Cyclocross Worlds 2013 - U23 Men and Elite Men
My report from the 2013 Cyclocross World Championships continues! Previously, I gave an account of the first half of our day in Louisville, Kentucky, where we saw Logan Owen narrowly miss out on a medal behind Mathieu Van Der Poel, Martijn Budding (Netherlands) and Adam Toupalik (Czech Republic) and later watched Marianne Vos (Netherlands) take an emphatic and thrilling victory over Katie Compton (USA! USA! USA! …etc), who staged an impressive comeback from a mechanical to take silver. Lucy Chainel-Lefevre of France narrowly overtook Katerina Nash of the Czech Republic to take bronze in a dramatic flurry of mechanicals and crashes. The day was going well so far! The women’s race had been unbelievably exciting, both in terms of the racing and historic context. I gushed at some length on this in my earlier post on the race, so do yourself a favor and check it out.
That’s enough strait-laced Cycling News Wannabe Reporter Mode from me, now - I just wanted to set the scene for you. We will now return to the timeline brief of Life in Louisville For a Day and see how the venue, the organizers and the remaining races stacked up.
Women’s race over, we get our palpitations under control and hiked off in search of various friends and acquaintances. With a solid half-hour of official training time before the U23 race, we aren’t too concerned about missing the action.
To the surprise of no one, it is difficult to deliberately make contact with anyone at a sprawling and crowded sports event! After making plans via cell phone to meet later, we decide that we are hungry and that we should probably get in the concession line sooner rather than later, lest we miss any of the upcoming U23 race. The line stretches out of the tent, but seems to be moving.
We make it inside the concession tent, and our hearts sink - it is unbelievably crowded. We are near the front, but the line is wrapped all the way to the back of the tent and back around to where we are standing. It looks like a long wait, but can it really be that bad? We settle in.
We finally obtain food and drink! It’s safe to say that the concessions experience was the weakest element of our day at the World Championships. Under the circumstances, which may have included greater demand than anticipated due to the schedule change, this may be acceptable. The limited number of beer choices seems less excusable, but… really, if the worst thing you can say about an event is that you had to wait a long time for mediocre food, well, how many events can you really give better marks than that, anyway? It’s a very small demerit. We did miss most of the Men U23 race as a result, though.
12:50 - 2:30 PM
I will skip over the preceding hour and forty minutes or so, except to say that the official training period created quite a bit of excitement, and drinking our beers in 30-degree weather made us quite cold. By the time the men’s race began, the course had warmed up considerably, turning what had been a hard and fast course for the morning races into a sloppy mess. In spite of the muddy ground, the air was still cold and in fact it began snowing! The crowds had started to grow very large indeed, and with the advertising banners for Telenet and Lion of Flanders flags, things were looking pretty damn Belgian. Most of those flags were being waved by American fans; I have to admit that I find Belgian fetishization in American cycling culture a bit strange and even distasteful. The riders deserve every bit of the admiration that they get, but I think we shortchange our own cycling culture a bit by holding one particular nation in too much awe. After all, the conditions that racers have to endure in America’s homeland of cyclocross, New England (Oregonians, I love you, but don’t even try to argue this one), are often far colder and more unpleasant than European riders must put up with, with the possible exception of late winter races in the Czech Republic. Despite my reservations, though, there’s no doubt that all of the signs and flags contributed to an atmosphere that made the race feel every bit a part of the same history as the 63 Europe-based World Championships that preceded this one.
The elite men are gridded out, lined up, the gun is fired, and the roar of the crown rises up like an impenetrable wave. We manage to get a spot right by the barriers on the upper part of the course, right on the bend that plunges down to the second, stone staircase run up. It isn’t easy to get this close, as the crowds are often three or five deep in this technical area of the course.
It’s not hard to tell when the riders get close on the first lap. They are announced by the escalating volume of shouting and cheers as they approach at high speed. I ready my phone so that I can snap pictures of riders as they go by. I hadn’t anticipated just how difficult this would be. The cheering reaches a crescendo, and suddenly the racers are there, blasting around the muddy corner at a thousand miles per hour, passing within inches of my gingerly-held iPhone. Yikes. There’s not a hope in hell of lining up and composing shots at this kind of speed. Instead, I just stab at the shutter button as quickly as I can and hope for the best.
