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.