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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18 Responses to “The Death of "Trickle Down"”

  1. Steven 19 April 2013 at 1:35 pm #

    I agree. My first (and current) road bike cost $1400 and I plan to ride it until it dies, likely pretty soon, as it’s been 3 years and I do “college kid maintenance” (read: very little). And when I graduate and start working, I’m not going to upgrade to latest S-Works Venge with SRAM Red and 404’s, because that’s just not feasible for me (nor most young people). I’m probably just going to replace it with another tank.

    I get that bike companies are trying to make as much money by making things the “most” aerodynamic, light, blah blah to maximize profits from middle-aged men/women with disposable income, but like you said, to really build lifelong customers, they’ve got to market to younger people who don’t have $4,000 to spend on carbon fiber (yet). I feel like each bike/component company (if they really are looking long-term) should have a specific product for these kind of people with the marketing label: “this our cheap product that is sufficient to handle training and racing and abuse.”

    But that’s just not as cool as the cutting edge.

  2. Karl 19 April 2013 at 2:27 pm #

    Wow, talk about being out of touch with the industry.

    No one is interested in selling bikes to you. They want the Porsche driving guy who drops by a bike shop and buys a Venge on a whim. If you’re unhappy with the situation, your gripe is with society and capitalism in general, not SRAM.

    And who can’t bend a derailleur hanger? Are you telling me you’ve been racing bikes for a decade and you don’t own a straightener or have spare hangers for all your bikes? That’s like a $50 investment that pays itself off in a year.

  3. Todd 19 April 2013 at 2:56 pm #

    Well, you can buy a Caad8 with 105 for $1450 (full retail):

    So, that’s pretty close to your $1200….and likely has a bit newer geometry than a Caad4.

  4. cosmo 19 April 2013 at 4:58 pm #

    @Karl: you could say that. Or you could say that the industry is out of touch with the rest of the world.

    I don’t, as you claim, have a problem with capitalism—in fact, I think it works pretty well, except when a group of people decides they know demand better than the marketplace. Like when everyone was pitching super-light XC MTB gear in the late 90s, while at the grassroots level, people were tossing high-end racers in favor of durable, practical SS and free-ride rigs.

    The explosion of cost-focused aftermarket wheel brands seems pretty familiar in this regard—and might be a sign that the industry is doing it wrong in terms of OEM spec. You could argue that the industry builds bikes for the garage—I wouldn’t dispute it, given the cost disparity between an LBS and say, BikesDirect—but is that really a good thing?

    There are fewer and fewer guys who drive Porsches wandering into shops to impluse buy a Venge, and frankly, a lot of them are getting too old to ride serious race bikes—not that they don’t try. I mean, you can keep marketing to that elite level, but I don’t think it’s a great idea.

    Take Apple. Did they come back from the brink by making trinkets for the ultra-rich? Or did they do it by producing a more-or-less uniform, quality product at a price lots of people could afford? The fact that Richard Branson and I have the same phone should speak volumes.

    And for the record, I do have a derailleur straighter. I don’t have the time on, let’s say, after-work Tuesday, to run home take off the rear mech, thread in the straightener, and take the time to carefully and accurately put everything back together, and then fit in a ride. That’s a weekend task.

    A mechanical bike lets me triage until I can deal with it. An electronic bike does not.

    @Todd: But the wheels! I’m going on record as saying wheels contribute more to performance than the frame. 100% of the time.

    I actually think Maddux wheels are pretty rad for daily bangers—at least, when they’re purchased aftermarket for $110 like mine were. Specing a bike where the wheel cost is <1/10th of the retail price? Where's the rest of the money going?

    That's what makes Tati's concept so cool—it's race-ready out of the box. And the baller wheels probably move it faster out of the store.

  5. Resty 19 April 2013 at 5:02 pm #

    My present road bike roughly costs 500 US dollars and I’m having fun with it. RMZ aluminum road frame was bought for around 69 US dollars.

  6. My bike was free 19 April 2013 at 9:12 pm #

    My current road bike was free … well almost. I had to pay the taxes on it after it was won in a competition. Which was still a good bit of money, but still in the “3 figures range.” When I ride it into the ground, I’ll replace it with a $1300 bike. My “free” bike is a great bike, best I’ve ever ridden, but it’s not worth the price tag. Especially when it won’t last nearly as long as a $1300 bike even though it retails for more than 6x as much. I did have the choice and I opted for a mechanical gruppo instead of electronic (I wanted to be able to fix things that went wrong by yanking on cables).

