By John Schubert
I last covered Interbike, the bike industry’s trade show and national meeting, in 2010. Due to circumstances that neither I nor Adventure Cyclist had any say over, I then disappeared from the magazine.
Editor-in-Chief Alex Strickland invited me back with an assignment: What’s changed in those seven years?
The short answer is, “Not much.” As I always used to say, bicycles are mature products, not given to the abrupt improvements one sees from, say, Moore’s Law in the computer industry.
But still, there have been changes. Some are good, some are bad, and some are mixed. Here we go:
• I’ll start out with my favorite change: finally, tires are big enough. Seven years ago, mountain bikes tended to come with narrowish tires, and touring bikes could just manage a 700x32mm (27 x 1 1/4in., if you’re as old as I am) with fenders. Now, mountain bike tires have swollen past their 2 1/8in. origins, past their 1.95in. midlife, and are now commonly 2.8 inches. Because traction, stability, and comfort.
The widening is also true of most other categories of bikes. Racers have turned their backs on the absurd 20mm and 23mm tires. In touring bikes, Surly’s Long Haul Trucker fits tires north of 40mm, and Cannondale’s touring bike can take 40mm tires.
Why did this all happen? For one thing, this magazine’s own Jan Heine has scrupulously documented the performance advantages of wider tires through his meticulous testing. Another reason is the four (and five)-inch–wide fat bike tires, a trend that has risen and somewhat fallen during these seven years. Whether you ride a fat bike or not, they performed the very useful chore of changing the conversation. If someone said he had fun on a fat bike you were less inclined to fear another quarter inch of width on your touring bike tires — and that muddy unpaved road was suddenly easier to ride.
• The wider tires have given new life to touring on unpaved roads. Even though I’m still getting used to the term “gravel grinding,” I’ve always incorporated unpaved roads in my own riding (spoiler alert: I live on one), and bikes optimized for that have combined with unpaved-road events to make for great new cycling opportunities. If you need some inspiration to go gravel grinding, I encourage you to buy Gravel Cycling by Adventure Cyclist Tech Editor Nick Legan. The book makes you stop and exhale. It introduces you to roads and events near and far, and they are all beautiful. These roads go past no strip malls.
• With the influx of high-performance mountain bike riders into touring — especially off-road and dirt-road touring — equipment options have blossomed in these seven years. To us rack-and-panniers riders, the prospect of carrying all your stuff in framebags and a seatbag that cleverly hides in the wind shadow behind your butt is a fine new option.
• Another seven-year tire trend has me less pleased: the switch to 27.5 tires on mountain bikes. Why? Because as a touring cyclist, I’ve had the experience of needing a new rim, walking into a small shop in a remote town, and finding exactly one rim that fit. The more sizes there are, the less the chance that a shop will have the rim — or the tire — that you need.
People will tell you that this change to 27.5 has all sorts of magic implications for the bike’s performance. I don’t think so. A 27.5 rim has a diameter 25 mm larger than a 26-inch tire. (The common numbers given as sizes are painfully misleading, but that’s a whole ‘nuther rant.) It’s not big enough to be a game changer when you roll over bumps, but it adds limitations when you’re designing the bike frame to fit shorter adults. The 5’2 and below crowd will have to reach a little farther and crane their necks a little more. So I see a downside for short adults, another downside for people needing to buy replacement rims and tires, and almost no upside for high-performance riding.
So why did the industry make the change? They needed something new to sell.
• Next seven-year change: the third chainwheel (the “granny” or “bulldog” chainwheel) is an endangered species. It still appears on a few models, but it is decisively gone from the bike that made it widespread — the mountain bike. The reason why is obvious: with 10 or 11 rear cogs (or 12, if you want to drop $200 on a SRAM 12-cog cassette), you have lots of gears, with one or maybe two chainwheels. Most touring bikes still have three chainrings, but Cannondale’s doesn’t.
