Get used to seeing the non-drive side profile of road bikes.

Thanks to Facebook, we have a pretty accurate idea of exactly when the next major change in cycling took place. Before Cyclingnews drove the point home, phone camera shots of Colnago’s C59 Disc had already begun to surface. Given the time difference between the U.S. and Taiwan, it was around 3:30am that my friend Chuck posted a few photos of the Formula hydraulic disc levers on the C59 and TRP’s Di2 hydraulic levers. So let’s call it: 3:30am Eastern, Wednesday, March 7th, 2012, disc brake road bikes arrived.

Volagi certainly called it, and they deserve a lot of credit for taking a risk and going off the front of the pack so early. It’s moves like that that give small companies a foothold and a chance to grow, and it certainly looks like Volagi has the wherewithal to welcome more and more companies aboard. Personally, I tend to think the Liscio frame design Volagi’s created is actually pretty unique even without the disc brakes and leaf-sprung top-tube/seat stay design Specialized liked so much. In some ways, the Liscio has more in common with “adventure” brands like Salsa than it does Colnago’s new C59–and that’s exactly why Taipei’s unveiling of hydraulic disc brakes on “pure” road bikes is so significant.

But what does it all mean? Should you panic? Rejoice? Hoard canned food? Here’re some things this will probably mean:

  1. Electronic shifting will become standard equipment on all high-end bikes. Yes it will. You need the interior space of the hood for a hydraulic master cylinder and piston, leaving no room for the clock-like shifter mechanics we once knew and loved. Big Winners: Shimano. Big Losers: SRAM and Campy. (Campy made a valiant effort there, but everybody is going to design around the Shimano electronic shifting system.)
  2. At least some crazy shit is bound to happen. Yeah, Tyler shouldn’t have been scrubbing his brakes so much on that descent, but the bottom line is that weird shit always happens when there’s a tectonic shift in the cycling industry, and there is a vague whiff of “let’s see what happens” out there regarding hydraulic discs on road bikes. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, some small percentage of chaos will occur around this, likely including a whole lot of carbon fiber recycling. Despite all the amazing stress analysis and structural design programs out there, plenty of companies proved unable to build a basic ‘cross fork that didn’t howl like a banshee, and plenty of carbon fiber frameset manufacturers still find out the real durability of their stuff once the warranties start piling up. And let’s not even talk about wheels. Big Winners: Mayhem. Dentists. Big Losers: The unsuspecting.
  3. “Road” techs are going to get their asses handed to them. Plenty of great mountain bike mechanics can’t set the angle on STIs or Ergos to save their lives, but I’ve met more than a few bike techs from highly regarded boutique road-specific shops whom I’d not let within a kilometer of my hydraulic brakes. Most of these guys are gifted bike techs who just happen to lack any mechanical aptitude whatsoever–meaning they can install the hairiest of power meter equipment and they never forget to unwind their torque wrenches after each use, but changing light bulbs around the house is a challenge, and they haven’t the slightest idea what makes an automobile go. With even the best instructions, there are just fundamental mechanical things you need to know in order to make hydraulic disc brakes work consistently, and genuine road bikes with hydraulic disc brakes are going to force the issue. Big Winners: UBI, Lennard Zinn. Big Losers: The unsuspecting.
  4. Cyclocross bikes are going to be awesome. Seriously, electronic shifting with hydraulic disc brakes? A few possible cases of “rotor brand” aside, you’ll be able to tell the guys with the hydraulics, because they’ll be the ones riding one lap up on the field. At least until their bikes need serviced. In most ‘cross conditions, the differences will be dramatic. Big Winners: The 1%, sponsored athletes. Big Losers: Canti’s, “Suicide Levers,” people who race ‘cross in nice weather.

Now we sit back and watch each brand decide whether to adopt or not, and when. By this time next year, the road disc thing likely still won’t have sorted itself out completely, and we’ll be looking at the first waves of major 650b wheel size adopters. Sometimes, I’m happy not to be a product manager at a bike company.

