We sell what we like

When the owner of a bicycle magazine also runs a company that develops and sells bicycle components, the words “conflict of interest” inevitably come up. Does Bicycle Quarterly only like products that Compass Bicycles sells, and disparages those of other companies? Is the magazine blind to the flaws of Compass Bicycles’ products?

Some people think that we like what we sell, when in fact, we sell what we like. There is a crucial difference between the two.

Bicycle Quarterly began selling things other than magazines when we found excellent products that were not available in North America. It started with books, and today, we bring you a number of excellent books, many of which otherwise would not be available to most of our readers. We sell these in very small numbers, and there isn’t much profit in it, but we consider it a service to our readers to make them available. (The photo above includes books that we used to sell, but which now are out of print.)

Then came the wonderful Grand Bois tires, and nobody wanted to distribute them in North America because the profit margins were too small, so we started importing them. As we did more and more research, we had new ideas about products we wanted, but which nobody wanted to make, like the René Herse cranks. We finally started Compass Bicycles to pursue these projects.

It’s obvious that we like most of the products we sell – otherwise we wouldn’t sell them! As a retailer, we can sell pretty much any product. The latest example are the Hutchinson 650B x 32 mm tires. These tires directly compete with the Grand Bois Cyprès 650B x 32 mm tires, which we distribute in North America. We gave them to a reader to evaluate, in addition to riding them ourselves.

If the review of the tires had been negative, then some might have thought: “Of course, Bicycle Quarterly doesn’t like anything that competes with the Grand Bois tires.” Fortunately, the Hutchinsons are excellent tires, and we decided to add them to our program. Now some may think that we like the Hutchinson tires only because we sell them… You can’t win that one, can you?

What if a product we sell does not offer the performance we expect?

When the Mitsuboshi 650B x 38 mm tires were discontinued, I had an idea for a stop-gap replacement: What about using the mold of the Panaracer “Col de la Vie,” but with the Grand Bois casing and tread material? The result was the Grand Bois “Ourson.” Unfortunately, the “micro-knob” tread pattern of the Col de la Vie dominated the experience of riding the Ourson: It was not as fast as the other Grand Bois tires, and the knobs squirmed and flexed, making the Ourson less than ideal both in a straight line and in corners.

Others did not share our concerns, and raved about these tires online. It would have been easy leave it at that, and not review the Ourson at all, but that would not have been honest. The review in Bicycle Quarterly was harsh: “We do not feel that the Ourson warrants the extra cost [over the Col de la Vie].” When we did this, we knew that sales of these tires would collapse. Our stocks of these tires remained in the warehouse for years, until we finally closed them out when the completely new and excellent Grand Bois Lierre was announced.

With the products we develop, like the René Herse cranks, we go through many prototypes to make sure they are flawless both in their performance and in their appearance. If they are tested in Bicycle Quarterly, we will give them to readers, who are not involved with the magazine, in addition to riding them ourselves. (From the Ourson tire experience, it appears that we are harsher critics of our own components than most other users.)

At the same time, we are careful to evaluate other companies’ products honestly. It does not matter whether they compete with our products or not. This means that we can be highly critical of one product, and then give another product from the same company an excellent review. We simply call it as we experience each product.

The conflicts of interest never will go away, but we work hard to ensure that they do not influence our editorial content. In fact, it’s much harder to criticize a product made by others than a product we sell. We easily can stop selling a product we don’t like, but it’s much harder to repair strained relations with other makers, many of whom are personal friends.

For most of these products, if we did not sell them, they would not be available at all. That is not a pleasant thought: My new bike (above) uses Grand Bois Hetre tires, Grand Bois Randonneur handlebars, a Grand Bois fork crown, Kaisei fork blades, the spindle from an SKF bottom bracket, and now has been fitted with the new René Herse cranks. Without these components, my bike would not offer the performance and comfort that I enjoy so much.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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15 Responses to We sell what we like

  1. Bubba says:

    It’s an admirable business model, and I hope it remains successful. It’s almost silly how many fantastic 650B tires there are today. One literally cannot ride them all. The mini-renaissance of inspired frame builders can also thank Compass for helping educate their eventual customers.

    There are still many radically underserved product types. Hopefully Compass’ small but focused influence can improve things still further. The gaping hole, as we all know, is a decent mult-gear freewheel, particularly 5 and 6 speed varieties. Compass has pointed out the large tooling problems, but I remain hopeful that something will come of it. When there is a great Compass freewheel, in 4 through 7 speed varieties, warranting a full cog board at the better bicycle shops, that will be really cool.

