OFF THE RADAR: Testing times - BikeBiz

OFF THE RADAR: Testing times

Testing 700 bikes a year is no mean feat as Jamie Wilkins found out when he visited Future Publishing’s product testing facilities in Bath. But what exactly goes into producing the reviews that appear in Mountain Biking UK, Cycling Plus, What Mountain Bike, Triathlon Plus and BikeRadar.com...?
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Review writing runs through Future like a stick of rock and there are strict controls, including a code of conduct for independence and transparency, to ensure it’s done right. From glossy gadget guide T3, to PlayStation title PSM3, to Total Film, Future’s business is built on giving readers trusted buying information.

Matt Skinner, editor of What Mountain Bike, outlined what it’s all about: “We try to arm people with all the information they need to buy right. We’ve just refreshed our testing pages to really emphasise the authority and the lengths that we go to in our testing. The expertise and collective experience of our core test team amounts to over 150 years. As far as I know that’s unrivalled.”

Future’s bike testing process begins with the logistics of handling 700 test bikes a year. Bikes are delivered to custom-built storage facilities close to the publisher’s head office, which is based in Bath. Once unpacked, every bike is then built up and safety-checked in the fully-equipped workshop by professional mechanic, and former semi-professional racer, George Ramelkamp.

After testing, each bike is completely stripped here for inspection. Frame angles and alignment are measured, and everything is weighed to give readers true specifications, not just manufacturers’ claims.

The test riding process takes months, as Cycling Plus technical editor Simon Withers explains:
“Typical testing involves each machine being ridden by as many different riders as possible in situations resembling the bike’s intended usage. Touring bikes will be toured on, sportive bikes will be ridden in sportives. Sometimes Cycling Plus testers have ridden up to 1,000 miles on test bikes.”

Mountain biking technical director Steve Worland explains that the testing process is guided by the product itself. “In a nutshell, we test products for as long as we feel we need to in order to form an unbiased, well-informed opinion with which to educate potential buyers. The best testers tend to be the riders who’ve seen bikes evolve and who still maintain a potent enthusiasm after gaining years of cycling experience.”

The same approach is being used in Future’s newly-launched magazine, Triathlon Plus, with a pool of talented athletes and experienced bike testers pushing their considerable fitness to the limits on test loops and in action during races too.

Future relies on a core of highly experienced testers, and as Matt Skinner explains, it takes a certain type of rider to make it as a tester. “Saying that you like a bike is easy. Saying that you hate a bike is also easy. Saying that you personally might not be the right rider for a bike, but that someone else might be, is the difference between an amateur and a professional.”

Scoring can be a thankless task – someone will always disagree – but Future goes further than most to ensure its numbers are fair. It has recently conducted an audit of every current tester’s scores for every product and bike.

Skinner says: “This allows us to see who is marking harder or softer than the average, giving us the opportunity to adjust individual testers for consistency. It also gives us average, median, high and low scores for our magazines as a whole and ensures our scores are in line with our scoring definitions.”

Simon Withers says it’s important that testers do not shy away from giving poor marks to a product: “If you look at our last locks test [Cycling Plus issue 219], you’ll see products that scored one and two out of ten – quite expensive locks that served as little more than a visual deterrent. We give low marks if we feel the products deserve it.”

“Any scoring system has to be diligently policed,” adds Skinner. “If average products are scored too highly, then the exceptional ones won’t stand out.”

Sports group editor-in-chief, John Stevenson, says Future’s investment in its testing infrastructure is continually growing.

“We're working on a significant project to do more to support our riding-based testing by expanding our in-house lab testing so we can better quantify the things that matter in how a bike behaves on the road and the trail. However, we're never going to base our reviews solely on empirical testing,” he offers.

Future’s long-established, company-wide code of conduct on testing informs on the standards and infrastructure already outlined, but also puts strict controls on the influence of advertisers.

Advertisers are never able to view, let alone influence, a review prior to publication. “100 per cent whole-heartedly they don’t have any say in what we do,” promises Matt Skinner. “There are no sweeteners and no backhanders. We regularly have incidences of advertisers threatening to pull their advertising because of a bad review, but it won’t change what we do.”

And with millions of magazines sold and unique users online every month, Future takes its business of providing its readers with trusted and credible information very seriously.

Future’s testing in numbers
200,000+Total miles ridden by testers annually
18,000 Highest annual mileage by individual tester
6,000 Mechanical jobs performed each year by magazine staff
700 Bikes tested in a year by the group
590 Total years cycling experience of testing teams
1 Kilometre of gear and brake cable fitted in a year

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