 

While enjoying my morning ritual of fourteen cups of coffee and browsing, I was relieved to see yet another place to custom build your own luxury, multi-colored, bikefashion accessory. Apparently Villy Customs will let you create just about any color $150 bicycle you’d like for between $400 and $800, thus fulfilling their corporate mission statement: “Luxury. Fashion. Bicycle.” (In that order.)

Because I think a lot about marketing, when I see yet another company with a fancy color-picker feature, I don’t concern myself with the overall shoddy quality of the product or what I suspect to be a woeful lack of customer service (I leave those concerns to the buyers), but, rather, the funny way these companies distinguish themselves from the actual bicycle industry, which apparently sells an entirely different product. See, a “bicycle” is a mechanical device, which needs proper assembly and periodic maintenance, whereas a personalized “Cruiser” or a “Fixie” is actually classified as a fashion accessory, and, as such, apparently needs none of those things. Smartly, the companies offering these fashionable accessories understand that they are “luxury” items in a way that properly designed and functionally assembled bicycles can never be. Cruisers and Fixies that allow potential owners to choose from a rainbow of nondescript components of dubious quality are, in fact, the very definition of luxury. Think of them as small, street-going yachts with chains chattering against improperly installed but festooned-with-painted-daisies chain guards, veritable Bugatti Veyrons of style, oozing down the street with all the passion and aggression a rapidly detensioning and wobbly rear wheel can command.

As such, their companies inevitably have their own marketing pages bolted (threads stripped) right onto their sites. In the case of Villy, this page is smartly filled with the various local morning TV shows that found their products adorable. Who needs function, when Entrepreneur magazine, Modern Luxury Dallas, and Good Morning Texas have featured your business.

Speaking of personalized service, one of my older posts regarding Specialized and the recent nonsense with Volagi received the following comment yesterday:

This is a poor representation of the Specialized brand. I feel Specialized strives to protect it’s intellectual property and it’s IBD network. No other brand is as IBD exclusive as Specialized. They could double there numbers if they sold to everyone and anyone. But they don’t they only want true knowledgeable bike shops representing there brand. Agreed the lawsuit with Volagi is a bit frivolous however if you let one company copy your ideas than soon all will.”

I thanked this person for the comment, and I can appreciate a need to stand up for the many positive things Specialized has done, the clearly great bikes they make, and the support they do offer dealers.

But I had to take issue with both points made in that comment, which are not only inaccurate, but also reinforce dangerous misconceptions about this particular case, and about the relationship Specialized and other vendors have with independent bike dealers. So I replied. And replied. And replied some more. Because, for some reason, I take both of these issues very seriously, and I reject the warm and fuzzy notion that Specialized–or anybody else–bases their relationship with dealers solely on some kind of vague personal respect. It’s an adorable and whimsical idea, but I think the reality has a lot more to do with things like territory, supply chain strategy, and mutual need.

For starters, the intellectual property argument might have some validity if Specialized had actually had any intellectual property stolen, but they didn’t. Just because the battle is over, doesn’t mean you get to rewrite the outcome, or give validity to an argument the legal proceeding dismantled. This whole sad event wasn’t just a bad marketing decision for Specialized; it was a genuine legal proceeding, and its results confirmed they had no intellectual property stolen. The lawsuit wasn’t “a bit frivolous”; it was baseless, and the more we learned about it, the more it seemed like classic intimidation of competition, something I find distasteful. Volagi did not steal anything from Specialized. Your assertion that once you allow one company to steal your intellectual property, others will follow, makes it sound like theft occurred here. What we’ve determined is that it did not.

I’d like to put to rest the bullshit notion that a company like Specialized could “double there [sic] numbers if they sold to everyone and anyone.” I’ve heard this ridiculous assertion put forward in the bike industry time and time again, and it’s the argument of beaten down IBDs with serious daddy complexes: “Daddy only sells through us ’cause Daddy loves us and takes care of us!”

Bullshit.

I applaud Specialized’s business model and their execution–they’ve done an amazing job of working within an established system for selling bicycles. But it’s an established system, not something they’ve done out of compassion, and there are reasons they don’t sell directly to consumers. The point I’ve been trying to make is that if independent bike shops don’t start spending less time drinking Kool-aid and more time learning to read tea leaves, they could find themselves caught unprepared for the inevitable. Specialized has already begun selling “selective” products directly to consumers on-line. Independent bike shops should be hedging against even the slightest possibility of that trend continuing, and blind faith in the benevolence of vendors is not a viable business plan.

