Snake Oil

Snake Oil

The other night my wife decided to walk up to our corner convenience store to grab a drink—her latest favorite Vitamin Water. I asked her to bring back a Mexican Coke for me. What I didn’t tell her was where they were located—not with the other Coca-Cola products—and what size they are, so despite her good intentions, she brought back the eight-ounce imposter pictured on the left. In Coke lore, back before the company brought out New Coke and suffered one of the greatest brand setbacks ever, and before the company brought the old formula back, sorta, substituting corn syrup for cane sugar and calling it “Coke Classic,” the eight-ounce bottle of Coke was considered the thing to have. Coca-Cola officials insisted there was no difference between it and its other products, but the public didn’t believe them. As disconnects between the official company line and public perception, this was one of those rare occasions when it worked in the brand’s favor.

I don’t drink a lot of Coke, but one of my favorite guilty pleasures is a Mexi-Coke, so when I did open the drink above, I noticed the difference between the taste of cane sugar and corn syrup immediately. There was a sweetness to the finish that was missing.

My next thought was, “Eff those guys.”


The economics behind corn syrup—the farm subsidies, the tax incentives, ultimately the cheap product—is the stuff of plenty of media stories and more than a few books. Corn syrup has been blamed for everything from America’s obesity problem to fibromyalgia—and for all I know it’s guilty of all that and more. The popular belief (and I think it’s more or less right) is that soft drink makers (who aren’t exactly producing the world’s healthiest product) have placed ginormous profits way ahead of public health. Such a belief requires a big gulp (ha!) of moral relativism, one that asks us to at least agree that cane sugar is less evil than corn syrup.

For me, this is a classic example of how a giant multinational corporation would rather place profit ahead of quality, even if we define quality as simply as the better-tasting product. It’s a set of priorities that I find pretty abhorrent, and once I got a look inside the belly of the beast.

I spent a year working for a trade publication that covered the electronic security industry. I was in the process of trying to get my magazine, Asphalt, off the ground and needed a job in the meantime. I worked with a nice bunch of people, but it was soul-destroying work for the most part. At a trade event, I was charged with attending a meeting regarding new 802.11 protocols for alarm systems. The big concern was for burglar systems, rather than fire. I think I can fairly sum up the meeting as a bunch of old boys concerned about how many engineers they were going to have to hire in order to make sure that their systems would be compatible with this new-fangled Internet thingy.

It was during this meeting that a guy from one of the nation’s largest alarm companies stood up and said to the group, ‘The industry’s dirty little secret is that alarms really only work as a deterrent. We have no data that shows anyone has ever been arrested during a residential break-in as a result of an alarm. What we need is a standard that allows us to tell customers that if their house is broken into, and the phones are disabled, a signal will still be sent to the alarm company.’

I remember feeling sick to my stomach after his little speech. I knew I couldn’t continue to work in an industry where complex technology that did almost nothing was being sold to unsuspecting consumers. The very definition of snake oil.

Of course, soft drinks and burglar alarms don’t have the ability to destroy civilization the way having every bee on Earth die as the result of Monsanto products could. So yes, we have adequate reason to be suspicious of large corporations, and thanks to Citizen’s United and the ability of corporate executives to infiltrate government at all levels, we will have reason to be concerned for a very long time.

This is why I’m in the bike industry; basically everyone I know who works in the bike industry, at least on the manufacturing, R&D, marketing and PR end of things as well, does so because of a similar love for bikes and distaste for overly corporate environments. Many of the engineers I know saw the bike industry as a way to escape the bureaucracy and inefficiency of the aerospace companies. From what I’ve managed to find out over the years, most people working in the bike industry would make anywhere from 20 to 40 percent more by taking their job skills to another industry. This points to a fundamental truth of the bike industry: Everyone working in the bike world does so because money isn’t their sole or even primary motivation.

So any time people accuse a bike company of placing profits ahead of consumers’ best interests, I have to push back. Can the marketing be aggressive? Yep. Are the sales tactics sometimes bullying where industry competitors are concerned? Occasionally. And while it’s hard to criticize a company for wanting more market share, some of the strategies used are troubling. The use of patents and trademarks to thwart competition isn’t remotely unique to the bike industry, but when people begin to complain about Specialized’s enforcement of a trademark they don’t own, all I need do is look at the way Shimano has patented nearly every idea you could dream up for an integrated control lever to see tactics so aggressive it makes Specialized look like ASI’s patsy.

One of my goals for RKP was to be able to enjoy the freedom to write about the bike industry in a fresh way, to praise great work, to ignore the unoriginal (rather than endorsing it with boilerplate praise) and criticize the industry when it had it coming. My north star for this has been Wine Spectator because very few enthusiast magazines will risk criticizing an advertiser due to the risk of losing those ad dollars. Wine Spectator has been unusual in that they report hard business stories about the wine industry. They once reported that they were detecting cork taint in bottles of wine from a prestigious Napa winery. Such a broad, systemic problem threatened whole vintages of wine. It was a terrific service to readers, but had the potential to devastate the winery. It was tantamount to reporting that the rubber in all of a manufacturer’s tires was defective.

