Standards, huh, What are They Good For?

Absolutely nothing!? maybe? I don’t know, lets talk it out.

So there is this perennial myth in mountain biking, that “big MTB” is creating new standards to devalue our existing bikes and force us into buying new product.

142X12, Boost, Super Boost, Plus tires, 29er Plus, BB30, PF30, 1.5 straight Steerer, Tapered Steerer, 20mm, 15mm, 12mm, 10mm and good old QR axles to name but a few. It can become pretty easy to look at all of these new “developments” and start believing that the Illuminati has been confirmed.

I just don’t care, I really don’t

Now I am no “industry insider“, I don’t own a shop, I’m not a frame or component manufacturer, I am at the consumer end of all of this. Frequently however, it is the consumer end of the chain that has been the most vocal against new standards. You do not need to wade far past the “looks like a session” comments on Pinkbike to find the hate for any fresh standard.

So here is my opinion on the proliferation of new standards. I just don’t care, I really don’t. Whilst that sinks in, let me illustrate why this is with a story.

I had a Honda HRV, I loved the car, he was called Henry. Henry Snapped a drive shaft pulling out of my drive one day.

Was my reaction;

“Thank goodness for industry standards! I’ll pull the RH drive shaft from my wife’s Citreon and go and get a replacement from my local autoparts shop.”

No, of course not, that would be ridiculous. I as the consumer, sourced and ordered the correct part, based on the manufacturer, model and the year of my car. It arrived, and I repaired my car.

Henry Honda 10 under the ben.jpg
What a machine.

In almost all of our consumer goods, we accept that component parts are not interchangeable. The heating element for my Kmix coffee maker is not interchangeable with any other drip coffee maker for example. So why as a consumer, do I expect that of my bicycle?

Arbitrary standards based on what was historically available or what is used on road bikes makes no sense. The width or length of an axle should be based on what a bicycle requires to be a better bicycle.

But we have a problem, a bicycle manufacturer does not make bicycles, they manufacture frames. Even with the big box brands that have their own branded components on their build kits, rarely do they actually own the factories making those parts.  Component manufacturers produce the parts that engineers at Trek, Spesh et al have to conform their designs too.

DT Swiss make the hub, the engineer and product managers at Trek see what is available from the catalogue. They then make a choice as to what is most appropriate for the frame design and target price point.

Sometimes, an engineer at for example, Trek, has a hunch. Increasing the axle width will lead to a more evenly dished wheel, a straighter chainline and a stiffer rear end. Trek speaks to DT Swiss, they explore the possibility of making a hub that will fit this new standard. Trek wont tell Specialized whats happening, but DT Swiss will, after all they now have this new hub width to sell. Before you know it, Boost is a thing.

There have even been occasions when a bike brand has co-invested with the component manufacturer, lessening the initial outlay in bringing a new product to market. Trek payed for the molds for the Reba 29er lowers to be produced for Rock Shox’s. That is a 100K investment. Arguably, without the Reba the 29er wheel size concept could not have been proven. It kick started the development and growth of the wheel size, and introduced another new standard to the world. Another debate for another time perhaps.

There are also times when brands have genuinely made their own components, with varying degrees of success. Specialized Future shocks anyone? Trek however do not make suspension or cranksets. They may own Bontrager, but they don’t make everything a bike needs. So product managers still have to rely on other component manufacturers to complete their bikes.

This is one of the major differences between the bicycle and automotive industries. Whilst some car makers do use OEM parts made for or by other manufacturers, they still manufacture and sell the entire car. Bike companies frequently only make one part of the puzzle.

Component manufacturers also want (and need) to sell to as broad an after market as possible. This goes without mentioning that more experienced riders are just as likely to buy a new frame instead of a complete bike from their LBS. These riders are typically the most vocal when it comes to the adoption of new standards. They bemoan having to buy new hubsets and cranks when upgrading their existing frame. Or how they can not simply transfer all of their existing components to the new frame of their choice.

Is the expectation that you can transfer any mid to high end wheel/crankset/brakeset to a new frame unrealistic? Yes. Does it suck if you dropped £600 on a new wheelset, only for them to not be compatible with a new frame a year later? Yes. But please acknowledge that the rider who spends that level of cash on parts and who also changes their frame on a regular basis is the minority within the market. Stop your whining.


