The Bad Word

Blame the tire or the rain for the flat? The choice can be important to a review.

In the bike industry, bike and equipment reviews have a notorious reputation. The reasons for their notoriety are entirely unlike the notoriety that reviews at Consumer Reports have engendered over the years. CR has earned a reputation for providing a reader service by objectively reviewing everything from washing machines to stereo speakers. A good review from CR can result in a windfall of unexpected sales. A bad review has the power to sink a company.

Unfortunately, bike and equipment reviews are memorable for their ability to do nothing. In never pointing out a flaw, never finding fault, publications invariably damage their currency in trade with readers. After all, readers are left to wonder if it is possible that all carbon fiber wheels are created equal.

Plot spoiler: They aren’t.

However, as this is the bike industry, which is to say driven by people chasing a passion, bad products are rare. Sure, there’s some crap to be found in the mass merchants, but that stuff isn’t being reviewed in enthusiast magazines. By and large, most companies are making competent products in a responsible manner. There aren’t any $5000 Corvairs from which you need to be rescued by some 21st-century cycling Ralph Nader.

But suppose you publish a magazine upwards of nine times per year and have enough readers to populate a good-sized community. Chances are you depend on those readers to keep your ad rates high enough to float your operation. Those ads, of course, are sold to bike companies.

Here’s the rub: Say one bad thing about a product, and that advertiser or potential advertiser can suffer a significant drop in sales. How would you like to be asking them to buy an ad with you after you single-handedly delivered a downturn to their bottom line. It’s a bit like Bernie Madoff asking one of his investors to loan him a 10-spot so he can buy some lunch.

When I launched Asphalt in 2002, I went with a reader-supported model; that is, most of the magazine’s revenue came from subscriptions and single-copy sales. I accepted advertising, but I wanted autonomy to write what I believed, not what wouldn’t get an ad contract canceled. That didn’t work. Middle America wasn’t prepared to pony up $9.95 for a bike magazine, no matter how nice the paper was.

Yet readers are still willing to cry foul if someone doesn’t take a shellacking for making a tire that none of their friends are riding.

A few years ago I reviewed the Cervelo SLC-SL for Belgium Knee Warmers. There’s a lot about that bike to recommend, but I found it to be the single most uncomfortable bike I’d ridden since being on an Eddy Merckx Max bike. The bike was unacquainted with the notion of vertical compliance and serves as the perfect rebuttal to all the naysayers who claim that carbon fiber bikes do not, cannot possess vertical compliance. I tell you, that bike should come with a kidney belt. But even that review isn’t remembered as being a negative review, so in some readers’ eyes, my credibility is as shaky as Michelle Bachmann’s grasp of history.

I could, in theory, to satisfy the bloodlust that I occasionally hear in the comments or receive in the more occasional, but outraged, e-mails, set up a fund to operate truly independent reviews. That is, I could establish a Paypal account and you could send $20 toward a review of some bike you’ve heard is a piece of crap. Once I amassed enough of these donations I could purchase said bike and write about my honest beliefs with utter disregard to the future of my advertising income.

I don’t see that proposition going anywhere.

Years ago, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of reviewing some products I didn’t really like. They weren’t bad products, but they had so little to recommend, it was difficult to write the review. In still churning out my 2000 words, I learned an important lesson. The lesson was, when the product is uninspiring, so is my prose.

I view the mission here at RKP as one of passion. Hopefully, what we deliver each week will inspire you on some level. Whether we’re writing out against doping, in favor of yet more suffering, or some product that really is the shit, there’s no point in writing if we haven’t had some fun at the keyboard. There’s too much else in the world of dubious worth for us to add to it. If you need a dollar burger, we’re obviously not the place to get it.

Let me back up a second. I get why readers revolt against a reviewer for whom all bikes are torsionally stiff and vertically compliant. If said reviewer gives every bike on the planet 9 on a 10 scale, common sense tells you to be suspicious.

I decided to take a different approach. I’ve been dealing with companies whose products I generally believe in even before the subject of the review arrives. With Zipp wheels, I know they have an undeniable edge in aerodynamics. Neuvation wheels get my nod for a different reason: It’s hard to beat the value.

