On the Offensive

 Bikes  Comments Off on On the Offensive
Mar 302012

Believe it or not, I’m actually trained in the art of English writing. Like I have a few degrees. I can tell you, for instance, that my previous sentence isn’t really a sentence in the proper, independent clause sense, but rather a “fragment” or dependent clause that can’t stand on its own as a sentence, but has found itself sitting there, pretending to be a sentence, either because its author doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, or for effect (I’m guessing the former).

I mention this because once upon a time I tutored professional college athletes at the University of Pittsburgh, including a few guys who went on to play pro ball. I have no idea what bovine growth hormones they were putting in these guys’ steaks, but if you paid attention, you could literally hear the freshmen linemen getting bigger and bigger each week, based on the sound the elevator made straining to get them to our floor and the reverberations through the building as they came down the hall.

The thing is, every one of these guys tended to be more humble than I’d expected, given that they’d often just been through the courtship of their lifetime and were generally regarded by the entire school as not just students, but financial assets. One likened the experience to being treated like the proverbial “piece of meat,” but told me it only drove him to focus even more on his studies. All things considered, they were remarkably level-headed guys, which is something that came to mind when I found this article about Taylor Lewan, a six-foot-eight, 302-pound offensive tackle at Michigan, who rides a tandem around campus, usually with somebody else.

Lewan was interviewed recently by Michigan’s MGoBlog, and the subject of his bike appeared to be a bit distracting for the individual conducting the interview. Granted, this isn’t the world’s go-to-source for hard-hitting journalism and it’s not like major news sources have run with this as a story or anything, but tandem fascination has clearly gripped the world of college football.

Lewan is a goofball, no doubt, and to act like he’s only riding the bike around to get places would be to ignore his sense of humor, but, all comedic intent aside, he is actually using the tandem to get around campus, and it’s not something he takes out only occasionally for giggles. In fact, given all the comic fascination, his straight and simple responses in this interview seem to suggest he has real talent as a straight man when need be, but also that he simply likes his bike. Riding it isn’t only about joking around, and that’s clearly tough for his interviewer and everyone who’s picked up this story to get their heads around.

Do you ride around Ann Arbor on a tandem bike?

“I do. I ride a twosy bike. That’s not leaving Ann Arbor. I’m keeping that twosy bike.”

Is there ever someone on the back?

“Oh yeah. I give rides. I carpool. I ride with a couple guys. Drew Dileo’s in the back of the thing all the time. You guys know Chris Brown from hockey. He’s on there, too.”

Is the weight distribution an issue?

“No. There’s really no problem with that. Do you have any more football questions at all?”

What has Elliott Mealer done this spring to move into the left guard position?

“Elliott Mealer’s a fifth year senior. He’s been through two coaches. He knows football. He gets it. Coming in, I think he’s doing a phenomenal job. I have 100% confidence in him. If he’s the guy I play next to in the fall, I’ll be excited about it.

“Anything else? You guys just want to talk about the tandem bike. I get it.”

When’d you get it?

“A couple weeks ago.”

Where from?

“There’s a place on North Campus called Midwest Bike & Tandem … I’ve always wanted a tandem bike, a twosy. So I had to get it.

“Do you have any other football questions?”


“You good? Okay you guys have a great day.”

So yeah, I’m sure Lewan and his roster of passengers are plenty aware of the comedic effect of the tandem, but they’re also not riding the thing in parades here. It’s serving a purpose. The weird enthusiasm of the person conducting the interview took me back to my days with the guys at Pitt. Gifted and in demand or not, they tended to need to concentrate twice as hard just to function, given all the bullshit constantly surrounding them, and they had to put up with the more bizarre forms of scrutiny. Sometimes, they even had to be the adults.

So why do college athletes get attention for even the simple stuff? I think it’s intentional, a kind of mind-numbing media hazing designed to prepare them to answer the tough questions later in life with simple “fuck you” answers like, “I’m just taking it one day at a time,” “I can’t say enough good things about this team,” and “Yeah, I ride a bike.”

