Uncle Dave crappy spec
Ask Uncle Dave

Why Does the Spec on my Bike Suck?

Words Dave Tolnai
Date May 9, 2017

Dear Uncle Dave,

Since I'm allergic to practically every green living thing outdoors in my neck of the woods, I've had inordinate amounts of time to wonder about things. Mostly useless things, like why complete bikes are sold the way they are.

Since we're in the middle of long-term reviews (the useful kind) from last year's models, and new bike release press releases, inevitably I find myself wondering why some models get released into the wild with a hodge-podge of substandard parts but a price tag which suggests no expense was spared...

Sometimes I feel like product line managers working for bike companies have either the hardest, or the easiest job in the world. The logical corollary is that it's either so easy that anybody could do it, or that us bike consumers are such a finicky bunch that nobody could keep most of us happy most of the time anyway. I feel like Shimano and SRAM have done a really good job with making drivetrain and brake parts logically tiered, so that's pretty hard to get wrong - but the quality of suspension and wheels seems to be all over the place.

So, I have these questions:

I know riders will get on a bike with lots of shiny carbon bits and end up thinking 'I thought it would feel lighter'... but

Has anybody every ridden on a bike, and thought to themselves 'I think I'd like this bike just as much if it had worse suspension'? Or "I wonder what this would be like with flexier wheels?"

Does the fact that mid-range bikes come with carbon frames, and up-specced derailleurs alongside flimsy wheels and budget suspension mean that us mountain bike customer are delusional? Or are we as customers just plain dumb?

A Dumb Llama.

Dear Dumlo:

This is the kind of question that I love so much, I'm almost afraid to answer it. There's just so much to talk about, I want to tuck it away so that I can make it perfect. But since I have to hammer out a couple of servings of nonsense before heading out on vacation, I'm going to take a stab at this, right now.

I was listening to the CBC this morning, and they were talking about the repercussions of the United Airlines debacle. They were making a point about Harvard Business School, and how the students going in think they're going to learn all about building enterprises to create goods and services, and the graduates coming out have nothing but skills for maximizing shareholder value. And I think this is the inherent problem with what is going on with bikes these days: people are actually trying to make money off this shit now.

You laugh, but back in the day, you could feel pretty confident that the bicycle you were riding was nothing more than a labour of love for some poor schmuck struggling to feed his family. Now, some asshole is funding a yacht by shaving dollars off that wheel spec you just made fun of. It's unconscionable.

I think where it all started to go downhill was with the creation of OEM spec tires. There was a time where you'd walk into a store, and the bikes on the floor had actual tires on them - the same ones you would pay money for, and that you could ride down a trail without fear of skewering yourself on a sapling (well...they did suck, but relatively speaking, they were good tires). And if you didn't like the ones that your bike came with, the shop would usually be happy to swap them out for another set of actual bloody tires. This was a beautiful thing.

But I kind of get it. Tires got expensive. And if you're just as likely to sell that bike whether it's equipped with real tires, or imposter pseudo rubber, why not shave 30 bucks off your cost?

The next nail in the coffin was probably the OEM spec fork. You have to admire the genius who figured out that all you really needed on the front of your bike was a fork that looked like it knew what it was doing. I mean, a good solid half of the bikes you're selling probably only come down off the garage wall a few times a year, and the elastomers have hardened and all of the oil has all seeped out anyhow (if it had any to begin with), so who gives a shit, really?

Of course, the good old days, before this nonsense was invented, weren't all sunshine and horse manure. Those old timers had some tricks up their sleeves. You're going to notice if they swapped out that Shimano crankset, but it takes a much more diligent eye to spot the off brand, North Korean sourced bottom bracket tucked away from prying eyes. And it was pretty standard that your handlebar, stem and seatpost would be devoid of a logo, basic engineering, or any sort of quality control standards. So maybe they're just re-levelling the playing field with newer, flashier ways of tricking us? We should admire the ingenuity.

And we can't even blame the bike companies. Read the comments of any bike review, or hack your way through some of the insane bulletin boards ramblings. Within 10 minutes of a new review going up, somebody is chiming in with a "you can get the same spec from so-and-so for $500 less."  What is the ultimate bike for these people? A heavy discount on a bunch of components stapled to a discarded broom? Why worry about things like handling or suspension performance when all many care about is a flashy spec on a couple of items?

"We put five years of R&D into making sure this frame lasts a long time and rides well."


