Being Frank – David vs. Goliath vs. David


Brent Graves Cane Creek
Brent Graves, President and CEO

Twenty-five years ago, I was the proud father of my first bike line, and many of those Diamond Back (as it was spelled back then) models included Shimano’s Rapidfire Plus shifters. The shifters were a major improvement over the original Rapidfire shifters introduced a few years earlier. However, the next year saw RapidFire Plus shifters displaced by upstart SRAM’s Grip-Shift on a large number of models from nearly every brand. While SRAM’s deft move of getting top pro riders like Ned Overend and John Tomac on Grip-Shift and the fact that Grip-Shift provided a cost and weight savings helped get them OEM spec, there was another significant behind-the-scenes factor that enabled the swing to Grip-Shift.

Though SRAM competes on the same level as Shimano these days, it was far different in the early 90’s. SRAM was an upstart with a twist shifter design for tri and road bikes. While some tri geeks used them, the shifters were a commercial bust. The mountain bike boom was in full mushroom cloud phase when SRAM decided to offer a version for flat bars. But SRAM could not get OEM spec because Shimano was effectively locking out the competition with a pricing policy. Shimano offered a significant “group discount” when a product manager spec’d all Shimano parts. SRAM cried foul and filed suit which Shimano later settled. While the settlement was sealed, the OEM spec door was then open and SRAM had some additional cash to work with. Here’s an independent account of the story: If SRAM would have lost the suit, there’s a good argument to be made that they would not be around now.

I thought then, and still do, that it was good to have SRAM in the game. It keeps Shimano “honest”, offers all of us choice, and fosters competitive innovation. Choice then became a fundamental part of SRAM’s strategy. Whereas Shimano continued to frustrate product managers and riders with asinine limited parts compatibility, SRAM became the champion for the man-on-the-street. From parts compatibility to friendly, prompt customer service and fun marketing, SRAM became the Shimano anti-dote. However, as SRAM grew in the 2000’s it began to behave more and more like Shimano. I experienced this head-on at Specialized as SRAM became increasingly less flexible and accommodating. Part of this is a function of getting bigger and needing to operate with more structure. But I saw changes beyond that.

Those that know me personally will likely say that I am a bit more competitive than average. I believe in competition in business as well, with the fundamental principle being winning on merit. While our products compete with those from SRAM and Shimano, we really cannot compete with them business-wise – we don’t have the big money for top DH pros or Tour de France team sponsorships. Our sales are less than 0.5% of Shimano’s and similarly small compared to SRAM as well. But our small size gives us agility and flexibility the big guys cannot match. We also like to think that we are closer to the market and more approachable. So we do not shy away from developing products like the Helm and eeWings that are going to challenge the Pike or XTR. We do however, like SRAM in the early 90’s, expect a chance to compete.

This brings me to why you are not seeing eeWings on big brand bikes. We have been told by product managers of those brands that SRAM is effectively telling them that they cannot buy OEM 1X groups without a SRAM crank. Sound familiar? SRAM’s 1X groups are great – hell, I have them on all three of my most ridden mountain bikes. So bike brands definitely need to offer 1X on their models in order to be considered by riders. How does SRAM justify the same anti-competition behavior it once faced? The “our components are designed to work as a system” line, the same one Shimano has used for years, only goes so far. It even goes less far when talking about a system without front shifting – particularly when the eeWings can be paired with an authentic SRAM ring! Hey Stan, why not fully embrace your “Freedom to Mix, Freedom to Match” campaign and embrace a competitive environment that can raise all ships – and even small boats?