For a quarter century the easiest way to show you were a sophisticated,
discriminating cyclist has been to make disparaging remarks about the Schwinn
Varsity. It's true that the Varsity has the oxymoronic distinction of being
one of the heaviest lightweight bicycles ever built. But to understand the
bike, I think you have to take it in it's historical context.
In America in 1959, bicycles were children's toys. The market for quality
adult (including older adolescents) lightweight bicycles made up less than 1%
of the total market. Except for small groups in a handful of large cities,
Americans had never heard of, much less seen, a derailleur geared bike. An
attempt to introduce derailleur geared lightweight adult bikes a few years
before resulted in a warehouse of unsold bikes. The small bank account of the
venerable League of American Wheelmen, founded in 1880, was about to be
declared abandoned and closed because it had been so long since it had been
accessed. The U.S.A. had not won an Olympic medal in cycling in almost a half
century, about the same length of time since there had been an enthusiast
cycling periodical. Contemporary accounts indicate that some bicycle retailers
did not even know how to adjust a three speed hub.
In 1987, the market for quality adult bicycles made up over 60% of the U.
S. market, which had become the most vibrant in the world. Most American
adults owned a derailleur geared bike, and referred to bikes generically as
"ten speeds". There were national touring, racing, transportation
advocacy and off road cycling organizations, and every city in the country had
an active cycling club and a bicycle "pro shop". The U.S. Olympic
cycling team had dominated the most recent Olympics, winning the gold in a
number of track events and both the men's and women's road racing events. An
American had just won the Tour de France.
In between 1959 and 1987 was the Schwinn Varsity.
Remembering the bike today, it's easy to forget that for the first years of
it's production, it's sales (combined with it's slightly upscale brother, the
Continental) were greater than all other U.S. derailleur bike sales combined.
When the production run was finally over, the Schwinn Varsity had been
manufactured in greater numbers than any other single model of derailleur
geared bike in the world ever. Built with unique technology to meet an entry
level price point, it was the only bike in the national market in the 1960s
that was simultaneously inexpensive enough to get non cycling adults to give
it a try, and well built enough to make them conclude, "Hey, this is
fun!" The Varsity was the foundation of reintroducing American adults to
the joys of cycling and a cornerstone in building the modern adult cycling
infrastructure of events, clothing, magazines, clubs, businesses, etc...
The Varsity is the single most significant American bicycle.
I think what's important historically is the dedication the Schwinns had to
the nonexistent U.S. adult bicycle market from the 1930s through the 1960s.
They continued through this period to advertise and make available through
their dealers various bicycle models for adults even though Americans didn't
buy many of them. They couldn't have made much money doing this - in fact the
Paramount was a money loser for the company, supported by profits from
children's bikes. But they believed in adult cycling, they stuck with it, and
they continued to look for a bicycle that would entice the non rider to be a
casual rider, and bridge the casual rider into an enthusiast.
That biked turned out to be the Varsity.
Understand that what I'm about to say is a lot easier to figure out with 30
years perspective than it was at the time. The dark lining to this silver
cloud is that Schwinn had the opportunity in about 1968 or so to say,
"Hey, look! American adults are starting to ride bikes. It's catching on
at college campuses. The AYH in the northeast has rides all the time. In
California there are active clubs, and not just young racers but older
professionals like the folks in IBTS that have real money to spend. And in
Ohio a couple of hundred people rode their bikes over 200 miles in a weekend!
Dealers understand how to maintain and repair derailleur bikes, and know how
to sell them to adults. And the baby boom is about to hit the young adult
years. It's time to retool the factory and start phasing in the next
generation of product."
Unfortunately, they didn't. Conventional wisdom these days is that Schwinn
began suffering from "third generation family ownership" syndrome.
Schwinn marched into the future building products more suited to the past.
Then from 1971 to 1972 the adult lightweight bicycle market expanded by a
factor of 40, and while millions of Varsities were stamped out (literally)
during the bike boom, introducing more Americans to cycling than any other
bike, Schwinn never really recovered from having the wrong product in the
maturing and increasingly sophisticated market.
It is also unfortunate that we remember the Varsity as an inferior bike.
I think ultimately the Varsity is THE great 1960's American road bike that
happened to get produced until the mid-1980s. It's not the first or only
classic design that outlived the conditions it was designed for and was
produced into obsolescence - the Model T and VW Beetle spring quickly to mind
in this category. Just like those designs, the Varsity's high build volumes
and durable construction mean it is now plentiful and inexpensive. The bikes
are still fun to ride, interesting social artifacts and a good way for today's
riders to relive "the way it was". My hope is that these bikes will
begin to be appreciated for the important role they played in American
cycling, and perhaps enjoyed once more on the streets and back roads of the
country they transformed.