Branding Iron

As the native son of an affordably priced beach resort town, I appreciate the thought and craftsmanship that goes into a good screen-printed t-shirt. It starts with the basic graphic design elements like the colors and style of the design, which have to mesh with broader branding elements like an attractive, easily recognizable logo and a clever, catchy, and commercially desirable motto or catch phrase. Laid over (or underneath) all of that, there are the considerations of shirt colors, fabric weights, cuts, and quality. Between the art itself and the cotton canvas that hosts it, there’s plenty to appreciate for a true enthusiast of the medium. So, you could imagine my delight at the variety and volume of stunning shirt-craft on offer at the Shimano North American Handbuilt Bicycle Show, where seemingly every booth had something delightful in ink and cotton for sale. But this was no ordinary t-shirt show – there were some bicycles scattered about, too.

I'm kidding, of course. Fantastic handbuilt bikes were obviously and overwhelmingly the centerpiece of NAHBS, and if you’re interested in that sort of thing, you’ve probably already combed through a dizzying number of web sites and Flickr galleries to get your fix. But there were a hell of a lot of shirts on offer, too, and a good number of socks and hats as well. And though it might have created confusion as to what the real product was at times, the swift soft goods trade made sense for several reasons.

First, compared to selling the merits of marginally different $1,200+ custom frames, moving $20 t-shirts is easy money, and they pretty much sell themselves. Hang one up or throw a stack on the table, and if people like it enough, they’ll buy it. You’d don’t have to take the time to explain why your just-so seatstay treatment is better, or why getting just the right axle-to-crown length is crucial to executing your creative vision. It’s a t-shirt. People get it. And if you have a good design and sell enough of them, you can help mitigate the cost of getting to the show, at least.

Second, every good luxury brand – and most of the exhibitors at NAHBS could be considered luxury brands in cycling – knows that while most people can’t afford a $2,500 purse, they can afford a $40 t-shirt bearing the logo of a brand whose goods they admire. Most shirts at the show seemed to slot in at around $20, but the aspirational aspects of the marketing are the same.

Finally, if you have a reasonably attractive t-shirt design, people will actually pay you for a chance to advertise your brand. What could be better if you’re a small company looking to raise your profile? This concept is already well-trodden ground in cycling, though, so I won’t go any farther than that. (Except to point out that just because I’m noting that t-shirts give companies cheaper-than-free advertising doesn’t mean I’m one of those people who hangs around cycling message boards harrumphing about how I stripped all the logos from my frame and ride in a plain blue jersey because those bastards don’t pay me to advertise their stuff dontchaknowit. Who has the time?)

The Bicycle Trend Report

But enough about t-shirts -- you're probably wondering what was notable about the show for non-shirt enthusiasts. I’d say it was the move away from the over-the-top commuter/utility bikes of the past few years, and back towards what I’ll call sport bikes. By sport bikes, I mean road bikes designed for lively riding, but which will accommodate a greater range of fitness and flexibility levels than racing bikes, accept a 28c tire, fenders, and maybe a rack, and hopefully handle a bit of abuse without complaint. If you’re over 40, you probably call them sport-tourers, and if you’re over 40 and particularly crotchety you’ll probably rattle on about how Nishiki used to build a perfectly fine one and it didn’t cost two grand.

Given the emphasis on that genre, it was also refreshing to see that the interpretations of sport bikes were not radical, stylized overreactions to the exaggerated deficiencies people like to broadly assign to racing bikes. By and large, they didn’t have 700x98c tires to “smooth out rough roads”, or disc brakes, or handlebars so high that they would gently nuzzle your bearded chin, or self-consciously retro builds. They were just very nice bikes for people to take their normal rides on, without trying to oversell the buyer on some underlying, all-encompassing riding philosophy. And that’s progress, people. (So what's the next step on the road to universal cycling enlightenment? People who should and do know better will stop crowing about how racing bikes are uncomfortable in their marketing materials. Horses for courses, and for people who race, who ride long and fast, and who are used to them, racing bikes are shockingly comfortable.)

