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2010 Year in Review, Part 2: Products & Industry

Last week we took a look back at the year in bike racing and fanhood. This week we take a look at our highlights from 2010 specific to gear and the people who earn their keep by making & selling gear.

- Product of the Year: It’s as much the ‘Brand of the Year’ as ‘Product of the Year’. Garmin didn’t just devour the bike computer market, but thanks to the functionality and variety of their computers (and price points) they grew the bike computer market tenfold. That’s great news, and perhaps this is what we should’ve expected from a company with already-lucrative expertise in airplane and marine navigation. But, with that pedigree, they could’ve just as easily entered the bike market with arrogance and pumped out throwaway products. They didn’t.

Many folks prefer the Garmin 500 since, in its sleekness, it doesn’t look & feel like a tablet atop your stem. Minimalism aside, the post-ride data you can download from the 500 is vast in scope and sacrifices little in terms of post-ride tracking and analysis. The winner of Product of the Year, though, is the Garmin 800 for a couple of reasons. One is its breadth of real time data. Thanks to its sizable screen, the moment-to-moment telemetry available to you as you ride is seemingly infinite in scope. The other plus is its touch-screen navigation. Your days of clicky-clicky are over.

The appeal of Garmin (at least amongst folks here) got an added boost through its use in conjunction with an up-and-coming website called strava.com. Strava puts Garmin ride data within a social context, allowing you to compare your performances (most keenly on climbs) with others. Strava is a devious motivator: When you’re doing hill repeats and you know your data will go public to your friends (and strangers, too), opening up the spigot of pain becomes that much easier.

USS Missouri- Surrender of the Year: Shimano’s unexpected admission that it lacks in the ability to control the supply chain for the goods they manufacture.

** To their assertion that IBD’s are losing business because ‘overseas’ retailers don’t collect sales tax, it should be noted that Wiggle UK’s retail price on an Ultegra 6700 Rear Derailleur is $3 more than QBP’s wholesale price. The issue of 7% sales tax seems relatively small up against this fact.

** To their assertion that IBD’s face competition from (presumably domestic?) online retailers who don’t offer Shimano product at MSRP: This issue would be easily addressed by Shimano exercising their rights made clear in their 2′ thick online dealer agreement for domestic online retailers. It’s for the exactitude and the severe consequences spelled out in this agreement that Competitive Cyclist does not discount inline Shimano.

** Their assertion that grey market supply is impossible to control brings up a critical — and probably most important — point: This press release came from Shimano America, not the Shimano Corporate Mothership in Japan. Two of the three points (overseas retailers & grey market inventory) gravitate around territory outside of the jurisdiction of Shimano America.

We wonder if Shimano America is trying to get support from Japan in defending by-the-book American dealers (whether it’s your LBS or Competitive Cyclist), yet Japan won’t foist the necessary change upon Shimano Europe. Or, alternatively, perhaps Japan is so focused on OE sales that they can’t be troubled with the troubles of the U.S. aftermarket channel. In either event, after re-reading Shimano America’s press release. it’s easy to feel their frustration. If it weren’t so, this story would’ve certainly been lacking all of its detail.

- Most analogous thing to putting a vanity license plate on your car: Day in/day out training on tubulars. With the quality of full carbon clinchers now available (especially when paired with a nice set of tires and latex tubes), the putative ride quality superiority of tubulars seems sketchy, especially if your daily riding takes you out to the hinterlands of no-cell-coverage. Yes, Vittoria Pit Stop and CO2 is an insurance policy of sorts for sewups. But 2010 was the year where the risk/reward of their daily usage became less sensible than ever before.

- Signs of Intelligence of the Year: The enslavement of bike industry wholesalers and manufacturers to their brick and mortar retail networks is something they’re desperate to extricate themselves from. Companies like Specialized and Trek are dying to enter the modern retail age by making their entire catalog of goods available for purchase online. Yet they continue to struggle in trying to figure out how to accomplish this without triggering a bloody insurrection in their dealer base.

This beat is shopatronicThe industry is inching ever-closer to making this happen, as evidenced in the increased use in 2010 of ‘Shopatron’ by wholesalers and manufacturers. Make no mistake, Shopatron (at least in the way it’s currently being used in the bike industry) is fundamentally flawed because it does little to enhance the customer experience. The newly Shopatronic wholesalers — Veltec and QBP are two of the more significant ones — are now putting ‘Buy’ buttons on select products on their own websites.