Funny or not, the Lewan interview reminds us there are still a lot of places in America where you’re expected to explain why you ride a bike, instead of having to explain why you don’t.

Zombie Apocalypse Dating

 Swine, Uncategorized  Comments Off on Zombie Apocalypse Dating
Mar 292012

Caution: Zombies

Results continue to come in from the questionnaire I posted yesterday, but the general consensus is that I should keep prattling on about random stuff here as long as the writing remains at least slightly entertaining, or at least until everybody switches to my daughter’s daily cartoon site.

As a kind of punishment for all of you then, I found myself once again pondering America’s ever-growing love affair with doomsday. Have previous empires developed a fascination with zombies and the end times a decade or so before getting their asses handed to them by the second and third-place world superpowers and fading into obscurity? I ask, because it seems like a lot of the same red-blooded “love it or leave it” types are the first ones abandoning ship. What the Ted Nugents of the world don’t understand (I mean, in addition to science and books without pictures) is that canning meat and living underground means you’ve abandoned your country.

Oh, that’s right: I keep forgetting that once the zombies attack, you’re going to find that virtuous but inexplicably scantily-clad fellow crusader and get down to repopulating the country with true patriots. Is there a tipping point, you think, where enough disenfranchised people give up on their chances of happiness in the world as we know it, and start cheering on apocalypse? I mean, was there that tipping point? Seems it might’ve already happened.

Gambling on your lot improving once the streets run with blood is nothing new. I grew up Catholic, and “You’ll Be Happy Some Day, While Those Happy Now Won’t Be” has been one of the Church’s greatest hits for a few thousand years running. These days, though, it’s never been easier to root for the undead to rise and tear down this life that just isn’t working for you.

Consider Survivalist Singles, the new dating site for “preppers” I just learned about from, naturally, CNN Money. According to CNN’s article:

Survivalist Singles, which officially launched in 2010, boasts the slogan, ‘Don’t face the future alone.’ Its ranks are growing — quadrupling to about 1,640 members from around 400 at the end of 2010.”

As one might perhaps expect, “For female preppers interested in finding a man, the site is a dating goldmine.” CNN tells us the site was founded by Andrea Burke, “a 45-year-old middle school art teacher from Montana,” which feels instinctively right for this, though it’s a fun exercise to imagine how large it would have to grow before some brilliant and cosmopolitan Silicon Valley tech billionaire/venture capitalist would decide to hold his nose and make an offer. Is it possible to purchase a tech company ironically? I do think a site based on end-times dating in bunkers in Montana would best be operated as a joint venture between Ashton Kutcher, Lady Gaga, Andy Samberg, and MC Hammer.

Lady Gaga stands to make a fortune off a zombie apocalypse.

Still, it’s not all canned meat, chainsaws and repopulatin’. There could be bad things about a zombie apocalypse, too. The expense, for one thing. As CNN Money reports, “Burke is planning to charge a $5 monthly membership fee so she can generate income from her project. She is considering using a slogan like, ‘Find love for less than the price of a box of bullets’ to draw in paying members.” Really? Membership fees are so Y2K apocalypse. Where’s Eric Schmidt as an investor when you need him? Can you imagine the granular specificity ad placement potential for a voluntarily captive audience? Goldmine.

Human interaction, though, will prove to be the biggest hurdle. It would seem preppers, many of whom were late to the whole “Internet” thing, are only now realizing how wonderful on-line anonymity can be, relative to having to actually meet someone in person. Having invested a lot of energy primarily into survivalist skills–developing the highly refined sense of smell necessary to determine when a possibly-bitten Uncle Larry is about to “turn,” for instance, or knowing with mathematical precision exactly when the family dog becomes less of an asset and more of a food source–the one thing many preppers find themselves completely unprepared to face is life with another human being. CNN Money describes the case of one SurvivalistSingles.com user pretty poignantly:

Because he lives in the mountains of Montana, distance has been a problem. He has met only one woman face-to-face out of more than 20 he has corresponded with on the site. After she visited him in Montana, they decided to just remain friends.”

