Consolidation is the watchword for most industries in the world. Big guys are buying little guys, investors are tight with cash and upstarts are having a tougher time finding shoulder room than a sapling in old-growth forest. In short, the planet is being homogenized in great swaths. Species extinctions are happening at an alarming rate. Even languages are disappearing at a rate of one every two weeks.
Doesn’t look good for competition, does it?
I offer that as a backdrop to SRAM’s introduction of its new group called Red. On paper, the idea that an American company could enter the road market with a top-end component group and actually compete is, well, laughable. Who in their right mind would actually wish to compete with Shimano or Campagnolo? After all, no component maker has more emotional cachet with its owners than Campy. Assuming you think you can tackle that, okay. Who would then wish to go head-to-head with the 800-lb. gorilla from Manilla (okay, Tokyo)?
The brain trust at SRAM is neither stupid nor delusional. For those of you who haven’t ridden a bike with wheels smaller than 700C since you were in grade school, it bears mentioning that SRAM has been producing good mountain bike drivetrains (easily the crux move in any groupo) for more than 10 years.
Without resorting to licensing technology from either Campy or Shimano, SRAM found a creative middle road. For two years SRAM’s double-tap components have been quietly gaining acceptance in the road market. This is no small feat.
Consider that Full Speed Ahead (FSA) offers cranks, bottom brackets, front derailleurs, brakes and wheels. But they don’t do control levers or rear derailleurs. Given how good their current offerings are (let’s not forget their stems, handlebars and seatposts), it is fair to surmise that manufacturing control levers and a coordinated rear derailleur is more difficult than getting the ASO and UCI to play nice.
We have before us a few curious details to consider: Red is reputed to be the lightest road component group on the market. It will also be the most expensive. The dollar is worth less (relative to the Yen and Euro) than Britney Spears’ career. The UCI hates innovation almost as much as they hate American lawyers. Even so, the new competition will be good for consumers. Neither Shimano nor Campy can afford to react slowly, and Campy—God love ‘em—is rarely mistaken for a scalded monkey. The introduction of Red will spur innovation and price competition and soon enough, bicycles will be so light that the UCI will need to address their weight limit. Or not. Capitalism might have some predictability to it, but we probably shouldn’t expect anything predictable (or logical) from the UCI.
So maybe the pros won’t be able to ride a 13-lb. bicycle, but you will. Rapidly approaching is the day when you can ride a 12-lb. bike with bar tape. Or any frame you want (including lugged steel) without violating 15 lbs.
So despite all the economic pressures that make this introduction as unlikely as a smash hit from Kevin Federline, SRAM has put together the financing, engineering and tooling necessary to mount an assault on the road market. For many folks, this is the most eagerly awaited product intro in 10 years. But it would seem that this is just the serve; the move to watch is the return. For that we’ll have to wait until 2009.
Stay tuned for Tuesday's late report on just how Red rides.