Friday, August 25, 2006

Fancy Bikes Get More Costly

The Wall Street Journal ran an article a couple of weeks ago about how high-end bicycle prices are likely to increase due to constraints on the supplies of some high-tech frame materials, particularly titanium and carbon fibre. Quoting the article:
Cycling enthusiasts can expect to see prices head uphill for bikes made of in-demand specialty materials such as titanium and carbon fiber.

Driving the increase is a sharp rise in orders for airplanes made of the same materials, meaning that bike makers -- along with makers of sailboats, lacrosse sticks, tennis rackets, jewelry and bone screws -- are paying 25% more for raw materials and passing along some of the costs to consumers.

Prices for high-end bikes from makers such as Trek Bicycle Corp., Cannondale Bicycle Corp., and Serotta Competition Bicycles, some of which already cost more than $10,000, could rise 5% to 25%. A custom-made La Corsa titanium frame from Serotta, for instance, would sell for up to $7,000 with top components by the end of this year, up from $6,000 in January.

Amid rising demand, titanium and carbon-fiber makers are largely catering to their bigger customers: the aerospace industry. Zsolt Rumy, chief executive of St. Louis-based Carbon Fiber maker Zoltek Companies Inc., says he is trying to keep prices lower for bigger customers by raising prices for smaller ones, such as bike and golf-club makers, who constitute 15% of his company's business. "We really jack up the price" for smaller customers, he says. He's passed on more of the 60% to 100% increases to sporting-goods customers.

The article repeats an oft-heard misapprehension, that titanium is as strong as steel and as light as aluminum.
Titanium makers say their silvery gray product, made by refining and melting an ore extracted from rutile sand found in Australia and elsewhere, has the strength of steel and the light weight of aluminum. But it's far more expensive than both: Titanium can cost more than $32,000 a ton, compared with less than $1,000 a ton for carbon steel. The price of high-quality titanium, aluminum and carbon fiber has risen as orders from airplane makers and defense companies such as Airbus, Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. are buying up a greater portion of the supply to keep up with demand.

Actually, titanium weighs quite a lot more than aluminum, 280 pounds per cubic foot versus aluminum's 169 pounds per cubic foot. It is stronger, so you can get by with less of it in smaller tube diameters and make very light frames, but let's not mistake that for being lighter than aluminum. It is lighter than steel, which comes in right around 500 pounds per cubic foot. It also has a much higher melting point that aluminum, which is handy if you're making, say, Mach 3 aircraft, but I typically don't ride fast enough that atmospheric drag dangerously heats up my bike frame. You want a nifty material? How about magnesium, at 109 pounds per cubic foot? There are people making bikes out of magnesium. You'd better hope like hell they don't catch fire!

Lots of people spend a lot of money on bikes:
The tight supplies of titanium and carbon fiber, a strong lightweight synthetic material, come as the bike industry keeps expanding. About 19.8 million bicycles were sold last year in North America, up 8.2% from 2004, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association. Sales of bikes and bike-related parts topped $6 billion last year, up from $5.7 billion in 2004. Some bike makers estimate that 30,000 cyclists each year spend $3,000 or more on a new bike, a $90 million market.

But the growth also reflects the ever-escalating upgrades in bike models. Bike makers now use laser measurements, computer simulations, test-ride videos and drawings of a rider's body dimensions to create a more perfect ride. The desired growth in sales, coupled with tightening demand for raw materials, puts the bike industry in a bind.

A new wave of affluent cyclists is increasingly willing to pay higher prices for bikes that weigh less and are made of high-tech materials. But bike makers believe high prices eventually will hurt sales for middle-class buyers and could cause a return to other, cheaper materials such as lightweight steel. Cheaper bikes at retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. are typically made of steel.

Older cheaper materials like steel? Wal-Mart bikes? What a slap in the face to us Rivendell riders!

I've always thought that the cutting-edge materials use in bikes was pretty neat. I don't partake in the fancy materials myself, sticking with brazed lugged steel frames and forged aluminum components for the most part, but for all the technology cars brag about, it's bicycles where advanced steel alloys, aluminum, titanium, stainless steel, magnesium, carbon fibre and even beryllium are used to hit lightweight high-performance targets. It's possible to produce bikes in these advanced materials and have them used in real-world conditions so that knowledge advances (I'm old enough to remember some of the early attempts like the Exxon (really) Graftek, the Viscount bike with the failing aluminum forks and the Teledyne Titan) . Military aircraft have used these advanced materials for years, they began to work their way into commercial aircraft in the last round of model introductions, and now are going to be used extensively in the new generations of planes like the Boeing 787 and Airbus A380 and A350 models. That's where all the big-volume demand is coming from and driving up the prices for your Litespeeds and Trek OCLVs.

Does this affect us Practical Cyclists? I'm guessing most daily commuters and ride-to-the-store cyclists aren't using carbon and titanium frames. Plain old steel works fine and some nice Practical Bikes like the Breezers are aluminum, partly for anti-corrosion reasons, but using exotic materials would only make the bike more attractive to thieves I think. I'm not going to fret about the rising cost of carbon fibre and titanium, I'll leave that to those who chase the latest in cycling technology and keep riding my steel steeds. It is going to hurt, though, when I get my titanium-masted carbon-fibre yacht. Curses!


LvilleTex said...

good, informative post. glad you're back. i really like the Bridges post from July

Anonymous said...

Here's a couple pictures of the Exxon Graftek. I took these at the Larz Anderson Bike Show last year:

Anonymous said...

Oops, I guess I forgot to link those:



Doug said...

I always tell young people, new to cycling and all hooked on carbon fiber that it's nothing new. And then tell them about Exxon making Grafteks. I remember racing club races with Davis Phinney in 1978, when he was living in Pittsburgh, and was riding a Graftek. Also watching Dale Stetina win Senior Nationals in Milwaukee on a Graftek. They were cool looking bikes at the time with the shiny lugs and graphite wrapped tubes....I enjoyed seeing some pictures of the old frames. Thanks for the memories. Doug

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