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Editor’s note: As we ring out 2012, we look at 12 of our favorite stories of the year. Technical editor Caley Fretz’s column on navigating the sticky world of product launches and chasing truth above all else first appeared on January 25.
The Torqued Wrench is a look inside the mind of VeloNews.com tech editor 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 TorquedWrench@competitorgroup.com.
This week’s Torqued Wrench is a bit different. Nothing controversial; rather, allow me to take you behind the scenes at a cycling industry product launch — to pull back the curtain, if you will, in the interest of transparency and, hopefully, at least a mildly interesting read.
As I write this, I am sitting in Goût de Hôtes, a tiny restaurant in Paris on Rue Constantinople, a small vein spreading away from the heart of this supremely confusing city.
Paris is one of the few places not exaggerated by the movies; perhaps it is simply impossible to embellish. So old and yet wonderfully maintained, with buildings filling every available inch, tapering to vicious points where side streets sling off the Rue at odd angles.
Now, at rush hour, the streets flow slowly with a thick sludge of cars, horns, pedestrians and motorcycles. Chowing down on a fantastic boeuf bourguignon and sipping a Leffe Blonde, I sit here and write on my notepad, feeling distinctly like a much more interesting person than I really am. Paris does that to you.
I am in the middle of a two-week trip, sandwiched between product launches. This morning (Wednesday) I was in Nevers, France checking out Look’s French factory; my yesterday took place in Freiburg, Germany, looking at their KeO Power pedals. Tomorrow, I’ll hop on the TGV and speed towards Switzerland and Annecy. This particular European outing will be capped off with a week in sunny Mallorca, first with SRAM and then for a few other secret projects (not the least of which is getting some good riding in). Tout baigne, as the French say. Everything is good.
I am not alone, most of the time, though I am right now. I don’t crawl around the European countryside by myself, dropping in on manufacturers and demanding product presentations. No, these trips are highly coordinated, put on and paid for by marketing departments attempting to spread their gospel to the world’s cycling press. With me until this afternoon were fellow Americans from Peloton Magazine and Road Bike Action, plus a crop of European journalists — representatives of BiciSport, Vélo (the French one), Tour Magazine, and more.
The community is a small one. I’ve seen most of these writers at some point in the last year. Even those whose names I don’t know, or with whom I simply can’t communicate, are immediately recognizable by sight, acknowledged with a nod and a smile. If I don’t see them next week in Mallorca, I’ll surely run into them some time soon.
Our time together is always somewhat formulaic. The events we’re all invited to are eternally identical in intention and only slightly divergent in execution. They begin with a PDF invite in an inbox and end with the ritualistic exchange of business cards. I almost always forget mine.
In between, one can usually count on a ride or two and a small box of schwag, most frequently taken home and doled out to less schwag-infused friends or, if luggage space is tight, politely refused. At least one PowerPoint presentation is mandatory, as is a custom-labeled thumb drive. These are things we journalists just can’t do without, apparently.
The whole process is a date, really, a courtship between manufacturer and reporter. They have what we need — information about new goodies, which you lot seem to have an insatiable appetite for (and so do we) — and we have what they need — an audience, and editorial integrity. When we say something is worth your money, it is considerably more powerful than when they say the same.
And to be honest, the courtship works. Not because of their hard selling, or their schwag, or the nice hotel they put us up in. Not even because they happily flew us to Mallorca in February, or send us bikes to ride for free, or smile at us like we’re holding a winning lottery ticket. None of that works. We’re spoiled rotten and get it from all sides, so doped up on self-aggrandizing treatment that the playing field is level again. These trips are sometimes mundane, even annoying; they certainly don’t inherently inspire us to write glowingly about a brand. I get more ticked-off post-product-launch emails than pleased ones, by quite a margin.
No, the reason the product launch concept works is because knowing the people behind a brand broadens our perception of their products. That doesn’t mean that we’re bought, or that we just write nice things about our friends; it means we have a better understanding of the motives behind a design. We quickly sift through the marketing jargon and get down to the all-important questions: why did you build this, and who do you want sell it to?
When we know those answers, it helps us view a product through the eyes of more potential customers, rather than only through our own. That makes our write-ups more encompassing of our entire readership, answering more of the questions you’re likely to ask, and helping you figure out if this particular widget or gizmo is right for your riding. A marketing director can yammer away about anti-gravity carbon doohickeys and Star Trekian electronics all he wants, but an engineer explaining to me why the pointy bit is shaped this way, and not that way, or why they used these bearings and not those, is always tremendously more powerful.
The whole process is not a clean one, I will readily admit. It is the cycling industry’s sausage, a filling of messy conflicts-of-interest wrapped nicely in shiny print stock and fancy websites. But such is the nature of niche media; we rely on the industry as the industry relies on us. There is pay-to-play, bought editorial content in this industry, but it is generally easy to spot. For me, the handshakes and smiles upon departure this afternoon were genuine, as always — I like these people, I admire and respect them. But that doesn’t mean I’ll lie about what they make. This is, after all, my own raison d’être.