My first job in a bike shop was for two pricks who didn't like bikes at all, but one inherited a store, and so it goes, that he grew to own a few branches. His near disdain for cyclists wore like a badge on a border patrol agent. He'd look you over with X-ray eyes for parasites, flaws, and weakness, before snatching your money. Fortunately he never visited the stores. He and his partner were both married to other people, but They seemed to also be romantically affiliated with each other, which made their judgement incongruous. The second bike shop I worked for was owned by a one eyed drunk who was kindhearted, and generous, but mostly a complete train-wreck. He also inherited the biz, and the family squeezed a lot of cash from it before the next changing of the guard. More on this Guy later...
So Bike shops are a strange and magical place, where every day feels like Christmas, mostly because you are always rewarding yourself with a new gift in the form of component upgrades, and infinitely aspiring toward the next glossy ride. The thing with this lusty enthusiasm, is that it does not make for good business sense, any more than the dealer who shoots-up, or a Pizzeria owner who can't get enough zah. You will end up the overzealous snake who swallows a bichon, and then can't slither out of the road. You will end up an addict... You end up with a lot of toys, and inverted cash-flow. This I suppose was the fate of many independent dealers, and so in the Late nineties, Trek Bicycle set about to coach dealers on how to be "business-people", and not just enthusiasts. They built a training program called "Eye on 2000". (ION2000) was a look forward to the millennium, and how to market, brand, and sell more shit and stop eating all of your own pizza, or Bichon's. Anyway, before the fin de' siecle, when Lance was likely learning to dope, and the way things were done in Europe, Le Mond was haggling with Trek about another partnership... In that enchanted and fictional shit-hole called Las Vegas, the world was spinning on it's perfect axis. Our restaurant was also spinning. The Inter-bike trade-show was in Vegas that year, and we sat above it all spinning atop the Stratosphere with our vendors and those who would change everything, again. Our table held several key influencers. (but back then the word 'influencer' had not yet been invented). The Key principals at Trek were the venerable Dick Burke, and his well heeled son John Burke. (they sat across from us.) Beside me were a few other big shop owners, and some fictional characters; Greg Le Mond, Lance, Keith B, Gary Fisher, Missing from this epicenter of talent was Gary Klein, (who was not yet on Trek's radar). Another Brilliant thinker and tinkerer who dined with us was Rolf Dietrich, who was exhibiting in a side flank of the Trek Booth. Rolf reinvented the wheel. At this day in time, Trek was not yet a complete corporate monster and it's patriarch dined with us holding the helm, and our attention. Before Trek 2.0. SRAM, (at the time Grip-Shift) was exhibiting in the margins of the convention center, They began with nothing more than a folding table, some print collateral, lithium grease and a dream. Being from Chicago, we spent time with them at their booth, and with several others, like stoned kids in Wonka's Workshop. If you blew-up that table, that night -- It is fair to say the cycling world would have been Way way different. Under John Burke Trek would Sue Le Mond, acquire Bontrager, Grind Fisher into a pulp, and ruin perhaps the most coveted brand in the biz, and arguably the sexiest maverick in the spray booth, Klein.
Trek inked deals with Le Mond to Build Bikes under his name, and secured the wunderkind from Texas to Keep America Great again, and again... (and to keep it squarely upon the medal table of a wholly European sport). Before Amazon, before The Dot Com Bubble, and the Y2K apocalypse, There were magical places called bike shops. Independent retailers, and not Franchises. Generally shitty business people an infectious passion for shiny toys. In those days, this seemed to be enough. Certainly before Bikes were bought from strangers over the phone, and shipped unassembled to your door, Bike Shops were rather important. At this time everything magical came from a cool crusty place with a greasy floor, bad marketing, a coffee maker, parts washer, and a gray box to write a buyers name and address in triplicate. Bike shop consolidation...seemed far off. In this Fantasy land there was a torrent of way cool innovation. Trek's affable and enthusiastic founder was about to hand the keys of his kingdom over to his posh ivy-league son John. Trek's founder Dick Burke, scored a business degree from Marquette University in Milwaukee, and later worked at an appliance distributor. He was a business man, and a tinkerer like many of those who sat with us that evening. He saw a gap between Schwinn and Asia, and Like so many others who envisioned something new in a schism -- He set about to exploit that gap. We chatted it up with the intelligentsia at every Interbike show; Keith Bontrager, Gary Klein, Le Mond, Rolf, Fisher, and even Stan and FK Day, of Grip Shift. The Day Brothers saw their space for inventiveness in a simple shifter. In this spirit of invention, whether it be four-bar linkage, the press-fit bearing, or a dual cylinder thingy that indexed your derailleur -- All of these exploitations of market gaps were being filled by Americans. They were all tinkerers, inventors, and enthusiasts.
You could definitely say... These were extraordinary times.