This is why when someone accuses one of the larger bike companies (insert either Trek or Specialized for sheer statistical likelihood) of trying to ram hyped-up but poorly-made products down consumers throats, I feel a need to step in to their defense. Why me? Well, partly, because the vaguely paranoid cynicism that people in the bike industry actively want to sell you crap gives me a rash, but also because there aren’t many people in a position to stand up for them in a credible manner. Sponsored pros are mercenaries (understandably so) who are contractually bound to say they are riding the best bike around. It’s like being a parent, if you don’t believe your kid is the cutest one on the block, who will? Company employees who rise to their employers’ defense will be dismissed as simply toeing the employer’s line. Consumers who own the product in question will see their opinion dismissed as being self-defensive.

So it falls to a guy like me because, ultimately, I don’t have a dog in the fight. It makes no difference in my life whether you buy a bike from Giant, Trek, Specialized or Cannondale. Uniformly, our advertisers have told us they support RKP because they believe in our content. It’s a vote of confidence that means a lot to me. Because they trust we will do a thorough and honest job of writing about their products, I’ve been invited to spend an increasing amount of time with companies’ engineering teams and when I encounter that particular breed of paranoid cynicism—that the bike companies are deliberately trying to sell you a crap product—whether from people I know on rides, social media or comments here on RKP, my thoughts go to those guys, the engineers. Those guys are us. For them, the chance to make a better bike is a dream come true. And their livelihoods depend on them being smart enough, creative enough, to dream up ways to make that better mousetrap.

Here is where I have to grant a single caveat. I’m fond of writing that I don’t run across bikes you need to be warned about. Well, there’s an exception that proves the rule. Those carbon fiber fakes that are showing up on Ebay? You know, the $500 Pinarello, the impossibly cheap Tarmac SL4, the oh-so-affordable Time? Well that’s what you need to be warned about. Everything I’ve managed to learn about those bikes (from second-hand sources because I’m not making enough to buy a bunch of them and get them cut open) tells me that there are some people out there who really don’t care about your race performance, your good time, hell, your well-being. From inconsistent wall thicknesses to resin voids, those fakes are less bicycles than time bombs. The guys behind these bikes are of the same ilk who put drywall in baby formula, but what they aren’t are supplier factories. That is, these bikes aren’t being sold out the back door of Merida when the boss isn’t looking. They aren’t interns experimenting during factory down-time. These are factories that aren’t producing bikes for significant manufacturers. Nor are they plants known for open-mold designs, from what I can find out.

So yes, the snake oil is out there. But it isn’t being produced by any reputable manufacturers selling into bike shops. To wind up on a bike I’d call dangerous, you’d have to turn off every internal alarm bell that constitutes common sense. But the larger point is simpler, safer. By the time you walk into a bike shop, the products you find in there have been vetted by people just like you and me—cyclists who want nothing more than the best bike possible.

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  1. puckmonkey

    I respect you too much to tell you your wrong. I’m not in the bike biz so I’m looking in from the outside. I see the trend of price point chasing. i.e. engineers design a frame of high modulus carbon fiber. Marketing dept. says make this frame cost $XXX, $XX and $X. So the engineer replaces the high modulus carbon with recycled plastic bags to get to price point $X. I see the big guys selling 3 different models of a frame that came out of the same molds at 3 price points. Corn syrup in the Coke as one would say.

  2. Pat O'Brien

    I trust that name brand bicycles, with warrantees, being sold in bike shops are not junk being hustled on an unsuspected buyer. But that trust doesn’t come easy to me about promises of anonymity in surveys conducted by companies other than RKP. My cynicism, and maybe even mild paranoia, about risking my personal data on line more than absolutely necessary is reasonable after recent news and some bad personal experience.

    1. Author

      Puckmonkey: What I can tell you regarding the point that you raise is that I’ve yet to see a bike company where the marketing department can drive engineering decisions. None of them have that power. However, the sales team may push back and say, “We need a version of the Model X at $3599.” The reality that I’ve seen is that dialing a price point comes down to the product managers, that is, those people who actually select the components that go on the bike. A change in materials won’t sway the cost of a bike nearly as much as changing the parts spec. Often, a change in materials is used as a way to help differentiate the models at the price points, so that the shop sales staff can more easily tell the story of a bike, even if the change in materials in the frame and fork really only dropped the cost by $25.

      Pat: My experience with the Interwebs tells me that the most information that Gluskin Townley Group could surreptitiously acquire from you without your knowledge is your IP address. Unless you give them your email, name and phone number, they won’t have it, and as I understand it, they won’t ask for it. And for what it’s worth, my regard for these gentlemen is such that I take them at their word. I can’t risk my reputation with someone I wouldn’t trust to babysit my kid, and I’d trust them to take my boys to Disneyland. I might even ask them to. I need a day off.

    2. Pat O'Brien

      Thanks for the response Padraig. I will participate in the surveys. And, I hope you get that day off!