Anyway, from a market perspective, the move to sport bikes from uber-commuters makes sense. Almost too much sense for the bike industry. I’d venture there are far more people looking for a fine, pricey, handbuilt bicycle for recreation -- something comfortable and fun to ride with friends or on a Backroads tour of the Sonoma wine country -- than there are people looking for a fine, pricey, handbuilt bicycle to ride to the Safeway for deodorant and cheese and then lock to the parking meter outside the office. And since they’re already fighting for a tiny segment of overall bicycle consumption, builders are well served in providing what the greatest number of consumers want to buy, not what builders wish they wanted to buy. In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t have statistics to back any of that last part up.

The whole commuter-centric feel that pervaded the past few years’ shows gave off a bit of a racing-is-passé vibe, at least for someone reading the coverage from a distance. But while it would be foolish for NAHBS-type builders to focus heavily on a racing market dominated by big production, big marketing, and high margins, there was still a lot for someone involved in competitive cycling to like at the show. For instance, two of the last great European shadow-builders were present – Dario Pegorretti and Cyfac. Together, those two outfits account for quite a few high-profile professional racing results – it’s just that their frames were buried under someone else’s name at the time. With uniquely sculpted and easily identifiable (read: branded) carbon now the universal norm at the professional level, it’s tougher to pull off a good rebadging, so both companies have had to build their own brands in recent years, both to considerable success.

Further highlighting the changes in how bike builders and pro cycling teams interact was Italian builder Tiziano Zullo, based in Castelnuovo del Garda. Under its own name, Zullo sponsored the powerful Dutch TVM squad in the early 1990s, netting the final stage of the 1991 Tour de France under Dmitri Konyshev for the brand. Zullo’s production? About 200 frames per year. Compare that with the financial and production capacity needed to sponsor a top team today, and you see why there’s less diversity on the downtubes of the pro peloton these days.

The Cultural Trend Report

The success of the NAHBS over the past several years fits with what I see as a trend that goes beyond cycling. In a nation that traded its ability to manufacture much of anything for cheap product and the vaunted service economy (which is, in turn, being outsourced), there had been growing acceptance that material goods are things that are made by machines somewhere overseas, not by people here with ideas and families and houses. But in response to that alienation from the goods we consume, there now seems to be a growing fascination with people who can actually MAKE things – quality things – using knowledge, skill, and their own two hands. You can see it at NAHBS, of course, where I ran into people who already had bikes on order with builders, but who made the trip down just to meet the person making their bike face-to-face. But maybe more importantly for culture at large, you can see returned interest in production and origin in more moneyed industries than cycling. On television, there are any number of cable shows highlight the work of carpenters doing home remodels; show how, where, and by whom consumer items are made; and espouse the benefits of cooking real food. Grocery stores that note where, how, and by whom the food you’re buying was produced are doing better than ever, despite their higher prices. Foreign car manufacturers trumpet the fact that many of their cars are actually made in the United States by American workers. In short, people are starting to care again about where things came from and how they’re made, and that’s important. Beats not giving a damn, anyway.

  • Did I really just refer to it as the Shimano North American Handbuilt Bicycle Show up there? Yes, I did. Sponsors keep cycling’s collective show on the air, so when it’s reasonable, I try to keep their names associated with the events and teams they’re bankrolling. When is it not reasonable? When people name their team something like “ShipCrap International Logistics Company Professional Cycling Team presented by Stinky Puppy Coffee Company – Put Some Pup in Your Cup.” In print, that sort of branding diarrhea eats up your word count. Online, it just annoys me.

  • Sports – particularly the vaguely defined category of “outdoor sports” like cycling, running, surfing, and skateboarding – have always been a t-shirt rich environment. We’ve been over brand shirts already, but then you’ve got your participant shirts, your souvenir shirts, your one-off novelty shirts, your cause shirts, your tribute shirts, you name it. For godssake, you’d think cyclists didn’t know how to use buttons.

