Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Not-So-Venerable Bike Review

For most of the world, the bicycle is a commodity recreational device, different from a basketball only in its cost and the number of moving parts it possesses. There is, however, a whole industry devoted to making machines special enough to elevate a simple form of transportation into a quality-of-life experience. Those experiences—when a bike ride becomes an event—are a life altering pursuit for many of us. Finding the bikes that can give us those experiences are, to one degree or another, what we are really talking about when we compare notes on bikes.

All well-written product reviews are meant to give the reader the objective details of the item in question before evaluating if the product actually delivers the manufacturer’s stated goals for the product. It’s this second bit that guys at many of the bike magazines tend to miss. If ever you want to read a truly impressive review of a high-performance product, check out automotive writer Dan Neil’s (of the Los Angeles Times) review of the Mini Cooper. This review was cited by the Pulitzer committee when it awarded him its eponymous accolade for criticism. Neil’s work is distinguished by his attention to the vehicle’s stated purpose and its performance relative to its category. Well, that and his Swiss-precise language.

Given that our lives are so occupied by jobs and relationships plus tasks that aren’t fun or rewarding, we don’t get nearly as much to spend time on our favorite activities as we’d like. And because there isn’t much need for Consumer Reports to investigate whether or not the latest integrated seat mast rig descends well, the only reviews worth reading (or writing, for that matter) are those that point to exceptional products, those items that are so superior they will increase our enjoyment while on a ride. Done right, such a review can provide enough enjoyment to keep us excited about the sport even if the sun is down and the temperature outside is below freezing.

So on one hand, there’s virtually nothing in the road bike market that anyone needs to be warned about, at least not with the sort of urgency that you’d depend on a friend to mention, say, an invasion of army ants or a new reality show. On the other, there exists the opportunity to excite the reader with a heads-up to a guaranteed good time and the knowledge that they are shorter on time than California is on rain.

So why bother? Diversity. Road bikes are more diverse in their ride experience and range of expression now than at any time in history, save at the inception of the bicycle itself, when inventors had yet to agree on just what a bicycle was.

Twenty years ago, it was possible to look at five production road bikes and the only difference between them would have been the paint and minor differences in geometry. If the frames didn’t all use the same Columbus tubing, the tubes still possessed the same diameters and wall thicknesses. Trying to find a difference between such bikes is like claiming a Big Mac is healthier than a Whopper. Spare me.

Today, unless one really takes time to look at geometry charts, it is easy to dismiss some of the differences in bikes as just fancy marketing copy. But that’s just not the case. If you inspect the lay-up schedule for each size of a given model you are likely to find changes in the lay-up to give each size the same flex pattern relative to rider weight, rather than stiff small frames and flexy big frames. Formerly, the only time you saw geometry changes between models of 700C wheel bikes were the changes found in time trial, track and cyclocross bikes. Now, some manufacturers offer a second high performance road bike that offers a different ride experience.

Years from now, we may look back on the early 21st century as the golden age of the road bike. Bicycle design has never been more advanced. Fit has never been more scientific. Materials have never been stronger or lighter. Riders have never had more opportunities to find comfort. Craftsmanship of custom bikes has never been higher. Frankly, there have never been more reasons to have half a dozen hooks in the garage. The only real question is whether or not a bike review tells you something useful. Reviews should be a useful tool in finding the perfect bike. After all, having the perfect bike for the day's ride is pure PRO.

8 comments:

Uncle Bob said...

"For most of the world, the bicycle is a commodity recreational device, different from a basketball only in its cost and the number of moving parts it possesses."

That is probably true if by "the world" you mean the USA, or my home in Australia. It is much less true of Europe. It is wholly false for India & Pakistan, China, Africa and other places in the developing world where bicycles are ubiquitous as utility transport, and they don't get much chance to read glossy cycling magazines.

bikesgonewild said...

...while your assessment was spot on regarding recreational & or racing bikes, i'm surprised that 'uncle bob' had to fill in the obvious gap/gaff...surprised only because your musing are generally quite astute...