  3. Sam

    I want to offer a counter to the claim that the bicycle industry doesn’t put profit ahead of consumers’ best interests: 650B wheels for mountain bikes. Whether or not this trend was noticed by the road-centric thinkers at RKP (not that there’s anything wrong with road cycling or a focus on it, mind), some of the largest manufacturers did just about everything possible to push 26″ wheels into the grave without good reason. Despite numerous reviewers and riders admitting that there isn’t much of a noticeable difference between 26″ and 650B in many situations, or a slim advantage at best, some companies shelled their 26″ lineups within a year. (Case in point: Giant.) It’s hard for me to believe that MTB consumers really gave up on 26″ wheels that fast. I’m not saying that safety or quality were compromised, and I’m sure that 650B mountain bikes are lots of fun to ride, but from my perspective the 650B push appeared to be clearly driven by the profits that would come from instituting a new–not better–standard and pushing the old standard out of the way as fast as possible to leave consumers with no choice but complete replacement. (Thankfully, not all companies have joined this effort.) I’d be glad to hear your take on it, though.

    1. Author

      Sam: It’s true that we’re road-centric here, but I’ve been spending more and more time on the dirt. I haven’t ridden too many 650B bikes, but friends at bike companies all swear that it’s a huge improvement. I agree that 650B is preferable to 26″. They just flat-out ride better and that, I do believe, is at the root of the change. There’s a far more vigorous discussion about 650B vs. 29″, though for some companies, like Giant, even that conversation seems dead. Again, bottom line is that the guys who are involved in making these decisions are riding this stuff and the new products on the market reflect what they are proud to have developed. Now, I’ll grant that you picked up on a sensitive point: whether or not consumers gave up on 26″ bikes that fast. It’s true that some companies have pushed the issue, but the root cause is that the bike companies believed that the bigger wheel sizes offered a better experience. For my part, I might build up a 26″ dirt jump bike so I can have fun with my boys, but a 26″ for trail riding? Not a chance. I often tell people that moving from a 26″-wheel bike with 50mm of front suspension to a 29er with 5″ of travel in front and rear was like taking up a whole new sport. I’m faster, smoother and have better control. Why would I want less? You can debate whether 650B is better than 29″, but I have yet to encounter anyone who has ridden all those bikes who wanted to stick with 26″. I see one problem in that: there’s a whole new generation of shredders growing up with mountain biking thanks to NICA, so there’s going to be a need for serious 26″ mountain bikes for 90-lb. boys who aren’t yet 5′ tall. Someone will need to address that.

  4. Danny

    The fact is you DO have a dog in this race. Yes you let Pelkey do his bit, but you had to water it down with your subsequent letter.
    Specialized’s litigiousness is reprehensible, and it’s no justification to say “well Shimano’s worse”

  5. Mike Kelly

    I absolutely concur that the vast majority of bike companies are run by enthusiasts trying to engineer, build and sell the best product they can. Be it frames, components, or kit I doubt many get into the bike biz to get rich. There are certainly easier ways if that is your goal. That said, I must point out that a somewhat unique feature of our “consumer good” is the number of times it is touched in ways that can have a drastic impact on the perceived quality of the product. A bike company designs and manufactures a bike, ships it to a LBS who assembles it and adjusts it for the buyer. The consumer is then responsible for maintaining it or seeing that a professional (back to the LBS) properly maintains it. I have had my fair share of close calls when riding and when I remove stupid personal decisions and idiotic car drivers from the comparison, the vast majority of my close calls have been related to equipment failure. I recall the descent on the 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge in 2004 when a seat post snapping in half nearly changed my sexuality (and absolutely reminded me about the pain of road rash). I had purchased a new carbon fiber seat post from my LBS a few days prior to the event and had my LBS install it while I was there. We bantered about the need to properly torque all carbon components. After the event, upon returning to my LBS there was a great debate about whether the fault lay with the manufacturer or the mechanic that installed it. Either way, it did not ease the road rash.
    My only other comment is regarding your specific callout of Giant, Trek, Specialized and Cannondale. While I understand these are the big four in the industry, I have never owned a frame produced by any of them. I have owned frames produced by Bianchi, Pinarello, Cinelli, Tommasini and DeRosa. While I will admit I am partial to the Italian classics, I am also inclined to believe these companies are truly run by the greatest of enthusiast who, in some cases, are betting the family reputation on what they produce. Most of the major cycling media outlets focus on the top four because that is where their bread is buttered. As a business man I understand. As an enthusiast I cannot help but wish the media would recognize that the entire industry does not consist only of the big boys – Giant, Trek, Specialized and Cannondale.

  6. Drew

    I’m not entirely with you here. While Specialized, Cannondale, Trek etc. all make great bikes that are vetted by the process as you suggest and knock-off bikes are garbage there is much more to the story…

    I won’t go as far as to name them, but there are certainly bike companies being primarily run by marketing (and finance). Some of these companies are all under one roof both figuratively and literally. Some of these companies are finding the cheapest manufacturers for their goods in Asia and marketing them as if they were engineering them and doing QC themselves. Some of the resultant bikes are then sold at prices and backed with marketing which makes them indistinguishable from the good stuff. Some of these companies go to amazing lengths to make you think otherwise.

    I’d rather ride the no-name asian bike than the same frame with a bunch of marketing supporting it.

