In Which The Author Learns Some Hard Truths About American Bicycle Manufacturing

Last month, I pointed an emerald-green S63 AMG across the California desert separating Pasadena from Apple Valley. My purpose: to meet up with my old pal Bill Ryan, owner of Supercross BMX. I hadn’t seen Bill for more than a decade and a half, although we had kept up a sporadic conversation via email and social media. My plan was to order a new race frame to replace the 2001-vintage Supercross UL that Bill had custom-built for me and maybe to make some plans for my son’s next race bike.

Bill was in fine fettle when I arrived and we chatted for the better part of two hours. “Let me give you the tour,” he said. We walked through a series of warehouses. “This is where the fabrication line was… this was where we painted the frames… Right there was where we did all the machining and drilling for the stems.” And as we walked it dawned on me that every single drill, every single jig, and every single fixture I saw was coated with the thick dust of long neglect.

We returned to his office, where a massive whiteboard detailed every incoming shipment of frames and parts along with cost, supplier, and various conditions regarding delivery. Almost without exception, the names of the contractors were established Taiwanese OEM cycle suppliers.

“Bill,” I said, “I don’t understand it. Fifteen years ago you were making a ton of stuff here. Regular production, custom builds, small parts. What happened?”

“Well,” he exhaled, and some of his infamous manic energy seemed to evaporate, “…we’re in California.”

California Proposition 65 establishes specific permissible levels of lead, phthalates, and other chemicals for manufacturing operations in the state. Over and above that, the Obama administration drastically elevated the requirements for testing and verification of bicycles with “child” wheel sizes of 24″ and below.

So what does that mean? Well, back when Supercross BMX was founded the process of making a BMX frame was simple:

* Weld up frame
* Apply paint or chrome
* Sell it

Simple as that. Today, however, you would have to add a few extra steps:

* Test each combination of size, color, and features for:
– Lead levels
– phthalate levels
– All other California 65 requirements
* Perform destructive testing to meet CPSC requirements
* Add whatever ridiculous features are required for CPSC requirements

Furthermore, the testing has to be third-party, which means that in addition to fronting the money for your materials, labor, and manufacturing space you are also fronting the money for third-party testing. Which isn’t cheap. Not only are you losing product when you submit it to testing, you are paying money that has to then be recouped over short parts runs.

It was once common for Supercross and other companies to make runs of 100 components or less, in varying finishes and colors. To do that in California today would increase the price of those parts by a factor of five or even ten.

Alternately, you can do “the right thing” and send your production to Taiwan. They will come up with the compliance certificates, and if nobody in California is able to verify them that doesn’t seem to bother the mandarins on either shore. They have labor costs that allow for plenty of wastage in production. Last but not least, they will assume the burden of CPSC compliance — knowing that if the CPSC ever hammers them into the ground with fines, it’s nothing but a shell importer taking the blame.

Bill Ryan is no fool. You don’t keep a BMX company alive for thirty years and buy Dinan-tuned Bimmers with the profits if you’re anything besides razor-sharp. He developed Taiwanese production contacts. He developed a quality control system that stood between the island and the customer on the BMX track. Most importantly, he went past the main contractors to audit and ensure the quality and provenance of the raw materials involved.

He handed me a “Speedline” carbon fiber fork. It was designed by him. The carbon fiber is made by Toray in Japan at his order. Then it is laid up in Taiwan. When it arrives, he inspects them. The fork he showed me was utterly flawless. In fact, it was woven better than the carbon fiber dash panel on the AMG I’d driven to see him. He suggested that I take it home and try it out.

“Oh no,” I said. “I’m using —” and I gave him the name of a shop that makes heat-treated steel forks in the United States.

“He and I use the same manufacturer,” Bill laughed. “They do the final finishing in the States. Anything more than that and they would have to certify.”

I frowned. Then I took the fork. Carried it on when I hopped my Delta red-eye. Put it on my USA-made Supercross frame. We will see what happens. I think Bill knows his stuff and I’m not afraid of the part failing. But I wish more than anything that I’d walked into that office and found people laying up carbon fiber the same way they do at Rainsong Guitars in Seattle. At least I know a little bit more about how the sausage is made. And I thought about a phrase I read a while ago:

‘If I had but one bullet and were faced by both an enemy and a traitor, I would let the traitor have it.’

The overseas manufacturers are the enemies of American production, the enemies of American jobs, the enemies of American prosperity. But they are merely enemies. The government entities that make it cheaper to hand your business to China, even if it’s the “good” part of China? Save your bullet, metaphorical of course, for them.

23 Replies to “In Which The Author Learns Some Hard Truths About American Bicycle Manufacturing”

  1. totitan

    Enough hysterics and bullshit
    “We are, right now, at the peak of industrial production in the US. The industrial production index peaked in December 2007, then dropped by 15% by the summer of 2009. It took five years to recover to a second peak in 2015. As the world economy dipped in 2015 and 2016, so too did US industrial production. We are back at a record level of industrial output. It’s worth noting that total US industrial production is more than twice what it was in 1979, when employment peaked. And yes, of course, that is adjusted for inflation.”

