Friday, March 30, 2012

brain dump

In any given day, in reading various internet forums and working with customers on their bikes and working on and riding my own bikes, I have a lot of thoughts about bikes, and I frequently think: there's widespread misconception about this topic, and I should set the record straight with a blog post. Of course, sometimes I start writing and get bogged down in the long-winded nuance of the topic, and realize that for all the good info I may (or may not) be disseminating, anybody reading would be quickly put to sleep by the tedium of it all. So I click delete and go to bed, only to repeat the process a few days later. Maybe instead of detailed explanation, I should stick to a concise format, using Surly's famous "Some answers to just about any bike forum post I’ve ever read" or Rivendell's similarly well-read "tips for happy riding" as examples. Truth be told, being thrifty with words is not my strong suit, but here goes, in no particular order:

There are few universal truths in cycling. Every cyclist is unique or has unique priorities in some way or in many ways. What delights one person will be a source of disappointment for others, and vice versa. Anybody who's an absolutist about anything related to cycling needs more experience working in a neighborhood bike shop. Everything I write below is a matter of my opinion based on my own experience and observation. Others disagree, probably, based on experience or priorities that are different than mine.

No bike, no matter how well made, how well reviewed, or how expensive, is going to be perfect or even tolerable for you on any given day. If you own a number of bikes over the years, each one will teach you something. Your next bike might be better in some ways, and worse in other ways, than your current bike. That's why many cyclists own more than one, or even more than five or ten bicycles.

Don't think that boutique level components are significantly better performing than more mundane components. XTR (or Dura-Ace) might cost 5-10x as much as Deore (or Tiagra), but most of that extra cost represents a shiny finish, a few grams of weight, cachet with your buddies, and avoiding the regret of not having purchased "the best". With either top-shelf or entry-level parts, having things clean, lubed, and properly adjusted is far more important to smooth performance than whether or not the part is high-end. Don't buy a used up Dura-Ace derailleur on eBay to replace your mid-level 105 derailleur that still has plenty of life in it.

The really boutique level stuff, made by small production domestic manufacturers who have an impressive attention to detail, is often the best you can buy, and it'll certainly cost you a lot of dough. But even the "best" parts break or have defects sometimes. If your $400 hub shits the bed, it might be at least a month or a year of shipping back and forth and waiting for new parts before the manufacturer can impress you with its famous lifetime warranty. If, on the other hand, you kill a $40 Tiagra hub, which is unlikely, you can walk into any bike shop and be back on the road in a few days for a fraction of what the "best" hub would've set you back.

There are a lot of persistent notions dating to the 1970s "bike boom" (or earlier), that are probably out of date now.

The ongoing reverence for Campagnolo is an example of the previous point. Every time we have to work on a Campy-equipped bike turns into a nightmare of hit-or-miss compatibility issues and/or horrendous design decisions. Nonetheless, that brand seems to maintain an exclusive status because it has a storied history of being standard equipment on all the fanciest bikes 40 years ago.

Not every new cycling innovation improves the cycling experience in a meaningful way, and many justifiably flash in the pan, but some new stuff is genuinely better than what existed before. On balance, good quality bikes made in 2012 work a lot better than similar good quality bikes made in 1975. Plus, we have a helluva lot more variety now.

Pigeonholing various bikes into easily definable categories is about as sensible as pigeonholing various people into easily definable categories. There are so many different varieties of bicycles, and bicyclists, that it makes no sense to parse things so finely, unless you're in the marketing business and trying to define your product to your least knowledgeable consumer. A Surly Long Haul Trucker is a "touring bike", right? Or is it a "commuting bike"? Or a "trail bike"? Or a "Burley-pulling bike"? Our customers use their LHTs for all of the above, and more. If you ride it on roads, I'd say it's a "road bike", but that term has been co-opted by a very limited, but popular niche in the bike universe, and it only confuses people to apply that vague term to other bikes that get ridden on roads. I have a Cross-check, but I don't race 'cross, so calling it a "cross bike" is misleading. I ride it, and all my bikes, in a wide variety of places in a wide variety of situations. What my bikes do has more to do with me than with what category the bike fits into.

