Movistar switched to SRAM. Are you excited?

The WorldTour racing team Movistar switched component sponsors at the end of 2019. The team, in its various incarnations lasting nearly 40 years, had ridden on Campagnolo components. No longer. Campy is out. SRAM and Zipp are in. Movistar is one of the oldest continuously run pro teams in the peloton; they rode Pinarello bikes from their founding until 2014, and have been on Canyon since. It’s a team that seems to hold on to sponsors for a long time.

This is both big news and no news at all. It’s both terribly important and utterly irrelevant.

As racing gets faster, as competition gets tighter, small differences can add up. Back when racers were expected to change their own tires on the road, a rider in a grand tour could lose ten minutes one day and take back 11 minutes the next. Those days are long gone. It was almost a decade ago, that a dropped chain destroyed one rider’s run at a Tour victory.

But pro racers rarely get to choose what they ride. And it’s less so today than before the internet era, as media and public scrutiny makes it harder for riders and teams to subtly or not so subtly substitute sponsor gear for personal preference. A top rider might be able to use his preferred Zipp stem, but such examples are increasingly rare. There has even been quite a bit of playing field leveling thanks to rules and the direction of technology. The UCI 6.8kg weight minimum means most climbing bikes are at that mark, and the combination of wind tunnel testing, manufacturing techniques, and UCI tube shape limitations mean that road bikes are looking increasingly alike across brands (flattened top tube, some Kamm-tail shaping of the downtube, a D-shaped seatpost, and lowered seatstays are nearly universal for pro-level “standard” road bikes). Hard to know which combinations of bikes, components, wheels, and tires are fastest, but any advantage conferred by any of those things is probably small compared to the next fastest. Tire pressure, clothing choices, and, above all, position might either level out those differences or create an advantage.

What is potentially big is the placebo effect. If a pro is totally stoked on his bike or wheels or bearings and is convinced it’s better than what she had before or what the competition has, then that might make a greater difference. There’s no reason to think pro bike racers are any less superstitious or pulled in by marketing speak. All the same, they probably have heard enough spiels from press officers to not get too excited. New stuff, things that seem to be secretish, like a new tire/rim combo or new bearings, might be another story.

That placebo effect extends to the enthusiast public, who buys the stuff and ultimately sponsors the riders. If they’re excited, if they believe that a rider has gone faster on a particular setup, they might be moved to buy the product. And that matters to both bike and component makers. Which is why the switch matters, and the realm in which the change is important.

Every bike company wants their goods ridden to victory. It increases visibility and that hopefully leads to sales. There’s a chicken-and-egg issue with the visibility, but the visibility is not necessarily what it appears. Manufacturer want to offer bikes with components people already want and prices they expect. So they’re both working with what they believe people want and what works for their bottom line. It’s more likely that what the pros ride reinforces the consumer choices rather than informs them, at least for the majority of the enthusiast public, including racers.

The days when a “serious” cyclist would select a frame and then individually select the parts are gone. The manufacturer, now a mass-producer rather than a craftsman builder, does just about all the selecting. Small are the numbers of people who buy a frame and personally select the component build. That started to go away when integrated brake/shift systems hit the market, making it a bit harder to source different shifters than your derailleurs and having brake calipers that weren’t designed with the lever pull of brake/shift lever in mind didn’t seem quite so prudent.  Patents added further challenges for those who were merely looking to build compatible components.

Among the three major component supplier, Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo, Campy was once dominant. In that era, there was more component competition. Ofmega, Zeus, Simplex, Huret, Gipiemme, Modolo, Weinmann among others in Europe, and Shimano, SunTour , Suzue, among others, from Japan. Now Shimano is king and there is less competition.   Shimano components grace the bikes of 14 Men’s WorldTeams, SRAM two, and Campagnolo three. For the eight women’s WorldTeams, SRAM supplies (preferred nomenclature is “partners” with) four, Shimano three, and Campagnolo one. The total across 27 top men’s and women’s teams is Shimano 17, SRAM six, and Campagnolo four.  Despite Movistar’s switch, which includes their women’s team, this is pretty much status quo. SRAM/Zipp sponsored the Katusha-Alpecin team along with Canyon bikes: that team was absorbed into Israel Cycling Academy, and SRAM went with long-time partner Canyon to Movistar, where Canyon was already ensconced, while Campagnolo moved on to the Cofidis team, which is back in the WorldTour, on DeRosa bikes. If anything, looking at market share, Campy is probably overrepresented at the WorldTour, SRAM is slightly over, and Shimano under.

