Monday, August 12, 2013

Me and My Crystal Balls

First of all, I've been right about certain things in the past.  

OK, so this one time at work in the bike shop, way back in the 1900's (okay, so it was 1998), I built a hardtail mountain bike with hydraulic disc brakes.  I had already been paying attention to industry standards in brake technology and I was impressed with the potential.  Upon test riding this bike I told my employer and coworkers that within 5 years, most mountain bikes would come standard with disc brakes.  Of course, being the teenage shop kid, I was subsequently laughed at.

This Hayes hydraulic brake changed the way we ride our mountain bikes.
Not long after my proclamation regarding the future of brakes, I made a similar statement about tires.  "Tubeless tires are it," I said, after riding a dozen or so hours on my first set.  "They're incredible!  I can ride on, like, 30 psi!"  There were obvious benefits to riding without tubes off-road.  I was eventually riding with 27 psi in my tires and keeping traction on terrain that the naysayers were crashing their bikes upon.  Still, I was laughed at.  From what I can gather, the shop I was working for at the time was still refusing to promote tubeless tires as late as 2009.

To be fair, I didn't put disc brakes on my own bike until 2002.  Brake technology had a long way to go before it would be worthwhile for the average rider and, really, it took more like 7 years (not 5 years, as I had predicted) for the standard to really take over.  After 10 years, though, rim brakes were seldom an option on mountain bikes.  Nowadays, the disc brakes on a mountain bike are just known as "brakes".

I switched to tubeless tires instantly, though.  I adopted Stan Koziatek's methodology before he even released his NoTubes conversion rim strips.  It was remarkable just how reliable it all turned out to be.  Tubeless tires were not then, nor are they now for all riders everywhere and they probably will never be right for everybody.  Even when tubeless technology took off, we all knew it would be an eternity before tubeless tires would come to the entry level - and that still hasn't happened.  Tubeless systems are, however, far better now than we could have hoped for a dozen years ago.  Even back then, all it took was a little experience and some persistence to get what was - at that time - an unreal performance advantage.

In both cases - tires and brakes - the technologies are now accepted as the gold standard for off-road riding, and they are gradually creeping into road applications as well.

Then came the 29" wheel.  Beneficial?  Absolutely.  Right for everyone?  Not by a long shot.  Anybody with a hand in bike fitting or an understanding of long-travel suspension knew it.  Yeti knew it, if that tells you anything.  I knew it and I was, once again, chastised for knowing and being capable of explaining the related facts.

Ever notice how bikes for children have different wheel sizes than bikes for adults?  This is not a coincidence.  Would a 6' 6" tall individual be able to ride a bike with 12" wheels if the frame was built to fit someone his size?  Of course.  It would be a daunting task for any frame builder, and the drivetrain would require some absurd adaptations in order for the bike to be the least bit useful, but it could be done.  Those tiny little wheels would put their rider on the ground the instant they ran into a pine cone or a bit of sand, but they would otherwise be "fine".

Switch the scenario to building a bike on 29" wheels for a 4-year-old who just learned to pedal.  The combined length of those two wheels would be longer than his whole body.  No part of that scenario will play out in a way that is beneficial to the rider.

Granted, these are extremes.  The point is that when something gets bigger, it takes up more space. It's important to acknowledge that at some point, you run out of space.

Any way we want to look at bigger wheels, the fact is that a bike has to fit its rider.  29" wheels have resulted in a lot of really horrible-fitting bikes for a lot of short riders who were told via marketing and some very clueless, very tall riding buddies that 29" wheels would automatically make you a better rider.  The effects of a larger/longer/heavier bike are not all that noticeable for a rider who is over 6 feet tall and may already weigh 200+ lbs by himself, but when you're 5'6" or less and you weigh 120 lbs dripping wet, you end up with a bike that hinders your ability to take advantage of your smaller build due to the added weight, abnormally long reach, and cumbersome/sluggish handling.

Since it became so freaking obvious that larger wheels roll a bit better and offer greater traction and an ability to stay on top of softer dirt a bit more easily, we all really have wanted to ride bigger wheels.  Anyone below a certain size has had to make allowances and just deal with the problems that are created by trying to fit their smaller selves between two bigger wheels.

Well, it seems that the big guns in the bike industry are embracing the fact that making our wheels as big as possible may not be the best approach for every bike and every rider.

Like many industry veterans, I've insisted from ride one on 29-inch wheels that the benefits are there, but that they wouldn't work for everyone.  It seems that grumblemumble years later, the industry as a whole has cried "uncle" and decided that smallish riders don't fit with wheels that are taller than their inseam length:

“When we were doing the 29er, one of my goals was to fit an XS rider,” said Abigail Santurbane, the Liv/giant category manager. “And it was atrocious. We did our best, and I think we did a really good job, but there were compromises. And with every 29er, there are compromises, but with the 27.5, it just fits.”

She's talking about this bike:

If only someone had said something sooner:

“For riders my size,” (John) Stamstad said, “you really have to make compromises in the geometry to use a 29-inch wheel.”

