Why Cannondale entered the Fat Bike segment

This is just one conversation of many I’m having on this topic, so it’s only one example of one side of the story about why different size brands enter a particular product category. Or don’t.

In 2015, Cannondale launched the Fat CAAD, their first full fledged fat bike with clearance for 4.8″ tires. For the non cyclists reading this, the largest fat bike tires are around 5″ wide, so these are pretty close. From a market standpoint, Cannondale was very, very late to the game. Most every other major global brand that wanted to launch a fat bike already had (I’ll talk about the ones that don’t want to launch one in a separate post). And there were plenty of boutique and smaller brands that focused much of their product lineup on fat bikes and were seeing strong brand allegiance. It’s also important to note that the global fat bike market is seeing decreased sales volume. It’s a niche product that for most riders, once you have one, it’s kinda like that play bike that’s there when conditions warrant but not your A or B bike. That means it’s less likely to be replaced every year or two like a primary road or mountain bike. And by now, most enthusiast mountain bikers that wanted one, have one.

So, why get into a declining and arguably crowded market?

I spoke with Scott Vogelmann, Cannondale’s Senior Product Manager for mountain bikes, who answered: “We wanted to build a bike that we wanted to ride, and the business side of it came second, but we did have to get the management side on board.

“Fat bikes at the time didn’t ride like mountain bikes, so we saw an opportunity to make something that rode really well. If you’re gonna be last to the party, you better be the best dressed. When we started development, most of what we saw out there had long chainstays, wispy handling and weren’t as much fun as we thought they could be.

“We had just finished the FSi (race hardtail mountain bike) at the time we started (the Fat CAAD’s) development, and that bike’s asymmetric frame design would easily let us shorten the chainstays and also keep the q-factor narrower. It has a 198mm Q and 120mm BB shell with clearance for a true 4.8” tire. That, and a lot of people were already adapting (our Lefty one-sided suspension fork) to fit a fat bike.

“Before we made it there were a lot of Surly (*a competing brand) fat bikes in the office. We’re cyclists, right? So it wasn’t a stretch. Development started before the fat bike boom really hit, and by the time it got close is when our dealers started asking for us to make one. That really helped cement the business decision to make it. It Started selling as a late MY2015 bike. I think interest in the U.S. has tapered, so sales are dropping off a little bit. And Plus bikes (with 2.6″ to 3.0″ tires) are stealing a little of their thunder, especially for summer use. But we see a bright future in that there’s always room for improvement; once we make something we inevitably see ways to improve it. And components are getting better for the category, things are getting lighter, and, you know, there’s always going to be winter.”

The early adopters probably all have one, and then the real enthusiasts probably have one. So it makes sense that there’s a tapering off. But then there’s the non-cyclists who gravitate to something weird (like monstrous tires and a single sided fork), and the slower adopters who might not even know what a Surly is but have ridden Cannondale or Trek or Specialized all their life and now see that category only through those major brand’s dealers.

A brand the size of Cannondale has the bandwidth and financial resources necessary to take a gamble. Maybe a little less so than some privately held brands, but still. They also have the dealer network and brand recognition to pull it off.

Vogelmann wouldn’t divulge hard numbers, but he suggested that the fat bike is only about one percent of unit MTB sales for Cannondale. Not only are the numbers lower than, say, a Scalpel (full suspension race bike), but there’s also the risk that it’s so far outside the race/lightweight brand identity that they’re known for, that making initial projections needed to be based in worst case realities and still make sense. Even more so for a public company like Dorel.

“It ultimately comes down to can you make a fat bike that’s cool and rides sweet. That’s what anybody wants. And then can you make it have enough value that the customer is willing to spend their hard earned money on it, then I think it makes sense. It’s pretty hard to get all three of those things right.”

That, and have the bandwidth to gamble.

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