Being Frank – Best American Bike Racer

 

Brent Graves Cane Creek
Brent Graves, President and CEO

I rode Tomac off my wheel, and despite knowing that he was ill, recently retired, and not training, it was a surreal experience – one I’ll never forget and one he’ll never remember! For those of you not familiar with arguably the best American bicycle racer to date (“All-time” is a stupid thing to say as who knows what the future holds). Argue you may, but John Tomac was the fat tire version of A.J. Foyt or Mario Andretti. They raced everything and won. I won’t go into a full bio here, but Tomac was a BMX national champion, a criterium national champion, a World Downhill champion, and won multiple national and international cross country and downhill titles. He even won at the highest level of mountain bike racing while at the same time competing in the greatest professional road races like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders for top tier teams like Motorola. And he did it all with a unique style and grit that made him a fan favorite the world over. But that’s all public knowledge. Here’s the first time the story of my triumphant day has been shared.

While working for Manitou during its heyday in the late 90s and early 2000s, my initial job was to take OEM business from then-dominant Rock Shox. Manitou was killing it in the aftermarket, but Rock Shox owned the business with bike brands. While Rock Shox performed test rides with product managers, our tactic was to take it to another level and impress product managers with not only our product but our riding prowess as well – if memory serves me correct we won the Sea Otter Industry Cup two years in a row, and had great riders like Tom Rogers and Joel Smith. Thus Answer Camp was conceived. These were camps that we staged near Phoenix from 1999 through 2001. We parked the race trailer at a trailhead complete with the best technicians in the business and complemented the set-up with our complete product team. In 2001 this formula reached its zenith with us entertaining media and product managers for nineteen straight days. The days consisted of three to five one-hour or so rides that inevitably turned into races as egos and adrenaline rose.

Manitou was created some years before by a dirt biker mountain man by the name of Doug Bradbury. He and Johnny T were close friends, and at times business partners, that were both paid ambassadors for the Manitou brand. So they made their way to Phoenix for the ’01 Answer Camp. Tomac had an additional reason to attend – his young son Eli was racing the KTM future champions (and oh what a champion Eli has become!) event at the Phoenix Supercross. In 2001 Bradbury and Tomac were still rock stars in the mountain bike world that the journalists and product managers loved to be around. So what about that story you ask.

At dinner one night the banter was heavier than usual, and I think Joel Smith promised to drop Johnny on the climb in the morning. The glove had been thrown down. We were at South Mountain Park, and the following day’s ride plan called for taking pavement up for a couple of miles to the top of the technical “downhill” trail. So after breakfast I found myself in the midst of howling knobbies as we approached the start of the “race”. First Joel and then others one by one attacked out of the group. I was torched after two weeks of camp, but when Bradbury took off – I mean he was OLD, like in his fifties – I followed. Soon I found my legs and started catching riders until only Joel and Johnny were up the road. Then as my superior genetics and focus kicked in (what’s the font for sarcasm?), I caught and rode away from the best American bike racer to date. Despite reminding myself that he was retired, ill, and out-of-shape, my glow must have been seen for miles.

But the story is not over. While basking in said glow for about a mile, I was nearly knocked off my bike buy a blur that was none other than Tomac blasting past at TWICE my rate of speed. How… could… this… be? My scrambled brain could not make sense of this. How I even continued to pedal I don’t know. Then around a bend I see I helmet drop behind a rock, and as I passed by Johnny had his finger to his lips. Confusion transformed to enlightenment when the passenger van came by with Johnny clinging to the rear view mirror at thirty miles per hour. Wily world champion John Tomac had summoned a tow from the van and right before reaching a rider, he’d spring free and pass said sucker at lightspeed. While there was an explanation, I rode the remainder of the climb in a state like one feels after barely missing a certainly fatal car crash. How Tomac did a manual down a stretch of trail I had to walk down is a story for another day.