Talk about a wet dream for a cost cutting product manager. All he has to do is bring his laptop in to any spec meeting, point to a few of these jackass comments, and the rest of the team pretty much has to go along with his attempts to chip away at costs. For whatever reason, a flashy drivetrain attached to a carbon frame moves units. Shoddy tires, crappy forks and self-destructing wheels are just the price we have to pay sometimes.

So I don't know, man. I don't know what's going on. I don't know how to fix it, or even what's wrong. Each day, a new "greatest bike ever" is invented but we're so far up our own asses that we don't know what to do with it. We're constantly chasing newer and more and flashier and we want it faster and for less. The poor bastards making them for us don't stand a chance.

Uncle Dave

Uncle Dave's Music Club

Back in the day, I was a fan of the Supersuckers. Not like...you know...crazy or anything. But I liked them. Before they got...I don't know...however they got. Anyhow, take a swing by "Marie" or "Creepy Jackalope Eye" for a taste of what they were.

Into that, dropped Must've Been High. And there I was one day, flicking through CD's and A&B Sound, and what do I find but a brand new Supersuckers album. I buy it, drive home, put it on, and....Ha. That's pretty funny. They started it off with a country song.

And holy shit do these guys ever take the joke far. The second song is a country song too.

And goddammit...that's pretty funny...but three country songs?

Okay. I can take a joke, but four country songs? Five country songs? Six country songs? I'm starting to feel like something might be up here. I mean, they always had that stupid wannabe-cowboy thing going on, but a fucking country album?

The odd thing was that I listened to it a few more times, perhaps just because I enjoyed making myself angry. And...shit...I started to...enjoy it? And the crazy thing is, other than the two songs alluded to above, twenty years later this is probably the only thing by the Supersuckers I'd bother listening to.

"Must've Been High". The album opener. Looking back, it must just have been the shock that didn't cause me to immediately like this.

"Dead in the Water". A little more rollickey. I love the intro to this song.

"Barricade" is just awesome. "Keepin' those crazy people in their place, it's the barricade."

"Road Worn & Weary"  Man, I don't know how this song didn't make these guys a million dollars.

"Hangliders"  How the hell do you make a country instrumental?

And, for a special bonus this week...Country Mike's Greatest Hits from the Beastie Boys.

Johnny, he worked on the railroad!

Dumb Llama - you win a pair of NSMB.com wool riding socks in your choice of moss and charcoals or black and charcoal and a mudder with our branding on it. Send us an email to claim your prize. 

If you have a question that will tickle Uncle Dave's fickle fancy - fire it over here...


+4 Metacomet Luix Endur-Bro Merwinn
James Vasilyev  - May 9, 2017, 8:21 a.m.

i've reached a point where i think there is actual value in building from the frame up. i know where i want to save some money, and where i know it's going to hurt. i agree though, most wheelsets are atrocious. either boat anchors or some silly straight spoke dealio, or too narrow or shit hubs or all of the above. problem with great wheels is you never want to go back so you're kinda stuck figuring out what to to about the next bike.


Metacomet  - May 9, 2017, 1:24 p.m.

So true.  It is increasingly difficult to find an off the shelf build with a spec that doesn't compromise something, or Many somethings, even at the highest end of the price spectrum.  How can some manufacturers be pushing a 5-7k bikes with second or third tier suspension and questionable hubs and house brand bars and stems?  There is no doubting that bikes are expensive, but you can also stretch your dollars pretty far if you spend them in the right places by building from the frame up.


stinky_dan  - May 9, 2017, 5:41 p.m.

I'd also like to see a carbon frame with the entry level groupset instead of the bait and switch that gets pulled by telling me that the carbon is only $500 more than alloy so it's a good deal.


+1 Andrew Major
GT dad  - May 9, 2017, 8:44 p.m.

I've been riding and building up bikes since th early 80's. Bike specs always sucked this is not a new thing.Unless you want to pay the "dentist tax" and by the top end model.


Tehllama42  - May 9, 2017, 11:41 p.m.

I'm totally OK with compromises, even ones to hit specific price points.  The 'Cheap, Light, Durable' triangle is the outer boundary, and nobody can get outside of it - but it's entirely possible to stay within that, and that's where I take issue with it.

The prime example that stuck out in my mind is the Trek FuelEX 9.7 - honestly a genuinely good bike that has been specced quite smartly for what it is, but a bike foisted with a pricetag that makes the quality of those decisions seem suspect even though they're not.