    1. Rod

      Me too. The caveat I have here is whether you can have enough assurance that it is actually the same frame!

      I have gone a slightly alternative route – my LBS sources its own brand of OEM frames. Basically open-source, but allowing a certain amount of customization before the moulds are cut. And in the case of some bikes (e.g. my new Ti frame), allowing for custom geometry.

  7. MQ

    Padraig I’d like to comment on your reply to Sam regarding 650b. Sam’s comment was that the push to 650 from the big bike manufacturers was one motivated more by profit than the consumers best interest. Your reply insinuated that this was not the case and that the bike manufactures motives were completely altruistic.

    To think that profit never enters into the minds of big bike manufacturers is absurd, it may well be the case that 650 is better than 26 but I can guarantee that profit drives a significant proportion of decision making, if it didn’t then they would be negligent businessmen/women.

    I may be drunk on cynicism but any conversation about snake oil must elicit those emotions at some point. Personally I’d like to know a little more about the bootleg Mexican Coke distribution network your tapped into 🙂 I found this interesting as I’m not from the US so a blind reference to Mexican Coke has me thinking of another product entirely.

    1. Craig

      650b drove 26″ bikes into the ground via a combination of magazine hype on consumer wallets. 18 months ago you would have a hard time sourcing a Cannondale 29’er via their inventory system. When they brought out 650b’s it was the same issue. Anything with 26″ wheels, on the other hand, you could have all day long for cheap. As a dealer you would never carry 26″ bikes at that point because there was no way in hell you could move them. Cannondale solved their problem by not producing them and dumping the stock at rock bottom prices.
      I am sure this is the same story all of the manufacturers have … if the 26″ bikes were actually selling they would still be offered … we are facing the same thing in cross – in a couple of years you won’t be able to find canti brake models … the market has spoken, right or wrong. Don’t believe me, VHS vs BetaMAX for those of you old enough to remember.

    2. Tim A

      Don’t discount fear as a motivator in the shift to 650b. Many of the companies who have jumped on the mid-sized bandwagon were those who were caught out in the cold when 29ers hit. For some time it’s been difficult to get large portions of the market on 26in wheels- even when 29er wheels came at the expense of fit or suspension design (which it did- especially early on). With more than a few toes still in the industry, I sense a ‘not this time’ attitude. Friends who own shops are seeing far fewer 29ers sell at this point- and virtually no 26in bikes. And I, for one, have more things to get worked up about than bikes evolving in a way that I didn’t think was necessary.

      Everyone in the industry – pros and bros alike – needs to eat. And I’ve come to really like my new 650b despite early prejudices.

  8. Nikolai

    Those remarks about Asian fakes…

    Nobody forces anybody to buy them, yet thousands of people do. These guys are often, if not usually, portrayed as idiots. Yet, they’re the ones who save thousands of dollars on their bikes. They are often told how dangerous it is to ride those fakes, yet it is the big brands’ frames that crack and fail all the time. It is getting so bad that if your frame doesn’t crack in 2 years you begin to wonder if you’re stuck with it forever because you’re so used to replace frames on warranty claims. Where all the space engineering has gone?

    Which brings me to this: perhaps bikes do not have to be designed by space engineers. Perhaps there’s less to them than the spin doctors want us to believe. Perhaps a bike is a simple machine that can be built from inexpensive materials that will last. Perhaps riding and racing bikes is all about fun, not looks and “my stem is longer than yours” fights.

    I think the industry needs to wake up and realise the changed market conditions. The Internet driven market is more open than ever. Lucky for us, we get to choose what we want these days more than 15 years ago. If we can pay $500 for a frame instead of $5000, we will and those fancy stickers be damned. We can stick them on ourselves if we want. Or we can stick on whatever we want.

    PS: I don’t own an Asian fake

  9. Randall

    I’d like to make two comments

    1) Some facets of the “cycling thing” are driven by profit. An example is Strava Premium. I had a free trial, and when I entered the code, it posted that my upgrade “proved” how much I like to ride my bike (or something like that). That was infuriating to me, as if paying for Strava vice TraniningPeaks etc. would be how I could prove anything!

    2) What is hard for me is, when other industries products SEEM to be so much better of a value. For example Burton’s most expensive snowboarding glove is all leather outer, microfiber inner AND comes with a wireless iPhone remote built in, all for $169.95. I compare that to a pair of Assos gloves, and I really can’t wrap my head around how any level of engineering and materials could be worth it.

    Bikes/frames though, I agree that R&D probably drives it, although what MQ said must be true, by definition. For profit corporations exist to make money, and there is nothing wrong with that.

  10. Quentin

    You made reference to the “open mold” Chinese frames as if they are possibly in a different category as the outright fakes, and I’m curious how much of a distinction there is. I say this as someone whose Asian frame is expected to arrive any day now. I’ve been riding the same aluminum frame for the last 8 years, and have never ridden a carbon frame in my life. I have no illusions that it’s going to ride like a top end carbon frame from the big brands, but I figured it may still be an upgrade over what I currently have and for $500 I’m willing to try it out. My only concerns were that it might not actually ride any better than what I have now and that it could have a higher risk of failure, but my hope was that seeking out sellers of unbranded bikes rather than outright counterfeits would reduce both risks.

