The Bike Industry’s Needless Obsession With “New”.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

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Disc brake road bikes, new tire sizes, new brake caliper brake placement, new models, new categories, new components.

The cycling industry has a spastic obsession with newness

The belief is that, to keep cycling compelling for consumers there must be a continuous flow of new products, exciting products.

But not necessarily better products.

In an incident today in Stage 1 of the Abu Dhabi Tour top professional rider Owain Doull of Team Sky told reporters his left shoe was sliced clean through by a disc brake rotor in a crash. Doull sustained additional cuts he attributed to the sharp-edged disc brake rotor from the racing bicycle of sprinting sensation Marcel Kittel of the Quick-Stop Floors pro team. The two were involved in a crash near the race finish; a common occurrence in fast, bunch sprints.

Disc brakes on road bikes have been a new feature for three years. The jury is still out if they are better. This latest exhibit does not bode well for the future of disc brakes on road bikes, and it isn’t the first time.

Gregor Brown of Velo-News.com wrote this today following the Abu Dhabi incident:

“It was not the first time a rider has accused disc rotors of inflicting damage. At Paris-Roubaix in 2016, Movistar’s Fran Ventoso claimed that a large cut on his lower leg was caused by a disc rotor used by the Roompot team. That assertion has been disputed, but Ventoso stands behind the story.”

The sales pitch is often something like, “Everything is going to disc brakes!” and “Cars use disc brakes, discs work better in wet weather.” But there is a contrarian argument to be made that disc brakes are a feature without a benefit, or, at least, not a benefit commensurate to their attendant drawbacks.

In a balance sheet format, disc brakes look something like this:

Advantages:

Better wet weather stopping performance than caliper brakes. Greater tire clearance at fork and rear triangle facilitating wider tires on disc equipped bikes. More frequent use of structural thru-axle wheel design for better lateral stiffness. Removal of braking surface from wheel rim allows new rim shape designs.

Drawbacks:

Reliance on disc-brake specific wheels. Difficulty maintaining adjustment of brake calipers relative to wheel brake disc. Slower wheel changes compared to caliper brakes. Difficulty moving wheels from one bike to another due to tight tolerances. Heavier weight. More expensive. Fewer wheel options for disc brakes. New maintenance requirements, especially with hydraulic disk brakes.

So the question for consumers is, do the drawbacks outweigh the benefits? Another attendant question for consumers is, “Was there anything wrong with caliper brakes?”

In fairness, road calipers have had decades to evolve. Brake surfaces, rim profiles, brake calipers, brake levers, brake pad materials and brake cables for caliper brakes have been evolving ever since they were invented in the late 1920’s. That is a century of technological evolution in favor of calipers.

Conversely, disc brakes are new to road bikes compared to calipers, and the technology is not quite ready for prime time. If it were, the incidents with rider injuries, complexity surrounding wheel changes and maintenance wouldn’t exist.

During the past two decades when the bike industry introduced a few ideas that made it to market when they arguably were not mature we saw an increase in service and warranty related inquiries. These included, most notably, bottom brackets following the move to press-fit bottom bracket formats.

And the bike industry has a dismal record of owning its bad judgment unless compelled to do so via litigation, usually in the form of mandated recalls or personal injury lawsuits. Until those things happen the pedal is to the metal on selling new innovations with an often-subordinated regard for technical merit, let alone safety or integrity.

Solution: Do a Better Job of Selling What Already Works.

While the bike industry has done a great job of introducing “new” it has mired itself in an increasing number of sales narratives.

For every new innovation there needs to be a new sales case, new sales materials, new web assets, new sales and distribution channels and new marketing materials. It takes time and resources to develop those assets, and they cost money. It makes sales conversations longer on the floor of the bike shop on Saturday morning. It may not increase sales, but it makes it longer to complete sales. There is simply more to talk about.

An alternative solution exists in other industries where price maintenance, dealer cooperation and better marketing of existing products along with more judicious management of the supply chain has maintained product quality, profit margin and customer satisfaction.

Perhaps the best example of maintaining profit and demand for a static, non-evolving product is the diamond industry. Despite the rising supply of diamonds (there is actually a surplus) and the introduction of nearly indistinguishable synthetic diamonds, prices for diamonds have consistently risen. The diamond industry has created an emotional perception of worth although all other metrics suggest diamond prices should be falling.

