I don’t do too much tech on here but it seems to go down well, my piece on the possibility of an electric SRAM group in particular proved popular. Today I’m interested by the variety of bottom bracket standards on the market because it’s something that seems fairly unique amongst consumer goods.
It’s common for industries to have various “standards” when it comes to technology, for example a Android smart phones or maybe those with Windows; a Blu-Ray disc or HD DVD. In times past VHS famously saw off Betamax and there are many more examples. But I don’t remember other industries offering so many options and above all, so many parts that won’t work together. Yet this is what the bike trade is doing with a variety of proprietary bottom bracket designs.
For a reminder, the bottom bracket is the axle between the cranks and a key component. It’s subject to a lot of force and for years there was not much to it, just some cups to screw into the frame to house the bearings and the axle between the cranks. It was ripe for a redesign.
But now there are so many standards. There’s BB30, PF30, BB90, Cervelo’s BBright, BC30, Zed2 and more, plus now there’s a new one called BB386EVO. What’s so confusing is two fold: first the ever changing nature of things, second a lack of compatibility between many of these systems.
Lessons from other industries
Other industries have seen differing standards competing for supremacy but often consumers had a binary choice like VHS or Betmax rather than the wide range of standards in the bike industry. And away from bikes the choice doesn’t affect other goods, for example you can still use an existing TV whether you have a Blu-Ray or HD DVD. You can call someone with a Nokia phone if you have an Apple iPhone. Yet bike frames and components have a bewildering choice of options and many don’t work together. Get one frame and many cranks won’t work with it.
Costs, complication and incompatibility
All this raises costs and confuses consumers, a recipe to keep consumers away. For example you might be in the market for a new frame… only to find you will need some new cranks as your current set won’t work thanks to a different BB standard. As a result, if the frame is already expensive then new cranks raise the cost even more… and so maybe you hold back. The frame builder loses a sale.
Similarly you might fancy some new cranks… but have an eye on replacing your frame in a year or two… so you don’t buy the cranks in case they’re redundant with the new frame. I do wonder if this potential expense has put off a lot of customers. In addition it means additional costs for retailers in terms of tools and training.
Engineers vs. sales
The new designs do offer benefits. Oversized axles and different bearings allow for better stiffness and reduced friction. But all the same nobody’s claimed “axle flex cost me a race“. As a result the costs involved of changing one element of the drivechain can potentially far outweigh any gains. In other words engineering benefits get negated by consumers who stay away and retailers shaking their heads.
The name doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue, it sounds like a reference number from a spare parts catalogue. I groaned when I heard about it but having looked into it, the benefits are that it offers a great deal of compatibility. Thanks to various kits a frame with a BB386EVO bottom bracket will be able to accept Sram’s GXP, Shimano and and more because it shares the same width. In other words this new standard will accept others. For me, this might have a winner.
I’m all for improvements but the variety of BB standards confuses customers and I wonder if it’s reducing sales. Incompatible frames and parts mean higher replacement costs, implying consumers will hold on to their existing frame or remain loyal to their current set up for longer. Small performance gains from better design come with wider costs.
The new BB386EVO standard is worth watching but for now it feels like the bike industry is unable to settle on a common standard or two then this will surely costing manufacturers, retailers and consumers alike.