Martin Bina of the Czech Republic was the 1st lap leader.
Sven Nys of Belgium nearly knocked the phone out of my hands. Behind him is Francis Mourey of France, who would lead the race for several laps.
This is only the first lap, but everyone is already filthy.
Again, the race is young, but the pain is already plainly visible on the faces of the riders.
Bart Wellens of Belgium had a poor start, but then posted one of the best rides of the day to finish 4th. That’s Ryan Trebon (USA) behind him.
With the first lap complete, we move to find another vantage point at the base of the hill. I get prepared to take more pictures, only for my phone to suddenly die. Damn! But what else is there to describe with photos? The scene is one of tremendous excitement and confusion - it is difficult to follow a cyclocross race on the ground, albeit easier than a road race. From several vantage points we see Francis Mourey leading the race, then the Belgians Nys and Klaas Vantornout assuming it for themselves to assert the continuing Belgian dominance of cyclocross. The venue is absolutely packed with fans, which makes moving around on the steep and muddy hillsides even tougher than it already was. It’s a scene of the most concentrated love for cycling I’ve ever seen, and it’s almost all Americans.
So, the race continues. The cheering does not recede as the race goes on. If anything, the tidal wave of noise becomes louder with each lap. It follows the Americans in particular, yes, but each passing racer carries with them a personal cacophony of hoarse voices, cowbells, whistles and occasional catcalls. All the racers, from first down to last place, get the same treatment. This is probably what we, as American cycling fans, can be most proud of: every rider present was absolutely showered in celebration and adulation. And probably some amount of saliva and beer as well, but that’s okay.
Eventually, we find our way to a vantage point upon the stone wall along the starting stretch, 50 meters or so back from the finish line. It’s hard to see much, but we do see Sven Nys pass Klaas Vantornout to take the victory, Lars van der Haar of the Netherland claiming the third podium spot behind them after obtaining special permission to race the Elites rather than the U23 riders. Bart Wellens is not far behind in 4th, an honorable mention for an outstanding ride after being funneled back over 20 places in the first lap. And of course, we are there for the medal ceremony, as Pat McQuaid is booed by a crown of thousands (I admit to joining in) and Klaa Vantornout stands on the podium looking for all the world as though he is about to burst into dejected tears when he receives his silver medal.
That was the Cyclocross World Championships, 2013, the first ever in the United States, the first even outside of Europe. It’s hard to summarize the event and my feelings about it. I would have liked to see an American winner in one of the races, yes, but we couldn’t have asked for more appropriate international winners than Sven Nys in the Elite Men’s race, a rider who is emblematic of the sport here in the U.S., and Marianne Vos in the Elite Women’s race, the most dominant racing cyclist of all time, a symbol of athletic excellence. And both are outstanding ambassadors for the sport of cycling, and gracious in victory. Nys went so far as to say “To win here is maybe more special to win than in my own country.” It is hard to imagine being happier. It is hard to imagine a better way to announce the arrival of American cyclocross.
Suspension in Cyclocross: an argument for experimentation
Despite the frenzied insistence of various component and bicycle manufacturers, the bicycle industry is really quite conservative. Real innovation is really quite rare, at least as far as technology is concerned. This is partly the fault of the UCI and it’s relatively strict design restrictions on sporting bicycles. And it is partly because improving on the bicycle is difficult to do! To some extent, this is a matter of the breadth of what cycling and the bicycle can be made to do. It is probably easier to find space to innovate when you drill down to more specialized applications - disciplines with specific and challenging demands, such as cyclocross and the current growth of dirt and gravel road races, such as Southern Cross, or the Dirty Kanza (or, perhaps the original, D2R2, though it’s not a “race” as such). As interest in these subsets of cycling has grown, there has been a commensurate increase in the interest and ability of manufacturers to provide equipment specifically for the bicycles used in these types of events. The most obvious result has been the development of disc brakes for cyclocross bikes, with road bikes probably not far behind as a result. Better braking makes sense in ‘cross, but as long as we’re bringing in tech previously restricted mostly to mountain bikes, why not suspension as well?
