One of my favorite features of the bike industry is its low threshold to entry. If you want to manufacture something in the bike industry, depending on just what you want produce, the fixed costs to launch your company can be relatively low. On the downside, it means we get some undercapitalized operations that wink out of existence even before most people are aware of their existence, crushed by the weight of their own promise. Asphalt, anyone? On the upside, surprising talents can launch reputations from a garage, Witness Chris Bishop.
For those with more industry savvy, relationships that span the globe and an actual credit line, you can launch a brand-new bike company. Volagi has been around for three years now and if the name of the company seems more familiar than the bike itself, it probably has to do with the lawsuit the fledgling brand found itself embroiled in with Specialized. Our man Charles Pelkey covered it in one of his Explainer columns. Technically, Specialized won one piece of the case and lost a few others, while the pricipals at Volagi claimed victory because they won the PR verdict with the public. Given all the money that went to “guys in pinstriped Italian suits,” as Charles put it, he was right in assessing there were no winners for the case.
Had Specialized limited their suit to the alleged Volagi owners Robert Choi’s and Barley Forsman’s alleged breach of their employment contracts—the jury did find that Choi violated the therms of his contract—this might have played out differently and less expensively for everyone involved. However, Specialized chose to sue Choi and Forsman for the Liscio’s patented “longbow” design. This might also have played differently had Choi and Forsman not chosen to patent their design; you have to figure that really got the attention of some folks in Morgan Hill. Specialized’s contention was that Volagi’s decision to join the seatstays to the top tube, rather than at the more typical location of the seat cluster, was an idea they’d lifted from the Roubaix. On this point, Specialized lost.
I don’t wish to retry the case here, but I knew there was a need to address the event that has resulted in the majority of the media coverage Volagi has received since its launch. Having ridden both bikes, including every iteration of the Roubaix, I can report that while the two bikes both belong to that class of grand touring bikes, they ride quite differently. I’ll get into the specifics of the ride of the Liscio a bit later in this review.
Animal or vegetable?
So just what is the Liscio? it deserves to be defined on its own merits, on the designers’ intent, rather than in relation to another bicycle. The company’s tag line reveals some of the bike’s purpose: “By endurance, we discover.” It’s an elegant line, one that I wouldn’t mind seeing in Latin on the seat tube or head tube. It also lays out a purpose too broad to be just another racing bike. And I’ll admit, the line contains enough regard for wonder that I felt an immediate soft spot for it when I read it.
If the lines of the longbow frame didn’t immediately betray the bike’s aim, then two other features about the bike should help establish the objectives open to the rider. First is the immediately apparent use of disc brakes. I can’t think of another component that can be spec’d on a road bike that will more immediately announce that you’re looking at a bike of a different feather than disc brakes. The appearance of two discs says nothing so much as, “This ain’t your buddy’s racing bike.” In addition to the disc brakes are the 25mm-wide tires. Now, a cynical product manager can use a wide tire to cover for a harsh-riding bike, but to do that with a frame design you’re trying to convince people is more comfortable—not less so—would really undercut the bike’s sales pitch unless your larger statement is that the Liscio is a go-anywhere road bike.
It is, and I really put that aspect of its design to the test. I’ll get to that in a bit.
For all the talk that gravel-grinder rides have been getting in the last year, there’s been surprisingly little talk of bikes designed specifically for those with an adventurous spirit. Some of that lack of talk is due to lots of riders just using ‘cross bikes, while others have used it as a chance to advocate for custom steel. Nothing wrong with either of those options, right? But what of producing a top-shelf road bike from carbon fiber just for the go-anywhere-with-drop-bars set?
This bike was, if I may, ahead of its time by just a couple of years. Volagi launched with this bike in 2010, but the idea of gravel grinders didn’t really start to catch on until 2012. Now, before any of you go to the comments section to tell us just how long you’ve been doing these rides, my purpose isn’t to argue about how far back any of you were cool. I’m simply talking about when enough of us were doing this sort of thing that it began to get the industry’s attention in a serious way. It’s fair to suggest that Volagi had their ear to the ground far sooner than most of the industry. The downside to this is that this bike might have enoyed greater acclaim had it been introduced last year.
So why a carbon fiber gravel grinder bike? For all the frustrations that carbon fiber has presented us—let’s see, there’s easily broken frames, expensive repairs, even more expensive frames and components and the general anxiety caused by the threat of damage any time you want to travel with your carbon fiber bike—the material has also given us some irrefutable advances. Road bikes have never been more diverse in appearance, fit range and ride quality. Those are all selling points. Quite simply, if you want to build the ideal gravel grinder, you’d do it from carbon fiber for the simple reason that you have the opportunity to start with the broadest palette.
Having just made the case that this is a gravel grinder par excellence, I want to put the brakes on that perception and say that this bike is a plain-old, straight-up road bike. I’ve done a fair number of group rides on this bike. There’s nothing in its handling, fit or layup that handicaps it for everyday use. This is a road bike that simply isn’t limited by road surface. That’s an important distinction. Where I live, I have to ride for at least a half hour to get to any dirt roads, and to get to the interesting ones I have to ride for more than an hour. For the groups I ride with, just what bike you choose for our dirtier excursions becomes a real point of conversation. It may not be of the order of conversation of whether you choose a ‘cross bike or a mountain bike for The Crushar in the Tushar, but rolling a knobby 32mm tire pumped to 60psi while other guys are pushing the pace on 23mm slicks pumped to 110psi (and destined to get flats later) can leave you suffering all the way to the start of the dirt.
I rode the Liscio on several asphalt/dirt combo rides this winter and it was the perfect bike for those days. Due to, uh, personal limitations, I wasn’t the first to the top of any of the climbs, but I was able to descend every bit as well as anyone on a ‘cross bike.
What I’m noticing in moving between different bikes is that some of them simply don’t impart as much shock when I hit bumps. I’ve had engineers talk to me about just how little movement is taking place when the frame is loaded. The numbers are so small any reasonable person would conclude that frame flex is a figment of our collective imagination. However, in the last month I’ve ridden five different road bikes and even when I’ve made an effort to minimize variables I’ve come to an inescapable conclusion. Those tiny amounts of flex matter. The Volagi Liscio, courtesy of its patented longbow design, simply doesn’t jar me as much when I hit bumps.
For Part I, click here.
Evaluating road feel
In the past year I’ve ridden roughly a dozen different bikes for 50 miles or more—enough to get pretty familiar with them. Of those bikes (some of them will be coming through in other reviews I’ve yet to write), the Roubaix proved to be among the easiest to fit to me.
I’ve heard people at Specialized as well as a number of retailers mention the “new” geometry for the Roubaix. It’s a detail I repeated a few times until I actually looked at the geometry chart. Across its six sizes, the bike hasn’t changed by a millimeter. The only significant change I can see that will affect the bike’s handling is that I’m not seeing the bike with that long, conic top cap anymore (and followed by three or four centimeters of spacers). And despite continued assertions by others, I’ve verified this with the manufacturer. No change in the head tube length.
So while the geometry of the Roubaix remains unchanged, that doesn’t mean this bike hasn’t evolved significantly. The SL4 iteration of the Roubaix introduces yet another expression of the Zertz technology. Where previously the Zertz inserts were inserted into openings molded into the fork and seatstays and were held in place by their contours, they now wrap around the fork blades and seatstays and are secured with small bolts. This change has a two-fold effect; first, it eliminates the extra material required to form those openings, making the bike lighter and, second, the new attachment method has resulted in improved vibration reduction, according to testing that Specialized performed.
Specialized added a new new seatpost, the CG-R that cantilevers the seat clamp in order to create more of a pivot action with the carbon arm that holds the clamp supported by a high-durometer Zertz damper. The combination of Zertz dampers in both the seatpost and seatstays means that even less vibration is being transmitted to the rider’s hindquarters than ever before.
While Specialized claims that the CG-R offers a whopping 18mm of suspension action, I have my doubts that I got even a full centimeter of travel. So while I quibble with that number, I’d hate for that to obscure the fact that this seatpost does cushion the ride, and I can say that because I tried the Roubaix without that seatpost and I tried that seatpost in another bike; it definitely changes what you feel at the saddle.
I can tell you that this bike was built with Specialized’s FACT 11r construction, but the simple reality is that having typed those words, they don’t really mean anything. This business of constantly coming up with arcane nomenclature mostly doesn’t serve the consumer that well because it doesn’t do anything to enable a consumer to make an apples-to-apples comparison of different bikes. What I can tell you is this: as Specialized has moved from FACT 9r to FACT 10r and now FACT 11r, those jumps have been meaningful enough that they’ve translated to bikes that were stiffer under pedaling forces, lighter and arguably stronger, given that I can report anecdotally I saw fewer riders taking their bikes back to the dealer for frame cracks.
More important are the lengths Specialized had gone to optimize the ride quality for each size. It’s not uncommon for a brand to use the same chainstays or the same wishbone seatstay and the same fork for every single model. By varying tube diameter and layup for each size bike, the Roubaix is one of a select group of bikes that offers such a tuned ride.
The S-Works Roubaix SL4 is a far cry from the original Roubaix. Honestly, all they really share is geometry. My sense is that the S-Works SL4 conveys a similar amount of vibration to the rider as the original Roubaix, though I have to grant I haven’t been able to go back and ride one of the original bikes to verify that assertion. But I’m willing to put that out there because I know that as frames see weight reductions thanks to better compaction, using superior fibers and cutting the amount of material used, those advancements cause more vibration to move through the frame. In short, the very features that cause the Roubaix to be a better bike today are the wrinkles that make shielding a rider from vibration ever more difficult. Just treading water in this game is a win.
