Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Oh The Places You'll Go... (long post)

So instead of another post talking about how I've been super busy, life's hectic, I haven't done as much frame building, but stay tuned.... I thought I'd spend a little time talking about product differentiation. It's never a bad thing for a company (or individual) to come up with new ideas, push limits and boundaries, and try to keep things moving forward. And with every progression comes a time when that person or business can say "Hey, check this out! It's cooler and better than the other guys!" But when the differentiation is either just plain different to be different, or possibly even comes with a downside, then why bother? That is, unless we reallyneed to be different so badly, that it's worth paying more to have a thing of less quality. Before I get to some examples, don't get me wrong here. I'll be the first to admit that it's cool having things that set me apart from all the other 25-30 year old, middle class, caucasian, males out there. But not when doing so sets me apart in a negative way.

I was looking through the wonderful eye candy of the 2010 NAHBS pictures, and came across some gorgeous examples of skill, creativity, ingenuity, and of course, many ways of differentiating one builders frames from another's. There is the obvious material differences, paint differences, component selection, and tube shaping. But there is also differences of welding in extra tubes or bits to either enhance the strength, ride, or even nothing but aesthetics. However, I also saw a few examples of doing something negative, just to get attention. I borrowed a few pictures from Dirt Rag's coverage of the event to illustrate what I feel to be a negative direction for frame building as a whole.

I don't mean to call anyone out in particular, or start a rapper style war. But when I see things like this seat tube cutout, leaving just a hair of material left, I have to wonder about the intentions. Strength/stiffness/weight, this is definitely worse off. Aesthetics, well that's a bit objective, but if I were to sacrifice that much for looks, I'd at least want the curve of the cutout to match up with the curve of the wheel. Would having a plated 29er with track bike clearances set you appart? Absolutely. In a good way?.... well, I'm sure you could find someone out there that would think this is cool.

Again, I fully appreciate the fact that from 20 feet away, most steel frames start to look pretty similar. And I'm all for something neat to set you apart. Hell, even if it adds a few grams, as long as it really makes you happy. But sometimes paint matching and shape matching the "power bulge" of your Rock Shox fork on your head tube, and adding what appear to be cable rubbing bars, so the cables rub a different part of your expensive paint, doesn't seem to be a progression and argument to buy custom.

Working in the bike industry, I get to see plenty of examples of details that set one companies frames apart from each other, but add nothing to the actual performance/weight/functionality of the bike, and sometimes end up making one of those aspects worse. I understand the cutthroat nature of corporate production, and appreciate being able to stay competitive. And hell, at this point, I'd expect a corporation to do change things on a frame without truly understanding the consequences that change could have on either riding or working on that particular bike. It's not like everyone in a business that large rides and works on their own bikes. But when a small frame builder - with hopefully a passion for bicycles and the desire to balance the drawbacks of a design to the minimum - starts doing things like this, I'm personally disappointed.

Everyone has their own flavors, and that's what makes getting a custom frame awesome. You can match up with someone of similar taste/personality, and get exactly what YOU want. But what I'm afraid of, is that the NAHBS (while doing a great service of bringing custom frame building to the people/media) is, or could go in the direction of creating even more of an incentive for a builder to do something outlandish, just to get some attention at their tiny booth in the sea of like minded competitors.

As beautiful as some of these things are, compromises are being made. And there's nothing wrong with that, just so long as you know and appreciate them. I just hope that the circus aspect of this sort of thing doesn't push the builders out there that take it upon themselves to design a well fitting, well riding, and functional piece of artwork, out to the fringe of the already niche market they are a part of. I try to keep in mind the origin of a custom hand built frame, when it was appreciated as the best sort of frame one could own. I also try to keep in mind how much a custom steel frame has improved over the years, with new steel blends, heat treatments, fillers and fluxes, and even modern components that help the frame become what could still be a high performance machine. The progression is there, however hidden it may become, beneath the marketing hype, and lets face it, the need for product differentiation.

(Thanks to Dirt Rag for the pictures. Hopefully my lack of making money off of them keeps this from violating some sort of copyright)

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