  11. John Schubert

    As is the case with so many manufactured products, the bike market is saturated. Bikes last for decades, as you can confirm by looking at the bike racks in any major city. The only hope of selling new bikes is to convince the customer that s/he will benefit from new features.
    Hence, any “new thing,” even a slightly different tire size, gets hyped to the moon and back.
    I wish the 650B tire size had been introduced to the customer in the context of sizing the bike to fit the rider. Tall guys can ride 29-ers. Medium-size people can ride 650Bs. Shorter people need the frame designs that are only possible with the 559 mm bead seat diameter of the “26-inch” wheel. (Oh, and by the way — the industry should teach the customers to learn tire sizes via bead seat diameter instead of these goofy names.)
    My industry friend Linda DuPriest, who is a petite woman, recently had to shoo off a salesman who was SURE she’d love a 29er. Lots of people haven’t yet gotten the memo — the best use of differing wheel sizes is to Make The Bike Fit The Rider. Performance differences among these sizes are minor on the road, and less important than good bike fit on the trail.

  12. Robot

    I’d just like to offer one perspective on the 650b tangent above. I believe that the best bike for the rider depends on the rider. 29ers aren’t awesome for people under a certain height, in my opinion. I ride a 650b bike. I’m 5’9″. This proves nothing other than, there is not one solution for all riders.

    My take on the evolution of 650b is this: the industry (at least in the States) saw a dramatic shift to 29″, even among smaller riders, who were subsequently not that happy with their rides. The 26″ standard was becoming harder to maintain from a forecasting/sales perspective. 650b represented a half-step that worked well for a lot of smaller riders for whom 29″ was too much. The problem then became about how many standards could be maintained, how much inventory, etc. It’s expensive to offer options, so the industry made a bet on which way the wind would blow. This feels to me not so much like money-grubbing as an effort to keep product lines from ballooning out of control. So, in the end, I think the 29er killed the 26″ standard as much or more than 650b did.

    BTW, this is not a statement about which wheel size is best. I think think that depends on who you are.

    1. Anonymous

      I ride a 622 up front and a 559 rear. It is a conversion with a 26″ rigid fork on a Merlin from 1995. I have little feet so it works out as far as toe clip overlap goes.

  13. Jim

    Patrick, appreciate your blog and your opinions. I’ve owned a “cheap carbon” frame bought directly from a Chinese factory for a little over 2 years now, and have put several thousand miles on it. While I grant you that there have been catastrophic failures on carbon frames and forks, the “truth” is that all carbon bikes, brand name or no are susceptible.

    It is a myth that a “no-name” frame is going to spontaneously detonate underneath you, and a little bit of research into the makers of frames will reveal that many of them have rigorous QC processes. Additionally, *shock & horror*, many of these manufacturers offer 2+ year warranties on their frames, forks and wheels – with sufficient evidence of these being honored.

    I am no shill for the makers of open-mold bikes, and I do believe that there is a legal and ethical issue with the sale/purchase of counterfeit goods. Fortunately, there are many options available when you buy directly from a manufacturer who has their own designs, as well as the ability to “custom” order any paint scheme that you desire.

    While safety is a valid concern, I’m afraid your last two paragraphs smack of gross generalization, xenophobia and unwarranted paranoia. It is a flat out fallacy that “all” bike shop bikes are inherently safer/better, and the “recall” record proves it.

    Snake oil – by definition is something sold for large profit which doesn’t live up to its promises. My unbranded, open mold frame simply doesn’t meet that definition and I don’t believe that I am “unique” in my experience.

    If your corporate sponsors would permit, I’d challenge you to spend a mere $600 or so on an unbranded chinese carbon frame – I’m more than happy to share all of my “lessons learned” to assist. Ride it for a few months & then let’s have your opinion on “open-mold” bikes.

    1. Author

      MQ: Let’s be straight: I didn’t insinuate anything, much less that anyone was being altruistic. I agree that bottom line, bike companies want to make money. But I think the moment you allow the CFO to make product decisions, the consumer sees the change and can tell what’s happening is B.S. From everything I can see, the majority of the bike companies out there work from a simple outlook: If you make a better bike, you’ll sell more bikes and if you sell more bikes, you’ll make more money. I honestly believe that if Specialized’s CFO were calling the shots we wouldn’t have the new Tarmac and there would have been no collaboration with McLaren and the Prevail would look like a collander.

      Nikolai: Based on what I’ve seen, the difference between the real frames and the fakes is failure mode. If a frame cracks at the chainstay or bottom bracket, I’m unlikely to end up on the ground, but if the fork blades snap or the steerer breaks, I could wind up needing a new face. The only way to make a $300 carbon fiber frame is to cut corners. That means crap material laid up with little care.

      Randall: Strava’s attempts to convince you how happy you are aside, the fact is, you do get additional features with Strava Premium. It’s not snake oil. Whether they are worth $50/year is up to each consumer to decide. As to the difference in gloves, it’s worth considering the effort that goes into reducing bulk, sourcing fabrics and pattern design to make something that weighs almost nothing and fits like your own skin. Very different requirements.