In terms of marketing, the switch is big for SRAM. They, unlike Campy and Shimano, make a point of heavily marketing their racing bona fides. Shimano is the dominant player, Campy the niche, both seem content with their position. Neither Shimano nor Campy seem to make a point of trumpeting such changes. SRAM, however, does. As evidenced by the articles about the switch on lots of cycling websites. Campy did not similarly trumpet their new alliance with DeRosa and Cofidis.

The point of getting parts on the bikes of top racers is to sell more stuff. For Shimano, it doesn’t seem like they need to market their wares that heavily. Though 17 teams are riding Shimano drivetrains, this is probably due to most of those bike sponsors buying or favoring Shimano across their entire bike lines. It’s what’s on the bulk of the bikes being sold that probably matters more to Shimano, and the ultimate race for component manufacturers. A tell of the level of Shimano sponsorship is what teams are also riding Shimano wheels and PRO components (stem, bars, post, saddle). Only Sunweb, riding Cervélo, and Groupama-FDJ, riding LaPierre, are.

SRAM is ever the scrappy upstart. They are forever trying to show they try harder than anyone else out there. They market their pro riders and their technology more than either of the other two. And they’ve made a commitment to the women’s pro scene more than their rivals. For them, it seems that making sure there’s a SRAM option on as many frame platforms as they can get, and that the option can be highlighted by using the pros.

Campy seems to be fighting a battle they can’t quite figure out. While being the professionals’ overwhelming choice is long in the rear view mirror, they seem to have been reduced to being a niche brand. Unlike Shimano and SRAM, their parts are rarely specified as stock componentry by large enthusiast manufacturers, even after creating the Fulcrum brand so that buyers wanting Shimano or SRAM drivetrains could feel good about having Campy wheels on their bikes. While Campy has pretty impressive offerings, they had two Achilles heels, price and location (Europe), with the former less of an issue currently but the latter becoming more (most frames are built and bikes assembled in Asia). Their parts are rarely, if ever, seen on bikes from the Quadumvirate (Trek, Specialized, Giant, Cannondale). That could be why they are choosing to supply bikes from Cipollini, Colnago, DeRosa, and Ridley at the WorldTour. The four are European-based, smaller brands that aren’t really competing with the bigs–offering people who are looking for something different a high-performance option. Campy is also making an effort to capture the hearts and minds of the NAHBS set.

Campagnolo tried to keep up by expanding into wheel offerings. They make good wheels, but they, and wheel companies are getting squeezed (remember Reynolds?) as Giant, Trek, Specialized, and to a lesser degree Cannondale are expanding the “module” concept, from frame and fork, to frame, fork, bars, stem, seatpost, and wheels. Giant’s Cadex wheels, Trek’s Bontrager, and Specialized’s Roval are all ridden by those bike companies WorldTour Teams. And this triumvirate is also providing in-house saddles to these teams. Movistar is riding SRAM’s Zipp wheels, but bars, stem, and seatpost are all Canyon.

Looking at the presence both in the WorldTour and on the showroom floor, it’s seems like the positions of component makers is very much like Coke and Pepsi. They’re goal seems to be to keep the status quo vis-a-vis each other. SRAM gained a bit of ground by innovating with 1x, Campy probably hoped for a gain–but doesn’t seem like it happened–with twelve-speed. Shimano, as the hegemon, has a pretty big hold on the market and has a comfortable margin to largely respond to the innovations of others, content to keep going their own way, see others risk and maybe chip away at their market share, then copy and either match or improve the successful experiments of others and regain the share lost.

But now that they’ve kept the status quo in terms of relative market share, they can only wait and see how the biggest bicycle-producing companies expand into more and more new categories, taking away their established categories. Griant, Specialized, and Trek are going pretty deep on gear, offering just about everything save pedals, brakes, and derailleurs. Shimano seems to be hedging by building out their own shoes and clothing, and then buying up Pearl Izumi threads and Lazer helmets.

In terms of Movistar, the switch makes sense for everyone involved. Movistar, Canyon, SRAM, all get a boost in the media from the change. Arguably, even Campy benefits, as the loss is lamented in the press, though not to the same degree as the trumpeting. More articles, more bike pictures, more logos and gear being seen.

The only thing of note is wondering how Campy can keep its hold on its corner of the market and pondering what happens if they disappear. But even if Campy goes, Shimano and SRAM, and we consumers, should probably fear that our choices will get further constrained in the near future—consolidation is typically leads to less innovation and higher prices, which is not good for consumers nor the industry at large, as jobs also disappear, shops close. Media outlets also shutter as there are fewer advertisers and those advertisers are larger, have less need to advertise, and can create their own media.

Movistar’s switch to SRAM is exciting. Just not where most are looking.

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