So, who am I, and why am I here? I don’t mean that as an existential question as to the meaning of life, just to explain why I’m here on this page. My name is Russ Bengtson, I’m a 37 year-old bike rider from New York City, and I write a little BMX blog that you may or may not of heard of called SPRFLS (sprfls.blogspot.com).
I write about BMX products, specifically new BMX products, and even more specifically new BMX products that seem to be superfluous (hence the name). This, by the way, is not a recommended way to make money or friends – at least not from within the BMX industry. Some people in the industry simply don’t get it, others get it only all too well.
Here’s some things I am not. I’m not an engineer of any sort. My degree is in English (with a journalism concentration) and I only took one math course in college. I’m not an industry insider. I’ve never worked for a bike company – or a bike shop, for that matter – and the only money I’ve made in BMX has been through my writing. I’m not a pro-level rider. I’ve never been good enough to even remotely consider riding as a career.
What I am, however, is a rider and a consumer who’s been into BMX more or less since it started. And since the beginning I’ve been interested in products. From grips to tyres and all points in between.
Then recently it hit me: Why not write critically (and hopefully entertainingly) about new parts and frames? Sure, the magazines and big BMX websites run photos along with whatever information the companies send out, but why not present another opinion? One unbiased by advertising, one that I’d want to read were I considering something new. As someone who once rode a bike with fold-up fork pegs, it’s something that would have been extra useful for me back in the ‘80s.
I started the blog in April, writing daily during the week, and there have been no shortage of topics. Every day, it seems, some company or another is trying to reinvent the wheel (or the seat, or the pedal). Which is difficult, given the simplicity of the average BMX bike – double-diamond frame, 20 inch wheels, roughly 2.8 to 1 gear ratio. It’s hard to innovate within those parameters.
This isn’t skateboarding. It would be easier if it were, honestly. There would be no pretense that one frame was better than – or even different from – another. You’d pick what you rode based on graphics or team, not some perceived 'improvement'. Well, some people do exactly that. But if you really look, you get minute differences from different companies – and how many different toptube lengths are necessary, really?
Quite frankly, there are a lot of genuinely scary things about the BMX industry these days. Less than ten years ago, companies were competing to see who could make the heaviest, toughest components. Cranks with one-inch spindles, 3/16 inch chains, 48-spoked wheels with triple-wall rims and 12-gauge spokes. If you bought a bike in 2000 and didn’t care about weight, you could ride it forever. When you were making an eight-pound frame, strength was easy to come by. Now some of those same companies are making frames that weigh less than four pounds and forks that weigh less than two. And, like before, they’re using the same R&D crew – us.
You know what frightens me most? Even the companies that do use engineers and proven testing methods – I’m thinking Odyssey here – make mistakes. The first generation of production Wombolt cranks, as tested as they were, broke. A lot. Which doesn’t give me much faith in those companies who just pick parts out of catalogues or strive to make everything lighter than anything else.
It’ll be interesting to see where things go in the near future. I feel like we’re reaching some sort of threshold when it comes to lightweight parts – how much more can you shave material off a stem, how much more can you heat-treat a frame? What other exotic materials can you make parts from? And as the world economy falters and everything gets more expensive (and less of us have high-paying jobs), how many people are going to want to spend $450 or more on a frame just to serve as a human guinea pig? (Let alone buy Kevlar-cased tires and magnesium rims.)
What I’m attempting to provide with SPRFLS – and with this column – is just another perspective. Another way to look at things. And judging from the responses I’ve got, both in the comments section of the blog and my email inbox, it’s one that’s been lacking. Am I right all the time? No. But sometimes I believe the discussion is more important than the original post. Because it’s not about telling people what to think as it is presenting a different way of thinking. Asking questions other than “how light is it?” and “how much does it cost?”. And hopefully making some of the people in the industry ask some different questions as well.
I’ve been accused – wrongly, I might add – of wishing for the demise of the BMX industry as a whole. That just doesn’t make any sense for me, as a rider or as a writer. What I would like to see is some sort of industry-wide refinement, where progress becomes more than 'but this is lighter,' copycats fade away, and honesty becomes more prevalent.
Until then, I guess I’ll just keep writing...