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