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Eurobike Confidential -- Looking ahead to 2007

For anyone who knows and loves bicycles, Interbike is a name that titillates. It’s the North American bike industry’s annual trade show, and it possesses enormous importance since North America is the highest dollar volume market for nearly every manufacturer and distributor that exhibits there. For attendees (as opposed to the exhibitors) you feel an irrepressible kid-in-candy-store glee as you walk through row after row of the newest & sexiest bike gear out there.

While it’s easy to get fired up about Interbike as a passionate cyclist, it’s undeniable that the show has some disadvantages from a business perspective. For starters, it’s the final trade show of the three big shows that take place each year. First is Eurobike in Germany, then comes the EICMA show in Milan, and wrapping things up is Interbike. Interbike takes place a full month after Eurobike. This means once the manufacturers let all their secrets out at Eurobike, a North American retailer has to wait 30 days before they can see the new stuff themselves. Not unlike their customers, they’re forced to get all of their first impressions from the Eurobike dispatches on cyclingnews.com. In short, the customers know as much as the bike shops for one whole month. It makes the shop guys look uninformed, and it disserves their customers because all they have is nuggets of anecdotal info from the web.

Interbike’s lateness problem is compounded by its location, Las Vegas. The Vegas strip is novel for perhaps one or two visits per lifetime, but there’s something prison sentence-like about knowing you’ll be there for 4 days per year every year for the rest of your life. It’s dreadful and it’s insanely expensive. Our vote is for someplace like San Francisco or Chicago where we can get options in food (i.e. ethnicities and price ranges that cover Vegas’ gap between Denny’s and Le Bec Fin), options in the native women to observe & admire (i.e. a delicateness and level of sophistication that cover Vegas’ gap between a silicone-toxic Maxim magazine cover model and my beloved grandmother who can rob a slot machine blind whether she needs a walker or not), and generally speaking do business in place that allows us to believe that we aren’t inside a poisoned bubble 24/7 whether we’re indoors or out.

We’ve been sufficiently fed up with Vegas for the last couple of years that we made good this year on a promise we made to ourselves after several cocktails at Interbike ’05: We’d go to Eurobike in 2006 instead. We guessed at the time if we booked travel and a hotel soon enough, we could get the trip done for less dough than Vegas costs, we’d get the side benefit of going to Europe (always a plus in our minds), and we’d get the earliest-possible look into next year’s crystal ball. So, in my role as your faithful correspondent, I’m currently writing from an airport hotel in Zurich and my goal is to make you expert in all the goodies that are forthcoming for 2007.

Eurobike is similar in purpose to Interbike, except for the obvious exception that instead of North American retailers it’s covered up with European retailers instead. It’s become the king of the European bike trade shows. There was a show for quite some time in Cologne, and there’s also the EICMA show in Milan conducted specifically for the Italian retailers. The strength of the Eurobike show is fully evidenced by the fact that this year Cologne merged with the Milan show to give it more oomph. The worst kept secret in the European bike industry is that the Milan show is dying from lack of interest. It was a slow death for a while, but things are progressing rapidly now. The lack of vibrancy at the EICMA has been referred to as a metaphor for the Italian bike industry as a whole, and it’s a not unconvincing parallel. Think of the most memorable Italian brands from 20 years ago. Sure, the very best are still there -- Colnago, Pinarello, Campagnolo. But they’ve had to change themselves rapidly in the last few years to stay competitive in the global marketplace. And it’s easy to rattle off a dozen or more once-formidable frame makers and component/accessory manufacturers that are literally dead in the water (e.g. Somec, Bottechia, Gianni Motta, Alfredo Binda, Rossin, Olmo, DeRosa, Gios, Daccordi, Faggin, Castelli, Benotto, Cinelli, 3TTT, Silca, and on and on and on until you have enough words for a dozen word jumbles). American, German, Swiss, and most powerfully of all Taiwanese companies have committed themselves to technology and innovation in a way that our once-beloved Italian brands refused to do, and the relevant laws (one part Darwin, one part Adam Smith) has put paid to them.