Here is the fundamental flaw: When customers click ‘buy’, for example, for a set of Salsa skewers on the salsacycles.com website, the only choice for shipping is to the customer’s local bike shop, where the skewers are available for store pick up. In other words, there is still no option to have the item shipped to the customer.

The bike industry is maddening because the notion of customer convenience continues to languish as a third-tier priority, well beneath the imperative of the local bike shop’s sense of entitlement. If your LBS is on credit hold with QBP, does that mean you can’t pick up your skewers there? What if you hate your LBS? What if it’s a crosstown drive?

And while the current application of Shopatron with its store pickup requirement does little to remedy the low esteem in which the bike industry regards the consumer, we’re optimists here nonetheless. The new presence of a ‘Buy’ button on manufacturer’s websites is a significant psychological shift: The demonization of the online sales channel is getting less intense. Today it’s a ‘Buy’ button, tomorrow it may be recognition that shipping directly to customers is good service, the next day it’ll be acceptance of the best practice that — as manufacturers — offering goods for sale online in multiple places is yet another smart act of good customer service. 2010: The year of baby steps.

Flax- Bike technology concept of the year: There were two clear front-runners here. One was the principle of trickle-down technology. 2010 was a breakthrough year in terms of how advanced your bike could be without having to annihilate your wallet. Examples include the Canyon Ultimate CF frameset — the exact one ridden by Omega Pharma Lotto’s Philipe Gilbert to victory after victory — at a cost of less than $2,000. The Zipp 101 clincher wheelset had many of the aero details of their more expensive carbon wheels, but at literally half the cost (and maybe with some extra piece of mind re: durability for those of us with occasional spasms of ludditude.) SRAM’s Force line of components weighed in at only a few grams more than Red, but saves you 40%. And Assos’ F.I. Uno S5 bib shorts are $100 less costly than other Assos offerings, but we’d put them up against any other bib (regardless of cost) from anyone else.

The winner, however, came from an unexpected corner of the bike market. It’s been floating around for a couple of years, and we finally gave in to the temptation to check it out: Flax tubing. You’ll find it on the frames made by Museeuw Bicycles. The idea is that flax — when integrated with carbon fiber — has an inherent ‘give’ that allows a framebuilder to juice up the ‘forgiveness’ on a race bike. The subtext underlying Museeuw Bikes is that that the top-dollar model from every frame manufacturer has equally monstrous lateral and torsional stiffness. Might the X-factor in choosing one bike over another boil down to its comfort on lousy roads?

The flax experience is akin to raising your stem a spacer or two, or widening your handlebar, or riding a tall-headtube bike like a Cervelo RS or a Pinarello KOBH. The bike feels no less racy than what you’re accustomed to, but there’s a newfound ease. It’s like buttoning up the right size pair of pants after squeezing into a pair 1′ too small. There’s a sense of comfort, of being unencumbered, of readiness for action. Something’s afoot with flax, and given the tedious hegemony of carbon it’s hard not to root for the Lion of Flanders.

- Book of the Year: It was a good year for literate cyclists. William Fotheringham gave us what’s likely the best book of history from BH era (Before Hinault) with ‘Fallen Angel: The Passion of Fausto Coppi’. Even if you dread the black & white era of cycling, Fotheringham’s storytelling matched with the inherent intrigue of Coppi’s life make it a fabulous read.

Other essential books include the utterly arousing Rouleur 2010 Photo Annual — which pips out Timm Kolln’s ‘Peloton’ for our art book of the year. Jean Bobet’s ‘Tomorrow We Ride’is a beautifully written testimony to brotherhood.

Conversely, our biggest disappointment was with Joe Parkin’s sequel to his cult classic ‘Dog In A Hat.’ With ‘Come And Gone’ he tried to spin similar magic around the downward arc of his career — years racing as a domestic US pro and then a run as a pro mountain biker. Maybe it’s our woeful familiarity with suburban office park crits. Or maybe is his rushed, unpolished prose. Either way, it was only for our love for ‘Dog In A Hat’ that we forced our way past page 50 of ‘Come And Gone’. It was heartbreak all the way.

Looking back at the books of 2010, the best of the bunch is easy to choose. Michael Barry’s ‘Le Métier’ is masterful both for Barry’s maturing ability to choose le mot juste and because his focus is a realm mysterious to nearly all of us: The neuroses and anxieties of pro riders individually, and the institutional ones spawn by team dynamics. Combine Barry’s voice with his tales with Camille McMillan’s photos — the net result is a book unlike any other ever produced about bike racing.