She’ll be back, Mtexplorer2. One day she’ll need you, and she’ll come back running.

Mar 282012
How I Spend My Life

Image courtesy of my daughter, Riley, the most cynical 11-year-old ever. And of course she built her own blog, too.

Contrary to the whole point of many blogs, this one has always tried to be about something. I mean more than what I ate for breakfast or what crap I just bought. Mostly, that’s because I have no life and frequently get all pissed off about various marketing, e-comm and bike industry stuff. Lately, a few of you have noticed I’ve seemed almost prolific, posting a blog a day, five days a week–and yes, that’s what I’ve been doing. Pretty cathartic, this stuff.

Thing is, I find myself about to be working two fairly significant jobs pretty soon, in addition to trying to develop prototypes for my full-suspension design and occasionally sending some of my charming snark Dirt Rag’s way for Manic Mechanic and various other magazine locations they’re hoping to see shed some readership. Obviously, the plate’s kind of full, and here’s this Canootervalve.com thing that doesn’t pay any bills. That’s a tough one.

I’m thinking the most sensible solution is probably to roll this space into one or more of my actual jobs. I’d like it to always be a place for news about Project Danzig, the suspension project, but I’m starting to think it might make sense to roll this whole blog into my new job, a bike+web startup project that should start making some noise around the end of April. I have a lot riding on it, like moving my whole family 3,000 miles in order to make it happen, and I’m thinking I should make any really early announcements about it here.

But what do I know? My life is rarely entertaining to me, let alone any of you, so how about we test this form thing I just added, and you let me know what you think I should do with this blog.

What Matters?

Own It

 Bikes, E-commerce  Comments Off on Own It
Mar 272012

A while back I was on a kick about small retailers making and owning their own content. I never read my own posts (too many typos, and I hardly ever agree with myself in retrospect), but I’m pretty sure I’d been talking about independent bike dealers getting their shops on the Internet–however they can–and leveraging the great content they already have. Almost every shop is filled with people who race, and many of them also have interesting hobbies. The percentage of bike shop employees and hangers-on who dabble in music, film or writing tends to be considerably higher than that of the local bank or accounting firm, and, even if your particular crew seems to have little talent–maybe, particularly if you have little talent (have you seen what goes viral these days)–you should be creating content to identify your brand.

And your patron saint in this endeavor should be Red Bull, a company that seems to’ve spent five dollars creating a beverage and millions upon millions in marketing it. Consider this recent FastCompany article about Red Bull’s Media House. Media House is the content production wing of Red Bull, a 100,000-square foot building in Santa Monica, California that lets Red Bull basically bypass traditional marketing channels and go directly to their end users. Media House represents one of the first and most significant changes social media and direct contact has wrought on the world of conventional marketing. Why buy an ad during the Superbowl or blanket billboards when you can spend a reported $2-million creating your own film, The Art of Flight and use it to market your product directly to your users?

Oh, and you can also get them to pay for it.

According to FastCompany, The Art of Flight has topped more than one of iTunes’s sales charts for a week, selling for $10.

That’s right. Red Bull is actually selling us their advertising. And we’re buying it.

This isn’t because we’re stupid (though I guess that’s debatable), but because it’s really pretty amazing. If you’re in the bike industry, you know what I’m talking about: mind-blowing, downright inspirational acts of skill with everything from rally cars to trials bikes, captured on film and expertly pieced together into something amazing.

And they didn’t just happen to accumulate this content. Realizing they were basically selling a new, even nastier kind of soda, Red Bull and other “energy drink” companies started hoarding content immediately. Dietrich Mateschitz, who started Red Bull reportedly saw marketing as equally important to the product. If not more important.

Media House managing director Werner Brell is quoted in the article:

Whenever we did any event, or signed an athlete or executed a project, everything has been put on film or photographed. Stories have been told. It’s part of the DNA of the brand.”