      Quentin and Jim: There’s a big difference between open-mold frames and fakes. While I haven’t ridden any of the fakes, I’ve seen samples that showed what was clearly very shoddy layup work. I’ve looked at naked open-mold frames and some of them were of very high quality; all of them were of at least acceptable quality. Jim, your assertion that it is a myth that a “no-name” frame will detonate under you is true, and that’s why I make the distinction about the fakes. Both Specialized and Time have heard from consumers who wanted them to warranty fake frames that broke as the owners were “just riding along.” I’ve seen photos of steerers that did detonate on fakes—some split while others sheered right off. And to your challenge, I have ridden and reviewed an open-mold frame and thought it was a darn good bike. (You can read the review from 2010 here.)Would I choose it over something like a Cervelo R3? No, but if I was on a crazy-tight budget, I’d absolutely do it. I’ve even recommended open-mold bikes to friends. But in the future, do us all a favor and save the snark about my “corporate sponsors.” If my advertisers ran our content, both you and I know this site would be very, very different.

  14. Dave

    Been reading this site for a while now (love it), but this is the first article where I’ve felt compelled to comment.

    Just reading the phrase “Snake Oil” on a cycling website got a strong reaction from me, and not a positive one… “Oh yeah, the industry’s loaded with it!”I don’t disagree with most of what you wrote, but I feel like the article skirts some pretty important product development issues within the industry.

    A perfect example is the development and evolution of carbon-clincher wheels. It took several years of companies selling very unsafe wheel sets before heating and delimitation issues began to be addressed with any serious engineering. Consumers were often unwitting beta testers for these products in conditions that proved to be quite dangerous. As one who lives in the Rockies, it is not uncommon to meet people who experienced, first hand, rim failures and delamination on mountain descents due to overheating. What was the justification for pushing these unsafe products to market? There were promised (dubious?) benefits in reduced weight and aerodynamic improvements but at a significant and hidden cost. That these early-generations of carbon clincher wheels even made to market is, in my opinion, incredibly irresponsible. The promise of these early products were quite hollow. Snake oil??

    The quality of carbon clinchers has improved dramatically over the years and heat issues appear to have been taken care of. But the sub-par braking of carbon clinchers is being met, coincidentally, with the industry’s push for two new technologies for the road; disc brakes and hydraulic brake actuation. Recall the benefits of carbon clinchers… low weight and improved aerodynamics. It appears that the industry will address poor braking performance by increasing weight (disc brakes, hydraulic lines, additional spokes) and negatively impacting aerodynamics (disc rotors and calipers, additional spokes, wider hubs). So what is gained by the consumer with all of this?

    I’m not a retro grouch. I love new tech and engineering. But I am also a fan of perspective. Engineers like to make stuff and solve problems. But just because they build something cool or address one problem doesn’t mean the fruit of their work necessarily ought to make it to market. Solving one problem with a product only to introduce two new ones isn’t progress and isn’t in the consumers best interest. But because we’re so into the latest thing, products come to market anyway and lots of money is made. Maybe that’s not snake oil, but sheeit, it ain’t good neither.

    1. ShawnfromPhilly

      I just found this site and I’m loving the sincere, intelligent discussions. I bought an open mold Chinese frame (DengFu FM 59) a year ago and built up the bike of my dreams for just under $2000. My reason for doing it was that I simply couldn’t find what I wanted from any manufacturer at any price (cyclocross, internal cables, disc brakes, “murdered out” matte black carbon) and I didn’t want to compromise, for once.

      It’s been an absolutely thrilling bike for me that rides better than anything I’ve ever been on, and with the addition of black mountain bike wheels and TRP HY/RDs (which, as a 275 lb, all weather rider, I assure you make a much bigger impact on my level of enjoyment than any marginal aerodynamic or weight penalties) looks like something Arnold’s Terminator would ride.

      Sometimes I’ll have a few cold ones and just sit and gaze at it like I used to look at my girlfriend. Now this type of bike seems to be popping up like weeds, but when I got it, there were none to be found. Just my 2 cents.

  15. Road Mike

    When the executives of a company (bike or otherwise) direct their legal team to pursue an overzealous anti-competitive strategy, the natural question is why they are not content to compete by producing the best products. The obvious answer is that they lack confidence in what the company is producing. If they don’t believe in their stuff, why should anyone else?

  16. Shawn

    Three points:

    1. The part of the bike industry you write about on RKP makes bikes for people with disposable income. Let’s not fool ourselves: It’s _all_ about marketing and profits. Your advertisers probably don’y intentionally put bad products out there, but your Monsanto slam was stupid. Monsanto is in large part responsible for the fact that the earth now has over 7 billion people on it, and the small pockets of remaining hunger (remember the 80s?) are traceable to politics/conflict. Do you think Monsanto intended to kill bees?

    2. While waiting for my Tall Boy frame to be warrantied these past two weeks, I’ve been riding the $420 Ebay Chinese full-rigid carbon 29er (21 pounds!!!) that I’ve been trying to destroy for the past 18 months. No luck yet.

