It had to happen.
Not that the 2013 Boston Marathon had to be ruined by the acts of one or more sociopaths who do qualify for George W. Bush’s term “evildoers,” but an act of this genus and species was inevitable. Attacking a sporting event in the United States was—to use a cliche—bound to happen sometime. Let’s be honest, the idea had been out there since 1977 when the Robert Shaw and Bruce Dern thriller “Black Sunday” opened in theaters. In the film, Dern, a blimp pilot aids a terrorist group (back when they were disaffected Europeans) by constructing an explosive device that attaches to the bottom of his blimp, which is scheduled for camera work at the Super Bowl.
For aspiring terrorists with a short memory, the idea got a reboot in 1991 with the Tom Clancy novel “The Sum of All Fears” in which a dirty bomb—a nuclear weapon that doesn’t go critical and instead sprays radioactive material over a few square miles—is detonated at (you guessed it) the Super Bowl.
The business of terrorism has been something like a game of chess. Someone attacks a Federal building in Oklahoma City. We surround all Federal buildings with bollards. Several someones fly planes into buildings. We up security at airports. Someone sets their shoe on fire on a plane. We all take our shoes off at the security checkpoint in the airport. They move a pawn, we move a pawn. The important lesson is, they never move the same pawn to the same square twice.
What it suggests is that whoever these people are, what they don’t lack (we can debate why they lack a moral compass and empathy until the next election) is creativity. That’s what makes them so dangerous.
When I was in high school I worked as a concessioner, selling hot dogs from an aluminum box with Sterno in it. I did this at the Liberty Bowl, the football stadium in Memphis, Tennessee. One night, as a game drew to a close, I found myself standing just outside the press box, next to a paramedic who was on duty for the football game. One of the sportswriters heading out got to talking with him and when the paramedic told him there’d been two heart attacks and one knife fight, the journalist responded with surprise. That’s when the paramedic said something I’ll never forget. He said, “Think about it; you put 60,000 people together and these things are bound to happen.”
I think the Super Bowl has never been attacked because at this point fights at lesser events have been too prevalent. The Super Bowl is too obvious a target; security is too high to be worth the trouble.
But what of events that are run over open roads?
The Boston Marathon is arguably the closest thing the U.S. has to the Tour de France. Even so, it’s broadcast to a fraction of the households that the Tour de France or even Paris-Roubaix is.
To be sure, France’s national pastime has seen its share of disruptions. From farmers protesting to Basque bombs—hell, the riders themselves!—the Tour has seen a variety of pissed-off people use its spectacle to garner attention for their causes. And that’s the important distinction—those people wanted to be heard, they wanted a place at the table, had something to negotiate. However, those behind the biggest acts of terrorism here in the U.S. weren’t looking for a dialog. They were simply acts to hurt others and inspire fear. Because initially we didn’t know who was responsible for any of the incidents and as a result didn’t know either if they were more acts to come or what the motivation was, the acts—the explosions, the murders, the families torn apart, the destruction—accomplished boatloads of both hurt and fear.
I can’t help but think about Lance Armstrong and the force field of body guards he used to travel with when he was King of le Tour. He claimed to have received threats. Because Armstrong’s life has been built on so many fictions, we can’t know if that was true or just part of the myth that was constructed. However, it doesn’t matter. Would I have been disappointed had religious extremists made Armstrong the target of an attack? Of course. Would I have been surprised? Given the way he embodies a particular image of America, not in the least.
It may be that the Tour and other races have so far escaped these most random of terrorist acts for the simple reason that it is not an American event. But that doesn’t mean that we should expect it will always escape the gaze of those who look to disrupt our lives. At a certain point the ease of access, the size of the crowds and the TV viewership make the Tour de France a more than obvious target. I’m reminded of that Far Side cartoon that goes “Bummer of a birthmark, Hal.” This is no laughing matter, of course. As much as I’m concerned for the welfare of the riders, my greater concern is for those who wish to witness the spectacle. I’ve been to a great many sporting events in my life, but I’ve not witnessed anything that left me feeling as simultaneously breathless and alive as the Tour de France. It’s something every cyclist should see, the absolute #1 bucket-list item for anyone who has ever been inspired by anyone who went fast on two wheels.
Now, I have to be concerned about taking my boys to the Tour. Well doesn’t that just suck large-scale ass.
Boston is a city that has seen share of dark days. It has all the ills of any big city and while only one war was ever fought in its streets, the sons of Boston have fought in every war Americans have waged: 1812, Civil, WWI, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Iraq again and Afghanistan.
But Boston has never been a symbol loss or the problems of society. When we utter the word Boston, what comes to mind for most people is the birthplace of democracy, a place where I new idea about what freedom really meant, how society could be re-imagined. Name another place on earth where a notion of hope did more to rebut tyranny than in Boston. It has a history marked by attracting greatness, as exemplified by serving as the home to one of the greatest centers of learning, Harvard University. And because Merlin Metalworks, Fat City Cycles, Independent Fabrication, Seven Cycles (just to name a few) have all called Boston home, it is the de facto spiritual center of cycling not just for New England, but all of the East Coast.
Boston will heal.
But where will they strike next?
On Friday, I attended an event at Shimano for the introduction of the new Dura-Ace 9000 group. My colleagues and I received an overview of the newest mechanical group from the Osaka behemoth, as well as a look at Shimano’s revised wheels, plus an overview of their new saddles and eyewear. Honestly, I can’t recall the last time I went to a media event held by a single company in which so many new products debuted. It was a bit overwhelming.
