It’s the great curiosity of contemporary mountain biking, an absence of German bikes despite the crushing excellence of German mechanical engineering in relation to all other things wheeled. And it’s not a case of Germans being averse to cycling. Europe’s most populous country has abundant cycling infrastructure and commuting by pedal-powered two-wheeler is robustly encouraged by all Germans. But riding off-road? Less so.
Despite its tiny corner of amazing Alpine terrain in the extreme south-west, mountain biking is not embraced in Germany with equal opportunity - as is the case across the Rhine, in France. I’d table population density and a premium on land use as the reason. Munich, the closest of Germany’s large cities to Alpine terrain, doesn’t have nearly the trail network it should.
In and around that very same Munich, and across the Bavarian state border in Stuttgart, is perhaps the most remarkable concentration of mechanical engineering expertise in the world. A heritage of cuckoo clock precision tinkering, evolved over centuries, to its current offering of absolute domination in global automotive technology. Nobody engineers and innovates for private transport, quite as Germans do. And not merely on a grand corporate scale, either.
Much of Germany’s modern economic miracle is anchored in Mittelstand companies. Smaller enterprises, most family owned, with exceptional specialisation in technical fields and niche manufacturing. The Mittelstand companies have strategic vision provided by the world’s best technical universities and products built by some of the very best artisan system graduates. If you’ve ever seen the craftsmanship on a boutique German aluminium bike, you’d know.
They build everything. But bikes?
Why do German bike brands remain slumbering giants (pun, intended), if it’s such a wish list environment for engineering and industrial design? The domestic commuter market is immense and for most, demand has been sufficient to sustain a profitable business. But commuters are not our concern, nor are the custom bikes that German engineers have teased us with so often in the past – as vanity projects for the automotive industry.
Signalling a looming revolution, are Canyon and YT. With their disruptive direct sales business model and bikes of distinctive style – Capras aren’t mistaken for anything else – and notable innovation (Canyon’s shape-shifter geometry), the German mountain bike Blitzkrieg could be imminent.
German ingenuity in mountain biking is inarguable. SRAM’s drivetrain engineering R&D office isn’t in Schweinfurt because the beer and bacon is that much better than Colorado Springs. One by eleven. Eagle. These are examples of what SRAM’s German engineers deliver when challenged – and the justification for SRAM to have a crucial part of its business operating nine time zones away.
With a virtually inexhaustible pool of talent schooled in the fields of conceptual design and prototyping, balanced by an absurd adherence to strict testing protocols and an obsession with flawless manufacturing, why would you want to have a bike design bureau anywhere else but Germany?
Looking beyond the road
Europe is biased towards road cycling but the e-bike phenomenon has enabled an entire new pool of off-road riders to explore gradient terrain without yellow or white lines.
The demand for suspension e-bikes is enormous and that should redress some of the supply chain and strategic bias toward road bikes, which have dominated European cycling as a business ever since vélos became more sport than transport after the war. You wouldn’t principally bet against the Germans to build a pretty decent e-bike, now would you?
‘I hate e-bikes. What are you on about?’ European off-road e-bikes are stimulating demand for quality carbon fibre mountain bike frame design in a way unlike ever before. And in Germany, despite its lack of aviation production – ordinarily the gateway industry to downstream advanced material availability – composites have become big business.
The automotive industry, in an obsessive drive to reduce vehicle mass, is partnering with composite manufacturers or simply establishing their own carbon fibre entities. And the benefit of this will be access to superior quality composites for the German mountain bike industry. Beyond Canyon and YT, Cube and Focus, there could be a tide of new German boutique manufacturers. Highly skilled mechanical engineers, most with a background at BMW, Mercedes-Benz or Porsche, and a love of mountain biking, able to start niche composite frame building businesses.
The composite compound quality effect
‘Who cares about BMW carbon fibre bits, it’s not a tube, has nothing to do with bikes.’ The issue is not specific finishing, which will always be industry specific, but the supply chain of quality carbon source material. Global demand for quality source carbon is hierarchical: military, aviation, automotive. Your bicycle frame is not a first tier customer, unless it’s made by someone who weaves their own carbon, such as French brand Time.
But if you are an aspiring bike brand operating in an environment where quality carbon is available, and there are ample skills servicing Airbus or BMW composites in proximity to your office, the leveraging possibilities are phenomenal. Utah has great trails and tax incentives for business, but don’t believe for a moment Enve’s head office and manufacturing is there for only those reasons. Utah also hosts most of the United States’ strategic aviation design and the depth of skills around Salt Lake City, in composites engineering, are prodigious.
YT. From nowhere into desirable fringe brand. Their marketing is indisputably excellent and the current World Cup Downhill champ is on one. Beyond that, the business is run in a manner that is German in its retail cost recovery (South African exchange rate afflicted pricing notwithstanding).
Canyon’s ambition in 2017 is the US market, one never to be underestimated with the distribution and customer service demands across a territory with multiple time zones. Considering the reach of its portfolio (from road to downhill) and the ability of German businesses to absorb errors and evolve them to improvement, Canyon will surely be anointed as the vanguard global German bike brand in future; though it’s been in business for three decades.
Innovation. Precision. These are the anchors of German engineering. There isn’t a similar contamination of trends as often happens in the US industry. An upsurge of German boutique composite mountain bike brands could provide the necessary outliers we’ve been waiting for, to counter the (perceived) coercive agenda set by the current big three: Giant, Specialized and Trek. The very same brands who submarined European cycling in the 1980s with price, now have a return torpedo to deal with as YT and Canyon go Trans-Atlantic.
Competition will equal greater innovation. The tyres you ride off-road are already German. Your next bike could probably be too.