Archive | The Industry RSS feed for this section

Rantcast #14 – The Myth of The Infallible LBS

15 Aug

Well, had some people complain about censoring the profanity last time which is fine—since this edition of the Rantcast is probably going to piss the living shit out of everyone anyway it probably won’t matter. Last time around, my beef was what cycling commentators weren’t saying, this week it’s on what the industry won’t shut up about— idiotic myth of the infallibility local bike shop.

Ask rep or pro or insider bro or reviewer about a part and 98% of the time you’ll be told that “Oh yeah—just ask at your local bike shop.” “Your local shop will take care of you”.

I don’t even know where to begin. Actually, I do know where to begin—the fact that a lot of local shops are just lousy. Can we say that? Can we get that out there? It’s almost like an omerta—there are certain shops that you shouldn’t go to, that everyone knows about, but still people are like “Oh yeah, the local shop. Your local shop. Check out our nearest dealer” Not “Blah-blah-blah’s Cycles”. Not “Where do you live? Ok avoid So-and-So’s, but check out Shop X”.

Yeah, and, actually—I shouldn’t have complained about that, because by that same token, I have to talk by name about all the shops that…caused some trouble. Like the The Spoke, in Williamstown MA, that got seized by the State for nonpayment of taxes…with my bike inside! Or Paramount Cycles in Somerville, MA that “saved me some money” by re-using a section of brake housing over a shifter cable—like, bro, if I’d wanted a half-ass job, I would have done it myself.

Or Cambridge Cycles, that gave me the wrong sized track nut despite my very specific instructions or International Bicycle Center in Boston where the Trek Minion there liked to try and swap the parts I’d ordered for cheaper gear, and who vehemently objected to my team purchase of a Surly Cross-Check because it “wasn’t a race bike”—no big deal that I raced it to a Cat 3 Verge Series Top 10 4 years later, long after the Sora equipped XO he wanted me to buy would have shat the bed. Oh, and just last week, the closest bike shop to my location, Central Wheel in Farmington, CT told me that SRAM’s 1.1 cables were just regular cables with a teflon coating.

Of course, none of this is to say that these are “bad” shops, or that there aren’t good ones out there—Cambridge Cycle’s screw up lead me to Broadway Bicycle School and it’s most excellent filing system. Landry’s in Boston never made me feel like a heel when I stopped in to buy a cassette spacer, or ask for an insurance replacement quote after a crash, or any other menial little task that brought them essentially no income. And Cheshire Cycle in Hamden CT always took great care of me—though, unfortunately, they’re also 35 miles away from my house.

And really, distance is a big part of the user experience from my point of view. In Boston, I had my choice of shop, open late and at bikeable distance. But in Hartford (as I would be in much of the rest of the country) I’m fighting to get into a car and out of the city like all the other suburban drones, racing to somehow get from my late-closing office to an early closing bikeshop, burning dollars and a few kilograms of CO2 for the effort. And once I’m there, the shop’s limited supply—what sizes and brands they happen to have on the wall are my only option.

Let’s contrast this with The Internet—I have massive retailers like TreeFort, PricePoint, Nashbar and etc, ready for me to place orders or peruse their wares at anytime, from my home, or office, or even from my phone midway through a ride. And finding what I want is so easy—search by terms, sort by price, by wheel size, by brand. Navigate to a section to see what the have. Google Products search compares price across outlets, and ebay provides more or less real-time information on what an actual, open market price for a given gizmo is.  Oh, and did I mention the bevy of searchable forums covering tips, horror stories and clever compatibility tricks on everything from from fixed gear to freeride?

In a physical shop, I’m dealing with the collective knowledge of maybe five, six guys, each of whom has a financial incentive to goad me into spending as much as possible in return for as little as they can get away with giving. Chances are, if I ask a salesman highly-specific question, which I am known to do, two or three other people or going to have to weigh in, then there’s probably gonna be an upsell attempt, followed by a “well, let’s see what we can do on price”. Some people like to haggle; me, I find it exhausting, time-consuming, disingenuous, and a sure sign that I will almost certain get a better deal elsewhere.

There’s a train a of thought—and one that I don’t deny—that says the shop costs more because of all the value it adds. And for certain consumers—dentists, I believe is the industry term—the local LBS as it currently exists does provide a tremendous amount of value. Something breaks, needs to be tuned, its just kinda old and gross looking—no big deal. No need to get your hands dirty or struggle through a new skill. Just drop off the bike, the shop fixes it, the dentist saves time, gets some status bling, shop and suppliers get paid, everyone wins—no wonder dentists have been the industry’s sole focus for the past decade.

But the problem with the Dentist Model is that there aren’t that many dentists, those that are out there are getting older and/or more tech savvy, and the demographics where bike use is rising the fastest—young people and minorities—tend not to have the massive throwaway income to feed the LBS, which, at least in it’s current incarnation is allegedly infallible and should be the consumers only point of contact for anything to do with a bike.

And really, the cycling industry itself—I know, I know, a too massively amorphous and heterogeneous entity to collectively demonize—is at the heart of this mess. A few months ago, I broke a derailleur. I got it all sorted out eventually—a rant for another time—but during the

discussion a SRAM rep said the company never ships parts to customers. Ever.

Think about that—the company that makes parts for people’s bikes doesn’t ship them to people. it’s bizarre, right—”sorry, sir, I refuse your offer of monetary units for the product I produce. Please bring your monetary units to this third party instead”—and it’s because to SRAM, Trek, Lazer, and pretty much every other company in the industry, you aren’t the customer. The shop is. And to keep the shops buying their stuff, the industry needs consumer buy-in to the shop model. Thus the infallible shop myth.

Shops let industry brands sell a whole lot of their stuff all at once. Much, much easier to deal with dozens of customers instead of thousands. A lot easier to collect money and set budgets when there’s a big predictable, post-Interbike cash dump. And as stock merchandise, bicycles are really crummy. They take up a lot of space, the margins suck, there’s a non-trivial labor investment in each model after getting them in, and as I mentioned before, there’s an Internet full of outlets offering them at a better price.

And yet, the infallible shop myth lives. For the past decade and a half I’ve witnessed and endured all sorts of abuse from industry insiders for buying online and doing my own work. “Hey man, don’t you like riding? Why are you trying to hurt the thing you like?” “Oh, well, you didn’t go through the shop, you get what’s coming to you.” The latest villainy is so called “showrooming” where people research prices and find out as much as they can about a given part before making a final purchase, like, you know, an informed consumer would. Do it at a car dealership, or a computer store, or when you’re getting a loan—right on, man. Do it at a bike shop—you’re a schmuck.

I feel like this petty hypocrisy—we need to fleece consumers so we can keep making rad stuff, man—has kind of toxified the industry, and drawn thick battle lines along existing business relationships, lest the whole house of cards fall. Case in point: last week, a QBP guy who worked on the Lazer Helmets account complained vocally about CrossVegas’ registration system Twitter. Then CrossVegas got in touch to Lazer—a sponsor of the race—who made a call to QBP, which got said internet complainer fired.