Shimano’s Dura-Ace group has been pretty thoroughly overhauled. While the addition of an 11th cog is the most obvious change, the story goes much deeper and the lasting impact of this group won’t be a single cassette cog. Here’s a brief inventory of some of the changes we were walked through: new pivot geometry for the derailleurs to decrease shift force, wider rims for better handling and aerodynamics, new brakes for improved brake force and modulation, a new cleat to offer better engagement while still offering limited float, a 110mm bolt-circle diameter for the crank so that riders can choose from many chainring combinations, vastly improved ergonomics for the control levers, and, yes, that aforementioned 11th cog.
I’m going to need some time to ride this new group before I do a full review, but thinking back on my introductions to the 7700 (9-speed) and 7800 groups, I have to say that 9000 is the group we all expected when 7900 was introduced. Not only is it the sort of quantum improvement over 7900 that 7800 was over 7700, it is also a pretty firm rebuke of 7900, in that so many features of that group lost ground to its predecessor. It’s such an improvement over its predecessors and such a competitive step back into the game that it prevents me from being anything other than agnostic about component groups. Let me clarify that last comment a bit: With 7900, it was easy to reject it as a sub-par group, opening the door for anyone to pick either Campagnolo or SRAM as their preferred components. This new group is so good, the only reasonable response to its introduction is to give it a test ride.
If I were forced to pick a single feature of the new group as emblematic of the whole, I’d have to point to the front derailleur and how the change in parallelogram geometry (plus the use of new cables) has changed the force required to execute the shift from small ring to big. The touch is so light I shift far more frequently that I have been with either 7900 or Campagnolo.
One detail we learned from one of the Shimano tech was that achieving 9000′s improved front shift action depends on cable actuation, that is, the point from which the cable pulls makes a difference in shift performance. As a result, the front derailleur is designed with two possible anchor points for the cable depending on the angle of the cable. The handy-dandy guide shown above helps techs determine just which anchor point to use. We are told that on many bikes either anchor point will work fine, but on those bikes with internal cable routing, on some occasions the cable exits the frame at an odd angle and under those circumstances which anchor point is used will determine how effective the shifting is.
In response to requests from fitters, The 9000-series pedal will offer an optional 4mm-wider pedal spindle to help riders whose feet feature exaggerated pronation. And the new blue cleat allows for +/- 1-degree of heel swing while moving the pivot point to the front of the cleat for a more positive, less sloppy sense of engagement and float.
We took a break in our presentation to attend a groundbreaking ceremony. Shimano is in the process of building three new facilities. There’s a new distribution facility being built in South Carolina, another facility being built in Colorado for Pearl Izumi (which Shimano also owns) and then the new building in Irvine, which will help with distribution and more.
In an unusual and forward-thinking move, Shimano had editors from a few different media outlets submit a frame set ahead of the introduction for Shimano’s techs to build with a new group. I reached out to my friends at Seven Cycles to see if they might be able to help. We’ve been discussing a review of the 622 frame for most of this year; I’ve been slow to get them my measurements for a custom frame. Fortunately for me, they had this particular 622 built for stock for Ride Studio Café, the studio/café operation Seven owns in Lexington, Mass.
It’s conceivable that a custom frame will fit me better than this, but I’m so accustomed to making stock stuff work, I have no complaints with this so far.
The new Dura-Ace crank is unlikely to stop looking freaky any time soon. It reminds me of the early Oakley M-series Heater lens. When I first saw it in the early 1990s, it looked distinctly insect-like. But then it grew on me. I suspect there will come a point when I love this look, but I still don’t see how I’m going to make the transition. The front derailleur looks strange with the arm for the cable anchor sticking up like a mechanical antenna, but that’s part of how the easy shift actuation occurs. A word to the wise, though: Trim that cable short!
Everything you ever thought you knew about precise, quick and quiet rear shifting is incomplete if you aren’t including this derailleur in your calculations. That it shifts as smoothly in the big cogs as it does in the small ones is just another instance of how good Shimano’s engineering can be.
I was not a fan of the 7900 brakes. In my experience, while they offered terrific power, they featured terrible modulation. They were just too grabby. I was a much bigger fan of the 7800 stoppers. The new 9000 units show incredible stopping power while still offering a broad modulation range.
Following lunch and a quick change into Lycra, we dialed in our bikes and then met for a shortish ride.
My Seven Cycles 622 was the subject of a great many ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, but I need to be honest and say that I experienced some serious lust for the Alchemy that Peloton Tech Editor Ben Edwards was riding.
Our loop took us into Laguna Beach and up some rather steep pitches; one bump measured a whopping 31.5 percent in grade. My bike was equipped with a 34×28 low gear and it was nice to have gears low enough for everything I encountered, especially as I’m still not going super-hard since my crash.
I’ve got about 200 miles on this bike over four days. While I think most media outlets went pretty easy on Dura-Ace 7900, I can assure you that as you encounter reviews of this group and they all positively glow with the sort of effusive praise we reserve for Robert DeNiro thrillers, you won’t need to second-guess. This stuff is that good.
I recently completed a feature that will run in Issue 6 of peloton magazine about New England. While I could have devoted a good 2000 words to all the great racers who cut their teeth there or on all the cycling writers who came from the region—there was a time when most bike magazine editors either hailed from or lived in Vermont or Massachusetts—I focused on the bike companies based there.
It had been a while since I’d visited the subject, more than 10 years if the truth is told, and as I dug down I realized there was more going on than I realized. It became so complicated that I decided to create a little family tree to remind me the begat, begat, begat sequence of the companies.
