Thursday, November 4, 2010

Bike Tech

Rodale recently announced that the company was folding Mountain Bike into Bicycling. It was probably time. Mountain Bike had served the market well for over twenty years. I was there when Mountain Bike, the West Coast/Mountain upstart covered with tattoos and parading bling swaggered into a sedate Emmaus, PA. promising to re-order the cycling world.

Bob Rodale, the late chairman of Rodale, loved all things cycling. An Olympic skeet shooter, Mr. Rodale saw a velodrome--a bicycle racing track--on one of his international trips and thought that was precisely what the farmland in Trexlertown, PA. needed.  He sent me to racing tracks in New York, Georgia, and Illinois for my velodrome tutorial but soon realized these were medieval designs.  He opted for track designs from recent Olympics, including Mexico City and found a local engineering firm to oversea the project. My job was to convince the granges and Future Farmers of America that this was a good idea. I was neither a farmer nor a serious cyclist and my audiences knew this. And I had not yet perfected my Pennsylvania Dutch accent.

If there was going to be a velodrome, then there needed to be some history of the arcane sport of bike racing. Mr. Rodale asked me to prepare a book on the history of bike racing. I spent a good part of a year visiting bike shops and sorting through tons of papers about cycling's glory days; that is, in the latter part of the 19th century. The book, American Bicycle Racing, came of this effort.

When the velodrome was completed Mr. Rodale noted how much energy track cyclists, especially sprinters expended, when they were moving at 40 mph. Always a practical man, he wondered whether this energy could be translated into uses such as splitting logs, generating electricity, pulling a plow and the like. He set up an incubator at Rodale to explore these possibilities.  And Mr. Rodale decided that the company needed a book to record these and other efforts.

I was surprised that engineering professors at Oxford and MIT were also looking into the mechanics of pedal power and with their help I edited a book: Pedal Power in Work, Leisure and Transportation. I was told it was translated into a dozen languages.

Mr. Rodale thought it would be a good idea to share this information and utility with the developing world that is often the recipient of "inappropriate" technology. I took this idea to the World Bank, asking for financial help to develop pedal power prototypes, with particular focus on pumps for well water--still a major issue. I was told our request--for less than $1 million--was not enough.  I remember all the flags in that Washington DC board room more than the people.

It was only a matter of time before Rodale acquired a cycling magazine. We looked at the various racing titles but focused on Bicycling Magazine, a Marin-based general interest title.  I was part of the acquisition team led by President Bob Teufel. We brought the operation back to Emmaus as Rodale would later do with Runner's World.

Geography wasn't an issue but our first business model was. Initially we relied on Rodale's considerable expertise in direct marketing that had been so successful with Prevention and Organic Gardening. We quickly realized that Bicycling represented a specialty audience and we would have to edit and market to this end. Even with this initial storm and stress the magazine was cash positive in about five quarters. 

Bicycling had a good and profitable run for about a decade. We heard the rumblings of the mountain bike in Marin County and knew pioneer Gary Fisher who was one of the original tech contributors to Bicycling. I was editor and publisher at the time and recall surveying our readers about the best name for this new and unruly bike. The answer: All-Terrain Bike. Wrong answer. Wrong question.

Manufacturers saw this budding interest in the mountain bike and pulled back on road and fitness bikes to concentrate on this new category. Advertising followed with some of it leaving Bicycling, Mountain Bike magazines started to pop up, getting the love that we thought Bicycling earned. Bicycling added mountain bike coverage but in that first wave of mountain bike purity, our editorial was probably somewhat unbalanced. After all, we were largely a staff of road bike riders and ex-racers. and it probably showed.

At a strategic planning meeting we decided to join the competition and in a sense compete against ourselves. This was not roundly applauded by all the editorial staff. In short order we purchased the fledgling, Colorado-based Mountain Bike magazine and hired as editor "Zap."  He was the guy referred to in the first paragraph wearing tattoos and parading bling and was perfect for the job. Bicycling and Mountain bike got better from the competition.

In the early stages mountain bikes were very much an American phenomenon. These bikes were the perfect answer to Americans who weren't interested in drop handlebars and hard, thin saddles. In time this sector probably suffered from over-design and adding enhancements for the sake of the upsell.  The addition of front and rear suspension, as well as other features, were probably a little over-the-top, especially since most cyclists don't use their mountain bikes off-road.  The hybrid bike category seems the perfect answer to what many middle-of-the road, so to speak, cyclists need. And road bikes are about all I see in my neck-of-the-woods around Nyack, NY,

I understand that Bicycling magazine has never been stronger. Folding Mountain Bike into the "parent" should be uneventful.

Mountain Bike has served a worthy purpose.         

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