Bike fitting is mostly a matter of big adjustments based on factors that are obvious to anyone who has enough experience with bikes. A whole sub-industry of highly technological bike fitting procedures has sprung up on the understandable fear of having a horrible-fitting bike, to which all cyclists can relate. But 95% of fitting can be done by eyeball and addressing specific complaints of the cyclist in question, starting with getting a bike that's approximately the right size. That last 5%, which is done with video cameras and lasers and vector diagrams and computers and other widgetry, is more about squeezing out that last drop of efficiency than it is about alleviating physical discomfort.

The internet is an echo chamber, and there are a lot of people on there making claims with little first-hand experience or with odd agendas. I can't count the number of parts or bikes I've tried that are somewhere between mediocre and absolute garbage, but get rave reviews on the internet forums. It works like this, one person says "Part X is awesome," somewhere on the internet. On this recommendation, 10,000 people buy Part X and have poor to suboptimal results, but since the first guy, and now a growing number of others, said it was awesome, they assume the lackluster results must be a personal failure (or they lack experience to know good from bad), and, rather than admit to being too stupid (they think) to make the damned thing work right, they concur with this new favorable majority opinion, questionable as it may be. Sometimes, especially in the world of "retro" bikes, people get romantic about the way a certain component looks, but that's irrational among technical types, so they delude themselves (and others) into thinking high-performance is the motivation for the glowing recommendation. Bottom line: if you look to the internet for information, try to figure out who is blowing sunshine and who you can trust for the unvarnished truth. And even then you'll have to try stuff yourself, and make mistakes, and learn.

If you spend a lot of money on a bike, you might worry about it more than you would a less grandiose machine. If it's expensive or irreplaceable, you might baby the thing too much. You might only ride it on sunny days, and on smooth roads, and you might be a nervous wreck if you ever have to lock it anywhere. If this is true, then such an excellent bike limits you from the full enjoyment of cycling. Better to have a less precious bike that isn't so limiting. Bikes get dirty and dinged up, and once in awhile they get vandalized or stolen. These are unfortunate facts of bicycling life - you'll enjoy cycling more, I think, if you ride bikes that are nice, but won't make you cry if they get a scratch.

There's a popular notion that bikes are precision machines. Most bikes and components, especially the stuff people rode before the Japanese started sending us their bikes and parts in high volume in the 1980s, are pretty crude if you look close enough.

Your old Peugeot was probably brazed on a Friday afternoon by a guy who'd had three or four glasses of cognac with lunch, and absent-mindedly waved his torch over the lugs on the 18th frame of the day while he contemplated the upcoming weekend with his mademoiselle and more cognac. On every 20th or 50th or 100th frame, he forgot to braze an entire lug or he overheated the BB shell until it was brittle. Sure, it was "handmade", as swanky as that sounds, but on a mass-production basis, not by some old-world craftsman who put his name, and reputation, on every frame. Corners were cut and humans made mistakes. Quality control was variable or non-existent. Your new frame was welded by a robot that didn't care what time of day it was, or get sidetracked or intoxicated. If mistakes get made by the robot, it's on a batch basis, and obvious, and generally corrected before anybody outside the factory knows about it. Sure, the human element has some romance to it, but the robot is more predictable.

No bike is maintenance-free. If you don't enjoy doing bike maintenance, bring it to a good bike shop. It's probably cheaper than you fear, and you'll be thrilled with the results. Maintenance is unavoidable, even if you have an internal gear hub with enclosed belt-drive.

Bikes that are decked out with super fancy parts are not always great bikes. There's a bit of art to it, and spending a fortune only works if it's done well. A super expensive bike with glitzy parts will always get a ton of hits from the bobbleheads on flickr and people reflexively clicking the "like" button on facebook, but a more modest bike that is thoughtfully put together usually fails to generate excitement from anybody except the person who gets to ride it. I like the idea of a really nice bike in disguise.

Sometimes you have a magic ride on a bicycle. Some people are addicted to this, and want to recreate the feeling on every ride. "Chasing the dragon", as drug addicts sometimes call the pursuit of that feeling of the first high, is not going to be fruitful, except once in awhile, when it's least expected, and for no apparent reason that can be duplicated. You can't buy this experience, unfortunately. Sure, it's fun to put new tires or whatever on your bike, but soon, the effect fades and you have no choice but to escalate and buy more new shit for your bike. I see people who have geeked out every aspect of their bikes, down to the cable crimps, in pursuit of that one thing that will make the bike perfect. I hope they're having fun working on the bike, because the magic ride is elusive and has nothing to do with cable crimps.


jim w said...