  • Several of the display booth designs at NAHBS really stood out. Vanilla’s booth, with a series of large crates depicting phases of frame production and others housing bike-display dioramas, was well done down to the last detail, as was Bilenky's full-scale reproduction of its workshop. I also liked Rapha’s mini-mart themed booth, since it reminded me of a travelling companion from my junior days who used long drives to expound at length on the virtues of well-stocked marts and their undeniable value to cyclists.

  • The big-time booths were nice, but one of the most intriguing areas of the show was the back right corner, where the ultra-small builders had their space. One man, one bike, and a folding table. It doesn’t get more grassroots than that.

  • No, I didn’t buy any t-shirts.

Chain Reactions

Or, The Downside of Sponsorship

On Monday, I wrote a little bit about how Fabian Cancellara’s (Saxo Bank) showmanship over his broken chain during the Tour of Flanders might impact new team sponsor SRAM, which manufactures chains. Lest you think that these little incidents fail to make an impression on the viewing (and buying) public, we bring you the Top 15 search terms used to reach one very, very small cycling web site:

1. Cancellara koppenberg
2. koppenberg cancellara
3. cancellara broken chain
4. broken chain on the koppenberg
5. cancellara chain break
6. cancellara chain flanders
7. cancellara fabian chain break
8. cancellara koppenberg 2009
9. cancellara koppenberg chain
10. cancellara sram chain around neck
11. course gent wevelgem
12. fabian cancellara broken chain
13. koppenberg cancellara chain
14. koppenberg chain race
15. koppenberg sram

As you can see, not all publicity really is good publicity, and if people are reaching this site using those terms, chances are they’re reading accounts of it on every major cycling site and more than a few minor ones as well. So while it’s still just a single broken chain, the story is bound to take on greater weight due to sheer exposure, repetition, and drama.

There’s plenty of precedent for high-visibility product failures haunting companies, of course. And within cycling, there’s even plenty of precedent for high-profile broken chains. Julio Perez Cuapio (then with Panaria) famously broke his chain during a promising breakaway in the 2001 Giro. I can still see him in that orange jersey by the side of the road, but I can’t for the life of me remember what kind of chain it was. I did look it up, though - Shimano, 9-speed. (Remarkably, Perez Cuapio smashed his teeth in on a guard rail a couple days later, then won a stage a few days after that. Tough guy.)

Compared with Perez Cuapio’s high-profile but relatively brand-anonymous failure, the intriguing thing about Cancellara’s is its close association with the SRAM name. In this case, it seems that the PR fallout was likely made much worse by the temporal proximity of the sponsorship announcement to the failure. Saxo Bank – a formidable team that famously resisted component sponsors because they wanted the freedom to use what they wanted – is a big get for SRAM, and the company talked it up accordingly. Given how persnickety director Bjarne Riis has been about equipment, signing SRAM as a sponsor registered as a bigger product endorsement than pay-to-play sponsorship deals usually do. Then, hot on the heels of that well-received press release, advertising that the team is riding their products, one of their new star riders suffers a race-ending failure of one of their core products in the first major event since the announcement. You could almost feel the sales and marketing guys cringing. Imagine if Colnago took over sponsorship of Astana, and Levi Leipheimer snapped a frame on the first day of the Giro.

Maybe I’m too soft, but what I’ve seen of the reaction feels a little strong to me. Yes, you certainly don’t want a chain snapping on you, and it does seem to be becoming a more common failure with thinner chains. But this tempest seems to have taken on more significance than it deserves due to an unfortunate pair of conditions – bad timing regarding the sponsorship announcement, and the fact that it occurred on the Koppenberg. The breakage probably wouldn’t have even been race-ending had it not occurred on that famous 600 meter stretch of cobbles, where team car access is restricted and poor position over the top is punished severely. And had it occurred nearly anywhere but the Koppenberg or the Muur van Geraardsbergen it surely wouldn’t have been subject to so much photography. As I noted Monday, Cancellara’s histrionics sure didn’t help things, but after the season the guy’s had, I also can’t begrudge him a little in-the-moment frustration.