$4000 USD for a full carbon frame bike with a GX drivetrain and pretty dialed trail geometry?  Sounds like a winner.  Bontry XR3 tires - cool.  Bonty cockpit - I just want the wider bars.  Bontrager house brand dropper? Well, it works and it comes with it.  Duster wheels - well, there's got to be some price concessions somewhere, but they work.  Deore brakes - yup, solid value, but the 160mm rotor out back is useless in Clyde country.  Fox Rhythm Elite Fork - what?  The GRiP damper is a big step forward and all, but what was the point of saving all that money on the brakes, wheelset, and house brand cockpit for?  Either the rear suspension isn't that great, or the suspension design and shock performance is as good as every reviewer has said it is and this bike deserves a better fork.
The cost to Trek to bump up to a Performance Elite Fox34 can't be more than $80/unit - I'm sure SLX brakes is about the same jump.  Sell THAT bike, even if it's a $4250 price tag.

There is so much purchasing power that some patience and application of Excel will show you that if shopping for new stuff, one is still money ahead buying a complete bike that is bundled with enough parts you'll end up using, and that's the best value bike to get. Seems mildly frustrating - to be honest, I can't wait for ROSE to start selling bikes, or for Canyon/YT/Commencal to pick up on the limited customer customization options to be able to make bikes that don't ship with placeholder items.

To be clear, I'm fine with paying more to get more - what's frustrating is when it starts being a case where paying more doesn't get that much more, and that the full custom build puts you money ahead on a relatively standard use case setup (i.e. not building a bike to one extreme or another of the design intent), and that's where I'd argue the product manager for that brand hasn't done that well.


+1 Tehllama42
Dave Tolnai  - May 9, 2017, 6:07 p.m.

It is all about value, isn't it?  I probably should have taken things a step further.  These crappy parts are added to keep costs down, but where is the value on tacking something on that is more or less disposable?  Or that needs to be swapped out right away.  It's a very strange dilemma we are faced with.


+3 Mic natbrown Cam McRae
Luix  - May 9, 2017, 6:59 p.m.

I'd say it's more about the bling factor, and what the brands sell for us to show to the world. I've stopped using big logos over me and doing color coordination among garments many moons ago. I'm not a giant ad, and more importantly nobody sponsors me. 

Showing up with a carbon frame certainly brings the stoking meter to new heights, and it's way easier to spot than a great hubset or an excellent set of suspension bearings (fuck Enduro and their perceived added value, they are pure crap when compared to SKF or Sakae!). Then you have those common lures, the rear derailleurs. And the media isn't exactly helping us to form a critical opinion -with obvious exceptions, such as this beloved website- when they demand a certain component coordination code (or C³ for short). If it has Kashima but not XTR, it's a fail. If it has XTR but not Mavic wheels, it's a fail. If it has ENVE wheels but not SRAM Eagle, it's a fail, and I could go on for ever.

Give me a frame with good geometry and decent suspension, a reliable groupset which doesn't ask me to sell a kidney to replace a cassette, brakes I can trust and a light and strong wheelset, and I'll be happy ever after. 

And if you're going to plaster your fuckin' brand all over me and my fuckin' bike, give me a nice discount, or come here and sponsor me. I'm not paying you to have the privilege of using your products, I'm paying you to sell me good, dependable stuff.


+1 Andrew Major
Kenneth Perras  - May 9, 2017, 8:14 p.m.

What parts are disposable? If you notice the less than desirable feel of a certain part or wear through items at faster than desired rate, then you are not spending the required amount of money to satisfy your demands. If you are in tune with the refined feel, extra durability, and/or improved weight of a part but don't want to pay for that added performance, then you are only kidding yourself.

Also, value is subjective; what matters to one person doesn't to the next. Some people value a shop's friendly customer service and everything that goes along with it and are willing to pay for it; others don't and prefer to skip the brick and mortar shops and pocket the savings. 

You can't be cheap and call out someone such as myself for not doing my job correctly.


+3 FlipSide Velocipedestrian Tehllama42
LWK  - May 9, 2017, 9:31 p.m.

I think another way of looking at it, and ending up in about the same spot, is that seems to be all about "bundling" now - like your TV cable (if you still have it) car option packages, etc.  Assuming the bike is of the style and geometry I like, I only really care about good wheels, top suspension and super brakes.  