For more information on John Tomac as well as a video interview check out Bike Magazine’s article: 5 reasons why he’s john tomac and you’re not

Image credit: John Tomac

Being Frank – No Greed Here

 

Brent Graves Cane Creek
Brent Graves, President and CEO

If it was not so inaccurate and frequent, it probably would not bother me so much. But seemingly a week cannot go by without someone commenting how a “greedy bicycle company” did this or that. As I write this it dawns on me how hilariously off-the-mark such comments are. Actually, it can be argued that the bicycle industry would be in a healthier place if companies were better equipped at running profitable businesses. But the reality is most, and I mean nearly all, bicycle businesses were started as a labor of love versus a means to increasing shareholder wealth. Hence the popular bicycle industry saying: To make a small fortune in the bike business, start first with a BIG fortune.

So why get irked by inaccurate labeling? Oh my, I just hit one of my own hot buttons: labeling. Everyone I have ever met, whether I liked them or not, has had a complex personality. Attempting to distill that complexity into a few labels is more than a disservice, it’s criminal in my opinion. Fred is more than just a Democrat, a roadie, or a tree-hugger. The group of people that form a company is even more complex. Therefore a label such as “greedy” falls even further from what they are about. But I digress.

Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to work with or at least meet many of the leaders in the bicycle industry. And while their agendas and motives varied, none of them, with one exception, indicated or demonstrated that greed was a driver. Some just want everyone to enjoy bicycles as they do, some want to save the world with bicycles, and some want to win with the best bicycle products. Certainly there are many decisions and strategies related to how they run their business that I disagree with, but in no case have I witnessed the bicycle being used as a tool for greed.

One has to look no further than the parking lots of bicycle companies for evidence of lack of greed. They are full of WRXs, GTIs, Elements, 4-Runners, Miatas, and other fun/active-lifestyle models that are at least 3-5 years old – not new BMWs, Jags, and Porsches. One bicycle company president I worked for drove a Camry, another a well-worn Audi S4 Avant, and a VP I reported to a Ford Explorer. Don’t get me wrong, there are some car guys in the business. But they usually have toiled for years for that old 911, and the rest of their “collection” is a mini van for family duties, a 6-year old F-150 for a daily driver, and a clapped out Civic with a fart can for the teenager.

And then there is the knowledge of what things cost: tooling for a fork casting or a frame mold, the FOB cost of an injection molded brake hood or an extruded seat clamp, and the duty and freight to get it from there to here. Add to that the costs of doing business – salaries, advertising, insurance, rent, etc. – the margins everyone in the supply chain requires to stay alive, and it is easy to see when things don’t seem to add up. Like the unbelievable amounts the late 90’s Schwinn/GT group was spending. They had to have had a secret to making a lot more money than the rest of us… or they were living on borrowed time (and money). History clearly shows it was the latter.

Yes, we all strive to be profitable. However, profit and greed are two very different things. In Cane Creek’s case, being profitable ensures that we can reward our employees for their great efforts, invest in the company to ensure we are around for many years to come, spend on research and development of new product ideas, support and promote cycling in our own backyard, and be as prepared as possible in today’s uncertain world. My experience and knowledge tell me that’s the same situation for every other bicycle company. While we are all far from perfect, and you’re likely to have had an experience or two to make you question a company’s motives, I can assure you that most everyone in this business is here for the right reasons, and they are not getting rich.

eeWings – Guaranteed to Last

The Toughest Cranks – Guaranteed

Cane Creek eeWings now come with a 30-day 100% satisfaction guarantee. Regardless of the reason, a rider can return their eeWings to the place of purchase within 30 days for a full refund. That’s in addition to the existing 10-year warranty. In honor of our new guarantee, watch as Jeff and Andrew put the eeWings Titanium cranks through their paces then – when you’re done – order your set today.

Being Frank – The Balanced Bike

 

Brent Graves Cane Creek
Brent Graves, President and CEO

Some good ideas get buried under Marketing. While unfortunate this is not surprising, particularly in this day and age of ever shorter attention spans, immediate stimulus requirements, and more and more brands trying to grab a piece of the market pie. But that is for another blog. This blog is about one of those buried ideas. It is not a new idea – I actually wrote a piece on this idea for a company news letter about twenty-five years ago. And it’s not an idea that I can claim is solely mine. Nonetheless, it is an idea that can enhance a rider’s riding satisfaction, ease her anxiety, and likely save her some money.

