Why I’m saying Yes to SRAM and No to Shimano.

I recently came across this amazing article, explaining Shimano’s current marketing practices from a dealer perspective.  As a bike shop consumer, I had heard some similar complaints (albeit not as detailed) from friends who work in the bike industry.  I highly recommend clicking through, but in essence, the complaint is that Shimano sells bike parts, in bulk, to online resellers that buy in huge volumes.  The discounts that Shimano gives those high volume resellers are so significant that the online resellers can sell Shimano parts for less than the wholesale cost that brick and mortar stores pay.

In other words, a brick and mortar store’s cost to buy Shimano components is more expensive than the customer can buy the parts for online (not to mention free shipping and no sales tax).

So a customer has the choice of spending $150 to buy a component online, or going to the bike shop…but the bike shop has to pay $165 for the same part (their cost), and then pay to light, heat and man their store, and then charge sales tax on top of it all…so they end up charging $200 when it’s all said and done.

Capitalism!  Free Market Economy! you shout.  Shortsightedness! I respond.

Those consumers that buy the components online…where do they get the components installed?  Sure, some self-install, but a great many do not–where do they go?  And if a part breaks, where do they go for warranty service?  Do you think they’re shipping stuff back to sleazybikeparts.com, or do you think they’re going to their local bike shop and complaining?

Separately, does Shimano think that most customers will pay 30% more to buy locally, rather than having parts dropped at their doorsteps?  Buying online is cheaper and often faster and more convenient, in terms of getting the parts in your hands.  Shimano’s discount practices not only ensure that online parts are cheaper–they make it impossible for a local bike shop to compete in the marketplace.  So what’s the long-term result of this?  Is it anything other than forcing local bike shops out of business?  Does Shimano really believe that LBS’ can stay afloat just charging for the price to install parts that customers buy elsewhere online?

The end result is to push the margins of LBS tighter, to drive up service costs, and to generate more unhappy consumers.  The end result is to push more LBS out of business.  Service and repair industries are fundamentally based on providing the service–and the parts–necessary to keep a product operational.  Profit is made (hopefully) on both components of the transaction.  Taking away product sales by making LBS prohibitively priced in comparison to online retailers cuts one of the bike shop repair business’ two legs off.  So what does that mean?

That means, for me, a return to SRAM.  Candidly, I’ve viewed Shimano parts as often being superior to SRAM in the past, based on a few not-great experiences with SRAM.  But the actions of Shimano undercut my values so sharply that I don’t wish to support them any longer.  Where it’s practical to do so prospectively, my business is going to SRAM.  For the same reasons that I don’t wish to support bike brands that undercut their dealer chain by selling bikes direct online, I don’t wish to support bike brands that undercut their dealer chain by driving sales online in an indirect fashion.

So long, Shimano.

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Tapered Steerers and Thru-Axles

Almost four years ago, I wrote a post arguing that tapered steerers and thru-axles were overkill for ‘gravel bikes’.  As I wrote in my last post a few days ago, my early writing on this blog was based on some significant inexperience, and overestimation of my own knowledge.

Four years later, with the benefit of riding a variety of bikes in a variety of conditions, I can say that tapered steerers and thru-axles are now items that I’d consider deal-breaker must-haves on future bikes–in particular if I ever decided to replace the Moots as an all-surface bike.

My early thoughts were that there was never a circumstance where that much rigidity was needed, particularly on low-traction surfaces.  Candidly, I was simply wrong.  Increasing the rigidity of the bike at the axles and steerer only improves the bike.  I don’t think anyone wants deflection at the head-tube to be the determining factor in vertical compliance.  Stiffer head tubes and frame/fork interaction only improves the quality of a bike.  Tune compliance into other parts of the frame.

As for thru-axles, I see three significant advantages.  One, frankly, is that alignment of the hub and frame is exactly the same, every time you install and remove a wheel.  In a world of disc brakes, that sort of predictable repeatability is a huge asset.  The second asset is the enhanced stiffness of the hub and frame when riding.  Again, that is not a location that you want compliance.  Stiffness improves handling, braking and shifting.

With the Moots, running the ZIPP Wheels, there have been times when I’ve dived into a hard corner and noted the subtle hint of a brake rubbing.  It’s not a palpable feeling–it is just the sound of a brake dragging a tiny bit.  After a lot of work to isolate why that’s happening, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is the small amount of flexibility that can occur in the hub/frame junction when high lateral loads are placed upon the wheels–such hard cornering on surfaces ranging from limestone to clay to pavement.

The third significant advantage is hard to argue–thru axles are much stronger and more durable.  I’ve never broken a skewer (I tend to use high-quality skewers), but still…adding a bit of strength can’t hurt in this application.  Sure, they’re a bit heavier, but the benefits outweigh that minor disadvantage.

Some of the comparative downsides of skewers can be mitigated by using quality skewers, like the incredibly nice DTSwiss ratchet skewers.  But even those don’t compare to a well thought out thru-axle setup.

The Long Road Home.

