Chikashi Miyamoto

philosopher by training, gentleman by accident, pervert by nature, glutton by choice

Campagnolo Spoken Here, But I Will Need to Speak Shimano

THE enduring question in road cycling is “Campagnolo or Shimano?” More recently, I think it has evolved to “Campagnolo, Shimano or Sram?” It’s a partisan issue. Therefore, one cannot have a sensible debate.

It’s a bit like “completely shaved, landing strip / trimmed triangle or bottomless bush?” It’s not a debate to be won.

Ever since I saw a pair of Skyway’s Graphite Tuff Wheels with golden Campag hubs (with something that sounded a bit voodoo: sealed bearings) almost 4 decades ago when I was racing BMX, I have been a card-carrying Campagnolo Party member. Life was very simple in this regard.

If I were to choose between Campagnolo and Shimano by relying solely on the left side of my brain, then I know that it would be Shimano almost every time. However, the right side wields considerable influence. It is probably fair to say that Shimano’s mechanical performance is superior to that of Campagnolo’s in almost every way. However, one aspect of Shimano that leaves me completely cold is the heavy-handed design, not so much the shortage of lore and myth associated with their name. In other words, aesthetics.

To be fair, Shimano’s design language is probably “on point”, judging from sports car designs coming out of Italy in recent years. Whilst I am tempted to think that Italian industrial design took a wrong turn, got lost in the wilderness and entered the dark ages, Campagnolo’s designs represent hope in my eyes. Who else can make a rear derailleur look sexy? The Super Record rear derailleur is nothing short of delicious.

However, I have concluded that my continued membership in the Party is untenable.

Over the years, Campagnolo have chosen to be selective with their product assortment after a few unsuccessful forays into mountain bike components and other diversification attempts. As a small company, their resources are comparatively limited, so the strategic decision to remain narrowly focussed may have been forced upon them if independence remained an over-riding priority.

One might not think that in a low-tech category like bicycles, such choices would matter. However, I have come to the conclusion that such strategic choices do matter.

We have seen a couple of developments in the world of road bike components. One is the electronic transmission, and another is the hydraulic disc brake. Both require proper R&D, which in turn requires money. One can make small, incremental progress over a longer period, or one can try to go from zero to sixty in a much shorter period, which requires a much more significant capital outlay within a shorter period of time if one is to be successful. And, even more money is required to keep ahead of the competitors.

If you are in the business of group sets, you need money to stay ahead, even relevant. It now seems abundantly evident that diversified, successful experience is a competitive advantage. Campagnolo have neither.

Campagnolo, once the leading innovator in the field, now seem rather quaint.

Putting aside people’s varying preferences in how an electronic drive train should function, I think it’s safe to say that, in the general sense, Shimano and Sram are way ahead of Campagnolo. Catching up, getting ahead and staying ahead of their larger rivals will require money.

And, Campag do not have the benefit of diverse experience that the others do. One can always buy experience by going on a hiring spree, but that costs money, again… Take for instance, Shimano’s new Dura-Ace Di2 group set coming out this year. The new rear derailleur design comes straight out of their MTB experience in designing a rear derailleur that tucks under the chain stay in order to make it less susceptible to damage in case of a crash. Also from their MTB experience is the new synchronised shifting feature that automatically avoids sub-optimal gear combinations. Clever stuff.

Sram’s Etap is a good example of what Americans call out-of-the-box thinking. The wireless shifting enabled them to take a leaf out of the paddle shifters used in motor sports and better sports cars. It is arguably a lot more intuitive mechanism than anything else that’s available in cycling today. Sure, you’ll need to unlearn some shifting habits, but that does not take anything away from the fact that it is a more intuitive system. If Steve Jobs designed the way bicycle drive trains works, then this would be it.

The good old bicycle isn’t so low tech any more. And Campagnolo are having to play catch-up.

One glaring setback suffered by Campagnolo is their utter lack of expertise and experience in disc brakes resulting from their absence in the mountain bike segment. Sram had a hiccup when they first introduced their hydraulic version for road bikes, but it was nothing more than a hiccup after having accumulated significant experience in the off-road segments. In contrast, Campagnolo had to resort to partnering with a third party to develop their first disc brake group set.

And, we’re still waiting.

In the meantime, Shimano’s hydraulic disc brakes have become the standard by which everyone else’s disc brakes are judged.

When Campagnolo finally come out with a disc brake group set, I do not want to be a guinea pig for Version 1.