Hear me out. I do not know for certain that cyclocross bikes can be made faster with the addition of suspension, but I think there’s a case to be made for experimenting with it. ‘Cross bikes present a special challenge. They need to work off-road, but they must retain good speed on smooth surfaces. They have to be durable and continue working - for a while, anyway - when covered with mud. At the same time, they need to be as light as possible, since the riders need to pick them up and carry them at least once per lap. Even ignoring the rule restricting tire width to 33mm in UCI races, there is a practical limit on tire width not far above this*, mostly due to the increased weight of wider rubber and the wider forks and frame members needed to fit them. But UCI rules can’t be ignored, of course, because they have an extremely strong influence on what manufacturers are willing to devote their resources to; disc brakes have taken off specifically because the UCI relented and decided to allow them in cyclocross.**
The result of the specific demands of cyclocross is an off-road bicycle that is extremely traction-compromised. There are specifically two traction problems faced by cyclocross bikes. First, the skinny tires mean there simply isn’t a lot of rubber on the ground to resist inertia. There’s really no getting around this problem on a ‘cross bike. Second, those tires spend a lot of time not in solid contact with the ground - basically, they bounce around. And a tire that isn’t in solid contact with the ground can’t do its job. This is exactly the problem that suspension solves. The benefits aren’t just seen in rutted, slippery corners, either - a bouncing tire can’t put power down on the straight, either. This is why, as the technology as progressed, dual-suspended mountain bikes have made their way from gravity disciplines into cross-country MTB racing. Once the problem of drivetrain interference was solved, it became clear that dual suspension mountain bikes are faster than hardtails, because the wheel is on the ground more of the time. I don’t follow mountain bike racing, but my understanding is that the highest level of cross-country racing is now dominated by dual suspension bicycles. Cyclocross bikes present basically the same challenge as a cross-country mountain bike, only more so.
There are some challenges to overcome, of course. The biggest problem is weight. On the plus side, cyclocross bikes don’t need to take big hits, so that by definition means less material to lug around. Very low suspension travel also hopefully means that relatively simple and lightweight rear suspension designs will suffice; in fact, they will probably have to, as I can’t see a sophisticated multi-pivot design getting any love from riders, and it might not take much to yield improvements in traction and control. Front suspension may actually prove to be much more of a challenge. The most serious problem is implementing a front suspension system that does not either drastically increase weight (as telescoping fork legs certainly would) or compromise the geometry of bicycles for shorter riders (as a Headshok-style suspension design certainly would). One possible solution to this problem would be adoption of smaller wheel sizes, such as 650B or even 26-inch, but the problems with this idea are obvious, and many. Another possibility is that the standard cyclocross suspension configuration would be “hardnose” designs with rear suspension but rigid forks.
So, I’m not blasé about the difficulty of implementing suspension in cyclocross bikes. Right now it may not be technically possible to put suspension on a ‘cross bike and therefore make it faster. But wouldn’t it be nice to see some experimenting? I think the potential benefits are sufficient to make it worth a try, and with increasing interest and growth in cyclocross, there’s never been a better time to try and build a faster cyclocross bike. Will any builders take a chance and try something new, though? I’m not holding my breath, but I would love to see someone try.
*As evidence, I will point out that very few riders in USAC cyclocross races bother with tires wider than 35mm or so. There are probably lots of contributing factors than just performance here, but there just aren’t a lot of fat tires on USAC podiums.
**UCI rules make no prohibition against suspension in cyclocross or road bikes, and road bikes with suspension forks have been used in UCI-sanctioned events before.
Cyclocross Worlds 2013 - Juniors and Women
When Louisville, Kentucky was awarded the World Cyclocross Championships (by the way, it’s “Loo-uh-vull,” not “Loo-ee-vill,”), it was a major triumph for American cyclocross and a small Southern city whose only previous claim to fame is hosting the world’s most famous, most prestigious horse race for the last 137 years. Which doesn’t sound too shabby, now that I’ve typed it out, but the fact remains that the United States is a long way from the homeland of cyclocross, and Louisville is a long way from the homeland of American cyclocross. So, could they pull it off? À bloc is fortunate enough to have its world headquarters in nearby Nashville, Tennessee, a scant two and a half hour drive south of Louisville, so I was able to go and find out for myself. Strictly to chase this story, mind you. Not to watch the best cyclocross racers in the world battle it out on a challenging course in changing conditions. Not for that reason at all.