Since Eurobike is basically the ‘home’ show for every successful European manufacturer, it’s also the show to attend if you’re an American businessperson and you’re interested in importing new brands to the US. In other words, if you’re a banker or a lawyer or an insurance salesman and you’re tired of your job and you want to get into the distribution of exotic bike equipment instead, this is the show you’d want to attend.

So few quality brands aren’t imported into the US already, though, that walking the halls of Eurobike is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack -- the same needle that everyone else is seeking out. And the big guns of American distribution were there, checking things out slowly and methodically. This is worth mentioning because 2006 was probably the most tumultuous year in the last decade for action within the ranks of high-profile American distributors. While the best of the best (such as QBP, SBA, and Ochsner) continued to grow their sales and grow the number of lines they carry, other previously successful distributors got their worlds rocked in ’06. Veltec Imports lost Look framesets and Easton componentry -- though their spectacular success distributing Look pedals and Sidi shoes keeps them financial sound and relevant to a wide dealer base. But Bike Mine got nuked in ’06. They lost Continental tires, Fizik saddles, Limar helmets, and they lost their exclusivity with Vittoria tires. The population of big-time distribution players narrowed down in ’06, and Eurobike is the first best opportunity for 2007 to find new successes, redemption, or further failure -- based on their existing state of momentum.

We weren’t in attendance to sniff out any import/distribution deals. Our lives are busy enough as it is doing retail. The fact we weren’t put us in a very small minority of American attendees. In fact, we didn’t see another American retailer roaming the halls. But upper management from US distribution companies were in wide attendance.

Eurobike’s location couldn’t possibly be further from the neon apocalypse of Vegas. It takes place in Fredrichshafen, Germany. It’s in the southwest corner of Germany, alongside the lovely Lake Constance -- just a few km from Switzerland and Austria -- with countless 8,000-10,000 foot alpine peaks visible across the horizon. The air was pure and clean and the surrounding area was covered in apple orchards, cornfields, and the zany sight of acres and acres of hops fields. Hops plants grow about three stories high and each one is held up by an equally tall pole and wire assembly. Make no mistake, they were beautiful in their symmetry just like all other farm fields are, but it’s the most elaborate piece of agriculture we’ve ever seen.

The Messe, or the convention hall (hence the origin of the phrase ‘mess hall’, we guessed), abuts the world’s one-and-only Zeppelin manufacturing plant. Unlike the florescence and noise that assaults you at every turn in Vegas, more than once we walked between halls to see an ascending Zeppelin with the low purr of its tiny motor sweetly singing down to us. The Zeppelin was, in fact, invented in Fredrichshafen, and it spawned a sizeable aviation manufacturing industry for Germany that caused the US Army Air Force to bomb the factories and the city and the surrounding areas into tiny, bloody smithereens in late 1942. The anti-aircraft facilities were apparently quite stout there, and no small number of American bomber crews perished in the exchange.

We came to the show excited to get a taste of some old Hapsburg-era architecture and sense of length and depth of German history. Instead what we got really surprised us. Perhaps not unlike the monotonous planned developments that ring modern American cities, Fredrichshafen and many of the surrounding villages were built to a methodical plan. While the buildings traced the route of the old streets, they were all constructed with modern materials and finished off with modern contrivances such as shutters-that-don’t-shut and flower boxes that are painted-on instead of hanging-on. They all looked like ‘traditional’ German buildings -- traditional in the ‘Sound of Music’ sense of what an American tourist such as yours truly would expect -- but their newness was unmistakable. This new-in-the-place-of-old phenomenon was no clearer than in the enormous church at the Fredrichshafen town center. The faux-stucco and glossy woodwork gave away its youth, and a plaque outside the church explained how it’d been built in the mid-1300′s and was slowly upgraded to its current mammoth footprint through the early 1900′s. It burned to its foundation in the bombing of WWII. And the one memorial Fredrichshafen has for WWII expressed the tragedy of the war for all sides involved with grim simplicity. Upwards of ten tall obelisks surrounding a fountain give the names of the Fredrichshafen dead from the war -- not just the soldiers and sailors and airmen who came from the town, but the citizens who died as well. The memorial makes no effort to distinguish between them, and when you see men and women with the same last names listed ten-deep, it resonates deeply with the moral complexity and the miserable necessities of WWII.

