Put up your hand if you remember what it was like to ride a mountain bike in the early to mid 90’s. Remember all those must have, lust worthy boutique parts? While the road scene was still stuck with what they were being served up by Campy, Shimano and the tail end of Suntour, the mountain bike world was rife with anodised choice.
The boutique industry flourished with all manner of parts to replace most of what your bog standard bike came with off the floor. And, if I recall, we all craved the offerings. Apart from the colours, one of the attractions was simply that many of the aftermarket offerings were lighter or better, sometimes even both! At the time SRAM did not exist and its predecessor, Gripshift, made pretty much only a rear mech and the infamous Gripshift twister. So everyone was pretty much stuck with Shimano, a brief period of Campy and Suntour; and for the most part, the lads at Shimano were somewhat lazy and a little lost.
Shimano’s Rapidfire system was a love/hate affair as many continued with ‘thumbs’ or Gripshift, so it was not until about ’96, when Shimano dropped the now legendary ‘V Brake’ on the mountain bike world, that the game officially changed. The V was light, well made, and most importantly blitzed anything on the market in terms of performance. Pretty much overnight Shimano killed the aftermarket brake sector and signalled it was now serious about doing what it did. From the day the V Brake was revealed, Shimano has, for better or worse, progressively introduced new standards that made it next to impossible for the smaller players to keep up. Thus as the big S’ products became better and more affordable and increasingly ‘closed system’, the aftermarket companies were left to focus on specific products which they could do better; ideally they offered alternatives to specific components that could be substituted without messing things up… too much.
Race Face for example made cranks that were definably better (and in lots of pretty colours!), while Hope Tech hit the market hard with disc brakes, those things that many said no one needed (I hear the same cry coming from the road scene as I type), dominating the market as the go to company for performance driven product that worked. But the list of options has increasingly dwindled as Shimano and then SRAM began to dominate, with their massive development budgets and equally massive design + engineering teams tackling pretty much everything.
Race Face Turbine’s – we liked them because they were cool, better and in pretty colours!
Today the two big S’ and Campy all but fill the market at the first tier, offering drivetrains, braking and wheel solutions (SRAM offering pretty much everything other than the frame through its various sub brands). Second tier companies such as FSA or Raceface offer options for cranks, bars, posts etc., and the smaller boutique brands specialise on small dedicated ranges or even just single products.
But for the first time ever, I am now questioning why one would buy aftermarket.
In my case, after a decade of being an ardent Hope Tech brake user, I [shock and horror] bought a set of Shimano XT’s for my own bike (I bought a set of M555 for my partner’s bike some years ago*). For a while now I have been watching Shimano’s line become better, not only in terms of performance and cost but also in terms of design, something it seemed to struggle with for many years. My decision to go with the XT’s came from reading not a single bad thing about them, as well as hearing first hand accounts from people I know that use them. Ultimately though, the winner for me was the insane price, a little over AU$200 for the pair!
Over a decade since my first set, Hope still makes me drool but my XT’s are just as good now…
Without a doubt these are some of the best brakes I have used out of the box. Every aspect of the units has been thought all the way through, right down to not actually having to bleed the brakes if you decide to cut the hose (following Shimano’s own instructions!). The lever feel is good and the power and overall modulation feels like that of brakes I had paid close to three times for. Even from the aesthetic point of view… they are good. I hostly have not been able to fault them and in a single swoop have made me a convert.
The same I hear can be said for the cranks.
Shimano SLX. Bloody good value AND performance…
So what does this mean for the smaller, boutique makers? In my mind, where I once lusted for the latest part from the coolest maker, often because they were not just only cooler but actually better, the big boys can now provide the goods and in the scenario where I need a part to do the job for the right price (it’s hard to justify spending extra when there are so many other concerns), these days they have my money.
It’s not that the smaller maker’s day have come though. The continued appeal, especially in the bike world, is the mystique, ‘street cred’ and overall feel good value that strapping on a ’boutique’ part offers; ironically something that has actually increased since the big boys are more and more prevalent across all areas. Boutique parts also tend to be highly serviceable and well supported, meaning you can keep them running for years, whereas parts from the big boys can be a little bit more ‘use and throw’ as they change spec from season to season. Perhaps, and more importantly though, for the buyer boutique parts fill a bigger emotional need, far more than a functional, and in that they are worth every bit you pay for them – you don’t get excited looking at say a Dura Ace or XTR hub but you do looking at a King, and that is worth quite a bit. Just don’t expect, or claim, that your new expensive ‘bit’ is better than the equivalent from one of the big boys because it cost more, as there’s more than every chance it’s not.
So what should you buy these days and why?
SRAM’s Red road gruppo. Not exotic but you know it’ll work well.
For many riders, the ‘bog standard’ faire that comes bolted to the majority of bikes is more than sufficient, it’s outstanding. If, for example, you’ve bought a mountain bike and it comes with ‘just’ SLX, it’s no longer something to fret about (as it used to be), as by all accounts the SLX level is excellent – as good as XT in some respects. Replacement parts (in full) are affordable and readily available and by the time you’ve worn the lot out twice over, you’re probably thinking about a new, probably better bike in any way. In essence, a full Shimano or SRAM equipped bike is not a bad thing, far from it, just as long as you are happy to accept that many of the parts are more ‘disposable’ than their more expensive counterparts…. and no one is going to gush about it.
If on the other hand you have money to spend, then sure, take your pick of boutique parts – cranks, hubs, bottom bracts, brakes. More often than not, while they will not offer any increased performance/durability over their more mainstream counterparts, they do offer serviceability, meaning you can keep the parts running for much longer and probably keep them from bike to bike. You will also get that little tingle that comes from knowing that everyone else you ride with is lusting after those deep orange King hubs!
*Turns out the M555 units are some of the finest discs made by Shimano. As an entry level brake, they have exceptional power and modulation. While basic and a little heavy, these days you can get them for around $50 an end, which makes them a total steal.