Things to do in Denver when you’re dead… tired, and have just three hours before your flight leaves: go to a bike shop and look around. Google Maps said there was a shop just eight miles from the airport, so I went to check it out. Turns out that the “shop” in question was actually the factory outlet for Tomasso Bikes.
As far as I could tell, Tomasso operates the same way that Bike Nashbar used to: they have frames built overseas and then they load ’em up with slightly better components than you would get on a “name-brand” bike like Trek or Cannondale. Aluminum Tomassos are made in Taiwan, carbon Tomassos in mainland China. To some degree, quick-bake companies like this have been rendered obsolete by Giant, which owns both the means of Chinese proudction and the means of American distribution. (This is why a Giant is almost always the best deal on a new bike, if you are purely concerned with specs.) Compared to those old Nashbar bikes, however, Tommasos are very handsome. They make a rather striking “hybrid” bike in military green, which was the first thing I saw when I walked in the door.
The fellow who came out to talk to me and show me a few bikes was on crutches, having been hit by a car during a road ride seven weeks ago. He’d gotten a femur nail, so we had a long conversation about that particular surgery and its consequences. I was an experimental recipient of a Grosse-Kempf titanium nail back in March of 1988. Luckily for my new friend, his break was much less severe than mine had been. He’d gone for a short bike ride just six weeks after the nail went in. At that point in my recovery I was still confined to bed 24/7.
Hanging on the wall across from that army-green hybrid bike was a drop-bar roadie, something about halfway between a tourer and a full-bore racer: the Corvo. It has the full Shimano 105 “gruppo”, which is to say that most of the parts on it are supplied by Shimano and that they are all “105” level. When I was a kid, Shimano had just three road-bike gruppos: Dura-Ace on top, 600 Ultegra in the middle, and 105 at the low end. Now there’s Tiagra below 105, and a few cheap-bike-specific gruppos like Sora and Claris. (A full explanation can be found here, if you care.)
“The Corvo is $1,699, which is a ripping deal for a full 105 bike,” my salesman said. By modern standards he’s right. And yet… if $1,699 is what you’d pay for a generic Chinese bike with Shimano 105, how much would you pay for an American-made bike with full 105? Would you be okay with… $1,282?
In the fall of 1986, my father took me to a brand-new road bike shop in Linworth, Ohio so I could see the ’87 Cannondales. I immediately fell in love with the SR500. It was a proper Cannondale, equivalent in lightness and strength to the multi-thousand-dollar boutique ‘Dales. It sold for $599 with a full Shimano 105 gruppo. I asked Dad if I could have it for Christmas. He said maybe. But it didn’t seem all that likely so I didn’t bother to press for a particular color. The SR500 was available in aqua with orange trim, or white with pink trim. I thought the aqua was the coolest bike I’d ever seen.
Christmas morning, I got the white one.
Not to worry. That Cannondale and I were fast friends, inseparable from the beginning. I’ve written before about my experiences on that bike, riding alone in the winter, sweating through the summer. Eventually I had the SR500 repainted in a maroon/silver fade. It wasn’t until 2001 that I sold it and replaced it with something else.
Nowadays the early Cannondales have an unsavory reputation — “a bike that will remove your kidneys by puree-ing them and letting them drip out your anus” is one recent description of the SR500 from a bike forum — but it was perfect for a teenager who didn’t care how punishing the ride was. The second Cannondale I bought, in 1997, wasn’t nearly as good. It was an M800 “Beast Of The East” with flexy seatstays that kept the cantilever rear brake from working properly. The company wouldn’t warranty it. I gave up on Cannondale for good. In 2003, Cannondale went bankrupt. Today, the brand is owned by the same conglomerate that owns Schwinn, Mongoose, and GT.
Currently, Cannondale’s entire production is sourced from China, the same way that Tomasso’s production is. We’re told that the bike market has changed and that the customers won’t accept American pricing anymore. It’s true that handbuilt American bikes can be very expensive. The Lairdframe that I built almost from scratch has a total component cost of…
…if you see my wife in the vicinity, please cover the screen…
…$2,491. The titanium 29er mountain bike that I have coming my way from Tennessee invoices for more than twice that much. (Now you know why I’ve been selling guitars left and right, incidentally.) But these are custom jobs with little expense spared in their creation. It would be much more fair to compare apples to apples.
So let’s compare my American-made Cannondale SR500 from 1987 to the Tomasso Corvo from 2017. Thirty years separate the two bikes, but they weigh about the same and offer remarkably similar performance. I doubt that anybody would be significantly faster on the Tomasso, and I doubt that the Tomasso will last longer than the original Cannondale roadies lasted. (I should say last, not lasted. There are still people with those Eighties bikes in daily use.)
That 1987 Cannondale was welded from scratch in the United States. It had Weinmann rims made in Europe. The Shimano componentry on the bike was made in Japan.
The 2017 Tomasso is made in Taipei. The Shimano componentry is made in China. I believe that the rims and bearing assemblies were also made in China.
The Tomasso Corvo costs $1,699 through the direct sales channel, although it periodically goes on sale for $1,499. The 1987 Cannondale SR500 sold at a bike shop for full MSRP of $599. That’s $1,282 in today’s money. To put this in an automotive context: In 1987, a Honda Accord DX sedan sold for $11,174, which adjusts to $23,933. The 2017 Accord LX costs $22,455. In both cases, final assembly and much of the component production was done in Marysville, Ohio. And if you’re reading this site, chances are that you know enough about cars to understand the vast gap in power, capability, and equipment between a 1987 Accord and a 2017 Accord.
Which leads to a legitimate question: If Honda can make a better car for less money without moving production out of the United States, why have bike makers raised prices after moving everything to China, where costs are supposed to be lower? How do you manage to drop the labor rate from $25/hour to a fraction of that and still charge more for the product?
It turns out that Chinese labor isn’t as cheap as it used to be. Which leads to a frightening conclusion: Cannondale et al aren’t making bikes in China because it’s cheaper. It isn’t cheaper. Instead, they are making bikes in China because they’ve forgotten how to make them in the United States. This isn’t just true for bicycles. In every industry you can imagine, from watchmaking to commercial-vehicle production, Americans have simply let multiple generations’ worth of knowledge and expertise disappear. While we were all busy watching “peak TV” and selling each other real estate, the entire industrial base of this country was donated to the Pacific Rim. They now have an effective monopoly on many products and processes. And because they are intelligent, resourceful people, they are taking full advantage of it.
I’d like to own a Tomasso for my daily rides. But I’m going to vote with my dollars for American bikes, even if they cost more. In fact, I just found out that there’s a company making suspension forks in the USA — MRP. So when I build my 26″ dirt-jumper, I’ll be sure to pick something from them. I’d encourage you all to do the same thing. I know that some of you think that the deliberate choice of American-made products is racist/sexist/bigoted/transphobic/whatever. Try to think of it in terms of the environment. This country has an EPA. What does China have? What does Thailand have? Are the environmental regulatory boards of those countries answerable to you in any way, shape or form? Can you influence them? Of course you can’t. So buy American, because it’s also best for the environment.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to start poking through old classifieds to see if my Cannondale is out there. If any of you see a deep Mercedes-Benz Maroon road bike with a fade-to-silver rear triangle, holler at your boy, alright?