Very few talented musicians become recording artists, even fewer will have hit records, and only a handful will be able to forever change the way their genre is perceived.
The odds of being a game-changing artist are low to begin with, but lower still when one comes from a place far away from the heartlands of one’s art form. Kanye West changed rap music, though, and he did it growing up in Chicago, almost one thousand miles from the nondescript high rise at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue where DJ Kool Herc began the hip-hop movement.
Across Chicago, just above the Google office, is the SRAM headquarters. It’s a short distance and a very long way from where West grew up in the city’s suburbs. But in some ways, their stories aren’t all that different.
Just as West grew up between the East Coast roots of hip hop and the burgeoning West Coast scene, so SRAM emerged to fill a gap between Italy and Japan. Just like West’s attempt to narrate his middle-class black experience (he was the child of a photojournalist and a professor) authentically changed hip-hop, so SRAM’s efforts to do away with exposed cables, rim brakes and front derailleurs have changed road cycling. For better or for worse, we live in a world where the future has disc brakes – and listens to Yeezus.
Hip-hop has a fiercely defined oral history, perhaps more so than any other type of music. Establishing oneself as the ancestor of former Kangol-hat-wearing greats is as important as owning a gold chain and some fancy trainers in becoming a rapper. Cycling isn’t much different: if you don’t know who was winning Tours de France before you could even ride no-handed, the self-appointed guardians of the sport’s heritage will sneer you off the café run. SRAM are, compared to Campagnolo and Shimano, extremely arriviste. Both SRAM and hip-hop had a technology which served as their launchpad. For hip-hop, it was the crossfader. And for SRAM, it was the leapfrog shifter.
SRAM began when three friends Scott, Stan, and Sam introduced grip shift technology in 1988. Ray is the middle name of company head Stan Day (hence the SRAM compound acronym of the three names), who kindly walked me through the company history. They were soon making a big impact on the market. In classic street fashion, Day and his gang picked a fight with the biggest player in the game and won.
After successfully suing Shimano in 1990 for using unfair business practices to keep them out of the OEM market, SRAM went on to develop a rear derailleur for mountain bikes, acquire suspension company RockShox, brake manufacturer Avid and component manufacturer Truvativ. With gripshift soon on 70 per cent of bikes in independent dealers, they were close to becoming a major player in the groupset market, but lacked a full road offering that could compete with those of Shimano and Campagnolo.
Day himself was a road rider and triathlete looking for an alternative to shifters that were placed far away from where a rider’s hands naturally fell on the drops. This frustration gave birth to gripshift but, just like everybody else in the 1990s, SRAM got sucked into the mountain bike boom. It was not until 2006 that SRAM launched their road groupset with the slogan “make the leap”, referencing the leapfrog gear that allowed upshifts and downshifts to be actuated with one lever.
The slogan was appropriate given that one out of five shifts caused the chain to do exactly that, launching itself into the abyss between chainring and frame with the gusto of an Australian gap year student doing a bungee jump. Soon, SRAM sponsored a host of top teams with their RED groupset, launched in 2008. The following decade saw the Chicago-based designers re-imagine the road componentry landscape with the launch of a single chainring groupset in 2014 and a wireless electronic system a year later.
Much like Kanye, SRAM had a solid launch and successfully negotiated the second album phase. Today their presence in the WorldTour is somewhat less than it was at their peak, but their relationships also run deeper now that they have acquired component manufacturer Zipp. Katusha, the team that insists they are Swiss but who are named after a Russian folk song or rocket launcher, depending on who you ask, rely on SRAM for wheels, components, groupsets, and power meters.
Staying connected to the top level of the sport is important for the Americans. It keeps their designers in touch with the needs of the best bike riders in the world and gives them an arena to test their products with competitors who ride faster and harder than anyone who has to pay for their own parts.
What makes Kanye West great is his willingness to bend and manipulate musical rules to fit with his creative output. Or, more simply, Kanye doesn’t really give a shit. Rapping over a string orchestra, as West did on 2005 album Late Registration, shows little reverence for the separation of genres and the distinct traditions of each one. Neither does making a groupset that doesn’t have cables at all. SRAM’s Advanced Design group have a Kanye-esque disregard for the sanctity of traditional road bike design. Disc brakes work better, so they put them on road bikes. Front derailleurs are complicated and not that efficient, so they took them away. There’s no reason one has to have cables connecting a shifter and derailleur, so they don’t.
West didn’t grow up on the “mean streets” any more than I did – indeed, he spent some of his childhood in China. Without the experience of urban poverty that drove so much of the gangsta rap of the 90s, West wrote about the different perspective that came from his middle-class experience.
In the same way, SRAM’s engineers are very much at home designing things, but don’t bring much of the traditional baggage of the bike industry with them.
Brian Jordan, Kevin Wesling and Chris Shipman have backgrounds in designing light switches, pumps and pinball machines respectively. These guys probably couldn’t pick Eddy Merckx out of a line-up. Jordan and Wesling have a patent on a cake pan that prevents the domes that make decorative icing difficult. By their own admission, “none of us are into racing”. You’re more likely to see them on Bake Off than Box Hill – and that’s a good thing for cycling. We need new ideas, and only the really serious types say no to cake.
Unlike cake, Kanye isn’t universally appreciated. You see, what makes Kanye West a bit of a prick is exactly the same thing that makes him great: his almost unparalleled hubris. Just like West’s incoherent ramblings on Twitter, SRAM’s boffin brigade haven’t always had number one hits with their products. Often, their ideas are filtered through a series of more bike-savvy production and aesthetic design teams.
