Friday
Feb112011

Go, Racing!

Ten hours of training per hour of racing.  That’s about what it took for me to have a pretty unspectacular year last year.  But that understates the whole deal of it.  Mine hits the ratio at probably 400 hours of training and 40 hours of racing (which in fact probably understates the time spent training and almost certainly overestimates the time spent racing – I did maybe 20 races last year, of which a large number were hour long crits and stuff – but I’m not the kind of keeper of charts and graphs to have this info without doing an undue amount of scratching and pondering).  You can’t post up with 10 hours of training, it ain’t like that.  Depending on what level you race, you probably donate the first 100 or 150 hours to the cause before you even pin one on for the first time, and that’s at some early season training race.  By the time you’re hitting stride, you’re over 200 hours into things.   Well and truly, in for a penny, in for a pound – the incremental additional races that you do just improve your ratio.  Might as well get out there and pin one on, then, eh?

From the business perspective, we get pretty deep into a bunch of stuff that used to not matter to us at all.  Two years ago, would we have noticed or given a rat’s ass what the UCI’s doing with Gran Fondos?  How much time would we have spent with the UCI sticker program?  The double-edged sword of our transparency in trying to bring you the whole story of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it is that sometimes we wind up sounding like picture of gloom and doom.  There’s a lot of dopey (pun not intended – see what I mean?) stuff that happens that affects the story of who we are and what we do, but that otherwise is pretty far below a consumer’s radar.   In bringing you along on our story, we sort of ask you to be more engaged than you would otherwise be. 

(above all else, know thyself, right?)

On the other hand, the one divining principle that we know we’re wholeheartedly behind is the act of the safety pin joining lycra jersey to tyvek rectangle.  Racing is the great cocktail of honesty and obfuscation, playing coy at times and being as subtle as a steam whistle at others.  You’re as good as you want to be until you pin that number on, and then you’re only as good as you really are.  Go ahead and set the pace on your local Wednesday night worlds all you want, but until you see the pins and numbers come out, you don’t know who’s really in the game. 

It’s a pain in the butt all around, right?  Promoters getting venues and organizing everything, logging the dirty miles to get ready, negotiating the slings and arrows of the rest of your life in order to carve out the time you need…  Not everyone can do it, and there’s a huge slice of people out there for whom it’s too big a pain.  A lot of them claim to have more fun just riding around and enjoying it than they ever did while they were racing.  I’m throwing the BS flag at the whole lot of them.

Admit it, there’s nothing like hitting the line for the first time each year.  Your heart is in your throat, you’re simultaneously totally self-assured and more overwhelmed than a first grader stepping onto the school bus for the very first time.   With so much behind you, it’s still all in front of you.  Then you move through the season and find the rhythm of your year, click into the gears of your team, start to dance with THE FAST.  What non-racer is going to go through all of the self-flagellation necessary to get a full fledged visit from THE FAST?  You do your race at Reston and spend 20 minutes after where every time you try to say something all you can do is cough, and then you go watch the elite race and see that the break is going up the home stretch 2 gears deeper in the cassette than you were when you thought your race was cooking?  Holy marone!  What kind of a roller coaster must THAT be to ride!?!

That’s kind of our whole deal, right?  The screw gets turned and the only question is “have you got it?” You hit that point in the race where you KNOW the only thing to do is sack up and get your carcass to the front, or off the front, and there are a million different reasons why you wouldn’t, couldn’t, don’t want to, can’t but only one reason why you’re going to – because last time I checked this was a race and as long as we’ve gone through what we’ve gone through to get to this moment in time, we might as well do it right or die trying.   I f—king LOVE that moment.  You push it and it goes.  Do the hours spent going nowhere fast with a fan in your face matter at that point?  Would you pay double what you did for another ride on the machine?  Yup. 

So yeah, when all the other crap happens or doesn’t, what we’re really for is racing.  Grab your pins and your numbers, it’s getting to be about that time.   



Tuesday
Feb082011

Ask Not What Pro Cycling Can Do For You... (part 2)

As the sponsorship market continues to darken for even the most marquee teams, manufacturers have taken a recently unprecedented role in sponsorship (in the long long ago, endemic/technical suppliers played a FAR larger role than they have recently).  Leopard-Trek, BMC, Garmin-Cervelo, and Liquigas-Cannondale wear their manufacturers straight across their titles, and Specialized also stepped pretty close to the plate with HTC-High Road this year.  That's more direct manufacturer involvement than we've seen at the top of the pyramid for a long, long time.  It's also striking how American (and North American) the involvement is.  Is this because one of top tier pro cycling's most valuable assets is its ability to sell (predominantly Taiwanese-made) product from American brands to the American audience, peopled as it is, almost exclusively with enthusiastic participants in the sport?  We're a long way from the first glimpse of pro cycling that I had as a kid, when I remember thinking "they don't really ride Huffys in the Tour de France, do they?"  Now American brands have reversed the hammerlock that Euro brands had back then.  Leopard-Trek, Liquigas-Cannondale, HTC-High Road, Astana, Radio Shack, Saxo Bank - they're all sponsored by American brands, not to mention Geox, who's sponsored by Fuji/Kestrel.  It's far from limited to frames, either.  Zipp, Easton, Bontrager, and Reynolds form the dominant cabal of wheel suppliers, and SRAM's no third wheel in drivetrain supply, either.  So far, it's only frame manufacturers who have gone to the plate for title sponsorships. 

