Sunday, February 24, 2013

Horses For Courses

The folks over (er, up, since this is Des Moines and they're in the Twin Cities) at All City Cycles recently put up a blog post called Why We Won't Put Model Names On Our Bikes. Word of warning, said post uses just the tiniest smattering of language that some readers may not find 100% appropriate. It doesn't offend me, but I certainly can't claim to be the Universal Arbiter of All Things in Good Taste. (Note that this example is nowhere near the "we hate our customers" marketing attitude that Surly seems to have taken lately on their blog, which is so egregious and f-bomb laden that I won't even link it. Surly folks, just because it's getting crowded out there on the quasi-fringe doesn't mean you have to find a fringier fringe from which to alienate.)

Obviously, since I link-juiced the crap out of All City in my lead, you can tell that I like a lot of what's going on in the post. I am not a fan of the "NASCAR-wannabe" look, where frames and components are encrusted with decal vomit from the factory. Hey, maybe your race team is getting paid to advertise for twenty different companies, but I'm not. In fact, I'm the one actually PAYING for the bike, so if you wanna put stickers on it, you'd better sponsor ME (and if there's a spot open on your Chubby Commuter Domestique squad, I'm available for the 2013 season).

What really struck me about the All-City post (besides the so-obvious-it's-brilliant "who needs a URL when there's Google?" observation) is the bit about different models from the same company. All-City gets away with leaving model names off their frames because they make distinctive frames. Strip the paint and decals, and you'll still be able to tell a Space Horse from a Nature Boy from a Macho Man (wow, I get the point about the stupid model names now). There are features and functional differences baked (er, welded) into the frames that make them unique, so they don't need a model name to stand out.

Contrast that with pretty much any of the "big players" in the bike business: your Trek-Specialized-Giant-Cannondale-whatevers. Within a category, they're often generating price points and SKUs, not unique bikes. In many cases, the same frame and fork are available with nothing more than different grades of components from the same company. The question becomes not, "Which bike has the features I want?" but rather, "How much do I want to pay for the same bike?" (or more cynically, "Which color do I like?") You can get Frameset A with Tiagra for $1000 or Frameset A with 105 for $1300 or Frameset A with Ultegra for $1800. Your salesperson will call this a "feature" (no judgement -- done it myself many times) because your Tiagra bike's frame is just as nice as the Ultegra one, which means you can upgrade later. Of course, it's only a feature if Frameset A meets your needs -- if not, no amount of upgrades will make it work.

So given the state of things, what do I look for when strolling a bike shop? Generally, if I look down a row in the "road" section and see nothing but identical STI hooked up to short-reach dual-pivot brake calipers over 700x23 tires, I yawn, turn around, and bolt. Why? Because that lineup tells me this shop equates "road" with "race" and effectively offers the same bike in a variety of colors and price points. If I look down the line and see a smattering of bar-end shifters, cantilever brakes, long-reach calipers (or even -- shudder -- discs), cyclocross or 29er tires, maybe a rack or two, and maybe even some fenders, THEN you have my attention. That's a shop selling unique bikes for distinctive use cases rather than trying to convince me that the same bike works for everyone.

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