    3. The smugness here is getting a little oppressive.

  17. Hoshie99

    OK, I like this article as Padraig, I appreciate your deep connection to the industry and that many people in the cycling community are cynical. In general, I like bikes and have an infinity for both the old and new technology – some of it more than others.

    On the subject of carbon frames, where is this old saw coming from that these things break so frequently? I’d like to see stats. I read it on the web all the time, and hear it from long time cyclists and it is fascinating to me. I ride a 7 year old Scott Addict which people told me would detonate after 2-3 years tops. I even had a shop guy tell me I should replace it within the last few weeks as it’s only a matter of when. Honestly, where does this come from? It’s not like they inspected it.

    Well designed carbon with a quality layup is incredibly strong stuff. Except for crashes and rare product defects, most active cyclists upgrade when they get bored or get a bonus or otherwise convince themselves they want something new. Simple as that.

    Padraig, if your industry sources could supply some top level quality stats, that would be fascinating I think – I suspect liability would prevent that.

    That being said, I would not trust my face to a $500 eBay frame because it is too hard to differentiate what may be a quality open mold frame vs a lower quality product. Egads. If that’s where people want to save, I’d say find one of the reputable direct order brands that makes a business of choosing a good open mold frame and pay a little bit more.


  18. Flahute

    Mexican Coke for sale in Mexico is made with …. HFCS, or at least a 50/50 cane sugar/HFCS mix.

    The importer swears, however, that the Coke being exported to the US is 100% cane sugar though, although some tests show that there is no sucrose (sugar) in Mexican Coke, but fructose & glucose in levels similar to other soft drinks sweetened with HFCS.

    I don’t know if it’s the supposed cane sugar vs. HFCS or if the recipe is actually a little different in Mexico than the US, but the flavor of Mexi-Coke seems more complex to me; it is definitely better than US Coke.

    1. Rod

      Mexican born here. I had friends at Coca-Cola. They have admitted that different Coca-Cola plants have different formulas that appeal to regional palates.

      Take a look at the nutrition label in an American and Mexican coke. The Mexican version has more calories per serving size. To offset that extra sweetness, it also has more sodium. We Mexicans like our flavours more intense 🙂

    2. Quentin

      I’m pretty convinced that Coke has slightly different recipes in different countries. I’m not much of a Coke drinker but I’m married to a Diet Coke aficionado. When she occasionally travels internationally for her work she sometimes brings home the local Diet Coke with her. We’ve had Diet Coke from the UK, Ireland, and Barbados side by side in our house and you can taste differences (Barbados is the preferred one). I assume they use the same non-sugar sweetener, so I think it has to be actual differences in the recipe.

  19. Sean


    As you know, I worked for one of those big bike companies…for a long time. I’d swear over a bible, my grandma’s grave, and my vintage steel frames that the product managers, engineers, and marketers at that company slaughtered themselves daily in order to deliver the best bikes and equipment for their fellow riders. It’s an enthusiast-driven industry. We’d all work harder, and for less money, to do something we loved for and with people we cared about.

    At the same time, this is business. If you don’t turn a profit, you won’t be in it for long. There are key price points and profit margins to be considered, all while competing in an industry where differentiation is extremely difficult. There was a time (the late 1990s), for example, where bike brands were basically becoming value-added Shimano resellers, and it was all about who could spec the cheapest XT or Ultegra package. Today, riders have more choices than at any time I can recall in my ~ 30 years. This pleasantly shocks me.

    Yes, there are cynics, both within the bike companies and among the cycling public. But, for the most part, in this particular line of work, the wholesale suppliers, manufacturers, retailers, and customers are far more integrated and aligned than I’ve seen in any other industry. Riders should know that if they’re dealing with a decent bike shop carrying reputable brands, they’re in pretty good–not perfect, but pretty damn good–hands.

    Now, my advice? Get off the Internet and go for a ride.

    Yours on two wheels,

    1. Author

      Dave: You’re right that there were some carbon clinchers on the market before they were truly ready to roll. They weren’t a problem for most of the world’s terrain, but for guys like you and me who ride mountains, there were some problems, and I’ve written about them. Still, I see that as different from the issue to which this piece was speaking. Regarding disc brakes, I’d like to say from what I’ve experienced so far that discs do offer more control by increasing modulation. That gain is big enough that I’m willing to put up with the slight gain in weight. As to aerodynamics, though no one is willing to go on record yet, the wind tunnel testing done by a few companies I’ve spoken to has shown no loss in aerodynamic performance, and in one case they told me off the record that the rotor improved aerodynamics at high yaw angles.

      Shawn: Monsanto has it coming. If we lose every bee on earth there won’t be food for long after that. No amount of good a company has done previously can make up for the extinction of the human race, which is exactly what will happen if all the bees die off. I hope you respect that as a writer, I’ll take my swipes to make my points.