Some, like Pedro’s and Parlee didn’t have their genesis in other companies. Others, such as Serotta and 333Fab aren’t New England companies, but their relationship to the patriarch of the industry couldn’t be denied. This family tree isn’t particularly scientific, and certainly not to scale, but it speaks to what I most like about the region.
My time there left a mark. To the degree that I’ve got any entrepreneurial spirit, I think it was incubated while working for a number of small companies. From Richard Fries’ Ride Magazine to an upstart Apple retailer, I saw people go out on their own time and again. For me, it rubbed off from just being around them. There are those figures who cultivate that individuality; Rob Vandermark seems to be doing a lot of that at Seven Cycles, whether intentionally or not.
Part of the story this doesn’t tell, though, is the way that Richard Sachs has mentored dozens of new builders. Some of it has been indirect, as through his prolific writing about his brand and the craft of building. Some has been direct, in the form of offering concrete advice to up-and-comers.
The tragedy in this story is the demise of Fat City Cycles; it was Chris Chance who really began the scene from which all this grew.
There have been plenty of rounds of musical chairs. Parlee and Pedro’s have even picked up people who have done stints at other area bike companies. In that regard, the bike biz in New England is different from we see in California, where bigger players dominate and after a few years in the biz you stop being surprised to see an old friend in a jersey. And maybe that’s the difference, those smaller companies give employees a real window into what entrepreneurship is.
It is my firm belief that it is within the nature of men to covet things. To develop passions that steal our senses from us and cause us to do things like drive to Montreal by moonlight on a Saturday night after the bars close with the lights off and the cassette player blaring Tom Waits.
This is not a statement of mankind, but specifically of men. It is in our nature to fall in love with well-made inanimate objects. Art, yes, but also: cars, record albums, bottles of wine, chairs, guitars and, of course, bicycle frames. As a young person there were many things I loved, but the first object I can ever remember summoning a nearly sensual response in me was a Merlin mountain bike frame.
The year was 1989 and titanium was Hollywood starlet exotic. It was shiny, lustrous, of immaculate proportions and even when motionless promised a ride unlike anything I had ever experienced. I think this is how eight-year-old girls react to pictures of unicorns. It was no less magic in my eyes.
Little more than a year later I bought one. I had been in a car accident and lost the better part of a summer. I took a fair chunk of my settlement and bought a Merlin mountain bike frame. It was my most cherished possession, ahead of my handmade Miele equipped with Super Record. And yes, the experience of riding that bike lived up to the fantasy I had spun in my head. The geometry of that bike gave it a poise Grace Kelly would have found remarkable.
Unfortunately, the three founders of Merlin—bright guys all—turned out to be terrible businessmen. The company managed to squander a clear lead in the ti bike market that ultimately resulted in the company’s purchase by its chief competitor, Litespeed. Suddenly, I knew how Paul McCartney felt when Michael Jackson bought The Beatles’ catalog. Ouch.
Merlin’s bad luck didn’t end there. While the owners of American Bicycle Group (Litespeed’s parent) certainly meant well by the brand and were better businessmen than their predecessors, two titanium brands in one house is as pointless as a band with two drummers. Trust me on this, I’ve been there.
Prior to the purchase the big differences between Merlin and Litespeed were geometry, finish appearance and the double-pass weld (Merlin) vs. the single-pass (Litespeed). In broad terms, the double-pass weld is believed to result in a better-aligned frame with better-looking welds. I’ve heard a few people claim even greater differences, but we’ll leave it at that. There was no denying that the satin finish of a Merlin had a rich appearance that the unpolished frames from Litespeed lacked. Geometry was a slightly different matter. Merlins benefitted from the expertise of Tom Kellogg and Joe Murray on the road and mountain frames, respectively. They were some of the finest handling production frames on the market. Litespeeds, on the other hand, were all over the place. While the Classic handled great, the geometry on the Vortex changed almost as often as the Litespeed decals.
To make clear the differentiation between the two brands, ABG began engraving the Merlin frames. I can only surmise, but I’ve talked with many friends and they all came to the conclusion I did: If the tubing was thick enough to be engraved, then it was heavier than necessary and therefore not really the perfect titanium bike. Ultimately, even ABG couldn’t save the brand and shuttered it.
Enter Brendan Quirk and Competitive Cyclist. Last week Competitive Cyclist announced it had purchased the former belle of Boston. For Quirk, the acquisition was personal, like a rally nut trying to revive Lancia, though perhaps a little less Sisyphean a task. In his post on his blog “What’s New” Quirk talks of his love for Merlin as only a former flame can spin. What’s amazing isn’t the way he plans to return the brand to its former glory—exactly—but that he’s honest in revealing he hasn’t fully decided just what will become of the brand. When will they be available? Unknown. Will it be sold to bike shops? Unknown. Will it be their house brand? Unknown. Will they include a box of Girl Scout cookies with each purchase? Unknown.
Clearly, this is a purchase that wasn’t made following a thorough examination of a business case. MBA students all over the country are ruing the lost opportunity. You’ll pardon me if I’ve had a bit of fun here; the circumstance begs for a few chuckles, however, there’s a more serious observation to be made.
I haven’t been shy about professing my respect for the bunch in Little Rock. It’s easy to bad-mouth Internet retailers but the fact is that any time an Internet retailer drives a brick-and-mortar under, that shop wasn’t doing its job well. Whenever I am researching a product and want to know more than what I read on the manufacturer’s web site, I go to Competitive Cyclist. It used to be people went to bike shops to learn about a product before purchasing online. Today, I can’t think of too many shops who have an employee half as knowledgeable about every product in their shop’s inventory as the product descriptions contained on the CC site. Imagine walking into a bike shop where every single employee had exactly the same level of knowledge and competence. That last wasn’t meant to get a laugh.