The upshot is that this is one of the most comfortable bikes on the market, easily in my top three, when considered for vibration damping. What truly sets the Roubaix apart from other bikes in its class is that it still has the performance of a sport (or “racing”) bike. As much as I really like the live-wire feel of a bike that makes no effort to shield the rider from vibration, there is something positively welcoming to climbing on the Roubaix. As I’ve put it previously, we may dream of owning a Ferrari, but you would probably prefer to stick with a Lexus for your daily driver. Honestly, smooth sells itself.
As I mentioned in Part I of my review, the geometry on the Roubaix hasn’t changed since the model was launched, but this bike is a marked improvement over the original. Several features contribute to that evolution and improvement. Because the bike is both stiffer and lighter now, that improved feedback in handling and reduced mass means it’s easier to ride the bike aggressively. By spec’ing the bike with Roval carbon fiber clinchers and new, lighter Roubaix tires, it’s easier to dive into turns, which allowed me to compensate some for the calm handling, which is imparted by the long wheelbase and low bottom bracket. So, while Roubaix has only 5.6cm of train in the 56cm size, a bit less than its Italian predecessors, its 101cm wheelbase and 7.15cm of BB drop are what give this bike its deliberate demeanor.
When you combine the Roubaix’s ability to smooth out roads and impart confidence to a rider, what you get is a bike that is my preferred ride for rough descents. That’s a quality that is particularly useful in the Sierra where many of the descents feature wide-open turns on surfaces that are sometimes—well, let’s just say I’ve been on smoother fire roads.
Because the Zertz are dead weight in the frame, in order to present a 14.3-lb. bike, Specialized had to pull out essentially all the stops. Details like hollow dropouts, longer fiber runs, and more size-specific features, such as 1 1/8″ steerers in the smallest frames, 1 1/4″ in the mid-sized frames and 1 3/8″ in the largest sizes; this also aids rider comfort.
On the parts side, my bike was equipped SRAM Red as well as an S-Works bar and stem, plus the aforementioned CG-R seatpost. An S-Works crank is substituted for the Red unit. The Roval Rapide CLX 40s with Ceramicspeed bearings follow the example of Zipp’s Firecrest and Enve’s SES wheels which are designed around the idea using the spoke bed as a second leading edge. The way these wheels handled in the wind only served to confirm my previous experience that this rim shape makes a big difference, sending markedly less steering input to the rider than traditional deep-V designs. That said, braking performance was decidedly lacking. It was better than an aluminum rim in wet conditions, but it was far less than I’ve come to (reasonably) expect from a set of carbon clinchers.
My review bike, which included mechanical calipers carried a retail of $8000. Specialized supplanted this version with models sporting either SRAM’s hydro road rim brake or the hydro road disc, which run $500 more. Unfortunately, due to SRAM’s recall of those brakes, those bikes aren’t available in exactly those configurations currently. You may find them on the shop floor; SRAM is providing mechanical disks (cable-actuated) for all those who really can’t wait to have a disc version.
An $8k bike is more than many of us can afford, but here again, Specialized sets itself apart from many of its competitors by offering a stunning 15 different versions of this bike, from the $10,500 Dura-Ace Di2-equipped bike all the way down to an $1800-version. Very few companies come anywhere near this level of selection.
Specialized has taken some hits to its reputation in the last few years, first with the lawsuit against Volagi, then with the C&D letter to Cafe Roubaix. In both situations both parties claimed victory; whether that was true was really a matter of perspective. What was certain for all to see was the hit Specialized’s public image took. It’s a shame that ill-handled actions on the part of Specialized’s legal team should obscure the achievement on the part of the company’s product team. This is one fantastic bike.
I’m going to be candid. I think it’s fair to say that categorically the head tubes on race-oriented road bikes are too short. To be clear, I’m referring to the bikes that the big pro teams are riding, models like the Trek Madone, Specialized Tarmac, Giant TCR and Cervelo R5, what I typically refer to as “sport” bikes. That’s why when Specialized introduced the Roubaix nearly 10 years ago I concluded that it was one of the best carbon-fiber road bikes on the market designed for real people.
Designing bikes for the needs or at least the perceived needs of top level pros has proven to be a double-edged sword. Thanks to the input from some of the strongest riders in the world you and I have the good fortune to ride bikes that are stiffer under pedaling forces and in cornering. Some of them have remained remarkably comfortable; others, less so. What I continue to marvel at is the incredible diversity of experiences out there. Not only are the significantly greater differences between top-of-the-line road bikes for most brands than there were back when everyone’s top road bike was made from steel, there’s also the fact that now many brands offer a sport bike, a grand touring bike, as well as an aero road bike. The interesting detail in this is that for most brands that offer all three models or at least a race bike and a grand touring model, the race bike still is the sales leader.
There’s an interesting back story, not just to this bike, but to this category, because the simple truth is that when Specialized introduced the Roubaix, they didn’t just launch a bike, they launched a category. If we get in the Wayback Machine® and set it for 1984, the bikes we will see in the better bike shops will have a bunch of details in common. They’ll have a long wheelbase (100cm or more for a 58cm frame), a lowish bottom bracket (all the Italian stuff will be 26.5cm or lower) and a moderate amount of trail (5.9cm was common). They’ll also have a stunning amount of flex by today’s standards. The Roubaix is essentially that bike, just lighter and stiffer. In other words, the Roubaix is a bike that—from a geometry standpoint—has been around a long time.
So what changed?
Well, back then what a Roubaix is was just a road bike. However, we can say with considerable authority that the bike industry has chased stiffness ever since. A funny thing happened along the way. Stiffer tube sets allow a builder to give a bike quicker geometry. So as bikes got stiffer, we make them more nimble because that’s what racers wanted. This is evolution at its finest. Descent with modification means that by the time the Roubaix was introduced, nothing on the market handled like that anymore. Sure, there were custom builders still producing bikes like that, but there wasn’t anything on a bike shop showroom floor like the Roubaix. It took the introduction of a production model to turn this into a category. For that, Specialized in general, and Mike Sinyard in specific, deserve a lot of credit.
Even though bikes became quicker handling thanks to ever-stiffer frames, the opposite wasn’t untrue. Full points to Sinyard for being the first guy to realize that you could use top-shelf carbon fiber to build a light, stiff frame that handled like the old Italian stage-race bikes.
Since Specialized introduced the Roubaix I’ve been pretty vocal in touting it as an example of the bike that most people should be riding. I’ve often seen people on group rides overreact in situations because they’re on a quick-handling bike. While it’s impossible to say definitively, I think many dicey situations I’ve seen could have been calmed, if not averted, had at least a few of the people involved been on bikes that are slower to react.
That we even need the Roubaix and its ilk is tragicomic. Production race bikes have ultra-short head tubes because that’s what pros want. And anyone who has been to see pro racing up close knows that a great many, possibly most, pros ride bikes that don’t fit them. The bar is often too low and the reach too great, all part of that effort to get that ultra-aero flat back. To make sure that the bike will turn when you have that much weight on the front end, you have to build the bike around 5cm of trail, maybe a tad more. So what happens when you put 6cm of spacers between the headset and the stem? The bike handles wicked quick, that’s what. It’s essentially a different bike that what the pros ride just because the weight distribution is so different.
Which brings us back to the Roubaix and other bikes in the grand touring category. I’ve heard these bikes referred to as “old man bikes.” They should more properly be referred to as “bikes designed around good fit.” That would be more accurate.
Case in point: Most of the time, when I look at a bike’s geometry chart, I struggle to decide whether the 56 or 58 will be the better fit because it’s rare anyone offers a 57. The geometry of most grand touring bikes makes that choice much easier. Let me put it this way: If I remove all the spacers below the stem and run it on the top cap of the headset, that puts the bar below my preferred fit. That leads me to think that the head tube, unlike what some people have suggested, isn’t too long. The top tube on the 56 (or “large”) is 56.5cm and when paired with a 12cm stem, the result is one of the best fits for me I’ve found in production bikes.
One aspect of the Roubaix that I think gets overlooked is the fact that while the Roubaix itself comes in six sizes, the Ruby—the women’s model—comes in another five sizes, from 44cm to 57cm. Considering the fact that the Ruby does come in a gender neutral finish each year (this year, it’s white), this gives a fitter the chance to pick a bike not just for its size, but also for the rider’s weight. Were I shopping for a skinny adolescent boy, the Ruby would be near the top of my list because it features a bit more vertical flex (thanks to less carbon) in order to yield the same comfortable ride for someone who weighs 120 lbs. as the Roubaix will yield for a 160-lb. man. The upshot is that the Roubaix has the ability to fit someone as short as 4’11″ and someone as tall as 6’3″, not to mention offering some choices based on weight.
If it seems I’ve gone overly deep into the why of the Roubaix and just what this category means to both consumers and the bike industry, there’s a reason, if not a method behind this. I’m going to be reviewing a number of bikes from this category this year and I want to frame some of my larger observations now. This review will be a reference point later this year.
With another year coming to an end, this is our annual excuse to look back and recognize those moments from this year that are worthy of further acknowledgment and/or memorialization, even in those cases where the event is something we’d rather forget. But let’s not belabor the point; we’re going to jump in.