      Hoshie99: There’s some collective memory that causes the advice you’ve been given. In the early days of carbon fiber (that first generation of Trek OCLV frames), those frames broke like popsicle sticks. It was often the chainstays, usually drive side, sometimes at the bottom bracket, sometimes at the dropout, but they sometimes broke at the head tube as well. Fortunately, they usually started as small cracks. I don’t recall anyone I know getting hurt, and I think everyone I knew who had one through ’95 had at least one replaced. Later, with the push into sub-kilo frames, led by the Scott CR1, frames broke quite frequently, in all sorts of places, but again, the failure modes that I saw were pretty benign—small cracks. I knew a guy who had his frame replaced by Scott (quickly and with no questions asked, I might add) four times! So yes, there has been some pattern of short-lived frames. That said, based on what I’ve seen, you can’t apply that to all models by every brand. The engineering is getting better and better and frames are both stiffer and longer-lived. I wouldn’t worry about your bike.

      Sean: Thanks, bro.

  20. Emil Gercke

    It seems as if anyone that rides a bike or two is an expert on the industry. I like your points and agree with you (Monsanto is the Devil).
    It might be easier for me to state than for you but if you feel the “smugness” is oppressive, go elsewhere.
    Lastly, should we expect the bike industry to be non-profit? I don’t mind using my “disposable income ” for a top quality, well-designed instrument of fun!

  21. Full Monte

    Like Padraig’s lament over the loss of authentic 100% cane-sugar, hecho en Mexico Coca-Cola, I too miss my favorite sweet soda pop. (Is it pop? I guess in the midwest. Soda? East coast says so. Coke? As a description of all sodas? In the deep south, yes. I remember when I asked for a Coke at a Florida barbecue joint. The waitress asked, “7Up Coke, Sprite, Coke, root beer Coke, or Coke Coke?” Wha…?)

    Anyway, I digress. My sin-in-a-bottle was Dublin, TX/Temple, TX bottled Dr Pepper. Real. Cane. Sugar. And the last bottler in America to bottle the soda that way for all us Peppers. A legal battle between Dublin Dr Pepper and Dr Pepper Snapple Group killed off the last real Dr Pepper recipe forever. You can get Imperial Sugar Dr Pepper now, which is much, much better than Dr Pepper sweetened with HFCS. But still, it’s not the same as the original cane sugar Dublin Dr Pepper.


  22. John

    Two things.
    1. I could not disagree with you more on your opinions on Wine Spectator. That magazines content is so advertiser driven that I can no longer tolerate it. My wife has been in the wine industry for about 15 years. The annual Top 100 is about 15 wines that legitimately should be there, and the other 85 are bought and paid for. That is fact, not suspicion. Though the 15 number may be variable by +/-5
    2. Road bikes made by reputable companies to not detonate on their own. I’ve been in the bike industry on and off for the last 12 years. Outside of full suspension mountain bike linkages and swing arms, legitimate warranty claims are rare. Rare to the point that I can think of less than five road frames that have failed due to manufacturer errors. I’ve seen lots of frame failures in that time, but they were all due to user error, car racks, shipping damage, crashes, and general stupidity. Companies grossly overbuild their bikes because it’s their name on the downtube. That name brings with it corporate insurance/liability coverage that Asian brands simply don’t have. So lets say that you bought yourself a cheap Asian frame, and frame separates at the headtube while you’re heading down the side of a mountain. You are critically injured, or you die. Who do you think it will be easier for your family to sue for negligence? A real bike manufacturer like Trek/Spec/Giant, or some Asian factory that doesn’t even really have a name? If saving yourself $1000 is worth the risk to you, then have at it. Sure, these no name companies will warranty the frame if it fails (I’ve actually never heard of any of them doing that though), but if you’re facing $2,000,000 in medical bills these guys ain’t returning calls.
    It’s your face/life, do with it what you will, but you are now informed.

    1. commuter

      1. I have faith that reputable bike makers invest suffcient development in their designs and manufacturing that frame failure due to defects is a rare event.

      2. There are plenty of legitimate warranty claims made to reputable manufacturers, even if these failures are rare (measured as a frequency). I have fatigued 7 steel frames to death: five Miyatas and two Bianchis. Two of these failures were at least arguably my fault – one was a Miyata 310 which I outfitted with a triple crankset and rode heavily loaded tours on (not what that frame was designed for), and the second was a Bianchi San Remo whose down tube crack originated at a dent. The other five failures were likely either design or manufacturing failures. One was a stress/corrosion crack because a plastic cable guide trapped water on the top tube (design issue). One crack originated in a drive side chain stay crimp’s crease (they used a pointed die to crimp the tube for chain ring/tire clearance). The other three cracks originated in heat affected zones – two on brazed lugged frames, and one on a welded frame.

      None of these frames broke “on their own” – they had to be ridden to be subjected to the stress which broke them. Happily, none of these breaks dumped me off the bike either – I noticed all of them before catastrophe struck. The five failures were unquestionable warranty failures, and the four claims I submitted (the last Miyata was sufficiently old that its parts were no longer standard) were honored. There are plenty of legitimate warranty claims made to reputable manufacturers, even if these failures are rare (measured as a frequency).

  23. Cogfather

    In my mind, the business practices & legal aggression of both Specialized & Shimano are reprehensible. That said, they are not substantially different than many other companies in many other businesses. I vote with my choices & where my money goes. That’s why I would not ever ride a Specialized product & have nothing from Shimano on any of my bikes. Fuck them both, right in the ear, I say

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