Being a curmudgeon, I prefer three chainwheels. But I admit through clenched teeth that the arguments for fewer chainwheels have some validity. “The one component most of our new customers have trouble with is the front derailer,” said Brendan Sheehan, a bike shop owner from Leavenworth, Kansas. Sheehan is glad to sell those customers single-chainwheel mountain bikes.
What’s better about more chainwheels and fewer cogs? In a perfect world, you get chains that are vastly stronger, more reliable, and easier to fix in the rare event of a failure. More cogs mean skinnier chains with thinner metal and a much more fragile connection between the chain pins and the side plates. In the olden days, chain failures were extremely rare; today, the anecdotal evidence tells me failures are far too common.
But the holy grail of reliability is with chains made for eight or fewer cogs, and the fewest cogs I know of on a new touring bike is nine, on Fuji’s $1,000 Touring model. So I may be tilting at windmills here.
• There are many lighting changes for the better. Seven years ago was about when I bought my first really good LED headlight, a Nite Rider. I fondly call it my prison yard light. But like most big bright lights of that era, it had no beam pattern. It’s a bright, dumb flashlight. And the unaware bicyclist can easily meddle with an oncoming road user’s vision by aiming that thing the wrong way.
There have long been intelligently shaped beam patterns, but they are usually found in expensive lights. Not no more. In 2018, inexpensive Bell headlights sold at Wal-Mart will have beam patterns with a cutoff, so you don’t blind others. This is a big development. Bell Senior Product Manager Mark Ritz will make night riding safer and more pleasant for millions of customers with this improvement.
Seven years ago, we already had tiny lights — the ones you carry in your tool bag for those “Oh drat, it got dark” moments. But they’ve gotten better. Now you can get ones that are USB rechargeable and weigh 15 grams — less than a hummingbird — thanks to Owleye. Owleye also offers other lights, only slightly larger, that have photovoltaic cells. Leave your bike parked in the sun for an hour and you get an hour of headlight (or taillight) use.
Two companies displayed taillights that synchronize to neighboring taillights with a Bluetooth connection. Lighting expert Thomas Prehn of Arsenal Cycling explained the benefit: flashing lights that are perfectly synchronized make it easier for other road users to gauge your position and distance, whereas discordant flashing lights are more confusing. Prehn’s display uses the example of radio towers, whose lights are synchronized for the same reason.
• There are even changes in reflectors. I thought reflector design was a static technology, but Taiwan’s Hubble Vision showed that it isn’t so. Conventional reflectors must be perpendicular to the light source shining on them. If you tilt away from perpendicular, the reflector performance drops off radically. But Hubble Vision designed reflectors made to be put on a bicycle’s seat stays, at a 40 degree angle from vertical. And they worked.
My visit to Hubble Vision’s booth was an eye-opening experience. The proprietor had written to me before the show, asking me to visit his booth. (I believe he read my published work on reflector performance failures, which you can find in an online search by typing my name and the phrase “Why reflectors don’t work.”) He was thrilled to show me these reflectors that were dazzlingly bright at a 40-degree entrance angle. And he told me that his reason for coming to the show was to meet me. That didn’t happen seven years ago!
• Seven years ago, I didn’t have a smartphone. You probably didn’t either. Now with the ubiquity of smartphones, everything that isn’t a smartphone needs to have an app. Like the Alrace tire pump. Just fire up the bluetooth connection and your phone will tell you your tire pressure. You can buy a headlight from Magicshine that is controlled by a smartphone app. The cynic in me prefers an on-off switch.
You can also connect your smartphone to your helmet. Korea’s WRC is introducing a helmet, the BTIN, with small speakers mounted above the user’s ears and a small boom microphone you can swivel down to your mouth. You can listen to whatever your phone plays, or take phone calls while you ride. I mentioned all this to Randy Swart, director of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute. Instead of the grumpy reply I expected, Swart said, “That’s kind of neat. My hearing aids do that.” Another seven-year change: seven years ago, Swart didn’t have hearing aids.
• The smartphone revolution has brought new security systems. Your bike can have a GPS-equipped security device from Deeper. The device tracks your bike as the stake truck rolls off into the next police department’s jurisdiction. Or a Venture lock will let you know that someone is cutting the lock open.