It may be that Brendan Quirk’s greatest talent isn’t in understanding what shoppers need to know about a product, but in how to spin a yarn about a brand. Quirk might turn out to be the best shepherd Merlin could ask for. He may have been just what this brand needed all along.
I’ve missed that Merlin handling, though I think my Seven Cycles Axiom is very close. The only way to know is by getting one to review. And to do that, I’ll send him every box of Girl Scout cookies I can get my hands on.
Any time a shop breaks the routine of business as usual, I get curious. It’s easy to put your head down and spend your days concerned with inventory turn, how many bikes were built and how fast those repairs get picked up. So when someone takes the time to bring in a representative from one of the brands they carry, I like to check those events out.
Bike Effect, the studio in Santa Monica, brought in Eric Sakalowsky, one of the owners of the French bike manufacturer Cyfac. I’ve been hearing about Cyfac and reading about them for years, but have never written about them, mostly because until I’ve had a chance to talk with someone at the company, I don’t feel like I have a proper feel for what they do. There’s nothing like getting the story from the horse’s mouth.
Bike Effect has invested in Cyfac in a big way, making them one of their marquee lines, along with Serotta. I spent some time with Eric, learning about how his involvement came about (he had been their North American distributor and dumped his other lines to buy into the company), just how intimate an operation it is (they have 15 production staff) and how they manage to produce custom carbon fiber frames (more on that later).
To woo prospective clients Bike Effect owners Steve and Allison served up fruit, cheese, cracks and wine. It made for a relaxed atmosphere and it wasn’t long before I heard people talking specifics about sizing and colors.
Eric (left) and Steve discuss what makes Cyfac, well, Cyfac. Eric and I are working on an interview that will run as part of the Artisans series at peloton. Though the company offers a number of different models (I lost count as I studied their web site), the ones I’m most interested in are the top-of-the-line carbon models, the Absolu in particular. Though the tubes are produced in Taiwan, every other aspect of fabrication occurs at Cyfac’s Loire Valley headquarters. The only reason the tubes are produced overseas is because they haven’t been able to source a French producer capable of meeting their needs and they aren’t yet in a position to do it in-house, though from my conversation with Eric, it sounds like they may be headed that direction.
Each customer who purchases an Absolu gets a book documenting the creation of their frame, from the mitering of the tubes, to the masking for the paint job—Cyfac uses no decals. Honestly, I was stunned to learn that they often have more hours invested in a paint job than many manufacturers put into the building of a frame. And while you’d think such devotion would make such a bike unaffordable, they are competitive with other top shelf brands.
Cyfac’s custom work offers incredible flexibility to the client. Not only can they vary the sizing, they can vary the geometry, so that if you want something that fits like your beloved Seven, but descends like your old Moser, you can have that in custom carbon. And say you want it as stiff as your old Merckx built from Columbus Max tubes, you can have that as well as they can vary just how stiff the tubes are. It’s a level of customization some companies said we would never see.
I look forward to learning more and reporting more. I’ll try to present some reviews as well.
Even before I knew I’d be joining Erickson Cycle Tours for the Route des Grandes Alpes I began researching a new solution to traveling with a bicycle. For more than 10 years I’ve been using a double BikePro case, which was perfect as long as I was traveling with another cyclist. These days, however, I’ve usually been traveling with only one bike and the way oversize baggage charges have taken off with all the thrust of a Saturn V booster rocket, I’ve been thinking that I need a simpler, less expensive way to travel with a bike.
I investigated each of the airlines to see if anyone going to my destination was still inexpensive, as well as alternative shipping options, dedicated travel bikes such as the Ritchey BreakAway and Bike Friday, having an S&S-coupled bike built for me by Hampsten Cycles or having an existing frame retrofitted with S&S couplers.
I quickly ruled out continued use of my trusty BikePro case as financial suicide. My next choice would have been to have a new frame built by Hampsten, especially after seeing some drawings Steve did. With a slightly shorter, sloping top tube combined with a slightly longer stem, the frame would have packed in the S&S case easily, a fact I’ve come to appreciate more in the last two weeks. However, timeline and expense conspired against us, so I went with Plan B.
My beloved Seven Cycles Axiom has been hanging on the wall of my garage for at least two years, unused. I’m a sentimental fool and couldn’t part with it even though my Felt Z frame weighs two-thirds what the Seven does.
After speaking with Steve at S&S, he encouraged me to talk to Steve Bilenky at Bilenky Cycle Works about retrofitting my Seven. I wasn’t too sure initially; the folks at Seven had noted a number of technical challenges to retrofitting my frame and suggested I consider a new frame instead. However, Bilenky walked me through the procedure, telling me how they take blank titanium couplers and machine them to size. Combined with the fact that their turnaround is quick, I was sold.
At Bilenky a titanium frame retrofit is $850, while steel is only $495. However, when you consider that a steel frame will need a paint touch-up if not re-do, a steel retrofit could be as much if not more than the ti retrofit. The hard case is another $395. Accessories such as tube covers, compression members and cable quick connects can add on another $100 or so.
