[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: I Don't Give a Continental
Expresses skepticism towards companies that sell bikes, bicycle equipment, and bike accessories; they're not our enemies, but they are motivated by profits, not good intentions.
Questions Aren't bicycle equipment manufactures objective judges of the values of their own products? Don't these companies want to produce superior bicycle products? What real goals do manufactures of bicycles, bike equipment, and bicycle accessories have for producing new products? Do bike companies always produce the best products? Do they always say they produce the best products? Does having a superior cycling product insure its success and the company's success? How does bicycle gearing demonstrate other goals than improvement? Why was index shifting less than a major improvement? Why did tire sizes change so much over the years? Why do helmet companies worry about sunlight damage but not traffic safety? Haven't automotive companies become supportive of cycling? Aren't there "good" companies that will look out for our interests? Are bicycle companies "bad"? Do we need to keep buying new bicycles, equipment, and accessories in order to keep up? What is a less expensive strategy for a cyclist? Should we dislike bicycle equipment manufactures?


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I Don't Give a Continental

In a discussion of smooth vs. treaded tires, I wrote: On the other hand, Continental is hardly the independent judge you like to think they are. If sipes have no value, why do other manufactures use them? Sounds as if even the experts disagree. Basically, the Continental salesmen want to impress you with their knowledge so you'll buy their tires.

Thomas H. Kunich replied: Continental wants to build the best tire they can for the money. Most commercial organizations are that way. It's called pride. Why would Continental care whether the marketplace wanted slicks or tread? Since either is equally easy to manufacture it wouldn't make a fig to Continental.

Glenn Dowdy joined in: As a commercial enterprise, Continental, and all other successful commercial organizations, do care what the marketplace wants. If, as a company, I produce the highest quality, leading edge technology widget at a lower cost than any of my competitors, yet can't sell enough to meet revenue requirements, I have failed. I need to produce products that provide the highest contribution margin per unit of scarce resource, and here I am wasting those resources producing superior but unwanted product.

I replied: Of course, companies want you to buy their products, that's what I said. And their salesmen want you to believe that their product is the best, whether it is or not. You don't think tobacco companies actually believe that smoking is good for you. And of course, they want to produce products that will sell better: "leading edge technology" or cool design or highest quality or whatever. But if they don't have the best product, they don't tell the customer that. They might get their researchers working on a better design while they're selling you the old stuff, but they're not going to tell you that either. Often the latest design will be a giant step backwards or no real advantage at all, but do they advertise that fact? No, they go around bragging about the new product just as if it had been a revolutionary change.

Glenn Dowdy went on: It would behoove a company to educate the marketplace on the superiority of one's product, and create the demand to bring in the requisite revenue. The problem is credibility versus hype for hype's sake.

And that's really the only thing keeping companies honest: credibility. Notice that the word isn't "honesty" or "pride" or even plain simple "truth." If a company looses too much market share, new leaders come in that will first doctor the ads and second change the product to fit the market place. Many times "the truth" will be changed to agree with current trends and popular thinking.

The bicycle world is a prime example of company flimflam. When I began cycling as an adult, 30 odd years ago, most bike accessories were cheap hard-to-find junk. Now, they are mostly expensive easy-to-find junk. How many bike lights have you purchased? Of course, some companies produce quality products that last forever, such as Sun Tour's original barcons; unfortunately, that doesn't always do the company any good, and Sun Tour is a good example (the company went out of business despite producing excellent products).

I consider gearing to be a prime example of flimflam. A number of years ago, "touring" bikes had 10 "speeds" but only 6 useful gears from 100 down to 40. Then the range was extended down to 32, or thereabouts. When the "15-speeds" came out, they only had 7 or 8 useful gears, and the same range. Then everyone went to the "18-speed" with 9 or 10 useful gears, but no greater range. Then everyone went to the "21-speed" bike with 11 useful gears, but the same range. And so on. The latest hybrid bike with a 9 rear cogs, allowing 27 "speeds," still has the same gear range and only about 13 useful gears. It would not take a great deal of effort to get more useful gears and a wider gear range. My own "15-speed" bike, for instance, has 14 useful gears, evenly spaced, with a range from 100 down to 20. The extra range and gears provide a real advantage, while increasing the number of rear cogs does not.

