Eye Spy: The Bike Industry is Leaking Like a Pinch-Flatted Tube

The latest spy shot is likely part of a carefully choreographed bike launch.

The bike industry has traditionally operated as a well-choreographed production, with regular model year updates and tightly controlled release timelines coordinated with dealers and the media alike. But judging by the number of prototypes and early looks we saw at Sea Otter this year, that old model has been placed on the shelf.

Nothing to see here. Salsa eMTB prototype on display at Sea Otter 2023.

Don’t tell anyone 😉

Media embargoes have long been employed to slow competitors from getting wind of new technologies and also to smooth supply and demand.

However, with marketing budgets shifting to social media or evaporating altogether, it’s clear some brands are pivoting to leaked spy shots and early looks at public events like Sea Otter to help market their products. More than one brand rep gushed about how Instagrammable their bikes’ finishes are, and writing the word prototype on a bike almost guarantees people will take photos and post them online.

Marin’s DH test bike.

Salsa showed an early prototype of a long-travel electric mountain bike at Sea Otter last week, with a projected release date in 2025. Marin displayed the downhill bike they’ve been testing, but still aren’t ready to officially announce—Yeti did the same. And last week Diamondback finally — finally! — released their short travel bike, the Yowie, which they’ve been not-so-secretly teasing for at least two years.

One reason for secrecy in the past was to keep competitors from responding to upcoming releases with similar bikes of their own. Supply chains are still pretty fried so at the moment it’s less likely that competitors could respond quickly enough with a product of their own even if they wanted to. We’ve also seen a gap year (or three) in product deliveries, giving brands few new, available products to talk about, and providing an early preview at least keeps folks talking.

Leaked products also have the advantage of potentially fending competitors off, or at least giving them a chance to adjust the positioning of their own upcoming products. If you know another brand is launching a downcountry e-bike next year, you might decide to shift gears on your own development and work on an electric DH bike instead. Showing off a 2025 bike today is a way to stake a claim on a particular market segment or technology.

Platforms like Kickstarter have proven that early teasers and releases can be beneficial as well. Providing a preview is a good way to test the waters and see what consumers think, and if there’s demand; if the early comments online are harsh, there’s still a chance to rework the final product.

Supply and demand

Bike dealers need time to unload current year models before consumers start asking for the latest and greatest, and waiting until the last minute to announce new bikes has served the industry well for a long time. However with fewer dealers holding inventory, and many brands moving toward a direct-to-consumer sales model, withholding information about the latest models becomes less important.

Brands like Trek are even putting a new spin on this old sales and marketing conundrum: position the new bike as an alternative to the old one, rather than a substitute. The Trek Fuel EX Gen 6 is currently being sold alongside Gen 5 models, and with the two bikes priced very similarly, Trek is touting the advantages the old model still has over the newer one like a lighter weight and better parts spec. Of course the Gen 6 models are great too, according to Trek, offering more adjustability and added travel. Whether buyers will buy into this new paradigm is yet to be seen but at the very least, the strategy blunts the effect new model announcements could have on demand for the older ones.

Early leaks and announcements may not be ideal for sales of existing models, but they do have the advantage of keeping customers loyal to the brand. If I know for sure that my favorite bike brand has a new model coming up I won’t be as inclined to buy from a competitor who has bikes available right now.

No questions, please.

Yes, but…

For every prototype and early leak we saw and heard about at Sea Otter there were still just as many embargoed bikes and products kept behind the curtain. New product announcements get consumers excited, and brands can capitalize on initial buzz by having products available to purchase immediately.

Some supply chains are starting to move closer to consumers in the US and Europe, which shortens lead times and allows brands to be more nimble. Giving competitors an early look at an unreleased product could be risky if incorporating new tech or designs is as simple as tweaking a CAD file for a bank of CNC machines and 3D printers.

Either way, we’ll likely continue to see early and “leaked” product announcements from the bike industry as an effective method for building the stoke for new bikes.