23 May 2024

They Bought It Back

 In earlier posts, I touched upon Schwinn’s history from its founding to its rise as America’s premier bike brand (or, as Sheldon Brown claimed, the only one with even a pretense of quality) and its descent, through all manner of mismanagement, into just another label you see in Walmart’s bike section.

Now, I have no reason to animus against Schwinn: I have owned and ridden bikes they made or branded and liked them for various reasons. In particular, I thought my early-‘90’s Criss-Cross was well-suited to its intended purposes and a good value.

Ironically, I acquired that bike not long before Schwinn filed for bankruptcy for the first time. People familiar with the industry have posited all sorts of reasons for it, but seem to agree that those reasons included 

—dismissing mountain bikes and BMX—two genres Schwinn could easily have dominated—as passing fads

—relying on their antiquated Chicago factory, which couldn’t keep up with the increases and changes in demand wrought by   The ‘70’s Bike Boom

—supplementing production by importing bikes from Japan (good), Taiwan (improved over time) and Hungary (did not improve, pretty bad to begin with)

—moving domestic production to Mississippi in order to avoid unions:  a move that backfired because it was inaccessible to suppliers and shippers. Moreover, some say that while those bikes were lighter and more modern in design, the workmanship wasn’t anywhere near as good as what Chicago produced.

I think that all of those missteps Schwinn made over roughly a quarter-century can be traced to hidebound managerial thinking that too often results from nepotism, whether by blood or bonds of friendship.

In other words, it fell into the trap too many family-owned companies fall into: Keeping the business in the family becomes more important than considering new perspectives. An outsider could have told them, in the mid-1980s, “Mountain bikes are here to stay” and that good lightweight bikes could be TIG-welded (even if it isn’t as attractive as nice lugwork or filet brazing). Also, someone could have told them that they weren’t going to sell bikes to college students and other twenty-somethings with advertising and catalogs that seemed to say, “Buy Schwinn: the bike your grandparents rode.”

When Schwinn was finally freed from familial control—i.e., when it was sold during bankruptcy—it started to make necessary changes. But it may have been too late. Then it became indistinguishable from too many other bike brands. 

So what got me to thinking about all of that? An open letter that the founders of Kona bicycles wrote to the bike industry.  They are friends who met, long ago, while working in a bike shop. Three years ago, they sold Kona, which they founded in 1988 because they weren’t so young anymore and, I guess, all of the issues that arose from the COVID-19 pandemic wore them down. Now they’ve bought the company back because, they felt, the new owners—Kent Outdoors—were turning into something they didn’t recognize or like.

Jake Heilbron and Don Gerhard, founders of  Kona Bicycles

What I found interesting about the letter is not only the origin story, if you will, but also a seeming recognition that, for all of their success, they—or, more precisely, Kona—could just as easily stepped into the same mental quicksand that sucked Schwinn away. More important, they understood what generated loyalty among a couple of generations of mountain (and other) bikers and that Kent wasn’t delivering it—just as a third generation of family ownership and the investment groups that bought the Schwinn name ignored what made it so esteemed for so long—and what would keep that esteem.

20 May 2024

A Spring Afternoon With Tosca And Jenny

 It was a perfect Spring afternoon: The breeze made me feel even lighter than the air around the sun-flecked leaves and flowers.

On such an afternoon, I feel as if I could ride forever. This afternoon, I felt as if I would ride forever, that I would continue yesterday’s ride—to Connecticut—and the ones I’ve taken along boulevards, through forests and among chateaux.

I didn’t wind my way along the Loire to Amboise. But I did ride to a castle, of sorts.

Tosca, my Mercian fixed-gear, was begging for me to take her picture. Of course:  Who or what wouldn’t look good in the light of our ride? I think she—and I—were both feeling good after I finally gave her a long-needed Spring tuneup.

We stopped at the garden in front of St. Raymond’s Church where, I’m told, a certain family with a daughter named Jennifer attended mass every Sunday.

She also attended a nearby Catholic school, since closed, before anyone outside the neighborhood knew about her.

Yes, I’m talking about J-Lo. I hear she and Ben are breaking up again. Still, things must be easier for her than they are for someone else who grew up a neighborhood over (to which  I also rode today). I mean, imagine being Sonia Sotomayor and having to look at Sam, Clarence after they destroyed the very thing that made her and other women’s lives possible, even if they never had to avail themselves to what it allows.  I’m no legal scholar, but I can’t help but to think that the “juice” for Title IX, passed in 1972, was supplied a few months later when a very different Supreme Court decided on Roe v. Wade.

Anyway, I wasn’t thinking about that as I rode. If anything, I was simply reveling in having a couple of hours to ride in what are probably the best conditions we experience in this part of the world—and exploring what is, for now, my part of it.

19 May 2024

The Face That Rode A Thousand Miles

 Rosalind Yalow’s Orthodox Jewish parents tried to stop her from majoring in physics. Why? “No man will want to marry you.”

Well, she not only majored in physics, she used it to advance the state of health-care technology. That she did by co-developing radio-immunossay, which uses radioactive isotopes to quickly and precisely measure concentrations of hormones, vitamins and other substances that are part of, or end up in, human bodies.

For that, in 1977 she became the second woman to win a Nobel Prize in medicine.  Oh, and she married, had children—and kept a kosher home.

I mention that because throughout the history of bicycling, various actual and self-proclaimed authorities have tried to discourage women from cycling on the grounds that it will make us unattractive and less desirable to men and, therefore, unable to have children.

As an example, serious medical professionals and scientists in the 1890s—during the peak of the first Bike Boom— warned of the “dangers” of women and girls developing “bicycle face.”

I wonder whether I ever developed it. Hmm…Maybe that’s why I don’t have a man—never mind that I haven’t been looking for one!