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The Torqued Wrench: Eating from the tech story tree

  • By Caley Fretz
  • Published Jun. 6, 2012
SRAM played the soft/hard launch game well earlier this year. Photo: Caley Fretz | VeloNews

ANNECY, France (VN) — This week is a window of opportunity; a slice of time between the mayhem of the Giro and the madness of the Tour when my story tree has ripened to perfection, and all I need to do is stand around and wait for its fruit to fall on my head.

For media and fans, June is a month of continuously building expectation. The collective cycling family looks longingly towards the month of July, the season’s entrée, while nibbling on delicious Dauphiné and Tour du Suisse appetizers. Like a good appetizer should, they only make us hungrier. These races are for riders to test their form, put a final sharp edge on their weaponry, and scope the strengths and weaknesses of their great rivals ahead of the biggest race of the year. It’s a period of poker faces, sharp jabs and the occasional left hook — none of which may matter in the month of July.

Behind the scenes, though, another side of the cycling world is suiting up. Cycling’s biggest brands use the Tour to formally roll out next year’s goods — everything from helmets to clothing to frames. And why not? If eyeballs are the goal, you won’t find more than at or near the Tour de France. Viewership on our own site begins a steady tilt upwards at the end of June, for both Tour and non-Tour content. Brands want in on that action.

The timing is perfect given the modern product cycle. Model year 2013 gear has now been finalized, is entering the production phase, and will begin hitting shelves shortly after the Tour ends. Debuting a product just as the Tour begins, with the world watching, provides a perfect month-or-two-long build-up before shelves are stocked.

So launches are scheduled, invites sent out, and the world’s media jumps on board. Flights are covered, getting journalists to France without putting a dent in already-tight travel budgets — a bit of extra incentive to attend. Not me, though. I’m already here, hanging out under my tree.

In an ideal world, for the brands in question anyway, the big launch goes off without a hitch. Stories go up on all the major websites, buzz is generated, orders are made, accounts filled.

But it doesn’t always work like that.

Professional bike racing is still full of human pilots, men and women who are quite particular about their own equipment and not keen to make wholesale changes before an important event. Everything must be tested, retested, and then finally raced. But that first race sure as hell isn’t going to be the Tour.

That’s where my little Dauphiné tech Story Tree comes in. The early-June mini-Tour here in France and the Tour du Suisse across the border offer more than just an opportunity to fine tune the human engines. Both races offer the very same for equipment: a last chance to put riders on the gear they’ll be using in July. The weeklong stage races are proving grounds — pass/fail courses for products.

In other words, most of what will be officially debuted just before the Tour, with great fanfare and rooms full of journalists flown in from all over the world taking detailed notes while staring at intriguing power point presentations and writing multi-page tech stories, all those products are already being raced here in France. It’s already out in the public eye. They’re sitting up in the Story Tree, ripening, waiting for the right camera and notebook to walk by so they can fall into the Internet.

In some cases, the “soft” launch, characterized by spy photos and little confirmed information, is intentional. That is most likely the case with the Trek Madone 7 we covered on Monday. It is highly improbable that Trek thought they could put seven brightly painted frames with funky brakes out in public and nobody would notice. It took no great skill or knowledge to find that story; in fact it’s safe to say that I would be the worst reporter on planet Earth had I not picked up on it.

No, Trek expected someone like me to be at the start that day. At the very least, they expected grainy camera phone photos zipping around Twitter, building a slow buzz for their official launch later this month.

Trek staff would not provide any concrete details, or even allow me to take one of the bikes out of the team area to shoot better photos. To keep the launch “soft,” the available information needed to be kept to a minimum. Shimano did the exact same thing when we shot its Dura-Ace 9000 group at the Giro. Both stories had to be an appetizer, not an entrée. With only my own observations to go off of, that’s what they ended up being.

In other cases, some brands seem to have forgotten that their riders perform in public, and that there is a roving band of keen-eyed tech reporters (not to mention many more keen-eyed fans) intent on spotting their latest and greatest. These releases do not fit the soft launch mold; they catch brands by surprise, they mess with release timetables, with pre-set marketing schedules and media events. They cause freak-outs, demands to remove stories, and threats to pull ad dollars, which in turn cause much sweating of media sales reps and much laughter around editorial board tables.

This reaction is usually due to awareness that the company has one shot to make a splash, an understanding that it is not big enough, or doesn’t have a large enough marketing budget, to generate buzz twice. Or that it simply doesn’t have an entrée, it only has an appetizer. The brand wants to bring whatever its new product is to the table on its own terms.

That’s completely understandable, but it doesn’t change the facts of life in the information age. Include race testing in your release timelines, bike companies, because I like the shade under this here tree and if your fruit falls in my lap, it’s going to get eaten.

FILED UNDER: Bikes and Tech / The Torqued Wrench

Caley Fretz

Caley Fretz

Tech Editor Caley Fretz can usually be found chasing races along the backroads of Europe or testing bikes and gear in the mountains outside Boulder, Colorado. If you can't find him there, check the coffee shop across from VN World Headquarters.

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