The boss, Bill Strickland, forwarded me a letter—a real snail-mail letter, even—from a Bicycling reader who had some great questions and comments about our bike testing. I want to answer them here because they’re questions that many of you may wonder about as well.
I’ll preface this by saying I don’t have any secrets. There’s nothing about my cycling equipment testing—or Bicycling’s—that’s opaque or hidden, or that I wouldn’t share with you. There’s no one behind any curtains. No cabal, no conspiracies. Sometimes there are details I legally can’t talk about because of nondisclosure agreements, but once those expire, I’m happy to talk about them, too. Like many things, the whole process is probably a lot more straightforward—and frankly rather mundane—than you imagine. As always, if you have questions, concerns, comments, or curiosities, just email me (email@example.com), and I’ll do my best to clarify.
Here’s what the letter writer, Todd, asked [condensed for clarity]:
Why does the magazine do a review on a bike for $12,000? I think the average reader would not buy the bike, and if they buy the lesser version of the model reviewed they might be disappointed in its inherent characteristics—weight, components, and handling. The recent article on the Trek Checkpoint SLR 9 was informative. I understand it was created for gravel racers, but who could afford that bike if they did not have a sponsorship or weren’t independently wealthy? I understand the SL and ALR versions are the next levels down. So, what about the SL and ALR models? Have you got any data on those? Did I miss it in a previous issue?
There are two basic kinds of bike reviews.
The Checkpoint article referenced by Todd is what I call a launch review. When we review a new bike that’s just coming to market, I usually don’t get to choose which model the brand sends me for review. The brand’s marketing team gets an allocation of bikes that’s usually separate from the bikes going into the sales channel, and they have to pick sizes and builds—well ahead of the launch—based on what’s available to them, and the story they’re trying to create around the bike. These bikes aren’t even available to buy yet, so we only have access to what the company can send.
I’d say that a good 87.5-plus percent of the time, brands send a high- to higher-end example with the most technology out for review. That’s because most brands want to be seen as performance and technology leaders. Another reason companies usually send out premium builds for review: When a bike has a top-of-the-line drivetrain, top-of-the-line brakes, and, in the case of mountain bikes, top-of-the-line suspension, there are typically fewer negative issues for the reviewer to raise, which might take focus away from their new bike.
If I want to test a mid- to lower-end model, I need to make that request, and I’ll get the bike well after the launch. But there’s no guarantee; sometimes the bike simply is sold out and not available. Recently this has been a particular problem given supply-chain issues, shipping delays, and oversold inventory.
Sometimes a brand won’t send me a bike for other reasons. Once, I requested a sub-$500 bike from one of the big brands and they refused. The reason? “We want to be seen as a performance brand, and a $500 bike is not the image we want to project.” This bike, by the way, is extremely popular and, at the time of the request, was one of the most-Googled bikes.
Frankly, it’s much easier for us to get a high-end bike in for review than a low-end bike. Brands are happy to send us $10,000 bikes with surprisingly few questions. But trying to get a $750 bike from the same brands can be a painful exercise. If it’s exclusively a lower-end model, most of the time the bike brands don’t tell us about it ahead of its launch or even ask if we want one for review. Often the only way we find out about a new lower-end bike launch is if we happen to notice it on a brand’s website or see one in a bike shop. We routinely poke around bike brand websites for just this reason. We want to review the bikes you’re interested in, not the bikes the brands want to push. Getting these bikes is sometimes more of a fight than it should be, but it’s a fight we’re happy to take on because we know we work for you, not the bike brands.
Another thing that sometimes influences the bikes we receive from brands for review: behind-the-scenes deals. A bike brand may have a deal with a component brand—a deal to which we’re not privy. For example, Santa Cruz and SRAM might have a deal that has all Santa Cruz media bikes going out with RockShox suspension and SRAM drivetrain and brakes. Or sometimes component brands and bike brands collaborated on a part, technology, or feature which can influence what is sent out to the media. The list can go on.
The other kind of review is one of an existing model. Basically, we pick, say, a Trek Domane (to use an example of a popular current model that’s offered in many variants) that meets a prerequisite for a story on which we’re working. We know—based on analytics, surveys, and sales information—what bike categories our members are shopping for and at what price. We know how much the typical Bicycling reader plans to spend on their next bike. We also know the trends in which readers are currently showing more or less interest. Other reasons we might pick a bike for review that have nothing to do with price. Perhaps it has a unique feature, technology, or something else that makes for an interesting and informative story.
I also might get an email from a member asking me to do a review of a specific bike. Really, if there’s a bike you want me to review, email me that request (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we’ll see if we can make it happen.
What can complicate getting our hands on that specific Domane we’re looking for an existing model review is that the brand’s marketing team might not have the particular model/size we’re looking for in their allocation of bikes (which is often separate from the brand’s sales stock), and therefore needs to request the bike from sales stock. Often, and particularly the past few years, there are few to zero extra bikes just sitting in warehouses that they can send us. When I was putting together a buyer’s guide last year, I made a list of 30 bikes—three different sizes of 10 different models—for one of the big brands and asked if they had any available to send. They had one of the 30.
To address one thing Todd brought up in his letter, some people actually do buy $12,000 bikes. A lot of people really. I’ve been at Bicycling for 25 years and I’m still surprised how many people buy crazy-expensive bikes that are well out of my financial reach. Enough to keep a large number of boutique and custom brands humming along. There’s also the used market to consider. Today’s new $12,000 bike will, in a few years, show up used on The Pro’s Closet for a lot less. People read our reviews of older bikes when buying used ones. And some riders just like reading about cool new bikes even if they have no intention of buying one. Oftentimes, the technologies we ride and review on expensive bikes are soon brought down to cheaper bikes, so this gives readers a peek into what is coming.
None of this is an excuse for me, or anyone at Bicycling, to ignore or disregard the less expensive bikes. We see it as our responsibility to test bikes at all prices. We consider low-end bikes more important than high-end bikes. It’s harder to make a great low-end bike, but the people who buy them are just as deserving of a good experience as the person who buys a high-end bike. We’re not usually surprised when a $12,000 bike is amazing, but we’re delighted when a $650 bike is amazing. Plus, a low-end bike is often someone’s introduction to our sport. If the bike sucks, they’re likely to think cycling sucks and drop out. We want all new riders to become lifelong cyclists. A good bike, no matter the price, plays a big part in making that happen.
We review bikes of all prices, but sometimes—and especially right now—cheaper bikes are harder to access. When we do review expensive bikes, it is because we know some of our readers will buy them, and that many more are simply interested in reading about them because of their passion for riding and because much of the tech influences, or will influence, bikes at all levels.
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