The Dr. Seuss ‘Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now?’ Engraved Invitation: Initially Seuss swore that his book, written and published as the Watergate scandal filled televisions and newspapers, wasn’t an allegory of wishful thinking for Richard M. Nixon (the names scan the same), but we know better. This award has to go to Lance Armstrong. Damn it, the only thing I loved more than watching this guy race was watching him in front of the press, especially when I was in the room. He was a world-class prick more carefully doped than East Germany’s entire 1972 Olympic team, but he provided drama in a way that an entire armada of George Hincapies would never be able to deliver. Prior to his retirement, he was never not interesting, which is different than being likable or trustworthy. The Oprah appearance was a disaster for him personally and professionally and his subsequent media appearances have served to underscore the unfortunate truth that he only understands stories that he makes up. I still believe he could play a useful role in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but I doubt it will actually take place. What I most wish he would come to appreciate is that there’s something we hate even more than his ongoing legal defense(s)—the thought of watching him compete … at anything.
The Penn and Teller Disappearing Act Trophy: This goes to the rider who by virtue of his near complete reversal of athletic fortune has caused me to think maybe he really was clean. That man? Bradley Wiggins. I was suspicious of Wiggins’ winning ways in 2012 for the simple fact that he set a record of fitness even Eddy Merckx didn’t manage. Wiggins’ 2012 season (sorry for the refresher course) included the overall victories at Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie, the Criterium du Dauphiné, the Tour de France and even the gold medal in the ITT at the Olympics—six months of perfect form. Maintaining that much fitness for that long was so outside likelihood it begged suspicion. It was classic more-than-meets-the-eye stuff. And then Wiggins followed up such an amazing year with … the overall victory at the Tour of Britain. Remember how Fleetwood Mac followed up “Rumors” with “Tusk”? Yeah, it’s like that. If he keeps riding this way, he won’t need to threaten the world with going back to the track. I can’t help but think that if the secret to his success had been something as obvious as oxygen-vector doping it would have been easier to replicate. But I could be wrong.
The Not-Quite Gold Watch Retirement Gift: This is less my award than the award presented collectively by the ProTeam directors who refuse to sign this year’s Vuelta a Espana victor to a contract. For reasons that are hard to understand, European teams have had a hard time paying Chris Horner what he’s worth. Unlike rising Hollywood stars who make the mistake of asking for more money than Tom Cruise makes, Horner has always had the sense to ask for money equal to what others delivering what he delivered make. It’s a sensible approach. Unfortunately, his Vuelta victory has come so late in his career that team directors have been left to think that either his victory was as the result of techniques too risky to pursue or that his amazing wick has only minutes left to burn. Either way, a guy who has earned a seven-figure payday may not see it.
The Biggest News of the Year Effigy: I keep waiting for someone, anyone to mention the single most jaw-dropping allegation contained within Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell’s book, “Wheelmen.” I’ve avoided mentioning exactly what it is because I try only to deliver plot spoilers to my own stories. However, no one is talking about it, so I’m going to out this little detail now: the book alleges that for the 2000 and 2001 Tours, Jan Ullrich rode clean. Why no one is talking about this black hole of a detail I can’t fathom. The very bedrock assumption we work from regarding doping is that everyone was doing it at the top of the sport. That belief is why I criticized the effort to go after Lance Armstrong with a singularity of purpose; I’ve long written that to reform the sport authorities needed to attack the the peloton equally. The great surprise is that our chagrined belief that there was no way to properly apportion the Tour win during Armstrong’s reign becomes a good deal easier than Pi for two of Armstrong’s victories. Just do it old school—hand it to the guy who finished second—Jan Ullrich.
The Horse Head in the Bed Buried Treasure: If this hasn’t already happened to Johan Bruyneel, you have to figure it’s coming. Can there be anyone in professional cycling with less to lose by telling the whole of his story? Similarly, can there be anyone that guys like Armstrong, Thom Weisel, Bill Stapleton and the rest of the Tailwinds mafia is more terrified to go Floyd Landis and spell everything out?
The Barack Obama Overly Biographied Life Pin: He may be the finest sprinter in the sport currently, but at 28 years of age, I’m not convinced Mark Cavendish’s life is already deserving of one biography, let alone two. Nothing against the people who worked on the books or the companies that published them—I can’t blame them for wanting to turn a buck on a big personality, but it takes some hubris to green light a biography before you’ve turned 30. To do it a second time … sheesh.
The Man-Up Commemorative Fist Bump: Recalls are a fact of manufacturing. If you manufacture something and have never issued a recall either you haven’t been at it for very long or you’re not producing goods en masse. SRAM recently took the nearly unprecedented step of issuing not just a massive recall of their road hydro brakes but a “do not use” warning. The root of the call relates to seal failure at temperatures below freezing, something that can occur during some winter cyclocross races. My buddy Byron at BikeHugger had a failure under far less unfriendly conditions and has been vocal in his disappointment. It’s an unfortunately turn of events for a new technology and there will be—without doubt—some people who will use this recall as all the reason to turn their backs on the technology as a result. The recall saves them the need to give the new brakes any thought. It’s not uncommon for a manufacturer to downplay the severity of a problem after issuing a recall in an effort to suffer as little bruising as possible. SRAM’s “do not use” warning staked any face-saving PR effort to the ground before driving the bus over it themselves. Better yet, SRAM created a separate site with an easy-to-find link from the company’s home page outlines what they know, when they found out and what they are doing to address the problem. Wikipedia’s definition for “transparency” has been updated to mention both “SRAM” and “Stan Day.” The approach is a tremendous statement about the company’s integrity and their regard for the consumers who ride their products. They deserve praise for doing what was unquestionably the right thing to do.
The Obligatory “It goes to 11″ Spinal Tap Reference: (Sorry, SRAM, but you guys are the only entity to get two awards, and while my previous award was a compliment, this one will be less so.) After introducing a slightly revamped 11-speed Red group this year, the company persisted in offering only cassettes that begin with an 11-tooth cog. While I know plenty of people who are willing to pedal around in a 50×11 with a cadence in the 40s, I only ride with one guy—Rahsaan Bahati—who can wind out a 50×11 in a flat sprint. The point here isn’t that you can’t make use of that gear, it’s that consumers would be better served with another cog in the middle, especially with that jump from the 19 to the 22 on the 11-28. Shimano offers a 12-25 and a 12-28, why can’t they? SRAM’s unwillingness to offer a cassette that begins with a 12 is my biggest pet peeve in tech, and that’s saying something.
The Red Wing® Lead Foot Book End: You might think this would go to the company that does more to create products to truly make people go fast, say an outfit like Zipp or Enve. In this case the lead refers less to the weight of the foot than the unintended contents of the foot. With their recent cease-and-desist letter to Café Roubaix, Specialized shot themselves in a certain extremity. While a reasonable person may observe that Specialized had some valid concerns where product is concerned, I can’t recall an occasion when public opinion more effectively lynched a company’s reputation. The shame here is that I don’t know of another company doing as much advocacy work on behalf of cycling as Specialized, but getting those stories to go viral the way this one did … well, this just proves how much more delicious bad news is. This dust-up contains a few classic object lessons: 1) counsel needs to think before it writes, and maybe even talk to some people on the inside 2) there’s a reason people hate lawyers and 3) reputations are hard to restore; just ask Lindsay Lohan.
The Best Cycling on TV Believability Index Blue Ribbon: The RedBull Rampage is an event that can cause me to repeatedly exclaim, “I don’t believe it!” Of course, my protestations are unintentionally ironic, a kind of hyperbolic affirmation to antigravity artists who have the ability to turn my inner ear against me even as I thrall to feats that take less time to unfold than the last 5k of a road race. Were drug testing performed at the Redbull Rampage the results would be funnier than a Louis CK routine. There’d be no worries about EPO, transfusions, clenbuterol or insulin; no, I expect we’d see lots of THC and other hallucinogens. Maybe a bit of cocaine, for these pilots are no strangers to euphoria. Watching downhilling and freeriding has become a way for me to watch cycling competition on TV without having to ask any ugly questions when the winner is announced.
The Top Step of the Podium Vindication Media Tour: It’s a four-way tie between David Walsh, Betsy Andreu, Emma O’Reilly and Greg LeMond. ‘Nuff said.
The Don’t Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out Bouncer Toss: The shame here is that this can only be awarded to Pat McQuaid when I’d like for history to show that Hein Verbruggen was dispatched with the same prejudice. If we ever heard from Pat McQuaid for any reason other than court testimony it will be several lifetimes too soon. When we try to conclude just who did cycling a greater injustice, McQuaid or Verbruggen, it really is a dead heat.
The Kirk Cameron – Growing Pains Award: Peter Sagan. From groping podium girls to annoying the crap out of his fellow professionals with over the top victory celebrations, this was the season Sagan came to understand that being fast wasn’t the only thing he needed to be, that professionalism is a thing you’re not born with, and that not everyone will give you a free pass, just because you’re not TRYING to offend them.
The Second Coming Award: Brian Cookson. After winning election to the presidency of the UCI, Cookson’s job is just to save cycling’s soul. NBD. Maybe he’ll start by changing water to wine or walking on water, you know, as a warm up.
The Last, Lousy Dorito Award: Lance Armstrong. There’s always that one guy who just can’t accept that the party is over.
