We did the Première Manche - the first round - of A Travers riding across France from Dieppe to Marseille in the summer of 2009, and it was the original inspiration for this blog. The plan to put the 'band back together again' for another go in 2013 for the second installment fell on stoney ground, with life just getting in the way for too many of us, much to our disappointment. However, our enthusiasm for the bike remains undimmed, and so I'll keep posting my thoughts on the diverse and beautiful facets of the sport regardless. But there's bound to be another big 'adventure ride' coming soon - quite possibly in Italy - so potentially a name change too: Attraverso l'Italia in Bicicletta anyone?

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Exceedingly Good Writing

On the face of it Competitive Cyclist would appear to be just another one of many box-shifting big-brand evangelists with a pretty website, replete with all the 'right' logos to sell bikes. And a US one at that, which for an unrepentant Europhile makes me immediately assume that they really just don't understand racing in Europe, or anything that surrounds it. New kids on the block, surely, with a modus operandi of uninspiring lip service to the marketing departments of the various product manufacturers in their line up (for the most part, read 'copy-and-paste' from the latest press release). Next, simply pile the kit high and sell it, well, not that cheaply at all. And because it's online, you can't even get to fettle the stuff before you buy it. It's the price we pay for modernity, right?

So, after that uncharacteristic xenophobic sleight, I'm suitably embarrassed to admit that once I'd bothered to have a scratch beneath the glossy surface, I've been pleasantly delighted to find some really insightful English-language journalism on the CC pages, much better than I've ever seen on equivalent UK cycling retailer sites who might claim a stronger bond with the European scene, or at least some kind of residual kinship. Of course I'm aware that CC's writing is just part of a very persuasive marketing strategy to get me to buy into their brand, clever Roy Brooks prose to differentiate them from their rivals in very competitive market. If nothing else, I'm finding reading articles on their site an extremely enjoyable experience, which, surely is the whole point: keep me on there long enough, and who knows? I might buy something from them - and feel good about it too. It's refreshing to read something intelligent like this example, from the Willier Triestina frames page, which jibes nicely with my own opinion, and fears, on where bike companies are going within the industry, and by extrapolation, the sport itself:

The 21st Century has not been kind to the titans of Italian bicycle manufacturing. Brands that were iconic from the Gimondi era to Saronni, then from Saronni to Argentin, then from Argentin to Bartoli -- sadly, many have faded from consequence. The forces of globalization and the expectations of a new generation of cyclists (more keen on performance, less so on romance) have definitively re-set the pecking order. Prestige, desirability, and the very viability of countless Italian companies bear little resemblance to the market landscape of the 90's. No category of Italian goods has been spared: Choices are narrower than ever before for wheels, tires, bars stems, and most of all framesets.

This indictment implies that today, we - the public, the market - are no longer bothered about heritage, provenance, artistry or individuality, in a similar way that we abandoned local shops in favour of out-of-town hypermarkets and shopping malls because we were convinced that they were somehow better. Isn't it also this type of warped business logic that's responsible for the demise of 'unprofitable' classic European races like the Grand Prix des Nations, Midi Libre, and the near-loss of Paris-Nice, to name only a few? Given the trend, ultimately it's possible that the very essence of what cycling surely is, as embodied in races like these, will be diluted and lost, replaced by a dismal F1-style circus, where anonymous, indistinguishable riders, reduced to pedalling billboards in helmets and shades (there's a whole further post on that topic), will compete in cycling devoid of any sense of history and romance, of what those passionate about wine might term terroir. In its place, bite-sized consumer-friendly circuit events, requiring half-time cheer-leader style product-placement 'entertainment' to keep the fans supposedly engaged. Most of these will simply be the disinterested, yet grateful, recipients of 'corporate hospitality', for sure. Not a cheery thought. Contrex swallowed by Coke, Merlin Plage just done by Nike, Radioshack replacing Renault, Scott for Scapin. You get the picture.

It's not often that you'll finding quality writing on a site whose ultimate goal is to simply sell you stuff. I'm enthused how CC's writing succinctly sums up much of what Rohan Dubash and I have sadly witnessed and discussed over the last few years. We both love cycling, and sure, we're no doubt emotionally attached to the modern bikes we've decided to purchase, but we're certainly more that just nostalgic for the past. As the CC blog points out elsewhere, we're certainly 'unaddicted to sentimentality'. Rohan has nevertheless described the bike industry he works in today as being predominantly uninspiring and bland, devoid of emotion, with little to significantly differentiate between brands. Is this a failure of the manufacturers, removing the vital DNA from their products by, for example, outsourcing manufacture to the Far East, leaving marketing-types nothing to go on to except to enthuse over over a new logo, some fancy graphics or pointless design innovations - neigh, 'systems' - described with ridiculous TL and FLAs, with graphic applications to remind you as such? Once the very soul has been removed from a product - and that's the terroir argument again - it must be impossible to engender excitement and brand loyalty, because there's simply no credible backstory to be told. I particularly like this article about Franco bikes on CC's superbly written company blog, the Service Course, which goes some way to describing how I feel, and indeed, gives a ray of hope for the future:

Franco is a company you should get to know. Given the ever-growing and ever-darker dual shadows of Specialized and Trek, their business model is a logical next step within the bike industry. What Franco is doing has already been successfully done in fashion, in hotels, in restaurants and in other verticals: When the preponderance of product choices are both homogenous and broadly available, even if these choices are of reasonable quality and economic value, a certain segment of customers will make buying decisions based on emotional affinity instead.

So, just as we woke up and realised that there was a joy in returning to small, local, independent retailers, how we embraced the Slow Food movement and rediscovered the importance of where our food comes from and how it tastes, I sincerely hope that it's not too late for something similar to happen within cycling. Maybe the trend for retro clothing pioneered by Rapha, hand-built steel frames with reworked lugs, fork crowns and chrome and equipped with NOS components and the popularity of events like L'Eroica constitute a positive sign.