The specter of history was ubiquitous -- not just the numbing reminders of the war, but also the esteem the city takes from the invention and the continued success of the Zeppelin, not to mention timeless imagery of acre after acre of well-worked orchards and fields. This rootedness in bygone times is perhaps the greatest distinction between Fredrichshafen and Las Vegas. In the battle of real vs. faux, we know which we prefer. And it made our time at Eurobike that much more gratifying.

As we crossed the threshold into the Messe on the first day it was with one thought in mind: The biggest news was already known. For nearly a year the hype has brewed for what we felt were the three biggest innovations forthcoming in 2007. Not only did we know what was on deck, we already had the items in question in stock. It’s as though the hype machines have gotten so hyperactive that the need to hype outweighs the need to introduce new product at the traditional time of year (i.e. after trade show season, not before it.)

To wit:

- We already have the new Campagnolo in stock. Record, Chorus, and Centaur. The Campy booth was overrun with retailers fondling the new items with an appropriate lustiness. All three groups experience the same fundamental changes: First and foremost, chains, cassettes, and rear derailleurs don’t change. Secondly, all models move to a new ‘skeleton’-style brakeset where the caliper arms are hollowed out in visually dramatic fashion to substantially reduce weight. Next, the cranksets are all now built in Campy’s ‘Ultra-Torque’ integrated crankset/BB design where a steel axle is basically sawed-in-two at its middle to form two semi-axles. Each semi-axle is molded into a crankarm. The BB bearings are press-fit at the end of each semi-axle against the crankarm. It’s built to emulate what’s known as a ‘Hirth Joint’ from the aerospace industry (where it was originally made to efficiently transfer torque in airplane driveshafts), and in a bicycle application it allows Campy to build a crankset that transfers power better, flexes less, is easier to service and install, and ultimately leads to a lighter drivetrain. And, lastly, the Ergopower shifters now move the chain from gear-to-gear with a noticeably shorter throw of the lever, known as Quick Shift. The front derailleur is modified (by being lengthened) in order to accommodate this evolution to QS.

The second introduction of industry-wide consequence is that of SRAM Force and Rival road groups. We go into technical detail of Force and Rival elsewhere on our site, but suffice it to say that both Shimano and Campy are freaking out on what this will do to their respective market share. Shimano kills Campy in the US, but the US marketplace is also where SRAM’s mountain components have authoritatively knocked the daylights out of Shimano XTR and XT sales. And Campy has plenty to lose in the European marketplace where their share of the road market is far greater than what they have in the US.

Not unlike Campy’s new components for 2007, the introduction of Force and Rival is worthy of gobs of trade show pomp & circumstance to dealers and the media. But, instead, they’ve decided to deliver product before trade show time -- a decision that might give them a wee bit less pop in their booth at the trade shows, but it ultimately makes everyone a whole lot happier. Force and Rival are in stock now at Competitive Cyclist.

The final introduction is that of the Power Tap SL 2.4 wireless powermeter system. Think of it this way: It’s a Power Tap SL, but with no wires and no transmitter. All you’ll see is a Power Tap hub and a computer on your handlebar. The signal transmits directly from the inside of the hub to the computer. It’s supremely clean in appearance and it has all the other functionality and accuracy of the SL system. For those of us who detest seeing wires splayed over an otherwise pro-looking bike, it’s a godsend since training with power (or just riding with power for that matter) makes cycling a whole lot more fun unless you’re just pedaling to the grocery store -- in which case foregoing power data is acceptable.

