05 February 2015

What Happened To Lyotard, SunTour And All Of Those Other Little Companies That Made Nice, Practical Stuff?

The posts I wrote about Lyotard pedals and clipless pedal designs that have come and gone got me to thinking about a way in which the bicycle world has changed during my nearly four decades as a dedicated rider.

I first started to take longer rides and made some commitment to training during the later part of the '70's Bike Boom.  At that time, about the only bike makers (at least, those with any pretentions of quality) most Americans heard of were Schwinn and Raleigh.  As big as those companies were, to call either of them the General Motors of cycling would have been preposterous:  Schwinn's sales peaked at 1.5 million bikes in 1974, about the same number of cars from just one division of GM--Oldsmobile--that were sold in the same year.  And, of course, the sale of a car generates a far more revenue than the sale of a bike.

Other bicycle and component manufacturers--like Lyotard--were far smaller in scale.  They usually made their products for local markets:  Relatively few bike makers sold their wares much beyond the region, let alone the nation, in which they manufactured.  Most, especially in Europe and Japan, were still owned and operated by members of the families that founded them.  In fact, a few founders were still alive at that time.

What that meant was that most Americans had never heard of them.  Perhaps even more to the point, it meant that even though there was a wide network of races, tours and other bike-related events, they were much smaller in terms of both participation and money than today's events.   So, it didn't take as much money to sponsor a team or rider as it does (both in absolute and relative terms) today.  Small and medium-sized bike companies as well as businesses in other industries (think of Molteni) could get in on the action.  

It also meant that bike and component makers, like other small businesses, were risk-averse.  What I didn't realize when I started riding was that the designs for most bikes and parts (one notable exception being SunTour derailleurs and shifters) available at that time were already decades old.  Some actually worked well and were durable; if you used them, you learned to put up with their idiosyncracies or shortcomings.  Then again, if you hadn't used anything else, you didn't think they were idiosyncracies and shortcomings.

Most of the Lyotard pedals were examples of what I'm talking about. Now, I don't think they were deficient, but I don't think Lyotard had come out with a new pedal design since World War II, or not much later.  Even the Campagnolo Nuovo/Super Record parts were really just refinements of the Gran Sport products that made their first appearance during the early 1950's.

Around the mid-1980s, things started to change.  It might be fair to say that the ground shifted with Tullio Campagnolo's death in 1983.  His heirs discontinued the Nuovo and Super Record stuff Eddy Mercx, Bernard Hinault and others rode to victory.  In their stead came C-Record (actually, Record-Corsa or Record-C) parts.  Some, I'll admit, were quite lovely.  But none of them was really a functional improvement over its predecessors; in fact, some parts, like the "Delta" brake, were clearly not as good.

Other companies started to "innovate"--or, more precisely, create new novelties.  Designs became--or, at least looked--more and more radical every year.  To be fair, some new designs had legitimate purposes, at least for certain riders.  But too much of what was coming on the market every year was mere gadgetry:  stuff for the sorts of people who felt they simply had to have the newest and latest in everything.

In other words, the world of cycling was shifting from one that was guided by cyclists and riding to one driven by consumers and the marketplace.  That, in turn, turned the bike industry from a mosaic of relatively small companies to a pie cut into a few large slices by bigger companies.  Smaller companies, which didn't have the money or other resources to devote to research and development (or, very often, didn't see the need for such things) simply couldn't compete.  They, like SunTour and Lyotard, fell by the wayside or, like Sedis, Wolber and Super Champion, were absorbed by larger corporations, some of which had no previous involvement in the bicycle industry.  Even Mavic was bought by Salomon, which in turn was taken over by Adidas.  It could be argued that these turns of events enabled Mavic to develop the innovative (There's that word again!) rims and wheels that allowed it to retain its leading role in the 1990s and well into the 2000s.

Part of the pressure to create new things (or simply repackage old ones) also came from the ways in which the world of cycling events was changing during the 1980's.  By the time Greg LeMond won his first Tour de France, companies like Molteni (or mid-sized bicycle makers) were no longer sponsoring teams.  Corporations with much larger budgets were taking that on, and race sponsors included the likes of Coca-Cola and Nike.

Naturally, when companies put up money for riders and teams, they want a return on their investment.  So, the stakes became higher.  One benefit, at least for elite cyclists, was that the amount of prize money grew and the sport gained greater exposure outside of its traditional strongholds.  A downside was that it became more difficult for teams and riders with little or no money to compete, and smaller races and rallies became even smaller or disappeared altogether.

So, while 90 percent of the 1970s peloton were riding Reynolds or Columbus-tubed frames with Campagnolo components--all of which had been developed decades earlier--riders by the late '80s were astride newly-developed (and far more expensive) bikes with never-before-seen frame configurations and aerodynamic components made from exotic materials.  

It's easy to understand why racing-team sponsors would want their riders on the newest and most innovative equipment.  A race that takes hours or days but won by seconds (or fractions thereof) could well be decided by those extra few grams off the wheels or a frame or other part that's more aerodynamic.  And, as in any professional sport, there is really not as much difference as one might expect between the best and the rest of the peloton as there is between anyone who's in the peloton and anyone who isn't.  


That point is lost on club riders with lots of money and vivid fantasies.  They want to ride whatever's being ridden in the peloton.  If they didn't have such equipment, they seem to believe, younger and better-conditioned riders will make them look like the out-of-shape and not-so-young riders they actually were. Of course, those young and poor riders either get better or get better equipment, and the riders with bigger wallets and stomachs (I should talk, right?) want "better" equipment.

And so the world and industry went from being, essentially, a village of mom-and-pop enterprises that responded to cyclists' needs to an economy increasingly dominated by corporations that profit from anxieties they create in consumers.



  1. I think Suntour simply zigged when they should have zagged. Different than the old-line European firms that simply kept making the same old stuff at ever-higher prices.

  2. I appreciate your historical perspective, Justine. Like Steve mentioned, Suntour had some excellent products during the 70s and early 80s, but lost its way, and Shimano capitalized. In this era of 11-speed drivetrains and electronic shifting -- both are "solutions" searching for problems in my opinion -- I'm still appreciating my old-school bikes and components. Retrogrouch? You bet!

  3. I'll go with MT - when they went beyond the 8-speed cassette, they traded away reliable longevity for solutions not needed by anybody I know.

  4. Steve and MT--I started to notice the "solution in search of a problem" phenomenon in cycling during the time I've described; i.e., during the mid-to-late '80s. I think SunTour panicked when Frank Berto praised the Huret Duopar derailleur to the skies and when Shimano brought out SIS. In response to the former, SunTour came out with the Trimec and other derailleurs that abandoned all of SunTour's own innovations over the previous two decades and made, in essence, a cheaper version of the Duopar. And they made an inferior (to Shimano) version of the indexed shifting system.

    I think that if SunTour had continued to produce derailleurs like the original Cyclone and components like the Superbe Pro, they would have held onto a segment of the cycling world that wasn't interested in the newest and latest gadgetry and appreciated SunTour's reliability, good value and--particularly with their Cyclone derailleurs and Superbe brakes and cranks--good looks.