I’m with my family in Hawaii, theoretically on vacation. I say theoretically because I’ve been at my keyboard and on the phone far more than I promised my wife I would be. And the reason why is Charles Pelkey’s Explainer piece on the tussle going on between Specialized and Café Roubaix.
Because of the number of emails, phone calls and other messages I’ve received, as publisher, I suppose I have to weigh in a bit.
First off, Charles didn’t go rogue. I asked him to address the story. I fully endorse what he wrote and am willing to stand by it even if Specialized decides to pull their advertising. Neither Wayne Thompson, my ad sales director, nor I have heard anything from their marketing department (and believe me, they have our numbers), so I’ll take this, so far, as their endorsement of the freedom of the press. Let me add that if they were to pull their advertising, this would be a colossal hit to me personally. I’d have to take Mini-Shred out of preschool and the Deuce out of daycare. It wouldn’t end there, either. My wife would have me sleeping in my car until I made up the shortfall. I shit you not. This would turn my life upside down.
Charles isn’t insensitive to these issues, either. After hitting “Publish” on his piece he had the inconvenient experience of noticing the Specialized ad for, of all things, the Roubaix. He called me and offered to pull the piece. I wouldn’t allow it. I stand by him and I stand by the work we publish. If I don’t stand up for the things I believe, I don’t know how I’ll be able to tell my sons that integrity matters.
Specialized is a big, complicated company. I don’t like all of their business practices, but they have a remarkable history of making great bikes. I’ve bought three (including two for Mini-Shred) in the last two years.
I flat-out think the Canadian Patent and Trademark office fucked up when they issued Specialized a trademark on the name Roubaix. Note that the U.S. office didn’t grant that trademark; that should tell us all something. However, I’m troubled by a couple of things contained (or not) in the Calgary Herald piece. Richter doesn’t mention that he’s selling wheels and tires branded Café Roubaix. The story suggests that the cease and desist letter concerns the bike shop name. While the folks at Specialized won’t talk right now, I have to imagine they were far more concerned with this guy selling parts bearing that mark.
Consider for a moment if this guy was selling wheels branded “Firecrest.” I can imagine SRAM would go after him with some verve. Whether he’s a vet or not isn’t an issue. You could be a one-armed, Nobel-Peace-Prize recipient but if you steal my car, I’m calling the cops.
Café Roubaix owner Dan Richter told the paper that Specialized, “made it clear on no uncertain terms, they are going to sue.” I have to wonder why you would tell a newspaper someone is going to sue you if they haven’t actually sued you. Specialized is on lockdown and won’t talk; that suggests that even if they are playing the heavy they are at least talking and not actually suing. Could it be that Richter wanted to head off a possible suit by igniting a fire storm of public opinion? Seems a genius strategy, but will it really be that helpful when they get back to the negotiating table?
A subsequent opinion piece in the Herald by staff writer David Marsden faults Richter for not doing a trademark search on the word Roubaix, but really, who saw that coming?
This is going to be a PR black eye for Specialized that will resonate for years. If they’d handled this more quietly (and maybe they were trying; after all, they didn’t contact the Calgary Herald) then this wouldn’t have played so poorly for them. However, their screw-up, in my opinion, wasn’t sending the C&D letter to Richter, it was filing for the trademark on the word Roubaix.
It doesn’t matter that Specialized only applied for the Roubaix mark in cycling. Cycling is the only forum in which it has value. Roubaix is one of those words that carries the weight of tradition; it telegraphs more than endurance, it is the bar by which we measure a fortitude that is more of the mind than body. It’s a word that carries mythic weight, imperial meaning. It’s part of an international trust. No one, in my opinion, should have an exclusive right to use that word in a cycling context, and that, really, is the root of the outrage being directed at Specialized.
I know a great many fine people at Specialized. I like and respect Mike Sinyard. When I think of the CEOs in the bike biz who most embody the life of a dedicated cyclist, I think of him. I use him as an example not just of someone who I believe is authentically a cyclist, but how I’d like to be living my life in another 15 years. Yes, he works a lot, but he also rides a lot, and in cool places, to boot.
But his legal team is another matter. Seeking to trademark a term whose value you haven’t personally built is a kind of greed at best, a kind of theft at worst. Had Specialized called that bike the turnbuckle or the outrigger—names that have no meaning in cycling—and then Café Whatever came out with Outrigger wheels or Turnbuckle tires, they could have sued straight away and everyone would have wondered what the hell Dan Richter was thinking. Public sentiment wouldn’t have been an issue.
I don’t believe shunning Specialized for this breach of community etiquette serves anyone, though consumers are entitled to vote with their dollars. And big companies are entitled to vote with theirs as well, which means the big red S may yet pull their ad from us. Whether they do or not, I’ll continue to do my job as I see fit, and that means if they are willing to continue to send me their product, I’ll continue to review it conscientiously. I think it’s better for the community if we remain engaged. After all, who cares what your enemy thinks of you? It’s when a friend says, “Please, don’t drive drunk; that’s dumb, I’ll call you a cab,” that you know you’ve got someone looking out for you—and everyone else.
Now, with that off my chest, I’m going back to my vacation, which is already in progress.