...anyway, another excellent post & point made...

...i commented on the 'time vxr' post, that your own subjective parameters made for both an objective & understandable review, as opposed to some i've read...so w/ that in mind...

...there are those of us who do hope you'll go back & follow up, as we're interested to know about the 'unforgettable' bikes you've mentioned...

Anonymous said...

BKW, another fine entry. I feel like I should be paying for this site.

bikesgonewild, why oh why the ellipses? I know it's your "thing," but those blasted dots are starting to drive me insane. They do not add clarity or breathing room or whatever it is you are seeking to accomplish by adding them.

Rather, they are extremely distracting and, in my opinion, tend to hurt your credibility by making everything you write look unbearably breezy.

Pardon my jerkiness. I'm not trying to start a flaming war; I just had to get that off my chest!

Reader in Tokyo

bikesgonewild said...

...reader in tokyo...yer not being a jerk or starting any flaming war...you're actually being both polite & articulate so i can only hope that by getting it off yer chest, you won't be distracted to the point of going insane...as they say "far be it from me..."

...i'm not trying to "accomplish" anything w/ the dots, but ya, it is kinda my thing or my style..."breezy" is an interesting choice of words, cuz internet blogging or posting pour moi, is a place to throw out or pick up thoughts, ideas n' info w/out being formal or structured...

...my friend, life is a dichotomy, as we both know, full of so much beauty & ugliness...a number of years ago, no exaggeration, i lay on the ground, essentially dead but through blind luck, the quick thinking of others & later, some major medical science, i was given a second chance, so...

...i spew a little vitriol, i work to create good & hope ultimately to leave some part of this life better off than when i got here, but i just don't take certain things too seriously...except bicycles, if ya know what i mean ?...

Rich Kelly said...

Very nice and thoughtful critique of reviews in the bike world. More of a reminder, actually, to the reviewing world of what constitutes a proper (and therefor useful) review.

The state of bike reviews in the US has been a source of frustration to me for some time. I think it ties into the uniquely American need to add a clever human interest story to everything rather than to focus on the technical merits (like the need to pull away from race coverage to show a piece on the wine industry of the surrounding area). This is much less the case in European reviews I have found. To be fair, this unfortunate trait is not limited just to the bike reviewers, having noticed the same in music technology reviews.

Uncle Bob and bikesgonewild:
While, yes, in Europe and much of the rest of the world bikes are valued as daily utilitarian tools for transportation, the focus of this post and of the BKW blog itself is the recreational category of bikes. That Colnago in the picture is a VERY different machine from the all black Dutch city bikes that so many rely on to get to work each day. The two are almost unrelated items. The city bike is a tool, the Colnago a piece of recreational equipment much like the basketball BKW referenced.

bikesgonewild said...

...rich k...i agree, that everything posted here regarding the nature of bikes is both true & valid but i would only add that while i understand the term "recreational" as applied here to colnagos n' basketballs, i maintain they are more than that...

...physical & mental health is a major consideration in our lives & while a $7,000 colnago is over the top when a $300 crapper will still give ya a workout, there is a point to be made that they ARE tools...that being said, ya, i'm very aware of the recreational aspects of the bike industry...

...so let's give a shout out to the joe breezes, the black dutch bike guys AND the ernesto colnagos...they all enrich our lives...

Ron said...

there's also considerable research going on in the engineering side, for an example, check out my blog for the article dated 11/8.

http://cozybeehive.blogspot.com/2007/11/mathematical-bicycle-model-to-end-all.html

Bolivar said...

BKW, this is great, really appreciate the honesty about reviews. I find myself in a current quagmire about my next CX bike: What material, which leads me to which frame builder. Right now I am on a custom Primus Mootry Kluisberg X (7005 Easton Aluminum), very light and stiff. Ti is the heavy favorite followed by steel or aluminum with carbon rear, but with the improvements in full carbon CX frames it can't go without consideration - would enjoy your thoughts.