I’ve not been writing on here very much of late–for a number of reasons.  There’s been malaise, and doubt, and contempt.  With the coming of spring, I’m working through those issues and will likely be returning back to putting words on paper, but I think it is important to talk about what’s been going on for the past few months.

In terms of malaise, 2015 was a hard year.  I had spent months and months preparing and training for Kanza, only to be wiped out by a wholly unnecessary, but also unfixable mechanical issue very early in the race.  I was at the height of my cycling fitness at that point–and the height of my mental toughness, and a lot of my spirit was wiped out by the experience.

As the year went on, it became clear that two of my closest friends were going to be leaving the state–including my Mandem co-conspirator, the guy who happened to live the closest to me, and who was most often available for random rides…the guy who had become one of my closest confidants.

In the midst of that turmoil, my local bike shop changed ownership, under difficult circumstances.  That was a hard blow to me for a lot of reasons.  I was losing friends, losing the place that had formed the hub of so many of my best cycling memories, losing the place that I’d hang out at for a cup of post-ride coffee or bourbon, losing the mechanics that I trusted to work on my bikes and make recommendations.

It stung doubly because I started to realize how much “work” I had done for the shop.  Going back and looking at my posts, a significant majority of them link back to the shop and talk about what a wonderful place it is.  There are people from across the country who bought bikes from the shop because they had read about it here on this blog.  I was a tireless, unpaid advocate.  Beyond that, I worked with the shop purveyors to create Axletree to shield the shop.  I literally worked at the shop from time to time, building bikes and such.  I provided uncompensated legal advice.  I put my heart into the shop.  It hurt when it sold, and hurt deeper that it sold under adverse circumstances.

That spun me out into some self doubt–it lead me to wonder why I had some of the bikes I had, and whether it was worth it to make the investment of time that I had made in cycling.  I did a winter cleaning and sold some of my bikes that were either unnecessary or rarely ridden, and honestly, I feel great about that.  I also basically took the winter off.  I’d ride bikes when I felt like riding bikes, instead of being compelled to ride four times a week.  I took up running a few times a week.  I listened to my friend Aaron and lifted heavy things.  I tried to get back to enjoying cycling, instead of cycling for cycling’s sake.  I tried to enjoy time with my family instead of thinking about whether I was losing strength by not being out in the saddle.

You know what?  It worked.  I’ve come into the spring looking forward to cycling.  The first few group rides of the spring have rekindled enjoyment and hope.  Starting to meet the new owners of the local bike shop has started to rekindle my hope for a positive relationship there, as well.

The doubt that I experienced over the winter spread to the blog as well.  When I started writing this blog, some five years ago, I started writing as if I knew what I was talking about.  One of my first reviews was of the Continental Cyclocross Speed tires, which I compared to Schwalbe Marathon Mondials.  I did that comparison because they were basically the only ‘gravel’ type tires I had ridden…but I wrote with language of authority, as if I knew what I was talking about.  I wrote reviews of mountain bikes after only having ridden a limited handful of mountain bikes.  I wrote reviews of road bikes after only having ridden two real road bikes.  When you do that, each new bike is a monumental achievement in cycling, and superlatives are easy to come by.  Going from a beastly heavy Rumblefish to a lithe Spearfish makes the Spearfish seem all the more amazing.

Over time, I’ve realized that some of the reviews were overly enthusiastic (or overly critical) because I didn’t know better.  I wrote a scathing review of a Specialized full-suspension race bike explaining how terrifying it was to ride in comparison to a slack trail bike.  D’uh.  I didn’t know the import of head tube angles, and hence I thought there was essentially something wrong with the Specialized.  I’ve written opinions that really weren’t based in experience…and I see that same thing in other blogs.

Simply because someone has a blog, or a blog that is read, doesn’t make them an expert.  The internet has provided a voice for many people–a platform for them to shout from.  Some of the voices are informed and rational.  Some are people who cannot actually do anything themselves, and so they choose to loudly spout about things that they do not understand.  When I started writing this blog, I was an enthusiastic, but frankly inexperienced, cyclist.  Five years later, I have more experience, but still a lot to learn.

In the end, my narrative voice is more informed these days–both about what I do and don’t know.  Candidly, I don’t think opinions should belong only to the salty dogs that have been in the industry for decades; new voices are important.  But take opinions with a grain of salt, and consider the experience base from which an opinion comes.  Now having ridden dozens of mountain bikes in varied terrain, I’d feel more confident about venturing an opinion on a given bike.  Having ridden many different types of ‘multi-surface’ tires, I feel more confident exposing the differences.

Ironically, some things have come full circle.  Some of the things I’ve written about that I once loved are no longer things I’d use or recommend, but some have risen to the top and remain favorites.  With rare exceptions, I still love ENVE products.  Rapha cycling clothing has become my go-to riding uniform in varied conditions.  And after trying a myriad of gravel tires, Continental Cyclocross Speeds are still among the very best (if you’re not going tubeless).

I think a lot of bloggers go through a malaise period; some of my favorite writers have, at least.  This blog, like cycling, will be something that I do when I want to, not something that I write out of obligation to ensure that I have biweekly content.  And that’s how it should be.