Ask Uncle Dave
Dear Uncle Dave: What's with the Drivetrain Cartels?
Dear Uncle Dave:
Over the last few years, I've found myself switching loyalties between Shimano and SRAM for drivetrain parts. Shimano used to be the only real option that we had available. I moved over to SRAM in the 8/9 speed days, once they had stuff worth buying. I was back to Shimano for a while after that. Then back to SRAM for 11 and 12 speed. Now that Shimano is kicking ass again with 12 speed, I'm kind of sick of it. To be honest, I'm pretty excited to explore something else. I'm excited about some of the new drivetrains available from smaller companies, but from what I hear, none of these options stands a chance in hell of breaking through the Shimano/SRAM duopoly. Rumour has it that an OEM drivetrain spec is unattainable to anybody but those two, due to the market shenanigans that they can pull off with their ability to fully kit out a bike. Is there any chance that one of these smaller companies is going to be able to compete, or should I start pricing out a Shimano drivetrain for my new bike build?
Sick of it all
I feel like you read my mind with this question! I've been curious about whether anybody can break through the Shimano/SRAM OEM spec glass ceiling, and I have long wondered if is any truth to the rumours that SRAM gets so much spec due to their aggressive package deals. Honestly though, I have no idea. But I know some people who might! I decided to reach out to the Product Manager for a well known bicycle brand to see if he/she could give me any answers. Here's what they had to say.
Uncle Dave - I understand that there is a lot that goes into selecting a drivetrain for a specific bike and price range. For a few years, it seemed like the decision was easier, since SRAM was the only real wide range 1x game in town. It feels like we are reaching more of a balance these days between SRAM and Shimano. Into this world, there are a few upstarts that are making waves. Box emerged a few years ago, and TRP is probably the most recent one. Whenever this happens, there seem to be many people eager to explain why these companies will never get any of the SRAM/Shimano OEM market share. The loudest of these opinions seems to be something along the lines of "SRAM offers such a huge discount for suspension/drivetrain packages. There's no way a bike company can spec anything other than full SRAM and remain competitive." Even though there are countless examples of bike companies speccing bikes with a mix of components, this comes up all the time when talking about fork or dropper spec - Reverbs in particular. Do SRAM/Shimano offer package discounts? How difficult is it for a company to pick and choose components from competing manufacturers? How much can you save by sticking with a one-stop-shop for all of your parts?
Anonymous Product Manager for a well known bicycle brand - This one's actually pretty easy- no, there aren't really package deals from either of the big S companies, at least that I've ever been offered. Tough to know for certain since of course negotiations between the vendor's different partners aren't really talked about, but I've never even heard a rumor of this sort of thing. I'm a bit out of my depth here, but there are also some legal complications at play that may be keeping this from being a common practice.
Discounts/rebates/team sponsorships are more likely to be based on total purchase volume, so there's certainly some incentive to buy a lot of stuff from one company, but you'd have to weigh that against losing an incentive from the competing suppliers.
There are a couple of major things to consider when asking why smaller component vendors aren't used more often.
1) Service and availability. Most decent-sized bike companies are selling bikes in nearly every country in the world. You want to make sure there is a solid support network in all of those countries so your customers don't have a nightmare hunting for brake pads, fork seals, chains, etc. When you smash your Box or TRP derailleur on a rock in New Zealand, is it going to be easy to get another one? Will your local dealer have something that's compatible in the case? If not- you as a product manager need to seriously consider what advantages you're getting from a smaller vendor that will make up for this deficiency. In my view, it better be a DAMN impressive product. Certainly some consumers specifically want something unique, but most people just want something that works well and isn't a hassle.
2) Compatibility. I'm not talking about the basic shit here, but what makes a nice factory bike feel like a cohesive package. Do the shifters and brake levers nest nicely with each other so you can get yourself good ergonomics? Better yet- do the shifters and brake levers mount to each other? How does the dropper lever fit into the picture? Do they have similar finishes so the complete bike doesn't look like something assembled from random crap someone had laying around? Does that lesser-known fork manufacturer make a shock that you like too?
3) Actual function. This is probably the most obvious and important one. Does a lesser-known drivetrain perform as well as one from a big S company? Reviews tend to say no. In my experience, no. It's easy to see why- Shimano and SRAM have been making drivetrains for a long time, and have massive resources and experience. There are a zillion patents on how shifters and cassettes work, and apparently it's quite the minefield to navigate. The big guys also already have a massive economy of scale to work with, and can likely deliver a better performance/cost ratio because of that.
Obviously another company making headway in this arena is totally possible, but it won't be easy. SRAM was able to pull it off many years ago, with a helping hand from Shimano's missteps at the time. Probably a fair bit harder now that there are two big players already battling it out.
Generally speaking there will always be some small company there waiting for the big boys to drop the ball. A few years back, it was fairly common to see Cane Creek shocks spec'd on complete bikes. Formula brakes were pretty mainstream. As few as 3 years ago, cottage-industry cassettes or even individual cogs were getting spec'd on bikes. Heck- a year ago, Shimano couldn't supply cranks for their own new 12 speed XTR- which opened up the door for the little guys a bit.