Or maybe that isn’t how it happened. The Helmeteer_Chris Internet entity, who I don’t know, but who works for Lazer, and who generally surfaces pretty cool Internet bike stuff suggested there was more to it, but really, what could he possibly say? Confess his employer feel into a perfect storm of douchery between two of its business partners?  Factually and morally correct as that might actually be, he wouldn’t be very good at his job if he did that.  So, for all concerned, the message stands: don’t step out and challenge the system, even if the system sucks. It’s cool—industry bros made nice at the end. It’s the the people outside the system that fucked up. Now why does that sound so familiar?

There must be, there HAS to be, something in this status quo for the local shops—beyond, obviously, the joy of being presented as infallible. but for the LIFE of me, I cannot figure out what it is. It sure isn’t the money. The industry’s own numbers suggest an average dealer sees 25k in annual income—not exactly a retirement figure. It’s not the ease of the day-to-day work, either—I’ve seen massive urban shops, top 10 grossers for national brands, half a million into the red. I’ve seen small, efficient, brilliantly-run operations fail. Aside from the comfort of a familiar environment, I don’t really get why anyone would chose to run LBS under the model that currently exists.

So if this aura of infallibility shop sucks for the shop, and it sucks for the consumers. It would seem to me that time is ripe for a change. Despite everything I said back at the beginning of this, there are thing shops can offer consumers that the internet can’t. Quality tools, stands, a clean, well-ordered workspace. Skilled hands. In-the-moment advice when pressing a headset or trying to figure out which bottom bracket to buy. These are the things non-dentists need—real riders (actually, I’m stepping back from this a bit [see comment])—and they’re increasingly scarce at the among the salesmen and accessory racks in today’s shops.

There’s also an immediacy that shops can meet that the Internet will never be able to. Broken chains, snapped cables, cracked handlebars, stems to soothe an aching back—things that cannot wait for shipping. A bike shop should have components—tiny, easy to manage, low-overhead parts—in droves, in stock, compatible across as many brands and standards as possible, from newest models, and refurbed take-offs to be sold for a song. But in my experience, requests for this one meatspace service no online dealer could ever provide are met with the depressing response of, “sure, our QBP order arrives in on Thursday”.

Of course, this new, consumer-focused approach would require a certain openness on the part of an industry that as I said earlier, tends to be anything but. An admission that 2012 model is more or less as good as a 2013. An admission that ounces off a three pound frame underneath a hundred-fifty pound man will have an all but a negligible impact performance. An admission that 95% of repairs and installations can accomplished by anyone with patience and a $5 set of allen keys as easily as they can by a sixty-dollar-an-hour mechanic. An admission that things are cheaper somewhere else, and maybe you should

buy them there.

Is the industry even capable of this sort of openness? it once was. I certainly wouldn’t be here reading this if the late Sheldon Brown hadn’t codified online, in detail, and for free, every skill he’d acquired and opinion he’d developed in a lifetime of turning wrenches. Back 2001, my old Iron Horse hardtail would have stayed broken, and I never would have been able to restore a decades-old hunk of dented steel from the abandoned bike pile at campus security into a fast, reliable, and dirt cheap road machine.

The de facto state of affairs, with its infallible shops and Dentist ready approach has to change. The demographics of age and income demand it. The real question is how much damage those who profit from the current system are willing to incur upon their brands—and on the newbie retail consumers who, at the end of the day, are the only ones keeping the whole machine running. If the sticker price at your local shop is any indication, plenty of places out there are ready to double-down on the infallibility myth.

Can We Please Stop Ruining Bike Races With Electronic Shifting?

2 Jul

I’m not going to claim impartiality here—if nothing else, I think electronic shifting is massively over-priced. I’ve never ridden it—I hear it shifts well and smoothly and precisely and is super-cool, and I have no reason to dispute that. But similarly, I think there’s no counter-argument to the fact that when it doesn’t shift, you are completely boned.

Goss and Greipel and bikes that don't work

The body posture conveys as much information as the drivetrains.

The photos above are cropped from the highest-def screencap I could find—a 1080i .ts files, no compression beyond what occurs prior to transmission. I can’t see exactly what’s wrong with Greipel’s and Goss’ bikes, but what I can see is a droopy chain—as in probably off the chainrings—and rear mechs that seem more or less intact—that is, not on the ground or above the chainstay.

As far as I can tell, this is the classic mode of failure for electronic shifting. The front derailleur has two programmed shift actions—one to go up, one to go down. Unlike conventional shifters, where a cable always pulls against the tension of derailleur spring, there isn’t an option to half-shift in an attempt to jimmy the chain back into place. When you’re off, you’re off. This is a fact not in dispute.

That said, one report claims Greipel’s mechanical on Sunday was a rear derailleur “smashed to bits…in the big crash that took Greipel out of the running”. This is at least partially inaccurate—he survived that big tumble, and pedaled on for several k before appearing mysteriously at the back, bike rendered non-functional in a very familiar way.


Shared from cyclocosm using Embeddlr
download/iPhone

I’ve posted a chopper shot of what I believe to be Goss’ bike failure above. Obviously, you can’t see the chain, and honestly, I can’t even prove it’s him. But inside the final 500m an Orica-GreenEdge rider is jockeying for position, with a teammate (probably Impey) behind him him, then just stops pedaling and stands to coast, leaving the teammate with a huge gap to close. Robbie McEwen claims Goss crashed, and I guess maybe it’s possible, but only if he went down after his bike stopped working.

It’s beginning to feel a little creepy. Consensus is that electronic shifting is still a work in progress—nearly a year after noting its problems last summer, Inner Ring reported on a rash of misfires from this spring. But rather than improve (or better yet—remove) the parts, earlier this week, we got two not-quite-right stories about incidents of likely electronic shifting failures that had a definite impact on how the final results played out. I’m sure it’s all just innocent misunderstanding—on their part or on mine—but I wouldn’t want anyone get any ideas.

So before this devolves to petty subterfuge, let’s all of us—media, marketers, brand managers, riders, directors—just sit down and agree like grown-ups that pros should absolutely have the no-pressure-option of using mechanical shifting. With Greipel on Campy and Goss on Shimano, no one company will take a PR hit.

Everyone’s heard the buzz about the awesome, super-precise shifting produced by electronic levers—and the fondo set is already totally into it. But by taking away the option of historically reliable front shifting, all anyone is doing is making the high-profile failures more obvious—and alienating serious amateur racers in the process.

Let’s be honest—if watching your rider taking a win on legacy gear is a bigger marketing bummer than watching him pout at the side of the road when the latest and greatest fails, your brand’s got bigger problems a front derailleur.

Cyclocosm Rantcast #11 – Peak Fondo

17 Jun

Script

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

Yeah, I’m back. needed a little post-Giro, post-How-the-Race-Was-Won vacation, to cool the engines, ride my bike to Montauk, not get fired from my day job, and—oh yeah, sleep, which is, for the record, what I am not doing now.

Let’s start by going back, way back—back before NBC Universal was called Versus, when cycling was an incongruous block in a non-stop stream of redneck infotainment called the Outdoor Life Network. The sport appeared there because some point, OLN bought the US rights to the Tour—either 1999 or 2001, depending on if you believe NBC Sports’ Wikipedia page or the New York Times (yes, that is a serious question)—I can’t really say because I didn’t start watching until 2002.  