I always thought that disc brakes on a road bike are ugly. However, my priorities completely changed one day a few years ago in the French Alps. Descending in biblical conditions, the limitations of rim brakes became rather frightfully obvious. Disc brakes still hurt my eyes, but I want them.

As Shimano have gained market share at the expense of other companies, most notably Campagnolo, it has become increasingly difficult to find bike shops that have the experience and stocked with spare parts and specialist tools to service Campagnolo parts. I usually don’t go abroad with my bike more than twice a year, but whenever I do, I worry about not being able to get help in a timely and expert manner if I need it. Essentially, Campagnolo (and Sram) are exotics in today’s world. It’s hard enough to find a shop that knows how to deal with Campagnolo’s little peculiarities; forget about finding someone in the middle of nowhere who knows how to deal with EPS problems.

It feels more unnatural than painful, but my conclusion is that I need to learn to speak Shimano.

The Histrionic Chamois Cream

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The Peloton. Image via K-9 Solutions Dog Training

The quintessential cycling ointment is available from a variety of brands. They all have their proprietary blend of ingredients, usually including those that have something to do with smell.

Some are there to prevent or inhibit bad odor by preventing bacteria from flourishing in your nether regions.

Some are there to neutralise the odor arising from all the perspiration and heat.

Some are there to mask the odor.

The last one is generally called “fragrance” and can be either natural or synthetic.

A discreet concoction or a screamer.

Pleasant or repulsive.

Preference for fragrance is a very personal thing, and whatever blend they use in the cream, what people end up smelling is a unique cocktail of the ingredients and the wearer’s own chemicals. Let’s call this the Mix. The Mix is inherently a difficult one.

A screamer amplifies the risk of the Mix ending up on the wrong side of that preference.

When you’re the only one out on the road, all this fuss about smell is pointless either way. The problem is that the Mix does not hit the olfactory nerves of the wearer but only of those that are behind him or her.

Sometimes, someone in front is using some cheap perfume, shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, layering of some or all of the above. However, even if you are not familiar with every single chamois cream on the market, you can tell that what you are smelling is a chamois cream, particularly if the Mix is a screamer.

Whether you like the smell or not becomes a secondary concern when you realise that, regardless of your olfactory preferences, you are smelling someone’s butt.

It could be a rather pleasant thought.

But rarely.

Therefore, the question is, to sniff or to be sniffed.

Tea. Bicycle. An Unexpected Confluence. 

I enjoy tea. I am not an expert; I simply like the stuff. Not the ‘herbal’ varieties, but the Camellia sinensis varieties. Because coffee is so fashionable amongst cyclists of various stripes, I had not expected that the world of tea would overlap with the world of cycling, at least not in my sphere. Happily, it did, seemingly out of nowhere. 

I tend not to ‘talk shop’ with social contacts until I have developed some level of familiarity with that person. I cringe when I read or hear chatter about cycling being the new golf, for professional networking and advancement. I prefer to cycle with those that turn up because they want to go for a ride in the company of others, not for any motives unrelated to cycling, health or amusement. As such, I do not ask about someone’s trade until I feel I have become sufficiently familiar with that person. Of course, by that time, I tend to have picked up the information through normal chit chat within the group so I end up not needing to ask him or her what it might be.

Sometimes, such incidental discoveries take time. There’s a chap that rides regularly with a group that I occasionally join. He’s one of the group’s core members. I’ve been riding with them for a couple of years, but I only learned about his trade earlier this year. It so happens that he is a tea importer, with a family firm that got started in the 19th century.  

When you think of cycling, you think of coffee, not tea. Sometimes I get consumed by the most trivial discoveries in life.

There are tea importers and tea importers, and I didn’t know which one he is.

When spring was about to give way to summer, I was running low on tea supply at home. It was the time of year when spring harvest should be trickling into market. It seemed like a good time to suss him out.

Tea is a lot like wine in many ways. Climate and topography influence the flavour. Weather has a tremendous impact on the quality of the crop; the output varies from year to year. Each harvest, even with ideal weather, will have a range of quality. The crop must be picked and categorised with expert care. It must be steamed, fermented or both, to the right degree, not too little and not too much. The degree of care exercised by the producers depends partly on how discerning the market is.

There has been a steady decline in quality amongst many regions, even at renowned estates. If the weather does not co-operate, we don’t get good products no matter how good the producers are. However, there has clearly been some human contribution over the years. For example, it’s been quite a few years since the first flush from Darjeeling tasted like it should.

