The Death of "Trickle Down"

Apr 19 2013


(not verbatim, contains typos, and sometimes I go off-book)

SRAM, SRAM, SRAM, sram…I don’t really dislike you guys—it’s just bad timing. No, I’m not complaining about the ham-handed marketing of having a launch event and then embargoing it for three days in this interconnected, live-tweeted milieu, or that you’re offering hydraulic road brakes—despite being not strictly necessary, and entirely incompatible with everything else on the market, from a mechanical standpoint, they could conceivably address the few pertinent issues present in cable-actuated brakes.

No, my complaint is that you didn’t do anything to your cheap parts gruppos—instead, we consumers get to wait for things to “trickle down”. And that’s stupid. Apex could be a pretty sweet set of parts, if it didn’t sound and feel like you were doing grievous damages to the internals of the shifter every time you pushed the chain onto a bigger cog. This isn’t the time to discuss whether actual damage is being done, or whether this is a problem with ALL your shifters, but suffice it to say, durability is not something I’m expecting to “trickle down” anytime soon.

Do you remember your old “I chose SRAM” commercials—God, I really don’t mean to rip on you guys I’m really sorry about this. I’ll make it up to you before the end—those ads kinda exemplify the problem I’m getting at. You’ve got professional riders who ride essentially on what they get paid to ride, saying they voluntarily chose something. Like, c’mon—in most cases, they chose to sign a contract with a team. They didn’t choose the manufacturers. And if they did chose the manufactures, they probably chose them based on price.

And you know, that’s fine—even if the team manager or some other whatever in some back room really did the choosing, I don’t feel lied to. Product representation is a big part of being a pro. But I don’t really care what the pros ride. I don’t want pro gear because pro gear comes out of a big pile of replacement pro gear in the back of a pro truck, and is, in some cases, literally thrown away the first sign of pro trouble—or, very occasionally, sold for drugs. And possibly legal fees.

You want me to buy me something? Find me the 20-year-old Cat 2, couch-surfing his way around to big regional and second-class national events in hopes of getting some sort of attention, and show it to me on his bike. Because I guarantee you, it’s gonna be durable, it’s gonna be good, it’s gonna be tough, it’s gonna be easy to fix on your own, and most of all, it’s gonna offer a pretty serious bang for the buck. These are my criteria—while it’s cool, the number of classics a particular part has won plays no role in my selection process.

And that “fix-on-your-own-thing”? That’s important. Really important. I’m a busy little dude. I work a pretty full day, gotta record podcasts, ride when I can, get groceries, and I don’t have the time to for my bike to be in shop when I need it—let alone invest my time in getting it there, or more money than necessary into fixing it. My bike’s gotta be ready to go 24/7, and I need to be able to make it ready. And SRAM, this is where you guys are my heros because your shifters still work by yanking on cables.

Shimano and Campangolo’s recent forray into the world of electronic shifting—ugh, I’m gonna skip over the dropped chains, dead batteries, exorbitant prices—and stick to actual use. When Ryan T. Kelly—of Slam That Stem fame and pretty much the meme-spewing personal incarnation of the internet—is somehow dependant on physically going to a dealer to have some 15 year old shop rat install firmware for him, something ain’t right. To a pro, a slightly bent hanger is the same fix either way—give it to the mechanic. To me, mechanical shifting just is just a barrel tweak and ginger shifting ‘til I can solve the problem properly. On electronic? It’s no bike until I can get it to the shop.

Frankly, I think “trickle down” is kinda off-putting to young-ish bike racers who are extremely active in the sport, but who might not be able to justify spending five or ten or even two grand on a bike. Like, let’s take recent Cervelo RCA launch (gah, another company I don’t want to rip on).

If you look at the photos from this event—the bike is propped up on some sort of platform stand—which, in fifteen years of hanging out with cyclists who actually ride—I’ve never seen. It’s posed against the backdrop of a pool, in what appears to be a walled-in, vine-hemmed backyard. I mean, you couldn’t ask for a more stereotypically affluent-yet-out-of-touch backdrop for a “BRO, DO YOU EVEN RIDE?” image macro. And this, this carbon fiber codpiece is where your development efforts are being focused? Trust me when I say that among my generation, this is doing no favors for your brand.

Yeah I get it—it’s supposed to be a halo bike. In the words of Giant’s Andrew Juskaitis, “these are the products we aspire to." Ah, what quaint mid-century notion. Like if you went to work at the factory early every day, and caught the foreman’s eye with your pluck and moxie you could, upgrade from that Chevy into a Buick, and maybe, if you keep chasing that brass ring, bag yourself a Cadillac! Why, that’s Americana, folks! That’s keeping-up-with-the-Joneses! That’s aspirational culture!

And, in case you’d been in a coma for the past six years, that aspirational ideal put lots of people who were really bad at math in debt up to their eyeballs on credit cards they shouldn’t have had and in houses they couldn’t afford. This caused lots of people who were really good at math to lose a lot of everyone’s money, resulting in record unemployment and an economic downturn the likes of which no one listening to this podcast
had ever seen. Not that any of this interfered with our efforts to kill ourselves with subsidized corn and destroy the planet with C02 emissions—Thanks Aspirational Culture!

This should help those of you who went through your prime earning years when one could throw a dirty sock full of $20s at Wall St and come back 30 years later to pick up a nest egg better understanding of why people my age tend to be kinda down on the whole “buying things” idea. I have no plans to “graduate” or “upgrade” as the kids used to say, to Dura-Ace. The first complete bike I bought new was $1300. I rode it basically until it broke. The next new, complete bike I bought was $1300.  And I’m going to ride it until it breaks and buy—wait for it—another $1300 bike.  

This $1300 price tag basically the cost of entry into racing. Go below that and you’re really not going to find a bike that can hold up to the day-in day-out abuse of not just serious training, but balancing that training with a real job. Some rainy days, the chain’s not gonna get wiped. Sometimes you’re gonna ride on a flat. Sometimes you can’t just up and replace a worn chain. And yet even then, that $1300 is still gonna come with some garbage wheelset you can get online for 100 bucks, and eventually, you’ll have to drop another grand to get “real” race wheels.

And this is really where development efforts should be focused: dropping that real-race bike to under $1000, or at least getting a no-bullshit spec together. Cannondale—man, I will leave no ally unslappped today—Cannondale has a $2000 “race” bike that ships with Tiagra and two-kilo hoop-sponges. Unless there’s a concealed motor or Peter Sagan in there somewhere, that’s a pretty idiotic proposition.

Ideally, a good cycing product doesn’t need to be titsed and glitzed every year. Or every three years. While Chris King and Phil Wood have offered some new products, their bread and butter has remained largely unchanged since I came across them in Jenson catalogue. At the other end of the price spectrum, Surly, with no major innovations to the frame, has been selling out the cross-check for over a decade.

If Cannondale churned out a model with, I dunno, a CAAD4 frame,  and sold it with house parts, a 105 gruppo and a 1600g pair of off-brand alloy wheels for $1200, I would be totally into that. In fact, I think Tati Cycles may already be doing something in that vein—making a “Zef” $1300 bike with 1200g carbon tubies, or whatever—though it’s hard to tell, since pinning down his/her/its one true online presence is kind of like trying to properly visualize a tesseract.

So yeah—trickle down. It might have worked for a while. It might even still work in the short term now, but you’re selling to dudes who are gonna be dead, or at least not buying bikes, in 20 years. By making midrange investments now—focusing as much on self-servicability and resilience to abuse as performance and weight—you can lower the barriers to entry while creating a customer base who can afford to buy parts for the next half-century.

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