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A guest post by Brian Lee, undergraduate economics major at UC Davis:

Joe Breeze, the man responsible for bringing the world its first purpose built mountain bike with beautiful craftsmanship of fillet brazing and incredible selection of parts to make the Breezer #1, is a true innovator.  Mr. Breeze is mostly known for building the first purpose built mountain bike, but is also credited for many other unconventional bikes with interesting ideas.  Out of many experimental innovations he played with, here’s an example that makes your jaw drop in surprise, or at least it did for me.
Breezer Kite
1989 Breezer Kite

Hite Rite
Hite Rite

Yet I’m not here to talk about this rather unconventional bike, but what’s on the seat post of the bike.  What appears to be a single metal with a quick release lever stemming from the middle of the seat post to where a top tube would normally be is what’s called a Hite Rite, another brilliant idea by Joe Breeze in collaboration with Josh Angell.  The Hite Rite was made to give mountain bike riders a quick way to adjust their seat post to either quickly drop down the seat post for a decent or bring the seat post height back to normal after a fun decent has ended.  The idea itself is simply brilliant and the implementation to bring the idea to life is simple and cost effective.  No longer did you have to get off the bike repeatedly to adjust the seat post height every time trail condition changed.  And this was all done by merging a single piece metal spring with a quick release mechanism.  Despite how brilliant and simple the Hite Rite was it did have its inconvenience.  You have to take your hand off the handlebar.  If this was simply riding a road bike on a pavement, taking a hand off the handlebar is not much of a big deal, but for mountain biking it’s a different story.  Because of irregular trail conditions and the required maneuverability of trying not to fly over the handle bar, taking a hand off the handlebar at times could be difficult.  I would imagine Joe Breeze saw this inconvenience as well, but learned quickly to take his hand off the handlebar without much problem.  This inconvenience must have been fine for the man that raced down Repack on a klunker wearing nothing but good old jeans and a denim jacket, but for someone like me, a below average down-hill attempter, this is a bit of problem.   Now 30 years later, Hite Rite’s idea lives on.  The way I imagine Josh Angell and Joe Breeze saw how it should work is now here.  Handlebar switch operated dropper seat posts are available so I don’t have to let go of the handlebars I’m holding dearly for my life.

Handlebar switch operated dropper seat post or simply dropper seat post utilizes the same idea as Hite Rite, but you can adjust the seat post height from your handlebars.  Though the technology embedded in both seat post mechanics is different, the idea is the same.  Take away the fancy technology–metal cylinders inside a seat post, oil pressure triggered action, utilization of nitrogen into a single seat post—and the idea of lifting a seat post for a climb and dropping it for a descent is still the same.  The problem is that it only took some 30 odd years for the technology and cost advantage to allow a bit of selection for consumers.  Looking at MTBR’s listed selection of dropper seat posts and their listed prices, counting only the ones with prices listed we have a total of 26 different dropper seat posts with an average price of $278.15 and a median of $277.  Would you be inclined to pay $280 for a seat post when you can get a quick release seat post clamp for about $20 with inconveniences?  $280 for a seat post alone is pretty steep.

It took about 30 years for Hite Rite’s idea to be used by different manufacturers even including the 20 years it took for the patent by Josh Angell and Joe Breeze to expire.  A simple idea to change seat post height without getting off a bike took 30 years because firstly consumers had to be willing to pay for the innovation cost associated with a dropper seat post, secondly manufacturers willing to implement the innovation had to find it cost effective in terms of technology available and associated costs for them to make a profit.  This decision to utilize an innovation in hopes of successful market response with profits in an oligopoly market structure is what I like to call oligopoly of innovation.

Dropper seat post is an example of how complex technology utilized in a modern mountain bike comes at a cost. Manufacturers producing the technologies and consumers buying them bear these costs.  In comparison to the $280 price tag of a dropper seat post, the intensive engineering of a full suspension mountain bike with suspension fork, rear shock, implementation of swing arm, and cutting-edge material science in frame material comes at a hefty cost.  A few thousand dollars for a full suspension mountain bike is a norm, and it has its reasons.  Production cost of mountain bikes is expensive from high R&D cost, high manufacturing facility set up cost for mass production, and high marginal cost of production.  High R&D cost and manufacturing facility cost is what economics calls a fixed cost.  This high fixed cost is the barrier that only allows capital intensive manufactures to produce mountain bikes.  A high fixed cost is a barrier that only allows those with capital to enter into the production market.  For example let’s assume, we have 1000 equally skilled potential mountain bike manufacturers, and it costs $20 to set up a factory.  Out of our 1000 willing potential entrants only 5 have the $20 factory set up cost.  Then there are only 5 entrants to the market despite how many are willing to enter the market.  Only 5 have the needed fixed cost to set up factories.  If all 1000 entrants were able to enter the market freely, then it would have been a perfectly competitive market, but we only have 5 entrants.  Now the market is a monopolistic oligopoly, where 5 firms share the market with equalized monopolistic pricing and shared monopolistic quantity across 5 firms.    This ensures the mountain bike production market is not a perfectly competitive market where all manufacturers are price takers of the market with easy entry.  Otherwise we would see a mountain bike manufacturing market with hundreds if not thousands of manufacturers producing a good at the efficient market price  P* with optimal quantity Q*.  This is point a where the quantity and the price set in the market set optimally in a perfect competition.  Instead we currently have an oligopoly.  Only a handful of firms share the market according to their market share with monopolistic pricing; at point B instead of point A. Point B results in a higher monopolistic price and lower quantity overall in the market.