And apparently I wasn’t alone. More and more people were watching. History was being made. Three tours? Lance was only the second American to do that. Four—eh, I mean, that’s pretty good. Five was a record and all, but it was really close—so six would be huge. And of course, the ever-escalating celebrity of the man himself—dating rock stars, rumors of a movie in the works, and of course, those yellow wristbands—about 80 million dollars worth—on the arm of basically every public figure on Earth.

In 2004 OLN went big for the Tour. Really big. I mean, we’re talking Inland Empire, subprime ARM, buy-now-or-be-priced-out-forever–big. They hired that guy who used to be cool from all those badass movies by that other guy who used to be cool and put together “The Cyclysm”. The marketing firm that executed the project actually has a pretty stellar set of  documentation on the effort, and in hindsight it was kind of awesome to see cycling get so much exposure.

But we—and by “we” I mean, the cycling fans on the Internet, who were legion even than—hated it.  I know everyone knows about trolls and the aimless destructive rage of comments sections these days, but back then, it was worse. Imagine an internet where baby sloth videos and LOLcats are replaced by crummy forum software and browsers that crash every 15 minutes. Plus Facebook hadn’t convinced all the normal people to go online yet, so basically, everyone there was pissed off and bitter 100% of the time.

And granted, there were some things to be pissed about. Like The Lance Chronicles—that detailed Lance’s busy, exciting life, from filming Subaru commercials to getting art for his house in Girona, to charity receptions to…wait a minute, what does this show to do with cycling again?

No no, that’s not fair. There was plenty about cycling in the show. Like Lance accidentally revealing that he uses Assos chamois cream, or that Trek reps make sad faces when Armstrong doesn’t ride their special bike, or that low carb-diets just wouldn’t work for a guy like Lance…oh Chris Carmichael, how I’ve missed your fitness wisdom.

And come Tour Time…whoof. People started appearing for no apparent reason—like Swiss trials pioneer Hans Rey, who by his own account didn’t seem to know what he was doing there, either. There was a show called The Roadside Tour featuring a bunch of American jackasses called “The Cutters” that was so bad, OLN cancelled mid-way through the race. Amazingly, there seems to be no trace of it online so if anyone out there has got footage kicking around I would love to see it.

But for me the worst sin of the Only Lance Network (get it? OLN? That was what we called it…) was the “expanded” coverage during the evenings that consisted of Al Trautwig asking painfully obvious questions to Bob roll for 90 minutes during primetime, heading off the network’s fears that a more general audience would put off by Lance not constantly kicking everyone else’s ass, or y’know, British people.

Anyway, the ‘04 race was a dog, the ‘05 race was worse, and as you might imagine, the whole house of cards came tumbling down in ‘06 because—duh, no Lance. Maybe if OLN had invested for the long term, and treated the sport seriously, instead of piping the monotonous drone of Armstrong’s greatness, they might have retained a few viewers. I personally know several fans converted by daily, non-expanded coverage of the ‘03 Vuelta and ‘04 Giro in those heady “let’s show the racing years”.

Writ large, the Tour’s overproduction was classic bubble behavior—the slow burn of Lance exploded into frenzy, more content was being produced and than could be sustained by the income of the ad revenue. Not that OLN cared—the Lance blitz gave them profile, and a tiff between the NHL and ESPN soon turned the channel into the home of hockey. This in turn gave it enough profile to be bought out by Comcast, who would later merge it with NBC sports, because Comcast would really, really like there to be a viable sports competitor to ESPN, who makes their money by reaming the cable provider on subscriber fees—you can learn all about this in Rantcast #2.

But to cycling the industry, the absence of Lance, or perhaps the over-focus on racing generally that became the norm in his era, would leave a lasting wound. In the early aughts, you could sell a bike because it was ostensibly Lance’s bike. Or—as Competitive Cyclist’s “It’s not a Trek” tagline once proclaimed, because it’s not Lance’s bike. Marketing became a predictable, mostly idiotic and wholly unverifiable game of one upmanship about lightness, stiffness, yaw angles, and the like.

But more and more, I think, consumers became steadily less enthusiastic about marginal technical advantages. No matter how much they spent, they were still Cat 3s. They were still finishing mid-pack. While their bikes may have been getting faster and more advanced, their backs were getting sorer, their necks more kinked, and their daylight hours progressively less easy to occupy with things like training.

Combine this with a steady stream of drug positives, professional and amatuer, and general ineptitude from the sport’s international and US governing bodies, and you’ve got group o

f people distinctly less interested in bicycle racing, but who still loved riding, trying cool gear, and imagining they can set the roads on fire like the pros.

When you’re on a bike, there are basically two ways to feel like Fabian Cancellara. One is to train a whole bunch, get super fit, and find that extra gear in a race, closing some crazy gap, making the winning move, or, if you’re incredibly lucky, crossing the line first. The other, significantly easier way, is to find any unpaved road and ride somewhere in the neighborhood of uptempo. Slowly but surely over the past decade, more and more people have figured this second route out.

You could see the trend coming for a while—Grant Peterson, clairvoyant industry heretic, has been spouting some version of the doctrine since 1994. The words  “sportive” and “fondo”  began creeping into the sport’s cultural lexicon, and on a technical front, after decades of narrowing and straight up lying about widths to play the gram game, rims and tires were getting wider, pressures getting lower. Tinkerers and manufacturers alike were  constructing weird workarounds to make disc brakes run on drop handlebars.

And there’s nothing wrong with this—people on practical, versatile bikes? Can’t complain. Wide availability of tough, durable parts that work well for a variety of cycling endeavours? Sounds awesome. Putting in six hour rides just to see what’s out there? More power to you.

This rediscovery of the humble awesomeness of just going out and riding has been accompanied by a host of new brands focused more on the ineffable qualities of riding than actually competing in a race. Rapha, much as I may tease, was a much needed injection of competent style in an arena where pro apparel can make 4% body fat look like a beer belly; not surprisingly, it inspired a slew of imitators. Publications like Rouleur spring up—again, with imitators—and even Bicycling rebranded, taking on a more upscale, refined image…for their monthly tips on weight loss.

In fact, there seem to be a bunch of blogs, websites, magazines, and other semi-professional publications that have gotten really into gazing at their own navels on spectacle, or majesty or whatever bike-related this-is-so-meaningful-ism happens to strike them at the time of writing. By and large, these pieces are of such gobsmacking banality that I can’t help but feel I’m experiencing some sort of Bizarro World Lance Chronicles.

Which brings me, at long last, to the point—I think we’ve reached peak fondo. Think your Gravel Grinder is underground? The Times, as they say, is On It. Outside just published a list of the 12 best US Grand Fondos. Google “tips for sportive ride” and you’ll find a healthy spattering of “evergreen content” full of useful information like “drink water” and “pace yourself”.  One of the more important US UCI races even replaced itself with a Fondo this past winter.

It’s not that  racing is of inherently greater value than a sportive, or a fondo, or a gravel grinder, or just going out and hacking around on your bicycle—it’s that at the moment there’s way too much product—gear, bikes, articles, events—being pushed under the auspices of fondo-dom, to be sustainably consumed. And as someone who both came into the sport during the Only Lance Era, and who was hired to blog about real estate in the earliest days of 2008—I think I would know.

