By Vernon Felton
In 1967, The Velvet Underground released their debut album (The Velvet Underground and Nico) to the resounding sound of crickets chirping. Few people took any notice at all, which isn't too surprising when you consider the landscape of mid-60s America. There were no goth types lurking about the mall, most people believed that masturbation would make you go blind and your average 18-year-old was as hip and edgy as Newt Gingrich standing in church on Sunday morning. Being a misfit just wasn't cool yet (it would be in a year or two). Lou Reed and Co.'s musical paean to heroin addiction and lost souls was never going to sell in the millions to an audience that still had its hopes and dreams pinned on Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon reteaming for "Beach Blanket Bingo V.”
But the initial commercial failure of the Velvet Underground doesn't mean that the band had produced a lousy record. It just means that they were a few decades ahead of its time. While less than 30,000 people bought the album in its early years, as Brian Eno famously put it, "….everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band." No album sold so poorly and yet had so big an influence on pop culture.
In other words, the world at large just wasn't quite ready for the Velvets' big idea
Today's column is dedicated to similar moments in cycling's recent history. I'm calling it, "Sorry. You were right." and, in a nutshell, each situation unfolds like this: Someone comes up with a legitimately cool idea that bucks the status quo; the cycling masses promptly dismiss said brilliant idea as completely idiotic and; then, about 10 years down the road, everyone goes—Oh shit, that was actually brilliant—at which point we collectively buy a ton of product based on that idea, but made by someone other than the original inventor. Which, when you stop to think about it, really has to suck balls for said original inventor.
Here are just a few instances I can think of. I'm sure you can probably dig up a dozen of your own.
THE INVISIBLE PIVOT POINT TIPPING POINT
Full-suspension bikes were still in the pathetic, drooling-on-themselves stage of infancy when Jamie Calon and James Klassen brought out the Outland VPP 5—a full-suspension bike that rolled on five inches of travel and the outlandish promise that you could pedal those five inches up and down any mountain.
Today, of course, we nod our head as if that makes complete sense. We'd call that a "trail bike" and it's the bread and butter of the bike industry, but back then, five inches of travel was what you called a "downhill bike" and you sure as hell couldn't pedal a downhill bike up anything steeper and longer than you driveway. In short, the Outland was just plain crazy.
But it had this going for it—it worked.
Or, at least, the Outland worked better as a cross-country bike than most of the 3-inch-travel XC rigs out there and it had gobs of squish working for it. What made the impossible possible for Outland was their ingenius Virtual Pivot Point design, which as the name implies featured a "virtual" location for the main pivot—one that constantly changed as the bike cycled through its travel. Even as I finish typing that preceding sentence for the millionth time in my career, it still sounds like a load of rubbish. Bikes have fixed pivot points. You can see them. They exist. They stay in one place. They don't sound like warp drives or photon torpedoes or some space-ghost, sci-fi nonsense dreamed up by L. Ron Hubbard. VPP, it has to be said, got the job done amazingly well…even if most of us still have a hard time conceptualizing how it actually showed up and did that job.
So, why aren't there a ton of Outland VPP bikes floating around the universe if they were so mind-bendingly awesome? For starters, they were pricey. I only knew one person who actually owned one and he was a magazine publisher, so he made a metric crap ton of money and probably got the bike at cost, to boot. You could expect to pay upwards of $5,000 for a VPP 5, which is still a hell of a lot of cash today and was legal grounds for a divorce back in 1995.
And then the Outlands had this tendency to sort of…dissolve over time. The Outland featured some seriously wispy CNC'd aluminum frame members pivoting on not-so-fabulous bushings. Add dirt, water and Mountain Dew-drinking mayhem to the mix and you wound up with an expensive pile of creaky crap in short order.
These things led to an early extinction of the VPP 5 and the Outland brand. The big bike manufacturers didn't mind a bit. In truth, VPP was years and years ahead of what they were cranking out. The major labels probably were hoping everyone would just forget that those Outlands ever existed.