graph
From the figure above we can see that price and quantity moves from point A to B as the market moves from a perfect competition to a monopoly.

So what is implied if the mountain bike production market is an oligopoly with high fixed cost?  It implies that innovations can almost only come from a market player that is able to implement the technology or an outsider with brilliant innovation waiting to be bought out by someone already in the market.  For a competitor in an oligopoly to gain an advantage against its competition is to innovate.  Differentiation of its own product is the key in survival.  So it is only natural that bike companies nowadays hold lots and lots and lots of patents or at least indicate patent is pending on targetable innovations by competitors to ward them off. Because of high cost of R&D associated with an innovation, a patent pending is a threat to other firms to declare that you are already invested in the technology, and it’s not cost effective for a competitor to enter at this stage.   In a nutshell product differentiation through product innovation with patents is a way to increase market share.  However, as I rambled about high costs associated with implementing innovations, companies are uncertain which of its gazillion innovations legally guarded by intellectual property rights is the one that will make them the winner of the market.  For an innovation to hit the market and make profits to stomp on competitors, a firm is also risking further R&D cost for successful mass production market implementation, other fixed cost associated in producing the innovation incorporated mountain bike frame, and increase in marginal cost of production unless the innovation itself is that of a production process.  As consumers we want to see brilliant ideas incorporated on our bikes, but simply from a firm’s perspective it’s an opportunity to increase market share with associated cost that a lot of times I assume stops an innovation from hitting the market.

So there you have it.  There’s an oligopoly on which technological advancement gets utilized on a mountain bike.  Innovation is controlled by few oligopoly market sharers in the mountain bike world.  An abstract as free as an innovation is controlled by profit motivated firms to enhance their chance of increasing profits by product differentiation.  This is an oligopoly on innovation.

Humility and Humor Make for Great Conversation

I invite you to read my latest blog on the UC Humanities Forum on the role of humility and humor in academic conversation, performed brilliantly by eminent scholars Donna Haraway and Marilyn Strathern at the latest UC Davis Sawyer Seminar.

I missed this year’s North American Handbuilt Bike Show (NAHBS), but thanks to Bike Rumor and other blog sites, we got a peek at some of the showings from the floor. One particular image attracted the attention of my intern, Brian. This bicycle won “Best Mountain Bike.” Congrats, Retrotec, on making a sweet ride and winning the prize.

Brian has been working hard at straightening up the Mountain Biking History & Culture Archive, and looking at quite a few clunker images, such as the one below of Joe Breeze’s clunker.

The stylistic similarities are striking, even if they are in many other ways very different bicycles. Perhaps all I’m really dazzled by is the sloping top tube arching elegantly down to the rear dropouts. It hearkens back to the streamline design of the original Schwinns, which mimicked the aerodynamics of motorcycles and airplanes. (Check out Christina Cogdell’s briliant Eugenic Design for more cultural analysis of streamline aesthetics) Perhaps there is a structural reason for this new design, but given the company name and streamline similarities, I can’t help but think about the ways we build nostalgia back into bicycles.

Ever since cars took over the roads built for bicycles, bikes have represented a simpler time, when a person could only move as fast as their legs would allow. The original clunkers were kids’ bikes reinvented for a new purpose that was also highly infused with nostalgia. Riding these bikes reminded folks of when they were kids. Cruising around on the old beaters reminded riders of the sense of freedom and adventure they experienced while riding as a youth.

Retrotec’s bike is a brilliant blending of nostalgia and cutting edge technology. The bicycle boasts the latest in components, including a LH Thomson dropper post (according to Bike Rumor one of only two or three in the world at the time of NAHBS). The welding and design mines the past and the present to create a bicycle that makes people smile. And I bet it rides like a dream (though it looks a little large for my small frame). As always with mountain biking, it’s the aesthetics of pleasure that wins out.

