Sunday, April 26, 2009

Measuring "Value" In Bikes

I was skulking around a local bike shop the other day trying not to get waited on (yep, I'm that guy) when I overheard a conversation that really took me back. The sales guy had obviously been chatting up another potential customer for a little bit when he went to the greatest conversation starter there is in bike sales: "What do you ride?"

Before I let the guy answer, let me explain why that is -- without question -- one of the most outstanding sales pitch openers:
  1. It doesn't let the customer say, "No thanks, just looking." You want to hurt a salesperson who understands how sales work? Toss out a "just looking" and stop making eye contact. (If you want to stab that salesperson in the heart, wait a few minutes before you ask another salesperson a question.)
  2. It invites the customer to talk about his/her own bike. What bike nerd doesn't want to do that? Instant camaraderie/rapport.
  3. It tells the salesperson what the potential customer is interested in, bike-wise... what kind of riding he/she does, what he/she spends on bikes, possible brand loyalties, weird retro tendencies, etc.
  4. It creates openings for sales spiel that look natural/organic. Customer's riding something from one of your brands? "They just came out with a new [whatever's hot from that brand]... you gotta check it out." Customer's riding old steel? "Wow, that's a classic. Those bikes are really making a comeback, like this [whatever company happens to be jumping on the retro bandwagon this year]." You get the idea.
So I was duly impressed that Sales Guy knew how to open, especially since I was in one of our less-impressive local bike purveyors. His potential prey's response?

"It's a Trek. And it's like a $3,000 bike, so it's a really good one."

I confess, even though I've been out of bike sales for a decade now, a little bubble of drool formed in the corner of my mouth. It's just not often that you encounter this particular species in the wild. It's the rare "brand plus cost equals value equals respect" shopper, i.e., "I have a bike from a reputable company that cost me a lot of money, therefore, it is awesome, therefore, I am awesome, so please like me! Please really like me!"

If you're a sales shark who has to pay your rent with commissions, those guys (and sadly, they're usually guys) are absolutely GOLDEN. They don't know what's good or bad, and probably don't even know what they like or dislike. They just know brand and cost, and know that the more expensive one must be better somehow. We had one in my last shop, a big-fish/small-pond lawyer who I was taught to know on sight and immediately direct to the most expensive thing in the shop, because he simply wasn't interested in anything he didn't perceive as the best of the best. We actually used his name (which I'm leaving out to protect the innocent... and the guilty) among ourselves as a shorthand for that kind of customer.

Ever hear the story of the guy who had a cheap old bike that he loved, rode it for years and years before he finally treated himself to some Amazing New Vunderbike, but when dosed with truth serum and/or post-ride beers, he admitted that the ANV wasn't as comfortable or fun to ride as his old junker? Welcome to the "brand plus cost equals value" mentality. I wish I were immune to it, but everybody falls into the trap (heck, read my recent post fawning over a Vanilla for just one example). I can't count the number of bikes I've bought (and subsequently resold) that were supposed to be better than what I already had just based on reputation or cost or magazine hype. I had a carbon race bike that beat me senseless and could be (and often was) rendered unrideable by one broken spoke, but damn, did it look sweet hanging in the garage. I had a gorgeous lugged frame from a small U.S. shop that never fit me right, but I just kept sticking different stems in it, desperately trying to sew that sow's ear into a silk purse. Even when you think you know what's good and bad, what you like and dislike, the bike placebo effect can kick in. You change something -- raise a saddle, change pedals, rewrap handlebar tape -- and feel like you've just channeled Lance, at least until the novelty wears off.

I thought I was stumbling toward a point there, but no such luck. Consumerism is weird? Humans are complex and not always rational? Don't trust a salesperson who asks what kind of bike you ride? I dunno.

For the record, $3,000 Trek Guy didn't make any purchases. Guess he was just looking.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Product Review: The Humble Michelin Dynamic

I've been a skidge negative lately, so I figure it's time for a "happy human" product review.

Today, I give you the Michelin Dynamic. Let's not kid ourselves here. This is not a fancy tire. It doesn't claim to have any magical qualities in its rubber, no fancy dual-compound stripes, no flat-shielding belts, and not even much of a label. It has a basic steel bead. It's been around a while under different names -- back in the '90s, I think it was the Tracer. You can see that the poor Michelin website doesn't really know what to do with it. Sure, they made up RB and SW techno-jargon-acronyms (for "Rigid Bead" and "Skin Walls") just so there would be something to put on the "technical" tab, but I can hear the copywriter saying, "jeez, I dunno, it's just a tire."