We’re more or less certain that we’ll see 2.4′s at the beginning of October. And while we once would’ve told you that that one guy who broke our hearts at the end of July rode it throughout le Tour to test its performance under the most severe circumstances, we try our best now to not think about Floyd or the ’06 Tour at all. It just hurts too much. Instead, we’d rather just tell you that we’re helping CycleOps beta test a 2.4 here at Competitive Cyclist. Except there’s not much beta testing to do. It works perfectly under every circumstance we’ve ridden it in. Since our test unit is in our hands, CycleOps’ thunder (at least for us) at Eurobike was limited. But we’re certain that it’ll be our best selling powermeter ever, and if you’d like to get one once they become available in early October you need to let us know now due to the furious demand we’ve long seen for it.

Given that the three things we’re most fired up about for 2007 are already available (or imminently so), our nose-for-the-new as we roamed Eurobike’s halls trended towards two general phenomena -- we noted things that were truly new, and then things that were unique but were clearly extensions or evolutions of existent products or product technology. For simplicity’s sake, let’s generalize them as ‘New’ and ‘Evolutionary’. We’ve broken them down thusly below.

NEW

1. Tubeless Road Tires

One of the longest debates in the road bike world is tubulars vs. clinchers. We all know the lowdown by now: Tubulars offer lightness, truer cornering and tracking, and added safety if you flat. Clinchers offer convenience and a fairly substantial cost savings. If you’re after pure performance, you take tubulars. If you’re trying to keep the care and feeding of your bike to a minimum, you take clinchers. It’s one of those debates that evokes fiery passion, and it’s rare that a tubular person is converted to clinchers, or vice versa.

In a move that will either clarify or further confuse the situation, Hutchinson is finally prepared to release their long-awaited tubeless clincher tire. Unlike tubulars, you don’t glue them on -- rather, they fit right in your hook/bead style rim. And unlike clinchers, they don’t require the use of an inner tube. Rather, it requires the use of a tubeless-specific wheelset such as the Shimano Dura-Ace WH-7801, the Mavic Ksyrium SL, or the Fulcrum Racing 1.The key element of these wheels is that the back side of their rims don’t have spoke holes. This allows Hutchinson’s tires to create an airtight seal against the rim.

Why choose tubeless? We know this much: It’s not to save weight. Hutchinson’s high end model is known as the Atom, and it weighs 265g -- just 10g-20g lighter than a Conti GP 4000 tire with a decent quality butyl tube. Rather, it’s for two reasons: One is ride quality. For years clincher designs have been trying to replicate the supple ride of a tubular -- but they’ve struggled achieving this because the sidewall of a clincher is rigid in itself, and when you corner and the stiff sidewall starts to flex, it just presses against a rock-hard butyl tube. Suppleness is an elusive goal, and no clincher has quite got it down. Tubeless tires are a big step in the right direction thanks to the fact that there’s no butyl tube for the sidewall to push against.

The additional reason to choose tubeless is that its lack of an inner tube allows you to ride at lower pressure without increasing your chance of pinch-flatting -- the most common cause of clincher flats. With lower pressure (i.e. 90psi) you get a substantially smoother ride. And many studies suggest that a psi range of 90-100psi is actually faster than the sky-high pressures many folks run. In other words, you’ll gain comfort and optimize performance.

Hutchinson is releasing 2 models. One is the Atom, their good-condition, supremely light model as used by Agritubel’s Jose Mercado in his stage victory in the 2006 Tour de France. They’re also releasing a model known as the Fusion. It’s 23mm in width in contrast to the 21mm width of the Atom. It weighs 30g more, and its compound is optimized to give better traction in wet conditions.