The companies also produced new chains and cogs to make shifting easier. Why? Evidently because neophytes don't know to ease up when shifting. The only improvement I noticed was in the price: chains jumped the most, from $3.00 to $15.00 and even higher. Indexing was also introduced at the same time, evidently for new cyclists as well. After twenty years of shifting gears, I first started missing shifts when I bought a bike with indexed gears. Interestingly, before I threw the indexer away, I established that it was impossible to adjust it to work correctly. I'm sure index shifters work better now, but who needs them? Most of the people with indexed shifting never shift a gear anyway, and the cyclists who shift all the time quickly learn how to shift without indexing. Actually, a real improvement was made at the same time in the ability of the derailleurs to shift. I found that when I started using the new derailleurs that my shifting improved, even though I wasn't using indexing.

Another successful flimflam was over touring bikes. One year, the magazines pushed everyone to get a touring bike. A few years later, the reviews on touring bikes were highly negative, emphasizing how slow they were, and the touring bikes disappeared from the shops. A few years later and the newest rage -- the hybrid bike -- appeared on the market. What is the difference between a touring bike and the first hybrid bike? Almost nothing. Some "hybrids" have high bottom brackets or lack fender attachments or have "touring bars." So did some touring bikes.

One of the oddest tales, and also clear proof of how us cyclists let ourselves be pushed around, is the story of tire sizes. When I started riding as an adult, all the bikes had 26-inch tires. My first "10-speed" (6 useful gears) came with 27-inch tires, forcing me to buy tires at bike shops (which are hard to find on a tour). A dozen years ago came a "great" improvement created by shifting from 27-inch to 700 cc tires. Article after article raved about the improvement. The only difference I can see is the need to stop at a bike shop rather than Kmart. Then came a new shift, where to? -- the 26 inch bike; only the tires on this bike are a different size from the old 26 incher. Can't you tell you're being flimflammed? Slight differences in the diameter of the wheel have no noticeable effect. The whole purpose of the different tire sizes is to force you to buy tires from one company rather than another or at a bike shop rather than a discount store. And I have simplified the story, as there are a number of tire sizes I didn't mention. The latest unnecessary changes are in the number of spokes per wheel.

Companies who produce helmets shamelessly promote them without providing other safety information. Why do they do that? Their job is selling helmets, not keeping you from having accidents. In fact, the more accidents you have, the more helmets they'll sell. Do they point out that their helmets offer little protection if you should get hit by a car? No, but they do worry you that your helmet will deteriorate over time, and therefore, you need to buy a new helmet frequently.

Maybe while you are traveling down the road on your bike, your greatest immediate enemy is a hostile driver. But as we bicycle into the next century, our greatest enemies are the companies that sell automobiles, tires, and gas. Oh yes, they use us in their ads because they feel we are cool, but they also include subtle put-downs. The cyclist is blocking the road; the cyclist has a flat tire; the cyclist gets splashed with mud. Right now, these companies are spending hundred of millions to "prove" the greenhouse effect is a myth. In the past, these companies worked to destroy alternate transportation. Don't think they won't fight again.

Even "friendly" companies are a little suspect. REI, for instance, was founded by hikers and mountaineers to provide themselves with equipment. The company sets aside money every year to help the environment. It also provides clear comparisons of the products it sells. Yet REI makes a lot of money selling products, so the company has, year by year, gradually moved to pushing more and more expensive products and providing fewer inexpensive alternatives, when less expensive products work just as well. One would get the impression, from looking in the catalog, that camping has to be an expensive activity.

Please note that I am not saying that companies are "bad." They are amoral, not immoral. Or in the trite expression, they are "out to make a buck." Nor am I saying that everything they do is wrong. I see many benefits and many problems caused by our consumer society and its agents. Nor am I saying that they always lie or never tell the truth; I'm saying that they can have a motive that changes what they say.