Red Bull is likely to be a $500-million dollar company this year. On the scale at which a company of that size operates, their in-house marketing department poses a unique threat to conventional marketing companies. Mostly because it’s so much better.

I’ve been unfortunate enough to sit through multiple marketing, web-development, and countless other “creatives” meetings, and the standard method for dealing with a brand’s content usually goes something like this:

Marketing Guy: So then you provide us with the deliverables, your content, and we will turn it into something incredible, blah, blah, trust us.

Brand X: But what does that mean exactly? We’re struggling to make the content ourselves?

Marketing Guy: Partially that’s because you lack our Shitwad 4000 CMS system, which is based on hot new Photoshop-like web app technology that most hardcore programmers wet themselves laughing at and will be obsolete by the end of the year.

Brand X:: What?

Marketing Guy: Did I just say that out loud?

Brand X: Yes.

Marketing Guy: Ha, ha. I was just making sure you’re listening. Let me show you the work we did for Pepsi creating that awesome sans-serif custom font again, and then let’s critique that logo you drew yourself one last time.

Brand X: Uh, OK.

Marketing companies aren’t in the content game. They’re in the content container game. You know who’s always ultimately responsible for the content-driven success of a company? The company.

Any small business in existence should be capturing all the content it can and making as much of it available to end users as possible. I think bike shops are uniquely positioned to make this happen. Unlike Red Bull, you don’t even have the added inconvenience of a product nobody actually needs. You sell bicycles. Bicycles kick ass. Own your content.

Forgiveness Marketing

 Bikes, Swine  Comments Off on Forgiveness Marketing
Mar 262012

That’s the “Ferrari” of electric bike maker EH Line’s current lineup, the unimaginatively named “Street Racer.” According to Gizmag, it weighs about 35-pounds, has a top speed of 28mph under its own power, and costs just under $10,000. I mention it here only because some of you heavy embrocators out there may one day find a new High Tech Fred bridging up to you aboard one of these, and I’m sure he’ll want to talk. Sure as robots taking over the world and yearly Spiderman movies, the clash between whatever it is we consider “cycling culture” and motorized bicycles is coming, so you might want to start sorting out your opinions.

Speaking of hot new commuting rides and robots taking over the world, I’m pretty sure that if I ever caved to the joys of electric assist, I’d go all in.

As Seen on TV

Anything good enough for Carrie Brownstein is good enough for me. As marketing goes, the best thing about Portlandia product placements is that the show itself goes out and looks for weird Portland-made stuff–though it still pales in comparison to the best product placement ever seen in a TV show.

But the latest trend in marketing has yet to show up in the bike industry. Mostly, it’s still in beta testing by companies like Belvedere Vodka, that recently posted the image of a smiling man grabbing a panicked woman from behind with the title, “Unlike some people, Belvedere always goes down smoothly,” on the company’s Facebook page.

Yes, that really happened, and–as is the way with this hot new guerrilla marketing technique–Belvedere then issued an immediate apology, donated some money to a related charity, and sent out the obligatory bullshit “well, I never” letter from President Charles Gibb, which went like this:

It should never have happened. I am currently investigating the matter to determine how this happened and to be sure it never does so again. The content is contrary to our values and we deeply regret this lapse.”

While Mr. Gibb investigates–a process he certainly makes sound more laborious than the President of the company picking up a phone and saying, “I want the fucking idiot who posted a rape scene on our Facebook page in my office by this time tomorrow holding a box of all the shit in his cubicle”–the public apology has certainly made the rounds.

At least in the new viral marketing landscape, charities stand to do pretty well, positioned as they happen to be to receive considerable mea culpa money. As the saying goes, better to ask forgiveness than permission–especially when it comes to brand exposure. Once the next marketing hotness goes mainstream, I suspect we’ll see all sorts of crimevertisement hybrids, from date rape video product feature condemnations from Budweiser and Abercrombie and Fitch, to McDonald’s wild viral success, “World Vomit Day!” and the record-setting “Cannibalism Apology” following a new Pizza Hut topping rollout.