So what's to like about the Dynamic? Well, in this age of hyperspecialization (and resulting hyperpricing), "just a tire" can be a pretty good thing. The Dynamic is an almost-slick tire in the tradition of the quietly legendary (and long gone, rumor has it) Avocet FasGrip series. It's nice and round, corners predictably, rides smoother than its price and utility would suggest, resists flats (around here) pretty well considering its lack of fancy belts, doesn't weigh a ton, and has pretty impressive durability. My set of 700x32s just got retired to the trash bin after three years and probably 8,000 miles of all-surface riding. They could have gone through the end of this season, but the tread was finally thin enough that they were flatting on things that newer ones would have shrugged off.

Did I mention cheap? I think the highest price I've ever seen for a Dynamic was $20 per tire. A savvy web shopper can probably scare them up for as little as $12. They're available in a full range of honest 700c sizes (23, 25, 28, and 32) that all measure true if not a bit wider. Retro-fashionistas will decry their black sidewalls, but I find that blackwalls hold up better to UV exposure (no science there, just personal experience.)

So there you have it: A good, cheap tire. Your mileage may vary, but I like 'em a lot.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

"Have A Brew... Don't Cost Nothing"

I take a lot of static for my relentless anti-RAGBRAI stance. As a cyclist in Iowa, you're simply expected to prostrate yourself before the Great Emperor of Cross-State Rides, not point out that he has no clothes -- or in the case of RAGBRAI, wears a way-too-tight jersey that leaves nothing to the imagination.

But I have a real beef with what RAGBRAI has done to "cycling culture" in this state. Specifically, it's turned many group rides -- and, as I learned last weekend, more than a few solo rides -- into keggers on wheels. I've taken to calling it the Register's Great Annual Beer Run Across Iowa. For some RAGBRAI riders, "training" for this event is just an excuse to get drunk, bar-hopping with a veneer of physical fitness to make it seem "healthy."

Case in point: I was out for a ride last weekend when another rider came up alongside me. His greeting? "Where do you carry your beer on that thing?"

Seemed odd (especially considering that my gaping saddlebag could have swallowed a six-pack), but I went with it: "I don't pack any."

And here's where it got scary for me: "Huh. I started with eight, but now I'm down to just two. Guess it's time to head for home."

I told him to have a good ride, sat up, and let him drop me real quick-like. Puritanical? Teetotalish? Maybe. But would you drive alongside a guy who'd put down six beers? One swerve, one bad reaction, and we're both tasting asphalt.

Don't get me wrong. I like beer. I like biking. But -- save some extraordinarily stupid moments as a college student that I was lucky enough to survive and regret -- I don't mix 'em. My bike is my vehicle, and I don't operate my vehicle under the influence. I guess that's the thing that mystifies me... in most cases, I imagine these RAGBRAI bar-hoppers are responsible adults who wouldn't think of putting a key into an ignition after having a few too many. But that same responsible adult won't think twice about staggering out of a bar, saddling up, and wobbling off down the road, risking his own safety and that of his weaving peloton.

Maybe someone can explain it to me, because I just don't get it.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Good Rally... But Let's Follow Through

There was a rally on Wednesday riding down to the state capitol to raise awareness for bikers' rights on the road. If you like watching about 500 bikers go past a stationary camera to a soundtrack, be sure to check out the video of the event on YouTube.

I have to admit, after hearing that 500 people came out (I wasn't among them, due to the accumulation of several lame excuses), I was pretty darn impressed. Good start, Des Moines cycling community.

But what's next? It's not enough to crawl from West Des Moines to the golden dome in a 500-body amoeba, blocking traffic thanks to the Des Moines police escort that corked all the major intersections. You don't raise awareness with a one-time nuisance. Sure, our legislators saw numbers, but they'd already put up with a mob of d-bags with teabags that day, plus another mob whose marriages have apparently collapsed since our Supreme Court finally recognized the rights of
all Iowans (take THAT, California! Iowa's more liberal than you! neener neener neener!) You think your poor state senator or rep had any energy left at the end of the day to be "aware" (or even placate via platitudes) a bunch of people out enjoying a bike ride in beautiful weather? Hardly.

So here's my proposal: Now that everyone's patted themselves on the back, I'll see all 500 of you out on the streets next week, and the week after that, and the week after that. Not in a lump, not with police protection. One at a time. Riding to work. Riding to the store. Riding to an I-Cubs game. Riding to a park. Just RIDING. Because if we really want to raise any awareness on the roads, that's what it's going to take. Drivers have to see bikers -- a LOT of bikers -- as a normal part of their day, traveling the streets like just another vehicle. It's not enough to put a "Share The Road" sticker on your roof rack and use it to drive your bike to our protected rail-trail sanctuaries.