All I was saying about Continental is that we should suspect the company's motives. I know it sells both slick and treaded tires; I think the purpose here was to impress us; not to sell tires. I don't think we should accept any statements as the unvarnished truth; we haven't read the research. One time one of the cycling magazines published some tests of the rolling resistance of various tires. After that article appeared, all of the companies involved printed ads claiming that their tires were proven superior to all the other brands by the tests. None of them had to lie, exactly; they just each reported part of the truth.

Many articles in magazines and programs on the TV are pure advertisement that are not labeled as such. Microsoft has to be very careful about what it says in an ad, and the ad costs thousands of dollars. Yet Microsoft gets millions of dollars of free advertisement of writers wanting a good story and doesn't have to pay a cent and doesn't have to worry about telling the truth. Remember all the articles that said that DOS is no longer necessary on a Win 95 machine: Win 95 and 98 boot from DOS and exit to DOS, just as Win 3.11 did, although efforts have been made to disguise that fact.

The purpose of bicycle magazines is to convince you that, if you don't have this year's bicycle, you'd better get one now! Last year's bikes were pretty terrible, but the companies have corrected all those problems, and the new bikes are really sharp! Actually, a good bike will last you a lifetime, and if the components are made well, they should last a lifetime as well. The only things that should wear out are the tires, the chain, the cogs, the rings, the bearings, the brake pads, and the cables. I know one man (Harold Fincher, of Gadsden, Alabama) who bought two bicycles as a youngster and was still racing on them at 88! He still was using the wooden wheels too!

I watched cycling magazines and computer magazines follow the same evolution. At first, they helped the consumer by explaining techniques and methods; in a way, they were explaining how to do well without spending money. Then, they advised on how to buy low-cost bicycles and software. Next, they moved up to higher cost equipment, and the cheap stuff was no longer mentioned, except in a rare article. Finally, the whole focus centered on buy! buy! buy! Want to produce a work of art on your computer or to climb a hill faster this year than last? The only solution given now is to buy the latest product. The magazine that once was dedicated to helping the cyclist or computer user is now dedicated to helping the merchant.

There's a particular human failing that salesmen take advantage of -- and that takes advantage of them. It's called reification, and when we reify something, we mentally change an abstract concept into something solid and material. Ancient people took their feelings about the forces of Nature and turned them into idols. We do the same thing by turning our goals into objects. The person who loves the outdoors buys a four-wheel drive SUV. The person who wants an adventure-filled bike trip buys a $2,500 touring bicycle. We confuse the purchase with the goal. Now, the SUV or the bike might help accomplish those goals, but we often see the possession itself replacing the orginal goal and becoming the goal itself. Thus someone might tell us every single component on his or her ideal bike yet have no clear idea at all as to what the bicycle is to be used for. But when the bicycle becomes the goal rather than the bicycling, then the final results are not going to be thousands of hours of enjoyable cycling and a healthy body, the result is going to be hundreds of hours of pouring over catalogs and the frustration of never having the perfect machine very long.

Rather than be a good consumer, as the manufacturers want, you are much better off being a non-consumer. Spend your time and save your money. The best way to enjoy life is by doing things -- such as cycling -- that cost relatively little money but that enrich your life. Enjoy riding your bike, not buying bike products. When you do need to buy, you can save a fortune by not buying the latest and the greatest; instead buy last year's bicycle or even fix up an old bike; the older equipment works as well now as it did when it was new. And a bicycle will last many years of hard riding with little expense.

I'm glad Continental and the other companies are out there to make a buck; I mean, tires do wear out, and I need to be able to buy new ones. But am I going to get excited about the latest offering? No, I don't give a Continental.


All the Little Lies They Tell You.... by Richard Risemberg. Manufactures don't always tell the truth.

How do our kids get so caught up in consumerism? by Briam Swimme. 86% of people believe our young people are too reoccupied with buying and spending.

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