KNOW’S NOTES – NEW TECH IS NOW TECH
In my non-cycling life – yes, there is such a thing – I’ve worked with a lot of technology and business innovators. My role has always been to help understand if, where, and how their technologies can be turned into big, value creating, growing businesses.
Wireless, smartphones, software, media, communications, and internet technologies and businesses. Those kinds of things.
Some of the innovations I’ve been around have made it. Some haven’t despite the amount of money invested and hype generated.
The difference usually comes with the answer to a couple of questions.
- Do you offer benefits that customers are willing to pay?
- Are those benefits valuable enough to enough customers who are willing to spend enough money for you to make an attractive return?
These are simple questions that are hard to answer.
Cycling has always been one of my best releases from the hard work that goes into answering those simple questions.
Yet my non-cycling life has trained the way I view cycling innovations and whether they are likely to make it.
Looking back at some of my analyses of new cycling tech, I often wondered if I may have gone out on a limb in my belief in the benefits they could bring to roadies and our willingness to pay for them.
ROAD DISC BIKES
Four years ago I opened my post Why and When to Buy a Road Disc Bike with this line:
While the debates about road bikes equipped with disc brakes are far from over, I believe it’s now clear that these bikes will soon become the predominant type sold to road cycling enthusiasts.
Better braking was one of the benefits valuable enough that enough of us would want it, especially for the carbon wheelsets we all seemed to want. That was no Einstein moment. Everyone saw that benefit but I’m not sure everyone saw that the benefit would be valued by enough of us to buy new bikes.
Greater versatility and faster riding were the two other benefits I wrote about that convinced me road disc brake bikes and gear would win out.
At the time, our emerging interest in gravel riding and, separately, our desire to ride the carbon wheelsets we were beginning to buy over alloy ones in any weather made it clear that road disc bikes and wheels would be far more versatile. And anyone who experienced how fast you could ride a road disc bike downhill or in a course full of tight turns became convinced the ability and confidence to ride faster would be hard to say no to.
Road disc bikes are outselling rim brake ones at the $/€/£2500 and up price range that most road cycling enthusiasts like us live in. That started happening in 2017.
The confirmation came as I did research for my posts on the Best Carbon Wheelset for the Money. While I speced out both rim disc brake road wheels for review, my calls to companies to buy or demo wheels for testing came back with a nearly universal response.
Test the disc brake wheels, they told me, more people are buying those than rim brake ones.
That surprised me. While I knew that would happen at some point, I was surprised it would happen this fast given so many of us roadies still have rim brake bikes. It must be that the so many of us now have a road disc bike in addition to our rim brake ones, but more of us are spending money upgrading our road disc ones.
I finally came around to tubeless tires, writing my review of the best ones last year. It took me a couple of years trying different tires with different wheelsets to believe this technology would take hold across road cycling.
Unlike road disc bikes which seemed to have a rather complete system of bikes and components delivered at once and championed by industry leaders like Giant and Shimano, tubeless developments have been more incremental and fragmented.
The promised benefits of tubeless only became tangible with the advances of removable valve cores, improved compounds yielding more supple tires with better rolling resistance, purpose-designed rims that made tubeless tires easier to mount, inflate, seal, hold, etc. These came over time and from many quarters.
And unlike road disc where the biggest players led and the others saw that they had to follow, it was players with less influence and smaller market share that led the tubeless innovation. Tire and wheelset leaders like Continental and Mavic offered their own tubeless products after most had joined the party and served to confirm that tubeless is now tech rather than new tech.
Companies are spending most of their development dollars now on road disc bikes, disc brake wheels, and tubeless tires. With few exceptions, some of which I write about in an upcoming review of aero road wheels, you aren’t seeing new rim brake or tubed tires being introduced for the enthusiast segment that aren’t following the introduction of a similar model disc brake or tubeless tire.