As a result of all that, articles mentioning the breakage abound, but really, we’re still talking about one failure, for one very strong guy, on one very brutal hill. As much as I love you all, let’s not kid ourselves about our ability to replicate those conditions in our own riding. Even if we could all crank out the watts like Cancellara, anecdotal information indicates that most chain failures can be attributed to faulty installation – very few people actually break a sideplate or pull out a previously untouched pin. In other words, a failure of your mechanic's head and hands is far more likely to break your chain than the strength of your thighs. Or a manufacturing error, for that matter.

How many of those keyword searches above are SRAM looking to assess the damage, and how many are consumers trying to find out what happened? I have no idea. But I have to say, I haven’t seen that much keyword consistency since I wrote something a year ago that included the name of Specialized’s HR maven, Shannon Sakamoto. I don’t know what else she has going on, but someone Googles that woman at least once or twice a week. If SRAM has any luck at all, their little hubbub will die out a little more quickly than that.

In other news, you may have noticed that sneaking in up there at number 11 on the list is “course gent wevelgem.” That fine semi-classic was run this morning, of course, and we’ll try to get to that later.

Your Name Here

About sponsorship, and some stuff about racing, too

This year’s Tour de France doping scandals look to be costing the support of at least two sponsors, Barloworld and Saunier Duval. Saunier Duval hasn’t announced a final decision, but after the Tour, Claudio Corti’s Barloworld squad will drop its title sponsor from its jersey at the company’s request. That’s bad news, but the team’s future is assured through 2009, as the South African company will fulfill its financial obligations to the team. That situation puts the team in a similar position to the Columbia squad, which lost title sponsor T-Mobile following the slew of doping confessions by the team’s former riders, including Bjarne Riis and Erik Zabel, and Jan Ullrich’s connection to the Operacion Puerto affair. Still running on T-Mobile funds, the revamped team operated under its management company’s name (High Road) until the Columbia clothing company signed on just before the Tour.

It’s hard to blame sponsors for jumping ship after they’ve been associated with things most people don’t like to think much about, like syringes and bags of bodily fluids and systemic cheating. And back then, I believe Adidas joined T-Mobile and several other sponsors in bidding adieu to the team. But you know who rode it out? Giant. The squad’s bike sponsor stuck with Bob Stapleton’s squad and its promises of a brighter future, and they have to be rejoicing over that decision now. After a widely-reported new product launch just prior to the Tour de France, the now-Columbia team has ridden Giant products to four highly visible stage wins by young Mark Cavendish, and enjoyed some additional TV time with Kim Kirchen in yellow for four days, and in green for awhile as well. Through their support of the team, Giant also garnered some coverage through the Tour debut of their aesthetically questionable but functionally beautiful new TT bike. And nary a mention of the team goes by without a reference to its stringent internal dope testing system. After a few pretty mediocre Tours during the final years of its long tenure, you have to wonder if T-Mobile wishes they’d stuck with it for at least another year.

Of course, the decision to stay in the game made far more sense for Giant than it did for the non-endemic sponsors. After all, Giant makes racing bikes, and if you’re looking to sell some of those, the Tour de France is still the place to be. More so than if you’re hustling mobile phone service, anyway, although the in-car camera segments on Versus make it hard to tell which is tested more rigorously at the Tour – mobile phones or bicycles. But I digress. I stopped having any sentimental feelings about sponsorship agreements long ago, but I do think it’s good to see a sponsor who stuck it out through the dark times get some payback. With any luck, some of Barloworld's cosponsors will have a hard look at the potential costs and benefits of their sponsorship before simply pulling the plug.