As I may have mentioned before, I had only followed cyclocross in a vague, nonspecific sense before this year. I obtained race results and learned who Sven Nys was more through osmosis than actual intent. It was only recently that the sport really “clicked” for me and I started to get into it. But I still had only a vague notion of who the top European stars were, or so I thought, and as of writing this post, I still have not watched a live European cyclocross race via the Internet on a weekend morning. Perhaps this meant that I could observe the event with open eyes, as an innocent babe free from preconceptions and prejudice. Or perhaps, and more likely, I would have no flipping idea of what was going on. Aside from two editions of the Bay State Cyclocross race, which is nice but not exactly a World Cup, I hadn’t even attended a professional ‘cross race in the United States. So this should be a fun, new experience.
There was much consternation and gnashing of teeth over the rescheduling of all World Championship races to Saturday, February 2nd, due to anticipated flooding of the course by early Sunday morning, but in fact the schedule change was serendipitous for me. We had planned only on attending the Elite races on Sunday, and instead we suddenly found that we would be able to catch virtually all of the races. Rather than report blow-by-blow on the events of each race, which would be redundant (and, as events would dictate, impossible), here instead is a brief timeline of our day in Eva Bandman Cyclocross Park in Louisville, Kentucky.
We arrive at the gates after sliding through snow-covered streets to find parking and a walk that felt a mile long. Because it was a mile long. We are scanned and inside in no time, enough to catch the last 15 minutes of the Juniors race. Logan Owen of United States is fighting hard for a podium spot. The park isn’t nearly full yet, but a wave of cheers is already following Owen down every inch of the course. After the leaders whiz by, the small crowd, pressed up against the barriers to get as close a look as possible, dash across the clearings to the next section of the course to watch them go by again. We’re already yelling our lungs out. Owen finishes fourth.
The Juniors race over, we go in search of a toilet. Mission easily accomplished. The organizers have set up a veritable village of portable privies. Well done, Louisville! Job done, we wander for a while in search of a spot to watch the upcoming Women’s race, eventually settling for a place next to the first sandpit, not far above the exit.
The women are called up and the race is on. We can see and hear on the big screen that Katie Compton is fighting for the holeshot with Marianne Vos. We are breathless with anticipation for the coming battle between them. The announcers tell us there has been a massive crash, but no mention of Vos or Compton being involved. And then Vos comes flying by over the sand at a thousand miles per hour, pursued by huge cheers and rider after rider who definitely aren’t Katie Compton. I take a series of terrible photos of Vos and the others, such as this one.
I miss the most exciting and photogenic moments, of course. Like the poor Italian rider who rode the messy, rutted, snowy sand to the right instead of following the line and lost it, falling off and smacking her elbow very audibly on the barriers on her way down. Ouch. She got up right in front of us and kept chasing. And we kept wondering what had happened to the Americans.
This is really the central strangeness of watching a race in person. It is much more exciting, much more visceral and real and fun than watching a grainy feed over the Internet. Even in HD, there’s simply no comparison to being pressed up against the barriers and shouting yourself hoarse as the superstars fly past. But it’s also a very small view of the race. You have practically no information at all, no sense of the big picture. Even if you’re fortunate enough to be able to see the big screen and are in an area where you can hear the announcers, there is surprisingly little edification to be had. So the reasons for seeing Compton come by in perhaps 10th place before the halfway point on the first lap remained mysterious for hours after the race. But none of this changes the fact that a professional cyclocross race is immeasurably more entertaining in person than over video. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
Due to a combination of our position along the course and the available lighting, I’m getting really crap photos, so I suggest that we go looking for a better spot. After a little while, we find one, at the s-curve run-up to one of the off-camber sections. This is a much better spot, and I am able to snap a number of good photos.
