In the last decade of composite everything, the release of a new aluminium road bike should elicit little more than wearied acknowledgement from a carbon-centric industry. Yet push aside the Alpha this and invisible weld that on this month’s latest product release from Trek, and you’ll see conventions being broken.
Image: Trek Bikes website
With the launch of its Emonda SLR10 road bike – billed by Trek as the “world’s lightest production road bike” – ahead of the 2014 Tour de France, the US brand, which reportedly produces 1.6 million bikes per year and generates annual revenue of USD1Bn, created a product-based headline that gave it an edge on its competition. However, at more than USD4’000 for a frameset, and almost USD16’000 for the 4.65Kg halo model, the Emonda SLR platform would not create the significant additional worldwide market share that a global brand usually craves.
As complete bikes are traditionally sold through bike shops and not online, the first barrier to a brand’s growth is its distribution and retail network. Like most global bicycle brands, Trek relies heavily on independent bicycle dealers (IBD’s) to sell its two-wheeled machines. IBD floor space is hotly contested, particularly within stores which tick all the geographic and demographic boxes a brand desires. Trek, like its competitors, must have unique selling propositions (USP’s) that give it a chance of securing valuable retail real estate in order to access more consumers. For its part, a retailer will have concerns about what makes the product unique (ie “Why is it better than brand “X”?), its availability (“When can I get it?”, “How many stock turns can I get” “Where else could my customer go to buy it?”) and the terms (ie “What’s my margin?”, “What are my purchase terms?”, “What other financial incentives do you offer?”).
Though Trek, and its competitors, will likely always need to address those concerns, what makes the Emonda ALR important in this dog-eat-dog environment is that it overcomes three major issues in the bicycle industry that has driven bicycle retailers nuts for some time.
1. Model year designation
There is simply no better way to ensure diminishing financial returns from a product than to timestamp it. Assigning a model year to a bike creates myriad problems for everyone but the consumer, who has been trained by the bicycle industry to expect a newer, “better”, model every 12 months. By definition, a 2016 model is newer than a 2015 model, rendering the latter “old” on the former’s release. In turn, this leads to discounted products as shops clear out their “old” inventory to make way for “new” inventory. With a new model year typically beginning in May/June (excluding Europe, where the season typically starts later), retailers rely on brands to deliver new product as early as possible (in order to maximise the selling season), have constant availability (to mitigate/reduce missed sales and spread inventory risk) and to perfectly manage production to get as close to the supply:demand equilibrium as possible (hence avoiding under- or over-supply). Nowhere in any of Trek’s documentation or subsequent third-party press releases related to the Emonda ALR will you see any mention of a model year. Though Cervélo was arguably the first to trial this concept, Trek is the first major brand to dispense with model years. Therefore, don’t expect to see big discounts on this model any time soon. [For more information on the bicycle industry’s model year cycle, refer to this Cycling iQ article from 2011]
2. The Marketing vs Sales disconnect
So, you’ve spotted a new bike at ‘de Ronde’ have you? Chances are, you’re not going to get your hands on it until later this year. The issue of visibility versus availability has constantly irked consumers and retailers alike. Clearly cognisant of this fact, shops in Australia and Japan (two of Trek’s most important international markets) were advertising the Emonda ALR for sale in the same week that Bike Radar’s James Huang publicly broke the news about Trek’s latest product. There was also sufficient co-ordination with international offices for Trek Japan to have time to add subtitles to the launch video.
3. Perceived value of metal
In the realm of lightweight performance road bikes, only a few brands such as Cannondale have stubbornly persisted with aluminium, whilst most have flocked to composite materials. Aluminium has progressively been pushed further down the performance ladder. Lately, the tide seems to be turning. In late 2013, Giant unveiled its “state-of-the-art” ALUXX SLR tubing on its MY2014 (there goes that pesky model year issue again) TCR SLR 0. Given Giant’s reputation as a road bike brand only took off with the launch of its aluminium TCR concept in 1998, it seemed fitting the Taiwanese manufacturer placed renewed emphasis on metal almost 15 years later. Specialized was the next big brand to follow, introducing ‘E5 Premium Aluminum with D’Aluisio Smartweld technology’ on a premium S-Works Allez. The fact that Trek, one of Giant’s biggest OEM customers, has also invested in lightweight aluminium technology is perhaps a sign of a trend: a dearth of product differentiation in the lower echelons of composite-framed bicycles has caused “carbon fatigue” to reach a critical mass of disgruntled consumers who would rather opt for a nicely-crafted metal frame over a composite frame made of resin and undisclosed fibre types.
Giant’s 2015 TCR SLR 1 (Asia Edition) with ALUXX SLR “professional grade” aluminium, which is claimed to be 20% lighter and stiffer than ALUXX SL tubing. Image: Giant Biycles
Though it has been illustrated above that Trek is not the first prominent bicycle brand to address these three critical issues, it appears to be amongst the first wave of brands that are collectively overcoming all of them in one tidy product release. Though composite bikes will continue to feature in product lineups, there is little doubt others will follow Trek’s example.
Good to see more articles and insider info posted on CyclingIQ again. Model years and expectancy is hotly discussed and yes, a bike can genuinely live (and be a good, valid and reliable bike) for a few seasons however marketing has also driven the seasonality and gives marketeers something new to talk about.
Aluminium forming is coming a long way and you could argue most of the progress has been in the commuter / urban / trekking segment and is now pushing up to the performance segment however it will be difficult to knock Carbon Fiber off it’s purchase both because it is actually (or often) more comfortable than aluminium and carbon fiber is also (in theory) more forgiving.
Appreciate your input, Christopher.
My view is marketeers might benefit from product releases being staggered over time, as opposed to an entire lineup being launched – the whole industry is competing for media bandwidth at the same time of year, every year, whereas more attention would be lavished on a new bike if it were also released out of the current cycle.
I agree on your last point, too – carbon has performance benefits that can’t be replicated in aluminium. Still, I can see a certain segment of the consumer base flocking to this bike.