Wednesday, April 08, 2009


Chain Reactions

Or, The Downside of Sponsorship

On Monday, I wrote a little bit about how Fabian Cancellara’s (Saxo Bank) showmanship over his broken chain during the Tour of Flanders might impact new team sponsor SRAM, which manufactures chains. Lest you think that these little incidents fail to make an impression on the viewing (and buying) public, we bring you the Top 15 search terms used to reach one very, very small cycling web site:

1. Cancellara koppenberg
2. koppenberg cancellara
3. cancellara broken chain
4. broken chain on the koppenberg
5. cancellara chain break
6. cancellara chain flanders
7. cancellara fabian chain break
8. cancellara koppenberg 2009
9. cancellara koppenberg chain
10. cancellara sram chain around neck
11. course gent wevelgem
12. fabian cancellara broken chain
13. koppenberg cancellara chain
14. koppenberg chain race
15. koppenberg sram

As you can see, not all publicity really is good publicity, and if people are reaching this site using those terms, chances are they’re reading accounts of it on every major cycling site and more than a few minor ones as well. So while it’s still just a single broken chain, the story is bound to take on greater weight due to sheer exposure, repetition, and drama.

There’s plenty of precedent for high-visibility product failures haunting companies, of course. And within cycling, there’s even plenty of precedent for high-profile broken chains. Julio Perez Cuapio (then with Panaria) famously broke his chain during a promising breakaway in the 2001 Giro. I can still see him in that orange jersey by the side of the road, but I can’t for the life of me remember what kind of chain it was. I did look it up, though - Shimano, 9-speed. (Remarkably, Perez Cuapio smashed his teeth in on a guard rail a couple days later, then won a stage a few days after that. Tough guy.)

Compared with Perez Cuapio’s high-profile but relatively brand-anonymous failure, the intriguing thing about Cancellara’s is its close association with the SRAM name. In this case, it seems that the PR fallout was likely made much worse by the temporal proximity of the sponsorship announcement to the failure. Saxo Bank – a formidable team that famously resisted component sponsors because they wanted the freedom to use what they wanted – is a big get for SRAM, and the company talked it up accordingly. Given how persnickety director Bjarne Riis has been about equipment, signing SRAM as a sponsor registered as a bigger product endorsement than pay-to-play sponsorship deals usually do. Then, hot on the heels of that well-received press release, advertising that the team is riding their products, one of their new star riders suffers a race-ending failure of one of their core products in the first major event since the announcement. You could almost feel the sales and marketing guys cringing. Imagine if Colnago took over sponsorship of Astana, and Levi Leipheimer snapped a frame on the first day of the Giro.

Maybe I’m too soft, but what I’ve seen of the reaction feels a little strong to me. Yes, you certainly don’t want a chain snapping on you, and it does seem to be becoming a more common failure with thinner chains. But this tempest seems to have taken on more significance than it deserves due to an unfortunate pair of conditions – bad timing regarding the sponsorship announcement, and the fact that it occurred on the Koppenberg. The breakage probably wouldn’t have even been race-ending had it not occurred on that famous 600 meter stretch of cobbles, where team car access is restricted and poor position over the top is punished severely. And had it occurred nearly anywhere but the Koppenberg or the Muur van Geraardsbergen it surely wouldn’t have been subject to so much photography. As I noted Monday, Cancellara’s histrionics sure didn’t help things, but after the season the guy’s had, I also can’t begrudge him a little in-the-moment frustration.

As a result of all that, articles mentioning the breakage abound, but really, we’re still talking about one failure, for one very strong guy, on one very brutal hill. As much as I love you all, let’s not kid ourselves about our ability to replicate those conditions in our own riding. Even if we could all crank out the watts like Cancellara, anecdotal information indicates that most chain failures can be attributed to faulty installation – very few people actually break a sideplate or pull out a previously untouched pin. In other words, a failure of your mechanic's head and hands is far more likely to break your chain than the strength of your thighs. Or a manufacturing error, for that matter.

How many of those keyword searches above are SRAM looking to assess the damage, and how many are consumers trying to find out what happened? I have no idea. But I have to say, I haven’t seen that much keyword consistency since I wrote something a year ago that included the name of Specialized’s HR maven, Shannon Sakamoto. I don’t know what else she has going on, but someone Googles that woman at least once or twice a week. If SRAM has any luck at all, their little hubbub will die out a little more quickly than that.

In other news, you may have noticed that sneaking in up there at number 11 on the list is “course gent wevelgem.” That fine semi-classic was run this morning, of course, and we’ll try to get to that later.

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It's funny -- When I watched Cancellara stomping around after the crash on the teevee, my first thought, after "man that sucks & he must be pissed," was, "well, I bet the sponsors are happy he's making a scene -- this'll get them almost as much attention as a win." The chain brand never registered -- I tried to figure out what it was when he had it round his neck, couldn't decipher it, forgot about it. I'm not completely convinced that making a scene was the wrong move. Definitely not a bad move from the other sponsors' perspective, and maybe not even all that bad for SRAM. He was in a shitty enough spot that it didn't seem like whinging. And I'm certainly not taking the SRAM chains off my bikes.
As much as I love you all, let’s not kid ourselves about our ability to replicate those conditions in our own riding.

Speak for yourself, Ryan.

'Course I ain't the average bear, despite being similarly sized, haired and tempered.
Chains snap, for whatever reason. I snapped my mtn bike chain a few years ago, don't remember the brand and was probably putting out 1/20th the force on it that Fabian was. David Millar's chain snapped last year in the Giro, supposedly costing him the win out of the break-away. Garmin uses Shimano, so I assume his chain was a Shimano. Unfortunate for SRAM, as I think you mentioned, that this happened right after the announcement and switch of Saxo Bank to SRAM.
I think the lesson here is that narrow chains need to be installed with care. Some years ago in my first season riding 10sp I had a couple issues with D-A chains and the installation pins working themselves loose. I think those were my (and the mechanic's) installation errors but I since then I've moved to SRAM chains as I've felt the master-link concept was more idiot-proof (me being the idiot I am).

Last summer I was doing a sprint workout on a brand new SRAM chain and it exploded mid-sprint (my PM showed me passing 1800W at the time of the explosion -- it's a miracle I didn't go down). Chain autopsy showed I mistakenly had one more link than SRAM recommends. A new SRAM chain was installed -- of the proper length -- and no further issues were experienced.

So I guess I'm saying that I agree with you that these chain breakages in the pro ranks are probably due to hasty installation, and that these newer generations of chains are very sensitive to installations that are not spot-on perfect.

[Although has anyone heard of any Campy breakages? None I can think of...]
The scene of Sparticus trudging up the Koppenburg was amazing, his composure, the bike over the shoulder, and the broken chain around his neck....I dont think it really matters what brand it is, mechanicals happen!
"[Although has anyone heard of any Campy breakages? None I can think of...]"

About 10 years ago I broke a Campy 9 speed chain on a hill that I consider my own little Koppenberg. A bit shorter, much steeper, and minus the pavé. 2nd St. Stillwater, MN. about 3 pedal revs right at the bottom. Uuuugh!

Thinking back, I wish I still had the power to break one again. Gotta ride more I guess.
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