    That reminds me, I need to go yank some cable to get my FD figured out. I can’t have it refusing to use the big ring on tomorrow’s ride.

  7. Skippy 20 April 2013 at 3:36 am #

    BIKES ; Bikes , bikes !

    They come in ALL sizes & shapes , but the Manufacturers are ONLY interested in ONE THING !

    How to maximise their PROFIT !

    The LBS is left to do the HARD WORK ! We the cycling Public come in ALL Shapes , Sizes and desires ?

    My LBS in Kramsach , Austria ,HARRY , is an English Speaker and he has gone out of his way to help me so many times over the past 3 seasons , that i have lived in his neighbourhood .

    Lent tools , changed parts , always a kind word , always interested in my activities . Doubt that there are ONE of his Suppliers that could care about what i do AS there is no dollar/money value to THEM !

    With no income currently , i am no longer able to support the Bikes i had on Loan to ” Para Athletes ” ! Even though ALL these bikes are good enough to race the Routes of the Grand Tours , i doubt that i could buy the like of them for $1300 , although if sold , i would be assured by purchasers that they were being genorous in offering half ?

    Lots of tools , some bought , most given , well aware how to use ALL , but most repair activities , even simple , are done when there is lots of time . Sh#t happens when in a rush and like Cosmo , i prefer to do a proper job rather than botch the effort .

    During the Giro del Trentino , took the front wheel out , when washing the bike . Van rolled over it , lots of effort has resulted in it being back to the point where only extreme braking on downhill descent causes minor brake grabbing . Not a good feeling as you hurtle past a vehicle that slowed to take the corner on a descent from the Mountain top finish .

  8. Rosey 20 April 2013 at 8:47 am #

    SRAM is doing it right by getting their horrible parts spec’d oem on the vast majority of bikes these days, from entry level to high end, they’re oem package must be great because it is harder and harder to find a shimano equipped bike shop rig.

    Once they hook customers this way, it’s harder and harder to break away. Think about it. Oh, you broke a derailleur, might as well stick with SRAM because its cheaper than replacing the whole parts kit. Buying a new bike? Might as well stick to a brand that’ll be compatible with the spare parts in your bin, or that are a dime a dozen in the used market. And, you may have learned how to fix and tune it, so again, you stick with SRAM.

    It sucks, because sram’s products suck, but their strategy has been very good, from a business standpoint.

  9. DL Byron 20 April 2013 at 9:30 am #

    I attended the event and coined to new terms to describe SRAM’s marketing: drip leaking and a gray embargo. Also, to the cheap point of your rant, it’s the super enthusiasts that keep the industry moving, those that’ll buy this bike. That’s the only growth in the sport, in the US for about two decades, some would argue more.

  10. S.C. 20 April 2013 at 11:26 am #

    APPLAUSE. I could not agree with you more. For all the kvetching about the sport being dominated by 45-year old white guys, I seldom hear anyone discuss, what I think, is the most logical explanation. Barrier to entry. Plain and simple. The less affluent, younger kids, students, etc., simply can’t afford to drop thousands on a bike. Heck, I have friends who have good jobs and decent salaries who have been interested in taking up cycling, but when I tell them they should realistically expect to spend about $2000 to get up and running, they balk. No one wants to spend that much on a new hobby they’re not sure they’ll enjoy, and not everyone (especially not new riders) has bike-y friends who have an old rig that just happens to fit lying around to loan out. And that $2000 isn’t going to get you anything fancy. That is just for a bike that isn’t some Sora’d-out circus (like you, I look around the $1300 price point – in my experience this is about where things stop feeling just cheap and rattle-y), plus the other little things you’ll probably want, like pedals and shoes and a saddle bag and pump and the rest of it. And I’m not even talking about getting a bike suitable for racing – most people I know don’t have any interest in racing, they just want to be able to improve their fitness and go for nice long rides on a solid, reliable bike, and maybe hit up a charity century or fondo every now and again. Sure, you can grab a $700, bottom-of-the-line road bike, but that stuff is janky. When everything starts to rattle, and the shifting starts to skip 100 miles after a tune-up, an inexperienced, new rider is going to lose patience, stop enjoying the ride, and the bike ends up in the corner of the garage gathering dust like so many before it.

