Monday, October 31, 2011
A little early for a lunch appointment a couple of weeks ago, I went into a bicycle shop near the restaurant, to check out new models. I had bought a Trek 720 in this same shop more than twenty years ago. Since then, I tend to get used models and fix them up, so I wasn’t in the market. But I was curious. Bicycles have evolved in some ways, with disc brakes, and a variety of frame models. But the basic concept hasn’t changed much in a hundred years or so.
The store still sold Treks, but also carried a Gary Fisher line. I have an old Gary Fisher that I turned into a touring bike, and was interested to see that they were now sold under the Trek name. The owner said that Trek bought them out about ten years ago. One of the reasons I originally bought a Trek was that it was made in the U.S. I wondered if that was still the case. The shop owner said that Trek had one manufacturing facility left in the U.S., and it only made bicycles in the $5,000 range and above. I guess I should not have been surprised by this.
Bicycles were one of the mainstays of global manufacturing during the late nineteenth century. In fact, during the 1890s, more patents were taken out for bicycles than for any other product. Skills and knowledge developed in the production of bicycles, in terms of precision machining, gearing, tires, wheels, and brakes, provided a foundation for automobile development. Bicyclists, moreover, demanded paved roads. Bicycles were crucial to the first wave women’s movement, providing mobility as well as the demand for more comfortable clothing.
America’s first great contribution to bicycle development may have been the kids’ bike, the manufacture of which began in the 1930s. These sturdy, but flashy, models revived the flagging bicycle industry, which had now been displaced by cars. The U.S. was a world leader, with versions made by Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, and, eventually, of course, Schwinn. Later, American bicycle fanatics, including Gary Fisher, created the first mountain bikes, which again revived the bicycle market.
Having owned a Schwinn, a Trek, and a Gary Fisher, I found it somewhat disheartening that so few bicycles are now manufactured in the U.S. As with other goods, part of this has to do with labor costs. But it also has to do with industrial policy. Taiwan made it a national effort to turn Giant into a leader in the global bicycling industry. It now promotes itself as a bicycle friendly tourist destination.
It turns out that there are still a few bicycles made (or at least assembled) in the U.S. They are nearly all high end models, handmade or custom built. Bike Friday, the foldable bicycle company, still makes its cycles in Eugene, Oregon. Berskerker tricycles are made in Santa Barbara. Da Vinci tandems are manufactured in Denver. As with other specialized commodities, the skills needed to make these products are high, but the employment base is small compared to with the mass produced models that still dominant American and global consumer markets.