Surging demand from emerging markets brings buyers willing to pay any price for something, without understanding or caring about quality, because it’s ‘the thing to have’. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve seen that in wine, French in particular. The same has happened with tea. Producers get top money for mediocre output. So, why make the effort? I am guessing that the worst news to hit the Cuban cigar market is the US lifting the embargo. 

On a Sunday jolly in June, when we stopped for a nature break, I casually mentioned to him that it seems to be more and more difficult to find good Darjeeling these days. If he specialised in herbal and ‘detox’ nonsense and flavoured teas, he wouldn’t have anything substantive to say in reaction to my moaning. But he did. Pleasantly surprised, I was. Talking tea, on a bike, in Belgium.

Later I tell him that I’m in need of some tea. How is this year’s Gyokuro? He tells me Yame had a good crop and that he has some. I was stunned that he had any Gyokuro on hand.

I tell him that I’m also in the market for some white tea from southern China, expecting him to say he has no such thing on hand. He says he has some Yin Zhen. I thought, ‘Wot? You have Yin Zhen? You’re joking…’

And, any decent Darjeeling first flush, either SFTGFOP or FTGFOP grade? He tells me that he has a really nice batch from Tumsong. Tumsong was not familiar to me, and my ignorance had me feeling a bit suspicious. And then he proceeds to tell me that it’s a real, old guard production, what you expect a first flush to be like, from a small estate. OK, you got my attention…

 

He gave me a sample packet of Tumsong, and back at home I found that he was spot on. Darjeeling first flush as you would expect. Except it’s hardly ever available these days. It reminds me a bit of Castleton and a bit of Namring Upper when they were still producing excellent first flush many years ago. Marvellous. In this day and age, it seems even majestic.

Come autumn, I’m curious about the summer harvest, so I asked him how the second flush from Darjeeling turned out. ‘Too much rain, not enough wind, low grade crop. But I can still give you some if you want.’ OK, no second flush this year then.

Does he still have a kilo of Tumsong first flush to spare? Yes, he does. Fabulous.

Tea, cycling. Still surprised by the happy confluence…

Serving notes:

Gyokuro: 10g for every 60ml of spring water, steeped at 60°C, for 2.5 minutes 

Yin Zhen: 5g for every 200ml of spring water, steeped at 70°C, for 15 minutes 

Darjeeling first flush: 3.5g for every 200ml of spring water, steeped at 95°C, for 3 minutes 

I Remembered Why I Cycle

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I found myself unable to “find my legs” earlier in the year and struggled through the Spring Classics season and continued to struggle thereafter. I now believe that the reason is that I lost sight of why I cycle and that I needed to press the reset button somewhere.

In the weeks preceding the Spring Classics, I was doing regular sessions on the turbo trainer in preparation for the big sportives. In other words, I was training, not in a serious and structured way, but in my own little way. I don’t use a heart rate monitor or a power metre, but I was watching more mundane data like cadence, average speed, the miles I was eating and the number of hours perched on the saddle. It’s not at all something that a proper trainer would prescribe as a regime, but the point is that I wasn’t doing it just for the fun of it.

Yes, I was getting the endorphin high, but the truth is that I wasn’t enjoying it. The fact that I was not able to”perform” led to further negative feelings. It wasn’t fun any more.

Time was in short supply the last few months, and cycling, as an endurance sport, takes up a lot of time. Therefore, it requires organisation and prioritisation to make it fit in one’s schedule. One important driver to make it fit is for one to actually want to. After the Spring Classics, I couldn’t be bothered to make time for it.

Then, when I was in the south of Italy this summer, I went for a few rides. Nothing big or ambitious, routes between 30 and 50km, without any quantitative objectives. I just picked a few villages I wanted to see and just pedalled to enjoy the sites and scenery. The only constraints was to return in time for lunch or for a conference call. I realised I was having fun on the bike again despite being woefully out of shape. Of course, it helps to be in a picturesque area with good weather, but it reminded me of the reason why I got back on a bike several years ago.

I don’t commute by bike; I walk. I pin a number on my jersey every once in a while, but I don’t race. Cycling is purely recreational for me. Life tends to be full of obligations and responsibilites, but for me cycling is not something I should do or need to do, not something on the task list to tick. It’s when I can switch off. Preparing for the Spring Classics put it firmly on the to-do list. Cycling became yet another thing that I needed to do. That wasn’t good. For me.