    • Greg says:

      What exactly is wrong with the $40 IRD freewheels? Yes, I know, early ones had issues. Recent (Mark 3 and Mark 4) ones do not, as far as I know. I’ve not heard of failures on ones newer than Mark 2. Also, there will never, ever be “freewheel cog boards” in mainstream ‘better’ bike shops ever again. Just not gonna happen. Would that it were, but freewheels are and will forevermore be a niche product….

      • Bubba says:

        If the IRD’s are now great, and freewheel users are happy, then very good. The early ones looked cheap and had very poor results. The current ones still look cheap, but if they are holding up, that’s what matters most. :)

  2. Nice explanation of the tensions inherent in your business. One way around the sticky problem of reviewing other company’s products is to modify your headline into a review strategy: “We review what we like.” That eliminates giving another company your bad news about its products. However, it also eliminates your ability to use a flaw/different design decision to share what you consider a “best practice” to be.

    I don’t expect you to do that, and you don’t need to. The depth and nuance of your reviews eliminate the worst aspect of product reviews in the Internet age: uneducated flippancy.

    • We only publish reviews of products that serve the interest of our readers. It makes little sense to publish negative reviews of obscure products, and so we usually don’t. On the other hand, if a highly touted product turns out to be flawed, the review serves a public interest. Fortunately, most products we test are very good, so this isn’t often an issue.

      Our detailed reviews allow our readers to see what we like and what we don’t like in a product, and come to their own conclusions. We don’t give “star ratings” or declare “Best of the Year,” because every rider has different priorities. Our goal is to provide the information that allows you to make an informed decision based on your preferences.

      For example, if you don’t like to go around corners fast, a bike’s handling near the limit is of little interest. And if you don’t use fenders on your bike, a brake’s limited fender clearance is not a concern. What we try to tell you is how the bike handles near the limit and how much clearance the brake provides, not whether you should buy them.

  3. msrw says:

    If I may, this may in fact be a sensitive issue for firms submitting a product for review to BQ, particularly when that product would be competitive to something that Compass sells, and the intrinsic conflict of interest may raise a question or two about editorial integrity.

    The best way to mitigate the issue would probably be product critiques which are purely–and I mean purely–fact driven. For example, I recall BQ’s review of Velo Orange’s TA type crank, in which BQ speculated that the crank was forged from something other than the specified aluminum alloy. BQ made this observation in a way that provided no conclusive evidence, and all but made it sound like the Velo Orange folks were incompetent.

    It would have been just as effective, as accurate and as honest to have developed that critique in a less blunt manner, and possibly with more conclusive data. If your English weren’t as masterful as it is, I would wonder if you were thinking in German and translating directly to English with resulting unintended harshness.

    Anyway, since you raised this issue, allow me to suggest that it may be incumbent on BQ to go to some extremes to maintain honesty and to prevent the reproach of bias.

    • You bring up a good point. Should we review products that are somewhat similar to those we sell, or plan to sell? The Velo-Orange cranks were one of those products that generated a lot of interest, so we felt that a test was in the public interest.

      The article mentioned that Compass was working on a crank, so that readers could take this into consideration when evaluating our test report. If you feel that offering a vaguely similar product automatically makes us biased, then you simply ignore the entire article. (We are one of the few magazines who disclose any potential conflicts of interest.)

      Regarding the test itself, we had two riders use the Velo-Orange cranks for considerable distances. As the article outlined, they found that the rings wore far quicker than comparable rings from TA. If the VO rings were made from 7075 aluminum like the TA rings, one would expect similar wear resistance. At the same time, the VO rings did not corrode like the TA rings. The latter had spots that no longer could be polished out. 6000-series aluminum is less strong, but resists corrosion much better.

      So the VO rings wear like 6000-series, and they have the same corrosion resistance as 6000-series. 7000-series aluminum has very different characteristics in both categories. I think this is pretty conclusive data, but even so, we wrote “Velo-Orange’s supplier may have substituted…” We could have submitted a sample for materials testing, but for riders, it mostly matters that the rings wear faster than anticipated. (We only mentioned the 6000 vs. 7000-series issue, because otherwise, people would have said: “How can two chainrings made from the same material wear so differently? Something is fishy here…”)

      Our main criticism of the cranks was that the arms are made from 7075 and polished – as VO claims, so there is no disagreement there. However, 7075 is prone to stress corrosion cracking, and all manuals say that it should be protected by anodizing. At the end of our test, our sample exhibited small cracks that could not be polished out. Anybody can look up “7075 Aluminum” and “stress corrosion cracking” to see for themselves.