It’s going to be an exciting time to be a consumer.

I Believe I Can Fly

 Bikes, Gadgets  Comments Off on I Believe I Can Fly
Mar 232012

Brompton Butterfly

For as mellow a winter as most places had, Spring seems to be out of the gates strong this year, with April Fool’s day apparently being celebrated far earlier and longer than usual, and almost more glorious madness than a chronicler of such things can manage.

By now you (and nearly five million other people) have to’ve seen the dude who created bird wings that briefly got him airborne.

Except that they didn’t, the whole thing being a really elaborate hoax perpetrated by one Floris Kaayk, an artist in the Netherlands. Apparently Kaayk (which I believe would be the ultimate name for the first automobile bike rack from IKEA) really did intend to inspire people, but also to conduct an “experiment about online media.” Whatever that was, seemed like it worked. Hoax or not, why do I suspect kids in the Netherlands will be flying to school while we’re still taking our kids to school in these?

In the interest of full disclosure, in the past I did alternate picking my daughter up from school on the bike with picking here up in this.

In my weak defense, it was supposed to be the company car for my original bike company, Asylum Cycles (big wheels, get it?), and Tall Dan the Mechanic and I had converted it to run on veggie oil, but what it really ran on was wads of burning cash. Also, the doors rarely closed properly, and trying to accelerate hard to slam the door shut while my daughter teetered precariously six feet above the ground, giggling uncontrollably, definitely made an impression on the other parents at the school. After the Mog, they even gave me extra room when I showed up on the bicycle.

(Owning a ’77 Unimog was maybe the best and worst thing in my life.)

At any rate, it’s getting more and more difficult to tell the true stories from the jokes. Consider Nokia’s patent on vibrating tattoos. Hard to imagine why Nokia’s lost so much market share.

But arguably the most unbelievable of all recent news has to be the return, at age 46, of troubled bike fabricator and world record setter, Graeme Obree and the latest bike he’s created for the attempt.

As is his way, Obree built the bike he’ll use to contest the hour record out of basic bike parts and plenty of stuff he found himself around the house. Yes, in the age of using wind tunnel testing to shape carbon fiber structures for maximum aerodynamics, Obree is coming out of retirement on a Reynolds 653 steel frame he cobbled together with a combination of classic components, stuff he modified with a grinding wheel, and parts he literally whittled himself. You really should go check the full bike out at Cyclingnews.

Between Merckx riding through his entire career with a life threatening heart condition–then shrugging off the news once he found out–to Obree’s well-documented struggles and obsessions, if there seems to be a pattern to my recent ramblings about the true characters of cycling, it’s not an accident. This is mankind at our most self-deluded and absolutely magical, and I’m certainly pulling for Obree again. The thing is, just like our strange friend in the Netherlands didn’t really need to fly to get our collective attention, Obree really doesn’t need to break the record again. He’s already succeeded in creating another incredible story for us, which is really what he’s always done best.

The Good Old Undiagnosed Days

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Mar 222012

Does anyone else find it just a little odd that recent revelations about the Cannibal’s potentially fatal heart condition suggests doctors kept the news of the problem from Merckx himself? I did, based on this AFP article, which seemed to suggest Italian cardiologist Giancarlo Lavezzaro was something akin to a Disney villain, green-lighting Merckx to race despite knowing the man could die. Such is the nature of “stuff on the Internet,” though. Only after reading a bit more thorough article on VeloNation did it become clear Dr. Lavezzaro lacked the tests necessary to make a definitive determination.

But still.

In the VeloNation article, Lavezzaro is described as saying, “Every day after work I went back home and asked my wife what had happened in the Giro. I feared she would reply that there was a problem with the Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx,” also stating that, “Today I would never let Merckx race.” What seems odd in light of today’s, um, “extremely thorough” relationship between doctors and racers, is the downright outpatient nature of the diagnosis. Lavezzaro apparently states, “We could clearly see that he had a problem, but an exact diagnosis could then only with an invasive procedure. During the Giro was impossible.”