I honestly do believe dealer loyalty plays a role in Specialized’s decision to restrict sales of bicycles to brick-and-mortar transactions, but it’s a smaller role than you think. There are more valid business forces keeping them from selling direct. Why doesn’t General Motors sell directly to consumers? For certain products, the benefits of consumer direct sales do not outweigh the expenses. The notion that Specialized, or GM, or any company built on a dealer representative platform could flip a switch overnight and begin selling direct to consumers–if only they chose to–is just not accurate. Believing that glorifies the manufacturer while disparaging the role of independent dealers. If you own or work at a bike shop, think of the work you do to sell and maintain bikes. It’s tremendous. So you’re telling me Specialized, or any other company, could just absorb that workload? Even if IBDs continued to offer some support, the actual expenses associated with turning a B2B company into a consumer-facing enterprise are staggering. There are legitimate barriers there.

But what I find truly bizarre about all of this is the screwy logic that lets presumably good bike shops demean themselves–instinctively, and by default. I have a lot of respect for Specialized and their products. I can understand how any shop would be happy and proud to be able to offer their products. Almost nothing should come before a dealer’s relationship with his vendors–but belief in your own business should. By definition, if you’re a quality shop, doing quality work, you should not believe your vendors sell to you only because they’re being kind. Instead of counting on their continued kindness–even as the market shifts all around them–shouldn’t you be making yourself indispensable? Look at a retail brand like Competitive Cyclist and tell me that putting your brand first doesn’t work. Claiming to add value without being able to articulate that value to consumers is becoming obsolete. What’s great about any shop has to be far more than just what brands they carry, but too many shops still place their own self worth in the brands they sell. So Specialized could “double” sales if they let their bikes be sold everywhere, but “they only want true knowledgeable bike shops representing there [sic] brand.” Look at the word “want” in there. Why have you not replaced that with “need”? That’s what you need to ask yourself.

 

Let’s talk about really direct marketing. Sure, I’ve been exercising an unhealthy obsession with guerrilla e-commerce lately, working to convince small shop owners to start using the almighty Internet for something more than just a Google map to your location and (God forbid) printable coupons. It’s possible–or rather, let’s go with “super necessary” for small businesses to dip a toe into online sales, but all that will have to wait.

Why? Because the bike industry is witnessing a masterful education in the fine art of public relations self-destruction and brand anti-marketing that we’d be fools to ignore. Over the weekend, Specialized got their ass handed to them by Volagi, and then things got interesting.

Turns out Specialized spent about $1.5-million on their soul-killing, heavy-handed intimidation tactic/wild goosechase–an absolutely disgusting amount of money to piss away under any circumstances, and even more so right now, when John Q. Public is hyper-sensitive to wasteful, inappropriate behavior of the part of big companies. Almost every word that’s been printed regarding this entire sad episode has done damage to Specialized, and the facts haven’t done them any favors, either. The revelation that this much money was wasted in the service of stifling innovation and intimidating competition won’t do much to reverse the public perception of Specialized as a giant, out-of-touch, monopolistic, evil-doing gaggle of douchebags. Not to worry, though, because, once again, somebody let Specialized founder Mike Sinyard communicate with the public.

This lawsuit was a matter of principle and about protecting our culture of trust and innovation. We respect the ruling of the court in our favor. We are very satisfied with the outcome and the damages set at $1.00. We really want to put all our passion and time into growing the sport of cycling.”

Clearly, Sinyard and Rupert Murdoch have the same “magic touch” when it comes to understanding their public.