For me, tubeless is what I ride 90% of the time now. Set it and forget it. It takes only a couple minutes longer to install and fill them compared to tubed tires but I don’t have to get off the bike for 5-10 minutes when I flat to change a tube. In fact, I often don’t have to get off the bike at all when I flat a tubeless tire.
I can also ride tubeless at lower pressures and get a more comfortable and better handling ride than I can with a tubed tire.
Between my early enthusiasm for the value of road disc bikes and my realization that a handful of advances around tubeless tires will see them overtake tubed ones, I bought into the reality that electronic shifting will overtake mechanical shifting for the serious roadie market, even at 2x-3x the price.
I wrote about electronic groupsets in 2016 and again last summer in my review Shimano DI2, SRAM eTap, or ??? – What’s Best for You. Since then, SRAM has introduced its new AXS eTap 12-speed road groupset (that I’m testing now) and Campy has introduced their own 12-speed electronic gruppo.
While I haven’t done my periodic analysis of the shifting and braking components on new bikes for this model year, the trend in past years was clearly toward electronic shifting on enthusiast level bikes.
The benefits of electronic shifting can’t easily be articulated in quantitative performance measures. However, the improved riding experience from easier and more precise shifting with less required maintenance makes it a clear winner.
This will likely be a slower conversion than road disc or tubeless. However, the investment you see from SRAM, Campy and Shimano (which has been there in force for the longest) tells me they have figured out that electronic shifting is the winning shifting platform and will continue to be.
As in my working life, I often don’t get it right that certain innovations will create something big.
Take power meters for example. As I planned out my winter training in 2015, I did the research that led to this post Cycling Training – Should You Use a Power Meter?
I concluded that I and likely you absolutely should as doing so would really improve any serious cyclist’s performance.
As prices dropped below $/€/£1000 and closer to $/€/£500 for power meters that all but coached amateur racers needed, I wrote this review of the Best Power Meter for Road Cycling.
Since then, technology development around power meters has slowed and I’m guessing that sales growth has as well. It’s not a small market – you can price and pick from several hundred power meters from the top online bike stores at our In The Know Cycling Know’s Shop. But it hasn’t been a big enough market to drive a lot of innovation or new models in the last few years that is likely needed to get to a tipping point of much greater acceptance.
I don’t quite get it. The average roadie wants to go faster and is pretty analytical. With the right power meter you can train yourself to go faster and stimulate all of your analytical senses. And you need one to really do Zwift the right way and continue to improve that power and get all your numbers out on the road. And isn’t Zwift the digital group ride where we roadies all congregate and Discord about life and our N+1 plans?
Of course, e-bikes are the game changer for the bike industry. As a serious roadie, I have ZERO interest in buying a bike that supplements or replaces my own awesome power on the road. (On the flip side, I 1000% embrace developments that reduce the drag I and my bike create that opposes my awesomeness.)
While you don’t have to buy into or even concern yourself with e-bikes, know that they will likely save the cycling industry and benefit us all by keeping our entire ecosystem healthy and advancing new technology.
INNOVATION AND TRAINING
The tech innovations I’ve written about are for the serious roadie, the enthusiast-level rider, and not recreational riders or weekend warriors. And yes, it takes enthusiast level money to pay for the gear born from those innovations.
But the innovation that is there for us as enthusiasts are is longer new or the future. They are the now rather than the new, the present instead of the future. And while rim brake bikes and wheels, tubed tires, mechanical shifting, and speed and heart-rate based training are still in the present, they are hanging on in the peloton and will be out the back very soon as in, you won’t be able to buy them.
Of course, improving your training and technique is still the best (and cheapest) way to ride faster. One of the posts I enjoyed researching and writing perhaps more than any other was the first of two on How to Ride Faster on Your Bike: 10 Better Ways – Training and Technique. I published well before any of those on the innovations I’ve discussed above.
Better training and better gear are not mutually exclusive, however. You can always train better but you don’t need to wait on what once was new tech and innovations thinking they are the cycling future. If you want to ride your fastest and enjoy yourself the most, cycling’s new tech is the now tech.