Compton, now chasing in second place:
It is impossible not to know when Compton, or any of the other Americans are coming. They are followed all along the course by a massive wall of sound. It is like being swept under by a literal pressure wave of voices whenever they go by. We are doing our part, as well. Not that anyone gives short shrift to the international riders. They are given hearty acknowledgment by the crowd, no matter their position.
The chasers, Lechner (ITA), Nash (CZE), Van Paassen (NED):
The end of the race is near, so we try to find a spot where can see the finishing straight. This goes well:
Well, anyway, we can’t see much of the pavement, but we can see the final, sloppy, muddy corner before the pavement. And we see Vos come through onto the pavement, putting up her arms in salute to the crowd. We do not see her bow until later, on video (see it at 1:17). I think it’s wonderful. It’s hard not to imagine, in watching Vos win, that we are watching a major chapter in cycling history being written, and she bears it well. We see Katie Compton come in as well, far down but with the silver secured, smiling, celebrating, shaking her head ruefully. Katie Compton is one of the best cyclocross racers ever, but she’s racing in the same era as Marianne Vos, and that can’t be easy. We see Lucy Chainel-Lefevre come into that final corner in third place, unaware that she has just passed Katerina Nash, who has been stricken by mechanical problems. And we see the drama unfold as she wipes out in that final corner and is passed by Nash, only to see Nash through the crowd, looking down at her feet and then climbing off as Chainel-Lefevre comes by her again, claiming bronze in the final 50 meters of the race.
It isn’t noon, and this is the best racing I’ve ever seen in person. Anyone who tells you that women’s cycling isn’t every bit as exciting, dramatic and powerful as men’s racing - if not more so, at this point in time - either isn’t paying attention or doesn’t want to have their eyes opened. I saw power, I saw grit, I saw history. So far, Louisville is delivering in spades.
My report on Cyclocross Worlds 2013 will continue with the U23 Men, Elite Men and my conclusions on the event in an upcoming post.
À bloc Gets a Grip on Cyclo-Cross
I have to confess, it took me a long time to really make sense of cyclocross, which is why I’ve had so little to say about it over the first year or so of À bloc’s existence. Even fans of the sport have to admit it’s an odd duck, as cycling disciplines go. It takes place in the cold months of the fall and winter. Courses are deliberately designed to force riders off of their bikes. It doesn’t really look anything like mountain biking, but it’s really nothing like road cycling either. It lacks the essential weirdness of road racing, where a weaker but savvy rider can win races - to cross the line first, you have to be strong.
It’s not that I’ve paid no attention to cyclocross at all - I’ve followed the results at the big U.S. race series, and had even been to a couple of editions of Bay State Cyclocross in Sterling, Massachusetts to see a UCI race, albeit a small one, in person. It just took a long while for it to really sink in and make sense.
How? Lately there’s been a lot of talk, with the World Championships coming to the United States, about cyclocross is different in Belgium/Europe and the USA. A recurring theme in the comparisons is, essentially: over there, cyclocross is something you watch; over here, cyclocross is something you do. That is, what is mostly a spectator sport in Europe is a participatory sport in the USA. Most of the fans here have raced ‘cross at some point. And that’s what I finally did. I had attempted one race, a couple of years ago, on a bike that really wasn’t up to the task. That didn’t go well. Last fall, though, I finally laced up my MTB shoes, hopped on a heavy steel bike and raced a short season of six races. And as I slid through dusty corners, and fell over in the mud and carried a heavy-ass bike over the barriers, all with my heart rate somewhere in the 180s, I thought, ah, so this is what they’re doing. I see.
I think I’m supposed to include some kind of revelation here about how much fun it is to race cyclocross, but to me it is fun in much the same way that road racing is fun: that is, unspeakably painful during much of the time you’re actually racing, yet somehow utterly sublime once you’ve crossed the finish line for the final time. The only revelation I can offer is that it just somehow made more sense once I had tasted it more thoroughly. Maybe it’s just harder to look past the obvious insanity of ‘cross (you do what? In what weather? On what kind of bike?) without having gone a little crazy yourself.
