1. (note – we didn’t actually count so there probably aren’t 10 steps here – and this isn’t even the first one anyway. We just like round numbers -Ed.)
1b. Mountain biking isn’t a sport, an activity, a lifestyle or an adventure. It’s just an exercise in consumption. Reviews are more important than any other aspect of a media outlet’s portfolio. But being a reviewer is hard. Really, really, super-duper hard. No really, it is. There are three types of people who read every review you’ll write: 1. The guy at the company whose product you are reviewing. This person wants to see a glowing report and if he or she doesn’t then the flow of gear might dry up; 2. A honch at the media outlet you are writing the review for. They want to make sure that your review is widely read and don’t want what you wrote to impact ad sales. If it does then it could be your last day on the job. 3. The readers. They want honest consumer advice because they want to be sure their hard-earned green is well spent.
It’s a lot of pressure to satisfy the first two, but not hard… if you ignore the third group.
There’s a bunch of really good reviewers out there that I’m pretty confident put the third group as their primary responsibility. These reviewers know their tits from their ass, and they’ve been around long enough to know how to present a pretty honest and well-balanced review. But there’s a few bad apples. Or maybe not bad apples, good apples with a few bad habits (or maybe worms). Hell, of the list below, I’ve probably committed all of these crimes, otherwise how would I be able to write about them? The purpose of this How-To is to provide a template for anyone wanting to get into the dirty game of product reviewing. This is not meant as a critique about the state of product reviews (many are good – just read them carefully) but, rather, a tick sheet for people wanting to be the worst they can.
Starting a review is hard. You’re not writing War and Peace but the opener is still important. You shouldn’t start with an explanation of the manufacturer’s choice to use cold-forged over CNC pivot hardware, that’s a bit boring. A good place to start is by just rewriting the catalogue copy. That’s what it’s there for, right? Furthermore, if you don’t really know what to say about the bike/ didn’t actually understand what the engineers told you about the suspension kinematics/ need to pad out the word count; then just rehash the catalogue copy. Who knows most about the product you are reviewing? The company that made it, of course.
No one likes a whiner, especially the mountain bike industry. So what happens when you find something less than exemplary about a product you are testing? There’s a few options:
1. Compliment sandwich
So you found something that grinds your gears about the bike but you don’t want to be the squeaky link (squeaky links don’t get the oil, they get ignored, put in the corner, or chopped). Remember that although you tell your mother that you’re a real, big boy journalist, deep down you know you’re just here to lube the industry, so wrap the less-than-glowing parts of your review between or around some really effusive positives. Example: if you don’t like the handling/ suspension/ the build quality/ parts spec, then just quickly gloss over that fact with a cursory mention, then cover your tracks with an Although, But, or However. “I thought the tire choice was less than ideal for the trails we used on our test track BUT the attention to detail of BRAND-X to spec a silver-coloured bottle cage on production models was an inspired decision that shows they really get it.”
2. Blame yourself, gently
If something isn’t great about a bike but you don’t want to appear to put a downer on proceedings then one option is to blame yourself, albeit gently. For example: “I thought the tire choice was less than ideal for the trails we used on our test track…” shows that while you might really think that the tires would be better suited to burning for heat in the winter you are actually saying, “it’s not you, it’s me.”
3. Hide the sausage
If there’s one lesson a reviewer must learn, that is to bury the negative. Put the negativity in a lead box, then dig a big, big hole and bury it in there. Just avoid negativity, focus on all the pluses, even the irrelevant ones and the ones that the marketing guys have attempted to glad-hand you with. Opinions are like assholes, show it off at the dinner table and you won’t get dessert.
