Reinventing the Wheel

Like you, I sometimes chafe at the things the bike industry tries to sell me, the volume of hype cranked to 11, the dubious tales of limitless speed and comfort and aerodynamics and whatever else we’re excited about at any given moment. But when I put on my bike-industry-marketing-guy hat (a propeller beanie), I understand. The marketing people, after all, are handed whatever thing the company has to offer, and are tasked with making it exciting.

And the thing is, sometimes it IS exciting. Sometimes they do change the game.

But how do we parse the wheat from the chaff? How do we know what’s going to be the next big thing and what’s going to be the next oval chainring? It could be anything from gearing going from 11spd to 12spd (or 13) to Canyon’s KIS system, basically a steering stabilizer for mountain bikes, to internal routing for cables and brake lines.

It’s a real hodge-podge of features, and obviously some of it has value, while other things are marginal at best. So how do we process these things in real time and figure out what’s going to stick and what’s going to fade away, likely to reappear down the road in some other, possibly better, form.

It is tempting to think the bicycle, as it has currently evolved, has reached some point of diminishing return. From a gearing and braking point of view, what more can be done? From an aerodynamic perspective, what more is there to gain? Really, how much better can bikes get?

Having said that, and despite whatever cynicism we might have, we’ve seen some very real improvements over the last decade. Disc braking and electronic shifting are two obvious examples, but also tubeless tires and certainly some of the geometric shifts in mountain biking count as leaps forward.

But the industry needs something to lead each season with, if only to signify what’s new and current. This makes sense. We might decry this whole “shiny new thing” paradigm, but it works, and sometimes that shiny new thing is also a big, important deal. And we have to recognize that even the company often doesn’t know whether what they’ve done has that big picture value or not until it’s in the market.

At this moment, a lot of companies are rushing toward full internal routing options for cockpits, frames and forks. ENVE has a system in place. FSA has one. There are a few compatible forks. So this is the leading edge of this technology’s development. Here, I want to pause, and recognize that everything I’m about to say runs against my self-interest. I work with a few players in this space, folks who are betting on its success.

I’m not convinced. And I’m not convinced because while a certain section of the bike-watching public seems to appreciate the clean aesthetic of a bike with no visible brake lines or shift wires, the uptake is very slow. That may have to do with the cost, but it may also have to do with a perception that this aesthetic “upgrade” isn’t really a game changer.

So I’m beginning to think internal routing is a “high end” bike signifier but maybe not a feature bikes will adopt longer term. It’s important to note I’m often wrong about these things, but I just have this feeling that the cost and complexity of what is, essentially, an aesthetic upgrade won’t push it over the top into regular use. This is not me impugning its looks or telling people they shouldn’t want it. It’s just a feeling it has less merit than its proponents want it to have.

Equally, I think we’ve all gone a bit cross-eyed with MORE gears.

I think the real gains are to be made on the value-side of the ledger, like for example Shimano’s 105 Di2 groups that came out this last year. That, to me, is a game changer, and I’m actually surprised people weren’t talking about it more. The groupsets these days are just amazing, and what you can get two and three and even four tiers from the top is so much better than the very best stuff from a decade ago.

And maybe this gets to the heart of the matter, value.

It’s probably not a stretch to say that adding another cog to a cassette doesn’t represent an enormous value to the rider. It’s not that it’s a bad thing to do. It just doesn’t meet a value threshold that will move the market. And, of course, this game is easier to play in retrospect. There are those among us (you know who you are) who will always say, “Established technology X works just fine.”

“Just fine” though, is ripe for upgrade.

I can only guess at what will be important each season, but I’d wager that if you asked yourself, “Is this really valuable, or just kinda neat?” you’d get a good sense of which of the latest, greatest, new and improved nonsense is going to last. The next question you might ask is, “When is the right time to invest in a new technology?” But that’s a topic for another day.

Join the conversation
  1. Bruce Pierce says

    What?? Ovals are for real. Kidding not kidding.

    The internal routing bit reminds me of what I heard about McLaren’s brief partnership with Specialized where their engineers were aghast at the high-end bikes looking like they were built by plumbers ;D.

  2. bart says

    When it comes to bike technology I’m happily 5-10 years behind on most things (tubeless tires is the exception). I guess some new tech could come along that would be a game changer for me and cause me to get really excited about something new. But, I’ve been disappointed too many times in life (not just bike tech) by the “shiny new thing” that I no longer have much interest in pursuing it. Yes, I even sound old to myself.

  3. Blue Zurich says

    I recently learned my 2016 Campag 11x Record gruppo works much smoother than my 2022 12x. Basically the bike it got kicked down to got the better upgrade, now which is my ‘A’ bike now?

  4. dr sweets says

    Dear John, “How do we know what’s going to be the next big thing and what’s going to be the next oval chainring?” Two points. First, you could just ask me what is going to be the next big thing. I am half joking and half serious here. Over the past nearly quarter century I was the first in my group of riding pals to have hydraulic disc brakes (’99), thru-axle forks (’00), tubeless tires (’03), dropper posts (’05), 1x drivetrains (’07), wide AF riser bars; first 780’s then 800’s ever since (’09), long/low/slack geometry* (’12) and the drifting away from hydration packs to bottles and minimalist carry essentials (’14). None of these were on DH bikes in case you were wondering. In fact, I’ve never actually owned a legit DH bike and instead just rode DH tracks and gnar on what I had preferring pedaling to the top. I still do. At the time of each, I said these will be on all mountain bikes in the future, despite plenty of derision from many more knowledgeable cyclists than me. They have all become widely adopted. I’d like to imagine myself as a modern day Amazing Criswell regarding cycling trends, but alas I am more modest and wear less zesty attire. Haha!

    Second, oval rings. Sure the big blue S screwed that pooch royally in the 80’s, but the concept was valid in theory. Their “Biopace” execution was dumb. However, when a handful of companies in the last ten years figured out the correct clocking the concept actually did finally work. You and everyone who lived through that first round are right to be skeptical, but I have oval rings on all of my mountain bikes and would not ride without them. I think it’s pointless for a road or even a gravel bike, but I do know my knees do not hurt and I feel fine after scaling whatever I have to get up to get down.

    *LLS geometry IMHO made 29er’s bikes that more people could have fun on. I rode/tried every 29er (high and low cost) out from the late 90’s through ’12. I HATED all of them. They all had the handling of a shopping cart with a bum wheel. They were twitchy with zero poise in technical situations and being vertically challenged, I always felt like I was seated on a barstool after being over-served. Until ’12 everyone was trying to make them be like a zippy 26er XC bike. The original Kona Honzo broke that mold (and that models numbers are conservative now). It was the first time I threw a leg over a 29er that gave me confidence to ride aggressively (like a hooligan, dickhead, jerk or whatever you want to call a mountain biker that wants to play on everything). Halfway through that first ride, I proclaimed to my riding pals that every bike was going to have this style of geometry. Here we are. \m/

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