I'll be out there. Will you?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Iowa Bikers: There's A Man Down

Doug Smith of Des Moines was run over by a truck towing two anhydrous ammonia tanks last weekend while out on a training ride, suffering a skull fracture and a broken pelvis.

More details are available from our local CBS affiliate, KCCI. Or, if you like your web news from a paper-pusher, there's the Des Moines Register story.

I love living and riding in Iowa. I've spent 14 years of my life here -- long enough that I actually think of myself an Iowan even though I wasn't born here. But reading some of the comments from our local mob of mouth-breathers made me want to move somewhere -- ANYWHERE -- else.

No matter where you ride, let's be careful out there. And Doug, even though we've never met, my thoughts are with you and your family. Here's hoping that your recovery is like a flat stretch of road with a strong tailwind.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

People You Meet On A Trail In Iowa

Let me preface by saying that I am NOT a people person. Sure, my job entails "taking the specifications from the customers to the engineers," but I was raised in out in the country where the nearest kid my own age (save for my little sister) was about a mile of gravel road away. Social interaction and small talk is a chore for me -- I sort of know how normal people converse, and I can fake it, but it takes some effort. How I wound up married is one of the greater mysteries of my life, as most women are put off by my system of pre-verbal grunts and rudimentary sign language. I can only assume my wife is some kind of Jane Goodall wannabe.

As a result, I tend to keep my cycling pretty solitary. I like going out there alone, getting lost in my own head, and relying on whatever's in my saddlebag should something go wrong. On the off chance that I'm faster than someone else on the trail, I can manage an "on your left", and if (okay, when) someone's faster than me, I can grunt something resembling a greeting. I don't usually go further than that, but if I do, I try to make it a policy to say something nice about the other person's bike, because a) bikes are one thing I
can talk about with some level of coherence, and b) I firmly believe that everyone should think their bike is cool.

Some days, that policy of "compliment the bike" can get rough. After the twentieth identical Trek goes by, you start to run out of things to say. "Nice... um.... skewers?"

Today, not so much.

I was taking a break at the turnaround point of my ride when an older chap pulled up on a bike that looked pretty ordinary out of the corner of my eye... silver road frame, modern components, whatever. I gave the obligatory "how's it going?" and took a better look. That's when I saw the Vanilla logo on the downtube.

Me: (double take) "Wow, nice bike!"

Him: "Oh, thanks. My son-in-law made it for me."

Me: (triple take with cartoon "ahominahominahomina" sound effect) "Your son-in-law is Sacha White?" (Before you ask, yes, bloggers DO speak in hyperlinks. It's very awkward, what with all the "a href" tags.)

Him: "Yep, he married my daughter."

Me, in internal monologue:
Could you please adopt me so I can have an incredibly talented framebuilder as a brother-in-law?

So I'm in the middle of nowhere in Central Iowa chatting (as best as I can) with Sacha White's father-in-law. Go figure. I gave the bike a more detailed ogling and definitely saw the trademark Vanilla stuff... fancy V cutouts in the dropouts, a stunning flat-crown fork with tiny integrated Vanilla logos, and some seriously elegant lugwork set off with just a hint of yellow detailing to match the decals. I know Vanilla has a reputation for some pretty over-the-top show bikes with a lot of bling, but this frame really showed Sacha White's eye for classic, understated beauty. It certainly wasn't a vanilla Vanilla, but nothing jumped out as a "hey, look at me!" detail. It just all fit together. Plus, its owner described it as amazingly comfortable, "perfect for an old guy."

After we went our separate ways, I couldn't help but imagine an entirely fictionalized version of the conversation that led up to that marriage: "So, youing man, you say you'd like to marry my daughter?"

"Yes sir."

"And you say that you build bicycle frames?"

"Yes sir."

"I'm not sure how I feel about that. After all, how much does a framebuilder make, anyway? How do I know you'll be able to take care of my daughter?"

"I thought you might wonder about that, so to show you what I can do, I made this for you." (Pulls out the amazing silver frame)

"Welcome to the family, son!"

To his credit, he was very complimentary toward my giant Jandd saddlebag, even going so far as to ask where he could get one like it, so I rolled away from the encounter feeling like my bike was cool too.

Even if it was just a "nice... um... skewers" moment.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Still Retro-MTB Obsessing

Now that I've finally outed my unquenchable thirst for that old-school, all-rigid mountain bike aesthetic of the late 80s/early 90s, I can't help but pick it apart. It's the curse of having been to graduate school in a liberal arts field: You can't just "like" or "dislike" something, you have to analyze (in stomach-churning detail) exactly WHY you "like" or "dislike" that thing.