2. Prologo saddles

The greatest thing that ever happened to saddles was the invention of the Fizik brand. Their saddles are beautiful, they’re made with exceptional quality, and not unlike a Pinarello frame and Assos clothing they justify their expense thanks to the years of fabulous comfort and performance they provide. Fizik wasn’t a company invented out of thin air, though. Rather, the behemoth saddle manufacturer Selle Royal created Fizik in order to give retailers and consumers a new option for high end saddles. Selle Royal has long owned a huge portion of market share in low-price and mid-price saddles, and with Fizik they could rule the saddle market in toto, and they’re quickly en route to doing so.

It probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Selle Royal’s biggest rival in the saddle industry took a chapter from their book. The company is known as Velo, and not unlike Selle Royal they manufacture boatloads of low and mid-price saddles both under their own name and on the behalf of countless saddle companies throughout the world. What Fizik is to Selle Royal, Prologo is for Velo -- a high end brand that expertly brings together performance and beauty.

Unique to Prologo is the modular system by which you build their saddle. Think of it like a custom saddle. You choose the cover type (there are three options -- gel, standard padding, or thin for weight weenies) 45 total color options (you get to choose both the cover color and the trim color), plus your choice of two rail types. And while Fizik has a similar program by which you can order a customized saddle on-line, with Prologo the custom elements are held together by a snap-locking system that allows you change your choices over time. In other words, you can go from a blue gel saddle today to a red standard one tomorrow. The saddles look fantastic, and the customization options are in the spirit of what we’re seeing throughout the industry (we’ve now seen customizable frames, wheels, aerobars, stems, and shoes -- and who know what else is forthcoming.) Fizik quickly became a company of mammoth consequence to us here at Competitive Cyclist, and based on first impressions we see no reasons why Prologo won’t be the same.

3. Pro: A coming storm

Pop quiz time: Name the brand whose wheelsets, bars, and stems were ridden to 9 stage victories in the 2006 Tour de France. It ain’t FSA. It ain’t Zipp. It ain’t Bontrager. Rather, it’s Pro. Who? Pro. Their disc rear wheel and aero front wheel were ridden by Credit Agricole and T-Mobile, and their bars and stems were ridden by Rabobank and Credit Agricole.

Pro is an amazing company -- think of them as Zipp combined with FSA combined with Topeak. Their product mix is that broad, and it’s that high in quality. They make high-end carbon gear like bars, stems, aerobars, wheelsets, seatposts, plus top-quality everyday staples like pumps, seatbags, tools, lights, CO2, panniers, and computers. And their capability to develop new products quickly and well and gain massive distribution at will is ensured by one basic fact: They’re owned by Shimano. Bike industry: Be scared. Be very scared. If Shimano chooses to throw their full global weight behind Pro instead of continuing to treat it like a start-up, they’ll gobble up mindshare and market share unlike anything we’ve seen in a long time.

Pro first gained traction in Benelux, and its reach now spreads into the rest of Europe, mainly France and Germany. Amazingly it’s still not distributed in the US, but if it ever is the impact will be seismic. If there’s only one new brand you should keep your eyes peeled for here in the US, it’s Pro. And look at those race photos of T-Mobile, Credit Agricole, and Rabobank a bit more closely. Once you start looking for Pro, you see it everywhere.

Shimano has long been the 10,000 lb. gorilla of manufacturing, but 2007 appears to be the year in which they’re focusing on distribution. The boundless potential of Pro aside, for the first time ever Shimano is actively seeking to sell their componentry en masse to the North American dealer base. Through 2006 they focused on selling Shimano shoes, pedals, and wheelsets to dealers, while they focused on selling componentry to wholesale distributors. Beginning in 2007 they’ll begin competing against their own distributors -- a move they can afford to make thanks to their singular dominance of the bike market.

4. The Giro Advantage

After years and years of being pestered about it, Giro is finally releasing an ANSI/Snell-approved full-on aerodynamic helmet in 2007. It’s called the Advantage, and it’s built with all the technical nous Giro brings to standard helmets like the Ionos and the Atmos. Companies like Limar, Rudy Project, and Louis Garneau have had aero helmets on the marketplace for a little over a year. But Giro is the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the helmet world, and most folks were keen to wait due to Giro’s reputation for fit, weight, ventilation, and comfort.