Thinking of one of the big three brands that my favourite LBS sells and I have wandered about their website a fair bit.  If I want the 3 things above, I pretty much HAVE to buy the $10K+ model. uh, no thanks.  I dont think its just that brand, but the model pricing, components, value proposition is also not an accident.  

That said, maybe this is more a problem at the high end and/or for serious (picky?) riders?  because the same brand also has some excellent value bikes.  I bought bought an entry-mid level bike for a family member and for its intended use and cost is an absolutely fantastic bike.


Tehllama42  - May 9, 2017, 11:21 p.m.

It IS about value - and that's why I was mildly grumpy about some stuff.  The only answer I kept coming to is that most mountain bikes never get ridden hard enough (or really just enough) for any of this stuff to matter, so most bikes come with enough flash to grease the sales skids, and that's about it.

Some context - for giggles, I did an entire graduate project in a engineering related course on parameterized selection of an optimal all-mountain bike for me, based on the consideration that I'm a 6'2" 230lb oaf who rides into cacti regularly.  I really thought I'd find myself focusing on how much performance for value I could extract out of offerings present.  

It's a 47 page paper, in condensed format... but if anybody wants it, I can put that up - might be useful for you engineering minded analysis-paralysis types.

What I found is that I was instead comparing bikes based on how few things on the spec sheet I had to put straight into the bin (or practically donate to shorter friends who weigh 80lb less), and virtually no other performance consideration came close.  As soon as I got a little bit picky about things like whether or not I wanted enough dropper post travel to keep my dangly bits attached, or having sufficient braking power, I was finding that the figure of merit for bike value to me was how few things I wouldn't have to replace before going out in the first serious ride.

I found that I was money ahead gutting the dampers from OEM suspension in terms of raw performance [by the way, a Yari with Avalanche cartridge and Luftkappe is pretty baller anyway].  I wish more companies specced Guide RE brakes on XL bikes (or offered SLX brakes).  I'm still mystified why anybody sells 100mm dropper posts on trail or all-mountain bikes of any size, or offers 125mm posts on XL's.  OEM Tires - see Dave's thoughts on that.  Crazy, right?

Ken - FWIW I'm a consummate tightwad, really destructive on equipment, and still want to exist at the bleeding edge of performance.  

Still, after all of this, I went and found a second Instinct (used).  Couldn't be happier with it, although I'm essentially on a 999MSL frameset with the stock Pike fork and XT brakes:  from there it's a custom build.


+1 Tehllama42
Dave Tolnai  - May 9, 2017, 11:34 p.m.

@Ken Perras - I think you might be reading this too personally if you feel this is calling you out.  Besides, Rocky has always been one of the companies that, generally, does a pretty good job on things.

"Disposable" probably wasn't quite the right word for it.  I'm not talking about parts that wear out.  I'm talking about parts that probably didn't belong on there in the first place, and quickly find themselves removed from the bike.  Which becomes a serious dilemma.  Why can I buy an oh-so-close to kick-ass bike for $3000, but that has such silly choices made that keep it from being great?  And is there actual value in that, if I need to spend $500 to take it to the next level?  Could it have come to me off the floor like that at $3200?

This should probably be another article, but it feels like there's just too much "this is always the way we've done it" in this industry.  Balancing where the money gets spent.  Not wanting to mix and match components too much.  Putting flashy things in the high visibility areas.  I'm sure there are good reasons for a lot of this, and I'm sure this is probably the "right" way to sell bikes.  But these are the things that consumers get frustrated by, and why we end up building custom.  I realize you might need a certain tire spec to satisfy your German customers, but how the hell does that help me and why should I care?

And let's talk about being "cheap".  What does that even mean?  So much of the money that we spend on these things isn't because of performance.  Pretty quickly, it becomes about adding flash and dropping weight.  And I think that's the point...or something close to one.  Do we really need to spend $10,000 to get a fully functional fork on a bike?  And where do we draw the line on our definition of a cheapskate?  <$4000?  <$5000?  At what point do the performance compromises stop?


+1 Tehllama42
mightyted  - May 10, 2017, 8:26 a.m.

Bike Demos are part of the problem, or lack there of. Most shops charge, so if you're in serious bike shop mode you can easily spend $400 just trying their stuff. Waiting for the demo days will provide some relief, but Ken, here in Rocky's heartland, I'm going to be waiting at least a year to try the new Altitude, a bike that is getting some seriously good hype but one that I won't be buying until I can pedal it around.

