The Kool-Aid

Kool-Aid

Cyclists, as a group, are a notoriously suspicious bunch. We wonder who’s on drugs, if that frame is as stiff as advertised, if that set of wheels is as light as claimed, if that sponsor is really “here to stay.” These days some cyclists’ greatest mistrust is reserved for practitioners of my particular crime—the bike industry media.

It wasn’t always that way.

There was a time when anything printed in a bike magazine was regarded as no less factual than the nutrition information on the side of a cereal box. The first crack in the plaster was the industry’s willingness to accept press releases with no evaluative insight. The practical effect was reporting on vaporwear—products that never actually hit production—as if they were already in production by only riding prototypes, or worse, occasionally not even riding prototypes. Reprinting press releases as passing them off as new product intros or sometimes even as product reviews.

The bike companies also became more sophisticated in telling their stories. In the 1990s a number of former bike magazine employees began working on advertising and marketing campaigns for some fairly high profile bike companies. While there was no crime in that, they gradually began to learn how to tell the story of their products to the media, the way they wanted it told.

The more the bike companies worked to craft their messages, the lazier some bike magazines got. Presented with a good story with a winning-sounding rationale, many magazines failed to filter the PowerPoint presentations for accuracy. The problem has rarely been that any company tried to sell the public on Superfund purée, but rather some claims were overstated enough that they didn’t pass the sniff test.

Today, the shorthand my friends use to satirize overstated claims could be seen in any road bike magazine: “torsionally stiff, yet vertically compliant.” It’s a fact that the most vertically compliant frames ever produced were also some of the least stiff torsionally. In the 1980s and ‘90s the challenge for road bike makers was to find a way to make a frame stiff at the bottom bracket. Once the hurdle to make a frame stiff enough at the bottom bracket that the front derailleur wouldn’t rub the chain in the big ring, we began to see front triangle twisting—torsional flex—as the next great problem. Gaining that stiffness has come at a price; vertical flex—compliance—has suffered. The ability of a frame to flex in the vertical plane is much lower than it was in the days of the Vitus aluminum frames or the early titanium frames from Merlin and Litespeed; heck a large frame made from Columbus SL had a fair amount of flex.

So every time a manufacturer makes claims of improved vertical compliance, many consumers snicker. On the other side, some bike industry types will tell you that everything is essentially the same. The truth is more complicated. Much more complicated.

My point isn’t to shatter myths (I don’t think there are that many out there); rather, I wish to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Consumers have a right to be a bit suspicious of the marketing copy that gets passed along as actual editorial, as well as comments on posts written by bike company employees passed off as extremely knowledgeable consumers who just happen to have drunk said Kool-Aid and adore, oh say, Trek’s product line without reserve.

I think one of the easiest ways to fall in the trap of suspicion is by adopting any one company’s rhetoric or terminology and applying that across the entire category of competitors. That is precisely why I wanted to wrest the conversation about sport versus grand touring geometry from manufacturer marketing copy. The surest way to make anyone think you have drunk the Kool-Aid is to measure Company A by Company B’s marketing copy.

Of course, in the rush to compete and differentiate, bike companies have resorted to such varied descriptions of their carbon fiber we are no longer attempting to compare apples and oranges, we’re now trying to compare rutabagas to trash cans. As a result, I’ve stopped trying to play the game. Trek talks about their carbon fiber in terms of grams per square meter. That’s a measure of weight and tells you nothing of the material’s strength or stiffness. Many companies only talk about the material’s modulus of elasticity—its stiffness—yet they talk in round terms of intermediate, high and ultra-high. How do I know if your ultra-high is my ultra-high?

Imagine going into car Dealership A and finding out their car gets 35 miles per gallon. You go into Dealership B and they tell you their car has 400 foot pounds of torque at 5000 rpm. Dealership C tells you their car has 250 horsepower. How do you compare those?

You can’t, which is why I try to talk about the road feel of every bike I ride. It’s hard to come up with truly objective terminology to use, but I think there’s a pretty clear delineation in feel as modulus increases.

My commitment to you as a reader is to do my best to slice through the marketing hype and write on what I have learned as clearly and fairly as possible. And if some bike company tries to hoodwink you by pumping their product in the comments section, I will do my best to out that person and company. I won’t censor comments, but I will do my best to make sure you know the context in which they should be viewed. The comments section will remain a place for honest conversation for the readers of RKP.