The Julius Caesar Award: Bradley Wiggins. You think you’re loved. You think you’ll be emperor for life, but then you’re there bleeding on the theater steps. Et tu, Froome? Et tu?
The Simple Minds Award: Andy Schleck. Once the next great stage racer of his generation, it has to be wondered if Schleck will be anything other than pack fodder in seasons to come. Famously fragile, both physically and mentally, he will probably never return to the sort of climbing form that will overcome his lack of juice in the time trial. “Don’t you forget about me,” may well be the refrain as Trek seemingly bets the wrong horse, again, in 2014.
The Clark Kent Award: Travis Tygart. You see a guy in a suit. He looks like a regular guy, holds down a job, has a thing about truthfulness. But he’s really Superman. He saves the day. No matter how powerful a foe he faces, he prevails. You kick yourself for not realizing the guy in the suit was special, but then he puts his glasses back on and you forget he exists.
The A. Mitchell Palmer Ham-fisted Lawyer of the Year Award: Specialized’s unnamed Canadian “outside counsel” for sending a Cease-and-Desist letter to a small bike shop in Calgary, Alberta, asserting trademark rights over a name for which Specialized didn’t actually enjoy the rights. Yup, Specialized was actually using the name “Roubaix,” by permission of the folks at Fuji, but that didn’t stop at least one eager-beaver lawyer from sending out what the guys at my firm call “the asshole letter” (a written missive that combines a heap of bluff and bluster with a healthy dose of bullshit and carries with it no actual force of law) to the owner the “Café Roubaix Bicycle Studio” threatening to unleash the hounds of Hell for using “their” trademark without their permission.
Look, if you’re going to trademark the name of a French city, why not go for the big prize and register “Paris™”? No one would mind if you sent that Hilton woman a whole boat load of Cease-and-Desist letters. Now, that would be a public service.
The Can We Please Make This Stop Now? Pleeeeease? Award: Michael Sinyard, whose personal visit to Dan Richter, the owner of the aforementioned shop, put an end to the company’s trademark claim. Sinyard looked pained, embarrassed and uncomfortable in the video that came from that visit, but you gotta give the guy some credit for at least trying to clean up the mess.
Of course, it could have all been avoided if Sinyard and Co. could distinguish between the manufacture and sale of counterfeit product and a guy who just wanted a bike shop with a cool name. And no, Mike, it probably won’t stop … at least for a while. That whole Internet thing seems to have caught you by surprise. Being a bully – or by an act of omission, allowing your “outside counsel” to be bullies – carries a heavy price these days. News travels fast and these messes take a long time to clean up.
Here’s a mop.
The Most Deserved Victory Lap In Sport goes to David Walsh of the Sunday Times of London, whose dogged and unwavering pursuit of Lance Armstrong lasted 13 years and subjected him to all sorts of abuse. What is hopefully the last word in the Armstrong story was quickly released by Walsh soon after the Oprah interviews. The cool thing is that “7 Deadly Sins: My pursuit of Lance Armstrong” is, as they say, soon to be a major motion picture, starring the “IT Crowd’s” Chris O’Dowd as Walsh. Break out the popcorn, gang, we’re goin’ to the movies.
The He-sure-called-that-one Award goes to Greg LeMond, who, way back in 2001, said “If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sports. If he isn’t, it would be the greatest fraud.”
The We-actually-do-it-right-here Award goes to the United States. While the IOC, its affiliate International Governing Bodies and WADA seem to have intended to keep sports governance and doping control separate, the Americans are actually doing it. Try, for a moment, to imagine how this whole Armstrong thing would have shaken out had it been the job of USA Cycling to aggressively pursue the case. Someone, somewhere along the lines, would have uttered those infamous words – “it’s bad for cycling” – and that would have been that. Actually, you don’t have to imagine … just look to the UCI and see how that organization handled what eventually became the biggest doping scandal in sport.
And finally we give our most prestigious and noteworthy prize:
The 2013 WTF?!?! Award to one David LeDuc, of Willow Springs, North Carolina, a (get this) 62-year-old masters racer who tripped the Dope-O-Meter™ for (get this) amphetamines, steroids and EPO at the Masters Road National Championships in Bend, Oregon, back in September.
Look, if you put morality aside, you can almost understand the reasoning behind a guy like Lance Armstrong deciding to step over the line and become a PharmaCheat. I mean, the dude “won” seven Tours de Freakin’ France (a sporting event watched by more than a billion viewers each year), gained worldwide fame (since turned into infamy) and amassed a fortune in excess of $100 million (of course much of that is disappearing fast). It’s like pulling off a huge casino heist for mega-millions. Sure, it’s not right, but you can at least imagine the reasoning and the motivation behind it.
But cheating to win the United States’ 60-65 Master’s title?!?!?!?
That’s like grabbing an AK-47 to rob the local MiniMart of $9.34 (in pennies), a couple of SlimJims and a pack of Marlboros. I mean really … who, aside from your wife, your kids and the other two guys who toed the line in that same race, actually gives a shit who wins the U.S. men’s 60-65 national title? It’s supposed to be fun, Dave.
Hence, the automatic reaction when you read about a guy, already 12 years into his AARP membership, doping himself to the gills to win a tinpot medal and a jersey can only be “WTF?!?!”
Yup, that’s right. After days of near complete radio silence from Morgan Hill, the chief bigwig at Specialized personally traveled to Cochrane, Alberta, and put in an order for a healthy dose of crow at the Café Roubaix.
I, for one, say good on ‘im for that.
In a video posted on the shop’s Facebook Page (which as of this morning has 14,593 “likes,” by the way) Sinyard did about the only thing he could have in light of the complete PR meltdown his company suffered after news of Specialized’s heavy-handed approach to the small shop’s use of the “Roubaix” name, a trademark (which, as it turns out, Specialized doesn’t actually own, but uses with the permission of Fuji’s parent company, but I digress).
At this point, this is no longer a story about intellectual property and trademark law. It’s a story about public relations, knowing when and how to use the “big club” and how, in this modern media environment, the big guy is almost always at a huge disadvantage in bar fight.
Take some time to watch the video. It’s interesting for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that Sinyard kinda looks like he’s starring in one of those forced confessional videos the North Koreans stage before releasing – or executing – a prisoner.
The dynamic is clear. Sinyard is obviously tense and uncomfortable. He’s lost the fight (one he may not have even known he was in until it was too late) and he’s doing his best to retrieve even a shred of goodwill. In contrast, Café Roubaix owner Dan Richter, looks completely at ease. He should. He’s just played the role of David to Sinyard’s Goliath … and we all know how that one turned out.
There’s already been plenty of talk about the social media firestorm that a small news item in the Calgary Herald under the headline “War veteran forced to change bike shop’s name after threat from U.S bike giant Specialized.” Twenty-five years ago, that would have been it. The story would popped up in the Saturday paper. It would have pissed off a few cyclists in and around Calgary. Maybe someone, somewhere along the way someone would have faxed a clipping to a buddy in the U.S. and it would have slowly made its way around cycling circles and been fodder for a bit of back-and-forth on a club ride or two.
Not today. That story got posted last Saturday morning. By Saturday evening it was being Tweeted, Facebooked, blogged and otherwise distributed around that global neural network known as the InterTubes. Hell, it even woke me up enough to write an Explainer Column for the first time in months. I would bet that by Monday, anyone with a love of bikes and web access knew what a @#$%ing bully Specialized was. And therein lies the rub. Specialized, or more specifically its lawyers, are operating as if this were still the 20th (or maybe 19th) century.
“We take care of all of our trademarks, because we do have a lot of – you know – fake product out there on the market; actually it’s huge,” Sinyard explained to Richter. “So we always have our outside attorneys just monitoring things and when it goes, they just go off.”
Sinyard quickly added that he wasn’t blaming the “outside attorneys” because he correctly recognized that “it’s my responsibility.”
As part of that responsibility one would hope that the company’s entire approach to trademarking and trademark enforcement be put under internal review. It probably ain’t such a good idea to allow your attorneys to “just go off.” To continue in that pattern would be a disaster for the company.
Goodwill ain’t cheap
Part of the fall-out from the Café Roubaix debacle is that all of the company’s past and current sins were dredged up for public discussion as well. The whole saga of Specialized v. Volagi, et. al., was brought up, probably right around the time that controversy from a couple of years ago was finally being forgotten by cycling’s cognoscenti. Other examples of Specialized’s strongarm treatment of small companies found their way into news stories about the Café Roubaix fight, including attempts to keep Portland’s Mountain Cycles from using the name “Stumptown” (despite that being a common nickname for Portland and not an allusion to the Stumps that Specialized jumps) and an effort to force Epic Wheel Works from using the word “Epic” in its brand name.
Okay, let’s just ignore the arrogance of a company that trademarks words like “Roubaix,” “stump” and “epic” and go straight to Specialized’s position that it must “vigorously defend” its trademarks or risk losing them. I don’t necessarily buy that argument, but if it is the case it’s become readily apparent that using the big stick ain’t always the right approach.
Assuming that Specialized’s “outside attorneys” were legally correct in “just go(ing) off,” they sure-as-shit weren’t right, even when it came to their own client, Specialized. Think about how expensive it is for a company to generate interest and support among its customer base. That corporate “good will” is often one of a company’s most valuable assets. To generate that, a company has to spend millions on feel-good advertising and, in the case of a big bike manufacturer, sponsorship of teams, clubs and races. Think for a moment how many “I am Specialized” ads and how many pictures of a victorious Tom Boonen or other racer crossing the line on a Specialized it will take to offset the shit storm of this past weekend.