The VPP was given a second chance. For years Santa Cruz Bicycles had made their bones on the premise that a single pivot design was a simple, durable and elegant means of suspending a bike. Santa Cruz's problem, however, was that a number of other companies had watched the guys from Surf City sell a mint's worth of those really simple single-pivot Hecklers and Superlights and then promptly copied the Santa Cruz design and flooded the market with less-expensive, made-in-Taiwan versions.
Santa Cruz needed something proprietary and, for lack of a better term, kick ass. Right about then, Santa Cruz's principals, Rob Roskopp and Hans Heim thought, Oh yeah, whatever happened to that VPP thing?
Of course, at this point, the Virtual Pivot Point had taken up residence in limbo—holed up in some seedy hotel room with a hooker and 97 empty bottles of Wild Turkey. VPP was called up out of retirement, but first it needed a haircut, some new teeth and a respectable pair of pants that didn't smell like puke. Santa Cruz Bicycles gave it those pants—they snatched up the patents in 2001, simplified the design and boosted its durability. And then they sold ungodly numbers of VPP-equipped bikes. What's more, Santa Cruz kick-started a boom of short-dual link bikes.
If you've ridden a Santa Cruz Blur or Nomad or V10 or Bronson or a Giant Trance or Reign or Glory or a Niner or an Iron Horse Sunday or any of the many other short dual link bikes out there, you've tasted some of that VPP dragon's blood. You stomp on the pedals and the bike dishes out traction and acceleration. How awesome that all is depends upon the bike in question, but clearly the basic idea has merit.
I know, I know…anyone with a degree in engineering or a membership to an online forum will tell you (at length) that Maestro and DW Link and (just insert the name of the suspension design you are thinking of HERE) aren't the same as VPP. There are counter-rotating links and blah, blah, de blah at play here. Okay. Sure. Fair enough. The patent office and God and everyone's little brother agrees this is true, but at some level, those bikes all owe a bit of a debt to the Outland. True, they are all worlds better than the original VPP design, but the basic idea started back with those homely and expensive Outlands. So there.
THE GENESIS OF GEOMETRY
Sometime back in 1995 or 1996, Gary Fisher was having one of those days. He was being Gary Fisher, which kind of amounts to riding a ton, looking fabulous and thinking big thoughts. Gary, however, was also crashing a lot that particular day. It was a 100-mile singletrack ride in Marin County and Gary had gone down twice already. When he went over the bars for the third time that afternoon, he broke his wrist. Now most of us would have simply cursed our fate and hobbled pathetically home. But Gary got to thinking his big thoughts. He started wondering why that day of riding had gone so badly and he started thinking about bicycle geometry—how we'd wound up riding bikes that fit the way they did and whether it couldn't be better…
When the first Klunkers sailed down the fire roads of Marin County, they had fairly slack geometry, largely based on the 1930's Schwinn paperboy bikes that the early pioneers had first cobbled into dirty Frankenbikes. But once people began building new bikes from scratch, they started to experiment with steeper head angles that were more appropriate for climbing. As the `80s rolled along, geometries grew steeper and better suited to cross-country racing. By the time the mountain bike market was booming properly in the early and mid-90s, most bikes were based on the same template: 71- and 73-degree head and seat tube angles with relatively short toptubes and long stems. The longer the stem, the cooler its owner was. This was mountain bike mathematics—you didn't question it, you just saved up a month's worth of wages and bought a 150-millimeter, powder blue Ringlé stem as soon as possible.
As Gary rode back out to the trailhead with his busted wrist he started to think that maybe the whole bicycle geometry thing had gotten a bit stupid. It wasn't so much that the angles were wonky. The hallowed 71/73 combo made sense on short-travel hardtails. When you rocked a monstrously long stem, however, you place a ton of your own weight, far forward on the bike, which makes for spectacular endos.