So who in the bicycle food chain do new standards really harm?
The consumer!

I don’t buy that argument. If I am upgrading or building a bike, I just order the correctly specified part for that bike or frame. Just like when I repaired my Honda. When 650B came on the scene, did my 26 inch wheeled bike explode in a puff of small rimmed obselance? No. The bike still worked as a bike. “The industry” did not force you to upgrade, you chose too.

The LBS!

Yes and no. Now I don’t work in a bike shop, so my views here are from the outside so may be inaccurate, please correct me in the comments. but I don’t see many expensive top tier big ticket items sitting in glass cabinets anymore. Sure they have some more common standard wheelsets in stock. for example, 135mm QR rear hub wheels. But I have seen a set of those wheels sit unsold in one shop for several years.

If I wanted a custom wheelset made up, I would speak with my shop wrench and we would work out the best mix of hub/spoke/rim for my needs. I would tell them what I frame had and they would order the parts they required.

In the same way I do not expect my independent garage to have the driveshaft for my Honda in stock “just in case” why would I expect my LBS to carry every conceivable spare or upgrade? That, I feel, is unrealistic and unreasonable of me as the consumer. My LBS is a service centre and knowledge base, not amazon prime. That is not to say that the proliferation of standards is not a right pain in the ass for the LBS. I am sure there where more than a few eyes rolled and groans at the news of “Super Boost”.

Distributors!

Here you go, this is who I think is really harmed by shifting standards, importers and distributors. Distributors bring product into a country and distribute it amongst their dealers (LBS and online retailers), they are typically a B2B business.

Now when I go to my LBS and we look at the big Saddleback pornographic catalogue of components whilst discussing that dream wheelset build. They will order the CK hub from the aforementioned distributor. It is then the distributor who has to make that initial investment in inventory. It is the distributor who has to hold an ever diversifying inventory when new standards emerge. It is also the distributor who is left with dead stock taking up space and tying up cash-flow when the world forgets 142×12 hubs.

The Consumer Again!

Sort of, I have no way of knowing other than what I would do in that business. But if I was a distributor with a damaged balance sheet due to redundant stock. I might try and increase prices elsewhere in the product range to try and mitigate that loss.


Imagine,

Now what if we thought about this whole question differently. What if we as the consumer re-wired our expectations and what if the component manufacturers became consolidated with the frame builders into one holistic business.

The engineers could build the best bike they could build, not being restricted by the need to conform to a limited series of standards. Being able to base decisions such as hub width on the engineering, not what products were currently available. knowing that the suspension division could build the right fork for the application, the correct drivetrain for the suspension kinematics. No more off the shelf forks or shocks with a “modified tune” fitted to every bike at the same price point.

A bike where each element was designed as part of a whole. You know, like the automotive industry. Imagine what that bike would look like.

29ers – Are we really still talking about this?

The internet has calmed down and the storm over Lourdes may have passed, but the fact is, 29ers are here in DH. Deal with it.

It was going to happen, we all knew it would, we had all seen the instagram posts teasing us with hints at what was coming. We had heard rumours of 29 inch wheeled downhill bikes at the onset of the last few seasons, but 2017 would be the season.

The components had finally caught up with the frame design and geometry lessons learned from enduro and AM bikes. And once Fox had their 49 fork, well that was more or less the last piece in the puzzle of making a 29er DH bike happen and work.

People equate the UCI Downhill World Cup to the Formula 1 of mountain biking, and there is mileage in the analogy. but in reality, it is a very different animal in many respects. F1 cars are specific custom built by the teams, and you would never, ever expect to be able to buy one. Sure the trickle down of technology will eventually get there (adaptive suspension anyone?). But you accept that they are a different species to what we own and drive.

In the nineties and early noughties, it would not be unsurprising, in fact it would be almost expected, that the pros would be racing bikes that you could never have. One off team frames, prototypes testing suspension ideas, custom made components, drive trains that were not standard and would only work on that bike. Bikes like the iconic Honda RN01 and Miles Rockwells Cannondale Fulcrum are probably the two more famous examples.

Pushing the technology and what was thought possible on a pushbike. We wanted to see the engineering, the exotica, the unfeasibly skilled riding unattainable bikes.