Speaking of bike sponsorships and the Tour de France, has anyone noticed things are decidedly more somber at local Trek dealerships than in years past? With their ProTour flagship Astana sitting this one out, and longtime Discovery cosponsor Nike planning to complete its pullout from cycling after the Olympics, the level of showroom decoration is way down this year. No strings of yellow flags; no yellow, polka dot, and green jerseys hung from the rafters; no giant vinyl photo banners in the windows. What really shows is how much of that LBS “Tour Buzz” was created by shrewd, complimentary Tour-time programs by U.S. Postal/Discovery sponsors.

All the wrenches are still glued to Versus, of course, but I have to wonder how long it will be before there’s another combination of rider and brand capable of generating that sort of marketing onslaught again. Trek obviously has the money and dealer network muscle to pull it off should the opportunity present itself again, as does Giant. Specialized and Cannondale could both give it a good run as well. A Ridley or a Felt? Maybe not so much. But the ruckus that Trek was able to create at the retail level during the Armstrong reign showed quite a few things: what a reliable quantity Armstrong really was, the absolute preeminence of the Tour for American audiences, the growth in recognition of the sport in the U.S., and the sheer marketing force Trek and their associates could generate when they put their minds to it.

Something About Racing

I know it’s hard to believe, but the Tour isn’t just about business deals and doping. There’s also a bunch of guys riding bikes, and it’s a helluva race this year, eh? After one short time trial, the Pyrenees, and the first day of the Alps, the top 6 riders were separated by less than a minute. That’s pretty tight at this stage, but the interest of this year’s race goes past the standard, “hey, close race” factor due to the makeup of that front six. It’s split half-and-half between GC riders that fall decidedly on the climber end of the spectrum in CSC pair Frank Schleck (leading) and Carlos Sastre (6th) and Gerolsteiner’s Bernhard Kohl (2nd), and riders whose best hopes come in the final time trial – Silence Lotto’s Cadel Evans (3rd), Garmin-Chipotle’s Christian Vande Velde (5th), and Rabobank’s Denis Menchov (4th). So in addition to wondering if the climbers will be able to gain time in the remaining two mountain stages, we’ll also be wondering if whatever advantage they can eke out will be enough to stave off the time trial crowd in the end. And, barring a total meltdown by any of the contenders, there’s no way we’ll know what “enough time” is until that final TT. Considering that we had a first week that saw the overall contenders battling from Stage 1, that’s a pretty good job of drawing out the suspense. Part of it has to do with ASO's course design, and part is due to the open field with no clear dominant rider, but it’s all come together in just the right way to produce one of the most competitive Tours in a long time.

Obviously, there are a lot of questions to be resolved at this point, and indeed some are likely getting resolved on the road as I write this. But one that stands out is whether any of the contenders will actually win a stage on the way to the overall victory. Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) won Stage 1 back when he was considered a contender, but a couple of bad days in the mountains put an end to that title, so I’m not counting it. Right now, the best chances for an overall winner to come away with a stage win look to be Frank Schleck pulling a second win at L’Alpe D’Huez, or Evans or Menchov coming up big in the final long time trial, but those are far from givens. And that’s great. Aside from the European betting outlets, who doesn’t like a crazy crapshoot Tour?

Confessions of an American

We talked a bit about nationalism as it relates to cycling awhile back, and we’ve also taken more than a few cracks at Cadel Evans’ proposed Tour strategy. It’s now become extremely evident that American Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Chipotle) is a follower of the exact same boring-as-hell strategy. And I’m loving it. It’s not fair, but it’s true.

I think there are a few reasons I don’t feel the compulsion to rag on Vande Velde like I do on Evans. The first feels a lot like nationalism, but on reviewing my own feelings, I’m not sure that’s the right word. It’s not that Vande Velde was born inside the same borders as I was, or that he was likely forced to race office park crits as a junior like I was, or that he knows what a Quarter Pounder with cheese is or understands why the Simpsons is a funny show. It’s more that he’s familiar – we’ve known him for a long time through national coverage, so it’s nice to see a familiar face, one you've had a close look at for years, do well. Or maybe it is because he’s American – humans are famously inadequate at assessing their own biases, so why should I be any different?

