Tuesday, July 26, 2005 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Standards and Pedals: Schumpeter on the Crank

During my time riding through the Colorado Rockies last weekend in the Courage Classic, I thought of the surrounding beauty, the majestic vistas, how riduculous I look in bicycling gear -- and standards and interoperability.

In many ways, bicycles are prototypical "open," interoperable systems. The wheel sizes are standardized for road bikes at 700c, component sets are interchangeable, as are the forks, stems, handlebars and saddle.

A standard bike, then, is a prototype of an open, modular architecture. It is possible, even preferable if you know what you want, to modularly construct your bicycle -- frame, components, wheelset, fork, stem, saddle and pedals.

Except for the pedals.

It used to be that pedals also subscribed to this open, modular model. Standard pedals, later improved with toe clips, could accommodate any foot, and any reasonably-sized footwear. But sometimes in the late '80s, early '90s, cleated pedals entered the mass market, and each system (save for the interface with the crankset) is a miniature closed integrated system that only takes its own specific cleat. There are the mainstays: Look, Time and Shimano SPD; and the newcomers like speedplay and coombe. Cycling shoes are generally, but not always, interoperable with a specific cleat and pedal system.

I have no particular knowledge of bicycling technology, but along with mountain bike suspensions (another closed, integrated component), I would hazard a guess that pedal technology and innovation has flourished the most during the past decade. There are probably a number of explanations for this but part of the explanation might be the integrated, non-modular nature of pedal systems. By retaining an integrated model, the pedal manufacturer can avoid commodification and, with a measure of market success, better recover the fixed cost of pedal system development.

I have no idea what this means to the industrial organization of bicycle manufacturing, or maybe I was just suffering from fatigue and lack of oxygen. Nevertheless, it seemed profoundly interesting that this one part of the bicycle remains a "closed" platform, and that it seems to be the where the most innovation is happening.

First coffee, now pedals. Someone might want to consider an openness mandate to override these market offerings.

posted by Ray Gifford @ 12:33 PM | Interoperability