    • everybodyhatesscott

      It’s something that we used to be able to completely do here that was killed because of regulations and outsourced to countries that don’t care about those regulations.

      Any imported good should be at least required to come from a country with the same regulations as us or we’re just outsourcing our pollution and safety violations.

      • Eric H

        Killed by regulation?

        All the same regulations are in effect no matter where the components are made if they’re for sale in the USA. California cares (a little too much) about the chemicals involved in manufacturing but their are vast quantities of “California Approved” coatings available. Material certs from reputable suppliers cover almost all the rest.

        What they’ve outsourced it the responsibility for the accuracy of the certifications, and cheapened the labor costs.

        If you look at the amount of manufacturing that goes on in California this guy’s complaints look to be an excuse to keep his costs down so he can keep those Dinan-tuned BMW’s coming.

        • Jack Baruth Post author

          Sure. Large-scale industrial work can stay in California. But a company that sells 2,000 frames a year can’t make it happen.

          FYI the cost of destructive testing on the eight different sizes of Supercross frames would cost more than a Dinan BMW… and the market wants a revision of those frames EVERY YEAR.

          • Eric H

            There’s still many options to keep building in the USA.
            He can move production to outside California.
            He can move the company to outside California.
            He can start a new company doing the testing. The equipment isn’t terribly expensive and he can turn it into a profit center testing things for other companies.

          • Jack Baruth Post author

            I agree. But as Samuel Jackson said in The Hateful Eight, “Nobody said it had to be that fuckin’ hard, either!”

  2. DirtRoads

    Sadly, the bicycles are truly a metaphor for manufacturing across the USA.

    Happily, perhaps we will regain some of that.

    Sadly, I doubt we’ll ever get back to the levels we had before outsourcing to the Asians started.

  3. John C.

    This is really a sad story. I wonder if he did all the compliance stuff and just charged more, probably way more, if he would still have customers. I think he might, but it is not my livelihood at risk.

  4. E. Bryant

    I’m having problems accepting the “Cali sucks!” justification for outsourcing bike production, only because it also happened in virtually every other state. So while my Ibis Hakka and Santa Cruz V10 took trips across the Pacific on their way to the Golden State, s as did my carbon Pivot on its way to Arizona and my steel Surly bikes on their way to Minnesota and my aluminum Trek Ticket S prior to landing in Wisconsin (side note – Trek’s abandonment of Waterloo is an American industrial tragedy). And Cannondale doesn’t weld up every single one of their aluminum frames in Pennsylvania any longer, and I don’t think that California state law led to the demise of the original version of Spooky or Merlin in New England. There may be a common thread in all of this, but it doesn’t seem to be Prop 65.

    But I could be wrong. My only professional experience with California’s bullshit has been in dealing with CARB, so maybe I’m missing something.

    It may also be worth noting that Ibis announced that they are localizing a tiny amount of production (only the Small front triangle of the new Ripmo, I believe). Maybe it’s a sign of things to come, but seeing as how there appeared to have been little or no concern when the work left the states, I don’t think there will be much if any fanfare when/if it returns.

    Meanwhile, there is a little composite manufacturer in my neck of the woods that could probably pull off small-scale bike production in-between all their jobs for sailboats, paddle boards, and drones. But seeing as how modern bikes are about form and not function, I’ll leave that to folks who are better-suited to what is basically a marketing task. See also this video on frame outsourcing from Pinkbike:

    The scene where the narrator traces a photo on his phone using a napkin and labels the head tube angle “slack as fuck” is brutally on-the-nose.

    • Jack Baruth Post author

      What makes this particularly sad is that Supercross was still doing stuff in the USA a full twenty years after companies like Redline and Haro moved to Taiwan. The 2012 CPSC implementation was the last straw for him.

      There are plenty of small manufacturers who wink at the regulations — my skatepark frame was basically built by a guy in a shed who has very little public profile as a bike maker — but Supercross is the biggest company remaining in BMX racing and they can’t fly under the radar like that.

  5. Dirty Dingus McGee

    At the present time, China is where Japan was 50 or so years ago Those old enough, remember hearing about “Jap crap”. Well, that’s where China is right now. So-so quality, lack of innovation as everything is a copy of something else. But selling the dog whee out of everything, due to price.

    As for California; since 2010 our business has moved 7 companies out of California. 3 went to Texas, 2 to Florida, and 1 each to Mississippi and Arkansas.Want to hazard a guess how many we have moved TO California?

  6. Ronnie Schreiber

    Hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians have been lifted out of abject poverty, perhaps at the cost of working class Americans. That’s probably good for humanity in general even if it hurts Americans.