The Cyclocosm Rantcast is written and produced by Cosmo Catalano who politely request that you do NOT forward any real estate questions his way, especially not about his current local market of Hartford, Connecticut. His website on cycling is called Cyclocosm.com, and it has all sorts of fun videos and other features, plus a placeholder image of a doping Twitter bird at appears just before the latest Tweet from his @Cyclocosm account. He’s also on Tumblr at cyclocosm.tumblr.com, and promises that this is the last outro he’ll record fully in the third person.

On Coverage and Contractors

24 May

Script

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

Yes, it’s another delayed Cyclocosm Rantcast—but I’m not sorry, because last weekend I was temporarily relocated to the redwoods and hoppy, delicious ales of Sonoma County to ride bikes with fun and interesting people, and watch a little event you might have heard of called the Tour of California.

It seems an odd juxtaposition, really, because the topic of this rant is Beinsport’s coverage of the Giro d’Italia. Or rather, it was supposed to be. But I can’t in good conscience complain about something more or less sight-unseen. While I did manage—at long last—to catch a bit of actual BeIn TV coverage, it was during stage 14’s fog obscured nightmare.

But I’ve heard, actually, and from several sources, that BeIn’s broadcast commentary is quite good. Certainly, if the effort Carlton Kirby made to pump excitement into 40 minutes of staring at an empty road lined by bored, cold Italians is any indication, it couldn’t be that bad. But as the old saying goes, if Dan Lloyd delivers understated quips in his butter-toned British accent and no one’s around to hear them, does it count as good coverage?

So today’s rant will be less about coverage in its proper sense, and more about the contracting decisions that get made delivering the content to the people. Let’s start with something everyone can see—at least, in the US. Maybe the mish-mash of rights and geo-restrictions will be prevent a worldwide audience from seeing these, but head on over to beinsport.tv and see what you can see.

I’ll be fair here—credit is definitely due for giving cycling and the Giro much more exposure around the site than it used to have. A few months ago, the only cycling story on up was about [Lance] Armstrong getting blocked from racing a tri—now they’ve got an article and a video highlight for every each stage—if you look under the “video” header, that is—and clips even make their way onto the front page occasionally.

That said, it’d sure be nice if cycling could have a link under “other sports” or if doing doing a search for cycling brought up more than just 11 articles in some random order.  And let’s take a closer look at these race reports—here’s Stage 17, which is currently two sentences long. And the video seems to suffer from the Phil Liggett effect—not that Dan Lloyd does a bad job with it, more that he seems to just kinda be talking over some footage they threw at him.

So let’s check out Stage 16…hmm “Intxausti timed a late sprint and fought off the challenges…in a dramatic late finish” good so far…”Intxausti was part of a 22-man breakaway group in the early stages” (huh?) “later managed to gain a five-second advantage” None of that is right. “Nibali…setting a fierce pace at the front of the peloton as he attempted to bridge” No, that’s not really… “ it was not until they entered the final 25 kilometres that the 22 separated.” But you just said that breakaway happened in the early stages? Or did you mean separated from each other?

Well, maybe the video will make more sense…nope. Actually, it, uh looks like this one’s just a music video. With some bikes rolling along. And no one talking about the race. Oh, and some guy wins. Nice. Very explanatory. Thanks for that recap. Similar nonsense, weird wording— my favorite was “Uran edged Carlos Betancur by 20 seconds” in Stage 10— and straight-up factual errors pepper most of the BeIn recaps. It’s tempting to blame the network for this mess, but you know, in the grand scheme of things, BeIN is really only a mouldering rusty pipe through which feces flows.

You see, nearly all these reports and videos are actually produced by a company called “Omnisport”, which is itself a sub-entity of a company called the Perform Group.  And as you can read on Omnisport’s riveting product offerings page, this is kind of what they do, producing “page ready content”—a Orwellian turn of diction if I’ve ever heard one—so that doofers like BeIn, and I’m guessing similarly clueless broadcasters from other geographic regions who need to farm out their work—have something to put on their websites so that underlings can report to middle managers who can report to executives that they’re doing really cool things with the web, probably backing it up with some large-sounding numbers that no one understands.

Welcome to the world of Rights Organizations—entities like Perform Group that you’ve never heard of but who seem to lurk everywhere. Last week, I was introduced to a particularly malevolent little troll called Base79. Name mean anything to you? Oh, they’re only YouTube’s largest content partner in Europe, with 550 million views per month on content they “produce”—though I use that term in the loosest possible sense; afterall, they don’t make any content of their own as far as I can tell. All they really do is offering things like distribution—that’d be uploading to YouTube—revenue generation—setting up ads to run on YouTube—and rights protection—the operation of YouTube’s automatic content detection software by which I—and the hapless innocents at Orica GreenEdge—discovered them.

Far be it for me to assail sock-puppeting well-worn YouTube features as some sort of business model—if you can find someone with money and trick them into throwing some in your direction, more power to you. My objection comes with the fact that as a “partner partner”—yes, that’s a literal quote—of the Giro, they’re responsible for the irredeemable mess that is the Giro’s YouTube page. One language, no English subtitles, irritating references to off-site links with no explanation of why these couldn’t be uploaded to YouTube as well, and oh yeah—video quality on par with dropping acid through a bad pair of cataracts.

A v

ery long time ago, when, I dunno, the Earth was pure and fairy kingdoms dotted the land, the purpose of copyright was to protect the work of creative people, giving them a chance to recoup investment, make a living, and generally just incentivizing the creation of newer, cooler, more creative things in the future. But currently, as these rights organizations show, copyright kinda does the exact opposite—pushing firms to dry-hump products for all they’re worth while adding nothing of value to consumers, and arguably—depending on if you’re a shareholder or not—nothing to society as a whole.

But really, the problem of copyright is out-of-scope for this rant, so I’m gonna pull it back to cycling, and the Giro specifically—Michele Acquarone wants to grow the Giro, or at least says he does. As a watcher of the sport—and by watcher I mean person who reads things on the internet because there is nothing to watch—I’ve no shortage of 2nd- and 3rd-hand reports telling me he’s done just that. But here, with my own eyes, in the US? I can’t see anything that’d suggest a single marketing dollar had been thrown the Giro’s way.

And honesty, eh, it’s his, or his organization’s own damn fault. They sold out rights to a channel no one can see, who further outsources to obviously incompetent contractors for their almost-invisible online content. And with another ill-advised partnership, RCS has managed to kneecap the YouTube audience—I’m sorry, the two-billion-eyeball YouTube audience—not just in the sense that the Giro’s “official” YouTube offerings are crap, but in that the efforts of people like me who do a halfway-decent job or presenting the event FOR FREE are actively being undermined.

This, THIS is how you grow your event, Mr Acquarone? I can only hope that someday I get the chance to ask you how, exactly, you thought was going to happen.

The Cyclocosm Rantcast is written produced and everythinged by Cosmo Catalano—that’d be me—one of the most dominant pack fodder finishers in the history of Cat 3 racing. I currently reside in Hartford, Connecticut. My blog is Cyclocosm.com, I tweet using the handle @Cyclocosm, I make a video podcast series called How The Race Was Won, you can see them all at vimeo.com/cyclocosm because YouTube is for copyright trolls. If you’re relatively new to my work, check out Cyclocosm.com/charts for some cool stuff you may not have seen. And now, I’m going to bed.

