Some years back I was in an editorial meeting for a bike magazine when two of my colleagues suggested the publication for which we toiled needed to embrace bicycle commuters and the double-century crowd. It could have been a disastrous move for the struggling media property. Imagine Bobcat Goldthwait abandoning stand-up comedy to devote his time and energy to finger puppetry and you get the idea.
Somehow (I’m still now sure quite how I managed), I was able to dodge the editorial suicide by arguing: Commuters weren’t clamoring for bike magazines filled with tips on how to get to work faster/in better style/with greater training benefit/at less expense. The double-century set, no matter how dedicated they were as cyclists, were a population fractional to the size of the century riding set. The primary expression of the roadie lifestyle were the thousands of people doing group rides week-in and week-out and those were the people our advertisers were trying to reach, whether they knew it or not.
For the entirety of my life I’ve been at the shallow end of some bell curve. Hell, just being a cyclist confirms that. The irony here is that as a roadie who lives for his local group rides, I am, for once, the middle of the bell curve. For reasons I can’t explain, I can look at a marketing plan or advertising campaign meant to reach roadies and I can tell you instantly if it will resonate or not. I can’t do that with anything else. I’m not in the middle of the curve for anything else.
A strange offshoot of that savant-like talent is that I can also look at geometry charts and tell you how a bike will handle. My recent post on the Roubaix-edition Felt F1 brought up some interesting questions both in comments and email. The most obvious and direct question is why Felt won’t be marketing that bike to the cycling public. Well, there are two reasons why not. The first is a simple one, at least, seemingly. The Roubaix F1 has a bottom bracket lower than 27cm and that violates a fundamental CPSC rule. In broad (very broad) strokes, that regulation says that a bike must be able to lean a certain amount with its inside pedal down without striking the pedal on the ground. The math ordinarily works out to a cheap rat trap pedal plus 170mm cranks equals 7cm of BB drop. A few sizes (56cm and smaller) of the Specialized Roubaix feature a BB drop of 7.2cm. I believe they manage this because of the 25mm tires spec’d with the Roubaix. Now Felt could get around the rule either by spec’ing a 25mm tire (like Specialized) or by marketing it just as a frameset; BB height rules don’t apply to framesets, which is why Serotta and Richard Sachs can build frames with a 8cm of BB drop.
I need to interject an interesting aside here: Trek’s new Domane has a surprisingly low bottom bracket. In most sizes the BB drop is 8cm. On larger frames, bikes with presumably longer cranks, the BB height decreases to 7.8cm. How they are getting this past the CPSC I don’t know, but I intend to ask. They also spec the bike with 25mm tires. Will it accept 28s? Likewise, I intend to find out.
But back to the larger point, the bell curve. When you’re a custom builder you don’t have to worry about the middle of the bell curve. If you’re going to NAHBS, you’re going to build a randonnee bike to show because it gives you a great chance to build tons of bike bling into the frameset. From trick routing of generator hub wires and Di2 cables to well-integrated racks, lights and fenders, they are a great way to show off a builder’s chops. But if you actually show up at a randonnee event here or overseas (especially overseas) the riders who want to make it into that top 20 percent of finishing times are on lightweight carbon machines.
Now, back to the real(er) world. Imagine that a product manager, say one from Cannondale, did some dirt-road ride like D2R2. And let’s say he decided to get behind a dirt-road spec for a new edition of the Synapse. And let’s, for the sake of fantasy or argument (your choice), say he managed to lay his hands on enough long-reach calipers to outfit all those bikes with brakes that didn’t conflict with the 28mm tires he spec’d for it. What happens if the market for dirt-road road bikes favors Specialized for reasons of spec, price or market affinity? Heck, it doesn’t even have to be another big company; it could be that the market simply favors custom steel builders. Let’s suppose that Cannondale runs 1000 of those bikes, just to be conservative. What happens if they don’t sell? Well, they get discounted later in the season. Depending on just how many are sitting in the warehouse, they might have to discount them a bunch, in which case they could be looking at taking a loss on the bikes. You can guess where this leads: Take too much of a loss on a bike that was a gamble to begin with and you risk more than your employer’s capital; you risk your job. And if you want to find out just how fickle the market it, just ask a rep from one of the bigger bike companies about color choice and inventory. It’s not uncommon to find that one color (such as blue) sells like Ecstasy at a rave, while the other color choice (lime green, for instance) is sitting in the warehouse, gathering dust.
Okay, let’s give Debbie Downer a chance to take a bow. The reality is a good bit brighter than that. The bike market is a good bit larger than it used to be. This is the legacy of the Lance Effect. Bunches of people who bought bikes because of Lance had the good fortune to join clubs, get a decent introduction to the sport and stayed with it. That bigger market has had a curious effect on what’s offered. (Okay, Debbie, we’re not quite finished; could you come back out a sec?) Factories making high-end product struggle to produce all of the frames, forks and components necessary to deliver bikes to bike shops each spring. You may think that consumer choice is the primary driver behind Cannondale offering the SuperSix EVO in Di2, 7900 and Red is to give consumers choices at different price points. That would be only partly true. Even Cannondale can’t get enough 7900 to equip all of those bikes with Shimano’s top mechanical group. Of course, these choices create another layer of risk for both the bike companies and retailers. What if consumers just don’t want to spend $8k on a carbon bike with Dura-Ace, but they’re fine with spending $9k on one with Red?