The concept of the Balanced Bike is simple to understand but can be difficult to implement. The quality and price of parts on a Balanced Bike are relative to their contribution to the performance/function of the bike given its intended use. Puncture-resistant tires on a commuter, hydraulic disc brakes on a mountain bike, and lightweight carbon wheels on a racing bike all seem to make sense – titanium cranks on a coffee shop bike, not so much. But given the large number of models available of those products and their functional relevance, the difficulty stems from determining what is really needed and what is more than enough.

The Dura Ace and 105 rear derailleurs (RD) are of the same design, they do the same thing the same way, and they are interchangeable. This has been the case for many years and is not limited to road parts or Shimano – one can substitute “SRAM, XX1, and XXO1” if so inclined. The Dura Ace derailleur weighs less due to better grade materials (a splash of titanium in place of steel) and materials processes (a dash of forgings in lieu of castings or stampings). And occasionally there’s a different functional spec, as in the case of the Dura Ace RD using cartridge bearings in the pulleys instead of bushings. Go ride new Dura Ace and 105 bikes back to back, and if you feel a difference in shifting, it’s probably due to the competence of the person(s) that assembled the bikes. However, after 10,000 or 20,000 miles the Dura Ace parts are going to maintain more of that new feel and function due to those better materials and materials processes. So if you’re a pro racer training and racing 20,000+ miles per year, Dura Ace does not put your bike out of balance. On the other hand, if you ride less than 5,000 mile per year, never pin a number on, and have a full-time job, upgrading to a Dura Ace RD instead of, say a set of larger volume, high-quality tubeless tires would not lead to a Balanced Bike.

To be fair, let’s consider two Cane Creek products: the 110 and 40-series headsets. While our engineers can make your eyeballs spin explaining the detailed design differences between the two, functionally the designs are the same. So how would each fit into the Balanced Bike idea? If you prefer to ride in nice weather, and cycling is just one of the activities biding for your limited leisure time, go with the 40-series. But if cycling is an obsession and pouring rain or sub-freezing temperatures are just challenges, the 110 would be the way to go.

Lastly, it’s not just about the brands and the marketing of their offerings. The various systems are not equal in their contribution to your riding satisfaction and performance. No one is ever going to lose a race because their seat post is 45 grams heavier (the weight of a Snicker’s bar). However, 45 grams on a rim will add seconds to your time during your club’s annual hill climb competition. After all, the rim is THE most important component with regards to weight due to the fact that it’s rotating and that it’s rotating in a big circle.

So the Balanced Bike places emphasis on the parts that will positively impact one’s riding the most and de-emphasizes those that have little or no impact. WARNING: Many times this is not in sync with how brands position and market their parts. For example, one rider’s Balanced Bike may include a mix of SRAM GX and XO1 parts. It may also be more balanced with mid-level aluminum wheels but top-of-the line shock and fork.

With all this said, if you want the more expensive stuff, go for it! As a sucker for high-end goodies and CEO of a company that offers a range of premium parts, I’m certainly not going to tell you that you shouldn’t. But make sure that you are informed and honest with yourself about what is really going to affect your riding satisfaction. Lastly, do yourself a favor and don’t skimp on those parts that really do matter for your style of riding.

Being Frank – Why Be Different?

 

Brent Graves Cane Creek
Brent Graves, President and CEO

Not that it is my aim to defend a competitor, but the recent launch and subsequent dialogue around Cannondale’s new Lefty Ocho raises an interesting, if not common, debate. Some ask or challenge why it is better to do a single-sided fork, and if it is not better, then they suggest that it should not be done. After all, why should anything new not be superior to what’s currently available? If a new product is different but not necessarily superior, why do it? But here’s the thing: when it comes to function/performance, engineering is an application of science, math, and tests that ultimately lead to a solution. The key words here are “ultimately” and “solution” – note that the latter is singular. Given enough time and work, ONE best solution (i.e. design) will be discovered.