For retro mountain bikes, I think it's the way that their underlying shape never seems dated (I know, talking about "underlying shape" ignores the twin elephants in the room of hideous 80s paint jobs and 90s anodizing. My blog, my dodge.) Take, for example, this Bruce Gordon Rock 'n' Road Tour EX. Admittedly, it's not
really a mountain bike per se, but it's an example of a 26"-wheeled all-rigid bike you can buy in 2009. You don't have to squint much to see the direct lineage back to the brief era of late-80s drop-bar mountain bikes like the '87 Bridgestone MB-1 or the '89 Specialized RockCombo. And even though the Gordon in the photo is probably 10 years old by now (just judging by the vintage of its XT parts), it wouldn't look out of place up against today's Surly Long Haul Trucker (which owes a lot of its genetic code to Bruce Gordon's designs), save for the whole threaded/threadless steerer difference. Similarly, you could fire up the flux capacitor and send an '09 Novara Buzz V back to 1993 without freaking out the trail riders of 16 years ago with your crazy future bike. Heck, they'd probably call you retro for not having a suspension fork!

My more-purist pals on the iBOB list will claim the same sort of timelessness for a lugged road frame, but my eye doesn't see it. I really like the '71 Raleigh International I got from pal Steve, but it obviously comes from another era. Modern "frilly lug" designs (like those from Rivendell) strike me not as proof of the "timelessness" of that aesthetic but as desperate attempts to get back something that's long gone. And modern "Raleigh" (scare-quotes intentional) -- with its retro logos, 70s color palette, and sprinkling of Brooks leather eye-candy -- looks like a room full of marketers trying to add scratch-and-sniff "authenticity" to yet another lineup of generic imports.

I'm also willing to admit that maybe these preferences are just because I bought into the "rad, cool, extreme" marketing when I was an impressionable youth and never gave it up. Hey, my sacred cows tip over just like anyone else's!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Outstanding New Bike-Nerd Interweb Discovery

I have a new bike geek Web obsession.

It's called Disraeli Gears.

No, not the Cream album of the same name, although the site credits the story behind that album name. This is -- brace yourself -- an entire site devoted to one man's collection of rear derailleurs. But don't let the site's humble subtitle -- "A derailleur collection" -- fool you. This is no mere handful of common chain-movers. From old to new, bizarre to commonplace, there must be HUNDREDS of them in words and photos -- I tried to count and gave up. The site's author, Michael Sweatman, has a real passion for the rear derailleur
and a true gift for turning phrases and telling stories. Sweatman pans one model by comparing the act of shifting it to "stirring porridge with a tennis racquet." Another model gets tongue-in-cheek praise for its urine-colored finish.

The gauntlet is thrown down on the site's home page. You know you aren't dealing with just another Campagnolo Nuovo Record fetish site (although Campyphiles will get their jollies here too) when the first image that confronts you is the absurdly wonderful three-pulley Suntour XC. The breadth of the collection is mind-blowing, from pull-chain plungers to the boat-anchor "Schwinn-Approved" Shimano GT100 knockoff of the Huret Allivit to the iconic Shimano M735 XT to a pink plastic Ofmega Mistral with matching pulleys. Even though the author is painfully aware of the aesthetic and technical shortcomings of many of these models, he seems to love them in spite of -- or sometimes because of -- their homeliness or clumsiness.

I think what I'm finding most endearing and enjoyable about the site (after reading everything from Altenburger to SunRun) is the voice behind it. This is no dry regurgitation of technical specs and model hierarchies. Sure, you'll get technical information along the way, but the technology just a framework for some entertaining writing. Take, for example, this laugh-out-loud introduction to the long-cage Dura Ace 7700 GS:

Finally Shimano gave in to the inevitability of having to sell its top-of-the-line groupset to fat middle-aged men who want low, low gears. The introduction of the Dura-Ace 7700 GS indicated that the portly wallets of portly gentlemen counted for more than the alluring image of speed, youth and fitness that Shimano had carefully cultured for Dura-Ace over two and a half decades. It was a triumph of beer-fueled reality over EPO-fueled fiction.


So, if you think you know a lot about rear derailleurs, I dare you to get over to and see how many you recognize. I'd be willing to bet that even the most die-hard, Berto-worshipping, Sheldon-Brown-memorizing bike nerd will find at least ONE model they've never seen before, if not entire BRANDS that they've never heard of.