Basically, I am suggesting that when Specialized is in the market for “outside attorneys,” they look for someone with a bit of public relations experience as well. Failing that, at least hire someone who can think before they leap: “Sure, we can beat the livin’ shit out of this little guy, but it may not look so good if the video is then played on CNN, eh?”
Time to forgive … but not to forget
Personally, I think it’s time to cut Specialized a bit of a break here. To his credit, Mike Sinyard took the big step and personally visited and apologized to Dan Richter. I applaud him for that. I hope the decision has a ripple effect and causes the company to rethink its approach to other matters.
Toward that end, I offer something of a gift to Sinyard and to the staff and outside attorneys in his employ. To understand that gift, I think I need to offer a bit of background.
Just a few years ago, when I was in law school, my daughter, Annika, made a habit of producing covers for my course and exam outlines for every class I took over those three years. I have 34 of them and they are among my most treasured possessions. Annika was 10 when I graduated and she did her final drawings for the three elements of the bar exam, including something known as the “MPRE,” the Multi-state Professional Responsibility Exam. That’s the ethics test that you have to take in order to become licensed as an attorney. Now, ethics/lawyer jokes aside, I was especially touched by the beauty and elegance of what has since become known as “Annika’s Rule.”
Within the confines of a single sheet of paper – or more accurately, the lower left-hand corner of that page - Annika managed to sum up all of the ethics courses I took as a journalist, as a Senate staffer, as a law student and as a lawyer. It’s short, simple and to the point. It applies to law, business, parenting and life in general. It’s easy for anyone to comprehend and it’s a simple reminder that before you make a big decision you should ask yourself one question: “Would this violate Annika’s Rule?”
If so, don’t do it.
No, I don’t always succeed, but “Annika’s Rule” is prominently displayed in my office and I really do try to live by it.
Mike Sinyard, you made huge strides this week and I truly applaud your decision to visit Mr. Richter and to make amends. I hope it sets a pattern for the future of the company.
So, as a gesture of good will, Annika and I offer to you, Mike Sinyard and the rest of the crew at Specialized and all of your outside attorneys, full North American rights (including Canada, of course) to use the copyrighted image, the copyrighted text and our soon-to-be-trademarked moniker, “Annika’s Rule:”
Good luck. I think Annika would appreciate the gesture you made this week, Mike.
Now, keep it up.
The Explainer is supposed to be a weekly feature on Red Kite Prayer (Pelkey gets sidetracked now and then).
If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at Charles@Pelkey.com. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.
I’m with my family in Hawaii, theoretically on vacation. I say theoretically because I’ve been at my keyboard and on the phone far more than I promised my wife I would be. And the reason why is Charles Pelkey’s Explainer piece on the tussle going on between Specialized and Café Roubaix.
Because of the number of emails, phone calls and other messages I’ve received, as publisher, I suppose I have to weigh in a bit.
First off, Charles didn’t go rogue. I asked him to address the story. I fully endorse what he wrote and am willing to stand by it even if Specialized decides to pull their advertising. Neither Wayne Thompson, my ad sales director, nor I have heard anything from their marketing department (and believe me, they have our numbers), so I’ll take this, so far, as their endorsement of the freedom of the press. Let me add that if they were to pull their advertising, this would be a colossal hit to me personally. I’d have to take Mini-Shred out of preschool and the Deuce out of daycare. It wouldn’t end there, either. My wife would have me sleeping in my car until I made up the shortfall. I shit you not. This would turn my life upside down.
Charles isn’t insensitive to these issues, either. After hitting “Publish” on his piece he had the inconvenient experience of noticing the Specialized ad for, of all things, the Roubaix. He called me and offered to pull the piece. I wouldn’t allow it. I stand by him and I stand by the work we publish. If I don’t stand up for the things I believe, I don’t know how I’ll be able to tell my sons that integrity matters.
Specialized is a big, complicated company. I don’t like all of their business practices, but they have a remarkable history of making great bikes. I’ve bought three (including two for Mini-Shred) in the last two years.
I flat-out think the Canadian Patent and Trademark office fucked up when they issued Specialized a trademark on the name Roubaix. Note that the U.S. office didn’t grant that trademark; that should tell us all something. However, I’m troubled by a couple of things contained (or not) in the Calgary Herald piece. Richter doesn’t mention that he’s selling wheels and tires branded Café Roubaix. The story suggests that the cease and desist letter concerns the bike shop name. While the folks at Specialized won’t talk right now, I have to imagine they were far more concerned with this guy selling parts bearing that mark.
Consider for a moment if this guy was selling wheels branded “Firecrest.” I can imagine SRAM would go after him with some verve. Whether he’s a vet or not isn’t an issue. You could be a one-armed, Nobel-Peace-Prize recipient but if you steal my car, I’m calling the cops.
Café Roubaix owner Dan Richter told the paper that Specialized, “made it clear on no uncertain terms, they are going to sue.” I have to wonder why you would tell a newspaper someone is going to sue you if they haven’t actually sued you. Specialized is on lockdown and won’t talk; that suggests that even if they are playing the heavy they are at least talking and not actually suing. Could it be that Richter wanted to head off a possible suit by igniting a fire storm of public opinion? Seems a genius strategy, but will it really be that helpful when they get back to the negotiating table?
A subsequent opinion piece in the Herald by staff writer David Marsden faults Richter for not doing a trademark search on the word Roubaix, but really, who saw that coming?
This is going to be a PR black eye for Specialized that will resonate for years. If they’d handled this more quietly (and maybe they were trying; after all, they didn’t contact the Calgary Herald) then this wouldn’t have played so poorly for them. However, their screw-up, in my opinion, wasn’t sending the C&D letter to Richter, it was filing for the trademark on the word Roubaix.
It doesn’t matter that Specialized only applied for the Roubaix mark in cycling. Cycling is the only forum in which it has value. Roubaix is one of those words that carries the weight of tradition; it telegraphs more than endurance, it is the bar by which we measure a fortitude that is more of the mind than body. It’s a word that carries mythic weight, imperial meaning. It’s part of an international trust. No one, in my opinion, should have an exclusive right to use that word in a cycling context, and that, really, is the root of the outrage being directed at Specialized.
I know a great many fine people at Specialized. I like and respect Mike Sinyard. When I think of the CEOs in the bike biz who most embody the life of a dedicated cyclist, I think of him. I use him as an example not just of someone who I believe is authentically a cyclist, but how I’d like to be living my life in another 15 years. Yes, he works a lot, but he also rides a lot, and in cool places, to boot.
But his legal team is another matter. Seeking to trademark a term whose value you haven’t personally built is a kind of greed at best, a kind of theft at worst. Had Specialized called that bike the turnbuckle or the outrigger—names that have no meaning in cycling—and then Café Whatever came out with Outrigger wheels or Turnbuckle tires, they could have sued straight away and everyone would have wondered what the hell Dan Richter was thinking. Public sentiment wouldn’t have been an issue.
I don’t believe shunning Specialized for this breach of community etiquette serves anyone, though consumers are entitled to vote with their dollars. And big companies are entitled to vote with theirs as well, which means the big red S may yet pull their ad from us. Whether they do or not, I’ll continue to do my job as I see fit, and that means if they are willing to continue to send me their product, I’ll continue to review it conscientiously. I think it’s better for the community if we remain engaged. After all, who cares what your enemy thinks of you? It’s when a friend says, “Please, don’t drive drunk; that’s dumb, I’ll call you a cab,” that you know you’ve got someone looking out for you—and everyone else.
Now, with that off my chest, I’m going back to my vacation, which is already in progress.
Maybe my response wasn’t exactly appropriate, but my answer remains the same: “Because I @#$%ing hate bullies.”
Well, maybe that’s the answer to why — after so many months off — I am resurrecting “The Explainer.”
By now many of you have seen the story making its way around cycling-related social media about the Afghanistan war veteran in Cochrane, Alberta, who opened up a small bike shop over an ice cream parlor and his ensuing encounter with a @#$%ing bully.
What do you, oh velo-centric bike geeks among us, think of when you hear the word “Roubaix?”
I have to admit that my thoughts don’t automatically turn to the commune located in the Nord department of France between Lille and Tourconig. I don’t even think of the famous velodrome there in that little industrial town. No, the first thing that springs to mind for me is pavé, mud, brutal conditions and that great, great quote from Theo de Rooy after he dropped out of the 1985 edition of Paris-Roubaix:
“It’s bollocks, this race! You’re working like an animal; you don’t have time to piss; you wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this; you’re slipping. It’s a piece of shit …” said de Rooy, quickly adding that he fully expected to do it again because “it’s the most beautiful race in the world.”
And that is what springs to my mind when I think of “Roubaix;” the most beautiful race in the world. It’s probably what came to Dan Richter’s mind when he decided to name his little bike shop after that iconic annual event.
What doesn’t come to my mind — and what probably didn’t come to Richter’s mind — is an admittedly nicely designed bicycle by that Morgan Hill, California, mega-corporation, otherwise known as “Specialized.”