“I remember seeing that first eTap derailleur design and thinking: ‘My God, what have we done?’” one product designer told me. For the advanced design department, the aesthetics aren’t a concern; they just want to make better products. “Once we eliminated the need for shift cables, we were already thinking about where we could actuate the shift,” added another team member.
Meanwhile, industrial design director Dhiraj Madura is faced with the challenge of taking the pipe bomb-looking prototype and honing it into the sort of sleek and shiny product that would have riders reaching for their credit cards. For Madura, SRAM’s aesthetic is “crisp, purposeful and professional”. Where the Advanced Design team might leave a prototype with exposed wires or an odd battery placement, Madura spends months worrying about how to stop cranks looking worn after thousands of pedal revolutions leave the inevitable heel scuff mark on them.
Within months of the arrival of eTap prototypes, people were riding around the SRAM headquarters’ indoor bike loop (it is possible to ride right up to your desk at SRAM) and shouting “peanut butter” or “jelly”. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was perhaps the most unlikely freestyle rap battle in history, but it was, in fact, someone’s vision of the future. You see, it turns out that “up” and “down” are hard for a helmet-based microphone to hear, and the Advanced Design boffins were busily inventing voice-activated shifting whilst Madura was sitting a few desks over trying to work out how to make their rear derailleur look acceptable. They made gloves that shift too. I’ve seen the prototypes – they work.
It turns out there are very few people willing to ride around shouting at their derailleurs (despite being essentially the sine qua non of amateur cyclo-cross), so that helmet remains a prototype, sitting in the Advanced Design lab covered in wires and batteries, looking like the sort of thing that panics customs officers at the airport when they scan your bags.
Those gloves never took off either. But eTap did allow SRAM to make some changes in the ergonomics of the lever hoods, including what Madura calls the “Jesus bump” – so named because when your hand slips, you catch yourself on it and mutter “oh Jesus”. They’re firmly convinced that removing all the mechanical parts from a shifter is revolutionary. The question isn’t so much how one shifts now… but where. One day that helmet will be moved from that shelf, either into their slick company museum, or quietly into the bin where it might find solace among the Google glasses of SRAM’s neighbours.
The balance that needs to be struck here is one between tradition and innovation. Of course, we could make bikes faster and more efficient if we wanted to, but none of us wants to ride around on a recumbent any more than we want to hear a didgeridoo in the middle of a rap song. SRAM pay attention to this: things might work differently but they have to feel familiar. They say they spent months deciding exactly how much force was required to actuate the shift on eTap derailleurs. Hundreds of staff and sponsored athletes were surveyed on where shift buttons were placed and how a shift felt before SRAM launched their first electronic groupset in 2015.
Where SRAM perhaps differs from West is in their approach to collaboration. West’s musical influences are diverse: his albums include everyone from Elton John to Bon Iver to Beyoncé. Much like Vanilla Ice, who was sued for the similarity between his work and that of Queen and David Bowie, SRAM aren’t in a position to work with many of their fellow manufacturers and have to negotiate intellectual property cases if they dare produce anything too similar.
It was the crowded patent landscape that pushed SRAM into using their Double Tap shift actuation on their road groupsets and doing away with the second shift lever entirely. Everything from shifter blade shapes to suspension seatposts has to navigate an ocean of potential litigation. SRAM prefer to see this as something forcing them not to rest on their laurels and to innovate, but that innovation has to succeed within a very conservative sport.
If you could have asked Kanye West circa 2004, when he released his first album, what he thought the future looks like, I don’t know what he would have said, although if I had to guess… it would probably have been “me”. It certainly would have been interesting. I asked everyone I met at SRAM, from designers to owners to the product testers, what they thought bikes would look like in a decade. Surprisingly, they all converged around a bike with one chainring, aerodynamic tubes and wide tyre clearance. The sort of bike that could climb a mountain, corner in a crit and get you through your local winter ‘cross league (hopefully without too much derailleur shouting).
The bike of the future is, it seems, the mixtape of bikes. It has a bit of everything you like and none of the crap you don’t. Of course, we could almost have that bike now if we wanted it. Bikes, like music, aren’t something that can be reduced to a formula. We don’t really buy bikes because of wind tunnel numbers or weights, we buy bikes to make us feel a certain way, and I’m not sure that the precise click of a well-indexed mechanical shifter will ever stop making me feel the way I want to feel. But then again, when a DJ in the Bronx started talking over his records, nobody liked that either.
Now all this talking about hip-hop might be a little off-putting to some readers, but I will wager that in your day you had your own music that your elders didn’t like. Kanye today is the David Bowie of his generation and, just like people came into the streets to mourn the passing of Ziggy Stardust, so society will grow to appreciate what at first seems vulgar to many of us. I’m not asking you to go out and buy a bike with disc brakes and wireless gears, but just give them a chance. If we’d dismissed the Beatles the first time we heard that opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night, we’d never have reached the aural experimentation of Revolver. So let the kids have their wireless shifting, because you never know where it will take us.
Like Kanye’s hip-hop, SRAM will never be for everybody. If you value tradition, heritage and durability, you’ll probably pick Campagnolo. If reliable, dependable and replicable performance is your thing, Shimano will never let you down. But SRAM will probably push both those brands towards making better products, with their somewhat erratic output that bounces between brilliant and bizarre. Even if you’re still riding a bike with two chainrings and mechanical shifting in a decade, at least try some new music. And keep an eye out for that perfectly flat cake, because cake is something we can all agree on.
James Stout lives in San Diego, where he lectures in Modern History and writes mostly about bikes and occasionally about hip-hop