ryan leech norco team frame from evolve cover

The Bike of Theseus

Photos Richard Belson
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There's been a lot of change in the bike industry lately – and most of it has nothing to do with technology or product. Post-COVID, many of the brands we know and love have had to re-adjust staffing levels, which is CEO jargon for laying off super-talented folks in the name of survival and shareholder happiness. This has got me wondering, if the people who’ve made a brand what it is are no longer part of that brand, is it still the same brand? A lot of this relies on the idea that the brands we love have a soul, just like the souls we project onto the bikes we ride.

Pragmatically, I know full well that bikes are no more than a collection of highly engineered mechanical systems combined to optimize performance for a specific type of riding, just like a brand is a collection of talented people brought together to turn a profit.

But the romantic in me can’t help but think about each of my bikes in terms of my history with them. The good times. The near-misses. The mud-smeared death marches. It’s the very same connection that brands tap into when you become a fan.

So, given that, I often wonder where within a bike does the soul live? Is it the frame? If so, and you break your frame and you get a new one under warranty, is it still the same bike? To some detail-oriented collectors, just the idea of a re-paint is enough to wash away a bike’s soul. To others, non-year correct tires or grips, or a build that is outside the design ethos of the original builder, is akin to sacrilege.

These musings have a parallel that scholars and philosophers have considered for centuries with the Ship of Theseus thought experiment, which says:

Over centuries of maintenance, each piece of the Ancient Greek Ship of Theseus was replaced, one after the other, ensuring it stayed sea-worthy. The conundrum begs the question of whether, after every component is replaced over hundreds of years, it is still the same ship in the end.

gt zaskar LE

If you’ve been keeping up on the industry news lately, you may have noticed significant changes, and not just through “right-sizing,” a term that numbers-oriented folks use to de-humanize the concept of derailing careers in the name of profits. Some of the sport’s most iconic brands have undergone a shift in leadership, which begs the question, is swapping CEOs akin to a trip to the paint booth? Or is it a complete frame swap?

Just like in any moral quandary, it all depends on the situation and your perspective. When I read that Santa Cruz’s CEO Joe Graney stepped down, almost 10 years after the brand was purchased by PON Holdings, Theseus floated to the top of my mind. To lose someone who has been a significant influence on the brand since 2001, relatively soon after the departure of company founder Rob Roskopp, could present a challenge to a brand known for its deep roots.

I’m not privy to insider info here, but in my experience, it’s rare that someone just walks away from that kind of job 100% voluntarily, especially considering the CEO position was then given to a longtime PON insider.

So, it begs the question, with a heart and mind almost a quarter century-invested in Santa Cruz no longer making the big decisions, will this iconic brand continue to set the same industry benchmark that it has over the past 30 years? And it’s not just Santa Cruz dealing with these issues.

Just this past week, YT announced that Founder Markus Flossmann would return to become CEO after 12 years away from the post. Without any bigger picture information, all I can do is speculate but it’s not unreasonable to think that Flossmann was a crucial part of the YT ship that defined its soul, explaining his return.

Just like with the Ship of Theseus musings, there is no definitive answer. A change in leadership could seem as minor as the grips I replaced on an Inspired Fourplay I received from the estate of a dear friend who we lost a couple of years back. It was to make the bike more ridable but ultimately the change made it feel like I’d turned my back on the entire ethos of Geoff’s build.

On the other hand, having replaced something as major as a seat tube on an old Ibis Custom, to reunite it with its original fork in Switzerland for a period-correct build, I felt fulfilled, as though I’d allowed its story to live on, soul-intact.

So I wonder, with the ouster (or return) of formative personalities at some of the sport’s most influential companies, will the reputation and soul of the brands themselves be altered? Will we even care, so long as the products themselves stay rad? It’s something GT acknowledged this week, announcing a commitment to return to the IDB and Dirt roots that elevated the brand to legendary status through the 80’s and 90’s.

If history teaches us anything, we can look back at Merlin, Klein, Fisher, Bontrager, Nuke Proof, and a nearly endless list of iconic MTB brands who changed course by changing who steered the ship, and possibly changed the ship too much.

There’s rough waters still ahead and, at the very least, it’ll be interesting to see who wins the race, and if the boats that cross the line are the same ones that started the race in the first place.

Richard Belson first wrote for NSMB back in 2001, and he keeps sneaking back in every time we forget to lock the back door. A recovering bike industry wordsmith with an affinity for MTB & trials history, he’s still up for a rip on the new stuff, as long as his health insurance can keep up.

