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.