Considering that some airlines are charging upwards of $200 per flight to transport a bicycle in a normal bike carrier, a retrofit with case and accessories can pay for itself in as few as three trips, all because the case comes in under the magic 62-linear-inch number. While the dollar savings is great, the quality of life increase in being able to take a bike with me anywhere for just $25 per flight means that I can now consider taking a bike along on trips I where would previously have had to go without. It’s hard to put a price on that.
Assembly isn’t as fast as with one of my other bikes in the BikePro case, but I gain added confidence knowing that I’m traveling with a difficult to damage titanium bike, rather than one of my more fragile carbon fiber bikes. All things considered, I’ll take the inconvenience.
Because my Seven frame features a 59cm seat tube (c-c) and a ground-parallel 58.5cm top tube (c-c), I must remove the crankset in order to place the rear half of the frame in the case. The longish lengths of both seat tube and top tube mean that I have to be both careful and deliberate when placing the frame halves in the case; think heirlooms in a moving van.
Fortunately, the folks at Bilenky cut and labeled a set of frame tube protectors made from Cordura, foam rubber and Velcro. The amount of thought I had to put into protecting the frame was nil. All I had to do was follow the directions from Bilenky for the packing order of the parts. To say they have it down to a science is an understatement; it’s a procedure, much like assembling a toy model. There’s a sequence for packing and a precise location for each part; follow it and you won’t have to sit on the case to get it closed.
So that covers the frame and the travel element. However, for a trip with so much climbing over so many days, I was going to need some low gears. The folks at SRAM had suggested I try riding a Red-equipped bike with the rear derailleur and cassette replaced with those from their new Apex group. The combination would give me all the functionality and low-weight advantage of Red with the low gears you can only achieve with the long-cage rear derailleur and dinner-plate cassette from Apex. Game on!
The ongoing parade of new bike and gear reviews have, at times, had the ability to overwhelm the reviews written on those products we ought to remember. I began thinking about the cycling experiences that profoundly changed my perception of bicycles, shaping what I believed a bicycle could be, and the experiences one could enjoy on one.
I’ve assembled a series of vignettes of different experiences and recounted the bike I was riding at the time. Many of these moments have in common the fact that I was descending, but that isn’t the story for each of these experiences, which is why this is more than a compendium of going downhill.
1. Test ride, Miele Team
I bought a used Miele Team based on a single test ride. I wore Teva sandles and my mechanic’s apron, but by the time I made the second right turn on my brief (five minutes—tops) test ride, my brain was screaming ‘holy cow.’ Relative to the experiences I’d had on road bikes up to that time this was more lively and electric. It was as if I’d spent a lifetime eating tree bark and had just been introduced to M&Ms.
It’s still hard to say exactly what was so special about the bike, but I can share the following details. The frame was handbuilt by Miele’s expat builder, Giuseppe Ferrara (Miele was a Canadian company). It was equipped with Campy Super Record and that was my first ride on Super Record. The wheels were tubulars and though I was familiar with the ride of tuburlars, the wheels were lightweight and easy to accelerate. The bike was part of a limited run produced in 1984 identical to the bikes made for the Canadian National Team that competed at the ’84 Olympics in Los Angeles. Steve Bauer would go on to win a Silver Medal on just such a bike.
2. Mont Ventoux, Seven Cycles Axiom
In 2001, after riding the Seven for some four years, that I had an experience that was nearly religious. I was descending the north side of Mont Ventoux toward the town of Malaucene. There’s a long—5k—section of road that features only the slightest of bends and averages more than eight percent. During that drop, my speed never dropped below 51 mph. I know that you can go faster on a bike, that many people have gone a good deal faster on a bike. What I found remarkable on this ride was how calm the bike remained at this speed. Because I was at such a high speed for such a long time, I had time to think about the lethality of any screw-up I might commit, about how relaxed the bike was—specifically how the front end wasn’t getting loose—and how the bike’s relaxed demeanor allowed me to stay loose and even enjoy an existential meditation about cycling at armor piercing speeds.
As I began entering the sharper turns, switchbacks and even steeper drops, I was able to stay focused and enjoy the ride. It was a thrilling descent I would love to have repeated the moment I reached bottom.
3. Sierra, Moser Leader AX
Early every spring there is a road race in the western Sierra called the Pine Flat Road Race. In 1998 conditions were cold and wet. Cold to the tune of not quite 50 degrees at the start and wet on the order of light rain that became driving within the hour. That day I made the mistake of wearing knee warmers rather than using embrocation and the knee warmers soaked up enough water that they tried to scoot down my leg. The leg grippers ended up chafing my skin so badly I was raw to the point of bleeding at the end of the race. The howls from the shower caused my roommate to ask if I was okay.
Late in the race is a significant climb followed by a bombs-away descent. The bike I brought to race was the Moser Leader AX I was reviewing. It had an insanely low bottom bracket—26.2mm—and was built from a steep tube set that was as stiff as Al Gore. I made it over the top of the climb a few minutes off the leaders and with three riders hot on the chase. I picked off two riders on the descent which I conducted with no brakes in driving rain. I couldn’t see anyone chasing me by the time I reached the bottom.
4. Los Angeles, Merlin Extralight ‘Cross
I spent one season riding a Merlin Extralight ‘Cross bike in the Urban Cyclocross series. The tubing was not particularly large in diameter and the wall thickness was miniscule. There were times when riding the bike felt a bit like I was pedaling a hammock.
What I came to realize was that it was possible to become accustomed to riding an especially flexible frame without the experience being alarming. You simply get used to it. I’m sure Sean Kelly could share a thing or two about this experience. For all that its handling wasn’t, pedaling in the saddle over rough ground was noticeably less jarring than on the steel bike I’d been riding.
