The bike-building business has never been more technical, with exacting design and engineering specifications on not just racing bikes, but the commuters you can spot every day on the Southwest bike path. But in an industry where marketing and identity can mean the difference between success and failure, a bike's name can be a big deal.
"The name of a bike is the best way to convey your passion for it and what you intended this bike to be," says Eric Bjorling, brand manager for Trek's lifestyle line. "And you just hope it resonates with consumers."
He says naming a bike is one of the hardest parts of the branding process to do, but can also be the most rewarding.
"Almost all of our urban bike line is named after a certain place that inspired us to design that bike," says Bjorling. And, with the Waterloo headquarters in such close proximity to Madison, a few local places have lent inspiration. Most notably, in Trek's Gary Fisher Fast City line, there's the Monona, Mendota, Wingra, and this year's newly added Waubesa, which beat out Kegonsa among area lakes to earn a marquee spot on a frame tube. Bjorling adds jokingly that although Trek has no immediate plans to develop a Mud Lake bike, it may work for one of their mountain lines.
Just as anyone in the world can buy a bike named after one of Madison's lakes, so can we buy bikes here that are named after distant places. For example, Trek's Soho is named for the distinct bike culture out of New York's South of Houston neighborhood and the Trek Portland was designed and inspired by long distance, all-weather commuters in the bike-obsessed Oregon city. Trek's line reaches for inspiration as far away as the Pyrenees with the Madone, named for the mountain Lance Armstrong climbs to gauge his fitness leading up to the Tour de France.
Places are not the only source of naming. The Trek Lime was rooted in something much more abstract and "organic" as Bjorling puts it.
"The word 'lime' created a sense of fun," says Bjorling, "You use limes for margaritas. You use limes for tacos… And this bike is all about fun and what is returning to what is simple."
Coming up with new names each year can prove to be exhausting because once a name has been taken by one bike manufacturer it usually can't be used by another. With 40 original bike titles to invent per year, Joe Werwie, director of product development for Pacific Cycles on Madison's south side, sometimes resorts to reading maps for street names, scanning the phone book and browsing the internet in search of new brands.
"But it's tough because you don't want to use an aggressive name on a comfort bike or hybrid or a soft sounding name on a mountain bike," says Werwie. "Maybe we are putting more thought into it than we need to, but it's tricky."
In 2004, Schwinn, owned by Pacific Cyles, learned first-hand how important branding can be for a bicycle when they used a heritage name for their new Sting-Ray Chopper.
"I believe it was the most successful bike in the history of the bike industry," says Werwie. The cruiser bike's success fed off the success of The Orange County Chopper reality TV show and the motorcycle craze of the time, and bike stores had trouble keeping them in stock.
Although Werwie doesn't agree that the name alone can make or break a bike's success, he iterates that Schwinn's historical names can help build a base for customer loyalty and familiarity.
"If people had a Varsity growing up and they see a Varsity in the store, that may help them form a connection," he says.
Like Trek, Schwinn is also forming local connections with their bicycle names, although not with the Schwinn Madison. That single-speed/fixie commuter is named for the track races that originated in New York's Madison Square Gardens.
Schwinn's Jenny and Willy, however, are named after the Madison east side streets that have long been home to bicycle commuters, racers, and weekend leisure cruisers on their way to the Harmony Bar (Werwie also made mention of the possibility of a Schwinn Harmony).
"Although we build and are responsible for the look and the feel of the bike, it is really people and places that drive the design. You have to address what people want," says Bjorling.