Companies like Nike or Adidas find a market in every owner of a foot or a torso who sees their brand on any athlete in any game.   People see Rafael Nadal in his Nikes and think “I need some new sneakers, and those must be good ones, I will get some from that brand,” whether or not they will ever in their lives hold a tennis racket.  (Meantime I look at Nadal and think that the Spanish doping authorities must have one seriously major huge rug to hide all of these cases under, but that’s a different story).  For every one basketball player, or tennis player, or soccer player, who wears shoes to play a game in which he is sponsored to wear those shoes, there are many times that number of spectators who will buy shoes not for that game, but because of that game.  

Endemic cycling sponsors have no multipliers on their audience.   No one who doesn't ride is an audience for Zipp wheels, or Lake shoes.  No one who doesn’t ride is going to buy chamois cream.  The man on the street doesn't see Heinrich Haussler winning today's Qatar stage and thing "I need some new shirts for the gym - that Castelli sure makes some nice stuff."  Heck , half the time you're pretty darn challenged to find a lot of these brands/products in your local bike store.  Probably the best they do on that score is driving brand awareness among casual fans, who aren't going to buy a $4k race bike, but will see a Specialized among the legions of hybrids and think "that's one of those bikes that I see in that race on TV, I should get one of those."  But the endemic sponsors really, really want a large and growing pro cycling game and pro cycling audience, because in an era of homogeneous products (see Mike's point about the same guys winning no matter what bikes they're on this year), the visibility that comes from pro cycling success is their most dependable point of differentiation.  

With significant exceptions, we're generally in favor of pro cycling. It's good entertainment, and despite the fact that maybe the dial on the "innovation-o-meter" is turned up a bit high, it does inspire technical innovation and refinement.  It's also interesting to see some people we know reach pretty high up into the rarefied air of pro racing, and to have that be a carrot for them to pursue. 

This winter, we've been fortunate enough to be able to help out an uber talented young rider whose bike (and nearly body) were destroyed by a careless driver.  He's currently using one of our bikes to train in pursuit of his hoop dreams.  We both viscerally cringe thinking about some of the choices he'll face in the next few years.  If ever there was a family that had prepared a kid to face such things, it's his (seriously, Katie and I have had fully serious conversations about having his parents raise our kids, they're that good), and hopefully he's talented enough and the environment's changed enough that he won't face what we fear he will.  And then there's the guy who slapped us all around so hard last year that he's all pro'd up for this year.  Another great kid, another great story. 

Of course for every one of those stories, there are ten or fifteen kids who are developing a relationship with physical activity through cycling that they might not otherwise have gotten.  Cycling's still a pretty "fun" thing for a kid to do, when it's presented correctly, and it teaches a lot of really good lessons.  All told, I think cycling's got more to offer as a healthy lifestyle choice than as a career choice, but it's neat that it's out there for those few.

But the question remains of "is there any legitimacy to the idea that consumers should pay extra for their products with the sole intent of that extra being put toward supporting the pro game?  Should there be a 'pro cycling tax?'"  A friend brought up yesterday's installment and compared pro racing to any kind of local racing that race promoters are tasked with supporting because "it needs to be there."  I can certainly sympathize more readily with the thought that the great and collective "we" need subsidize junior's fields more than with the thought that we need to subsidize pros, but he makes a good point. 

A lot of this exercise stems from Mike's and my mutual uneasiness with the "PRO" concept.  We get it, we get the attractiveness of it.  There's an aesthetic thing that we both definitely get.  Mike can't ride a bike with mismatched wheels (I just imagine that I've paid a visit to neutral support, which is even more pro, right?).  But yeah, I mean, cycling has a HUGE aesthetic component to it, and we have this very visible (ever more so, thanks the internets) fashion parade that instructs those who care on what it looks like to be a serious bike racer.  You don't want to imagine yourself as a blight on that landscape.  On the other hand, the slavish devotion to it is kind of silly. 

So now you've gotten to the end, and I apologize for the lack of a clear and cogent point having been made.  As it turns out this was sort of a stream of conscious trip through some thoughts that a weird comment inspired.  Sometimes you get that here on the November Bicycles Blog.  We live to serve.