The Death of "Trickle Down"

19 Apr

Script

(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.

Cyclocross: Cycling's George W. Bush

19 Dec

Man drinking beer on bikeAh, Cyclocross—scruffy, fun-loving younger brother of road cycling. None of the endless training and expense, all of the fun, dirt, and beer handups, right? Surely this is the most populist of all sports, is it not?

No, actually—not even close. Not since a third-generation Yalie picked up a Texas accent and ran for President as a Washington Outsider has a brand been so obviously out of sync with its own reality. Cyclocross, while thrilling and fantastically enjoyable, is also the most expensive cycling discipline for those with an actual desire to be competitive, and the least friendly to the common racer stepping up to give it a shot.

On the road, race-able bikes start at around $1000 and, without swapping a single part, can be trained on and raced competitively for at least one season. That’s certainly how I got started, and I remember the winning selections of collegiate B and C races stocked with Dura-Ace and Sora in roughly equal proportions. All due respect to the high-gloss fields I currently run with, but thanks to some impressive raw talents and a general lack of any tactical know-how, those collegiate events remain some of the fastest, hardest-fought races I’ve ever had the pleasure of contesting.

Manufacturers can wage nerd war til the cows come home, but road races aren’t won and lost at the bike shop. Zipp and Cervelo will remind you of Cancellara’s amazing charge at the ’07 Tour, but his on-the-hoods, out-of-the-saddle position on that particular rampage more than negated any aerodynamic advantage of his wheelset. Road cycling isn’t contested by torso-less robots on trainers in wind tunnels; it’s a game of canny, back-biting, and subterfuge, and 99 times out of 100, you’ll do better to poach another rider’s aerodynamic advantage than to invest in your own.

By comparison, gear in cyclocross actually matters—specifically, tires. While entry-level CX bikes often offer a lower price, what you get for the money is also drastically reduced. I’ll overlook the downgrade from Ultegra to Tiagra (as I mentioned above, if the gears shift, you’re good to go); I’m complaining about the “cyclocross” tube and tire setup that has no place on any respectable race course.

After a few seasons of attempting to race ‘cross on clinchers, I’ve arrived at the conclusion—one that ought to be plastered in bold-face at the beginning of any article on cyclocross—that attempting to actually race cyclocross with clinchers and innerubes is an often pointless endeavor. Maybe if you’ve got the mad handling skillz and mimized downforce of, say, Rudy, you can venture out past the fringe of the greens on your local golf course. Otherwise, the tire pressures you need to run come with a DNF rate (via pinch flat) of about 1 in 4.

Tubulars fix this problem, of course, but they’re astronomically expensive. The tires start at 70 dollars, and even Williams Cycling’s much heralded “affordable” $369 cross wheelset represents an outlay as large as I’ve ever made on a pair of road wheels. To me, “affordable” applies to <$150 wheelsets, like the Maddux F20 I put 6000 miles into over the past two years.

Another reason competitive cyclocross all but requires tubulars is that, without free laps or follow trucks, you’ve got to be able to get to the pit on your own—much tougher on a flat clincher than a flat tubular. And once you get to the pit, you’ll need something to put on your bike; tack on another $470 for a second wheelset. And patching that tubular tire back up after the race…let’s just hope your puncture solution is a simple as an injection of Caffelatex.

But as anyone who’s been to a muddy Verge Series race knows, the only really competitive support is to have a second cyclocross bike at the ready in the pits. ($800 + $470) x 2 = $2,540, or better than twice the up-front investment of a raceable road bike. And keep in mind, these ‘cross figures are still for Tiagra level parts, while a similar road rig ships with Ultegra gear that’s good for at least few seasons to come. Much as I appreciate the functionality of Shimano’s low end parts, an ill-timed spill in the sand pit might be all she wrote for that budget shifter.

And of course, no detonation of this populist facade would be complete without pointing out how thoroughly cyclocross kowtows to the elite. A sponsored rider has to worry about almost none of the things I’ve listed above—no entry fees, a guaranteed spot on the line, free pit bikes, boatloads of swag, and a retirement account’s worth of wheelsets, making an unexpected snowstorm as manageable as a wheel swap.

Zdenek Stybar racing I hasten to add that there’s nothing “wrong” with this—good riders are fantastic marketing exposure, and with the salaries (or lack thereof) offered to the pros, the people who are actually good at ‘cross need as much help as they can get (see #livingthedream).

At the end of the day, though, what road racing does that cyclocross doesn’t is routinely turn out Frederick Vuechelens, Bobbie Traksels, Frederic Guesdons and host of other one-off winners who saw an opening, read a race, or were otherwise crazy enough to pull off the unlikeliest of upsets over the most elite of fields.

In road racing, there’s a sense that any rider with the skills to hold position, the watts the get free, and the stones to give it shot is guaranteed an opportunity to make a race-winning move. Most times, it doesn’t work—heck, sometimes it doesn’t even get attempted—but the option is there for any rider who would lay claim to it. Drop Zdneck Stybar into the first lottery spot at a World Cup and I don’t think he’d enjoy that same opportunity.

The point of all this isn’t that cyclocross needs to be somehow “fixed”. Obviously, I wouldn’t mind if the industry turned out more ~$1000 CX bikes that weren’t built to sit in the garage, but ‘cross racing is just fine in its current incarnation. Adam Myerson’s fantastic piece on CX racing rings as true for the guy in first as it does for the guy in 101st—I would know, having found myself riding in both positions at various moments over the past three years.

What bothers me is this position cyclocross seems to enjoy in the popular imagination of cycling fans as a, blue-collar, working (wo)man’s sport, as if mud, beer, tents, and Belgian country music were proof positive that it’s a somehow purer competition, geared to the common rider. Make no mistake about it, cyclocross rewards privilege—both in terms of income and talent—above almost anything else.

Put the Sharpie Down and Back Away from the Sidewall

8 Nov

Dugast Sidewall

In its natural state / by Brian Ellin cc-nc-sa

Occasionally, people ask me why I don’t more actively seek out work in the cycling industry. Aside from the fact that it’s an insider’s game and I’ve got the schmoozing skills of a dyspeptic orangutan, there’s just no way I could bring myself to participate in the absolute nonsense the positions tend to require—all the more so when that nonsense runs contrary to the interests of the company I would hypothetically be supporting.

Case in point—the sidewalls of the pro cyclocross bikes making the rounds on cycling news websites the past few weeks. While I applaud the spirit of whichever mechanic or press agent decided to turn Ryan Trebon’s sidewalls into a massive, garish Clement ad, it’s pretty clear no one was fooled by the effort. And while I’m sure the people at QBP smiled warmly at James Huang’s insistance that the uproariously camouflaged Dugast was merely a placeholder, it sure doesn’t look like the Typhoon has been cut from Treefarm’s arsenal. (more…)

Strava – Review

31 Oct

Strava LogoThe luxury of data in cycling—or any sport, really—was once the rarified domain of the rich or professionally supported. Sure, we commoners had cyclocomputers and heart-rate monitors, but they generally only delivered data to a postage stamp screen, and had to be reset between rides.