I remember Trek's Owner Dick Burke fondly, because he was like a kind uncle full of inventive stories, always oozing with interest and ideas. He was a sponge. He asked good questions, seemed charmed, and truly engaged with people. At a trade-show, you would find him, much like Klein, Keith, or The Day brothers showing you what they'd recently come up with, and asking you what you would do to improve it. It was a name-dropper tour de force that evening. I asked Le Mond what he thought of Carbon bikes, and we digressed into the nuance of all sorts of whacky new innovations.
From a trade show folding table, to a leader in an industry -- Stale trade-show air seemed to blow new ideas up from the convention hall basement -- This wind is not the rarified air of elites & MBA's. First the idea must be born, and those ideas come from enthusiasm.
So the business would boom through the "Cross Bike", and the "Mountain Bike Boom", would flourish with crazy and useless Full Suspension Junk, The "Y" Bike, Klein's Mantra, Pong's Super V, and soo many more gears were yet to come. Specialized and Trek who first looked incredulously at Raleigh while they glued tubes of "Technium" (round aluminum) into traditional lugs to speed construction. This was soon imitated. John Tomac, would break several parts before they were near perfect but never that glued joint, and..., Then Raleigh would advance into Titanium. Trek stared, and took it all in. Sinyard listened, and re-tooled. The two giant American bike makers would covet, drool, and spurn Kestrel, Merlin & Ibis as they shaped carbon and Titanium into smooth organic forms. Later Trek and The "S" Word, would steal the profitable ideas rejecting Titanium as too tough to tool for, and they'd both begin to glue, screw, and bake bikes together at the bleeding edge of demand. But demand only comes when the product is lust-worthy. Meanwhile Klein quietly advanced toward their 20th year in Aluminum with perfect double pass welds, indestructible enamel, oozing sex.
The whole military industrial complex had recently unraveled, gutted -- it later bleed out so many mat-sci wonders, and innovative tooling, into the open I.V. of an industry ripe for such innovation. Downsized Engineers, and Literal Rocket-scientists, CNC operators, and CAD grads, made the perfect pedigree for what was about to boil. As the Cold war fizzled like a spent bottle rocket..., every type of carbon, & composite, rare metal and exotic material process was about to be homeless. Bikes, Cars, Boats and Motorcycles, seemed prime to dip their bread in that trickle-down. Specialized marketed M2 Metal Matrix, which was basically decommissioned helicopter Alloy. Cannondale looked to new engineers, while stoically sanding smooth gloppy 6061 welds in Bedford Pennsylvania. Trek & Specialized began to Glue and screw carbon to aluminum, and so it began.
Bikes, and parts were being churned out in the USA in volume like a brand new war machine.
It was awesome.
This industry was born of innovators, enthusiasts, and excitable bike junkies who could not get enough, like Tom Ritchey, Phil Wood, Race Face, Hershey, Paul, Avid, Control Tech, Ringle, and many many more. Bridgestone marketed ridiculously light steel Bikes in a whole new way, selling lifestyle in muted tones through near perfect hard-bound varnished catalogs. The world was perfect.
The Bikes were glorious, and we could now begin bad arguments with ludicrous statements like, "Steel is Real".
I like to recall fondly this torrent of cool historical sponge-cake, so we can take a break from our news-feeds -- Simply because these too, are also extraordinary times.
I remember sitting at the top of the Stratosphere in a pair of loosely fitting pants, these bad khakis were not my style. These were Extraordinary pants, with a poorly matched wrinkled button-down, Bike shop people had trouble dressing up for dinner. I suppose you could say that was the very issue Trek sought to tame; Later it would take a Franchise model to fix it. We were going to ride the rollercoaster next, around the top of the spinning restaurant; pairing up with our fellow dinner guests. I recall fondly talking to Dick Burke like he was my estranged uncle, just before he handed the keys to the chocolate factory over to his son. He told me the secret to success is listening, that ideas are not born in a vacuum, but come from people we meet every day. He Told me he was ready for something else. Dick Burke built a beautiful brand and a beautiful reputation by being a good human being. Sinyard turned tire imports, into the "S" Word, ceaselessly innovating, and SRAM came up from the basement to dominate the kit market.
Yesterday I wandered into one of my old bike shops to kick a few tires. Naturally I had to wear a mask. I was selected and ushered in to chat it up with a sales-kid, and we both noted that the place looked as if it had been looted. Empty racks, Open space like missing teeth, where bikes had once filled every conceivable slot. It was the new way. Bike shops are booming, and the supply chain is faltering. He said, "...we can't build them fast enough, and we are out of everything that's not a road bike above 5k." "It's a rough problem to have today", I said -- Meaning in this reality, Bike stores still with inventory are either doing something wrong, or they are quite lucky. But Bikes will now line the garages and Hallways of many more homes, and perhaps everyone will see them again as an indispensable way of moving forward. Sadly a Klein will no longer hang from a venerable TV set -- But perhaps the next Sit-com will feature an Allied, or an O.P.E.N. This too is an extraordinary time for Bikes, as it was in the mid to late nineties.
"Here is to our next generation of enthusiasts," Dick Burke said... -- And so I suppose, that the lovely products will lead, and good business will follow.
Age and Treachery will overcome youth and skill.