I used to wonder why manufacturers offer things that are popular, even though they don’t work well. I recently read an interview with a BMW engineer, who complained about the huge wheels that the company now puts on their cars. It turns out the large (and heavy) wheels ruin the car’s dynamics, making it drive less well than it would otherwise. “Customers like them, though,” the engineer said. BMW faced a choice of making a better car, or giving customers what they want. They chose the latter.
BMW isn’t the only company that follows trends rather than setting them. Almost everything these days, from soap dispensers to political messages, is focus-grouped, rather than made with conviction. When somebody complains, they hear: “What do you want? Customers asked for it.”
To me, that sounds like a sorry excuse. After all, we pay experts because we don’t know the answers ourselves. How many car buyers are aware of the compromises they incur when specifying larger wheels? (Larger wheels allow you to fit bigger brakes inside, which is why sports cars used to have larger wheels than other cars. However, the increase in unsprung mass compromises comfort and handling.) And how many customers would choose differently if they knew?
I don’t have to think too hard to realize why this is upsetting to me: I want the best! I want a great, responsive ride in a car. I want the same in a bike, and that is why Compass Bicycles doesn’t compromise on our products.
At Compass Bicycles, we do a lot of research that guides our product development. Our research isn’t “market research,” but research into how bicycles and components work. Then we try to communicate our findings to our customers. Unlike most car companies, we sell to enthusiasts who are knowledgeable about what makes a bike perform. This makes our job easier.
I can see the temptation to follow the path of least resistance. Consider our René Herse crank project, where we made a number of decisions that we feel improved the product, but which go against popular opinion:
Crank length: Traditionally, cranks have been offered in multiple, yet very similar lengths, from 165 to 175 mm. (The montage above shows that range. The cranks look similar because they are similar: The longest crank is just 6% longer than the shortest one.)
Large makers use separate forgings for each length, but small makers use one forging with extra material, and then machine the cranks to the desired length. This interrupts the grain structure of the aluminum and weakens the cranks.
For the René Herse cranks, we use a net-shape forging with a perfect grain structure. This means that our cranks are available in one length only, but on the upside, our cranks passed the stringent EN “Racing Bike” standard for fatigue resistance (EN 14781). I know of no other small-production crank that has passed this test.
It may take a little time for cyclists to give up a long-held belief, but in the end, I am confident that our customers prefer a stronger crank, even if it means riding a crank that is 2% shorter or 3% longer than what they usually ride.
Chainring ramps: Chainring ramps only work for matched pairs of rings, and even then it is debatable how much they contribute to better shifting. (Above are two random shifts: One used the ramp, the other did not.)
The René Herse cranks are available with a huge selection of chainrings, so you can get gearing that is perfectly matched to your strength and riding style. This means that we cannot offer matched pairs of rings.
Many aftermarket chainrings aren’t designed as matched pairs, either, and instead feature “cosmetic” ramps that don’t do much. Such a “make-believe” feature is counter to our beliefs. Instead, we optimized the chainring tooth profiles for smoother shifting with any chainring combination. But many customers still wonder why our chainrings don’t have ramps.
Anodized arms: Anodizing still is seen by many as a sign of quality. It protects the finish of aluminum parts, but only until it gets worn off where toestraps or booties touched the arms, to say nothing of scratches. Then the cranks look scruffy, and the aluminum isn’t protected any longer.
The René Herse cranks use a corrosion-resistant alloy that does not need to be protected from the elements. Even after several Colorado winters, customers report that their cranks remain shiny and bright. And if they get scratched, you can re-polish them.
Stainless steel crank bolts: Many people love stainless steel. It’s shiny and does not rust. What’s not to like? Most people don’t realize that stainless steel is more brittle and not as strong as other steels. We make our crank bolts from strong steel and then have them chrome-plated, so you can can rely on your crank bolts.
We stand behind these choices, which make our cranks stronger, better-looking and more versatile than they would be otherwise. Even so, I know we sell fewer cranks than we would otherwise: Some customers will be turned away because the cranks aren’t available in “their” length, or they want ramped chainrings, anodized arms, and/or stainless steel bolts.
Why didn’t we take the path of least resistance and offer what customers want? We’d save money during production, we’d save time explaining, and we’d sell more cranks.
The reason is simple: We ride these cranks on our own bikes, and we wouldn’t want them compromised in any way. We want the best, and fortunately, we have the freedom to make our components the way we want them.