Nationalism aside, it’s also easier to put up with Vande Velde’s adoption of the follow-wheels-and-TT strategy because he’s such a surprise contender. Underdogs are meant to hang on through all sorts of abuse before using their particular strength to triumph at the very end – just watch any 1980’s movie about nerds or misfit cops or high school students and you’ll see how the story goes. So Vande Velde and his management are just using their upstart role properly, although ridiculous levels of suffering seem more likely to ensue than comic hilarity in their case.

I guess my acceptance and tacit endorsement of Vande Velde’s strategy is rooted in the fact that nobody expects him and his team to go on the attack and make the GC battle exciting – that’s what four star favorites like Evans are supposed to do. Vande Velde is making the race exciting just by the fact that he's up there at all, challenging for the win and providing one more horse to bet on, and for an upstart, that's great. But we come in expecting all that of the favorites, so they need to do a little something extra to get people talking. And not fulfilling that expectation is part of why I pick on Evans, even though he’s just doing what he has to do to win. I also think that my and other's perceptions of Evans were soured by the pre-race hype, which can burn fans out on the perceived favorite before the race even starts. And, well, the constant whining doesn't help.

Hey Rube!

There was a time not so long ago when many cyclists wished on shooting stars that their beloved sport would become more mainstream, mostly for the TV coverage and so that they wouldn’t have to explain the leg shaving and lycra quite so often. It seems that now we’ve all been cursed by their selfish wishes. An ever-growing flock of write-by-numbers articles have been appearing in mainstream publications, heralding the arrival of cycling as “the new golf.” Just to be clear, by the “new golf” they don't mean that cycling is an engaging form of moderate exercise, but rather that it is an activity that allows well-off people to "network” when they should just “work” and on which they can spend boatloads of money for shiny equipment and executive trinkets.

Well, that’s just great.

Along with all of the other jackasserey that comes along with being the new golf, there are the inevitable follow-up articles about the stupid amounts of money people will spend on various aspects of the sport, be it on travel, engaging in Walter Mitty ride-alongs with the stars, or buying bicycles that cost more than Toyotas. These articles typically involve at least one comparison to a custom suit and/or a reference to Fifth Avenue, Rodeo Drive, or, for the more global thinkers, Milan.

So it’s not surprising to see the latest New York Times contribution to the genre, because nobody writes about pompous people buying shit for three-to-ten times what its worth like the Gray Lady. This latest round, irritatingly titled “Cycling Success Measured in Frequent Flyer Miles” focuses on people who travel absurd distances to buy their bicycles simply to get a buying experience that makes the Mercedes dealership seem like the DMV. Don’t get me wrong, people should spend their money on what they want, provided they actually have the money. If what they want is bike stuff, that’s good for the industry that I’m extremely peripherally involved in. And I certainly don’t subscribe to the popular notion that nice equipment needs to be somehow “earned.” But let’s not pretend the social posturing accompanying this alleged trend isn’t ridiculous.

To whit, the coverboy for this particular piece, Dr. Jason Newland, traveled from his home in suburban Kansas City, Kansas to Waitsfield, Vermont to buy his new Serotta at the Vermont Fit Werx (chapeau for the transparently BMW use of the “e” rather than an "o" in Werx - very Euro). Dr. Newland is shown proudly holding his new Legend Ti over his shoulder while sporting pleated khakis and a crisp starched shirt. Many crueler writers would make jokes about this pose being the primary use for this particular bicycle, but I’m not going to go down that path. In fact, I have a lot of empathy for Dr. Newland, a triathlete who set about his noble quest in order to get a bicycle more suitable for his sport(s) than the Cannondale road bike he had. You know, more aero.