Richter was notified earlier this year by “Specialized Canada” that his bike shop’s name infringes on Specialized’s Canadian trademark of the name “Roubaix.” Yup. Specialized’s engineers made a nice bike and after they did, the douchebags™ in the legal department went ahead and registered the name of that French city as their own. They couldn’t do it in the U.S., but they’re aggressively “protecting” the name up there in the Great White North.
You see, the brilliant legal minds at Specialized are asserting that Richter’s bike shop (which does not happen to carry Specialized product, by the way) would cause brand “confusion” among consumers and that’s why they had to take aggressive steps to “protect” their trademark.
Yup, they’re essentially claiming that a guy out for a walk in Cochrane, Alberta, will see the sign for the “Café Roubaix Bicycle Studio,” and immediately jump to the conclusion that it must be a part of the Specialized empire.
Richter has been correctly advised by his attorney that his is a battle he can win. Unfortunately, he is now poised to surrender to the corporate bully because, while they can afford a protracted legal battle, he can’t spring for the estimated $150,000 that it would cost him to fight the good fight.
Specialized is using the old “defend it or lose it” argument, saying that it must assert its “rights” to “their” trademark of Roubaix or risk losing it.
It’s a weak argument and one that I, quite uncomfortably, had to try and make myself many years ago (more on that later). It’s basically an argument that can be summed up as — and forgive me for using another technical legal term here — ”bullshit.”
Trademark owners are not required to object to each and every use of a name. What they are required to do is to work to avoid confusion. In other words, Specialized might appropriately object to a bicycle carrying the moniker “Roubaix,” since they have trademarked the name of their model, but that authority doesn’t extend to virtually every use of the name … even when it’s related to cycling. Frankly, even that might be a stretch. Specialized sure as heck isn’t the only bike manufacturer which tried to convey a message about ruggedness by embracing the Roubaix name for its product.
In bike racing circles, “Roubaix” is about as close to being a generic term for “brutally tough,” as you can get.
Even the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office appears to be annoyed at this sort of behavior. In its 2011 report to the Joint Judiciary Committee of Congress on the subject, the agency defines “trademark bullying” as “The extent to which small businesses may be harmed by litigation tactics, the purpose of which is to enforce trademark rights beyond a reasonable interpretation of the scope of the rights granted to the trademark owner.”
Keep that word “reasonable” in mind. It pops up all over the legal profession (yeah, yeah, I know). It’s actually a pretty simple standard. Would a “reasonable” person make an error like the trademark holder is asserting would be the case? Honestly, a “reasonable” person probably doesn’t think of Specialized when someone utters the word “Roubaix.”
In its report, the Patent and Trademark Office notes that many trademark owners “… mistakenly believe that to preserve the strength of their mark they must object to every third-party use of the same or similar mark, no matter whether such uses may be fair uses or otherwise non-infringing. They may lose sight of the fact that the effectiveness of enforcement is not measured by how frequently they enforce, but rather by the effect that taking or failing to take action has in the marketplace. ‘The real question is public perception of plaintiff’s mark, not a battle count of how often it has sued others.’”
Perception and the effect on the marketplace
Keep in mind that the quality of a brand comes down to perception. So basically, it’s a question of public relations and marketing. The problem is that companies tend to forget that lawyers – even when they’re technically correct – aren’t always right. They are known as “counselors” for a reason. Their advice should be considered as counsel, but not as the final word. There are other factors to consider when making a decision to go after a little guy.
The beauty is that a small business, while unable to mount a full-on legal fight, can take the issue to the court of public opinion. On that front, Specialized doesn’t stand a chance.
I know of what I speak.
Back in 1994, I left a fairly lucrative job as a press secretary in the leadership of U.S. Senate. It was a good gig and, in my mind, there was only one job that could be considered to be better. That job, too, came along when I was offered a chance to work at a nationally distributed cycling magazine with the likes of John Wilcockson, Graham Watson and Maynard Hershon. These were the guys whose work I’d followed religiously when I was a bike racer. Now I was allowed to join them at VeloNews. Suddenly, I had the chance to stop being a guy in a suit and maybe even be a guy covering things like the Tour de France. Obviously, I jumped at it.
Unfortunately, because “press secretary” meant “PR specialist” to my boss, one of the first assignments I got at VeloNews was to try to deal with the public relations fallout from the magazine’s “cease and desist” letter sent to a small web-based cycling news service, known as “VeloNet.” Arguably, the lawyers were legally correct. The name “VeloNet” could have been easily confused for “VeloNews.” That doesn’t mean they were right. At the time, the site was just a small, volunteer-based effort and we probably would have been better off letting it go.
Despite the fact that were big enough to fire legal salvos across the little guy’s bow, we discovered we were at a distinct disadvantage. Instead of responding to the lawyerly prose of the C&D letter as we had expected, the wise folks at VeloNet simply went ahead and posted the damn thing. We looked like assholes. The response was fast, furious … and appropriate. We were quickly forced to backpedal, but the damage had been done. It took years to overcome the ill-will that move generated … if ever.
Meanwhile, the good folks at was once called VeloNet went ahead and changed the name anyway … to “CyclingNews.” (Yeah, they kicked our collective asses on that front, too.)
So where to fight?
Like Mr. Richter’s attorney said, this is probably a fight he could win in the courts. Unfortunately, that costs money, so he’s forced to surrender the legal battle.
Frankly, I think it’s time to take the fight to another battlefield.
Let’s start by visiting Mr. Richter’s online store at www.caferoubaix.ca and buying something!!! Actually buy a lot.
Then, for the time being, the next time you are in the market for a nicely built road bike, start by looking somewhere other than Specialized. There are plenty of good bikes out there on the market, many of which compare favorably to the Specialized Roubaix. Take, for example, the Fuji (wait for it) “Roubaix,” a label affixed to their downtube a dozen years before the Men from Morgan Hill declared Roubaix was theirs. Nonetheless, the Specialized Roubaix is a bike I enjoyed riding and would probably have enjoyed owning as well … but not for now. Why? Because I @#$%ing hate bullies. Until Specialized Canada stops listening only to its lawyers and stops being a @#$%ing bully, I’ll shop elsewhere.
Besides, if they continue this behavior and you do end up buying a Specialized, the first thing that will come to people’s minds when they see that red slash “S” logo is that it stands for “Shameless asshole.” Beware of using the term, though. I do believe that my good friend Patrick O’Grady already has that one trademarked.
Post Script: The above is apparently not the only example.
If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at Charles@Pelkey.com. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.
Some years back when I was an editor at Bicycle Guide, my colleague Joe Lindsey and I had the occasion to meet with a gentleman hawking electric bikes. He was the head of marketing for some electric bike company that is now less-remembered than Major Matt Mason. In 1997 the idea of an electric bike was a good deal less accepted than it is today. Worse yet, the pitch was a good deal less refined. The poor guy was desperate and it was evident in his voice, his pitch, his face. His big play was, “But it’s easier!”
Joe, in his wonderfully soft-spoken and gentle, but direct, manner responded, ‘Well, you see, our readers like the work. They want to pedal hard.’ There was a bit more to the conversation, but there was little to do at that point other than wish him well. I told him we weren’t hostile to what he was doing, but we just weren’t the right outlet. As we walked away, I turned back for a moment and the look on his face was less hang-dog than hanged-man. Returning to the office empty-handed clearly wasn’t how this little excursion was supposed to go and his next stop appeared to be the gallows. There have been few occasions in my life when I have said anything to someone that made them look sadder. I’ve never been so acutely aware what it meant to pity someone as I did that day.
Fast-forward 10 years. My buddy Jim buys his wife an electric bike as a way for her to run errands without always getting in the car. She’s lucky enough to have an exceedingly local life and rarely has to travel more than three miles from home. So one day she rolls up to the coffee shop as we’re hanging out post-ride. To my eye, with its 20-inch wheels and ultra-long stem extension (essentially a handlebar mast), it looks to me more like a travel bike than a proper bike. Naturally, Jim begins egging me on to take it for a spin. My refusals go unheeded; he doesn’t care that I’m in cleats, that it doesn’t fit, that I’m trying to be polite about not being interested. So I get on. The variety of bike she had included a twist throttle, meaning you could pedal, add in some electric power, or just ride it like an electric scooter.
As I rolled out, I did what cyclists do—I pedaled. That’s when Jim yelled after me, “Use the throttle!”
When I did, the resulting kick had a curious effect: I smiled. Actually, I didn’t just smile, I grinned. I didn’t need a mirror to know how large it was; I could feel my cheeks press against my helmet straps. Were I prone to embarrassment due to shows of public emotion, this would have sent me to a closet. Fortunately, I’m not easily flustered by my own actions, so as I headed back up the hill to my friends, it didn’t really bother me that they gave hearty laughs when they saw my smile set to 11.
The particular combination of acceleration and nearly noiseless operation is what made the electric bike such a revelation. Cars and motorcycles have taught us that big accelerations with motors make big noises. We’ve been taught to expect big throttle action to result in equal parts velocity and noise. After all, only half the love of muscle cars is a love of speed. The other half is a love for the growl, the aural conflagration that is the internal combustion engine. Lions wish they could sound so impressive. But when you take out the scream, no matter how lovely a symphony of pipes and explosions may furnish it, the combination of all-out-attack quickening and child’s-toy noise breaks our expectations, making the experience tantamount to a joke. And any time you multiply fun by funny, the result is a tightening of facial muscles combined with involuntary hiccups of air.
Yeah, I grinned and laughed.
