A Shift in Time
By Vernon Felton
(originally published, in short form, in the July issue of Bike)
This derailleur would fetch more than $1,000 on Ebay today. Why? It’s complicated. If you began mountain biking within the past 17 years, you probably think of mountain biking derailleurs as coming in two flavors: Shimano or SRAM. It wasn’t always this way. There was a fleeting moment in the mid-nineties when the top of the mountain biking food chain was dominated by small, American builders and the Paul Components Powerglide shown here was the ultimate cycling component.
Shimano had come to dominate the mountain bike component game by 1989, when the Japanese parts giant unveiled Rapidfire—its under-the-bar shifters. The first iterations, however, were complicated and fickle, and their less-than-stellar performance led many riders to demand simpler parts they could fix and which could be mixed and matched to create a totally unique bike. Shimano sold complete drivetrains on the premise that components functioned best when integrated with one another as a system. Some riders, however, had begun to feel like it was less about ultimate performance and more about ultimate control—of consumers and their choices.
“The way the public feels about Shimano goes in waves,” explains Steve Boehmke, Shimano’s mountain bike product manager at the time. “There are these moments when people feel Shimano has overreached and created components that created limitations or are just too complicated and there’ll be this anti-Shimano moment. Then Shimano turns around and makes something undeniably golden and everything is forgiven for awhile. It goes back and forth and if you’ve been in the industry long enough or ridden long enough, you’ve probably seen the cycle come and go a few times. This was one of the first backlash moments.”
A rash of boutique builders saw their opportunity to capitalize on the discontent and began machining aluminum components and soon the market was awash in red, orange, purple and blue stems, cranks, hubs, quick releases and more. In 1995, Chico, California-based Paul Component Engineering crafted the Powerglide rear derailleur. While the $280 derailleur was soon joined by similar models from Precision Billet, Prototype Machining, Rhino Racing, Gorilla Billet and White Industries, none possessed the allure of Paul’s masterpiece. It was 175 grams of pure kick ass. The Powerglide perfectly embodied the times—it was stunning to look at—an intricate assembly of stainless steel, brass and equisitely machined T6 aluminum. What’s more, every single piece—right down to each pivot pin, o-ring and bushing—could be serviced and replaced, by you, the lucky owner.
Could you do that with a Shimano derailleur? No. Did Shimano derailleurs come in awesome Rasta anodized finishes? Hell no.
What prompted Paul to take on Shimano in the first place? That’s a truly monumental David and Goliath situation there—one little machine shop versus a giant corporation from Osaka. “I don’t know,” says Paul Price, the man behind the brand and the inventor of the Powerglide. “I never thought of it like that. I just saw how derailleurs worked and I thought, ‘We can make that.’ So we did. And for awhile the thing was on fire. We were running non-stop to fill orders. Everyone wanted one. I thought, this is going to be huge. It’ll put us on the map. I’m going to buy a Ferrari, you know, all that stuff. I’m going to have 17 girlfriends…and, you know, for a while, it went really big.”
The Powerglide was unbeatable.
Or it was until Shimano debuted its second-generation XTR, the M950, the following year. Steve Boehmke, Shimano’s mountain bike product manager at the time, had a big hand in shaping that group. “I wouldn’t say that companies like Paul had Shimano on the ropes back then,” says Boehmke, “but Shimano definitely felt like something had to be done about the situation.”
That something came in the form of a sleek component group that seemed to lift an angry middle finger at the entire CNC revolution. No, you couldn’t rebuild this XTR. And it didn’t come in any color other than dull grey. XTR, however, was so light, so precise and so overwhelmingly… awesome… that it simply crushed the anodized movement. As cool as it was to rebuild a derailleur, most riders preferred to bolt one on that never required rebuilding. Within two years, many of the small companies that made their bones with CNC’d ano components had gone belly up.
“The Powerglide had a production run of about three and a half years,” say Price, “But, yeah, XTR was kind of the nail in the coffin. That whole CNC craze, though, it had to peak at some point and I’m pretty sure the Powerglide was the end of it. As soon as it came out, that was it.”
But a lot of people look at the Powerglide not as the end of the CNC boom, but as the pinnacle.
“Sure,” Price laughs a bit ruefully, “but what’s always on the other side of the pinnacle? It’s all downhill from there. I was young. In fact, everyone in the company was young and we had no clue what we were doing with the huge success and we pretty much…pissed it all away, for lack of a better term. I mean, this is what happens when you get a bunch of young engineers together. There wasn’t anyone in the building with a business class under their belt. If we had the resources, we could have done a drivetrain with a crank and chain and cassette, but that thing was really expensive. It had so many parts and if you were short on even one tiny screw, you couldn’t ship it out the door. And then all the different colors—that was a huge inventory nightmare.”
“It was really hard,” explains Price. “We were really just struggling as a company for awhile. 1999, 2000, 2001…those were really rough years.”
What saved Paul Component Engineering?
“The singlespeed thing came along, which was an anti-establishment reaction to the more and more gears trend. So that happened and I designed our single-speed mountain bike hub and that kind of saved our ass, really. And I was really poor for a while. At the peak of the craziness, we had about 14 people working here. We got down to about three people. I just made cuts and cuts, and sold off equipment and stopped riding my bike and had a bad relationship, it was a dark time. And then one day I began riding my bike again and everything got better. I ride almost every day now. You get on the bike and you sweat and you think about what you’re doing and the good ideas just come to you…it’s a great thing.”
Paul Component ceased production of the Powerglide and remained afloat—thrived even—by nibbling at the corners of the cycling world ignored by Shimano and SRAM.
“For years,” says Price, “I’d go to tradeshows or events and people would say, ‘Hey, you’re the guys who make the Powerglide! Can I get one?’ and it really annoyed me. I wanted to say, ‘Look at this new product and that other new product and this other awesome new product we’ve come out with.’ I didn’t want to dwell in the past. Lately, though, I’ve come to a kind of peace with the whole thing. We’re doing well, I’m proud of what we offer today and I’m proud of what we made back then too. The fact that we pulled it off at all is just huge.”
Paul’s Powerglide still has a lot of admirers, including the man at Shimano often credited with snuffing out the CNC revolution, “Look,” says Boehmke, “XTR was, and continues to be, great stuff, but you’ve got to hand it to Paul—one guy sitting down and creating a derailleur like that? That’s insanely difficult and a huge achievement in its own right. Hats off to Paul.”
Today, you’ll find Paul’s machine shop in Chico cranking out a wide range of chain tensioners, single-speed hubs, cranks, thumb-shifter mounts, camera mounts, canti brakes and bike polo components—all of them crafted with the same meticulous eye that created the Powerglide—a defunct derailleur that, in an ironic twist, routinely sells for as much as an entire XTR group that replaced it.