5. Vercors, Eddy Merckx Alu Road
The Eddy Merckx Alu Road is far from my favorite bike. Out of the saddle, hands on the hoods, the bike was great fun. On rough roads, I got rattled like I was a maraca in the hands of Carlos Santana’s percussionist. It was despite this quality that I learned an important lesson: Trust the bike.
I was on an Erickson Cycle Tours trip through the Alps. We were on the southernmost portion of the trip, riding through a mountainous area that wasn’t technically the Alps. Just south of Grenoble is an area called the Vercors. Several thousand feet above Grenoble is the town of Villard de Lans, which has hosted the starts and finishes of several Tour de France stages. I was engaged in chasing James, a former Cat. 1 racer, and Stella, a Masters’ World Record Holder in speed skiing. She had managed to control a set of skis at better than 145 mph.
They would sprint down descents, accelerating toward switchbacks long after I thought braking was the reasonable choice. Unlike Formula 1, where they tell you not to let the driver ahead of you drive your car, I didn’t brake until I saw either Stella or James get closer to me. Very often I was braking after the braking bumps had begun. The sensation of braking so late was adrenal and I would arrive at the bottom of descents close on their wheels and with my heart rate knocking on my threshold. To this day I’m not sure I’ve descended with as much abandon.
6. Pyrenees, Serotta Ottrott
Reader lobbying encouraged Serotta to loan me an Ottrott for a review at Asphalt. I quickly grew to love the bike and valued its calm demeanor on twisty descents in Malibu and Palos Verdes. I attributed its character to a few important details. First, the bottom bracket was the lowest of any bike I’d ever ridden, some 26.0cm. The wheelbase was on the longish side relative to most bikes that size and then there was the fork. The Serotta F1 fork may not have been light and may have used intermediate modulus carbon fiber by the pound, but they managed to build a fork that felt so smooth you’d swear it featured suspension. My one and only criticism of that bike was its weight. My 58.5cm top tube frame weighed 3 lbs., 6 oz. By comparison, my all-ti Seven Cycles Axiom was built six years earlier and weighed 3 oz. less. If this bike had been even the slightest nick under 3 lbs., I would have called it the greatest frame of all time.
I called the folks at Serotta to see if they’d allow me to take it with me on a trip to the Pyrenees; they agreed. On descents that undulated, heaved, bumped and knocked, the Ottrot performed like a Swiss banker—with calm, unperturbed assurance. That’s not to say I didn’t encounter some descents that made me nervous. The west side of the Col de Marie Blanque made me wonder how bantamweight Spanish climbers on the ONCE team made it down that descent on aluminum Giants. I just couldn’t fathom how they managed, not without the benefit of daily training on a mechanical bull.
The Ottrott confirmed to me beyond doubt that bikes with lower bottom brackets perform better on descents. That’s not to say you can’t get downhill on a bike with a high-ish bottom bracket, such as that of the 27.2cm-high Specialized Tarmac, but if you want a bike that is as Braman bull relaxed and Olympic gymnast nimble, a bike with a low bottom bracket will give you what you seek. And so far as I know, Serotta is the only builder doing anything approximating production work with a bottom bracket that low.
It’s an interesting grab-bag of bikes. Some are favorites, some not, but each was memorable for one reason or another. I think most bikes give us teachable moments; it’s up to us to pay attention.
By the time I walked out of the Interbike show last Friday I was threadbare. My feet hurt like they never did when I went on long hikes in the Boy Scouts, but then, I was 30 years younger and the trails a good deal softer than the polished concrete floor of the Sands Convention Center.
Each year at the end of the show I have this nasty habit of walking through the parking structure on my way to my car during which time I will suddenly flash on all the companies I never met with. This year was a bit of a switch in that the flashes I experienced were of the companies that I realized hadn’t had a booth at the show.
I was shocked when I couldn’t find Ochsner Imports on the map. I was embarrassed when I thought back on having seen Rudy Reimer, my contact there, in the Italian Pavilion and told him I’d meant to make an appointment to see him, but that I’d drop by later. His response: “Yeah sure.” It seemed a little brusque at the time, but then my statement had probably seemed ingenuine. What a gaff.
I had expected to see Red Rose Imports, the distributor for Carrera, Olmo, and Nalini’s custom clothing line. I had expected to see custom clothing manufacturers Verge, Pactimo and VO Max at the show. It’s not uncommon to see a line like Serotta or Independent Fabrication be at the show for a year or two and then drop out, only to return the following year, but again there was no Indy Fab. Serotta was at the show but sharing booth space with Ford, to what purpose I’m still not sure, but when I did my initial search of exhibitors online, they didn’t turn up. I must have flubbed the search or just couldn’t read at the time.
Cervelo put on a very nice reception/party Thursday night, and while I had several fascinating conversations, I didn’t have any interesting/substantive conversations about the Cervelo line of bikes, which was, after all, my bigger mission at Interbike.
Cross Vegas was a great race and a wonderful event with more than double the turnout of the first year I attended, but I was tired enough by the time the men’s event got underway I would have been happier back at the hotel, getting ready for the next day. Each day I heard people tell stories about being out drinking and carousing until 3, 4 even 6 o’clock in the morning. Those who can pull it off have my admiration (and a fair dollop of envy). I try not to be a spoilsport, but even having the opportunity to write about such a fun industry is something I regard with gratitude and I don’t want to be falling asleep as I load photos, or am trying to string together subject and predicate to form comprehensible sentences. Writing good (well? decently?) stuff is a great enough challenge even when firing on all cylinders.