    It will be interesting to see what kind of disruptions artificial intelligence will cause, what industries it destroys and what industries it facilitates.

    • Everybodyhatesscott

      It’s the Chinese government’s job to look after their citizens, it’s the US governments job to look after Americans. America first, then do what we can to help.

  7. Hogie roll

    Ironically we probably got proposition 65 because little Suzy got impaled on failed fork of a Chinese special bicycle. Miraculously she survived the crash and gruesome wound, 1” either way and she’d be a goner they said, helluva scar though. Unfortunately the good news was premature as she later developed cancer due the large volume of lead paint from the fork that was deposited straight into her blood stream.

  8. Pingback: A Little Ignorance And Malevolence, Comin' Right Up - Riverside Green

  9. -Nate

    I find it very good that Mr. Ryan is finding a way to continue his established business .

    Yes, companies are leaving California but, more companies are moving in in greater numbers than are leaving .

    I’m sure it’s incredibly difficult for a tiny company to compete here and that sux big time .


  10. stingray65

    This is a story about George McGovern, former ultra liberal senator from South Dakota and Democratic candidate for President in 1972, who after being voted out of office decided to get into the hotel business. His story sounds very similar to Jack’s bicycle story:

    In 1988, McGovern had his first brush with the real world — mugged is a better word — when he took his speaker fees generated while traveling the world on various lecture tours and purchased a 46-year lease on the 150-room Stratford Inn in Stratford, Connecticut. Within three years the inn went into bankruptcy and McGovern wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal in June 1992 explaining why:

    It’s been 11 years since I left the U.S. Senate, after serving 24 years in high public office. After leaving a career in politics, I devoted much of my time to public lectures that took me into every state in the union and much of Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

    In 1988, I invested most of the earnings from this lecture circuit acquiring the leasehold on Connecticut’s Stratford Inn. Hotels, inns and restaurants have always held a special fascination for me. The Stratford Inn promised the realization of a longtime dream to own a combination hotel, restaurant and public conference facility — complete with an experienced manager and staff.

    In retrospect, I wish I had known more about the hazards and difficulties of such a business, especially during a recession of the kind that hit New England just as I was acquiring the inn’s 43-year leasehold.

    I also wish that during the years I was in public office, I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day. That knowledge would have made me a better U.S. senator and a more understanding presidential contender….

    To create job opportunities we need entrepreneurs who will risk their capital against an expected payoff. Too often, however, public policy does not consider whether we are choking off those opportunities.

    It was the choking of local, state and federal rules, regulations and mandates that forced his venture into bankruptcy. He explained:

    My business associates and I … lived with federal, state and local rules that were all passed with the objective of helping employees, protecting the environment, raising tax dollars for schools, protecting our customers from fire hazards, etc. While I never doubted the worthiness of any of these goals, the concept that most often eludes legislators is: Can we make consumers pay the higher prices for the increased operating costs that accompany public regulation and government reporting requirements with reams of red tape? It is a simple concern that is nonetheless often ignored by legislators.

    For example, the papers today are filled with stories about businesses dropping health coverage for employees. We provided a substantial package for our staff at the Stratford Inn. However, were we operating today, those costs would exceed $150,000 a year for health care on top of salaries and other benefits. There would have been no reasonable way for us to absorb or pass on these costs.

    The lesson learned in the free market came late to McGovern, too late to make an impact on his excessive confidence in the power of government to solve society’s problems. As Justice Felix Frankfurter said:

    Wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late.

  11. E. Bryant

    Here is a pair of articles on US bike manufacturing that might be at least tangentially related to the topic at hand:

    Other than the fact that both closed operations are *not* based in California, they also shared a common trait – current and prospective customers complained about poor service, excessively high minimum order quantity, blah blah blah. It’s the stuff you hear when customers all the way through the chain of commerce want a high level of service but don’t want to pay for it, or the bike brands can’t figure out how to market this attribute properly (understandable, seeing as how the marketing budget was already blown trying to educate customers as to why they need to hop on the current bandwagon despite the fact that it’s actually worse for their needs).

    And so while the industry finds it impossible to make a business case for a $10,000 American-made downhill or road bike, I can spend $399 and get a Workman “industrial” bike built in the Bronx (although I think that some production has recently moved to South Carolina).

  12. safe as milk

    regulations are what economists call “barriers to entry.” because the regulations are a fixed cost no matter the size of the production run, they create an incentive to “go big or go home.” the end result is cartel capitalism which is exactly what we have in our country. every industry is dominated with a handful of large corporations with the capital and political influence to stay in control. so as much as large corporations complain about regulations, they actually benefit enormously from them.

  13. Daniel J

    Speaking of California….a judge just ruled that coffee is bad for you because it contains traces of a substance that causes cancer, and coffee distributers and baristas don’t put any warnings on their products.

    Now every coffee drinker in California will be suing. No wonder it’s hard to run a business in this country, and especially California.


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