Being Frank: What's The Rider Benefit?
What’s best for the rider? This is a very simple question that a product manager should always be striving to answer. However, that’s not always the case, though I think it has gotten better over the years. While commercial viability of a product is important — one won’t be in business long if it is not — many product spec and feature decisions are made for commercial reasons rather than for Rider Benefit. Similarly, product managers in the bicycle industry have traditionally been too focused on racers’ needs. This focus has restricted designs and features that provide Rider Benefit to non-racers. Both cases have limited the cycling experience and the popularity of cycling.
During the mountain bike sales boom of the 1990s, bicycle brands would have bike models at $100 increments or less!
This was driven as a defensive move to the competition and an inability or reluctance to explain real Rider Benefit to
consumers. A $379 bike might have had a cromoly seat tube, an upgraded rear derailleur, and replaceable chain rings
compared to the $300 bike. And those upgrades provided ZERO Rider Benefit. The alloy of the seat tube did not change
any performance or ride quality metric, a link in the rear derailleur going from steel to aluminum had no impact on shifting or durability, and there were not even aftermarket replacement rings available for that crank. Were we ignorant, too focused, too elitist, or just lazy back then? As for this product manager, it was definitely the first three in some combination.
In the last ten or so years, we have seen more meaningful differences between bike models. Yes, the price jumps are bigger, but the rider is really getting something more for the money. An upgrade to hydraulic disc brakes makes a huge impact on a rider’s ability to confidently control the bike. Tubeless tires provide better ride quality, more control/traction, and reduces the likelihood of flats significantly. Other mountain bike upgrades that offer real Rider Benefit would include dropper seat posts, wider rims, and rear suspension. Upgrades that can be considered cool but many times do not impact Rider Benefit may include carbon fiber, electronic shifting, and highly adjustable suspension. Hey, I LOVE trick parts. But let’s be honest, many trick parts do not help me enjoy the trail more. When shopping for a new bike, keep asking what a spec or feature will really do for your riding.
And now for the second case: too much focus on elite racers and viewing bikes through the lens of absolute race performance. I once had a very accomplished designer tell me “whatever is best for Alberto Contador is best for you.”
While I was fit, hard core, and relatively fast, I was also living and riding very differently than the multi-time Grand Tour champion. My sixteen-year older body was not coached, fed, trained, and conditioned every day like his was, and my 10- 12 hours of riding a week included a couple of spirited lunch rides and a 4-hour ride in the mountains on Sundays – a bit
less than racing 5-6 hours every day for three weeks in the Tour de France. Needless to say, I disagreed. In that case
more frame compliance, a more upright riding position, larger tire compatibility, and lower gearing would have provided more Rider Benefit for riders more like me.
I believe for too many years the viewing of bikes through such a lens prevented product managers from seeing or embracing designs and features that would have benefitted millions of riders. It took an embarrassing number of decades for bicycles to come with more real-world gearing. Just twelve years ago road bikes were predominantly equipped with 53/39 rings and a 11-25 cassette. That’s maybe OK for Florida, but for anywhere with hills, much less mountains, it is just ridiculous. Mountain bike gearing was similarly bad for years. While the threadless headset (brought to market by our company), offered significant advancement in durability and ease of service, it came at the big expense of easy and expansive handlebar height adjustment. The #1 complaint I have heard over the last thirty years about road bikes is “why do I have to be bent over so far”. And here we product managers were talking about adding or removing 5-15 millimeters of spacers and the riders were looking to raise the bar 50, 75mm or more! This story goes on to include tire size/volume, frame compliance, stem length, saddle size/comfort, accessory compatibility (i.e. fender and rack mounts), and others.
While I am proud of a lot of my work in product management over the years, I will admit that I could have done much more to help more people enjoy cycling. We, and every other company, remain in business as long as we sell you things. However, that does not mean those things cannot have real merit. I think the bike industry has improved, but beware of the marketing hype and try to ascertain what will really benefit your cycling experience.