Right now the big players are doing a really solid job, but I'm sure it won't be that way for long.
Uncle Dave - I feel like I'm going to regret not walking through that door that you just opened about sponsorship dollars, but we're here to talk about drivetrains. Well...forks. Sorry. I can't help myself. I've noticed that in your range of bikes, you have a pretty even mix of Rockshox and Fox. But when you look at drivetrains, you have some XTR, but the majority is SRAM. How did that come to be?
Anonymous Product Manager for a well known bicycle brand - Good questions. Both of those decisions are a bit complicated- but here we go:
Rockshox vs Fox.
Part of this decision is trying to buy stuff from both companies to maintain good relationships. Both made nice offers for spec this year, and it was a tough call between them. Competition between those companies is pretty stiff these days.
A few things that can lead to a mixture of parts in a product line:
-The 36 is more complicated to adjust and has a “sportier feel” that will appeal to more hard-charging and/or fiddly riders. It’s the first fork I’ve seen where some riders are removing volume spacers to get the feel they want, which tells you something about the way it was tuned.
-The Lyrik is easier to set up and has a more all-around friendly ride characteristic. It’s interesting to note that the gap between these forks has closed dramatically for MY21, with Fox mellowing out the 36 and Rockshox updating the Lyrik to ride higher in its travel.
-Fox Factory suspension with its Kashima finish is like catnip to a lot of bike nerds. Not a lot of people are going to argue with that spec on a top-end bike. Especially when they have so many sweet, sweet clickers!
-The rear shocks from Fox and Rockshox have a very different feel and feature set, and you typically try to spec matching fork and shock. Some companies are more religious about this than others.
Why isn’t there more Shimano spec on complete bikes?
- Shimano is a pretty challenging vendor. I mentioned the XTR thing already - they really killed a lot of us with that. Cranks were over half a year late, causing factories to have to search for compatible substitutes- which really didn’t exist yet due to the new chain. Their hubs had to go back for redesign before they were released. By the time it really truly was available, SRAM AXS was there to steal some of its thunder.
- XT and SLX really weren't available in any real numbers until late summer, so they missed the model year and the selling season. For OE spec you need the parts to be arriving in your factory by April.
- We only get to pick specs once a year, so betting on the Shimano horse during the XTR debacle would have been BRAVE. You have to place these bets about 8 months ahead of time to make sure your factory gets its allocation. It's one thing to have a delivery fuckup on your halo bike, but a disruption to the $3000-6000 bikes will have a serious impact on your business and your dealers’.
- Shimano was being pretty ridiculous about the Microspline license up until this calendar year- really only licensing to a couple of companies. This ties our hands on spec and ties the hands of the rider when they want to upgrade or repair their bike later on.
- Personally I've struggled with the recent Shimano brakes, although that's a very emotional and contentious topic for many riders:)
All that said- XT and SLX are damn solid bike parts and we’re certainly seeing consumer demand for them. I think you’ll see more companies spec’ing SLX and XT now that it’s been available for a bit and is ready at model year time.
SRAM on the other hand is a very consistent vendor. Usually when they say they will deliver something on a certain date, they do. That's important.
-The bike parts work well. They're pretty sorted by now.
- SRAM has done a good job at being innovative lately. They’re consistently beating Shimano to the punch.
-The XD driver is ubiquitous and SRAM made that possible by making it free and available from the beginning.
-Their brakes are pretty solid and consistent now. Not everyone loves them, but I’m not aware of a brake that everyone loves.
Neither company is perfect, but we certainly feel more confident when putting SRAM in the spec than the emotional rollercoaster that is Shimano these days.
There you have it. That's what it feels like to ask questions of people that actually know what they're talking about. Don't get used to it, kids.
Uncle Dave's Music Club
This is not the first time that I have spoken about Fucked Up, here at Uncle Dave's Music Club. My relationship with Fucked Up is a strange one. I think they are #1 on my list of bands that I have somehow avoided seeing live. I can count at least a half dozen times when I've thought of going to their show, but just have not. My reason for doing so probably strikes at the heart of why Fucked Up is such a polarizing band.
If one was forced to describe Fucked Up in one sentence, it might be something along the lines of "a man screaming over beautiful arrangements." For me, this requires the right frame of mind, and it sometimes takes a little while for me to prepare myself for a Fucked Up album. I think that I take the same mindset towards their live show, and I've never felt mentally prepared for the experience. Part of me worries that the balance of screaming to music contained in the live show might throw me off a bit, and I'm just not willing to risk my love of Fucked Up for a few hours of live entertainment.
I've been listening to Dose Your Dreams a fair amount recently. It's a couple of years old now, but for me, the time feels right. It starts with giant kick to the crotch in the form of "None of your business, man", which is a great fucking song.
There's also the title track, "Dose your dreams", but totally throws off the screaming/music balance, but is worth a listen, as well. Fucked Up goes pop.