There are other options. Some companies, like Giant offer VERY good value and warrantees. Norco also drops prices on it's year old bikes(Some great deals to be had if you look around!). At the end of the day, nothing is as good as being a smart (and patient) consumer. But if you fall in love with the RM Slayer in it's first year, you need to know you're paying for the hype and their R&D.

The other thing we as consumers don't do enough of is post up  reviews of gear when we start having issues with it. I bought a bike last year and rear hub blew up on me for the SECOND time this past weekend. It's still under warranty but as I can't seem to rely on it I went out and spent our entire tax return on a replacement wheel. I know other people are having issues with this particular companies wheels but I wouldn't know that unless I myself were having the issues.

Consumers have tremendous power over this, but it seems that we choose to keep our mouths shut so we don't we don't get down-voted. For some reason the internet mistakes honest criticism for trolling.

@Tehllama42 I share your frustrations.


GT dad  - May 9, 2017, 8:39 p.m.

There has always been actual value in building frame up. But you need to be resourceful and plan where your are getting your parts from. For instance i picked up a foxfloat factory 36 kashima 2012 160m as new take off in 2013 for 400 bucks. Saved 700 right there.


stinky_dan  - May 9, 2017, 4:53 p.m.

Supersuckers at the Cobalt Cabaret on June 8th....

Did you ever listen to '12 Golden Country Greats' by Ween ? Another album in that vein by a band not known for their country and western ("we got both kinds") music.


Dave Tolnai  - May 9, 2017, 6:03 p.m.

Subconsciously, that may have been what inspired me to write about them.  But in all honesty, I don't think 2017 me could sit through 45 minutes of the Supersuckers.  I'd have to sit down a lot...my back would hurt...I'll probably give it a pass.


stinky_dan  - May 9, 2017, 6:51 p.m.

I hear you. I pulled out of going to see The Dwarves last year due to the same


+1 DanL
Dave Tolnai  - May 9, 2017, 7:27 p.m.

That's too funny.  I actually went to that show.  Dwarves/Queers was a pretty surreal trip down memory lane.


ZigaK  - May 12, 2017, 12:39 a.m.

Reading the first comment and its subs, it is clear to me (it wasn't particularly hazy before) that there's no way everybody will be satisfied with any bike spec. So why not offer just the frame or a frameset (I'm researching "gravel" bikes right now) at a fair price?

That said, the second best solution, for me at least, is to buy the cheapest spec and treat everything but the frame as "placeholder" items. It could turn out that many a placeholder item becomes a valued permanent member.


Dave Tolnai  - May 12, 2017, 1:53 p.m.

You're probably right.  It's not possible for everybody to be happy.  But...

1 - It's tough to say what is fair for a frameset.  Without knowing the manufacturers component cost, maybe what they are offering is fair?  I'm sure it is from at least some companies.

2 - For me, I think the second best solution would be some form of semi-customization.  Choice of tires.  Choice of fork.  Just a few choices that would allow a given spec to appeal to a far greater number of people.


Tehllama42  - May 13, 2017, 12:22 p.m.

I think it's a deal where they have more net margin on the complete bikes, and that their dealer network much prefers to deal in complete bikes, because us internet nerds who will buy just a frameset because we think it'll ride the way we want a multi-thousand dollar investment to are s really tiny minority. So many more bikes are sold as complete because parking lot test has to happen, that it's not worth their effort to stock the things in any other way.

Within mail-order, I think there are real possibilities.  ROSE bikes is a great example of the type of flexibility possible there, and I think the first larger presence direct-to-consumer brand that picks this up (likely among YT/Commencal/Canyon - Trek maybe at the Project:One level - CRC-Nukeproof-VItus perhaps) and offers limited customization on builds might become the media darling du jour, because at any price point group test, that will be the best bike there because it'll never come equipped with the wrong tires, brakes, or cockpit.

As far as why the framesets aren't a reasonable value - they're harder to stock, get sold primarily to people running high end stuff anyway (as in the ideal world of standards which are standards, instead of a flavor of the week specification -- these would be people moving over their XTR/XX1 grouppos and high end wheelsets/cockpits over to a new frame) - so they're just priced at what the market could bear.

I suppose I could try and bug one of the Zink's out here in Nevada to see if they'd be able to do a YT-Custom thing, where mixing and matching some components out of the box could happen.  I also want to try and talk them into making a Pro Race Jeffsy (160mm Fox36, Float X2, RF SixC Parts, 30mm Internal DT Wheels), because once again that bike would monkey stop most everything out there for value.


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