Brutal as the ’68 Giro was, it did, nevertheless, end at some point, but this all pre-dated iPads and even Google Calendar, so I guess nobody thought to write down, “Make sure Eddy’s heart doesn’t explode once the Giro’s over.” Così va la vita.

All this information is coming to light thanks to a new Merckx biography by Daniel Friebe, Eddy Merckx, The Cannibal, and this might be a book I have to own.

Either way, this most recent story continues to prove that things were a little different back then. You could be a big shot actor and still race motorcycles on weekends in the late ’60s, and, while I certainly don’t mean to justify what still, to me, seems somewhat less than Hypocratic patient care here, it’s difficult to imagine the sport of cycling in a world where Merckx stopped racing in ’68, and Merckx himself seems unperturbed by the whole thing, and pretty happy with his career post-68.

Today, in contrast, regulation of athletes and sport continues to be more important than ever. Following the release of new rules by the UCI restricting sock height and forcing teams to leave the “lawyer tabs” in place on their forks, one can only expect to soon see a ruling declaring reflectors mandatory during competition.

At least we should see some sweet UCI-approved technological advancements in the field of competition visibility.

I smell another use for batteries!

Most Absurd German Bike Award, Winner Announced

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Mar 212012

As I slouch slowly toward my new Portland life (so far I’ve only managed to put my waterproof Gore pants into a large bag and “visualize” driving for three days), I can already feel a kind of kinship with the bike culture there. It’s pretty creepy.

Case in point, my first annual Most Absurd German Bike Award (MAGBA), which I intend to award occasionally, considering the endless supply of candidates who seem to be constantly vying for this award. I’d fully expected this to come down to a pair of German automobile manufacturers’ “innovative” bicycle designs. This would make perfect sense for me, as I’ve featured the Porsche bikes already, and my deranged rambling usually focuses on the sad and tragic intersection of bicycles and corporations.

But today I find myself suddenly and inexplicably compelled to swerve way off course and include in the finals a German hippie bike dude’s useless DIY art bike project. Yes, my attention this morning is drawn as much to part-time devil for a clutch manufacturer and full-time weird old dude, Didi Senft’s homemade “Rake Bike” as it is to this ridiculous BMW mountain bike.

Which of these is the Most Absurd German Bike? It’s a classic battle: the little guy, hell-bent on creating a bike so profoundly stupid that even he himself will not be able to fully understand why it exists; versus a giant corporation, obsessed with efficiency, performance, and innovation, creating a bicycle so comically outdated as to become its own kind of performance art.

In considering the sheer absurdity of both bikes, I have to give the win to BMW on this one. It was close, but BMW scored major points for creating a near perfect replica of something Specialized would have built in the late ’90s. Didi brought some game, no doubt. It’s not every day you see a bike that could disembowel both its rider and dozens of shocked onlookers. But any time you’re dealing with bicycles built for art’s sake, the details matter, and it’s the little details of the BMW that stand out.

That classic 1-1/8″ head tube alone might have secured the win, but combined with the over-the-top aluminum hydroformed main frame and (apparently mandatory on cheesy automaker bikes) Crank Bros. wheels, the BMW really pulls away. As if for good measure, BMW phoned in every aspect of this frame design to a “close your eyes and pick from the catalog” Taiwanese factory, but chose to make a big deal about the stem design, which looks ghastly. They also wisely chose to opt for a piece-of-shit Kalloy seatpost and, clear mark of a champion, interrupted seat tube with pierced intersection/trailing top tube nub.

When you think about it, Didi merely made a bike out of rakes. BMW, however, has created a bold counterpoint to the resurrected German Bauhaus art movement, creating a bicycle that proves rationality is way overrated, and that mass production really is the polar opposite of artistic self-expression. Seen in that light, this gloss black, hydroformed homage to early suspension design is up there with Warhol’s soup cans, which I hear Didi Senft is welding together and hand-painting into an enormous pedal-able likeness of Marilyn Monroe.