'Cable Crimps' sounds kind of like some sort of bike gang name. So does 'Brake Hoods' now that I think of it.

Joe said...

Great post!!! You nailed it!!

KM said...

Very well written. You have managed to capture much of the truth about cycling without coming across as another "cycling lifestyle" guru.

The industry already has enough of them, regurgitating the same old ideas with a slightly different spin, all in the name of marketing products. Companies like Rivendell are genius in their ability to create a different flavor of Kool Aid but in the end, its still just Kool Aid.

hansgast said...

Your comment about having a bike that doesn't make you "afraid to lock it outside" is perfect. Even my best bike is "only" a thousand dollar bike, but I enjoy my $5 bike just as much - when it's lubed.

Fonk said...

"Companies like Rivendell are genius in their ability to create a different flavor of Kool Aid but in the end, its still just Kool Aid."

Well said, KM.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jim.

pdlamb said...

Your point about "chasing the dragon" reminded me I need to sign up for a ride up the dragon in a few months. This dragon is a twisting, winding, scenic, mountain road.

Seems like the way to get that "Wow!" experience is to get out and ride the bike. It's nice to look at a nice shiny bike for 5 seconds (or 5 minutes), but the part I want to talk about is where I went, what I saw, how the ride was. Even if I bought the most expensive bike available, someone else would have a shinier, newer trinket in a few months. While a few can appreciate and share it, nobody can take away the feeling of coming over a pass and seeing the mountains spread in front of you.

Jim M. said...

Good thing you were taking the "economy of words" approach, or this entry might have gone long. Just kidding, of course -- excellent use of the term "suboptimal".

Jim Thill said...

pdlamb: you're right! The point of these contraptions we call bicycles is to get out and ride: for transportation, for exercise, for sight-seeing, for a challenge, to blow off steam, or all of the above. One thing I've noticed is that whenever there's an opportunity to go out and have a quality cycling experience, a lot of cyclists I know have various real or imagined conflicts or other hang-ups that prevent them from doing it. Probably people are just too over-scheduled and too hung up on expectations of perfection.

Tim said...

A common misconception: Robots weld frames.

Truth is, there are very few, if any robots welding bicycle frames, even in Asia. Most places that makes bikes down to even the $400 complete level are actually welded by hand. Its usually 10-15 different hands on a mass production line, with some of those hands doing quality control, but still hands none-the-less.

While I fully agree with your overall sentiment on mass production and/or small artisan craft - the truth is that robots don't weld bike frames, even at really big places like Giant.

Gunnar Berg said...

Ja, you betcha, especially the part about about drinking the Kool-Aid.

Jeff said...

I'm "this close" to not reading about bikes any more and instead only riding them :) Unless its Sheldon brown's site, or someones blog about an experience they had on the bike and not the bike it self.

I subscribe to a popular biking magazine that does not focus on racers, but often reviews all kinds of swanky steel steeds. Then it dawned on me... they're all the same. 2 triangles, some steel, some parts and different angles here and there. Meh so what.

Ride whatcha brung.

Jim Thill said...

Tim: Point taken about the robots. I guess "robot" wasn't 100% literal anyway, more in reference to modern mass production and QA/QC processes.

dean899 said...

i read this whole thing...went into deep thought...drank kool aid and then forgot to ride my bike.

Jim Thill said...

I never actually mentioned kool-aid.

jim w said...

For many interests there are several ways to exact enjoyment. Take music. Some people like to enjoy the sound of the music Those people will spend a lot of money fine tuning an audio system, spending lots more on the equipment than on the music, and listen only to recordings that highlight the realistic lifelike quality of there system.
Some people like the music, and will listen to as much of it as possible, regardless what the sound quality is.
Both are past times that can produce real joy and satisfaction. Both involve music as the means to that enjoyment. And yet they seem almost like two different languages.
I think bike ownership can be the similar. For some knowing that they own the best stuff possible is what makes them happy. The ride is important because it lets them enjoy the equipment.
And for others,the equipment is just a tool to let them enjoy the ride. Both work. It's why they make chocolate and vanilla ice cream.

Jim Thill said...

I don't know much (anything) about audio equipment, but in the world of bikes and components, most brands have a hierarchy of quality (price). The urge to upgrade is there, and the underlying fear is that the less expensive stuff will be a major disappointment either through poor performance or a lack of durability (which will certainly strand the rider in a dangerous place). Being a connoisseur is one thing, and letting yourself be fear-driven by the obvious up-sell is another. In my experience, the ride experience on a well-considered $1200 bike is not necessarily less than that of a blinged-out $5000 bike.

doug peterson said...