I find it sad that so little progress has been made in these seven years in the far more practical theft solution: truly secure storage and parking. But that hasn’t been a public policy priority, and I believe that utility cycling has suffered mightily because of it.
• Seven years ago, the show was awash in electric-assist bikes. But they’ve improved. And now the show is more awash than ever. I brought one home from that show in 2010 and found that its battery was pretty much exhausted from the extremely hilly six-mile ride that gets me to the nearest quart of milk and back home. This time, I was told, the worst-case scenario of steep hills and a rider who wanted the electricity to do all the work was 20 miles. The best-case scenario? One company hired models to walk around the show floor wearing T-shirts advertising a range better than 200 miles. That may be an inflated claim.
Electric assist is now used in high-performance applications like downhill riding on high-end mountain bikes. And the bikes are quite stylish. A road-racing–style model from Focus has the electric motor hidden in the bottom bracket and the batteries in the down tube. Most observers won’t know it’s electric. We’ve come a long way from the bikes that look like a 1960 commuting bike with a big battery on the rear rack.
Thankfully, the rear rack is falling from favor as a mounting place for the battery. There are still a few models that put the battery there, but companies have recognized that the weight in that location doesn’t help the bike’s handling, and most have located the battery elsewhere.
Yamaha introduced their electric-assist bikes at the show. When a company that good enters your market, it’s big news.
• Electric assist bikes have moved from being an intriguing new product idea to a “hope for survival” product. The industry needs y’all to buy something, and lots of it. Bike sales have fallen off and the number of retail shops in the country has plummeted from over 6,000 to about 4,000. There are many reasons for this, and sometimes the arguments contradict each other, but I’ll mention just one: bicycles are very durable products. Look in the racks on campus and you’ll see plenty of bikes 40 years old. Even carbon fiber bikes, which we touring cyclists tend to avoid, are good for a couple decades if they’re cared for. So the replacement market is small.
The prospect of a sweat-free commute is enticing to many. We can only hope it becomes widespread.
• Then as now, the world needs a great bolt-in replacement wheel to turn your existing bike into an electric assist bike. The much-promoted Copenhagen Wheel is enticing, but its four-figure price tag invites cut-rate competitors. I saw two competitors, one of which had the added complexity of no spokes. The rim was supported by rigid structural braces with small rollers on the ends.
• In addition to being awash in electric bikes, the show is now awash in scooters. You know, those things we used to make out of old roller skates, scrap wood, and a broom handle? There were dozens of vendors selling scooters. Why? They’ve taken a place alongside balance bikes as a way to help very young children master the skill of riding on two wheels. That is a good thing.
But some scooters are electric. Check your local laws, and don’t go too fast on those little wheels.
• The inventiveness of cargo bikes has blossomed. Whether you’re carrying pallets, pizza, or preschoolers, there’s a bike for you, and they’re made all over the planet. The show included offerings from Canada (Wike) and the Netherlands (Johnny Loco and Urban Arrow). The Wike Salamander shows off the inventiveness of the genre: within seconds, it switches from a two-wheeled bicycle to a three-wheeled stroller.
• Seven years ago, Interbike was a powerful business. But now the tradeshow is having a tough time. Attendance has declined as dealers have had to adopt belt-tightening budgets. For years the “big four” (Cannondale, Trek, Specialized, and Giant) didn’t show up. They all have individual dealer meetings, and the six-figure price tag of bringing a booth to the show doesn’t work.
Alas, the big four were in good company this year. Fuji and Jamis were gone. Many small brands such as Co-Motion were gone. The biggest brands in the hall were Bianchi, KHS, and Raleigh.
For next year, the show will move to Reno and hope that this inspires more people to attend. Say goodbye to the dirt-cheap travel packages that got me to Las Vegas these many years. The bike business is not immune from disruptive change.
John Schubert wrote Adventure Cyclist’s Cyclesense column from 1988 to 2010. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.