the mountain bike boom? Don't bet on it. But the surge in popularity takes the pressure off the small shop because now we can have one or two of the beasts around without making a scary commitment to six or eight expensive behemoths. We can mix in a model from a vendor we're already showing rather than trying to do right by a small company that can't offer the same kind of terms. The small companies can maintain their exclusivity and stay the right size. This means Surly won't get blown out into a multinational conglomerate and have no use for the Cross Check anymore.

It will be interesting to see whether Big Bicycle will figure out how to bring fat bikes down to the lower price points they would need to offer to create a boom like the 1990s. When mountain bikes first rose they did it on a fairly broad front. Once the genre was accepted it used many conventional dimensions, so the industry had little trouble producing several generations of bikes before the rampant mutation set in. Not so the fat bike. It is a product of that mutation, an overstatement of the concept of wide tires and sturdy frames. It is a caricature suddenly appreciated as art. And it is art. But a huge boom will require an international roll-out not only of the bikes themselves but of the parts they need to keep them running. It has begun, but can it continue, with an average price over $1000 US on most basic models? Ignoring the Walgoose, that is. The Bikes Direct the Repair Shop $700 price is a limited sale, according to their website.

If I know the bike industry, they will start to get destructively competitive within a year. They always seem to assume ridership and battle each other for market share, oblivious to the way their technical shenanigans burn away participants. But all that lies ahead. For now, fat is beautiful and everyone proudly displays their ample spare tires.

1 comment:

Matt Boulanger said...

BD is going to be pushing out a $399 single speed fatty over the summer as well as several more models below their current pricing. Framed is doing direct to consumer as well, and now we are looking at 190mm hubs, suspension forks, and full carbon on the high end. For the niche it would occupy in my quiver, I'd be happy with the $400 single speed version, knowing I could service most of it myself, including drilling some weight out of the rims with a hole saw!