The Torqued Wrench: Leaks, rivalry, intrigue and cycling’s bizarre product cycle

With the ever-increasing speed and openness of the cycling industry's product cycle, business is being done in a new way

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

The Torqued Wrench is a look inside the mind of tech writer Caley Fretz. Every other week he’ll tackle the rumors, trends, innovations, and underpinnings of the tech world — or something else entirely. You can submit questions to

Imagine, if you will, that you’ve gone back in time to the late fall of 2011. Staring down the barrel of a long, cold winter, you fumble around in search of motivation. You buy a trainer, use it twice, and consider burning it for warmth so you’ll never have to touch it again. Inspiration wanes.

Then, suddenly, an epiphany: what you need, obviously, is a new ride. That will pick up your spirits, for sure. A fresh rig will send your motivation soaring, and you’ll easily conquer the heap of cold base miles that lie ahead. Problem solved.

But now your indecisive self faces a new dilemma. Leftover MY (Model-Year) 2011 bikes are being deeply discounted at local bike shops as they frantically make room for next year’s bikes, which began showing up last summer. Those discounts appeal to your wallet, and possibly your spouse. But the MY2012 bikes have new colors you can show off at the coffee shop, which entices that ego you struggle to suppress.

But wait. Rumors of MY2013 products are already swirling around on the web — sounds like Shimano is going to add a gear, SRAM’s front shifting is about to take a huge leap forward, Campagnolo’s EPS group is ready to roll, and disc brakes are right around the corner. You heard the next generation of aero road bikes will have spoilers to improve handling, and BB31 is in the works (twice the stiffness AND three times the creaking). Do you really want to buy a bike now, when it will be totally outdated in just a few months? Might as well train all winter on your old one and pick up something new once the new stuff comes out. 2012 gear is so middle of 2011.

By the time MY2013 gear shows up, of course, the MY2014 (and possibly ‘15) rumor mill will have set off. BB32 will be on its way. To cope, you post angry retro-grouch comments on tech stories, but then the dastardly buggers go and switch to Facebook comments and now everyone can see who you are. Foiled again.

Mis-timed like clockwork
Clearly, the product cycle has become a bit whacky. In their eagerness to lead the charge with something new, the industry continues to work further and further ahead of true model years. We will see MY2013 bikes on show floors as soon as June 2012, and we’re already hearing about them, even seeing them under pros. Just a few years ago those same bikes wouldn’t have made it to shops until September or October.

The parts that will hang from MY2013 frames were selected in 2011, which means those new Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo components were already near the end of their own development cycle nearly a year before they’ll be put to use by consumers.

The new Red launch was so early that there was some initial confusion among journalists as to whether the new drivetrain sitting before us in February was a 2013 or 2012 product. It is already available for sale on its own (starting just eight weeks into 2012), but will only start showing up on complete bikes for MY2013. So it’s a 2013 OE (Original Equipment) spec product, and a 2012 aftermarket product. It’s being sold aftermarket, albeit in small quantities, while there are still brand new bikes with the old Red on bike shop floors. Huh?

Combine this early timetable with a hyperactive, highly competitive media environment and the result is the flurry of leaks we saw mid-winter this year. With consumers aware of what is coming up to a year in advance, we have a total breakdown of what the term “model year” even means anymore.

Given the timeline used by manufacturers, though, unintentional releases should come as no surprise. The industry uses a few big events throughout the year to collaborate and plan. After each of these events, as more insiders become aware of a product, the possibility of a leak increases. Take, for example, the schedule for MY2013 complete bikes:

November 2011: Frame-brand product managers (the people who decide what to hang off the frames their companies’ R&D departments have dreamed up) go to Taichung Bike Week to check out and select the completed MY2013 gear they want from component suppliers. Media is largely kept out, so only a select few know what’s coming.

March 2012: Wholesalers and other buyers, along with product managers and component suppliers, to go the Taipei Cycle Show. Everyone, including media, sees whatever MY2013 product is on display.

Spring/Summer 2012: Individual companies (usually large ones) hold product launches for MY2013 product, inviting specific media outlets and retailers. Some early MY2013 product begins to show up in bike shops.

September 2012: Everyone in the industry goes to Interbike and/or Eurobike and sees whatever MY2013 gear hasn’t already been seen. Behind-the-scenes meetings set the tone for 2012 Taichung Bike Week and 2014 tech.

(The excellent cycling blog has a great table that lays all this out nicely.)

The leaks, as we experienced the last few winters, occur after Taichung and before Taipei.

Leaks and intrigue
When consumers hear about an upcoming product, they stop buying the one that is currently available. That creates a dangerous situation for manufacturers, because they are doing R&D work on the next generation of products before the current one is even fully released. Leaks hurt sales of products already on the showroom floor, but they can also force the hand of the leaked company’s competitors.

For example, the rumor mill suggests that Shimano will be going to 11-speed for MY2013. But the company came out with 10-speed Ultegra Di2 about six months ago and are still trying to sell 10-speed Dura-Ace Di2. Just as with Campagnolo, 11-speed would likely require a new freehub, and logic dictates that a new 11-speed Di2 system would probably use the better wiring harness used on Ultegra Di2. The availability of this knowledge makes it more difficult to sell Dura-Ace Di2 now.

The problem for manufacturers is that, as mentioned above, product managers and industry insiders (hundreds of people, total) have details on 2013 gear in 2011. They find out everything at Taichung, if not earlier, many months before the rest of the world is supposed to see it.

Every once in a while, one of these individuals spills the beans and cycling’s highly competitive media environment sends the story to the front page of every major outlet within 24 hours. Tech journalists fight to be the first to get the story up. Hundreds of thousands of cyclists find out what’s coming and stop buying the current stuff. Companies suffer and we get angry phone calls asking us “why on earth would you do this to us?” (Answer: We may be friends, but I don’t work for you.)

Why does all of this matter? Well, it matters to your wallet, first of all. When a product is coming down the pipeline that is clearly not backwards-compatible, that’s good information to have before plunking down your hard-earned cash. But more importantly, it is indicative of the way the cycling industry is changing — from a network of good-old-boys and sales reps making the rounds with boxes of donuts and coffee, with distinctive seasons and an easily-followed product cycle, to an international, modern, moving at the speed of data, year-round business. Competition is only increasing as consumers become more knowledgeable, sooner. Manufacturers are being forced to react. That’s good for everyone.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.