As we all know, the United States of America is going to hell in a handbasket. The dollar is down, inflation is rampant. The Arabs refuse to sell us their oil at our prices. Ralph Nader says synthetic fuels are a delusion and nuclear energy is worse. Scientists have confirmed that the sun is shrinking while the polar ice caps are advancing, and this month musk oxen were sighted on the outskirts of Duluth and Buffalo, presaging another wretched winter.
But even in the worst of times there is some sunshine. Anyone caring to bask in what is left of it should spend a day at his local bicycle shop: while the economy ain't what it used to be, in the bike shops of America the cash register bells are ringing.
Some time ago a researcher at Duke University named Vance Tucker compared the efficiency of a wild variety of moving objects, both living and man-made. When a bicycle was later compared to all the objects Tucker had studied, it proved by far the most efficient: three times more so than a horse, five times more than a car, 10 times more than a sea gull or a dog or a jet plane and nearly 100 times more than a blowfly or a bumblebee. To put it in simple terms that largely explain why bicycles are selling so well today, on the power derived from one bowl of oatmeal costing 7¢ a man can pedal three miles to the supermarket and return with enough oatmeal to feed a family of four for a week. Over the past decade the annual sales of cars and bicycles in the U.S. have averaged almost dead even at about 10 million. While the price of everything from cabbages to condominiums has gone through the roof in the same span, the cost of the bicycle has risen less than 35%, and although no one in the business believes it will ever replace the automobile, the bike has become a money-saving second vehicle.
A good, durable 10-speed bicycle can be had for less than $150 today, but many people are willing to spend a lot more. In mobile man, there is an ineradicable longing to own the very best, whether it is needed or not. Today an incurable car buff may find happiness in an American Corvette; still he hungers for an Italian Ferrari that offers little more and costs three times as much. As it is with car buffs, so it is with the cycling elite, except for one difference: among autoists, it is the manufacturer's name—Rolls, Ferrari, Lancia, Lamborghini—that symbolizes excellence. To cyclists, the "marque" is but one part of the equation. The name on a bike may simply be that of a framebuilder who has nothing to do with the manufacture or even selection of the rest of the pieces. One might cherish a bike whose frame was made in England and is equipped with a French seat, Japanese derailleurs, Italian handlebars, Swiss brakes and Czech tires. A good bicycle is the sum of quality parts made here, there and God knows where else.
In that regard, the most famous, the most respected and in fact the most revered name in cycledom is Campagnolo. The most succinct way for a cyclist to boast about his machine is to say simply, "It's 100% Campagnolo," by which he means it is equipped with every kind of part the firm puts out. It would be, otherwise, a somewhat curious claim, considering that in its 45 years the International Campagnolo Company of Vicenza, Italy has never made 100% of any bicycle. Campagnolo of Vicenza makes bicycle seat posts but not seats, headsets but not handlebars or stems. The company makes brakes and front and rear derailleurs, pedals, hubs and bottom brackets, chain-wheel sets and fork tips, but not forks, chains, rims, spokes or tires. Nor does it make frame tubing, and the frame is the heart of any bike. Despite this lifelong specialization in bits and pieces, Campagnolo's reputation for quality transcends that of any marque. In America a cyclist is apt to describe an excellent piece of sporting equipment as "Campy." A sporting Frenchman appraising a beautiful woman will say, "Elle est tout Campagnolo," signifying that she is well equipped in every way that counts.
About 75% of the bicycle parts manufactured by Campagnolo are sold abroad—19% of the total production in France, 8% in the U.S., and about 6% in Japan, a nation with 230 bicycle component companies. Of those more than 100, including the well-known Shimano, and Araya, have been in business much longer than Campagnolo and, taken together, produce a heap more parts. The Japanese have a far bigger share of the world market, but none of their brand names is known as far and wide as Campagnolo, which even equips about 50 bikes a year in little Malta and Andorra. Because Campagnolo manufactures only about a quarter of a million derailleur sets annually and sells scarcely more than 100,000 component groups of parts around the world, and because there are reportedly more than 90 million cycles loose in the U.S. today, it figures that a cyclist on the bikeways of America has about as much chance of meeting a rival who is 100% Campy as he has of being run down by a Rolls-Royce driven by the Queen Mother.
In three boom years—1972-74—bicycle sales in the U.S. averaged 14.4 million, a sudden burst in popularity dealers can explain easily today, although at the time it took them by surprise. While the oil embargo of 1973 certainly helped business, the bike boom actually started a year earlier, a consequence of the antipollution movement and the fitness kick that swept the land. Then in 1975 the boom became, as suddenly, a bust. Wholesalers moved barely half the number of machines they had shipped in each of the preceding three years.
Commenting recently on this period, Thad Mark, manager of Mack's Cycle shop in South Miami, said, "In the years prior to the boom, bicycles weren't used much by adults. Then all of a sudden the bike was more than a play-type thing. It became part of the national health program. There was a madness about it. Every Tom, Dick and Harry got into the action. In the last gas crisis a lot of people bought bikes with worthy intentions and shortly thereafter parked them in their garages forever."
This year the bike business is booming again. Sales will surely exceed 10 million, and it is more than a temporary upswing for several reasons. Whatever the availability of gas in the future, the price will not go down. In addition, business is likely to prosper steadily because retailers and makers, mindful of the erratic past, are today enthusiastic but also realistic. For a sample of freewheeling enthusiasm tempered by reality, one has only to listen to 66-year-old Keith Kingbay, the activities manager of the Schwinn Bicycle Company in Chicago. Although Schwinn is not the largest U.S. producer, it is the most prominent, well known for quality machines over a broad price range—from Collegiates costing little more than $100 to the Deluxe Touring Paramount equipped with Campagnolo parts at better than $1,000.
Although Kingbay has cycled all his life, he rarely lets his zeal get totally out of hand. For example, he has only bicycled coast to coast twice, and in only 33 other countries, and because of lesser diversions did not get around to pedaling across the Andes until he was 60. "People who get on a bike and never do anything else," he says, "have got to be out of their minds. Today you can pedal all through the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, but pretty soon you have seen all the spruce trees you could want." Two years ago in Afghanistan, of all places, he got the sort of comeuppance a promoter needs now and again to keep on an even keel. While the 64-year-old Kingbay was praising the durability of his 12-year-old Schwinn to a repairman in the dusty hills north of Kabul, a 12-year-old kid pedaled up on a 65-year-old bicycle.