Anyway, this is all a rambling preface to two little announcements. First of all, I will be at the World Championships in Louisville, Kentucky this Sunday for the elite races. I will try and take a few photos and write up a little bit about the experience. I expect it will be a good time. Second, I do expect to write a bit more about cyclocross now that I have a better handle on it. I haven’t gone over to the dark side and started closely following the international sport and watching World Cups on the internet… yet. But I suspect it’s only a matter of time.
Thank Goodness for the Tour Down Under
Here’s something positive to think about (and something that moves one terrible photo off the top of this blog): the Tour Down Under starts tomorrow! Or, rather, today. What I mean is, it starts tomorrow, but where it starts (Australia) it is already tomorrow, even though here in the United States it is still today.
Anyway, I poked a bit of fun at the TDU last year, suggesting that the race and its roll of winners were forgettable. And, actually, they still are. I don’t mean to diminish the accomplishment of winning the race, and if a similar event at a similar time of year were held near where I live, I would be thrilled. But it’s hard to fit new, middle-of-winter (for the Northern Hemisphere) events into my conception of the cycling season. I’m not ready for racing yet, and the Tour Down Under isn’t that big a deal to me. It can be fun to watch, though!
It does take on a particular significance this year, following a very ugly fall season with few distractions from the Lance Armstrong story. That’s an important story, but it has also been a relentless one, and the Tour Down Under represents the chance to get back to what we really want pro cycling fandom to be about: watching kick-ass bike races featuring the best riders in the world. And thank goodness for the opportunity for the story to be about André Greipel’s sprint dominance rather than Lance Armstrong’s pharmacological dominance.
At the same time, it is an awful lot of pressure on a race that really is mostly a fun-in-the-sun opener to the pro cycling calendar. And we also can’t be distracted from the fact that the fight for clean and credible cycling is a long way from over. We can’t pull the wool over our eyes. But we can move the story along. We can point to the Tour Down Under, to speedy sprints and explosive climbing contests on Corkscrew Road and say “This is what it’s about, this is what we’re fighting for, this is what we love.” We’ve got something else to talk about now, but let’s see it as a reminder of why the wheels have to keep turning on change and why the story is bigger than one guy named Lance Armstrong. Anyway, let’s watch the race and enjoy it for what it is, a fairly inconsequential sun-soaked spectacle in a land far away from most of us.
If you didn’t know, the guys from Cannondale Factory Racing will be riding these in 2013… I mean Enve wheels of course.
We have a sexism problem in cycling, and here you see Exhibit A - selling women (or rather, dehumanized parts of women’s bodies) as sexual objects alongside the mechanical objects meant to make a bicycle move. The message is clear: the place of women in cycling is to provide objects for male cyclists to gaze upon, not to pursue their own desire for competition, exercise and/or fun free from harassment and objectification. This is amplified by the frankly gross caption accompanying the photo. I do not know who produced the photo; it is irrelevant, as it is but a single example of a larger problem.
This is not an academic discussion, the consequences for women athletes are real. National federations are refusing to send qualified women riders to the World Cyclocross Championship on the grounds that they cannot afford to - even though some of these athletes have offered to pay their own way. This can only be seen as a tacit acknowledgement by these federations that they do not take women’s racing seriously enough to be worth spending money on - these nations are, after all, sending full men’s squads.
This all needs to end: the sale of women’s bodies as accessories to bicycle parts and bicycle races, the failure of national federations and the UCI to properly develop and grow women’s professional racing. There is at least one small thing you can do: here’s a petition telling the UCI to enact the same rule requiring that national federations send their top 3 male riders to the World Championships for women riders as well. Please sign it. UCI Cyclocross Commission: Include each nation’s top 3 ranked women riders in World Championship.
There’s a Market
One common affliction of the bike nerd is the desire for a specific sort of product that no one actually makes. Sometimes the affliction concerns a new or arcane, specific-needs type product that no one has actually produced - say, a specific sort of very simple cable hanger for cantilever brakes. And, at other times, the affliction concerns products of yesteryear that have been abandoned in the relentless forward march of bicycle technology - such as 8-speed drivetrains (the specific cog count desired seems to be equal whatever the current state-of-the-art cog count is, minus three. A few years ago, 7-speed was the celebrated retro drivetrain.). At times, the bike nerd must exclaim in frustration, “Why doesn’t [large cycling component manufacturer] make [product X]!? There’s a market!”