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8 comments

  1. Adam

    Padraig, Is there an end goal in this analysis? Will you call out the hype-sters and praise the real deals? Will there be – perhaps in a years time – “Padraig’s bike of the year” ratings? I don’t want to swell your head, but I’d base my buying insights strongly upon your recommendations if only for the degree of thought behind your reviews.
    I don’t have the ability to try out multiple high end bikes, and as much as I like Bicycling’s year end awards – they only give 50 word descriptions. I want more than that before I throw down $5K.

  2. Charles Cushman

    I read once that it is easy for a restaurant to find an amazing expensive wine, but a good sommelier has to put a lot of effort into finding less expensive wines that taste great.

    After you are done with the Specialized test, it would be interesting if you could find a lower cost bike (around $2,000?) that can fulfill the same roles with minimal compromises.

  3. Larry T.

    I think the readers appreciate your reviews and honesty but it would be good to remember that appreciating the various qualities of bicycles can be compared to men discussing the various attributes of women — ie, you’ll never get any agreement and there will be constant debate. I remember back-in-the-day when I was working in a SoCal high-end bike shop, a client rode in on a motorcycle, hung around the shop for awhile and began to ask some questions seemingly aimed at deciding which bike to buy. This was long enough ago that most high-end buyers selected a hand-built, if not custom frame/fork and then selected a component group, the rims which would be laced into wheels,etc. This fellow expressed frustration with all the choices and eventually asked, “why can’t the magazines just tell me which is the best bike and component group? This way I can just buy the best and be done with it! It works that way in the motorcycle magazines, they do shoot-outs and declare a winner and that’s the motorcycle I buy, you can see it outside.” I couldn’t help but giggle, having previously been in the motorcycle industry, where the same stuff Padraig descibes in the bicycle mags went on just as much, if not more! I finally tried to explain it using the “appreciation of female beauty” analogy. The client went away still frustrated and I came to the conclusion that the problem was HIS, not mine, not the industry’s. He simply wanted to purchase whatever was defined as the best bicycle (and I assume this was the same with the other products he purchased) by some respected “authority” without any regard to whether it was right for him or not. So Padraig, please keep this in mind before you start declaring a “bike of the year” or “most beautiful woman on earth”…you’ll get endless argument about both!

  4. Sophrosune

    I am really enjoying your more tech-related articles like this one, Padraig. You make a very interesting point about the metrics provided by bike companies scan much like a comparison between apple and oranges. But I think you are selling your own metrics a little bit short. It seems to me that you are not depending solely on “road feel” which is fairly subjective, but also applying your knowledge of bike geometries, industry practices (i.e. reusing frame molds in Taiwan) and a good mechanic’s and bike fitter’s understanding of how components can affect the ride of the bike. No need to pick a top ten. Just keep doing what you’re doing and let us pick up the slack to determine for ourselves which is the right bike for us.

  5. Larry T.

    Regarding Charles’ post above, I agree with his wine analogy. Any bozo can suggest a Barolo or Brunello di Montalcino…that doesn’t take much knowledge. But a good sommelier, especially one with local knowledge can often suggest a vino with the taste and characteristics of the expensive, no-brainer choice at a much better value. We’re lucky to have more than a few of these nice folks at hotels and ristoranti we frequent on our tours.
    As to the $2000 bike category, you might have to modify the old “light, strong, cheap, pick any two” to “light, cheap, good road feel” since an inexpensive bicycle such as Torelli’s Corsa Strada will be sort of cheap with excellent road feel (I own one) but it won’t be light. I’d bet Padraig has ridden plenty of carbon bikes that fit the light and cheap requirements but are quite lacking in the road feel department. Italian consumers used to buy the best, usually custom-made frame they could afford (quite often from their local builder) then build it up with whatever they could afford for components with the idea they could always upgrade when they had more money to spend. They do the same with houses, build the first floor and finish it but leave the second or third floor’s basic construction incomplete until they have more money. Sadly, too many American bike consumers buy bicycles based on the component group and look at the frame as merely a bracket to hold their Ultregra, Force or whatever group, together.

  6. Seb

    Lighter and stiffer do very little for faster, but that’s the first premise for a lot of bike designs, which is a brutal assumption and the essence for the Kool-Aid. But, bike companies can’t build shorter headtubes and force everybody into an aero tuck – because that’s hard work! ;)

    Secondly, in my opinion, good road feel is a combination of tubing [independent of material!], geometry, and wheel/tire configuration. A 32h OP/Nemesis tubular on Dugasts will top any “boutique” clincher with random tires, not to mention personal PSI preference.

    Lastly, there is no perfect bike – there are perfect bikes.

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