Don't believe me? Then how many different Chinese manufacturers of Shimano Tourney knock-offs can you name off the top of your head? And can you tell a LandRider Auto Shift from an AutoBike SmartShift 2000? And (warning, impending Beavis and Butthead moment), did you know that Shimano once made a not one but two styles of derailleur called the Pecker?

That's what I thought.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to finish reading Suntour to Zeus.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Attack of the Bad Back

Not fair. Didn't I get enough "Jason as an old man" reality checking when I broke my leg?

I'm recliner-bound right now, basking in the warm glow of a heating pad as the wonky disc in my lower back sends lovely knife-like pains into my legs. Had a GREAT ride on Saturday morning before the winds picked up, then proceeded to cripple myself inexplicably during the post-ride cleanup. Smooth.

The fact that I made it to the recliner at all is a good sign, since I was so pathetic yesterday that I couldn't even put on my own pants. Just one more thing for my wife to put in the bulging file of "things they don't tell you about when they lay that 'for better or worse' line on you."

Thankfully, my local Angel of Chiropractic Care has a cancellation in about one hour, so I should be right as rain before end of day.

Friday, April 3, 2009

First Ride On The New-Old Raleigh

Decided that the weather was dry enough today that I could take the still-fenderless Raleigh International fixie to work instead of the fendered and geared workhorse. I even went fixie punk style, in my rolled up jeans, Chuck Taylors, and hooded sweatshirt -- although I sported a backpack instead of the full fakenger messenger bag. All in all, the look was... well, let's be honest, pretty pathetic. I am a fat, balding geezer, after all.

It was a short ride, but wow. This thing is a luxury liner. I rolled over the rough spots in my usual commute route like they weren't even there, even though the bike has narrower tires than my usual commuter. It doesn't feel sluggish in the corners, either. I don't know if this is the "planing" that
Bicycle Quarterly is always going on about, but whatever it is, I like it. Cushy!

Of course, all is not perfect in new-bike-land. The low stock stem and my chop-and-flop bullhorns are not going to cut it. This baby needs a tall Nitto stem and some wide drop bars before I can really get comfortable. Then, it's time to start cranking out the no-coasting miles!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Bad Bike Biz News From Bedford PA

Anybody who watches the bike biz probably saw this one coming from a mile away, but it bums me out just the same.

Bicycle Retailer and Industry News
is reporting that Dorel (current corporate overlord of Cannondale, Schwinn, GT, and Mongoose) is moving production of Cannondale bikes offshore and laying off 200 of the 300 employees at the Cannondale factory in Bedford, PA. If you can stomach it, here's a link to the corporate-euphemism-encrusted Dorel press release on the BRAIN site.

I'm no jingoistic "Made in the U.S.A." zealot/xenophobe (far from it), but a Cannondale cranked out of a Taiwanese "Center of Excellence" (that's apparently Dorel-babble for "place we do stuff") just isn't a Cannondale, in the same way that a Rolling Rock brewed anywhere but Latrobe, PA is just some beer in a green bottle. Having worked for a 'dale dealer just up Route 30 from Bedford, I've walked through that factory, met the ladies at the sewing machines, and shook the hands that normally held welding torches and paint guns. We saw a prototype of Shaquille O'Neal's gigantic frameset with a pocket-sized "weld/paint test" frame parked alongside it for comic comparison. We watched as the CNC laser cutters sliced out perfect miters. We saw dozens of testing machines dutifully jiggling parts to failure, and a "wall of shame" of the parts and frames that failed, with their jiggle-cycle-counts marked on the wall as a kind of final grade.

I probably sipped some Cannondale Kool-Aid on those tours (the joke was that no shop employee could end a tour without ordering a bike), but it still felt like it meant
something that the bike under me came from just over Laurel Mountain, welded by people I'd actually met, people who made a decent wage turning tubes into bicycles, people who were proud to be making all their bikes right there in Pennsylvania instead of just sending a blueprint overseas and pulling the results out of a shipping container. Hell, even the way Cannondales were packed seemed to indicate a level of pride and seriousness that made everyone else's packing jobs look haphazard -- and anyone who's unpacked a Cannondale from one of the old clamshell boxes (or tried to duplicate that unique "bicycle sandwich" packing job to ship a bike) knows what I'm talking about.

I'm sure the "new and improved" Cannondales will be fine bikes. And I imagine that whoever holds the welding torches and paint guns in Dorel's Taiwanese "Center of Excellence" will bring the same skill and pride to their work that I saw in Bedford. Maybe they'll even make (relatively) good money doing it.

But somehow, the end result just won't feel like a Cannondale.