If you really felt like spending, you might get a blocky device with a usb cable and CD of poorly-written software (PC-only, of course) that turned your speed and HR into confusing looking graphs that you could compare against all your other confusing looking graphs from previous workouts, and not much else.

Thankfully, recent investor interest in social media, and the proliferation of GPS-enabled phones with reasonable amounts of processing power has resulted in a bloom of social fitness sites. The results aren’t universally good—my disdain for the unusable, boggy, UI carnage of MapMyHumanaRide is well documented—but generally speaking, the situation is a lot better than it was. And of all the options out there, I think Strava is the most thoughtfully crafted.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll note that back in 2010, Strava provided me a year of free membership and a Garmin 305 GPS unit to review their product. Lest you think I’ve been bought off, those of you who follow me on Twitter will note my repeated issues with the Edge 305 device, from broken buttons to fragile screens to DOA refurbs, and I currently pay full price for membership, and have been doing so since my trial offer expired.

As far as using the Strava site goes, your killer feature will depend on what you’re interested in as a rider. When I first began using it, the buzz was focused on a power-inferring algorithm, which made up watts for rides without power data, based on rider weight, speed, and road inclination. A cost-effective way of measuring power has long been a holy grail of the cycling world—remember the iBike?—but as intelligent readers probably knew going in, Strava isn’t going to take the place of a PowerTap or Quark anytime soon.

That said, while drafting, downhills, windspeed, and rolling resistance all play hell with Strava’s calculated wattage numbers, it does produce startlingly accurate results for any climb longer than a minute or so. Again, it’s not something you couldn’t do with your existing data, a well-crafted formula, and a calculator, but laid out alongside everything else, in a clean, smooth, web interface, you begin to think that this might be a feature worth paying for.

Strava comparison tool screenshot

Indeed, data analysis and presentation is really Strava’s strength—and nowhere is this more evident than in its comparative data segmentation feature. Clocking historical times for a popular climb or TT is nothing new, but being able to spotlight, second-by-second, the moment where the truly talented make the difference is pretty darn cool. And if analyzing your own crushing defeats isn’t your thing, there are (if you pay) age group, club, and weight class filters, so almost anyone can find a combination of criteria under which they are King of the Mountain.

This sort of “competition without a number” at first struck me as self-aggrandizing and self-indulgent. But as it turns out, it’s a pretty useful training tool. Sure, KOMs might as often be determined by wind direction as wattage, but knowing you’re in an understood race against an army of online competitors is a great way to motivate for the extended agony of simulated race effort, and being able to compare efforts against yourself is fantastic training feedback. Maybe it’s just because my idea of a training log has historically consisted of remembering the previous day’s workout, but I found the total climb and mileage stats almost invaluable.

Of course, it’s not all completely rosy. For some time the segment and ride search tools have been pretty iffy—tracking down segments from a previous year’s race, for example, can be tricky. A lot of this is really a cataloging and indexing problem, since people will refer to races in a variety of different ways (Green Mountain, GMSR Stage 2, Green Mountain Stage Race, etc), but timestamps/geolocation should be enough to link the listings. In a similar vein, every long climb seems to contain 3 or 4 segments, reflecting various start and finish points. I’d be great if these could be grouped as subsections of one primary listing.

Still, the site is under near-constant development, and their recently added “Segment Explore” addresses many of the old issues, laying out all the segments by climb category in a given region via map view. The consistent, steady evolution of the site is very encouraging for future development, though I might gripe a bit that a good deal of the recent work seems to have been aimed at running-specific features. I understand the business logic, but I miss the good old days of “Strava is for Cyclists”.

Strava Explore Screenshot

Finally, and despite pouring some time into creating an API, Strava doesn’t play particularly nicely with others. Their API seems to be focused on allowing other applications to make changes within Strava, without necessarily freeing up any of the data it uses for cool new tools or external analysis. After much user bellyaching, they finally introduced a GPX export feature, but it’s pretty rudimentary, lacking many of the data sets collected by the site, and without the ability to export segments or your performances across them.

So in the interests of interoperability and data liberation, I’ve built two web tools to get your data off Strava the way you want it. One, the GPX Exporter, is not new, but remains the only way to export data for segments and efforts alone, or to get a GPX containing heartrate, cadence, or temperature. The other, a Strava to TCX export tool, ports everything—yes, including power—into Garmin’s bloated, mangled, propriety TCX format.

I didn’t build these tools just for users. As a product, Strava needs export, and probably a route creation feature. After all, what good is a great Explore tool to find a new routes and climbs if users need to handwrite cue sheets to get themselves out there? The fear, I suppose, is user exodus, but at the end of the day the data is cheap, and usability—which Strava has in spades—is the best guarantee of user retention.

This is why I pay for Strava, even though I (and all users) get the site’s most useful features for free. Don’t get me wrong—the things you get for a paid membership are very cool, but what I really want is continued development of data analysis tools with the same eye toward cleanliness and ease of use that the site currently has. And the five-dollar-a-month user fee seems a pretty fair investment to make for pushing things in that direction.

Tubeless For Cyclocross – The Complete Saga

19 Oct

A flat Maxxis RazeA little more than a year ago, I was riding through the local trail system, over rugged MTB terrain, entirely unhindered by the fact that there was a ‘cross bike between my legs. I was railing loose gravel corners, and clawing my way up steep, bony trails, enjoying plush compliance and plier-like grip. I was plowing over rocks, roots, through streambeds, etc., all without pinching or having my seat punch my backside up into the air. I was thinking “this is amazing—it is totally going to change the CX world”.

This is the real tragedy of tubeless cyclocross set-ups: when they work, they’re awesome. The problem is that for racers, they don’t reliably work. There are plenty of instructions out there, and lots of positive stories. Unfortunately, I can’t say this is one of them.

From the Beginning

In 2009, I had a pretty miserable run of it on clinchers. Some bad luck, some bad riding habits, and some unwillingness to suffer a jarring, high-psi ride left me as a DNF in one out of every five events I started. So after flatting out of a grassy practice race at the beginning of 2010, and being unable to afford the expense and hassle of tubulars at that time, I decided to give tubeless tires a shot.

I ordered a Stan’s Conversion Kit for the Easton Ascent II wheelset I had from road racing. It was with much trepidation that I drilled out the inner wall valve hole to 7/16″, but the wheelset (running standard road clinchers) held up just fine through the 2011 road reason—impressive considering its age, let alone the enlarged hole. I will say that the rims are on the “tighter” side of 700c, and I couldn’t mount any tires with the conversion kit and the factory rim strip in place. Even with just the Stan’s rubber strip on the bare metal, it was a tight squeeze.

The tires I chose—Hutchinson’s tubeless-ready Bulldog CX’s—only made it on to the rim with a tremendous amount of effort and a few broken Pedro’s levers. Once I’d wrestled the tires on, I’d expected my lack of compressor would be a liability, but the front tire, with some soap, a half-cup of Stan’s, and a floor pump, actually inflated pretty handily with the valve core removed (others have had similar experiences). Once I’d set the bead, inflating with the valve core in was no problem.

The rear proved more difficult. No matter how much Stan’s/suds I used, air stubbornly kept slipping out faster than I could put it in. Even at the local garage, the (max 85psi) air pump couldn’t keep up with the leaking. Only after I gave up and removed the tire did I notice that the left-side bead had snapped, leaving a flaccid indentation that refused to hold the rim, even when mounted with a tube.