Read that quote again, if you think you’re up to it. The first sentence sets a good tone, and then, well . . . it makes you wonder if anyone at Specialized realizes the mic is on. Really, guys? You’re really “very satisfied” to’ve spent a million and a half bucks getting a dollar in return? If you’re trying to tell us you’re glad this didn’t have a destructive effect on Volagi, you’re sure not sounding that way, which means you’re–miraculously–sounding both disingenuous and unconcerned that you just wasted so much cash on a half-assed attempt at evil. And, even if that’s the case–even if you are sort of pissed off and dazed still, you realize, right, that you’re not supposed to let everyone know that’s where you are with this? It begs the question, do these guys have a PR department? Apparently, Specialized can spend $1.5-million on trying to stifle competition, but there’s nobody even making $10 an hour to give the main man’s missives a once-over to ensure they’re not repulsively demeaning and logically adrift.

Turns out I have some free time right now, and sounds like The Big S could use some pro bono help, so here’s my free rewrite of how anyone with even a small amount of respect for his customers would have written that letter:

“This lawsuit was a matter of principle and about protecting our culture of trust and innovation. At Specialized, we really do believe in our products more than anything, and that passion sometimes leads us to protect them at all costs. We’re making bikes because we believe in the positive things that a bicycle can do, and that’s a love we share with Volagi and every other brand. While we feel strongly enough about our reputation and our innovative products to take the steps we took in this matter, we sincerely respect and admire the desire Robert and Barley have shown to distinguish their product, and we hope they, and all those with a desire to make cycling better, continue to share our passion for making great bikes.”

Or some such shit. (I’m available for freelance work, by the way, for press releases, writing wedding invitations, really bitchin’ grocery lists, etc..)

There is a way to communicate to the public while still side-stepping legal landmines, but it involves seeming human and actually relating to your customers, instead of poking rifle barrels out of your ivory tower and doubling down on the draconian bullshit.

But, anyway, this is good for us–good for anyone studying how not to communicate with the public. Pop quiz: guess which company, Specialized or Volagi, better understands how to use social media? Here’s a hint: contrast Sinyard’s statement way above, with this tweet from Volagi:

Best dollar we ever spent.”

The thing some companies still don’t seem to get about social media is that they’re participating in it whether they want to be or not. You’re always marketing directly to your consumers. When you’re announcing a hot new product, or when you’re suing somebody. There’s a level of transparency to today’s businesses that some CEOs just don’t seem to understand.

Some, on the other hand, seem to understand it all too well. Maybe Sinyard should take a cue from “International Grand Confrerie Sommelier,” wine consultant to Costco, and maestro of social media, “Krunch,” who prefers to engage his social critics more directly. Disgruntled by a woman’s bad review of his business on Yelp, “Krunch” apparently took it upon himself to create a fake blog in the woman’s name and use it to describe her as a drug addict and prostitute, emailing her a link to the blog and writing, “Now every time a company for a job or someone searches YOU on google they will read my side of the story.”

Well played, sir. You are, indeed, ready to “serve world leaders, heads of state and Fortune 100 members.” Now, to complete their public relations self-destruction masterpiece, all Specialized has to do is personally attack everyone who thought their lawsuit was a horrible idea. Given how they’ve handled things to this point, nothing would surprise me.

It’s not like they’d have to work very hard to intimidate some members of the cycling press, who fall all over themselves to self-redactedit anything meaningful anyway. In the dying embers of this train wreck, we find this article on Velonews, which features a slightly more intriguing editorial preamble than most:

At the author’s request, the editorial notes at the bottom of this story were rewritten. They did not reflect the opinions of VeloNews.com.”

Is it just me, or does the editorial quote above read a hell of a lot like, “After having a gun barrel pressed to his forehead (no easy task to do to a man who’s, like, 8-feet tall), Mr. Zinn would like to reconsider those things he initially said and meant but might’ve seriously pissed off one of the largest advertisers in our industry.” Say, does anyone have a screen grab of how Lennard Zinn’s original article read? I’d really like to see that, Velonews. Anyone?

 

Today, a special weekend bonus post in honor of facing down the big guys without flinching.