Touché, Clutch Devil. See you next month.

Goldilocks Ascending

 Bikes  Comments Off on Goldilocks Ascending
Mar 202012


If the bike industry worked like the stock market, the first thing we should all do today is double-check that polygonal cassette body Kirk Pacenti suggested a while back. If you want to look where things are going, not where they already are, that’d make some sense, because when it comes to the 650b wheel size Pacenti was developing and promoting years ago, that’s already here.

Sure, Nino’s Schurter’s World Cup race win on a Scott 650b bike with plenty of 650b DT equipment is the clearest writing on the wall, but there’s plenty more where that came from.

We have a kind of stress test in the cycling world, noteworthy here because 650b has survived it in what seems to be historically amazing condition. Here’s how that test goes:

  1. Inventors and very early adopters try to scare you away. They can be the nicest people, but they tend to be really passionate about stuff like a new wheel size, and they really want you to understand where they’re coming from. In the right light, you can tell they just really feel strongly about whatever it is they’re rallying behind, but ask any photographer at a trade show how often the lighting’s just right. More often, even the most sensible and composed advocate for some new or resurrected idea comes off a little like this.

  2. The first companies on the band wagon try to scare you away. After the first round of men with aluminum foil hats beg you to listen to them, in come the opportunists disguised as “hardcore.” These are the companies selling just enough bikes to actually have a factory make them something new, but not enough bikes to sit back and analyze the situation before jumping right in. Often they do serve to move things along, which can be a good thing, but they couldn’t be more different from the quirky but passionate types who really got it started, and these are usually companies known for cutting corners in the first place. The first 650b bike I rode was a Haro that seemed to have been dropped into the Nevada desert out of a passing plane, buried for several months, and then used to drive in tent spikes. I’m a firm believer that one of the grinch functions of a company’s head of marketing should be to roam trade show demo ride booths, pulling complete maladjusted shit bikes from the lineup before they can frustrate and disappoint more than that first few hundred people, but that’s just me. Still, the first mass-produced versions of a new idea often don’t make a very good impression.

  3. Everybody bitches. The front end of the bike industry is filled with really slick-looking bikes and companies that send Sprinter vans to races where GoPro helmets record epic gnar and inhuman acts of power, endurance, and skill, but the back end is filled with stuff like creating a bill of materials and estimating sell-through velocity on “rubber” for that quarter, and for the cave dwellers in charge of that, a whole new category of products–regardless of how “hot”–just means more shit to shovel. We saw this in the past with the reluctance of suspension and tire manufacturers to make 29er stuff. There’s a comfortable inertia to doing things pretty much the same way you always have, and that creates a pushback against new product development.

  4. The 650b wheel has survived all that. While it’s nice to think public opinion will ultimately dictate the future of products, the fact is that this tail tends to wag dog more often than not, and once enough companies have piled onto the bandwagon (and that’s exactly what’s already happened behind the scenes here), you’re going to see the products. In this case, I think that’s a very good thing. As I’ve written and said before, I don’t see 650b wheels replacing 29ers outright, but I do see them potentially replacing 26-inch wheel bikes and possibly even becoming the dominant wheel size.

    At least until Jamis “burps out” the first production 36er.


 Bikes  Comments Off on Bloodsport
Mar 192012

It seems I haven’t been the only one to notice Shimano’s steadily accumulating arsenal of game-changing patents lately. Matt Wiebe’s new article in Bicycle Retailer draws attention to the industry behemoth’s patent portfolio, which dwarfs the competition. Wiebe writes that Shimano “is moving into areas of development—dirt suspension, hydraulic rim brakes, dropper seatposts and electric integration—that could shake up the market if the technology makes it into production.” Absolutely. And you don’t build an empire on your production capabilities by applying for patents for stuff you never intend to make. By all indications, Shimano is about to deliver their second major industry shakeup, and things are about to get rough for SRAM.

