Renegades of Mountain Biking Debuts

Video work is amazing and impressive. It’s something I wish I could do better. Thankfully, wonderful people such as Zak Long at the University of California Office of the President do a great job at making films. Zak made a film about my research that I am thoroughly impressed by. Happy viewing!


A Tribute to DIY Bike Shops

Just over a year ago, I co-hosted the Bicicultures Roadshow with Adonia Lugo. The sessions are still view-able online. Reflecting recently upon the event, I wanted to share a few thoughts prompted by Chris Carlsson’s talk, drafted long ago but not published until today.

I watched the first talk, titled, “General Intellect’s Cavalry: The Bicycling Movement on the Front Lines of the Culture War” by Chris Carlsson of Shaping San Francisco. His tribute to do-it-yourself bike shops struck me as particularly potent as I prepare to leave my own beloved community bike repair space, the Davis Bike Collective.

The DIY bike shop is one of these places that starts with waste, the waste stream of modern society. They see all these bikes… There are parts laying around. So people all over the country have formed these DIY bike shops. They usually start with nobody getting paid—they’re all volunteer.

This is precisely how the Davis Bike Church began (which later became the Davis Bike Collective through an unfortunate naming accident in which I may have had a role). A group of wistful would-be bike mechanics turned a bike junkyard into a fully functional do-it-yourself bike repair place.

Say some fat geyser like me shows up with my bike. I say, oh man, I heard you are a bike shop. Fix my bike. They say, we don’t fix bikes here. What are you taking about? We’ll show you to fix your bike. Come on in.

This ethic of teaching people to fix their own bikes and sharing skills has remained central to the mission and purpose of the Davis Bike Collective, an ethos I respect greatly. There are many good quality bike shops in town who can fix bikes. We wanted to do something different.


And right there the whole logic of capitalist business is short-circuited. Because instead of them providing a service that I’m buying, they’re insisting on sharing technological skills and the apparatus of technological repair that they have accumulated from the waste stream. So it’s a deeply radical moment when that happens.

It took me a long time to appreciate how radical the simple act of teaching someone to true their wonky wheel could be. I kept thinking, “We’re just fixing bikes and having fun. What’s so crazy about that?” But when the university put its power to bear against us, working to shut us down, I began to question if what we were doing was in some way exceptional, and perhaps exceptionally threatening to the powers that be.

And then I find, who am I standing next to? There’s a 12 year old Latino kid on one side, a 14 year old African American kid on the other side, and they’re working on their bikes…We are very segregated in this society, and we do not cross those boundaries…

Once we moved off campus into our own digs and became an independent nonprofit, I began to better appreciate the possibilities of the community bike repair space. I remember volunteering in the shop once. On one side of me was a university professor. On the other side was a woman whose bicycle was the closest thing she could call home. Also sharing the shop space that day was the future mayor of Davis and a high school kid. The close intermingling of the often invisible social and economic strata of Davis intermix in the shop in ways seldom seen in our privileged enclave.

In this moment, I can talk to them because it’s about brakes, or putting on spokes, or painting your bike some weird color…There’s a new relationship that starts to emerge…That’s an awesome moment because there’s suddenly the beginning of relationships that we have systematically disrupted and rendered kaput over the past forty years.

I’ve spent less time at the Davis Bike Collective as my research and writing overtook my life. And yet, I must remember that it was this strange project and the feeling that something special was happening hear that drew me to bicycles in the first place. It’s a site of potential. The radical possibilities spoken of by Chris Carlsson are far from guaranteed in the DIY bike space. These spaces can “sell out,” become assimilated, or otherwise find themselves integrated within the gaping maw of value exchange. But they retain the ability to dance on the edge of what is possible and what sort of relations and world we want to live in.

Thank you, my fellow ‘bike ministers’ for teaching me.

Spokemistress Sarah

Hite Rite to Dropper Seat Post; Oligopoly of Innovation

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.

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.

Return to Retro

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.

Being Bikes

It seems inevitable that as researchers, we sometimes become our projects. For quite some time now, I have felt as if I am biking. I do not mean this as a simple verb indicating that I am pedaling a two-wheeled machine. Rather, a fundamental part of how I am understood in much of my world revolves around the not-insignificant amounts of time I spend reading, writing, thinking, talking, using bikes. When my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances see something bike-related, they often send it my way. This is appreciated, and has helped me to grow my research archive significantly. When friends have a question about what bike to buy, how to fix a flat, or where to find trail rides, I’m their go-to.

Overall this is nice, and I enjoy my alliance to bicycling. But sometimes I want to resist. Because to quote the most famous doper of the moment, “It’s not about the bike.”

Similarly to many others, biking for me has always been about something other than a two-wheeled contraption. Biking is a tool, often a convivial one of the sort celebrated by Ivan Illich. On a daily basis, it gets me around town with minimal fuss. In the past, it has been a tool for exercise and exploration. When I came to Davis, it became a space to overcome my fear of basic mechanics and repair.  In my research, biking is a means through which to feel the traction between bodies, technology, and nature.

It’s not that I’m in love with biking, so much as I love what biking can do for me. It’s good to think with, be with, do with.

Paying for Pleasure

Does spending more money on an activity, such as mountain biking, produce greater pleasure? I really want to answer this question with a resounding no, but at the end of the day perhaps that’s not totally honest.

Over and over in my interviews, people talk about “just having fun” as being the driving force of early off-road riding. It was precisely this fun the drove them to invest more deeply into riding, both in terms of time and finances. Better technology, better bikes, better riding? More fun?

I spent $1,500 dollars on a gorgeous full-suspension bike that I love. Riding on this bike is more fun than riding on my old $400 hard tail. Though this was a huge expense for someone on my graduate student salary, I do not regret it. I’ve learned a lot about how riding technology affects riding ability, and how a bike can make a person a better rider. The new bike makes riding more pleasurable and increases my desire to ride.

Quality equipment is pricey. And quality equipment can improve an athlete’s performance, ability, and comfort. This, in turn, can produce greater pleasure in the activity. So maybe you can buy greater pleasure after all.