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The 10-Speed and the Sting-Ray

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1960 saw the introduction of the first Schwinn road bikes, the Varsity and the Continental. This was an important moment for the cycling world, but its significance was slow to be realized.

Frank W. Schwinn died on April 19, 1963 at the age of 69 from prostate cancer. The third president of Arnold, Schwinn & Company was Frank Schwinn, Jr., or Frankie V. This was also the year that Schwinn introduced the incomparable Sting-Ray. West coast kids were putting "Texas longhorn handlebars" on old bikes in the style of the chopper motorcycle. Schwinn gave it smooth tires and a banana seat with a sissy bar. It was a grotesque distortion of the typical ride, even for a kids' bike. It was an immediate and unqualified success. When sales of 10,000 of a particular model was a big year, Schwinn sold 45,000 Sting-Rays by the end of 1963. They couldn't keep up with demand.

The Sting-Ray's smooth tires were perfect for skid outs. The smaller rims made wheelies easier. And the durable Schwinns could still take a curb or even a homemade jump. Copycats caught on quickly and "high-rise" bicycles accounted for more than half of all bicycle sales during the mid 60s.

In 1968, Schwinn sold 1 million bikes in a single year. Things looked good. Things looked amazing. But they weren't. Schwinn had lost part of their antitrust suit against the Department of Justice in 1967. The Supreme Court had ruled that Schwinn could not sell product to a distributor and then determine to whom the distributor could resell the product. Schwinn sidestepped the ruling. Within the week Schwinn was its own distributor and they kept right on going.

It was around this time that Frankie V. dropped the Arnold from the company's name. He cut back on research and development and gave the spoils to sales and marketing. The new distribution warehouses were taking up resources as well. While the numbers looked better than ever, Schwinn was no longer investing in the future.

Schwinn's "lightweight" road bikes finally began to make headway as the 60s became the 70s, lead by the Varsity and the Continental (both started life as 8-speeds). The original "ten-speed", the Varsity was targeted at 12-14 year olds and it was Schwinn's first derailleur bike that sold in significant numbers. Like the Sting-Ray before it and the balloon tire before that, the Varsity ushered in a new era in cycling. Rather, it marked a return to cycling as real transportation. The ten-speed's narrow wheels, drop handlebars, and hand brakes were designed for speed and distance. Adults, once again, had practical two-wheeled transportation, and the industry shifted again.

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