By Vernon Felton
Our choices in this world are rarely clear. It’s almost never a matter of right or wrong, black or white, good or bad. Most of the time, life is a maybe, maybe not proposition, a confusing palette of greys and, too often, a frustrating choice between the lesser of two evils.
Sometimes, however, you just want things to be simple; a straightforward choice that just cuts the crap and presents you with a simple proposition… Which was why my heart was filled with a warm glow as I stood before the rolls of toilet paper in the supermarket aisle last night. Finally, a clear choice: soft or strong.
Here was an honest sales pitch. There was no dilly-dallying about with innocuous marketing slogans—no “White Cloud” or “Autumn Breeze” bullshit. What do those descriptors actually mean when you’re trying to determine what to arm your bathroom with? Here, one roll promised to be bullet proof, if perhaps a bit rough. The other, comfy, if not entirely reliable. Take your pick.
Sure, you could argue that you shouldn’t have to choose between strong and soft. We put a man on the moon. Surely, we can create toilet paper that embodies the best of both worlds. Or perhaps you’d mock Food Club’s marketing team for their obvious lack of finesse with the written word. I, however, applaud the minds who came up with the “Soft or Strong” campaign. In fact, I think the world would be a better place if every manufacturer were so honest.
Consider the bike industry….
I’ve been testing bikes for about 17 years now. I’ve been riding mountain bikes for close to 30. In all those years, I can’t tell you how many bikes I’ve ridden that were touted as “the best”, the “all purpose”, the “jack of all trades” bike. True, some of them have been remarkably versatile for their time, but still, all product design is a matter of trade offs. You gain strength, you add some weight. You improve pedaling efficiency under pedaling loads, you lose some traction under pedaling loads.
In short, you gain one thing at the expense of another. This is true everywhere and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. It’s physics or science or karma or The Way of the Cosmos or whateverthehell you want to call it….Let’s just call it reality.
And, yet, almost no one markets their latest bike as an “Awesome climber that’s also surprisingly acceptable on the downhills”. The latest carbon wheelset isn’t pitched to the public as “Lightweight, rugged and expensive!”. Instead, everything is just some flavor of awesome. Indeed, marketing tends to be a matter of several dozen brands all touting their bikes and gadgets as “the best”.
This, of course, is impossible. There’s the whole physical impracticality of engineering a product with no tradeoffs. And then there’s this fact to contend with: Who’s to say what is best?
You can take two mountain bikers in the market for a new all-mountain bike. One rider lives to shuttle. The other earns his turns. They may both want a lightweight bike that “rips” on the downhills, but they are going to need two different bikes. Is the shuttler’s heavier rig with the flat pedals, single ring, chainguide and crazy slack angles a better bike? It is for him. Is the climber’s lighter bike with the steeper head angle, the second chainring and the clipless pedals a better bike? Yeah, it is for him.
In short, neither bike is inherently better or worse than the other. They are different and that’s a good thing. We’re all different riders. We may wear the same goofy enduro/cross-country/downhill costume and lame socks, but we want different things. Thankfully there are bikes and gear out there that accommodate our different needs. It’s like the toilet paper thing. Some of us want soft. Some of us want strong. Wouldn’t it be an amazing thing if bike and component companies just flat out told us which product they were actually producing?
Now, I realize there are several obstacles to my, admittedly, utopian proposition.
First, even though most engineers will acknowledge that they operate in a world of trade offs, every engineer worth his or her salt is also doing their best to minimize that give and take—to make a product that achieves it all: light, strong and inexpensive—the holy, if impossible, trinity. Maybe some of those engineer types, after busting their ass on the next, great super bike or disc brake, feels like they’ve created a bike or brake with no compromises. I’d call that delusional, but, hey, I can understand that they may feel that way after beating a couple dozen prototypes into something sleek, shiny and new.
And then there are the companies…How are they going to sell a $5,000 bike with a slogan like, “It’s awesome on descents, but sorta sluggish if you ever have to pedal it uphill!”? Their job is to move units and the realist in me acknowledges that when you charge a grand for a fork or eight hundred bucks for a wheelset, the average consumer probably expects the damn things to walk on water and fly up hills by themselves. Companies have a strong financial motivation to crow about their product in nothing but superlatives.
In short, I’m not delusional: I understand why people sell their products as “the best” even when calling any bike or component “the best” is an exercise in absurdity. But where does that get us, really? Your average rider searching for a new bike is forced to stumble through a jungle of bullshit. Few of them will have the opportunity to actually ride the bike or widget they eventually purchase. They have to rely, to some degree, on the marketing and when each marketing department says the exact same thing….none of us winds up with the perfect roll of toilet paper we actually need.
Let me propose the following to the bike industry: an experiment. Let’s try shooting straight for a while. You want to brag about your new product? By all means, do so…but brag about your product’s real strengths, don’t tell us your product has no weaknesses. Let’s treat consumers like the thinking adults that they are. Let’s assume that they know what they want in a bike or brake or wheelset. Let’s give them a clear choice.