Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Tour de France Brings Bike Marketing Season

We're wrapping up that time of year again, the time when the ecosystem that surrounds cycling can take advantage of the world's greatest bike race to pimp their wares. For people that are new to cycling, it can be an exciting time filled with amazing demonstrations of new products and new technologies. But for those of us who've logged a few miles in the saddle, it can be kind of funny watching the marketing circus that celebrates Tour time.

Here in Silicon Valley, we're always looking for the latest technology, for that new new thing that disrupts everything that has been done traditionally. With cycling, selling technology improvements, or the snake oil of technology improvements, is a time-honored practice. And the tour often fuels a hungry market of consumers, anxious to find that edge that will make them feel faster on the bike paths and beyond -- if they make it that far.

When you've logged a lot of miles on the bike, it's easy to get annoyed by the technology fashionista world of recreational sports. To quote from the Fred page on Wikipedia:
More recently, particularly in the US, a Fred is more often somebody with higher quality and more expensive cycling equipment than his or her talent and commitment would warrant. For example, a stereotypical Fred by this definition would be an individual with little cycling experience who watches the highlights of a few Tour de France stages, then goes to a bike store and purchases a Trek carbon fiber Madone in Team Discovery colors, along with Team Discovery shorts and jersey. Thus outfitted with equipment virtually identical to that which Lance Armstrong used, far more expensive than that used by many high-standard racing cyclists, and more costly than many automobiles, the "Fred" then uses his bicycle merely to ride on a cycling path at 15 mph (24 km/h), something which even the most casual untrained cyclist can manage on an inexpensive hybrid bicycle. Some use "Fred" in a somewhat similar matter, but more synonymous with a roadie poseur. However, a Fred isn't necessarily someone who intentionally tries to put forth an image of being better or more knowledgeable than they are. Rather, a Fred is an inexperienced or unskilled cyclist who gets some top high-end or copy-cat racing gear for any reason. Unlike most poseurs, a Fred may still ride lacking some fundamental piece of competitive roadie equipment or style.
Why did the "Fred" buy that stuff? He has been sold on it through the power of the Tour marketing engine and the cycling industry's symbiotic ecosystem.

On Cycling and Innovation
What most Freds forget -- and what most cycling industry marketing tried to hide -- is that the bicycle has been around in it's modern form for about a hundred years. If you wanted to get picky and just talk about the racing bikes being used, look at races from fifty years ago. While you can pinpoint a lot of small differences in materials and configurations, recognize that basic frame geometry, brakes, and drive train are essentially the same basic design as what was being used this year.

Sure, the gearshifts are on the brake levers, the gears index, there are 22 gear options instead of 10, and the frames are made of carbon fiber instead of steel, but the basic design is essentially the same.

Now don't get me wrong, there have been some significant improvements in the past fifty years, things that make it much easier for the average rider to log lots of miles, go faster, or simply enjoy aspects of their ride, but these transformations are not a yearly Moore's Law kinds of innovation. Here are a few of the innovations that I would call noteworthy over the past fifty years:
  • Spandex and advanced textiles - wool is great for some things, but nobody really wants to ride in wool cycling shorts.
  • Index shifting and brake-lever shifters - there are a lot of awesome aspects to the old friction-based shifters (much less wear and tear, interchangable components, silent shifting), but who can deny the benefits of being able to change gears without having to let go of the handlebars. 
  • Material advances using aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber, ceramic - modern bicycles benefit from 30 years of advances in material science enabling optimization across a range of requirements. Sadly though, these days that often translates into a rather generic set of carbon fiber pieces and a regression to the mean in frame design.
Many 'innovations' aren't really designed with the consumer or rider in mind. Instead, they represent new approaches to manufacturing that let the bike manufacturers build things more cheaply and more generically. Here are a couple of examples:
  • Threadless headsets - sold as having a number of advantages, the biggest advantage was that a manufacturer could build fewer forks. Instead of fitting each fork to each bike, one fork could be used on many bikes.
  • Compact frames - sold as stiffer, lighter frames, this design moved a lot of sizing and frame fit to the seat post.
Perhaps the best example comes from classic frame builder Dave Moulton. Check out this post, Selling The Benefit, from his blog. It's a great example with 1960's Cinelli frames.

Finding Peace with Innovation Marketing
If your thinking about cycling and getting excited, it's also natural to get excited about some of the amazing hardware that you can take advantage of. I remember watching the battles between Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond and wishing that I could afford one of those first generation Vitus carbon frames. Hell, a couple of years ago I had dreams about adding a 28-tooth gear, imaging myself effortlessly pedaling up Old La Honda. Eventually though, you'll find that the miles you ride and your wallet will let you in on that deeper truth -- it's your legs, your heart, and your lungs that will carry you down that road, not that carbon-titanium-synthetic-oval-power-meter.

If you're getting ready to purchase a bike this year, then you're probably going to need to do some research to find what's available and what's right for you. The excitement that you feel when you look down at your machine, that sense of confidence you feel as you turn the pedals, will give you a boost up a few hills. But remember, this isn't like your iPhone or your iPad. They aren't rolling out new apps everyday, and you don't need to keep looking for the new new thing. The odds are that that new new thing is just an illusion, a marketing wrapper around something you don't really need or want.

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