Wild Writing

I cannot tame my writing. I create outline after outline, yet the words always leak out the edges and send out tendrils in new directions that raise more questions. I try to introduce a short anecdote to demonstrate what I am saying, but then that story starts talking a blue streak and leads into a whole other place, unexpected and organizationally confusing. And yet I cannot let go of these tangents. They reveal more and the unexpected places they take me unfold the world as a beautifully complex place.

Sigh.

But there must be structure. An argument. An overriding theoretical intervention. It cannot be implied, and some things must be spelled out. There must be a narrative.

So I try again. Cut and paste together another structure. Just focus on stitching the edges together. Think of it as breadcrumb trails, dropping in words where they are needed to lead the reader along the path. But this implied that I know the way, when in reality there are so many interesting junctions, and how do I decide which way to turn? Decide I must, for if not, the readers run wild and sometimes miss the most interesting vantage point. Sometimes it is necessary to say, “Look, look here!” Acknowledge the lovely side trails, but we cannot investigate these whole woods in a single day.

Trudge and tarry, trudge and tarry. This is one way to proceed along the trail. Rather than trudging, can I dance, or skip, or otherwise make my merry way? Maybe, perhaps at times. But if there is one thing I have learned from my years of long distance running is that the trudge has its virtues too. Trudges require endurance, and a willingness to push through some rather uncomfortable moments. This pace tends to be slower, but also opens up the vistas of a journey slowly, one solid step at at time. Trudging can also lead to wild places. In fact, a solid steady trudge is more likely to lead to those places worth going, and yet few may find on their breathless dancing way, for they grew weary long ago what with all the energy of skipping along. But the trudgers, they can tarry in places of dancer’s dreams.

Perhaps I need to balance between the slow march and the exuberant dance. Enjoy the exultation of surprising lines of flight, but remember to slow down and come back to the reassuring slow shuffle of prosaic prose. Because I am not on this journey alone. I carry other people’s stories. I am scouting paths along which others will follow. If my route is too rough or unexpected, my readers may get lost, and then what kind of guide am I?

Remember the best ride leaders. They create a route that leads to lovely and sometimes unexpected places. Long, arduous climbs are rewarded with secret caches of just-right sitting places with gorgeous views. On the way down, options are discussed, but ultimately the leader picks and takes us down descents suitable for the audience. The more adept can fly with glee, while others stumble gingerly, still learning. A good ending to rides can sometimes be the trickiest part. Too technical isn’t always good, since people may be tired and make dangerous mistakes. Nobody likes a boring road slog to get back to where they began, and going back over the hills again can be daunting. So finding the right cool-down flow back is key. Take the riders somewhere that keeps them on their toes in a relaxed, leisurely way. A way that allows for sure but easy breathing.

Now write…

Humanities Work Around on UC Humanities Forum

My recent blog post on the UC Humanities forum about the difficulties of facing the end of a journey.

Sharing Voice

Nobody every said writing ethnography would be easy. On the contrary, there are legions of articles, books, and chapters articulating the difficulties of this very pastime. It is a genre unto itself. Yet like so many circumstances, its difficulty cannot be fully appreciated until one is immersed in the process.

I’d like to think I take a relational approach to my research. I do not assume that those with whom I play and study need my expertise to properly elucidate what matters in their own lives. They are already actively theorizing their lives through practice in incredibly complex ways. Part of my work is to understand how this is happening and perhaps approach why. There is no question of whether or not I will get it “right,” since that would assume there is only one way to live and think about the activity of biking. However, as I tell my students, while there might not be many “right” and “wrong” answers in my classes, there are certainly better answers–or answers that produce more favorable consequences.

So I seek to balance their voices and stories with my own, for in the research process I undoubtedly became implicated in the active and embodied theorizing of this activity called mountain biking. This, in turn, must be put into dialogue with secondary literature and a general argument about the “point” of all this and why anyone should care. It’s easy to talk about, but difficult to find the word-order that does it best.

The way I craft these stories is its own theorizing. Word choice matters. Placement of quotations and embedding description. Show, don’t tell. Isn’t that the writing advice we always tell our students?

What fascinates me most about bicycling is their circulation as cultural phenomenon. This, combined with a fascination with how object and machines imprint themselves on our bodies, drives much of my own research. 

I also find that I think best in community. Being more of a dialoguer than an monologuer, the dissertation can be a challenging format, and the process a bit isolating. So, I have sought and happily found community with other researchers engaged in studies of bicycling cultures. What as until now been primarily an online interface will soon be an in-person encounter.

I am happy to announce the Bicicultures Roadshow: A Critical Bicycling Studies Tour de California. This event hopes to bring together some of the most engaging work being done in the many bicycling worlds that populate our roads, trails, shops, and various other time-spaces. Researchers, activists, and others interested in the social lives of bicycling are all invited to participate. See the website for more details, and please apply by February 10th. 

More thoughts and musings on this event surely coming down the road…

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