“There’s a market.” These are the secret code words that grant to our idiosyncratic desires the ring of legitimacy, the moral heft that they deserve. With these words, we declare that Shimano/SRAM/whoever is leaving money on the table, here; if they would just escape their hobgoblin focus on New, Next, “Progress,” they would see that some people on the Internet have said they would buy [product X], and that they therefore must make it.
But there a probably half a dozen reasons or more that this doesn’t, and will never happen, at least not with a product from one of the Big Three. Here are just two.
First, the scale at which a company like Shimano and SRAM produces a product is mind-boggling. Vocal bike nerds on the Web who want 8-speed groupsets produced with modern designs and technology almost certainly don’t represent the existence of a market large enough to justify development and production.
Second, the “development” component of the above really is the rub. Even parts based on older technology require design and quality control. And they require foundries to bang them out. The cost of this design and production is greater than the mere capital expense of paying the engineers and the forgers. Engineers and money that are put into a product with limited appeal and/or one that is based on old tech are engineers and money that are NOT being spent on developing products that keep the company competitive and keep its next generations of products moving forward. This is an example of opportunity cost: spending resources on a less valuable project that could be spent on a something more valuable is a significant cost, one that sales are unlikely to overcome. I’m not saying this is good, it’s just how the big companies have to run.
So “there’s a market,” sadly, is insufficient even when it is true. But fortunately, the specialist, small-scale side of the bicycle component industry has done nothing but grow over the last decade. Hopefully, it continues to grow. Someday, perhaps you can have your modern 8-speed drivetrain, you odd and recalcitrant bike nerd, you.
What the heck is innovation, anyway?
This past weekend represented the close of the bicycle industry show season, as Interbike finished up in Las Vegas. There, we were presented with the dizzying diversity of products available to U.S. bicycle shops - if it’s remotely related to pedaling along on two wheels, you can find it at Interbike.
From what I can tell, it hasn’t been a particularly exciting show for product announcements this year. Big announcements or launches have either already been made (like XX1, SRAM’s 1x11 speed mountain bike group) or haven’t yet materialized as expected (like SRAM’s highly-anticipated hydraulic road levers and disc brakes). Probably the most-touted product, among racing nerds anyway, has been the StageONE power meter, which purports to provide productive power data (heh) for only 700 bucks. It’s being called a “game-changer” in some circles, and unlike previous efforts to produce a sub-$1000 power meter, it appears as though it really is going to actually reach the market soon.
Anyway, the word that gets tossed around a lot about bike tech (and all tech, really) is “innovative.” Innovation is a big deal. Innovation is exciting! Innovation is practically a required product feature - find a way to check that box or you’ll look like you just don’t care. The irony of this emphasis on new ideas and creativity is that the bike industry is actually fairly conservative, and most product development follows the relatively hum-drum road of incremental improvements. The solution? Attach the word “innovative” to any feature of a product that represents an improvement. Lighter? Innovative! Stiffer? Innovative! Tapered? Innovative!
The unfortunate result is that we now don’t what the hell it means to be innovative. Using it as a synonym for “better” has sucked a lot of the meaning from the word, which makes it harder to determine what really is innovative. Which is too bad, because there’s nothing wrong with “better.” Incremental improvement is a fact of life, and a nice one.
Of course, the reason this little linguistic problem has gotten out of control is that we’ve decided to allow manufacturers to apply the word “innovative,” which if we’re honest, has always been kind of warm, fuzzy and vague, to their own products. And we’ve maybe allowed a little too much unqualified positivity to become attached to the idea of innovation. After all, the Metrigear power meter was innovative as hell, but it’s still vaporware. And the StageONE may prove to be a brilliant innovation even though it is actually technically worse than an SRM or a PowerTap hub in certain respects (e.g. it can only measure power from one leg), because the engineers who designed it were willing to make some creative compromises to provide a more affordable instrument. My suggestion would be to let the builders say what they will - when it comes to innovation, only time and hindsight can tell us for sure.