The bicycle industry has not mastered any version of this perceived value equation. It is consistently undercutting price and negotiating a seasonal “surplus” of inventory that has conditioned consumers to buy previous model years at discounts. While some bike brands have reduced the emphasis on model years this has resulted in sometimes-stale offerings since the marketing narrative was not supported vigorously enough within the bike industry. They forget to sell. But they remember to invent new shiny things.

When the bike industry begins to focus on the job of selling rather than the novelty of making shiny new things then product quality will improve and profit margins will follow. And, most importantly, consumers will get a better, safer, more valid product instead of just the latest shiny thing.

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4 comments
  1. I don’t know Tom. I think these anti-disc photos are frankly a bunch of traditionalist nonsense. Riders get serious injuries all the time in bike crashes disc brakes or no. I remember when carbon fiber was supposed to be the root of all evil because, evidently, carbon fragments were something akin to nuclear waste. The biggest threat to the peleton the last two years has been on-course vehicles, not cycling equipment.

    That said I agree that not everything new is better. I think disc brakes though have to be a vast improvement in the long term over rim brakes. I don’t even a disc brake equipped bike yet but plan to buy one within the next couple years. I think the archaic UCI rules are the biggest thing holding cycling innovation back. Their weight limit, for example, needs to change.

    As far as the cycling industry doing better with current technology . . sure they could. But innovation drives improvement, and certainly the cycling industry is competitive and saturated with manufacturers. It’s tough to keep a leg up on everyone.

    • Pete,

      Thank you for your comments and especially for reading. Appreciated Sir. Your point is entirely accurate about a reluctance to accept new tech in the bike industry, and especially in the often stodgy world of European racing (even if it is in the Middle East in this instance). It makes me wonder if I have already slipped into retro-grouchism. That makes me think Sir…

      Again, many thanks Pete,

      Tom D.

      • On the other hand . . you could be completely correct. 🙂

  2. Kevin Strevel said:

    Tom,

    As always, a well-reasoned argument and a voice of sanity – and I enjoy reading this blog immensely. I, on the other hand, love all the cycling techno-philes who are chasing the latest, “greatest” new expensive do-dad. It allows guys like me who want the “3-year old technology” to have it at a fraction of the cost, as it trickles down. (Though I may not be a bike retailers dream (probably your nightmare) – my bike mechanic is always installing components – maintaining & repairing my bikes.) You can get excellent bikes with very solid components, and “plug & play” other things like wheel-sets to your liking as you use actual experience on the bike to change one or two variables slowly. I would rather pay for services like a proper fit & a proper installation of parts and tune up to make sure I am able to get the most out of <$2K bike, which I then race competitively (triathlon). I’m sure all this technical performance stuff is more important in a an amateur road race – (triathletes don’t need the same “technical” handling capability – but they sure are obsessed with the minutia of aero – tech.) – but my gut tells me I can build a < $2500 road bike and have a lot of fun racing it. I’m sure the road bike community could easily dissect my argument, and why I “need” to spend 3X as much to be competitive. To me it’s law of diminishing returns — but I’ll keep working on the bike’s “engine.”

    I don’t know if disc brakes are better/worse. I just know I’m not going to pay any more for them right now. My old caliper breaks safely stopped my bike at 57mph going downhill on a TT bike – that’s good enough performance for me – performance that I trust my life too.

    The bike industry is just giving what the top-tier spenders want – so I’m not sure that we should blame them. I’m sure the margins on these items are very high, and more power to them. I would rather have the proven, often much less expensive technology. In a way – I find it almost as fun to see how I can get the same results out of relatively inexpensive equipment, and modest upgrades. There is no satisfaction like crushing someone on a brand new, $9000 shiny TT bike on my “entry-level” (albeit upgraded) TT bike in a TT or Triathlon. My first few tris I completed on a 1970s vintage steel road bike — guess what, I loved them – and didn’t do all that bad!

    But all competition aside … it’s getting out there and enjoying the outdoors – cycling, racing, etc that really matters – the bike is merely a tool that allows you to the freedom experience the thrill of rolling with 2 wheels on the open road, and the sense accomplishment of working towards goals.

    Keep the good analysis & musings coming!

    Kevin

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