The FUTURE! Do we need shades or not?

While I’ve been in the trench warfare of flat tires and greasy chains, I’ve been wondering about the larger picture, keeping a look out for industry, market, and technology trends. I’m not talking about wishful thinking about what I’d like to see happen; I mean, I’d like to wake up to Jessica Alba in a thong cleaning my drivetrain, but that’s not very likely. I’m talking about forecasting what will happen in the next two years.

The first year is rather easy, because all the industry players already know what they’ll be serving up for 2009. The only question is if the manufacturers, particularly component manufacturers, can meet their deadlines and quotas, but if you listen carefully you can get a good picture of what’s coming.

First, I can tell you something that is guaranteed: prices are going up. This has to do with labour cost in China, the continued fall of the once almighty dollar, and transportation costs among many factors. To you the consumer this means a likely 10% increase in retail prices of complete bikes in 2009, and it could be worse for some items, particularly out of Europe.

The 29-er mtb will continue to become a viable alternative within the mtb market. This has to do with the proliferation of manufacturers making products catering to the 29-er segment. Besides the obvious tires, rims, and frames, the introduction of top quality suspension forks with geometry selected to enhance the handling of big wheels (ie increased rake) will validate the 29-ers.

Personally I wonder if the upstart 650B mtb will disappear into the widening chasm between the traditional 26-in and the new 29-er. As the 29-er asserts its presence and gains momentum, I can’t see that there’d be that much of a demand for a stop-gate solution like a knobby 650B. The mtb market has shrunk somewhat in recent years. Striking out into the 650B realm makes sense as a way to create a new market niche, but modern mtb design consists of a large number of manufacturers contributing subsystems to each rideable unit. In other words, it’s gonna take more than 3 guys building knobby 650B frames and another guy to hand-make the tires to get knobby 650B off the ground. The big component manufacturers aren’t going to make tires, rims, and forks for 26, 29, and 650B.

For road bikes, I predict that over the next two years the entry-level and mid-range will be strong. I think that we may see a move to more versatile bikes in that range, as more people feel the teeth of the imminent economic recession and rising fuel costs. Some people are gonna notice that they could save an assload of money by giving up the gym membership and riding a bike to work. By versatility I mean rack and fender eyelets will return to performance bikes after two decades of being unstylish.

Steel will make a comeback. Up until now, that statement would only come from a retro-grouch in serious denial. But there are some signs. The messenger cult has elevated handmade Japanese frames to holy status and the proliferation of small handmade builders, as well as the media attention they have garnered, hasn’t gone totally unnoticed. Meanwhile, the demand for vintage Italian road frames echoes the rise of vintage motorscooters a few years back. Take a look at other industries. Volkswagon introduced a new Beetle to massive fanfare, and Vespa scoooters both old and new are fashionable as ever. Bianchi already has solid plans to return steel bikes to their US offerings.

Made in Taiwan will become a sign of quality. Western Europe and Japan have become too expensive as locations for manufacturing below the premium level, and even then most of the subcomponents likely come from Taiwan. China, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe are the new sources for budget parts. Taiwan has become the place for carbon fibre production and most forged aluminium. Taiwanese quality control is pretty tight nowadays. The reputation of Chinese products has suffered in the media as of late.

The rising fuel costs and (hopefully) improved infrastructure for bicycles should theoretically pave the way for growth in the industry. But hard economic times won’t leave cycling untouched. Of course, there is a feeling in retail that the rich buy their toys and tell the plebes to eat cake, so I don’t really expect much change at the very top level. As long as $9k Colnagos are still cool, there will be buyers. Yet when individuals and families have less disposable income, retailers will see decreases. But if more of the public sees a bicycle as more than just a toy, cycling could rise to greater heights