Most of the manufacturers I spoke with said they weren’t writing orders at the show. Their reps had done that already. Most retailers confirmed that practice and said their only reason to be at the show was to actually see their lines in person for the first time, or to check out other lines they were considering picking up. A few told me that they probably wouldn’t be back next year.
Interbike says numbers were up this year, despite the down economy. That might be true from an objective perspective. However, from my little crow’s nest, this was the weakest Interbike show since I last went to the Philly show back in 1995.
A great many manufacturers I spoke with refused to speak on the record about their challenges with Interbike. The two biggest complaints were: too little return on investment and too little time with the dealers. More and more companies are focusing their efforts on marketing directly to the consumer in print, online and sometimes TV advertising. And rather than constantly searching for new dealers, most manufacturers are working to strengthen their relationship with the dealers they have. A dealer even gives them a captive audience for days, not an hour.
The good news is that dealers are a savvier bunch than they used to be. Interbike used to be the perfect place to sell a line based on the parts spec of a bike. Most dealers I spoke with told me the questions they ask now aren’t about parts spec and frame material but about support. What kind of support will they get; what will the dating be?
For manufacturers, Interbike is most useful for selling a new dealer on your line. Existing dealers can be addressed in large dealer events like those Trek, Specialized, Giant and Cannondale have or they can be reached out to with on-site visits with a demo fleet the way Specialized, Cannondale and Felt already do. Everyone seemed to agree that Interbike wasn’t a good atmosphere for education.
One aspect of Interbike I haven’t heard addressed elsewhere is how Outdoor Demo has changed the nature of conversations between shop staff. It used to be you’d hear retailers ask each other, “Have you seen the X?” Today, the question is, “Have you ridden the X?” Cycling ought to be a meritocracy and word of mouth between the people in the trenches can cause a powerful stir.
I like Interbike. I loathe Las Vegas, but I’ll go wherever the event is held. I like seeing the people, the new products, and watching how the industry trends. That said, I came away from this year’s show convinced that Interbike isn’t meeting the needs of manufacturers or retailers. Many people I spoke to go because they don’t have a better alternative, not because it meets their needs. There’s no one to blame for this; it’s not a matter of the folks at Interbike being asleep at the switch. Rather, the market is evolving and while people seem to agree that there is a need for a trade show, to be considered a success (not just passable), Interbike needs to meet the needs of a changing industry.
So here are my suggestions to the folks at Nielsen Business Media, the owners of Interbike:
1) Why not focus on a solely Outdoor Demo format? It’ll cut costs dramatically for manufacturers and give many companies an added incentive to offer more bikes to ride at the demo, thereby cutting down on the amount of time waiting to get bikes to ride, which would give riders more time to ride each day. Getting through more than eight bikes in a day was tough for most riders.
2) Were Outdoor Demo held in a space large enough, booths could be arranged in a large oval to keep those walking between booths on the inside of the oval and those leaving for rides on the outside of it. Think LAX—cars on the inner loop, planes outside the loop of terminals. This would cut down on the crush of bikes and walkers weaving between the 10×10 tents.
3) Leave Bootleg Canyon. Given the number of facial lacerations I’ve seen at the show the last two years, some of the trails are way beyond the skill level of at least some of the riders, but the blowing dust is hell on bikes, contact lenses and cameras. Were Outdoor Demo held somewhere a trifle more pleasant, say Marin County, equipment wouldn’t suffer so and there might be fewer injuries and a bit less sunburn. I know that Las Vegas is king because of the low airfares and plentiful and cheap hotel rooms, but if the show better met the needs of all attendees, I bet you’d sell space to Trek, Specialized, Giant and Cannondale. And if you were selling space to them, you’d be selling it to Cervelo, Felt, Seven, Lynskey, etc. And if all those companies were present, retailers wouldn’t pass it up, even if it were noticeably more expensive than this year’s trip to Vegas.
The bicycle industry’s largest annual trade show, Interbike, is the show of record. It has fended off upstart shows such as the BIO show of the 1990s, as well as challenges to its supremacy by international shows such as EICMA and Eurobike. EICMA, the Italian trade show based in Milan can boast style as only Milan can provide and sports more current and former Italian PROS than Wikipedia. However, when it comes to unveiling fresh ideas, Interbike has been the place to see new gear.
Still, Interbike is a trade show and shooting holes in it is easier than aiming a shotgun at a stop sign on a back road. There are the concrete floors crueler to feet than broken glass, the droning presentations, the slightly clothed models being chatted up by every wrench without a real purpose, the terrible overpriced food, the floating threat of the flu in every handshake and open bowl of candy, not to mention the cultural disconnect and general weirdness of the Taiwanese Pavilion. Each year, I take all that and worse just to have a chance to walk through what is a live-action Sears Wishbook.
This year is going to be different, though. Of all the big bike companies, only Specialized will have a booth on the show floor. I’ll say it again in the negative: There will be no show booths by Trek, Giant, Cannondale, Cervelo or Felt. Maybe you have noticed that these companies all have something else in common. They all sponsor Division I or II PRO teams. They all sponsor off-road athletes as well (okay, maybe not Cervelo). The clear message here is that athlete sponsorship is a more important driver for interest in their bikes than a flashy trade show booth, and that’s saying something because the most crowded new product intro I went to last year was Cervelo’s introduction of the P4. I felt like I was at a Paris fashion show.