Let’s look at road racing motorcycles. In the 1980s superbike racing in the USA was very competitive and popular. And the bikes used transversely-mounted inline four cylinder motors. The four Japanese brands were winning on Sunday and selling on Monday (forget that most motorcycle shops are closed on Mondays!). As the 90s rolled in Ducati was trying to turn its business around and saw superbike racing as a way to make the brand relevant again to U.S. riders. However Ducati’s trademark engine design was an L-twin. However, for a given engine displacement, a twin makes less power than an inline four. So Ducati had a choice to give up their “unique” engine design or be uncompetitive. Fortunately for Ducati the superbike promoter saw the addition of the Italian brand as beneficial to the racing series and provided a handicap – twins could use a larger engine to offset their inherent design deficiency.

Why didn’t Ducati just create and race the superior inline four configuration? In professional racing winning is serious business, and engineers are always seeking the path to the “solution” to go faster. But racing is a marketing tool for brands, and while results are critical, there is a point wherein not compromising the brand’s DNA is even more critical. Ducati did not want to sellout their DNA to become an “Italian Honda” even if it meant fewer race victories.

So brand and product managers can get to points of serious conflict with their engineers: “If we remove this stupid hump in the top tube, the frame will be 1.7% lighter and 12% stiffer” says the engineer. To which the product manager says “but then we’ll lose our signature look and be more like the other frames out there.” This is a true example, and in this case 1.7% was 15g, or a big bite of a Snickers bar! Or possibly in the case of the Ocho, the engineer complains that a single-side fork raises hurdles that would not be there if the fork was of standard design, but the product manager responds with “but we own this look.”

Beyond the commercial marketing side of things, there is the reality that things that are different and veer off the path of the optimal engineering solution can offer other value. Going back to motorcycle engines, twins have a distinct sound, feel, and power delivery that result in a different riding experience that many riders find more satisfying. Furthermore, as I’ll bet is the case with the Lefty Ocho, going down the non-optimal path may result in new ideas in the attempt to address the constraints of an inferior design. I’m not saying the Ocho is an inferior fork, but the reality is a single sided fork is a less rigid structure. So Cannondale had to come up with innovative solutions to address the inherent lack of rigidity. It is possible, that such innovative solutions enable the Ocho to even outperform a standard fork when the standard fork’s engineers were not required to come up innovations.

And then there is “variety is the spice of life.” Regardless of brand DNA, winning, optimal design, etc. there is the reality that the world would be a boring place if only the optimal designs were available. In that world, all cars would look and drive exactly alike for maximized efficiency, we’d eat the same meals for maximized health benefit, our sunglasses would all look the same for maximum eye protection, and the houses we’d live in would be built the same for maximized use of space and energy efficiency. I don’t know about you, but I’d hate to give up Pinot Noir because it was not the optimal red wine varietal!

Being Frank – Think before you type

 

Brent Graves Cane Creek
Brent Graves, President and CEO

Let me be… um, frank. Some forum commenters are losers. Unwilling to use their real names, these commenters pontificate without accountability, common sense, tact, and in many cases knowledge. There have always been these types in the crowd, and I expect there will always be. But in the age when the heckler sounded off during the gathering of a village of a hundred, the person could be seen, challenged, evaluated, and disregarded if they spewed garbage. Now with amazingly powerful and portable digital devices, one can say anything, anywhere, anytime, in seconds, and invisibly without consequence.

As a young product manager I was told that one had to have thick skin to succeed. More specifically a successful product manager needed to develop a good and fast filter that enabled them to discern to whom to listen. Whether the message related to one’s product was positive or negative, it needed to be heard if the source was credible. That was easier to discern when customers expressed their opinions in person or in written letters, and product reviews were printed in monthly magazines. Now the sheer volume of voices on the internet can make one want to avoid it all. But the product manager must still be attentive to the credible feedback.

The recent introduction of the Cane Creek eeWings titanium crank received tremendous response, and we were certainly interested in what was being said. It turned out to be the biggest and best response the company has seen in years. While the hecklers were out there, they were outnumbered significantly. But the sheer stupidity of some of their statements stood out, while others were clearly misinformed or making reckless assumptions.

