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.