Top 10 New Year’s Resolutions of Specialized Bicycles:

  1. Stop picking public fights with kids much smaller than you.
  2. Once engaged in fight with kid much smaller than you, stop closing eyes and scratching blindly at opponent while screaming hysterically.
  3. Propose introducing new bottom bracket standard, BBFU78, out of pure spite.
  4. Institute mandatory 30-day waiting period before communicating with Legal Department.
  5. Mid-day company wide massages now mandatory.
  6. Free “hippie dipshit” anger management consultant from company dungeon.
  7. When Mr. Sinyard gives you press release he typed himself, tape original copy to inside of latest Bicycle Retailer and Industry News and tell him everyone thought it was “awesome.” Burn after 10 days.
  8. Finally gain courage necessary to put on favorite Sidi shoes for morning commute to work.
  9. Abandon fruitless patent litigation against Apple regarding “device one touches.”
  10. Erase Volagi Liscio with Photoshopped “S” logo from 2013 catalog.
 

Today was supposed to be all about e-commerce, but seems I picked a good week to criticize Specialized. By now, most of you have probably heard that they’ve chosen to sue Volagi, a new company that offers just one bike model, a disc brake road bike focused on big miles in less than ideal conditions. If you haven’t you can catch up with the basic announcement on Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, an interview with Robert Choi, founder of Volagi, on BikeRumor and a hell of a lot of praise for Volagi and venom for Specialized on Facebook.

So far, maybe at the peril of Volagi’s own legal defense, all the news of this has been coming from Volagi founders, Robert Choi and Barley Forsman, while Specialized remains silent, so it’s impossible to know if the big red S really was wronged by Volagi in any way, but one look at the Specialized Facebook page this morning tells us they’ve definitely wronged themselves. Yes, two things have become pretty clear from reading the information Volagi’s put out:

  1. Forsman and Choi, who used to work at Specialized but claim convincingly to have had absolutely no connection to performance bike designs or information and to have begun work on their own bike design only after they’d left the company, are either doing a pretty flamboyant job of lying to everyone, or Specialized has finally played the legal card one too many times to stifle competition.
  2. Regardless of the outcome, somebody in Marketing or PR at Specialized probably should’ve talked with someone in legal before letting this shitbomb go off, because the blowback of attacking a small and nearly defenseless company–and one that may turn out to be completely innocent–is currently not working out very well for Specialized.

Specialized Facebook Page Capture 1/5/2012

Specialized’s own Facebook page suggests this lawsuit might not have been such a good move (word is they’re deleting negative posts, but, to their credit, I’ve not seen proof of that yet), but at least all this bully bullshit goes to illustrate a point today’s post was supposed to cover anyway. I’d planned to write today about how smaller companies can do battle with giants like Amazon, but Specialized has volunteered a glaring example of my first point.

Big Companies Suck at Social Media

Here are five things big companies need to do to fix their social media programs:

  1. Stop Pretending to Be People
    I’m not sure why U.S. Senators and the corporations themselves keep getting so confused about this, but corporations are at their worst when trying to act like people. They tend to do much better when they acknowledge that they include people, and then letting those people communicate with customers–not as pieces of the corporation, but as themselves. Sure, it might not be such a good time to let Bob in Accounting talk about his collection of Nazi memorabilia in a video blog post, but usually there are people within your company who are involved in interesting things. The Specialized Win Counter, that keeps track of race victories, and stuff like the Trail Crew and news about their advocacy and charitable work are nice, but all of those things could belong to any company, which leads us to our second reason.
  2. Let Us In
    Yes, I know your Chinese-made carbon fiber has a special strand orientation that’s top secret and blah, blah, but seriously, we all know interesting shit goes on inside companies, and we’re clearly willing to watch even the most asinine of things related to businesses and what businesses do. The companies making the best use of social media are using it to tear down barriers between themselves and their customers. If you’re not willing to do that, it shows.
  3. Stop Hiding Behind Mirrors
    The “hang a mirror and hope for the best” strategy is used by many companies–you know, let us post pictures on your wall and that should keep us busy so you can get back to running your company. But so what. It’s nice to help establish and support a community of people who use your product, but a bunch of blurry pictures of Stumpjumpers isn’t doing much for anyone. I think people would be much more interested in seeing your bikes, trick advanced release shit we’re not supposed to know about taped over and all. Santa Cruz consistently gets this right. It’s fine to pretend it’s all about the customer, but we can tell when you’re just hiding behind that.
  4. Talk About What Really Matters
    This most recent lawsuit Specialized is pushing exemplifies everything that’s wrong with social media in the hands of big companies, and why it’s so important to small companies. The reason Volagi jumped out early with information about the lawsuit is that it’s all the owners could think about. You sued them, Specialized. You attacked everything they’d worked for, and that’s forced their lives to revolve around this situation, and they can’t help but share the experience–not because doing so is a good “business tactic,” but because it’s genuinely all they can think about right now. Hearing the founders tell that story is profoundly compelling in ways I don’t think Specialized could understand. If Specialized really was this pissed off to have been “wronged” by a company, why is it that a lawsuit is the first we hear of it? Why not an “Imitation Isn’t the Sincerest Form of Flattery” corporate stance, including video features of how Specialized does things differently, and why their designs have been copied? Maybe that exists, but in general, I never see honest content like this from larger companies with dedicated PR and social media staff. Only companies that let the stakeholders speak out are compelling to follow. In social media circles, this lawsuit by Specialized is playing out so horribly partially because it came out of nowhere–we don’t think of Mike Sinyard or anyone else at Specialized as having any design skills or intellectual property to guard, because they never talk to us about those things. When the first we hear about it as a lawsuit against a little company, their anger seems bloodless, disingenuous, making their attack just another sleazy and anti-competitive act of big attacking small. If there’s true passion and defense of intellectual property behind this action, why haven’t we heard about it from the company before? The fact that most carbon road frames look eerily similar and uninspired anyway doesn’t support Specialized’s contention that something was stolen from them. I always follow a simple rule: if the owner of the company can’t tell us why his stuff is better, it’s probably not.
  5. Don’t be Assholes
    No, seriously. If what you do for a living is prey off others and add nothing of quality to the world, you probably don’t want people following you anyway. I honestly think Specialized has done some really great things, but that only makes the events of this week all the more senseless. There should be a Specialized story to tell that’s bigger than the lawsuit attack on Volagi. The fact that there isn’t is what’s really causing the problem here. Volagi is currently winning the hearts and minds of consumers (even owners of Specialized bikes) right now partially because we all know they have a story to tell–they’ve created the first viable disc brake equipped road bike and potentially defined an entirely new category of bikes. In the eyes of the public, Specialized, a company with no story to tell, is attacking Volagi, a company that was in the middle of telling us all a pretty compelling one. In social media terms, butting in without having anything to say is the textbook definition of “asshole,” and, regardless of the legal outcome, Big Red lost this one.

Oh, and I also noticed nobody was using the “specializedbicycle” Blogspot any more, so I’ve taken over that location and posted a copy of this blog there as well. Good times.

 

I would never have thought I’d be fond of a road bike with disc brakes, but I am. Very much so, in fact. In my defense, though, the Volagi Liscio is a pretty unique bike, even without the hydraulic disc brakes.

image

“Liscio” is Italian for “straightforward, simple, smooth and sleek,” and that pretty much sums it up. The bike somehow manages to look like both a basic tool for endurance riding adventures and a stunning piece of high-velocity sculpture.

A lot of the credit for the aesthetics goes to those seatstays, which, as you probably guessed, act as giant leaf springs to damp vibrations from the road. The entire frame appears to be built outward from that gentle arc of the stays–a kind of internal suspension system. Form following function, I tend to love designs with obvious purpose, and Volagi achieves that visual intent here. The lines mean something.

image

There is, no doubt, a significant number of serious cyclists for whom the Liscio is an affront to all that’s sacred. Eventually, a percentage of these will glance from their Ducatis to their road bikes and warm to the concept, but many never will. At least, not until the weight starts to drop. It’s wise that Volagi is also making their own carbon wheelsets, because all parts need to work together to keep weight down on a disc brake equipped bike. What you add in disc calipers and rotors, you can peel back away elsewhere, but it takes a holistic, system sort of approach to get there.

Given how much time I’ve spent on a Salsa La Cruz, I already understand the advantages of disc brakes and drop bars. While it’s tricky to imagine life without the road bikes I have now (we’ve been through a lot together), I could see making a bike with discs my primary road bike. And I could see the Liscio being this bike. This was one of the best things at the show.

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