Or maybe not.

Much is constantly made of the relationship between component manufacturers and bike companies. The Bicycle Retailer article rightly points out the market share SRAM had been gaining in bundling suspension and components for OE spec on bikes, and the conspicuous silence from Shimano regarding this. “A survey of suspension engineers, who declined to go on record, said Shimano has the technology to make competitive forks,” writes Wiebe, “but none thought the company was setting up to enter the market. At the same time, however, they wonder how long Shimano can stand on the sidelines as SRAM’s RockShox suspension line enables it to offer product managers seductive pricing on component and suspension packages.”

The article goes on to point out that Shimano’s continuing absence from the suspension market continues to offer “a lifeline for Fox, Manitou, Marzocchi, SR Suntour and others,” which is true, except that one of those brands is clearly not like the others. Shimano doesn’t share patents with Marzocchi, Manitou or any also-ran suspension companies the way they do with Fox. The recent high-profile move of the Santa Cruz Syndicate team from SRAM to “Shimano and Fox,” combined with some pretty clear writing on the patent walls makes one thing pretty clear.

Shimano is going to buy Fox.

That is, if they even need to. Plenty of business mechanics to compute there, and clearly both companies are already benefiting from a very close partnership that might not require actually tying the corporate knot, but the writing is clearly on the wall.

Manitou and Marzocchi? Yes, they’re doomed. What’s left of them, at least. But SRAM? I don’t think so.

Continued and even strengthening relationships between Fox and Shimano will certainly not be good for SRAM, but SRAM has what it takes to survive the assault, and stands to benefit from the attrition that’d take place in the suspension market. Already borderline non-existent in the OE market, Manitou and Marzocchi’s potential total extinction stands to benefit SRAM’s RockShox division, a company with a far wider assortment of suspension products across a wide price range–much wider than Fox. A full assault by the combined Shimano and Fox forces would make what’s been happening over the past decade offical: nobody would be left but SRAM.

And somehow, White Brothers. Have to hand it to those scrappy little guys.

SRAM’s suspension products still need both brand work and innovation before they can truly rival the industry reputation and near rear suspension monopoly that is Fox, but SRAM has made tremendous headway in paying attention to the end user. When Shimano notoriously “integrated” your shifting and braking on mountain bikes, SRAM very specifically did not. SRAM has also led the way in 2×10 mountain drivetrains, a “by the people, for the people” kind of revolution. In both cases, SRAM’s marketing did an outstanding job of delivering the message: “We know what you want, and we’re building it for you.” They used Shimano’s enormous weight against them, getting the big guys off balance in the eyes of the public. Behind the scenes, this was a blip on Shimano’s bottom line, but SRAM set up shop inside that market inflection point and carved out a huge name for themselves.

It’s going to come down to electronics. If Di2 is any indication, Shimano may have already won the war, but it’s also possible that we’ll see a backlash to electronics among riders out there. SRAM has already drawn a line in the sand when it comes to road groups. Want to save a pound and a half? You know where find us. Adoption of electronics on mountain bikes could be more complicated–especially if Shimano plans to have a battery operating everything from your shifting to your suspension damping. Picture the entrance of a Shimano/Fox electronically controlled suspension fork onto the market with a price tag over $1000. How would that be received? How would it be promoted?

Interesting stuff. One thing is certain, though. If I were SRAM’s marketing department these days, I’d be putting a lot of effort into grassroots racing support and features the average rider can clearly appreciate–and I wouldn’t be pushing the panic button just yet. People still like alternatives. If SRAM can maintain their image as the best alternative, that’s good enough. It’s like the old “outrunning a bear” thing: SRAM doesn’t have to be faster than Shimano/Fox; they just have to be faster than all those delicious little companies who are much slower than they are. What looks like a vicious war between Shimano and SRAM might turn out to be pretty painless for both companies, but completely devastating to everybody else.