The Advantage will be available in 3 colors and in 2 sizes. It’s identical in shape to the Giro aero helmets you’ve seen top-notch pros ride TT’s in for the last few years -- so you know it’s aerodynamically dialed. But perhaps most amazing is its weight. It tips the scales at a mere 310g -- only 35g heavier than the madly popular Atmos helmet. If you were worried that wearing an aero helmet might be stifling or obnoxious in a hot summertime TT, you can dismiss your fears. The Advantage proved to be well worth the wait.

5. Fizik K:1

While Fizik has largely devoured the high-end saddle marketplace, they’ve done so without responding in kind to companies like Selle San Marco and Selle Italia who try to garner attention for themselves by producing ever-lighter saddles. You know the saddles we mean -- the 99g thin-shell/thin-carbon cover models that cause you to laugh when you look at them because you know no one heavier than a certified KOM could ever possibly sit on one for longer than 5km.

New for 2007 is the Fizik K:1 saddle. While it doesn’t break the 100g barrier, its design ensures a heck of a lot more in the way of comfort than what we’ve seen up to now in the super-light class. It’s built with the next evolution of the braided carbon rails Fizik first introduced last year with the Arione Braided Carbon saddle. The K:1′s ‘Mobius’ braided rails are Fizik’s lightest-ever thanks to their construction method by which a core of unidirectional fibers are inserted into a carbon ‘sock’ to give it tremendous strength-to-weight. Further lightening things is a carbon shell overlaid with a soft ‘Technogel’ cover. While this gel adds a wee bit of weight, it also makes the K:1 the most rideable sub-150g saddle on the market. It’s a full 50g (that’s 33%) lighter than the Aliante Carbon, yet like all other Fizik saddles it’s built to give you all-day-long comfort.

One other note of interest from Fizik is the fact that all Aliante and Arione saddles will soon come equipped with Fizik’s ICS system. The ICS is a tiny plastic port on the bottom of the saddle shell that will accommodate one Fizik’s snap-in seat bags or taillight. This permits you to do away with shorts-ruining Velcro straps in an elegant, integrated manner.

6. Stainless steel

The niche occupied by steel frame manufacturers is an ever-shrinking one. As composites and alloys continue to evolve, the reasons for buying a steel frame other than sentimentality are disappearing fast. In its desperate hunt for relevance, the most visible champion of steel tubing -- Italian steel tube manufacturer Columbus -- is introducing a stainless steel tubeset for 2007. While some companies in the past attempted to make stainless work (the now-defunct builder Rhygin of Cambridge, MA comes to mind), it was probably the most difficult variety of steel to weld and machine.

In recent years a new composition of stainless was developed in France for military use. It’s been released for commercial use, and the difference is that its weldability and workability both improved immensely. It can be TIG-welded or brazed, and it requires no heat-treatment (or any other curing) after being welded. It’s being offered in triple-butted dimensions whose prototype frames are coming in at sub-3.5lbs.

Why do we bother mentioning this? It’s because our single favorite frame builder (and by that we mean he actually builds the frames himself) is Dario Pegoretti. He’s long chosen to build his steel frames using TIG construction, not lugged. He’s an appropriate candidate to build stainless frames -- and that’s exactly what he’ll be doing for 2007. More details are forthcoming regarding price and timeframe, but this will be the one-and-only new model for Pegoretti in 2007. Also, the Fina Estampa has been discontinued in favor of the Love #3.

EVOLUTIONARY

1. Delights from Cervélo

The Soloist Carbon and the R3 were our two-best selling framesets in 2006. Period. It’s an amazing feat for the same manufacturer to own the top two spots on our in-house Billboard chart, but statistics don’t lie. What this means to us is that if any two models could stand to go unchanged for 2007, it was those two. Few frames sell themselves quite so assertively based on technical and aesthetic merits, and few frames have proven to evoke such a giddy reaction from their owners.