Eff This, I Wanna Ride

The thing is, a freshly-mounted tire really makes you want to ride. Especially when, pry as you might, you can’t get it to slurp even the tiniest bit of air as you manually wrench it back and forth at 29psi. So I grabbed an older Michelin Mud2, a cup of Stan’s, and another bucket of suds, and within a few minutes, had a second tubeless tire mounted—to the Reservoir!

That puts us back at the beginning of this story—tear-assing like a boss through trails that I had no business riding on a ‘cross bike, to the point that the hard bottom-outs were beginning to bang-up my a-little-light-for-this rims. Even on the faster, more-CX-like sections, the compliant ride and tear-the-grass-out cornering grip were just amazing; everything I’d wanted but never gotten on the clinchers I’d been suffering with for years.

There was still the matter of the broken bead, of course—I’d purchased through an online retailer and the warranty process was going to take weeks, since I had to send it to them, and they had to send it to Hutchinson, and then the process had to reverse. But the Mud2 seemed to be getting the job done.

Some Cracks in the Armor

After a few more vigorous shred sessions at the Res, I’d only found one situation where I encountered the dreaded burp—remounting. Now, my remounts have never been graceful, and last fall they were particularly bad, but only on the ugliest, most awkward landings—overjumping by seven or eight inches and slamming onto the saddle as much sideways as down—did a small bit of air scoot out of my rear tire. It was, according to my mini-pump, less than 5psi on the first burp, and generally, 2 or 3 were survivable before things got sloppy enough that I needed to re-inflate.

Because of the burp-out issue, I had to run the rear tire at a higher pressure (35+ psi) at last year’s Cycle-Smart International, which kinda defeated the purpose—namely, to pedal, rather than bounce, across a notoriously rooty section at that race. I also found myself reverting to step-‘n-hop mounts to prevent burping, which cost me additional time. While I had no qualms about driving the 30psi front tire through corners, as the grassy, hard-grabbing corners wore on, I definitely felt my rear tire getting floppier—not enough to physically slow me, but certainly enough to sap some confidence.

A day or two before Putney, the sidewall on the several-years-old Michelin Mud2 finally broke, rendering it more or less useless for tubeless. I picked up a Maxxis Raze at the local shop, which turned out to be a mistake. By the time of the B race, most of the course had sticky, hard-packed mud ruts—fairly easy to ride, but they also pulled hard at tire bead on every corner. I went about a lap and a half before totally deflation and tire loss. Not cool.

(The Raze also rolled at Ice Weasels, running with a tube. As a race tire, the Raze sucks.)

A Side-by-Side Test

Warranty hassle rolled inexorably onward with the Hutchinson Bulldog. The online retailer I’d bought through couldn’t get in touch with the company, so I went through a back channel, and finally got the case addressed—though my tire would not be in before the end of the season. So I bought a Michelin Mud2 at the local shop, and restored the tubeless set-up I’d run at Cycle-Smart, without too many issues.

Last year’s Baystate Cyclocross provided some slick conditions and a truly infernal course—great for testing the efficacy of different cross setups. To sweeten the deal, Colin Reuter lent me a pair of FMB tubulars on the second day, so I had something more or less resembling a side-by-side test.

It wasn’t perfect; Colin, being insecure about his baldness, took a swipe at my weight by not letting me run 28psi in his tires, and there was a not-insignificant difference in tire width (31ish on the FMBs and 34 on the Hutchinsons). That said, while I had a pretty dismal showing in both races, the tubeless setup easily matched the bite and cushiness of their $150 European counterparts.

While I doubt I could have dared the 22psi employed by tubular aficionados in the loosest of muck (and I still had to half-ass remounts and deal with the slow-seep from the rear) the results showed that tubeless was closely competitive with more traditional setups, in addition to fixing many of the problems endemic to clincher racing.

Things Fall Apart

As the numerous Stan’s torture videos will tell you, tubeless is great at resealing itself. But at a Waffle ‘Cross ride in Boston a few days after Baystate, I caught a piece of glass that made a relatively normal puncture in my rear tire. I’d seen Stan’s take care of some pretty gnarly things (tree branches, barbed wire) on MTB tires, but for whatever reason, the cut just wouldn’t seal up, leaving me floundering around on a flat tire until some Good Samaritan passed me a tube. While not a race incident, it sure was “deflating” (tee-hee) to see tubeless fail in the very situation where it was touted as invincible.

In the interval between Waffle ‘Cross and Ice Weasels, things really started to wear out. My rear Stan’s rubber strip failed around the valve hole—or more precisely, the valve ripped free of the rest of the strip. I was able to create a usable seal by reinserting a valve stem cut from a flatted tube through the inside of the hole left in the strip, and bolting it against the rim. However, there rest of the conversion strip hardly seemed in better shape, as it had small cuts and deformations due to the spoke holes.

So I set up what the Internet glibly refers to as the “ghetto rimstrip”—essentially, half an innertube split open and laid down inside the rim bed. This would prove to be a bad decision. While it worked reliably on the trails, on the hard packed corners at Ice Weasels, it slowly leaked air on every hard bend. The demise was slower than Putney, and I managed to get to the pit before total failure, but the tube just isn’t thick enough to seal off the tire under racing forces and pressures.

During the winter, Hutchinson finally came through with the warranty tire, and I was like “effing finally”. After all, running a tubeless-ready Hutchinson with an intact Stan’s rim strip had been great on the front tire all season long. I’d never managed to test it against the arguably more tubeless-unfriendly forces on the rear tire, but there was reason for optimism. That was, until the bead snapped (again) during installation.

It might seem a little defeatist to give up on tubeless, having never simultaneously run tubeless-ready tires without a proper conversion strip on both wheels. But the fact is that the only tire that seemed to be able hold air to the forces of for-real cross racing—the Hutchinson Bulldog—broke before I could set it up almost every time.

To their credit, Hutchinson has backed-up their product, sending me replacements and alternative tires, but [SPOILER ALERT], they’ve given up on producing tubeless-ready rubber for 2012 because their solution, the low-flex carbon bead, can’t stand up to the forces of installation across the variety of rim diameters out there.

We Must Never Forget That There Is Hope

My own relatively frustrating experience doesn’t mean I think everyone out there having a blast on tubeless tires is a liar. For shredding trails on a CX bike—which is awesome, by the way—tubeless was never a hassle for me. And if you’re a for-fun racer with clean remounts who doesn’t mind backing off in the corners a bit, I think you could even get away with doing some less crowded (so you can pick a clean line) CX events on a tubeless setup.

I think there’s also something to be said for rim choice. Both Shimano and Stan’s make what I’m told are very legit tubeless rims. Unfortunately, unless you already own them, it means you’d need to go out and buy a new set of wheels, and the ability to re-use an existing road wheelset is one of the major reasons people race ‘cross on clinchers (and thus inevitably look to tubeless because clinchers aren’t competitive).

Shimano and Stan’s also ship these tubeless rims/wheels at a prices well above Williams’ much-heralded entry-level tubular wheelset. If money is a concern, tubulars (mindbogglingly, considering how much most tubular tires cost) remain the cheaper option.

