The Making of Bicycle Things

Over the last two years or so, I’ve fallen in love with dirt road riding.  In the Sierra Madre and Barrancas del Cobre of Chihuahua, the fire roads of the San Gabriels in SoCal, and now criss-crossing the continental divide here in Colorado and Wyoming.  I’ve pushed my trusty Long Haul Trucker further into the dirt than it really wanted to go.  I love the quiet, the near total lack of motorized traffic.  The long, rhythmic heavy breathing of going up up and away, focused on staying in motion, focused on staying upright.  And so I’m building a new bike, more dedicated to vanishing into the hills, and crawling along the vast majority of the world’s ways and roads, which are unpaved.  I’m calling it a Trohlloff (a Surly Troll frame fitted with a Rohloff hub) inspired by Cass Gilbert’s most recent steed (Bryan and I just happened to ride part of his route through Mexico last spring, and I’ve been following him, mesmerized, ever since).

I’m fascinated by supply chains and the globalization of nearly everything, and I have all but sworn off non-German bike parts, as they seem to be of consistently excellent functional design and build quality (vastly better than their US competitors), and I think Germany does a much better job than most countries with their labor and environmental practices (again, including the US).  So it’s interesting to me to learn more about where some of these bits that I buy on the interwebs actually come from.  Two examples, in the YouTube format.

The Rohloff Speedhub is an archetypal Made in Germany product: fabulously expensive (it costs considerably more than an entire brand new Long Haul Trucker!) and even more fabulously well made.  To celebrate the manufacture of the 100,000th Speedhub, the company recently threw a party and invited anybody who had ridden their hub more than 60,000 km.  A number of participants had ridden theirs more than 100,000 km.  Even some of their first batch of 20 prototype hubs had clocked up this many kms, and were still running strong!  To date, they have never had a hub fail in the field.  This is a testament to the power of good design.  Heirloom design.  Barring loss or theft, I won’t be surprised if the hub outlasts my legs, and this makes the up-front investment worthwhile.  It only makes sense to use highly paid manual labor when the value of the labor embodied in the product isn’t swamped by the value of the energy and materials that make it up.  When relatively low-skilled factory workers have good healthcare and lots of vacation time products have to be extremely well designed, and/or made from intrinsically expensive materials.

Schwalbe is another German company, and is the only tire manufacturer in the developed world that only makes bicycle tires.  Their tires are very well designed, durable, and unsurprisingly, expensive (a set of two will cost you $100 or so).  Interestingly, only the design of the tires takes place in Germany.  They’re actually manufactured in long time rubber producer Indonesia… by a Korean company!

I wonder what Rohloff’s thinking is behind keeping their entire operation in Germany.  Do they believe it’s impossible to train a foreign workforce to be as exacting as their German one, even with strict quality control measures?  Or is it more of a craftsman style operation, kept at home for aesthetic reasons?  I suspect the latter.