In all other disciplines teams have to submit any technology being used for approval before it can be used, not so in MTB. So why are all the teams running more or less stock bikes? The UCI have rules stating that bikes raced on the circuit have to be readily available to the public. Within those rules, the manufacturers have used racing as a R&D proving ground and the bikes we ride have improved dramatically over the years because of that.

So why the shit fit over 29 inch wheels?

People have been genuinely furious about the Santa Cruz Syndicate debuting a 29er at Lourdes. Some of the hate has come from within the pro circuit, the Syndicate having apparently broken some gentlemen’s agreement that all the factory teams would show their hands at the same time. But this is racing, if you intend to use a 29er for worlds at Cairns later in the season, why not battle test it for a whole season?

“But it gives you an unfair advantage”

This is not a single manufacturer race series, this is not the Specialised WC circuit. If it was, each team would have the same frame at the start of the season and may the best man win. If you want to eliminate any advantage gained through different bike designs, then you have to give each racer the same equipment.

Fabien Barel famously said that is was “70% the rider 30% the bike”. So why would you get angry if a team tried to improve the 30% that can be adjusted through engineering? Bike designers, Team mechanics and the riders who can articulate what the bike needs to do to be quicker have been doing this as long as pro racing has existed.

For the fans who see this as some kind of bike industry conspiracy to enforce “another new standard”. Get over it, I’m sorry but its true. The fact that “standards” exist in cycling for components is a minor miracle. The fact that one hub wont fit every current production bike? Not really surprising, I’ll still sleep at night and I’m sure you will too.

If we applied the same component standards concept to say, the motor car, we would not have the same range and capability within cars. Hope created an entire new hub width that is specific to the HB211 bike. This allowed them to not compromise the design elsewhere and for the hub and rear axle to be a more integrated part of the overall engineering of the frame. Like how a car is designed…

But ultimately I think as soon as someone podiums on a 29er, we can finally stop having this discussion. JEFF STEBER of Intense fame had this to say in an interview with Dirt back in 2014.

“I always think back to when Doug Henry was the first to run the YZ400 F (four stroke MX bike) during a whole season of supercross and outdoor. He roared against a field of buzzing bees (2 strokes) and he focused on riding that bike for its strengths. After that season of huge success the rest is history. 29 DH needs a Doug Henry and a team willing to take it on and prove it to the world.”
Perhaps the Syndicate is that team.

Enduro by any other name

“What sort of stuff do you ride?”
“You know, Enduro trails mostly”

We have all had that conversation with someone on the trails or in the LBS, and it is something I am having increasing difficulty with. Now Enduro as a race format, is still evolving with as many variations and permutations as there are events and race series. Fundamentally it is a multi stage gravity mountain bike race where racers access the timed stages (descents) on the bike via untimed liaison stages (usually climbs), similar to car rallying.

For a more detailed explanation of enduro please watch this primer video.

This style of climbing for the downs is more representative of the kind of riding most of us do, unlike Downhill’s single run or XC’s multiple laps. The explosion in popularity of Enduro has led to the cult of “Enduro Specific“, from bikes and set ups to components and kit, this is what I have my issue with.

Enduro is a race format not a style of riding, when you ride a trail and your not between the tape, it is just riding a trail, no more no less. An “Enduro Specific” chain guide still works when it hasn’t heard you dib in, a 160mm Enduro sled still works when it doesn’t have a number board hanging on the bars.

I once saw an advert for an oven, one of the key features was the view of your food through the HD glass. Now HD is a woolly term at the best of times that refers to the resolution of a video it is also another term that has been misappropriated. Unless that oven’s door was a video screen, saying the glass possesses HD qualities is marketing bullshit. The marketeers have borrowed a word with positive connotations and applied them to a product and sphere that it has no business being in.

This happens all the time, this toothpaste advert is a favorite example.

Can someone please tell me the connection between toothpaste and a specific brand of action camera?

I think Enduro racing itself is some of the most dynamic and varied racing in mountain biking, I have raced Enduro style events and will do again. It is the misuse of the word and its connotations to sell that frustrates. Not because they are trying to sell product, but because of the sales pitch the word has been swallowed wholesale into the MTB lexicon and outside of racing it is an essentially meaningless term just like HD.