Many people have quietly and steadily been working for decades to bring higher levels of quality and performance not just to bicycle touring, but to other types of cycling products as well. If a change is gonna come I think that its important to go back in time to take a short look at some of their efforts and into some of the reasons that their efforts have either been extinguished or have gone almost completely unnoticed.
My initial awareness of much higher levels of quality and performance in bicycle products, came with my introduction to independent builders. The first independent builders that I had a chance to meet more than forty years ago were custom bicycle-frame builders. With relatively few exceptions, true custom-frame builders sold their frames directly to individual customers, and not through bicycle stores. Therefore they were independent of most wholesale/retail relationships and their work could be seen as independent of, and in direct competition with, bicycle dealers.
Certainly among the very best of independent bicycle builders, the level of frame quality and craftsmanship within their work was dramatically higher, more refined in its details, and far more costly overall to execute when compared with the quality of high-end, production-level frames. Consequently, to sell their frames anywhere close to a competitive price, and to do true custom work, custom builders sold their frames directly to individual consumers and eliminated dealers and their price markup. By excluding a dealer markup (often double or nearly double the price of a product), which would likely have eliminated all of the profit for a builder doing a high caliber of work, independent builders were able to produce a unique level of quality with some hope of working profitably. Being independent was entirely fundamental in their work.
When I was first becoming involved in cycling I greatly admired the very
best of custom bicycle builders because they were the only source of
quality bicycles. Independent frame builders were my introduction to
quality, craftsmanship, performance and politics in the world of
bicycles. It was through their work that I became aware of just how bad
the quality of mass-produced bicycles was (you have to see the good
stuff to know where the bad stuff stands). And it was through custom
frame builders that I began to learn of why independent builders were a
threat in the bicycle industry and why they were sometimes treated as
such. Behind the scenes, I've seen some truly amazing things through
the years that have been aimed at suppressing the visibility of the work
of independents, in keeping their influence, and their competition, in
check. But still, against tremendous odds and opposition, many
independent builders have prevailed, albeit somewhat precariously, to
still try to make an impact in advancing quality craftsmanship, design
I have witnessed three very inspiring waves of influence generated by
independent builders that could have brought wide and sweeping changes
to cycling, and each in its own way could have been of a tremendous
benefit to cyclists as consumers, especially among tourists. All
brought important changes in product quality, and the latter two brought
tremendous changes in design and performance as well as important
developments in materials.
The first wave of influence formed when a handful of the very best of
American custom frame builders brought vastly superior levels of
craftsmanship, finish and overall quality to bicycle building. In my
mind, and experience, they made an absolute joke out of the frames being
built by all bicycle companies, large and small. Essentially, they
obliterated quality standards that had been established by Raleigh,
Schwinn, Peugeot, Fuji, Cinelli and every other brand of bicycles. What
was also very clearly eclipsed were the building standards of European
custom frames, of which many were actually production-built frames, and
none sold in this country were custom-made. The best of the American
custom builders created a totally new standard. They also brought to
bicycle building something that was almost completely absent previously,
and that was the tremendous amount of work that is required to create a
high level of detail in true hand-building. Both a vast amount of work
and detail were highly contradictory with and antithetical to an
industry culture that had thrived on crude work that revolved around
minimizing effort at the cost of quality.
The second wave of influence that I witnessed was in bicycle touring, as
a few independent frame builders began to produce tubular-steel touring
racks that erased the standards of mass-marketed and mass-produced
aluminum racks. The very best of the rack builders established
dramatically higher standards of craftsmanship (in early Gordon racks),
design, performance (in the form of rack/pannier systems) and materials
(tubular steel that was about ten times more expensive than the
materials used in building aluminum racks). Standards of performance
and craftsmanship were greatly altered, but what changed even more
radically was in the cost, time and effort that is required to build
quality racks. Even the moderately well-made tubular steel racks built
in the 1980s could easily take five or ten times longer to build than
mass-produced aluminum racks. Coupled with much more expensive
materials, a very new standard of rack was created.
Most importantly, what changed that could have been of great benefit to
consumers, was that design and performance was greatly altered.
Lightweight racks of tubular steel did not break like aluminum racks of
that period. Rack designs became complimentary with pannier designs.
The first true integrated, rack/pannier systems were developed in the
late 1970s incorporating four-point pannier mounting systems, greatly
altering the standards of rack/pannier stability. This was largely due
to my efforts in developing new types of mounting systems.