I think the rot actually started last summer when I was doing my fourth charity fundraiser in connection with a multi-day cycling trip. I have raised funds for charities that work in areas that are important to me. Therefore, I put in a considerable amount of time and effort in preparing and carrying out my fundraising campaigns that span multiple channels. There are regular articles about donor fatigue, but I have yet to come across anyone writing about fundraiser fatigue. Even though I was raising funds for a worthy cause, there was no denying that I was experiencing fundraiser fatigue, probably because I was trying to do too many things simultaneously during those months. (My fatigue, of course, is nothing compared to the plight of the ultimate beneficiaries of the campaigns.)

I did my first fundraiser in connection with a cycling challenge because I wanted to be useful whilst having a bit of challenging fun. That is why I bothered to run 4 campaigns to date. However, last year was different because fatigue set in. I think this is when I started to think of cycling more as an obligation.

About 10 days ago, I hopped on the bike and headed south. I ended up in Leuven where I have never visited before. I pootled around town, through the university campus, and then I headed back home. I had the Garmin on, but I wasn’t looking at the numbers. Of course, once or twice I saw another roadie (minding his own business) up ahead and the chase was on… However, it was a care-free ride on a clear day, and I enjoyed every bit of it.

Just a pootle.

The Cockroach of Fashion

Jordache Basics

Stone-washed denim.

Just when I think it has disappeared for good (again), it comes back (again).

It simply won’t die.

Forget Brexit. Forget Trump. This is a serious matter.

Front Derailleur Alignment in a Flash

Aligning the front derailleur is a faff. But it does need some realignment every now and then. I used to avoid touching the front derailleur until it became embarrassingly obvious that it needs adjustment. Usually, it’s just the limit screws needing adjustment after riding lots of cobbles, or the cable tension needs to be increased a tad. The alignment usually remains unchanged unless the FD gets knocked by my right heel during a crash or a near-miss. However, I didn’t want to deal with the FD at all for fear of discovering that the alignment needs correcting.

Because it’s a faff.

And then, I discovered the Campagnolo front derailleur alignment tool.

It lets you get the alignment done in well under 10 seconds. Every time I use the tool, I think, Where were you all my life? So simple, so effective. For usage guidance, see pages 7-8 of this.

I have it from a reliable source that it also works with Shimano and Sram front derailleurs. (I wouldn’t know, would I?) Unlike most Campag tools, the price won’t make your bank manager nervous. Yet, it’s not very widely available for some odd reason.

Part number UT-FD120 or UT-FD020. If you don’t have it already, then get it. Less faffing = more riding.

A Perennial Challenge in Retail, Part 2

In the 1970s, a woman and her partner opened a Louis Vuitton Malletier franchise boutique in Munich and introduced the brand to Germany when LV was still owned and managed by the Vuitton family. Unsurprisingly, she still has several LV pieces from the 70s, one of which is a well-used Keepall bag.

Several years ago in the south of France, decades after her affiliation with LV had become a distant memory, she visited a Louis Vuitton boutique, owned and operated by LV, now a subsidiary of LVMH Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton, to have a repair job done on the Keepall.

After listening to her requirement, the LV sales associate took a quick glance at the bag and pronounced that it is fake.

Priceless.

Now, imagine if that sales associate told the same thing to someone who doesn’t really know the origin of the bag because it was a present from a thoughtful and generous person, or, so awkward to mention in this age of throwaway culture, it was handed down from a previous generation.

What can one say after receiving a divine revelation like that? My experience at Bottega Veneta in Paris was, I must say, a lot more subtle, if that’s the appropriate word.

With 1 1/2 times as many shops as Ikea, it’s no small undertaking for LV to train and manage all the front-of-house staff in all those retail locations. And, by training, I don’t mean just product knowledge but also conduct.

I know, it’s hard.

What bemuses me is the current trend (more like a mad rush) amongst product brands to have an army of ‘brand ambassadors’. They hand out products to these ‘ambassadors’ so that they can be seen in the wild and on social media using their products. The tactic itself has been used for ages, even before the advent of the Internet, but the practice of giving these people a formal designation is, I believe, a more recent phenomenon.

Some are famous people. Some are ordinary people.

With due respect to these people and without undermining the contribution that some are making in increasing awareness of the respective brands, none are ambassadors of the brand.

The real ambassadors, or rather, the people who should be the real ambassadors, are the brand’s members of staff, particularly those that come in direct contact with existing and potential end users and influence how they form a view about their relationship with the brand. That is not a revolutionary or innovative concept. Rather, it’s a very old one that has not lost one bit of its relevance.

However, it can be difficult to remember the important things when there is so much focus on gimmicks, buzz words, page views and likes.

Or, call me a dinosaur.

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