I tell you that to explain why when the folks at Specialized rolled out the Turbo—their electric bike with a price tag like a top-notch race bike—and said, “You’re guaranteed to smile,” well, that’s when I didn’t laugh.
Now before anyone thinks this is a full-fledged review of the Turbo, let me say I’ve had exactly one ride on this thing and it was roughly as long as a network sitcom. That’s not really enough for me to do what I’d call a review. But as an introduction to a product, well, it had the same effect of a tasting pour at a winery. Yes, I’d like to purchase a whole bottle of that, please.
The first, biggest, difference between the Turbo was … hell, kinda everything. I’d like to point to how there’s no throttle, that instead there is a four-setting switch that dictates just how much electric assist you receive. I’d also like to point out how it handles like a regular bike, and how the gimongous battery fits into the down tube to keep the center of gravity as low as possible to improve the handling. They are all really stellar features that make the Turbo a very different line of thinking in the electric bike category.
It’s when the switch that determines how much assist you get is in the fourth and highest setting that the bike is at its most incandescent glory. For every watt you put into the pedals, the Turbo matches it, just like when your employer gives you a dollar-for-dollar match for contributing to NPR. The payoff for a watt-for-watt contribution, though, is way more fun. This is on the order of first-kiss exciting.
The Turbo will actually teach you a thing or two about riding, as well. Because it multiplies your wattage, if you pedal in squares, the bike will surge with each pedal stroke. I’ve never ridden anything that does more to reward a smooth spin. The handling is as balanced as a liberal arts degree. It’s nimble, but not too quick, and stable, but not lazy.
Now, I should make clear that this thing weighs more than both of my sons put together, more than most downhill bikes, more than a book by David Foster Wallace. It’s a good thing you won’t need to load this onto a roof rack; it’s unlikely most cyclists could lift it that high (I’m speaking for myself here). The good news is the wheels are military grade and roll up and down curbs with the nonchalance of a dump truck over flowers. Let me be blunt: This is a real bike, through-and-through.
The genius marketing move would be a $100 million TV ad campaign in which consumers were challenged not to giggle. Don’t giggle, get $100. Giggle and … you get to keep riding for another hour. I tell you, this thing is better than Six Flags.
At some point I may enjoy the opportunity (and I do mean enjoy) to do a full review on a Turbo. The challenge for the bike isn’t that you need to be convinced that the big, red S did its homework. It employs a proprietary battery developed by the same folks who do batteries for Apple’s mobile devices. Yeah, it’s like that. The bike employs myriad features to make sure it’s as easy to use as an iPhone. Actually, it’s easier.
The challenge with this bike is the suggested retail of $5900. If we compare this to purchasing a mountain bike from Specialized, the difference is that the mountain bike is a passion-driven discretionary purchase. We all-cap WANT a mountain bike. That purchase is aspirational—I’m gonna have so much fun on this! But the Turbo is much less likely to be seen through quite the same recreational lens. Sure, it will for plenty of people who aren’t currently cyclists, but I’d like to think that part of the Turbo’s charm and promise will be its ability to make believers out of existing cyclists. I harbor this suspicion that if thousands of dedicated riders were to add these to their quiver for commuting and errand duty (CED), that would be yet another win not just for this bike or electric bikes as a category, but for cycling as a whole.
Another suspicion: if the Turbo is unlikely to be a passion purchase the way a new bike usually is, something will need to make the purchase easier to swallow. After all, this will still be a discretionary—i.e., not a necessity—purchase for most people who consider buying one. There’s a chance that Ed Begley might ditch his electric car for one, but I can’t imagine too many people will turn to the Turbo as their sole means of transportation, at least in the good ole United States of Murka.
With that in mind, what I think Specialized ought to do is partner with GE Capital to come up with a financing program for the Turbo. There’s already a one-year-same-as-cash deal, but that means your monthly nut is the same as the payment for a very nice car. I’m thinking something that brings the monthly payment down below $200. At that point, I’d consider it.
It’s interesting to me that the Turbo is just a bike. It’s not a utility bike. There are (thus far) no accessories for it like racks or trailers for CED. Wouldn’t that increase the attraction for this bike? Wait, that gives me an idea.
Hey Mike, make if you’ll make a bakfiet Turbo and offer a financing plan, I’ll be first in line.
When I was at the Specialized Global Press launch recently, I attended a presentation on the Specialized electric bike called the Turbo. I also had a chance to ride one. The experience of riding the bike came into direct conflict with what have traditionally been my views on electric bikes. Case in point: there’s a guy I encounter from time to time on the bike path near my home. He’s in office casual dress, wears a ginormous motorcycle helmet and when he seems me, needs to race me. Even if I’m only going 14 mph. I can’t help but think he’s being a bit of a putz. Of course you’re faster than me, dude; you’re on an electric bike. And no, I’m not going to race you, even if I’m pedaling hard. The thing is, none of that thinking is helpful.
Allow me to digress: I feel like I know the struggle of the werewolf not to shift form in the presence of a full moon. The most interesting literature of werewolves holds that they are, among all the bad creatures of the horror world, the ones least at peace with their evilness. Victims of werewolves, they are slaves to the power of the moon and lack the ability to choose their victims the way vampires do. No one, not even a loved one, is safe in their presence. A great example is the John Landis film, “An American Werewolf in London.”
Somewhere along the line, I was bitten by the creature that imparts snobbery to its victims. This is the dark side of refined taste, the ability to appreciate excellence. Somewhere along the line, the appreciation for greatness becomes a hunger for it. It’s that space where, after seeing The Who live, your buddy’s garage band will not only no longer do, it downright hurts your ears.
I can be as much the elitist roadie snob as anyone you’ve met. I know I came by that as a result of being a student of the sport. I watched how the pros pedaled, how they sized their clothing, when they shifted, how the braked and all the rest. From tube socks to jerseys so large the pockets hung down over the saddle, I catalogued all the sins not to commit. As a result, I’ve got a keen eye for all the violations. This isn’t just a matter of style; I can give you several objective and even helpful reasons why you shouldn’t wear a windbreaker that is two sizes too big for you. The trouble is, it’s not enough not to say anything to the offending rider. I’m aware that each time I judge another cyclist as having fallen short of the rules, I’m being a prick. I don’t like that guy. Every day when I roll out, I have to remind myself that anyone on a bicycle is one of my people, even if they don’t identify with me. They can think me a MAMIL all they want; they don’t have to be friendly to me. I just need to be friendly to them.
I’ve had to work at that acceptance, and it really has been work for me, but I had a little recently when I was out for a mountain bike ride in Annadel State Forest with Greg Fisher of Bike Monkey. We encountered a woman new to mountain biking, at least as far as doing it off-road. She was gingerly picking her way through some rocks and apologized for holding us up, then in her own defense she said, “At least I’m not at home on the couch, right?”
We can forgive her for wanting a little reinforcement, can’t we?
In response I said, “You’re out here; you’re on a bike; you’re one of us.” At that, she smiled. I did, too. I had a couple of reasons to smile, the first being there was a time when I really couldn’t have welcomed her the way I did. She was in cotton, had tennis shoes on, needed to drop 50 pounds … I could go on. But where a cyclist might see a non-rider faking it, all the rest of the world sees another person on a bike. And this is an occasion when the rest of the world is right. We may see incandescent cycling clothing as what separates the devoted from the dilettantes, but it’s really just another reason for non-cyclists—real non-bike-riding people—to dislike us.
I bring this us vs. them mentality up because hostility to cycling is rising with the addition of bike sharing programs and more people choosing to commute by bicycle. The conservative punditry has made this crazy leap that the desire to make cycling easier for people—thanks to bike sharing programs, bike lanes, sharrows and minimum safe distance passing laws—is, in fact, a subversive grass-roots effort to take away cars. By making the world safer for bikes, we’re going to take away cars. I can’t begin to tell you how much I despise this variety of fear mongering.
It’s hard to parse a fear, chiefly because fears are largely rooted in irrational thought. Hard, but not impossible. My suspicion is that these folks, as characterized by The Wall Street Journal‘s Dorothy Rabinowitz and John Kobylt of the John and Ken Show, see us as early adopters. We are the non-smokers who are going to complain to government about all the cancer that cigarettes are causing and we are going to force our nonsmoking-ness on those poor, freedom-loving smokers and deprive them of the simple pleasure just having a few puffs of a butt. Think of all the deaths cars have caused. Surely cyclists—those evil, non-job-holding, non-tax-paying, light-running rebels to decent, civilized society—will use traffic deaths as Exhibit A as we make our case for why we should stop burning fossil fuels, save the planet, wreck the economy, destroy our way of life and then demand everyone grow a handlebar mustache, Rabinowitz included.
We really are the bane of society, aren’t we?
My point is that there is a real us vs. them split, and for my part, I’ve realized that it would be helpful for me to do what I can to welcome everyone I see on a bike as a cyclist. In calling inexperienced riders cyclists, we help them begin to self-select as one of us. I think that’s important because as cycling and cycling infrastructure becomes a bigger political football, we will be well-served to do all we can to convince every Huffy owner they are one of us, that their riding matters, not just to them, but to us as well.
Thanks to electric bikes and bike share programs, cycling is increasing in numbers. This is a good thing, full stop. Clueless new riders are going to weave in bike lanes, blow lights and generally frighten everyone nearby, whether they are other cyclists or drivers. In my mind, I’m telling myself this is just part of the learning curve and that in the long term this will be good for cycling in general. And I’m being careful not to use the term “sport.”