The third wave of influence to greatly change the standards of
craftsmanship, materials, design and performance was also in bicycle
touring. I'm very familiar with this wave in that it is of my influence
that totally changed the quality, and most importantly, the performance
standards in panniers as part of rack/pannier systems through mounting
system developments, perimetric stiffeners and compression systems.
Also included in my work, just as it had been in changing standards of
quality in racks and bicycles, was the fact that elaborate detailing and
designs totally changed the amount of time and effort that is required
to build panniers to the highest standards.
The three waves of influences did not travel outward very far. Change,
on the whole, didn't come. The quality of bicycle frame building
actually went backward with the arrival of welded steel, aluminum and
titanium frames. All three waves were systematically extinguished. For
independent builders to have been successful in bringing high levels of
craftsmanship or performance to products in which they had previously
been almost entirely absent, a lot of things had to fall into place.
These things simply didn't. One thing that absolutely had to change,
and didn't, was that new standards of quality and performance had to be
placed in direct comparison with old standards of quality and
performance, and nobody making a living using the old standards was
going to let that happen.
Many wonderful things have been said about my products and those of
other independent bicycle frame, rack and pannier builders. On their
own, in isolation, these things are nice, but totally irrelevant. For
new standards of design, craftsmanship and performance to have been
established the old standards first had to be openly questioned and
denounced. Direct comparisons absolutely had to be drawn. A very clear
delineation of all of the details that comprise the highest levels of
craftsmanship, or exceptional performance in bicycle frame, rack and
pannier building, and that separate top-flight products from others, had
to have been vividly illustrated. The vast differences in the amount
of work, and in the cost of materials used by independent builders, had
to be openly and accurately expressed. All of these things had to be
clearly outlined not by builders themselves, but by an informed,
impartial source. And that source just wasn't around then. Had a
voice, or voices among the cycling press acting not as representatives
for large-scale advertisers and for thousands of retailers, but acting
as journalists representing cyclists, change might have come.
Even if all of those things had taken place, it still may not have been
enough. The powerful tradition within the bicycle industry of building many types of
touring products as quickly, crudely, and often as cheaply as possible, and
then through the alchemy of advertising, turning those products into
top-flight ones, had to be fully exposed. Comparisons had to be openly
made, and there was absolutely no way in hell that this was going to
happen. We quietly moved from the 1970s into the 1980s, and well beyond, as if nothing
had ever happened at all. We moved into what I have often called the "Blackburn Lowrider Era" when the sky fell, the bottom dropped out from underneath us and any hope of quality and performance becoming a part of bicycle touring, was all but put to death.
In the early 1980s we were all standing at the crossroads in cycling.
Probably very few of us were aware of this, and even fewer fully understood this possibility. A lot of movement had taken place, but nothing was fixed in new positions. The best of the custom
frame builders had eloquently expressed just how wide the gap between
quality custom frames and production-built frames was. The same vast gap was reflected in rack and pannier designs. We could have easily moved forward into a totally new
realm of quality and performance. But the things that needed to change,
didn't, and an anything-goes, business-as-usual atmosphere became even
more deeply set. It was hard for me to imagine at the time, but things
would get even worse as the commercialization of bicycle touring moved further downward still. Touring, already horribly backward and turned
upside-down in many respects, would become just plain, downright sleazy
in some corners. Quality, comprehensive design, and advanced performance, each
as important elements in touring products, would be severely undermined
as the focus in touring would become centered upon one nearly irrelevant
aspect of design, the movement of front panniers downward on low-mount
When the Blackburn Lowrider front rack hit the market in 1983, it was hailed throughout the bicycle industry as a revolutionary design and was marketed by thousands of retailers as a totally new concept. In fact, it wasn't
even remotely new. The design had been around for decades and
had been one of the basic elements of the rack/pannier systems of
American independent builders for a number of years. Vastly superior American low-mount racks had
been around for some time, but the Blackburn Lowrider, although it
would prove to be very structurally unsound, became the foundation of a new
formula for bicycle touring among retailers. It opened up a Pandora's Box as an extremely false illusion of quality and
performance was transformed into something altogether different. Unfortunately, a horribly designed, cheap, breakable rack helped establish the tone for the future of
bicycle touring in terms of defining both quality and performance.