JRA with the Angry Asian: How much does ‘soul’ matter for bike brands?
Enthusiast cyclists often toss about the term “soul” when it comes to bike brands and bike models. Which brands have it, which brands don’t, which are lifeless manifestations of some random designer, engineer, or hedge funder who only cares about making another buck.
A new direct-to-consumer performance bike brand named Viathon was just announced to the world, and interestingly enough, the trademark is registered to Walmart – yep, that Walmart. How the Walton family itself is involved isn’t entirely clear, but it’s well known at this point that the grandkids are very interested in cycling. However, they have no retail history in the enthusiast bicycle scene at all (aside from perhaps helping people get into the sport by selling cheap kids’ bikes in big-box stores), and no rich history in the sport itself aside from being die-hard participants themselves.
That said, the Waltons have also played a big part in transforming their hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas into a legitimate cycling destination. Moreover, RZC Investments, which is controlled by the Waltons, also recently purchased Rapha, and apparently also has some financial stake in Allied Cycle Works).
So in some ways, this move seems to make sense. The bikes look pretty good on paper, and not surprisingly, the price points are aggressive for what you get. But is it enough to just look good on paper?
Viathon is jumping out of the gate with three model families to start. The R.1 for road riding, the G.1 for gravel, and the M.1 hardtail for cross-country. All three are made of carbon fiber, and are available with a wide range of name-brand build kits from mid-level to top-end, plus standalone frames or framesets, depending on model. (Road and gravel models come as frame and fork; the hardtail is available as frame only, no fork.)
These supposedly aren’t just relabeled open-mold frames chosen from some random factory’s spreadsheet; they’re designed by seasoned industry veteran Kevin Quan, who has quietly been involved with major brands such as Cervélo, Parlee, Diamondback, Pivot, and Knight Composites.
Claimed weight for the R.1 disc road frame is just 795g for a raw 56cm size — well in keeping with top competitors — and it includes high-end features such as pseudo-aero tube shaping, pencil-thin dropped seatstays, internal cable routing, a tapered steerer tube, clearance for 28mm-wide tires, and a PF30 bottom bracket shell.
Built with Shimano’s Dura-Ace mechanical groupset, Knight Composites carbon clinchers, and Zipp carbon cockpit components, retail price is US$5,850. With Shimano 105, it’s just US$2,300, or a mere US$300 more expensive for a complete bike than what Viathon is asking for the bare R.1 frameset. Each bare frame or frameset, model depending, costs US$2,000.
The mixed-conditions G.1 frame is said to tip the scales at a reasonable sub-1,000g, and sports a dropped-chainstay design that can accommodate 700c tires up to 51mm in width or 650b tires up to 2.1″. Flattened tubing, together with slim and dropped seatstays, are intended to provide a smoother ride. Hidden rack and fender mounts add extra versatility, there are mounts for three bottle cages, and the bottom bracket sports conventional threads for easier serviceability and to minimize creaking, at minimal weight penalty.
The top-end G.1 Force model costs US$3,550 with a SRAM Force 1 groupset and HED Ardennes LT aluminum clincher wheels. Similar to the R.1, the least expensive G.1 comes with Shimano 105 and costs just US$2,300.
Finally, the M.1 hardtail sports “modern trail geometry,” 120mm-travel suspension forks across the board, dropper-post compatibility, and room for 29×2.4″ tires. For US$6,000 buyers can get an M.1 built with SRAM’s venerable XX1 Eagle groupset, Stan’s NoTubes Crest CB7 Carbon Pro carbon wheels, a RockShox SID RLC fork, and FSA carbon finishing kit. With SRAM GX1, Stan’s NoTubes Arch S1 Team wheels, a RockShox Reba RL fork, and FSA Afterburner bits, it’s just US$2,400.
Needless to say, all of these prices will be very enticing to brand-agnostic riders who are already involved in the sport and are willing to take a gamble on an unknown brand in order to score a great deal. The price points are still too high to realistically expect to bring new people into the sport in substantial numbers.
All of these bikes look great on paper, in terms of spec and features, and given how common high-quality carbon fiber design and manufacturing is these days, they probably perform pretty well, too. But Viathon obviously has no “soul” to speak of — no rich history to draw on, and no ethos of coolness the brand can point to in order to help bring in buyers.
“We feel strongly that everyone should have access to a high-quality bike,” reads a statement on Viathon’s web site. “That is why we set out to create a line of bicycles that are performance-driven yet comfortable, practical, fun to ride, and beautifully designed. And to pass our own test, they should all be bikes that we want to ride ourselves.”
Is value pricing, solid performance, and great spec enough? Or do bike brands need more of something intangible to gain a foothold in this highly competitive market? Do things like legacy and brand equity still matter in this modern age, with bikes increasingly becoming commodity items at varying price points? Or have advanced engineering and direct-to-consumer pricing made these obsolete?
I’m about to find out, as a new Viathon G.1 gravel bike test sample will be waiting for me when I get back from the Sea Otter Classic. I suspect it’ll be a fine machine, but I still wonder where this is all going to go.
Would you buy one? Take a look at Viathon’s collection, and let me know in the comments below.