Readers want to read about the experience of riding said product, which some reviewers take to mean that it’s time to talk about themselves. It’s not ego, it’s about providing some context…about what a rad rider the reviewer is. The most often used examples of this are:
The Humble brag:
Not all, but many reviews, will use a sentence along the lines of “This bike allowed me to rip through singletrack/ glide over rocks/ blast corners” etc. What the reader reads is that the bike magically bestowed powers of shredding upon them that they otherwise wouldn’t possess. But, what the reviewer really wants the reader to think is that they are a fire-breathing, shred-machine. This is the reviewer’s chance to puff out their chest and tell the world how fast/ great/ tough they really [think] they are. It also serves to stoke-out the sales guys/ advertisers/ potential buyers who see what they want, anyway.
Remember, it’s all about the rider, not the bike. Except when it isn’t.
Feats of strength
Always take the amount of times you actually rode the bike or distance you rode it and double it, no, screw it, quadruple it! Use the review to brag about how far you rode, because the review isn’t about the bike, it’s just an opportunity to show off to all the readers. Make them think you are a superhuman cycle-shredder, because 99% of readers won’t ever get to know you and find out that really you are an aging, doddering, old git who rides like a granny, but slower.
39.67% of reviewers suck at riding bikes
Some reviewers really aren’t very good riders. On balance that’s not a problem because some of them are extremely experienced, mature, professional testers who have years of knowledge and craft in deciphering what’s right and what’s not. But there are some out there that come back from test rides without realizing the brakes have been back-to-front, didn’t know it was a 27.5-inch wheel bike after all, or just struggled to not have a heart attack/shit their pants.
Great riders don’t necessarily makes great reviewers. Being a reviewer isn’t about how well you ride but that you are able to objectively isolate the impact of your abilities from the capabilities of the products you are testing. My favourite qualifier is the Crank Test: Ask yourself, when testing a bike did you hit your cranks on ground a lot? Now honestly ask yourself whether it was because you mash your pedals or because the bike mashed them for you?
The long haul
Where was the review conducted and for how long? Was it a multi-day ride review, barely time to shake out and ride-in the bike? What do you really learn from quick jaunts? There can be a lot of good information gleaned from a short rip – if the reviewer is good – but usually the reviewer has barely had time to digest his or her breakfast, check the tire pressure, set the sag correctly (making adjustments if necessary), and then figure out whether the sluggish performance was because of the bike or the several (paid for by BRAND-X) beers they had at lunch.
Location, Location, Location
Is Southern California a suitable place to judge a bike’s strength and longevity? Remember that people drive 50-year old cars that are considered classics because the weather and climate is incredibly forgiving. Likewise, is the North Shore a good place to judge a bike, what with all its square corners and crooked straights? Sure, the bike will get the living bejesus kicked out of it, but the trails aren’t high speed and what is required of a bike there isn’t relevant to many places (fat tires, attacking geometry but not too attacking because you need a good turning circle for all the slow, right angle turns).
There are so many variables in mountain biking that maybe the best reviews would be ones conducted inside a laboratory under the watchful eye of machines in lab coats…
We give this review Five Flaming Aholes
No one really reads the whole review, they just go straight to the conclusion. A star-rating system is the most honest, just and true barometer of a bicycle review. I mean, how can you lie when there’s a one to five score? Five means ‘Buy it now’, Four means ‘Put a deposit on one now’, Three means ‘There’s far worse stuff out there than this product’, and One or Two means absolutely nothing because I doubt any mountain bike review has ever received such a low score.
A note about the Loam Ranger - there was some speculation last week about who might be behind the mask. But alas LR is an enigma. More than that, he and she is an amalgam. The Laws Of Loam article was anonymously submitted by one Ranger and this piece was submitted by another. We do know that this Ranger has worked for many different publications all over the world. And now this one (we’re paying in Bitcoin) but that’s about all we know.
If you have an anonymous message you’d like to send to our audience just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll be your Wiki Leaks if you’d like to be our Edward Snowden. Or course we won’t always agree with, or like what Loam Rangers say, but we don’t always agree with each other either. Let ‘er rip!
LR sounds a little disgruntled. Cynical even. Is writing bike reviews difficult, as the Ranger contends, or could you do it in your sleep?