    There is a reason the teens these days get into cycling via fixed gear bikes. Yes, they’re trendy, but they’re simple, cheap, and bulletproof. A few hundred bucks, a machine they understand, and little to no maintenance to keep it working.

    Beyond just being a cyclist, I am not involved in the industry in any way, so maybe I’m totally off the mark, but I have read enough ink spilled on the subject of growth to have given this some thought. The way I see it, the industry has two choices – they can either continue to sell increasingly expensive and increasingly fragile toys to 45-year old dentists, or they can try to get new customers. They seem to have the former perfected. If they want the latter, they’re going to need to find a way to reduce the barrier to entry, while still providing a solid, reliable product.

  11. Cosmic Osmo 21 April 2013 at 7:15 pm #

    It’s been touched upon lightly but I’ll bring it up again; our current form of “capitalism” is hardly free market. We also live in a culture that is highly influenced by advertisement. When you combine a restricted market with misinformed consumers you end up with a sort of backwards capitalism. Those that own the means of production create an artificial demand for their product. If the consumer creates a demand for super high end bike frames specced with the cheapest oem parts available then fine, but we all know that no one wants that. Bike companies decide what’s cheap first, and then decide how to sell it to you second.

    It all comes down to educating the “consumer”. If 90% of bike buyers actually knew what to look for instead of being clueless like they are now we would see steel bikes specced with 105 for under 2gs. But it’s cheaper and more profitable to convince the buyer that a plastic bike is better.

    I sell bikes for a living, I realize that’s it’s a business, but you cannot expect to see any brand loyalty when a company continually puts out crap merchandise when the consumer is intellegent. But as long as the majority of people that walk into my shop know nothing about bikes, it’ll always just be about advertisement.

    Its really a reflection of society at large. We value what things seem to be over what they are. Just read any one of your annoying friends Facebook or blog or what have you. We are obsessed with telling each other about ourselves. We build these characters up digitally but fall short in the real world because in a superficial world, one only needs to seem, you don’t actually have to be.

  12. Cosmic Osmo 21 April 2013 at 7:20 pm #

    Oh and S.C. Your 100% correct.

    Also thank you cosmo for telling Karl he’s an ass before we all had to.

  13. trip 22 April 2013 at 1:23 pm #

    Great post. I have a couple friends showing an interest in cycling but the initial investment is definitely their barrier to entry. My first roadie was about $1,300 (inflation adjusted) but my current bike cost bit more. Am I any faster or is it any more comfortable? No. But if I had plenty of expendable income I could see myself buying a mid-high range bike – as long as the groupset isn’t electric.

    You’re not a fan of Slam That Stem, are you? Putting the stem down against the top of the headset looks pro, but for the vast majority of us that position just doesn’t work. We’ve all ridden with “that guy” that has the stem as low as it can go and then can’t use the drops because he’s not flexible enough.

  14. Jeffrey S 4 May 2013 at 2:33 pm #

    I’m a working class guy on a budget and I’ve been riding a Lemond Buenos Aires, steel w/ 105 triple and Rolf Vector rims purchased used for $500 off a coffee shop wall. After 6000 miles or so I’ve been mulling something a little lighter, faster etc.

    So this week at a 109 mile gran fondo I was checking out every machine I saw, thinking what would I want? After a day of looking at all manner of two wheeled conveyance I decided to put my new bike thoughts on hold. There were NO bikes out there as nice as mine. Maybe a few that went up the hills a bit faster but at what cost?

    I still might experiment with a new machine if one falls my way at that magic price but till then… I’m riding satisfied.

  15. Rodegeek 7 May 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    Interesting post, Cosmo.
    These days I don’t think there’s any need to worry about trickle-down technology, or to wish the “new” technology would be introduced at lower price points. The moderately priced stuff from SRAM, Shimano, or just about any other brand you want to name, works really well for the price. Holds up well, too. The main reason the high-end stuff costs more is that it weighs a lot less, which costs a lot to accomplish once you get above forged aluminum parts with steel hardware. If your Apex shifters are making ugly sounds, they probably are defective – it’s rare but it does happen. Apex stuff is just as durable as all the other SRAM road groups, and in fact shares many of the same sub-assemblies with Force and Rival. In this respect SRAM generally offers better value than Shimano.
    What’s amazing to me is how inexpensive bikes are compared to other sports equipment. Go into a big box store and price baseball bats. For adult use the decent bats start at $200-300. They consist of one piece of aluminum. Compare that to the complexity, not to mention assembly and adjustment, that goes into a bicycle. I don’t think the bike industry is ripping any of us off!