Mavic’s Ksyrium and Ksyrium-like wheels, which are certainly more broadly distributed within the peloton than either Stan’s or Shimano’s tubeless offerings, might also provide some hope. The rims are free of air-leaking, rim-strip-slicing spoke holes, and as a co-developer of the UST standard, you’d think they’d have the most respect for a solid tire-rim interface. While the company has stepped away from an “official” road tubeless wheelset in recent years (because weight weenies ruin everything), I’m not the only one who thinks it might secretly already exist.

A Note On Tubulars

A lot of people seem to think I view tubeless as some sort of evolutionary replacement for tubulars. I don’t. If you don’t mind dealing with tubular setups (or can afford to pay some other bastard to deal with them), I see no reason to ever switch over to tubeless. Tubies are indeed a complicated, outdated, dirty, resource-intesive, brute-force solution, but they have one singlar, massively compelling argument in their favor—they work.

But viewing the state of tubulars on the road, I think the appeal of a tubeless cyclocross wheelset becomes clear. While pro cyclists with pro mechanics and free gear still use tubulars, most broke-ass racers who purchase and maintain their own equipment don’t. While I’ll stop short of saying there’s no difference between a $180 Tufo and a $60 Michelin on the road, I will say that you’re not going to lose a race because the guy next to you had tubulars and you didn’t.

A viable tubeless CX option would make that competitive parity between tubular and non-tubular a reality in cyclocross as well, and that—from the standpoint of both racers and manufactures—should be where the real allure of tubeless cyclocross lies.

On "Cyclocross" Clinchers

16 Oct

Inflate to min 60psiIf you’ve been following the Cyclocosm Tumblr at all, you’ve probably seen a few interesting parts failures over the past few weeks. But today’s post is less about a specific failure and more about a broken philosophy: the idea that any clincher with knobs on it is somehow race-appropriate componentry for cyclocross.

It’s Not All Bad, I Guess

I should be specific here: most cyclocross-branded clinchers work well enough—so long as you have no plans to actually race. And in and of itself, that’s not a bad thing. For decades, a loud and long-bearded contingent of Internet cycling personalities has bemoaned the popularity of race-inspired equipment that is ill-suited to the needs of the casual cyclist.

For rough pavement or all-weather commuting, fire roads, and light trail use, a fatter, slightly knobby tire road tire running a 60+ psi is a great choice, and even the least sophsticated CX-branded rubber is a quantum leap beyond the 800g Cheng Shin monstrosities that spread like an STI in shops and box stores alike during the hybrid boom of the 1990s.

Racing on a Crummy Clincher

In terms of actual cyclocross racing—with high-speed cornering on mixed terrain, there are a lot of clinchers out there that simply aren’t competitive. Sure, if you’re willing to endure a masochistic enough pressure, you can hack your way through a race, and maybe even feel like you’re going pretty fast.

But if you’re really tight-roping the ragged edge of traction, hard tires don’t hold on washy, off-camber bends. Hard tires spin out as you try to apply power at the slightest suggestion of mud or loose terrain. And most importantly, hard tires don’t conform to obstacles, subjecting your body, your bike, and your most fickle components (derailleurs, spokes, seatposts clamps, headset bolts) to hammer blow after hammer blow.

There was a time when I thought this lack of suspension could be overcome by vigilant mechanical work and pure physical toughness. But after a few seasons, it’s become clear that the jarring and abuse is a secondary issue. The facts are that you can’t steer or apply power using tire that’s actively careening off the very surface obstacles that make cyclocross awesome.

Go Ahead. Lower the Pressure. See What Happens.

The obvious solution to these problems is to lower your tire pressure, but it’s a bitterly double-edged sword. With every psi you drop, your odds of catching a pinch flat increase, and the bumpier the course gets, and the more you have to gain from compliant, lower-pressure tires, the less safe it is to go for the low-psi advantage.

In my experience (at a not-particularly-nimble 165lbs) 40psi is about as low as you can go with a reasonable expectation of not flatting—and at that pressure, you’re giving away speed. You can still be competitive against tubulars on anything that’s not too muddy/bouncy, but be mentally and physically prepared to close a lot of gaps—rattling ass-in-the-air over washboard hardpack while your rivals pedal away is a psychological disadvantage that gets worse with every lap.

If We Have to Name Names

That said, cheaper and less experienced riders are more or less stuck with the clincher—even $2,600 race-branded machines ship with them. In a perfect world, I’d have bought every clincher I could get my hands on, and I’d let you know which ones suck and which ones rule. Alas, my masochism has limits—having found a handful of tires that don’t work, and a single one that does, I’m disinclined to further study.

My clincher of choice—for 100% of race conditions—is the Michelin Mud2. It has fantastic traction in almost anything, and supple (if somewhat fragile) sidewalls that make it feel tubular-awesome starting around 34psi (if you’re willing to risk a pinch). Sure, it’s a little knobby for hard-packed terrain, but rolling resistance caused by tread pattern (as opposed to say, pressure) is almost meaningless. Unless your ‘cross races are decided by paved, downhill coasting sections, it’s not something I’d bother worrying about.

As far as bad ‘cross tires go, it’s really hard to pick any one offender. There’s the Maxxis Raze that I managed to roll in the SS race of last year’s Ice Weasels. There’s the Vittoria XG that measured 2.5mm narrower than listed and slid six inches sideways every time I tired to pedal it through downhill corners at Green Mountain. And of course, there’s the old “tubeless-ready” Hutchinson Bulldogs that were actually pretty nice, except that their beads broke every other time I tried to mount them.

As always, your mileage may vary. Feel free to comment if you’ve had a good or bad experience with a particular clincher—and be specific about how you’ve used it. I’ve heard good things about a one or two other models, but as I said earlier, there are so many bad tires, and my experiences with them have been so awful, that I really don’t have the stomach for looking anymore.

Suggestions and Practical Advice

If you’re looking for a rule of thumb on what’s awful and what’s not, minimum recommended pressure has been a pretty good indicator for me. Numbers well outside the realm of what’s reasonable for CX—50 on the Raze and 60 on the Vittoria—have always turned out poorly. I’d long considered pressure indications were the result of much legal hang-wringing, but my experience seems to be suggesting that the Mud2 really has been engineered to effectively hold the rim and the dirt all the way down to its 29psi lower limit.

So it seems to me that a great solution this problem would be a little more truth in advertising—namely, not presenting tires with a 60psi minimum recommended inflation as cyclocross race equipment. I understand the marketing imperative of covering the CX niche, but let’s be honest: there are a whole lot more people out there commuting and pleasure riding on 23mm tires who’d be having a whole lot more fun and a lot fewer flats on my Vittoria XGs. Don’t insult consumers and batter your brand by pretending anything knobby is a CX tire because you feel like it needs to exist.

Industry publications could also help the alleviate some of the problem by keeping reader expectations a little more reasonable. While I’ve never been the biggest fan of Matt Pacochia, I give him credit for prefacing this article on CX clinchers by saying (essentially) “tubulars are better” (and also for only including three models, all of which I assume to be race-viable). The cycling press could still maintain its uncomfortably cozy relationship with manufacturers by ranking tires that don’t cut it in actual CX racing under a separate set of criteria to keep the scores inflated (so to speak).