Race Smart. 

Monday
Feb072011

Ask Not What Pro Cycling Can Do For You... (part 1)

Since I'm sometimes seriously freaking long-winded, this is going to be part 1 of a 2 part deal.  Most of this had been sitting in my head, causing me headaches, until I got it down and could start to look at it and bat it around. 

We (Mike and I) have an uneasy relationship with pro cycling.  On the one hand, personally, we're both fans.  We do pools with our team mates before the big races, and we certainly spend enough time on the trainer watching races we've recorded.  I might have a bit of a man crush on Gilbert, but we don't get too tied up in it at all.  On the other hand, professionally, it's a more difficult story.  There's a "tail wagging the dog" thing that goes on there, as well as the obvious elephant in the room.  Was it the refined carbon layup in the frame or the needles in the ass that proved the difference in the last big race?   As Mike's pointed out pretty convincingly on several occasions, despite all the "15% more aero" this, and the "20% stiffer" that, and the "8% more vertically compliant" that, the evidence points to absolute parity in equipment.  Cavendish has dominated on a Giant, and he's dominated on a Scott.  The big story will be if he doesn't dominate on a Specialized this year.  Same thing with Cancellara - does anyone like their shot against him riding on any bike?  Every time the merry-go-round stops and everyone winds up on different bikes than they rode last year, the pecking order stays about the same. 

It doesn't take much digging to find that we think pro sponsorship is something that winds up costing consumers too much dough, but the other day we were faced with an entirely new perspective on the subject.  It came in the comments following an online review of a product that's very (very) similar to one of ours, only several times more expensive.  One commenter called out the product as being too expensive, which was in turn met with a response about the costs of doing business, including sponsorship costs (the company offering the product in question sponsors a pro - lower case "p" - team).  The commenter made the point that without sponsorship, there'd be no pro cycling, and no print media covering pro cycling.  Marketing money passed onto consumers as sort of a cable bill, or entertainment tax.  We were both fascinated with this concept. 

Pro cycling obviously doesn't have many chances to sell tickets.  There are some, but not many.  TV revenues and sponsorship dollars are the sport's only income streams.  German TV is pulling the plug, and we've seen how bountiful the sponsorship market is for the top teams, so neither stream is particularly secure at the moment.  Without gate receipts, pro cycling is at a significant revenue disadvantage to other pro sports.  I don't think that many sports are managed in a way that could be considered textbook or ethical, but cycling's leaderships seems particularly at sea.  Selective justice, cronyism, and whatever else we're going to find out in the coming weeks and months, this crew can't seem to get or keep their act together.  Granted, their task is a challenging one.  They need heroes, and heroes need to win, and be charismatic, and be good looking, and be from large market countries, and not get caught with strange things in their blood.  Yes, the races are a critical component of the spectacle, but the racers are certainly as important.  However you feel about him, the Lance Armstrong story is why we currently have so much cycling on TV - but if he was dominating the Three Days of de Panne for seven straight years, he would be a minor curiosity.  Racers and races, both important. 

Anyhow, that was more to set up the point than to make it.  The point is, do we need professional cycling, and if so, why?  Would your enthusiasm for riding your bike be diminished in the absence of the pro game?  Mine might dip a percentage point or three.  Would I quit?  Don't joke.  Would I do one less race a year?  No.  But something might be lost.  We're spectators of one of the few sports where the spectators are more likely than not to actually participate in the sport themselves.  In the US, that likelihood is staggering - do you think that even 10% of the Tour's annual US audience is something other than regular cyclists?  In Europe, the demographic is far more widespread (witness the roadside crowd at any race) but there is still a far greater audience of participants there than, say, the NFL has in the US.  Clearly, if the NFL ceased to be, football in all of its forms would suffer as its cultural relevance would wither.  In US cycling's case, there basically is no cultural relevance for the pro sport outside of participants who are otherwise engaged with the sport anyway. 

The great snake's tail that wraps me back to my original dumfoundedness at the review comment is this: the commenter willingly and even enthusiastically gives cycling participants the obligation of perpetuating professional cycling - an institution which is readily proving unable to support itself.  It's a bizarre concept for me to even consider, but do the participants in a participatory sport owe anything to the pro component of their sport?  It actually seems like Pat McQuaid's greatest fantasy come true - a self perpetuating income stream based on a choose-able, controllable (he's the gatekeeper, right?) cast of suppliers, who pay him a share the revenue stream that they get, from the consumers, in return for marketing themselves to those same consumers.  I think my head just exploded even considering this one...

So in the next part there's some stuff on tap about what pro cycling does for the sport, and the people who play it, on all levels.  You might be surprised to find that it's not all grim and gloom.  Neither will you be surprised to find some of that. 