Gary Fisher wasn't the first guy to realize that if you lengthened the top tube and shortened the stem (and chainstays) you could better center the rider on the bike and make for a bike with some snappy handling. But being Gary Fisher, he was the first guy to bottle that formula and sell the shit out of it. In 1997 Gary Fisher bicycles featured Genesis geometry. The cross-country bikes sported long front centers, short rear centers and seemingly ridiculous, short (60 to 80 millimeter) stems. In other words, they kind of looked like bikes from today.
As Fisher himself described it in an interview with Prologue Cycling Mag, "…I developed Genesis geometry out of that because I said the geometry we had been using, that I developed in the 80s, was wrong because I knew we had put so little attention into the whole thing.… There are circuses like this in life that change your brain, change your mind, change your attitude and something happens maybe, and that happened and it was good. Because you know the company, man, we made bank off of that whole Genesis geometry thing. Because it didn't cost anything for us to change geometry, but everybody bought it; and they bought it because it actually worked."
When you read a quote like that, you can really see how Gary spent a chunk of the `60s designing light shows for Grateful Dead concerts.
Anyway, Trek Bicycles undoubtedly sold a lot of Gary Fisher bicycles equipped with Genesis Geometry, but I also think it's fair to say that it's taken more than 10 years for the rest of the industry to jump on board with the idea. A few brands (Specialized comes to mind) have been doing the long front-center, short rear-center thing for years now, but most companies are really just showing up to the party with their bag of Doritos and a jar of crappy store-bought salsa right now, even though it's always made a ton of sense.
Why has it taken so long? My guess is that it's because geometry is undoubtedly the least sexy thing you can sell. There are no dials or lock-outs or bitchin' acronyms to toss around, which makes it a lot harder to sell on the showroom floor. Of course, a bike that doesn't fit well is a bike that doesn't ride well…no matter what parts are hung on it. Hats off to Gary Fisher for trying to get the world to realize that oh so many years ago.
WHERE ARE THE CABLES?
In 1999 Mavic unveiled Mektronic. The promise was simple—push a button on the Mektronic shifter and, buzz-zap, the rear derailleur would merrily move up or down the cassette—no cables required (Mavic had tried the wired version, Zap, back in 1994…but no one likes to talk about that…).
So, no cables…just think about it. It's kind of a big deal. Of course, bicycle drivetrains have relied on cables for a good century, so you could clearly argue that if the thang ain't broke, there's no need to fix it. But there's also this: cables stretch, cable housings get contaminated with grit and shifting performance eventually goes from crisp and accurate to sloppy and stubborn. Mektronic promised to rid us of these evils. Push the button and a digitally-coded radio wave would do all of the heavy lifting. There'd be no degradation over time. It'd be light. It'd look like a prop from "Tron!”
When you put it that way, who wouldn't want Mektronic? Oh, wait, no one wanted Mektronic.
Here's the thing: people trusted cables. If a cable and its housing need replacing, you can do the deed in about as much time as it takes to properly prepare a microwave burrito. People wondered why they should ditch Shimano Dura Ace or Campagnolo Record for Mavic's unproven, space-age toy, which was probably made in France.
And let's not dance around that fact—France and high-end electronics are not exactly a perfect pairing in most consumers' minds. France and wonderful, flaky baguettes? Sure. France and sexy women with smoky, sultry voices? You bet. France and digital technology that works day in and day out, rain or shine? Uhhh……Not so much.
And so consumers stayed away from Mavic Mektronic in droves. It was easy to forget that it even had ever existed. Until, of course, Shimano came out with electronic Dura Ace (Di2) in 2009. Say what you will about cultural biases, but consumers were more than happy to buy up an electronic drivetrain made by a Japanese company. And Di2 worked. It works in the rain. And the blazing heat. And in the mud. And it wasn't long (2011) before Campagnolo jumped in the ring with EPS, its own electronic group. While wireless electronic drivetrains are still an asphalt-only solution, it's conceivable that one day the same technology will make the leap to dirt. This much is certain, while many of us are happy to shift away with cables and mechanical clicky bits, electronic drivetrains are only going to gain strength and market share. And it all started, whether anyone remembers it or not, with some guys from France.
I'm sorry… you were right.