At the other end of the spectrum are the small companies for whom Interbike is an expensive gamble. The age-old question has always been, “How many new dealers will we pick up?” But what if your primary clientele aren’t shops themselves? Verge Sport, VO Max and a new clothing company, Panache, have all chosen to forego a show booth this year. Panache’s Don Powell told me, “We’re putting our money into visiting our targets at their shops.”
Their disappearance can’t be blamed on a falloff in attendance on the part of dealers. Las Vegas’s economy is code blue and any dealer willing to fly to Sin City can get a room at the Gold Spike for $9 a night through Travelocity. People, I can’t make this up.
The decision not to attend Interbike isn’t an easy one for any company trying to do business in the bike industry and is rarely attributable to a single factor, such as cost.
Serotta and Seven will both skip the show, as will Lysnkey Performance. Mark Lynskey, known as one of the founders of Litespeed and now president of Lynskey Performance said, “We looked at our sales activity coming out of the show last year and the end result was that at best, it was a break even expense. I wish it did make sense for us to be there; I think we make beautiful titanium bikes and there’s nothing like seeing them in person.”
So how is he spending his marketing dollars now? “The bulk of our marketing is being devoted to the Internet: Google ad words, our web site, Youtube videos and the equipment to make those; we now have live chat on our web site and that has been a very helpful feature. We’re looking for the most efficient path to the consumer, and we monitor it in real time. We want to know who came, how long they stayed, did they live chat—we monitor each of these metrics.”
The big companies like Trek, Specialized Giant and Cannondale have the horsepower to hold their own dealer event each year, thus getting the retailer’s undivided attention. The chance to educate shop personnel about the product line results in increased sales and improved service. They are able to command the lion’s share of floor space at their retailers.
At the other end of the spectrum are the small companies, companies whose production makes them niche players and a non-threat to the heavyweights. They will almost always be able to find space on the floor of a retailer. Seven Cycles elected to pass on Interbike for the second year in a row.
“Our perspective is that Interbike and other trade shows offer two very compelling reasons to exhibit,” says Seven’s Mattison Crowe. “They offer manufacturers an excellent opportunity to meet new retailers and expand their distribution base, and they generate exposure for new product launches.
“Given those two reasons, we determined it did not make sense for Seven Cycles as a company to exhibit this year. We have an established and effective retailer network in the US and are not actively recruiting new retailers at this time. Retailer meetings will still take place during scheduled visits to our factory and are coordinated at the account level. Also, because of our flexible R&D and manufacturing processes, new product introductions will occur on a rolling basis throughout the calendar year. Our approach means no single event can provide sufficient exposure for the range of new products we will unveil in 2010.”
Okay, so big companies and small companies are focusing on their relationships with existing dealers. But what about those companies in the middle, companies like Cervelo and the Felt?
Retailers such as the Specialized Concept Stores, the Trek Stores and Giant Podium Stores give the Big Three incredible power over what lines the retailers can carry. No longer the niche players they once were, Cervelo and Felt are impressive lines that can compete at the high-end team-to-team with their larger counterparts. But they lack the horsepower to drive dealerships as a primary line.
Felt isn’t far off; with a line that runs from road bikes to full suspension mountain bikes and TT/tri bikes to townies, there isn’t a niche the company can’t sell. Cervelo’s line is more limited, but with a Tour de France win and several Grand Tour and Classic podiums, its place as a top-tier bike is assured in any shop. Which is why the Big Three need to muscle them out.
So one would assume that both Felt and Cervelo would be found on the Interbike show floor this year, right? In ’08 they were neighbors and their flashy booths attracted, as I mentioned, plenty of attention. This year Felt will only appear at the Dirt Demo while Cervelo won’t have any official presence at all. Not even at Dirt Demo.
Unlike the big three, neither Felt nor Cervelo has the ability to hold a separate dealer event to focus on education in sales and service. And both have too many dealers to offer the hands-on approach of a company like Seven.
Which, in turn, is why of all the companies that have chosen to pass on the ’09 Interbike show, Felt’s and Cervelo’s decisions are most ominous. Both companies have large dealer networks, but in both instances the lines need the strongest dealers that can properly sell, fit and service some of the industry’s most sophisticated bikes.
Bike industry people have been bagging on Interbike for years. It’s the classic too-cool-for-school attitude, something I—quite frankly—have always viewed as total B.S. If you’re in the bike industry you love bicycles. And if you love bicycles, you love seeing new stuff, so don’t tell me the show is a drag. Las Vegas might be a drag, but seeing my favorite people in my favorite industry can get me to drive to hell on an annual basis.
So now I must reluctantly admit that looking at the map of this year’s show floor, I’m disappointed. So many companies doing fascinating things just won’t be there it’s kinda like going to your high school reunion and not having your closest friends show. It’s still worth being there, but you wonder what went wrong.
I’m not out to badmouth Interbike. Personally, I like the show and it has always served my purpose as a journalist, though this year I have to spend more time using Dirt Demo for what I should be doing on the show floor and less time using Dirt Demo for its intended purpose. In business terminology they call that misappropriated.
My concern is that there seems to be a great deal of agreement among the manufacturers of the bike industry that Interbike isn’t serving their needs as well as it could. Many companies will display for no other reason than they know no other way to do business. But those companies that have most readily and ably adapted to the 21st century are measuring the impact their marketing dollars have and in the grand scheme, Interbike isn’t cutting it.
As economies change, so do industries. Door-to-door salesmen used to be commonplace. We used to read printed newspapers and their ad revenue could support hundreds of families. It’s fair to ask if the Interbike trade show can adapt to the 21st century. After all, at some point the exodus will make the show irrelevant.