Friday
Feb042011

Wheels don't win races; People win races

I got an email from Profile Design this morning with the subject line:

Profile Design wheels take 1st place at Ironman 70.3

Aw, hell, here's the full email so you can see what I mean:

Click to see full-size.

Poor Frederick Van Lierede, Belgian triathlete. The guy puts in 20-30 hours of hard training every week for years, pays meticulous attention to every gram of protein, carb and fat that goes into his body, remains even more vigilant to ensure that nothing on the banned substances list accidentally makes it in, makes a lifetime of sacrifices every single season to pursue a sport that is his passion, then goes out and puts himself through 4 hours, 6 minutes and 30 seconds of pure unadulterated suffering. Then his wheel sponsor swoops in and takes all the credit. That kind of marginalization is a pretty high price to pay for a free set of wheels, particularly for a guy who has done quite well for himself before 2011 on other companies' wheels

It's a pretty common scenario in pro athlete sponsorship. The model is normally a little more subtle - Alberto, er, Andy wins the TdF on this bike or those wheels, and the sponsor earns the right to imply, "See what our stuff can do for you?" (Though in the case above, the execution is a little less subtle than "imply".)

I understand the model, and appreciate it as a proof-of-concept. I agree that if equipment can allow someone to win at an elite level, it should be perfectly adequate for amateurs. But too often sponsors take an extra step, and suggest that the equipment does not allow the athlete to win, but is actually responsible for it. 

(Conversely, I don't believe that elite athletes need to win on certain equipment in order to prove that the same products are suitable for amateur racing. Pro usage of equipment can show that the stuff is raceworthy, but being under a pro rider is not a pre-requisite to offering excellent wheels and bikes.)

Let me be very clear on this point: our equipment is not going to make you win races. The best we can hope to achieve is that our stuff puts nothing in between you and the podium, or a top 10, or not getting dropped, or whatever is your personal objective du jour. We hope you use our bikes and wheels and you do win, of course. And when you do, we'll be tooting your horn, not our own.

 

Tuesday
Jan252011

Swiss Army Wheels

Carbon clinchers have made huge strides in the past few years.  We've seen them go from being pretty boat anchor heavy aluminum/carbon hybrids to being relatively heavy full carbon rims to impressively light and useful rims which have fully staked their claim in the grand scheme of things.  We'd had a bunch of attractive carbon clincher rims come across our desks, and the 38mm struck us as an amazingly versatile basis for our first foray into the world of carbon clinchers. We got a couple of sets of rims, built them up, and have been doing our standard "go everywhere and aim for the potholes on the way" testing routine on them.  The end result?  Our new RFSC.

So, why carbon clinchers?  First, they're aero.  Not aero like a 50mm, or 58mm rim, but a very discernible bump in slippery factor from a 24-, 27-, or 30mm rim.  Second, they're light.  Our RFSC rims come in at about 400 grams.  That's really light for an alloy box section rim, and just a few grams less than our 50mm tubular rims.  Light.  Third, they're stiff.  These things JUMP when you push the pedal down.  Fourth, well, they're clinchers.  Changing flats is easy, you don't have to worry about sending your tires out to get sewn up, if you want to switch tires it's simple as, and you don't have to learn the whole deal with glue and all that jazz. 

They're kind of like the ultimate incarnation of the go everywhere, do everything, light, fast, sexy alloy wheelset.  They just needed to be made out of carbon to be fully realized. 

One thing that people get sketched about with carbon wheels is braking.  Using the included carbon-specific pads, the braking in dry conditions is indistinguishable from alloy rims.  In wet, there's a little bit of brake lag - just like there is with alloy rims.  Brake feel is actually just ducky - it's sure and positive and the brake tracks have an extremely straight and true finish on them so there's no pulsing at all.  At all.  Heat buildup has proven to be no more of an issue than it is with alloy rims.  If you're going down some monster screaming descent, alternate front and back and don't ride the brakes - just like you'd do with alloy rims. 

The brake tracks are pretty wide at just a shade over 22mm, and they pair awesomely with 25c tires (and for the record I will never buy a 23c clincher tire again - it's all 25s for me, they're the biz).

At $885, it's easy to find a set of alloy clinchers that cost hundreds more, weigh more, don't give you any aero benefit, and don't feel half as snappy.  For a few bucks more (actually, quite a few - but we can't do anything about it), we'll be happy to have a Powertap built into them.  Go ahead and train on them.

There's going to be a comment on this post pointing out the contradiction of me advocating training on carbon wheels.  This is what's called a paradigm shift.  When $885 buys you a set of wheels that will do everything wheels do demonstrably better than a set of alloy wheels that are a couple of hundred bucks more - yeah, I'm fully good with that. These are your desert island wheels. 

Delivery is slated for late February, so you'll have them in plenty of time for Jeff Cup.