Rather than try to write about every product out there, I’d rather focus on the stuff that excites me. I’m a better writer when I’m engaged. And if what I’m writing bores you, we have a problem.

I’ve been sent all manner of stuff that I haven’t reviewed. The stuff just didn’t do it for me. There was a chain lube that probably works wonders on the East Coast, but picked up sand like the Wile E. Coyote monster magnet. I need that like I need my son to puke. There was an embrocation with a consistency that felt just plain weird to me; it’s probably a bias of mine, not a problem with the product.

At this point, I’m going to need to back up my prose. I’ve received requests on any number of levels for a bad review, and now I’ll give you one. One.

Image: Ray Asante

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  1. sophrosune

    Padraig, I would just like to say that I have never had any doubts about the veracity of your product reviews here. In that regard RKP is the best service out there and I read them all. As you know, you and I have widely divergent opinions about some issues in cycling, especially professional cycling. But for those who feel they need you to produce a negative review to prove your credibility, they are not only missing the point but also missing some of the best insights out there on the products that we all use and sometimes need to replace. My only observation (or wish) is that you wrote more of these (or nudged Robot to add some. ;-))

  2. Adam

    I thought last year’s reviews of the Tarmac and Roubaix were the single best bike write ups I’d ever read due to their thoughfulness. I was salivating at the thought that I’d be able to read something like that once a quarter. That hasn’t happened – you probably don’t get bikes leant to you like Bicycling does – but it did make me sit up and think, ‘this guy is not talking total BS.’
    Since then I’ve gotten my fix from Peleton. Good bike and wheel reviews there.

    I’d also come to the conclusion that many of your shorter reviews aren’t reviews per say, but more sharing of a great product you’d recently tested that you thought your readers should give consideration to. It helps us navigate the many choices offered in the bike world.

  3. Bikelink

    I don’t think bad reviews are necessary for YOUR credibility, but not having them in general from anyone leaves a hole. Often we don’t buy the actual reviewed product (e.g., highest end Specialized road bikes), but try to extrapolate the reviews to other products…less expensive bikes in same line, or even different brands. If there are pot holes out there I’d rather be warned then to hit them…and knowing that you or others may know there is a bad product (which I ended up buying perhaps) but didn’t say anything does feel funny. I end up going to general bike review sites and sifting through the varied user reviews, trying to get an overall sense of what are consistent and likely real points.

    The Consumer Reports angle is interesting. They make their money off the subscriptions, right? This seems like an unmet niche in cycling/sports….perhaps a similar periodical could dedicate itself to cycling (+/- other outdoor sports to widen the subscriber base) products, and pull in folks like you to do the reviews depending on the products (i.e., cycling stuff in your case). And/or folks like you could partner with the actual Consumer Reports to do bike reviews.

  4. Robot

    It seems to me that what is valuable about a review is NOT whether it is positive or negative. As P explains the economics of the industry legislate strongly against net negative prose. What I want to see in a review is what a product is good for. I have certain needs. A review should tell me whether those needs will be met or not. A good jersey for one guy, with one set of needs, is a bad jersey for another guy, with a different set.

    Having said that, I would LOVE to write some bad reviews, if only to vent my opinionated spleen. Still, no one’s paying me to do that.

  5. Souleur

    Indeed its a delicate balance.

    Business feasibility vs true objectivity. Sometimes it works out, a positive review, a positive recommendation and thus a mutually beneficial relationship between the reviewer and…his next meal.

    However, not everything can be pollyanna positive. And thus, I suppose the stated purpose to gather ‘friends’ around you is a good thing, to have positive relationships that can be affirming and mutually beneficial are indeed understandable.

    And that is one reason I love my full time job. As a nurse practitioner the science of research and empericism in medicine is far removed (most of the time) from capital gain, thus we can move p-values to the 1/1000th and measure things in small significant differences from means and not worry what people think or like about it..or dislike about it. And we go on.

    Its just different in cycling and our tastes are so finicky and fine, that it seems a very difficult thing to balance.

