9 things I’ve learnt as a bike reviewer
Four years ago we hired Matt Wikstrom as our CTech Editor. I felt it was important for our credibility and trust to make sure our commercial relationships were strictly separated from our product reviews so they remained unbiased. While many still remain skeptical of product reviews in general, I’m proud of the job Matt has done and can sleep well at night knowing our reviews are well thought out, knowledgable, and truthful. –Wade Wallace
I’ve been working as CTech editor for four years and in that time I’ve reviewed a multitude of bikes as well as a variety of wheels, shoes, clothing and gadgets. What began as an indulgence has grown into a job that I love.
I’ve learned a lot and my product knowledge has deepened. I’ve always had plenty of product awareness, but now I can claim a wealth of experience too. Consequently, I’m often asked about the ‘best’ products, but I don’t see much value in that list for anybody but myself.
I see more value in sharing what I’ve learned from the review process and the industry because it has the potential to inform anybody’s decision on the value of a product for their own needs.
1. First impressions count for a lot
A short test ride can provide a lot of insight to the performance of a bike or wheels. I’ve found the weight, stiffness and responsiveness of a bike and wheels are apparent from the first pedal stroke while the steering, handling, and ride quality take more time to judge.
2. You get what you pay for
Bike manufacturers obviously need to profit on everything they produce, but higher quality bikes, parts and clothing also cost more simply because they use better materials and benefit from better construction. As with most things, the law of diminishing returns does apply though — for example, a Super Record groupset costs twice as much as Chorus, but the difference in performance is not nearly so great—so buyers with modest budgets need not worry too much about what they might be missing out on.
So how much is enough to spend on a bike? One answer is that it should be in direct proportion with your appreciation for the equipment and/or enthusiasm for the sport (and more than likely, your disposable income).
3. Products can be versatile but they can’t do everything well
Keith Bontrager famously said of bicycle parts: “Strong. Light. Cheap. Pick Two.” For the most part the sentiment from that old adage still holds true. A stiff, responsive bike that is also compliant enough to soak up the cobbles? High profile aerodynamic wheels that are untroubled by crosswinds? Tyres that are light, supple, and puncture-proof?
Bikes have come a long way in the last twenty years, especially with the rise of composites and the new era of bicycle engineering. The same applies for fabrics, rubber compounds, and helmets. And while this has improved the versatility of cycling products, there are still limitations to how well they will perform over a wide range of terrain or conditions.
That doesn’t mean all riders need a plethora of equipment, but rather, a good understanding of their needs and how important it is that they are met. The market is always keen to offer the latest game-changing product, but any rider can experience the same effect simply by finding a product that serves their needs.
4. Aerodynamics work… we think
Cyclists have long had an appreciation for the value of weight savings to their performance, however the last decade has ushered in a growing appreciation for aerodynamics. Does this mean an enthusiast will notice a difference after upgrading to an aero road bike and/or wheels? Perhaps.
The effect is subtle and most noticeable at high speeds (>35km/hr), where it seems as if the bike or wheels are a little easier to push compared to a non-aerodynamic design. Most riders won’t sense the energy savings though; they’ll just feel like they can go a little faster.
Unfortunately we don’t have a wind tunnel to test all aero-claims, so we need to rely on manufacturer’s statements and published data (which is extremely difficult to validate or compare).
5. Products steadily improve but noticeable advances require a few years
Every year, the bicycle industry announces breakthroughs and innovations, so consumers have come to expect a certain amount of progress every year. However, the industry is not moving so fast that products become redundant in a couple of years.
The shortest interval for any product is around three years while 5-7 years is required for an appreciable change. For example, Shimano has been overhauling its Dura Ace groupset at roughly 5-year intervals since 1997. Similarly, Trek has overhauled the Madone every four years since its introduction in 2003.
6. The quality of products is generally very high
Looking back at all the reviews I’ve done, there hasn’t been one product that has failed. Indeed most have performed with distinction, which I suspect is due to the enormous amount of competition in the marketplace. There’s no room for half-baked products, and as a consequence, consumers get the benefit (or frustration) of having to choose from a very high standard of products.
Furthermore, the performance of contemporary bikes, wheels and other cycling products are largely distinguished by nuance, even when comparing different price-points. An appreciation for these nuances generally increases with experience in the sport, but any level rider is free to worry about inertia, aerodynamics, rolling resistance, steering response and crank stiffness, to name but a few.
7. There is a limit to how far any review can be extrapolated
I expect that reviews influence the buying decision of most cyclists, whether they are published in glossy magazines or shared over a post-ride coffee. And while they may provide valuable insight on the performance and value of any given product, there is no substitute for personal experience.
At 178cm and 74kg, I’m well aware that my experience with any product is unlikely to translate very well to riders that are much bigger or smaller than I am. My physique, bike fit, and riding style add further complexity to the issue. That’s why I will always qualify my answer when asked, “What do you think about this product?”
8. There is no industry conspiracy to rip-off consumers
I have yet to see any evidence that the industry underestimates the intelligence or the influence of its consumers. Instead, I’ve encountered a lot of passionate people striving to create great products that are acutely aware of how fragile and fickle consumer confidence can be.
Furthermore, I’ve rarely encountered instances where the product has failed to live up to its marketing claims. However, I would welcome a greater effort at explaining (or declaring) the limitations for any product.
9. It’s okay to be irrational
There are all sorts of reasons that justify the appeal of a product, such as an extra cog, a measurable time gain, greater comfort or improved reliability. I count all these as evidence for the value of a product, the kind of stuff that can be used to convince a spouse that the money will be well spent.
However, there is room to be irrational too. After all, cycling involves a measure of passion for most riders, and it often extends to the equipment we use. So feel free—after applying all the rationale and logic you like—to let your heart influence your product choices.