There were comments like titanium is soft, turns green over time, and is one of the most flexible metals. All of which are incorrect. Then there were the experts that said titanium cranks must be more flexible than carbon cranks and that spindle joint is not as durable as a splined or lobed interface. Well we’ve been testing cranks for months to ISO bicycle industry standards (required in Europe), and eeWings consistently flex significantly less than carbon cranks under a specific load and absorb more force before permanent deflection. This result is due to a combination of titanium’s superior stiffness compared to aluminum (remember, those carbon cranks are connected by an aluminum spindle), the lack of deflection in the titanium Hirth joint compared to an aluminum lobed joint, carbon fiber is great under tension but unidirectional fibers must be laid up carefully to handle bending and twisting loads that are translated to a shearing load at the spindle compared to titanium’s equal strength in all directions, and the fact that regardless of material, a tube’s stiffness is greatly impacted by the size and shape of its cross section. Early titanium frames were flexible because they were built from small diameter tubes whereas aluminum frames were much larger in diameter.

There were also the inexplicable comments such as the spindle parts do not look machined, the opportunity cost to the company was not worth it (how in the world would someone know what it cost us to develop eeWings and what we had to pass on to do so?), the SRAM ring interface is obsolete (the brand that made 1x reality for the masses and produces more 1x cranks/rings than anyone in the world), and the Chinese cannot weld titanium. The last is interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the crank is not made in China.

I have a special place for the proclamation that the world does not need a $1,000 titanium crank. First, this begs the question of what any of us really needs to enjoy riding a bicycle much less just to survive. If you’re reading this, odds are you’re a bit past the fight for survival stage. Not to get philosophical, but we live in a WANT society and hopefully in relation to cycling the WANT is something that enhances our riding experience. Second, so a $450 carbon crank is attainable for some and subjectively deemed worthwhile – by those that have or can attain one! So maybe the rider with the $80 SLX aluminum crank thinks no one NEEDS at $450 carbon crank! Lastly, there are many, many things in life that I neither need nor can afford. However, some of those things I appreciate for their beauty, for the fact that someone achieved their dream, because they accomplished something others could not, or for the honorable reason of simply making the best possible thing. I’ll sign off with “to each his own.”

Being Frank – Fun Never Goes Out Of Style

 

Brent Graves Cane Creek
Brent Graves, President and CEO

WARNING: This blog is not limited to topics related to Cane Creek or even bicycles for that matter. However it will always be true to its title and offer my candid view on things. Odds are that you’ll see connections between anything I write about and bicycles – or at least things with wheels that are fun to go fast on/in. Somehow my better half has survived my wheel-centric view of the world and now just rolls (pun intended) with it. Now you too can get a dose.

While product innovation and the resultant possibilities of what new products offer is mindboggling these days, a disconnect between features and experience is growing. For many products, especially those in the sports and recreation areas, brands have mistakenly correlated technology with Fun. To clarify, the mistake is that many brands see a 100% correlation between technology and Fun. Certainly, there is a correlation, but at some point Fun gets misunderstood and lost as technology sterilizes and isolates us from the core experience.

“It’s more fun to ride a slow motorcycle fast, than a fast motorcycle slow.” I read this decades ago. I can’t remember who to attribute it to. It may have been Keith Code, Nick Ienatch, or some other scribe from the motorcycles rags that colored my world as a dreamy college student. Nonetheless, I have never (repeatedly) experienced truer words. The idea is that it is more fun to feel like one is on the ragged edge, pushing the limits of machine and man even if the speed is not that great than it is to be overwhelmed and holding onto to something that can toss you off with the slightest mistake rendered by a non-racer’s wrist. The true torch bearer for this concept is the Mazda Miata. Since its introduction thirty years ago, no one that has driven one has not had fun. And during those thirty years it has always been under-powered and not fast.

Fun is an experience wherein joy, thrill, satisfaction, and challenge are rolled up into a tasty burrito. One can identify all the various flavors, but the composite taste transcends. I think of this taste as Engagement. True Engagement is when all thoughts of life outside of the current experience vaporize. It can be so complete that it cannot be realized or appreciated until after the fact. The late braking for a high-speed corner, the launch off a jump to clear an obstacle, or the timely application of throttle on corner exit wherein the backend steps out just enough for a bit of countersteer – at those moments nothing else exists in the world but the intimate engagement with the vehicle.