  6. Touriste-Routier

    Would it not be the most ethical thing for a mainstream, ad driven magazine/site to not do equipment reviews? What are the pressures from the manufacturers to do such things.

    I for one rarely even read reviews, knowing on one hand the potential conflict of interest, and on the other, not knowing enough about the reviewer to trust their opinions. But then again I don’t typically lust after items, or care about the “latest and greatest”.

    1. Author

      Touriste-Routier: Doing bike reviews isn’t inherently unethical, but is there an inherent conflict of interest? Yes. The surf industry has always tackled this in a far different way. Rather than reviewing a shaper’s board, the surf magazines I tended to look at would send an editor out to spend a day or two surfing with the guy. It gave the reader a much more three-dimensional view of the shaper. That said, the economic feasibility for a surf magazine to send an editor to visit a shaper is cheaper than a tank of gas. Doing that with bike magazines and frame builders isn’t remotely possible. While a shaper may well have a 9′ 1″ pintail he can loan a guy for a day, your average builder will not have a fully built 58cm frame hanging around. The real question with bike magazines is how much autonomy the editorial staff is given, and at some of them, the bikes of current or prospective advertisers are never dinged. For any reason.

      As to your point about lusting after items, I hear ya, but I think when well done a review—of any item—can serve as a teaching moment. They can inform the reader about more than just the experience of riding that bike. I strive to at the very least get people thinking about what they want in a riding experience. In my best moments I might have encouraged someone to think about what they want out of life.

  7. Touriste-Routier

    Padraig, I didn’t mean to imply that reviews were unethical, but meant that the most ethical behavior would be to not perform reviews to maintains one’s integrity.

    I am much more interested in reading about the people, philosophy and history behind the brands than I am about the products themselves, especially considering how opinions on products are highly subjective.

    In regards to geometry, I was told by a few manufacturers that they like keeping some things as “proprietary” not because of any trade secrets, but due to the fact that many laymen have no real clue as to what certain things mean. Unfortunately many of the “experts” are no more qualified to do this than a layman.

    As you know head angle without fork rake or trail figures won’t necessarily tell you that much, but many people will assume that a certain angle will be “fast/twitchy” and another will be slow. But I understand your desire to know more about the geometry across the size spectrum and line, so you can extrapolate how bikes of other sizes might handle.

  8. roomservicetaco

    “With Zipp wheels, I know they have an undeniable edge in aerodynamics.”

    Late to the party, but I’d be very curious to read a review or post as to why you believe this and under what conditions Zipps are better.

    Not trying to contradict your assertion, I’m just very interested in the topic, mainly because articles on the topic tend to be very myopic or misleading. To me, they show that aerodynamics of wheels tend to vary only slightly at the riding speeds of all but pro riders and discount all other wheel considerations such as wind-up and moment of inertia.

    1. Author

      Room Service Taco: I had the opportunity to join a bike company for testing at a wind tunnel for two days. One of the reasons they rented the time was to see which wheels really were fastest and to find out if different wheels performed differently once those wheels were blown as part of a bike. I was a little surprised that the staff assumed the Zipps would be fastest; I didn’t think the result would be cut and dry. Long story short, they had no agenda. The Zipp wheels tested weren’t just faster, they were lots faster. If memory serves, the slowest Zipp tested, the 202, was roughly as fast as the fastest non-Zipp wheel. The wheels I saw tested were all pre-Firecrest, and since the introduction of Firecrest in the 404 and 808, they are now even faster than they were, and more stable. The 808 is more stable in a cross wind than some other wheels I have that feature a much shallower rim profile.

      You might go check out what some of the companies competing against Zipp had to say about Firecrest when it was first introduced. Next, check out the way their rim shapes are evolving.

      Alex: Thanks much.

  9. Alex

    Patrick, I totally share your opinion on the subject. Having worked as tech consultant/bike tester and other things bike-related for a major local bike mag from ´94 to 2003, I also feel your pain. I still write as freelance for some mags and sites and it´s indeed a delicate balance, hard if not impossible, to reach. But I´ve always kept faith that my passion and commitment to cycling will help me with the task of testing bikes and products and present readers with usefull, realiable and helpful opinion.

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