Hey, That’s My Bike

At the Tour of California this year, one of the big little stories – by which I mean not important to the race, but heavily reported – was the shenanigans surrounding Columbia-High Road’s time trial bikes. The issue, at its most basic, was that the squad looked to still be riding the distinctive Giant bikes they debuted last year under that sponsorship, rather than the Scott Plasma people assumed they’d be riding under their current one.

Team owner Bob Stapleton insisted that the bike in question was in fact not a Giant, but merely Giant-looking, telling Cyclingnews.com’s James Huang, “As you know, Giant was our bike manufacturer last year and the Giant TT bike that we raced last year was developed in conjunction with Giant, some external experts, as well as engineers within our own team. So this year we're racing a bike made by a company that I can't disclose that's had engineering input from many of those same people and is a different bike. As you can see it's branded ‘Highroad Techdev'.”

Ah, the "in sticker veritas" defense. Clever.

Basically, it sounds like High Road is claiming at least partial ownership of the design developed during the Giant sponsorship, and from either actual documentation or memory had a different factory recreate the bike. Whether that’s really the case or they just had last year’s Giant bikes repainted is sort of inconsequential, since the serious ownership issues reside in the design and not the actual plastic. (Though there is a certain irony to having a Giant design built at another factory, given how many brands Giant builds bikes for.)

The quote continues, but in fairness to James, you should really just read his article, since he did the legwork. I will reveal that Giant’s response to Stapleton’s claims, in both that article and from a source of our own is, in summary, “bullshit.”

Various forms of rebranding, from actual manufacturing contracts to plain old sticker engineering are nothing new in cycling, of course, but this particular instance raises some important underlying questions about the sponsor-team relationship. Yes, I’m sure Columbia-High Road did help Giant develop the bike last year – by making suggestions, testing prototypes, providing feedback, and serving as wind tunnel test subjects. But access to those services is one reason industry sponsors sign on to sponsor teams in the first place (the other reason being pure, unadulterated advertising). It’s part of the deal, and when those relationships end, as they inevitably do, I can’t think of another team ownership that has dared to try to lay claim to the intellectual property created during the sponsorship. If that’s the way things are going to work, all those Cervelo Test Team co-sponsors better watch themselves, or at the end of the year, Gerard Vroomen is going to own the rights to all their shit.

Who knows, maybe whatever “High Road TechDev” is did exist before the Tour of California. Maybe High Road’s people did work long, lonely hours with the Giant boys, analyzing the properties of different carbon layups, conducing airflow modeling, rethinking steering component design, and, in the nascent half-light hours of early morn, secretly engaging in inter-corporate romantic dalliances straight out of late night Cinemax. When High Road can produce a single engineer then on their payroll with the credentials to help design that bike, or even better, enough of them to warrant the annoyingly nerdy “TechDev” name and sticker set, I’ll be more willing to buy into their claim on the design. That said, it’s probably unfair to assume that Stapleton is stretching the truth when he says that he has a team of engineers working directly for his cycling team – I certainly don’t have any evidence either way. It’s just that, if he does, it's very, very strange.

But until more facts come to light, which seems unlikely now that there’s real racing going on, I don’t know why we’re even discussing the implications of this slap fight, since nobody seemed to be buying Stapleton’s story. The real question is, why even put this ridiculous scenario out there in the public? Teams riding poorly camouflaged, non-sponsor equipment doesn’t surprise many people anymore, and with designs becoming more distinctive and recognizable in recent years, its not even as fun a game to try to spot them as it was in the olden days, when all the bikes pretty much looked alike except for the lug points and seatstay treatment. In effect, every manufacturer has some version of the Hetchins curly stays now, some little do-dad that will identify their work regardless of stickers and paint. So now, spotting rebranded equipment isn't a major ah-ha moment, and usually just results in a little sidebar, a quotable if hollow denial from the team, and a sense of Where’s Waldo satisfaction for the spotter. Then everyone moves on.

In this case, though, all the claims and counterclaims have blown it way out of proportion, and the most remarkable thing is that the party with the most at stake in this dustup has been the most forthcoming. Scott, which currently sponsors Columbia and whose bike the team should theoretically be riding (and, therefore, advertising and selling) had no problem relaying where they stand on the issue in this VeloNews article. In it, the Scott rep simply states that they didn’t have a ProTour quality TT bike ready, and that they’re working on it. (Note to Scott: Be explicit about who owns the resulting design. Maybe write it down and get it signed and notarized.) Scott also provides a perfectly good business justification for not having a TT bike to hand over – nobody buys them, a fact Giant also notes in its telling of their bike’s story. Sensibly, Scott designed their Plasma model for the triathlon market, where people love talking about and actually purchasing aero bikes, so it has some design choices that are less than optimal for regular cycling time trials – the kind where you’re not sandy and overexposed.

That still may not be the whole story, though, since Scott produced a custom version of the Plasma for David Miller in 2007 when he rode for Saunier Duval – a design that corrected some of the bike’s tri-specific foibles. Why not just do that again? The easy speculation is that, even if they correct the angles and such, the reworked Plasma might not be as aerodynamically slippery as the Giant design, or might be deficient in some other way, and Columbia just wants to use the best tools to win races. Only problem is, pro cycling’s financial model is built on sponsorship, not prize money, and winning on a bike that is blatantly and publicly not your sponsor’s isn’t doing that sponsor much good. That could lead to some sour aftertastes and bad reputations down the road, though I’m sure their other sponsors don’t mind at all. Of course, Scott admittedly is not trying to sell TT bikes to cyclists right now, so they might really not give a damn, or maybe everyone’s decided it’s just best for pro cyclists not to ride around on something called “Plasma” these days. I don’t know.

Anyway, that’s all kind of old news, and I probably wouldn’t have dragged it back up if I hadn’t come across this strangely timed (for most sites, anyway) Pez story. It’s not notable for providing any new information (kind of like this post) – it’s mostly just photos of Columbia’s Addict road bikes and Plasma TT bikes from the team’s press shindig in Mallorca a few months ago. It is remarkable for noting that they saw the bikes again at the Tour of California (where, indeed, nearly every team showed up with bicycles), while failing to note any of the TT bike flap at that event, or the fact that some Columbia riders are still using the Giant design at Paris-Nice. But, like everything in cycling, sometimes it’s just better to please the sponsors, even if it means ignoring the obvious.