Let’s hope that shop has a crystal ball.
So that’s the minefield. But consider that we have bikes like the Specialized Roubaix, the Volagi Liscio, the Synapse (Cannondale) and now the Trek Domane (which is a replacement for the failed Pilot, oops). Our choices are increasing and the quality of what we ride has leapt. That’s a lot to celebrate. And it’s easier than ever before to find a custom builder thanks to the Interwebs. Here’s the thing about the bell curve: If the population grows, it grows. As events like D2R2 gain in popularity, more products that make those events more enjoyable will hit the market.
This past spring, I undertook an experiment. I asked Specialized to loan me two bicycles for a review. Not a shootout, mind you, but a review concerned with differentiation. As someone who has penned more than a few shootouts, the competition always results in a winner, which also means there are a few losers as well.
In my experience there aren’t many bikes that I’d call losers.
My point was to spend some serious time with the Specialized Tarmac and Roubaix models and try, in the clearest possible terms, to review them based on what each bike is and is not. They are different bikes, but the real question is how so? Specialized wouldn’t be offering two different bikes with the same basic carbon construction and the same componentry unless they offered reasonably differentiated experiences. Sure, you can rely on their marketing copy, but they have a vested interest in convincing you that there is a difference and one of those bikes is more appropriate to you than the other.
I went to Specialized because they were the first big company to offer two road bikes of different geometries with the same componentry and carbon fiber lay up. Prior to the introduction of the Roubaix, none of the bigger bike companies had offered a high-end road bike of alternate geometry.
Specialized has framed the difference as “competition” versus “endurance.” They aren’t bad terms, but they are terms I haven’t been comfortable using because if I discuss the difference between Cannondale’s Super Six and Synapse, then I appear to be examining two Cannondale bikes through a Specialized lens. That’s bound to go over as well as cyanide in soda.
There’s a basic question floating around this discussion. What does it matter? Why care?
In my case, it stems from a concern I’ve had about most American-designed road bikes for as long as I’ve been reviewing road bikes. The product managers and engineers at most American bike companies (at least the ones I’ve met) are current or former racers. Most carried a Cat. 1 or 2 license. The geometry of those companies’ top road bikes tends to excel at the needs of the racer.
Counter to that was my experience with most bikes imported from European manufacturers. Relatively speaking, most had a longer wheelbase, lower bottom bracket and more trail. They tended to carve lazier arcs through the turns of a criterium unless you countersteered with a bit of force but their easy maneuverability gave riders a calm, confident sense on descents.
The more I rode different bikes, the more I came to prefer those bikes that came from Europe, especially the Italian ones. I often wondered to what degree the riding and racing circumstances of the bike’s designer influenced how the bike rode. It took years and there were no super-clear answers, but eventually, I heard enough for me to believe I had confirmation of my curiosity. The importers for a few of the Italian lines did report that the bikes were designed to descend well in the Dolomites. And on more than one occasion American bike designers told me how important it was that the bottom bracket be high enough to allow a racer to pedal through a corner.
But now there is a new category of road bike and the larger philosophy behind why a company might want to offer a road bike with a different take on handling than their primary offering really hasn’t been discussed much. I’ve heard them called disease ride bikes, century bikes and as Specialized calls them, endurance road bikes.
If we don’t really know what to call them, or can’t agree on what to call them, then their place in the market is as marginal as that of a Velcro water slide. And to me, there is an immense value to this emerging category.
I had to look to the automotive world to find a parallel, but once I did it was billboard obvious: Sport vs. Grand Touring. For most of us, we need no one to help with the distinction of a sedan as opposed to a sports car, four doors instead of two.
The metaphor works on almost every level. A sedan is about a more comfortable ride and more leisurely handling; it doesn’t have the sharp cornering of a sports car, handling that can leave a driver feeling exhausted after a long trip on the freeway. And the stiffer suspension of most sports cars? An apt comparison as well. Most of the bikes that fall under this Grand Touring umbrella have a longer wheelbase and slacker head tube angle to give the rider a bit more vibration damping if not actual shock absorption.
Okay, so you’re not going to put a baby seat in the back or take everyone in the office to lunch, but you get the idea.
So here’s my thesis: In the way that compact bars are a smart response for those who don’t have pro-like flexibility and compact gearing is appropriate for those who can’t ride tempo at 28 mph four hours at a time, GT-geometry bikes are appropriate to the sort of riding that most recreational riders do.
In the next week I’ll be posting my reviews of the Specialized Tarmac Pro and Roubaix Pro and will offer a wrap-up afterward with what I learned from the experience.