The Trail Snob: Why This is the Most Important Component You’ve Got

After years of working in bicycle retail, guiding folks toward the bike best-suited for their needs, I’ve noticed certain habits that customers and product managers—the folks who decide which parts are hanging on your bike—engage in. Usually the customer doesn’t even know they are doing it while, conversely, the product manager is actively calculating the cost of every bolt on the bike.

Here’s how it goes: as a customer mulls over a bike, the first thing they look at, after the frame, is usually the suspension. Which actually brings us to another product managers trick—putting a fork on the bike that looks exactly like the high-end after-market fork everyone has to have, but lacking some critical internal part or external adjustment feature that makes the fork so desirable. But back to our potential bike-buyer…

After observing the frame and suspension, a quick assessment of the drivetrain is performed, usually based solely on the rear derailleur, which, as you may know, is a step or two in quality above the rest of the visible drivetrain components. Product managers know this, and in fact count on it, to create a higher impression of value than there actually is. If an XTR rear derailleur is present, the customer thinks they are getting a top-end drivetrain while the product manager saves money by speccing an SLX-level front derailleur,  shifters, bottom bracket, and cassette. What I have a problem with is when flashy parts like cranksets are specced up while brakes, the second-most important component on your bike after suspension, are considered an area to save money, because hey, the customer is paying more attention to the rear derailleur! Not onboard with me about the importance of brakes over drivetrain? Allow me to present my case…

Situation 1: Powering Uphill—There you are, side by side with a competitor, charging for the top of a climb. First one up gets the hole shot for a singletrack descent to the finish line, or at the very least, bragging rights until the next ride. You sense the rider next to you lagging for a split second, and decide to jump on the opportunity. Most rear derailleurs will effectively upshift under power, or at most require a slight soft-pedal stroke, so having an XX-level derailleur is not going to provide any advantage over an X9 version in this case.

Here's a situation where you need to stay off the brakes!

Here’s a situation where you need to stay off the brakes!

Situation 2: Steep, Narrow, Sustained Descent— We’re talking the kind of descent where pedaling is not an option. The difference between winning and losing, or getting dropped by your buddy, is staying off your brakes. In this case, a fancy drivetrain will do you no good, but a good set of brakes will. With a well-modulating, powerful Shimano Saint brakeset, a slight lever-feather here and there will keep you in control and rolling quickly. Alternately, with a cheap brakeset lacking the power to quickly slow you down on fast, steep terrain, you’ll be forced to use the brakes much more, while your buddy fades away (just like your brakes) into the distance, along with your chances for glory.

Now bear with me for these next two, I’ll be digging a bit deep.

You see, on the bike isn’t the only place having an effective set of stoppers is of vast importance—just think of all the times you could have used a powerful pair of brakes on your emotions before you metaphorically crashed and burned.

Situation 3: Boss Makes a Questionable Comment at Work—Sure, with an XX1 drivetrain you could quickly ramp the situation up to eleven, but who is going to win this battle for supremacy? Here’s a hint: it’s the one who signs the checks. In this scenario, it will be hard to hold back your desired response, so a good set of stoppers will be invaluable in putting the clamps on a potentially career-ending verbal retaliation. Of course, if a change of scenery is something you had in mind already, then pedal hard, keep your fingers off the levers and send that thing!

Situation 4: Your Significant Other Asks if This Makes Them Look Fat—If they are asking, then we probably know the answer is obvious, and if you are an honest, sincere soul, your response is going to get you in a lot of trouble. In this case, the forward momentum towards an assured disaster will feel irresistible. An expensive, electronic, one-by-twenty-speed drivetrain will only deliver you to your doom faster. This calls for a pair of eight-piston calipers capable of stopping a runaway Liebherr TI274 on the Siskiyou Pass. When you hear this question, squeeze the levers, hard, and be thankful that you spent the money on the good stuff.

So, the moral of the story is…don’t be taken in by that shiny rear derailleur. Think about the components that truly matter—both on the bike and the rest of your life as well.