There is no limit to Fun, it never goes out of style, and Fun exist in as many ways as there are people. Have you ever really had too much fun? Sure one can have too much wine, too much pizza, too much stuff. But have you ever had too much fun? Have you really ever said “that was too much fun, I’m not going to do it again”? While each generation may find Fun in a different way, it is still there. And it is always something people desire. No one can prove that their fun is better than yours. That’s analogous to trying to prove a negative. We all know what Fun feels like, but it can feel different to each of us. And no one can quantify or compare your fun with someone else’s.

A product is not Fun, but it can be conducive to Fun. Consequently, a product’s features may or may not be a Fun enabler. This is where brands can get lost. In an effort to beat the competition with a more-is-better strategy they throw every feature and upgraded spec into the product while losing sight of from where the Fun is really derived. In my opinion, the product manager’s mission in life (HR tells me to say “work” instead) is to understand the origin of Fun related to her product and distill the specs and features to the point they disappear in the process of having Fun. I see it as a sacred charter because what can be better than more Fun?

 

Being Frank – Don’t Believe Everything You Read

 

Brent Graves Cane Creek
Brent Graves, President and CEO

For years my better half implored me to call them out on their blatant errors. She repeatedly saw my frustration that resulted from someone not doing their job completely, yet their message was wrapped in a cloak of perceived expertise. While letting something that I believe is inaccurate or even downright wrong float past without speaking up is against my nature – many times to my own detriment! – I just did not see a desirable outcome with these issues. Consequently, I continued to read reviews of bikes and bike products that included misinformation and mistakes that the faithful readership unfortunately took as gospel. This was especially the case prior to the last five or so years when internet comment sections and forums gave people a fast, easy, and anonymous way to challenge or correct the reviewers. But the pendulum now swings too far in the other direction, however that is a topic for another day.

Working in product development provided me with firsthand knowledge of the whole story of what we did and why we did it. Certainly there were plans and targets, but there were also surprises, discoveries, and accidents that make for some rich stories. And as a bike product manager I also got the inside scoop on what the component makers were doing, the motivation behind the new design, the issues with compatibility or obsolescence, and pricing and marketing strategies.

So knowing why and how we arrived at a bike’s geometry, and how component supplier X would not sell us the component we wanted unless we also spec’d the component that we didn’t want, or why we had to choose this gear combo because someone could not get parts to physically check the clearance before production made it crystal clear when a reviewer got things wrong. But we’re all human, and we will get things wrong from time to time. The unacceptable part is that I or my team were rarely contacted by the reviewer to check facts or get the inside story – they just did not do their job completely. It is easy to dismiss the idea that it was just the company that I worked for that was not sought out by the reviewer because I could see the same issues on reviews of our competitors’ products. After all, most components on every bike come from just a handful of suppliers.

Over the years I have seen some exceptions. Actually there are three product reviewers that come to mind that I think have earned the right to be named: Patrick Brady, James Huang, and Mike Levy. I’m not saying there aren’t others, but in my experience these three made contact in efforts to investigate and report the real story and facts. Consequently, their work has always carried a lot more creditability with me. I enjoy reading their work because they have consistently demonstrated thoroughness, and I am comfortable being very candid with them about our products.

So if the product reviewers did not contact the product guys responsible for the product, where did they get the information for the story? Sometimes it was from catalogs or websites. However the copy written by marketing departments is not always as accurate as it should be and rarely delves into the real background and motivations behind the product. Sometimes the reviewer called a dealer that carried that product. But while the dealer can add some color as to how the market sees the product, she/he does not know the full story behind the product. And I read reviews many times where the reviewer just inferred things, which can be dangerous.

The point of all this: don’t believe everything you read. However, the more a reviewer outlines the process used to gather information, the more specific the information, and the more actual people related to the product are mentioned by name, the more you can trust what you are reading – and that goes for more than just bicycle product reviews!