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+7 Mike Ferrentino Vincent Edwards Lee Lau Han Wongwitz Pete Roggeman Morgan Heater fartymarty

Whooooo I could go on and on about this one! In my experience great product + creative rad people = great brand. Take away the product people that want to infuse bikes with soul and the product suffers. It becomes the same as everything else out there. Take away the creative brand people and replace them with cheaper work, the creativity suffers. We're stuck with more basic shredits and bad ads. Founders age, so turnover is expected, but it's the decisions they make that will have a lasting impact. Will they sell to PE and strip the creative control from the creative people in the name of trying to turn a profit? That seems to be par for the course these days, and it usually doesn't bode well for that so-called soul you speak of. I'm a big fan of any company that is still not owned by PE or a massive conglomerate. This isn't universal, but it's pretty damn close.


+4 BarryW Konda 93EXCivic TerryP

What if private equity buys the ship and, instead of replacing it piece by piece, sells off or just tosses pieces until it’s barely able to float?


+5 Lee Lau Velocipedestrian 93EXCivic fartymarty cornedbeef

The Ship of Late Stage Capitalism


+3 Cam McRae Pete Roggeman bishopsmike

Hahaha, wild. I wrote a piece with this exact same title in like... 2018? that never saw the light of day. Love the concept.



That was my thought, too. But that wasn't a 'piece'. It was a freakin' book.


+3 Mike Kittmer Allen Lloyd Pete Roggeman

Reminds me of my first real mountain bike, a Rocky Mountain Stratos, 1992.  Loved it, and rode it as such.  Took it on many Shore sights.  Ladies, Dales rock (with a low bar and 70mm stem, I think, with a 3" travel front end), Bookwus and countless slow wheely drops (something no one does anymore, as there are no features that require it).  But that bike.....the amount of polish I put on it.  Finally died.  Cracked right at the head tube/downtube junction.  Aluminum cannot be fixed, really.  Steel or titanium maybe.  Perhaps it was a good thing.....made me venture into FS in 1999 with an Intense Uzzi DH, which quickly showed the rest of the world was not up to Shore standards of construction, and sold it 2 months later.  But I do miss that bike.  The specs are laughable by todays standards, but it is the rider, not the bike.......


+1 Andy Eunson

This is about culture. Without culture, there is anarchy - too much of culture, it will become a cult.


+1 Allen Lloyd

People (customers) get behind people and a bike company’s vibe as much as the product in my view/experience. As a supporter of Santa Cruz bikes since the start, I’ll admit it pains me for some reason that ownership and leadership has changed. The decisions appear all to much to remove soul from the brand. The product hasn’t suddenly changed and reality is that as time goes on, sales will soldier on regardless so the brand may not suffer. Regardless, I’ll still hold onto that sensation I had the moment I saw that first Tazmon in the Bell Sports catalogue, the link it had for me to my skate roots and how much more advanced it was than the FS bikes of the day. I may however not buy a  Santa Cruz again.



I agree, my first FS bike was a SC Superlight that evolved over time to become something completely different from what SC had in mind.  My second FS bike was / is a gen 1 SC Hightower, it has stayed fairly as it came.  There was something that felt familiar between those bikes and made me think I was SC for life.  Over the years I have ridden a bunch of the newer versions with the shock at the bottom and I just do not like any of them.  

I am shopping for my next bike and SC isn't even on my radar.


+1 Mike Ferrentino

Having made workplace moves that have, ironically, moved me to being employed with more of the people I started my prior job with now than the company I was previously... 
The great people leave lasting organizational impacts, but they're also actively doing that where they're at.  Good management makes the best of this, bad management just causes enough turnover to minimize the upside of this overall.
I think what a LOT of people learned about this industry is that it's just as much about the bottom line as the finance industry once the scale of sales goes up enough that budgets have to account for 7-8 figures of inventory, so no matter where a company came from or how intensely they have tried to curate an image of being really organically connected to the community - most of the real underlying priorities are now obvious.  The truly small outfits that can stick to principals are likely still backlogged enough that they're getting a free pass for the moment, but seeing how race teams are being 'resized and restaffed' is as unsurprising to me as it is disappointing.  Lacy nailed the underlying reasons for that.

The tragic reason why this matters is that the future profits are very much there in the industry (though admittedly biased towards the eBike side of things), so we'll see even more disparity between focus areas.  As long as we get to keep having the luxury of cheap-but-great-for-the-price manufacturing in Taiwan as a thing, we'll still probably look at the 2024-2027 timeframe as the golden age of being able to pay $2-4k for a mid-range Al FS bike and get awesome results, and having baller carbon stuff that was still fairly plentiful.


+1 BadNudes

Where's Major


+1 cornedbeef

"Klein, Fisher, Bontrager" (Add Lamond) What's the common factor?

Trek, where brands go to die.


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