That would be THE John Stamstad, by the way.  He stands at about 5' 8" and has won more ultra-endurance MTB events than just about anyone else alive.

Big John, on the brink of another Iditasport title.

Not that he'd know anything about the relationship between bike handling and bike fit from riding a few billion miles . . . 

(climbs up onto soapbox)

To every rider of applicable height who insisted that the rest of us ride ill-fitting bikes: I F###ing told you so!

(climbs down from soapbox)

Honestly, though, it's good to see 650b wheels finally happen for realsies.  One of the great things about the bike biz is that the right decision eventually gets made by somebody and when that decision pays off, others follow suit.

Of course, 650b wheels are no longer a new concept.  I only mention these bits of bike industry history to preface my next prediction:

Cyclocross bikes will fade away even faster than 26-inch wheeled hardtails.

This will happen soon, and it will happen for many reasons.

#1) Cyclocross riding is not enjoyable on its own.  Nobody runs through soupy mud with a bike on their shoulder for the sake of a good time.  This only happens when you've paid an entry fee and you insist on "getting your money's worth" by ruining a perfectly good bike that had been fully functional until a fat guy with a megaphone yelled "GO!".

#2) Cyclocross bikes are designed and built around cyclocross racing.  Believe it or not, most bike owners are not bike racers.  Hence, the (vast) majority of people who own 'cross bikes never ever enter a cyclocross race.  They use these bikes for all-purpose riding.  Maybe their 'cross bike is a makeshift road bike.  Maybe it's the bike they use for weekend excursions with dirt road connections.  Maybe they ride it on singletrack a few times a month.  Maybe it's the daily driver with a rack, fenders, and enough rubber to make a go of any surface they might need to ride on.


#3) Like TT bikes and any other machine made for a specialty event on a closed course, they are less than awesome for almost everything else.

Owners of cyclocross bikes are riding them.  They are noticing a lot of top tube/crotch contact whenever they stand over their 'cross bikes.  They're noticing a lack of stopping power and, commonly, unnerving and sometimes scary amounts of fork chatter (thanks, everyone, for keeping vintage brake technology alive in cyclocross canti's).  Top it off with all the cornering stability of a roller skate, and every cross bike owner has invested a lot of money in a bike that can only ever be "pretty good".


Bike rider buys new 'cross bike.  Bike rider rides the new 'cross bike to some bike-nerdy barbecue that night.  His friends are stoked and curious:

"You've just invested $3000 in a new bike that will be your most-ridden utility for many years to come!  What can you tell us about it?"

"It's adequate!  I'm gonna go ice my groin for a few minutes . . ."

(end scene)

Gravel Bikes are the cyclocross bike that everybody actually wanted in the first place:  Sloping top tubes for standover clearance, lower bottom brackets for stability (which also helps with standover clearance), and disc brakes - something that cycling purists seem to rabidly oppose - that stop as well when they're wet and dirty as they do when they're clean and dry.  Disc brakes solve the old problem of fork chatter which has plagued 'cross bikes for ages.

Sloping top tube for peace of mind and comfort of crotch.  If you ask around, you'll probably find that most people stand over their bike regularly, but can't remember the last time they had to carry it on their shoulder.
People are about to start test riding "Gravel Bikes" - which resemble 'cross bikes - and realize that they can have a bike with room for big tires and fenders without giving up cornering stability, standover clearance, and real brakes.

#4) Grassroots road racing is on the decline.  Traditional road racing itself has become a bad brand.  Recreational cyclists do not care to be identified as Armstrong disciples.

Cycling enthusiasts are figuring out that even if they look like this:

Non-cyclists see this:

And then they remember this:
Like emulating a certain Texan, this was only slightly cooler before the sequel.
Making matters worse, road racing has become astronomically expensive.  The sport's marketing tells us that we need a minimum of two race bikes and eleven pair of wheels in order to be the least bit competitive.  That'll be $19,000.

They'll still ride, though.  Gran Fondo attendance is on the rise.  There is a big movement of recreational riders toward so-called "epic rides" that are basically day trips by bike that may include a lot of unpaved surfaces.  The best part for everyone involved: You can do all of this stuff with one bike and not feel like you're wasting your time.

Gravel Racing.  It's what cyclocross can be when it happens in summer, leaves the confines of a short, repetitive course, and leaves out artificial barriers.  Simply put, Gravel racing is a version of cyclocross as an actual bike race.  It's already here and it's growing.  Really, it's always been here.

Gravel Racing right now:

 Road Racing back in the day:
If gravel racing seems like it's nothing new, that's because it isn't.
The movement is right on the heels of the cyclocross boom, meaning that everybody already has a 'cross bike.  Never before has a cycling discipline become available to so many riders who already possess viable equipment needed to participate.  Events are sprouting up in a lot of places.  These are events that are very doable on 'cross bikes, which will get curious riders hooked enough to upgrade to a true gravel machine.

Gravel Racing will become even bigger than MTB racing was in the mid 1990's.

The Gravel Bike will change the face of the entire bike industry.  You can quote me on that.