So, 1,400 Gold Card airline miles and $7,000 (not including travel costs, as the NYT article carefully notes) later, what has he acquired in his search for speed against the clock? A road bike with aero bars. Not, mind you, a Serotta triathlon/tt bike. Not that object of aero-geek lust, the Cervelo P3 Carbon. Not some overpriced semi-exotic eye-candy Euro-pro time trial bike, like a Colnago, or Pinarello, or Wilier. Not even a run-of-the-mill swoopy carbon TT bike, like a Jamis.

A road bike with aero bars. And Ksyriums.

I’m sure the folks at VFW did a bang-up job with the bike fit and set him up at the bed and breakfast with the fluffiest pillows and best damn pancakes in Vermont, but I can’t help but wonder if VFW took a little bit of advantage of Herr Doktor. There’s a lot of value in a good fit, no doubt. But if Dr. Newland’s motivation was really to get a more aerodynamic bicycle, as described in the first paragraph of the article, then he could have gotten just as aero by hitting the closest decent shop in his local Kansas City area and dropping a modest few hundred dollars for some bars, barcons, and snazzy reverse levers for the Cannondale. Because other than the bars and possibly the fit, there’s not a whole lot about his new bike that screams aero or time trial. It says expensive, yes, but not aero, which makes it pretty clear what the real goal was. If he’d spent a bit more of that $7,000 (not including travel costs) in a bike shop instead of on Expedia, he could have also floated himself a set of wheels with an aerodynamic signature better than a Cuisinart. (I’m assuming if VFW set him up with some high-zoot aero wheels, they would have been in the photo. After all, if you don’t run your Corimas in the Style section, where do you use them?)

Of course, people who have worked in shops know that there are any number of factors that could have led to Dr. Newland getting the bicycle he did. These include personal fit considerations, the unbendable desires of the client, or the strong, inexplicable magnetism between doctors and ti-carbon Serottas. So it’s probably not fair to imply that VFW took him for the metaphorical kind of ride, rather than the touchy-feely one to “gauge his riding style and position.” And we all know that if you’re really looking to fleece someone, selling them an actual time trial bike is a damn good place to start, and VFW clearly resisted that urge. But the marketing bullshit from VFW and its brethren that made it into the NYT piece makes it hard to resist pinning it on them. Here’s a sample:

VFW: “It’s a bit of a concierge service here.” Not too bad on its own, but it follows a delightful anecdote about the staff sharing leftover pizza and wine with a customer during a scrumptiously rainy afternoon. One wonders what delicious romantic dalliances might have ensued.

Cadence: “[Customers] want to scratch all their itches.” This one was in reference to customers making the purchasing trip part of a broader vacation. It’s also a bit creepy, in that I’m pretty sure they’re implying that, in addition to providing excellent bicycle-related services, they could arrange for a hooker (no, TT nerds, not that Hooker). That’ll give you an itch you need to scratch all right, but I’m sure the on-call doctor they no doubt employ could write you a script for some cream that’ll clear it right up.

SBR Multisports: “The wife wants to shop on Fifth Avenue, and the gentleman wants to shop at SBR.” At last, there’s our Fifth Avenue reference. Bonus points for the butler/tailor/waiter usage of “the gentleman,” instead of the more proletarian “husband” that would usually correspond to “wife.”

Regardless of who’s to blame for Dr. Newland accidentally buying a $7,000 (not including travel costs) butchered road bike instead of the $7,000 (not including travel costs) triathlon bike he set out to buy, I can’t help but feel that the NYT is the real villain here. The whole article just seems cruel. As we all know, the NYT usually sticks to talking about its own battle-hardened New Yorkers when it comes to reveling in the excesses of conspicuous consumption. But this article is a departure from those usual celebrations of absurd spending, and an unsavory one at that, because it dwells upon the mal-spending of a well-meaning rube from Kansas, inviting us all to have a knowing chuckle at his considerable expense. They’ve searched out an earnest Midwesterner, a simple pediatric infectious disease physician, exposed his monetary de-pantsing for all the world to see, and supplemented the humiliation with ridiculous quotes and associated prose highlighting the jackassedness of the entire enterprise. That’s just wrong, and I won’t stand for it.