      We made it very clear that the VO cranks represent excellent value for money. They are light and offer a narrow tread (Q factor). I don’t really see where the bias comes in – our criticisms were based purely on our observations. And as you may recall, we gave Velo-Orange’s dual pivot brakes a very positive review, even though we may want to offer brakes ourselves some day.

      • Steve Palincsar says:

        Perhaps enough time has passed (an entire year, I believe) that a follow-up look at the VO cranks might be in order, to see if the noted micro-cracking has progressed.

      • The micro-cracking was pretty deep already after 6 months of use. It was too deep to remove by polishing. The only way to assess how deep it was would have been to cut a slide out of the crank and polish it. The crank has been retired, as we didn’t feel we wanted to ride them until they failed.

        Testing bicycles and components for Bicycle Quarterly already is dangerous enough – I broke a thumb when I crashed on a tire that offered almost zero wet-weather grip, and I was lucky to escape unharmed when a fender broke loose on a fast descent and wrapped itself around the front wheel – so we really don’t want to take unnecessary risks.

      • William M. deRosset says:

        Dear Steve,

        Getting off topic, but re: VO cranks and corrosion. This year (2011-2012) I polished them in November and waxed them. Despite a mild winter (little MgCl2 on the roads given how little precipitation we got), the cranks still ended up with a patina of corrosion by March (when they were removed from the bike). I sanded out a couple of deeper marks/scratches, and I filed out a scratch/crack propagating from a machining mark on the drive-side arm. Areas that weren’t polished and waxed had a heavy surface patina, and a light polish didn’t remove all of the etching. A set of TA cranks, used over the same period (not polished or waxed prior to the winter) dulled and developed a light patina, but weren’t etched.

        Because I bought 175mm VO cranks, not my preferred length (my preferred length weren’t available), I’ve removed them from use in favor of a set of 172.5′s. Otherwise, I’d have left the VO cranks on the bike. The VO cranks are certainly the least-expensive super-compact low-tread crank currently available, and if carefully maintained, they represent a reasonable value. I’d recommend users keep them clean, seasonally polished and waxed, and inspect them regularly.

        Note: I was one of the riders who contributed to the Bicycle Quarterly VO crank review article. I bought the VO cranks at retail. Jan is a friend, and I wish him well and his ventures success. I’ve no financial interest in BQ or Compass Bicycles.

        Best Regards,

        Will
        William M. deRosset
        Fort Collins, CO

    • Matthew J says:

      Actually, I found that review wholly consistent with my own VO experience. Relatively attractive stuff at a price that seems too good to be true until assessing the quality.

      If one cannot afford the real thing, VO is better than many of the other lower cost alternatives, but definitely not the high end product the stuff seeks to mimic.

    • msrw says:

      Jan, just want to clarify that I have never found you biased–strongly opinionated based on analytical data….definitely. Bluntly honest at times…certainly. Neither of which is a fault, particularly in this era.

      I was addressing the potential appearance of bias, based on an intrinsic conflict of interest re objectively reviewing products which are competitive to those that are sold by Compass. You’ve dealt with this in the past by being pretty explicit when that type of overlap exists.

      Rather than not review competitive products, you could address the potential reproach of bias by using testers who aren’t associated financially with Compass (if BQ’s growth would allow that fiscally). But again, I’m not leveling this at you as some sort of major deficiency.

  4. Brad Hawkins says:

    This also brings up an interesting point on tone. I ride a Surly LHT for utility hauling and around town commuting when I need to pull trailers. One day, I ran into Alex Wetmore and chided him a little about the negative review of the LHT in BQ, good natured of course. He replied that “we both really liked the bike” and thought the review was positive. I have since tried to read the product reviews made by BQ in that same light of constructive criticism.

    • The reviews that are hardest to write are those for bikes that are good bikes, but could be improved. Or for bikes that are good, but not for every purpose. The Long-Haul Trucker is a great entry-level touring bike for loaded touring. For this audience, it offers durability, stability and safety. However, riders who consider the LHT for randonneuring may be better off with a different bike. Same for people who would benefit from a more precise front-loading geometry… And almost everybody could use a better handlebar shape than that on our test bike. (Surly apparently changes the handlebars with every production run, so other years had better bars.)

      If we didn’t mention these things, we would do our readers a disservice. And when we do mention them, some people think that we don’t think it’s a good bike. Interestingly, when our review was discussed on a Surly Internet forum, almost all LHT owners agreed with the review.

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