Well put, Jim. For whatever reason, we seem to relish in specialization, getting the last bit of performance, having the absolutely-best-there-is parts, etc. Even the bike world is not exempt from rampant consumerism.

On tours, some of the happiest people I run into are wandering about on old MTBs and ancient 10 speeds, equipped with cheap racks and gear strapped on with bungie cords. They're enjoying the trip and the bike is simply the way to get there. Would a dedicated touring bike work better? Probably. Would it change the trip in any meaningful way? Doubtful.


Anonymous said...

Jim -

More so then any other sport, cycling requires the best possible equipment for the need. A simple and careful analysis of all variables - cost, weight, durability, cool factor, etc. is part of the bicycle spec process. This process includes exhaustive research of all available resources - local pro's, internet forums, bicycle publications, technical manuals and other experience based data points. A thorough understanding of all these inputs is the beginning of the distillation exercise. I find that a spreadsheet is an excellent way to analyze these variables. The line items come to life when they are thoughtfully organized in columns assigned to each attribute. I have found that the performance per dollar ratio is the most important of all considerations - to wit: Am I squeezing every gram of performance that each of my dollars is purchasing. I agree - this can sometimes be an agonizing process, but I believe you will delightful and satisfying outcome if you put in the hard work and do your homework. As far as brands go, Campagnolo will ALWAYS be king - their storied history is recognized the world over by the cognescenti and those in the know. Shimano will remain a solid player - their electronic shifting system is certainly the next big thing. Upstart SRAM will need to show that they have long term staying power before they get my stamp of approval - I will be curious if they have the engineering might to develop electronic shifting. Lastly, boutique brands are almost always the best choice - they are absolutely cool. Whether you'ré talking old skool Grafton or Cook Brothers Racing or the more contemporary brands - Paul's, White Brother's or Phil Wood, I highly recommend sparing no expense to earn your riding buddies respect and admiration. At the end of the day, there is a direct correlation to the amount of research based analysis as it relates to the success of the bike's eventual spec.
Do not spare any time or expense and you will be richly rewarded with a pleasant new bike experience - one that will have fond, lasting memories until your next bicycle purchase. One final frame material note: Carbon trumps Titanium trumps Steel trumps Aluminum.

Cheers! David

FTMN said...

David - That's really funny! Very well written... you almost had me convinced. Too bad you didn't post sooner; you only missed April 1st by a few days!!

Unfortunately, I think there are a lot of people out there that have been so heavily influenced by the industry's marketing ploys they've actually created that sort of sad reality for themselves.

I mean seriously, spreadsheets! Hilarious!

FTMN said...

P.S. - Great post Jim.

Kokorozashi said...

Well said. I'm not great at the 'economy of words' approach, either (that or else my verbal economy is subject to terrible inflation), but I think you summed up some really important stuff pretty succinctly.

I have what is, in my opinion, a really nice road bike. Some purists would disagree -- it's 'just' an '06 Fuji Roubaix frame with 105 components and pretty nice Mavic clinchers; nothing most serious racers would write home about -- but it feels great and does everything I need it to do.

I ride it on the road, on the cobbles, in the grass, once in a while on dirt trails. I've ridden bikes with more cachet, lighter bikes, and bikes with much higher pricetags, and while some have offered a performance boost in one area or another, none of them have felt as good as my Fuji, so it's the best bike in the world for me.

I also have a cheap 'cross bike that I love (well, technically it's supposed to be my fiance's bike ;)). That bike goes literally everywhere (singeltrack, gravel roads, stream crossings, mud) and does the few things the Fuji can't (carrying groceries, mostly).

What I try to remember whenever anyone asks me what kind of bike they should buy is exactly what you're saying here -- that the perfect bike for me might not be the perfect bike for anyone else, and the most important factor is what's going to make someone ride and keep them riding. That where bikes are concerned names mean little and feel means everything. That the difference in performance between crap components and decent components and huge, but the difference between decent components and the high-grade stuff isn't necessarily worth the cost for many, maybe most of us.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It's good to hear a voice of reason out there in the wilderness.

Shaun said...

Excellent post Jim! I can certainly relate to many of the points you've made. Especially where you wrote about a bike being too "precious". Well done!