Stickin’ it to the Man from Morgan Hill

In the recent VeloNews Buyers Guide print issue, Cannondale placed what may be one of the more taunting ads in recent cycling history, a two page spread in the front of the book. Most of the right-hand page is a photo of a computer screen, presumably at Cannondale’s offices, showing an email from Shannon Sakamoto, the head of Specialized Bicycle Company’s recruiting team. You can view the online version of the ad here. The email was allegedly received by three of Cannondale’s engineers, and invites them to a February Specialized recruiting event in Bethel, Connecticut, where Cannondale’s offices are headquartered. With the exception of Sakamoto’s email address and phone number (blurred out), the whole email is there, right down to the corporate address and link in the contact information.

It’s certainly ballsy for Cannondale to go ahead and lay the potential poaching of their engineers out there, and pretty clever. From this angle, it all checks out. I’ve spoken with Sakamoto personally several years ago regarding a marketing position, so she’s certainly a real person, and a pleasant one at that – the kind of person you expect to find working in HR. Additionally, the Specialized recruiting event held in Bethel in February was genuine – it’s been listed on their web site for a couple of weeks. When I initially saw the event announcement, it seemed interesting. I’m not sure what else Bethel, Connecticut is home to, but it isn’t exactly a cycling industry hotbed – Specialized’s own California home, Interbike, Taiwan, or M.I.T. all seem like likelier places to go recruiting if you’re just looking for engineers. So it was pretty clear even before the Cannondale ad came out what Specialized’s interests in visiting the area were.

The timing certainly makes sense – both for Specialized to start circling Cannondale engineers like hungry sharks, and for Cannondale to come out on the offensive in response. Cannondale was recently purchased by Dorel, the same Canadian company that owns Pacific Cycles, purveyors of crappy big box store bikes for North America. Pacific has also acquired the Schwinn and GT brands in recent years, both of which have rocky histories similar to Cannondale, and has taken both brands down-market. Schwinn has gone straight into the department stores at the bottom end with some LBS presence at the top, and GT is now a mainstay of chain shops like Performance Bicycles. The purchase by Dorel got people in the industry talking about what the future held for Cannondale, and whether we’d soon be seeing oversized aluminum hybrids gracing the shelves of Target and Wal-Mart. However, these rumors have been dismissed by Dorel since the sale.

Regardless, Specialized clearly smelled blood in the water – the same engineers designing the System Six wouldn’t likely look forward to designing a $180 price-point bike with Alivio components. Employees with itchy trigger fingers might be looking to jump ship in Bethel, and the sunny port of Morgan Hill, California might seem pretty appealing if you’re stuck in a Connecticut February sitting on an uncertain future. The first line of the email cuts right to the motivations, referencing “long term job stability,” which is presumably on a lot of minds at Cannondale these days. At least where the marketing hits the paper and the web, Cannondale’s people are staying put, and sending smartass replies to Sakamoto's advances. But you have to wonder who, if anyone, showed up under cover of night at the Bethel Holiday Inn Express when she rolled into town. It could be months before the truth comes out, and Cannondale might not be feeling so smarmy then.

Either way, this little campaign reveals some daring moves on both sides – Specialized in making a blatant play for Cannondale’s engineering department, and Cannondale in taking it public before any results of Specialized’s attempts are fully realized. It also exposes some of the normally hidden maneuvering inside the notoriously inbred cycling industry. So far, this little insurrection has only really backfired on Specialized, allowing Cannondale to trumpet how desirable their engineers are while taking a dig at their Made-In-The-USA competition. However, should Cannondale employees diverge from the marketing plan and take Specialized up on its offer, it could backfire on them as well, but likely in a much less public manner.