I no longer see people on electric bikes as the other, as having more in common with drivers and motorcycle riders than with bicycles. In my mind, we need them. The us of cyclists can never be too big; that tent can grow to accept everyone on two wheels and as a friend once said to me years ago when I asked him how many people I should invite to my party, “It can never be too big. The bigger the party, the better the time.”
While at Copper Mountain I spent the better part of two days riding mountain bikes. For me, the point to the exercise was to ride a bunch of bikes I was unlikely to actually review, while expanding my vocabulary of bikes. I’ll also confess that with singletrack latticed across the ski area, not doing some mountain biking while there seemed like it would have been a criminal missed opportunity.
I do try not to be felonious.
The thing that surprised me as I walked by to my room following my last ride was that I never ended up riding anything with 26-inch wheels. It was both an accident and not. I’d intended to ride something with 26-inch wheels just to have the experience of riding the smaller wheels again, but every time I went to select another bike, I went with yet another 29er. I know what happened. My sense of fun trumped my interest in being thorough. It’s also why I did multiple runs (I’ll explain that in a minute) on two bikes rather than switching after each run. The sense I had was that the first run was the handshake and the second run was the conversation. I can’t say I was always faster on the second run, but I felt like I had a better feel for the bike the second time down the descent.
I need to reiterate that the altitude kicked my back 40. The base elevation for Copper Mountain is 9700 feet. That’s not so bad, except for the fact that I had to sleep at that altitude, too. The ongoing oxygen deprivation was almost comical in its effects. Even the slightest uphill effort could leave me lightheaded and gasping. So while I used to think that lift-served mountain biking was strictly for the Marlboro set, I need to admit that sometime this spring the thought occurred to me that if you weren’t pedaling up to the top of the mountain after each run you could get at least three times as many runs in. Other things this attractive include Mexican Coca-Cola, the Ferrari Daytona and a babysitter … that changes diapers. Hey, I’m a parent.
Yet another admission: Two days into our stay, had someone come to me with fast-acting EPO, like three-hours quick, I’d have gone for it. I don’t fault the folks at Specialized for picking such a lovely spot so completely devoid of oxygen; I just felt frustrated that I was so compromised in performance. I felt such a sense of desperation at my inability to pedal it gave me yet another window into what may transpire for some riders when they consider doping.
The elevation at the top of the lift was, as shown above, a whopping 10,700 feet. Following one trip up I decided to try to check out a trail that started a bit above where the lift ended. I’ll be generous in my retelling and claim that I rode 200 meters. You weren’t there, so you won’t know that I’m grossly exaggerating. When I pulled over to catch my breath, I made it look like it was a planned stop to go pee on a tree, not that anyone was watching, of course. Still, one must keep up appearances. Dignity and all, you know?
I was able to take in four lift-served runs. The first two were aboard the S-Works Camber, a 24-lb. trail bike with 110mm of travel and 29-inch wheels. While I’m unwilling to name names, I am willing to reveal that a few years ago the top engineer for one bike company known for making very fine road bikes said to me that full-suspension 29ers was just a bad idea, that they’d never ride well and that for reasons of control, you really wouldn’t want a 29er to have more than 100mm of travel. Ever.
Um. Yeah. About that. Do you think I should tell him how much I liked the Camber? No, me either. As an example of a bike that doesn’t work, the Camber fails miserably. That is, it fails at failing, which is to say it was good fun. I’ll admit that when I demoed one in spring of last year it was a heavier bike that really didn’t offer much in the way of interest. The steering was mildly quicker than the Stumpjumper FSR 29, but it weighed more and wasn’t as stiff. So when I purchased my bike, I went with the Stumpy. However, this new S-Works version of the Camber has a much more aggressive feel to it while still feeling plenty plush for my riding style.
And what is my riding style? Well let’s say I have the downhill competence of a cross-country rider who’d like to be a freerider, just without all the airtime. I know, kinda lame, but if I’m in the air, it’s usually because it’s being handled by someone with a license and a logbook. The reality is that for a great many of us who have come to an agreement with our own mortality, one in which we promise not to bait it and in return we get a chance to have some fun, if not stupid, free-fall fun, a bike like the Camber is pretty cool. It’s not a cross-country race bike; it’s a mountain bike for people who enjoy cruising single track and aren’t afraid to pedal uphill some. For roadies who want a full-suspension 29er and aren’t planning to race cross country, this is a great example of what to look for.
After my runs on the Camber I took a break for lunch. It was there that at least two different Specialized staffers said I really needed to take a run on the Enduro. You’ll pardon me if at least initially I took their exhortations as a sort of ill-advised encouragement to a new driver—”Hey, you like cars? Forget that Ford Escort. Just wait until you try the Porsche 911!”
I was wary in that last-time-I-did-this-I-broke-my-arm sort of way. Not that I’ve broken my arm in more than 35 years, but still. When I expressed concern at what I’d do with more than six inches of travel, how it seemed unjust to use a Bugatti Veyron to drive to church (within the speed limit), I got assured nods that I would, indeed, know what to do with it. That nature would take its course. Seriously? I can’t tell a seven-inch-travel bike from an eight-inch-travel bike, at least not unless you tell me which is which. In as much as I have a wheelhouse, downhill bikes don’t enter my bridge; hell, they aren’t on my boat.
As it turned out, the only way to end the conversation, or at least steer it to something else as we ate lunch, was to promise that I would take at least one run on the thing. I pictured my mother astride a Ducati—any Ducati—as the rough approximation of me tearing down the singletrack on the Enduro.
To recap: The Enduro veers from the outer reaches of trail bikes into all-mountain—better known to some as freeride. It features 29-inch wheels, 165mm of travel, weighs less than a fair-size dog (25.9 lbs.) and I was told had chainstays short enough to avoid that bus-in-a-parking-lot feeling so common to the Stumpy 29er when trying to negotiate switchbacks; more objectively, they measure 41.9cm compared to the Stumpy’s 45cm stays. The Camber is right in the same territory, at 44.7cm.
At low speeds this thing doesn’t countersteer; all steering requires just that, steering. That takes a bit of getting used to. It felt a bit ungainly initially. However, once I dropped into the singletrack and got the thing up to speed (I have no idea just how fast that might have been but it was roughly between “look out!” and “oh yeah!”) it handled naturally, moving with me rather than in response to me. There were times when I could easily have cruised around some rocks and instead I just railed through them, just to see what the bike could do. What it did was roll through the stuff as if it was as unremarkable as pocket lint. Whatevs.
Sure enough, when I got to the first couple of switchbacks I noticed the Enduro carved through them in a way neither the Stumpy or Camber could. Shortly thereafter I lost time. What I recall is being aware that just after New Order’s “True Faith” started on my iPod, I began letting the bike run. I have a memory of me singing along to Peter Gabriel’s “I Have the Touch,” Thomas Dolby’s “One of Our Submarines” and Sinead O’Connor’s “Troy” but the rest of the run is a series of mental snapshots captured mostly when I needed to hit the brakes.
Terrain that had been difficult on the Camber was a good deal easier on the Enduro and stuff that was fun on the Camber became stupidly exhilarating. At one point I pulled over just to give my arms a break. After clipping out and pulling out one of my earbuds I noticed a sound. I was laughing.
It was on my second run that I gave a bit of thought to why the bike was working so well for me. Ever since I’d made the switch to suspension in the early ’90s (a whopping 80mm of travel back then), I had appreciated that while some riders saw suspension as a ticket to air time, the real benefit to suspension was improved control. The more your wheels are in contact with the trail, the more control you have over where the bike is going. The Enduro allowed me more than just control; it gave me a certain faith that everything would just work out in those dicier situations. I’d see braking bumps and ruts and think, “Problem!” to which the bike looked back with the face of Alfred E. Newman and said,
Still, I braked too much.
The Enduro is arguably the biggest surprise in a cycling experience I’ve encountered in more than 10 years. I really didn’t think the bike would work for me, and as it turns out, I was able to make enough use of it that I could appreciate the intention behind the bike. There is still room for me to develop as a rider with that bike, which is something I think is important in any mountain bike purchase. Allowing for your developing skills is an aspect of a mountain bike purchase that really doesn’t have an analog in road bikes.
Our final day of riding gave us the opportunity to do a group ride, either on- or off-road. I chose the dirty ride with the hope that I wouldn’t be DFL on the climb up to Searle Pass. As it turns out, I wasn’t, but that’s only because I didn’t ride the full eight miles there. At five miles I was so hypoxic I couldn’t have spelled the word that refers to the condition. For the ride, I’d chosen the S-Works Epic World Cup. This 100mm travel beauty with 29-inch wheels carved like a paring knife but really left most of the suspension duties to the rider. Elbows and knees are the ticket. At five miles I’d reached an elevation of roughly 11,200 feet and realized that even if I could ride higher I wouldn’t be conscious to enjoy it. It was after turning around that I really wished I had selected a bike with more travel. The kicker was the realization that the Enduro was just as nimble (at least, in my hands) in the switchbacks as the Epic. Oh, and a word to the wise: This whole one-chainring-thing really only works if you’re in proper condition. It’s funny to me how roadies can never have too high a gear while mountain bikers have figured out they really won’t pedal a hugemongous gear, so they don’t bring it along.