  16. Ron 12 September 2013 at 6:25 pm #

    Excellent work, Cosmo!

    I have years old 9-speed 105 stuff that works better and is easier to work on than my SRAM Force/Red stuff on another bike. Let’s see…I bought the bike used from a guy I sometimes ride with. He’s in the industry so it’s a very nice bike and raced for CX season. Halfway into my first season the pawls on the right Force shifter died. Second owner, no warranty for me. Fack.

    I recently installed a new crankset (the FSA-made Cannondale Si cranks on the same bike died, the Al pedal inserts went on the carbon arms, wobby pedals…2nd owner, out of warranty big time, FSA said suck it), Force on that bike. Force road arms with a 46 ring but I confirmed it would work. 46 outer, 39 inner. Well, when I installed the FD and adjust it, the Red Ti cage would hit the back of the arm. Fack.

    It took me around two weeks of riding, adjusting, riding, LBS, riding, adjusting to finally get it to shift properly. My 105 stuff took all of 5 minutes to install and adjust.

    And the FD shifting on SRAM…it fucking sucks. And if you don’t have Gigantor hands, it’s damn hard to push the paddle all the way. Yes, Red Ti FDs suck and are flexy but guess what? I jumped on a pal’s brand new full Red equipped bike and…front shifting on his sucks too.

    It baffles me how/why SRAM is so popular.

    I have 105 9 and 10-s that work great. I have 2007 Centaur, 2009 Centaur, 1991 Record. ALL work well. SRAM…shifting is still guesswork and luck.

    Picked up my first road bike, a Cannondale, for $500. R….600, maybe? 105 9-sp, Mavic CXP 33 rims and 105 hubs. Rode it for 7 years, became a cycling enthusiast, sold it (minus wheels!) for…$500. Nice. Updated and upgraded when needed.

    I hear ya. A pal gave me his VeloNews magazines and the tech/gear issues. WTF? Yes, who is buying all this stuff? And if they are busy making all that money, when do they ride?

    I have a few really nice road bikes and a really nice CX bike, but I bought all but one used and got great deals. Generally paid around $1000 for a bike that would have cost $5000-$6000 to build-up. It’s amazing how many good deals are out there.

    And they…do you even ride. The more tumblr and blog sites I check out has me wondering this. I live in a decent sized city. I ride in groups sometimes. I see a fair amount of nice bikes, but mainly they are solid, durable bikes. Once and awhile I’ll see a Dogma or something wacky, but not much.

    I don’t know where the fuck all these guys in art school kits with tattoos and $10,000 bikes live, but it ain’t around here. Far, far more guys on good bikes, nothing outrageous, and riding in Voler bibs and a whatever jersey because that’s not really all they can afford, but all they can justify.

    I don’t even own a car and my other sporting hobby (futbol) costs me about $100 a year in new cleats. All other expenditures go to cycling and yet, yup, $5000 on a bike is pretty crazy to me.

  17. Ron 13 September 2013 at 10:49 am #

    Oh, and I’m guessing you don’t wear full Rapha kit with gloves that could buy enough food to eat well for a month?

    Those faux soulful fucks are the GAP of the cycling world, selling white people a planned, generic image that provides the illusion of being a passionate cyclist when really you’re just a cunt with too much disposable income and not enough discretion.

    Their success only demonstrates the power of modern marketing in a world where far too many people have a desperately underdeveloped personality and lack any sense of palpable self-worth.

    In case you missed it, chaps, riding a Colnago and growing a beard doesn’t make you any more interesting or a better inhabitant of the planet, it just makes that black & pink kit as transparent as an old tymey rain cape.

  18. Zach 3 December 2013 at 9:00 pm #

    I’m all for making bikes cheaper.

    I’m a 16-year-old junior racer in the Chicagoland bike and my bike was $450. And I race it. It weighs 26.5 pounds, but I could only afford to get that bike. I wish everything cycling-related would be cheaper because it’s so hard for me to get new equipment (think one thing per year of ~$300 value, which ends up being one wheelset, or one new groupset (MicroSHIFT), or something else like that).

    I don’t know if I’ll buy a new frame in three years, even though mine is pretty bad.


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