How objective are bike reviews? Someone writing a review would say they know their stuff, that they can tell the difference between a good frame and a bad one, more they can get the measure of wheels, handlebars and tyres too.
Only there’s plenty of evidence from outside the cycling world that reviewing, testing and tasting is a complex matter where even the biggest experts can get confused. The next time you read a review saying “the frame felt stiff“, a host of variables come to play, for example the wheels, tyre pressure, cranks, pedals, seat post are all going to flex under pressure and isolating the frame is a complex issue. Now an expert reviewer should do a better job than most. But all the same it makes me wonder.
In vino veritas
Let’s step away from cycling and look at wine. Several studies have shown that blind tastings, where experts are not told about the wine they are drinking, achieve different results to a tasting when the drinkers are told what it is they are sampling. There have even been controlled studies involving pouring a moderate wine into the bottle of a grand cru. Put a cheap wine into a famous bottle even the experts get fooled by the label.
If fine wine tasters, with all their experience and even study, can be tricked, can us cyclists get fooled too? Would a frame labelled “Pinarello” get a better view than the same frame labelled as some anonymous Chinese producer? Evidence from the wine world says yes.
But there’s one big difference: we can measure how a bike performs, whereas taste is a more more subjective matter. French magazine Le Cycle puts frames to a simple lab test, applying weights to different areas of the frame in order to measure flex. Germany’s Tour Magazin goes further, hiring the EFBe lab to test the frames. It’s got to the point where the EFBe tests are incorporated by some manufacturers, obtaining a high score is one of the design goals.
One solution would be the cycling version of blind tasting. No, not blindfolding a rider but for a frame in disguise. Fit a frame with a standard set of components and then mask all the tubes, perhaps with pipe insulation. There are obstacles to masking a Cervélo P4 for review, it’s an idea that might only work on standard road frames. But until something like this is done, perhaps we should take any reviews with a pinch of salt. Or a glass of wine.
Relying on the experts
Tech reviews are incredibly important. There is so much choice of kit and the buyer is often desperate for advice. Bikes are a whole lot less subjective than wine, after all you can measure the weight in your hands. But a controlled test of frames where the components are always the same could be interesting.
Psychology comes into play in reviews and in real life. If you believe the bike works well, then that’s half the battle won as confidence in your machine is a big issue. Whether it’s basics like safety and relying on the brakes or knowing the frame will respond if you attack on that hill, belief that you are on the right machine matters.