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Can FSA and Rotor crack the groupset market?

As FSA and Rotor launch their first groupsets, can they wrestle a share of the market from the 'big three'?

There are innumerable bike brands, wheel manufacturers, and companies making saddles, tyres, handlebars and more. But for a complete ‘groupset’ of drivetrain and braking components, just three companies – Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo – dominate the market. Why?

If Easton, Reynolds, DT Swiss et al compete with the offerings of the so-called ‘big three’ for a share of the wheel market, for example, why isn’t the componentry sector similarly competitive?

Challenges to the dominance of Campagnolo, Shimano and SRAM are few and far between, but new offerings from FSA and Rotor offer hope of wider choice and greater innovation. Can FSA crack the big three with their semi-wireless WE electronic groupset? And will Rotor crash the party with their hydraulic Uno setup?

FSA and Rotor have both launched complete groupsets – but can they crack the ‘big three’ of Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo?

Past masters

Campagnolo and Shimano have produced groupsets for so long that their status is assured. SRAM, as a comparative newcomer, has achieved much in a short period, entering the road market only in 2006 and proving there’s room for more competition. SRAM’s latest groupset, the first-to-market eTap wireless transmission, is one of the most talked about products of 2016.

Other players have attempted to enter their playground. Mavic, the highly respected wheelsmiths of Annecy, released the ‘Tout Mavic’ groupset in 1979, though Sheldon Brown notes that the brake calipers were merely branded Mavic and made by Dia Compe or Modolo.

Mavic’s subsequent electronic transmission – the buzzily-titled ‘Zap’ – was of greater significance, and ridden by Chris Boardman for eight years of his professional career. Its wireless successor, Mektronic, proved less successful, and today neither are in production, with Mavic continuing to focus on wheels.

The beautiful Mavic 631 chainset is another glorious component to have become obsolete. When we visited the French firm’s Annecy HQ in 2014, a now rare example of the ‘starfish’ chainset, as it was known, lay abandoned on a workbench in the service course for the famed yellow motorbikes; a forgotten item.

German manufacturer Acros launched its A-GE hydraulic transmission in 2011, with paddle shifters and front and rear derailleurs, each actuated by two hydraulic lines. Five years later, the Acros website lists the system as ‘not currently available’ and the front derailleur is absent from the ‘scope of delivery’.

Standalone chainsets are available from a wider source, with Cannondale’s elegant and impressively stiff Hollowgram SiSL2 offering, the latest development of a technology pioneered by the US firm. FSA, meanwhile, were the first to market with a carbon chainset with compact rings.

Cannondale is among a number of brands to designs its own cranksets

Indeed, FSA’s chainsets are commonly specced bikes, drafted in by bike manufactures to sit alongside groupset components from Shimano and co, but could that now change with the arrival of a long-awaited complete groupset from the Italo-American firm?

Full Speed…ahead?

Few brands can be said to have learned more about the challenges of launching a groupset than FSA.

FSA brand began work on the groupset recently premiered as WE – Wireless Electronic – in the early 2000s, its general manager Mauricio Bellin tells RoadCyclingUK.

It was first intended as a mechanical transmission, but the advent of Shimano’s electronic Dura-Ace Di2 in 2008 changed all that. Electronic shifting was clearly the way of the future.

“We started again from zero,” Bellin admits.

Shimano Dura-Ace R9100 2017 groupset product launch 29-06-2016 (Pic: Wouter Roosenboom_
Canyon Aeroad with SRAM Red eTap and Zipp 404 Firecrest carbon clincher wheels - review (Pic: George Scott/Factory Media)
Campagnolo Potenza groupset (Pic: George Scott/Factory Media)

The greatest delay, however, came from navigating patent issues, rather than the fundamental change to the transmission.

“It’s the biggest part of the story,” he says. “It takes a long time to discover a patent because some are not already approved or even on paper.”

When more advanced prototypes had been developed, FSA faced another challenge: keeping them secret. A spare bike belonging to Michal Kwiatkowski wore the WE prototypes at the 2014 Tour de France, sparking intense media interest. For Bellin, it was a price worth paying.

“We said that working with our partners was more important at that stage than to keep the project secret, because we had already made longer tests with amateurs,” says Bellin. It was time to do a real test with the pros.

“We knew it would be difficult to control the noise, but we also knew it was the final test. From that Tour, we had already moved through five versions of the groupset. In the end, it took 22 or 23 prototypes to arrive at the final iteration.”

With such a sensitive project, might it not have been better to conduct testing away from the public gaze, and certainly away from the biggest race in the sport? Belllin says no.

“One of the best ways to develop the product is to work with the teams,” he argues. “You can check everything you do in the laboratory, but the big guys can ride at 60kmh. They have the real answers. If it works for them, it works for everybody. We started to work with pros from the final prototypes, even if it was not easy to control the rumours around the groupset.”

WE was finally unveiled at the 2016 Eurobike trade show and a positive response to its technologies – wireless levers, ANT+ communication, and a battery able to provide power for up to 6,000km – appears to have made it worth the wait. FSA has mounted a challenge to the ‘big three’, even if the road to market has been long. However, Bellin the challenge in making the groupset stick starts now.

FSA have had a groupset in development since the early 2000s and launched WE (Wireless Electronic) at the 2016 Eurobike show

“We recognise it’s a tough market but we have something to say: we bring the user to the centre [of the groupset],” Bellin argues. “We recognise that in the beginning it will be tough because the quantity will not be so huge, but when you have something to sell into the market, there will always be room.

“The [bike brand] product managers at Eurobike recognise the advantages you get from an FSA groupset. The ANT+ protocol is a big step forwards because we can record and share a world of data. I’m sure that’s the future of cycling, because everyone wants to collect data.”

FSA’s existing foothold in the market as an OEM supplier to a wide range of bike brands gives the firm a head start in ensuring WE is specced on off-the-shelf bikes. Having pulled back the curtain on the groupset at Eurobike, FSA have put WE into production and it is expected to be available from March 2017.

But, by then, FSA won’t be the only new player in the market.

Numero Uno?

Rotor Bike Components has a history of using innovation to punch above its weight. Rotor’s oval ‘Q rings’ are a prime example from a company able to forge an identity through innovation, while the sale of more than one million chainsets, compatible across a wide range of groupsets, has allowed Rotor’s engineers to understand the intricacies of shifting.

Rotor offered a first glimpse of the hydraulic Uno groupset at the 2014 edition of Eurobike. Two years later, it is close to fulfilling a first batch of 2,000 orders.

Wolfgang Turainsky heads the technical support division at Rotor, and serves as team liaison to Dimension Data and Cervélo-Bigla. He is under no illusions why competitors have been so reluctant to enter the groupset market.

“Because this is the most complex part of the bicycle,” he says, simply. “There are reasons there are only three companies: investment, development, risk, patent issues.”

That said, he believes that Uno will inspire other companies to take the plunge, who might previously have had doubts about entering the groupset market.

“People really appreciate that there is now more choice,” he says.

Rotor Uno hydraulic groupset (Pic: Rotor)
Rotor Uno hydraulic groupset (Pic: Rotor)
Rotor Uno hydraulic groupset (Pic: Rotor)

Testing, testing

While Rotor supplies two top-tier teams – one men’s and one women’s – it is perhaps significant that the women’s team has adopted the Uno groupset.

While the men’s WorldTour is frequently presented as an arena for cutting-edge technology – portrayed as setting the tone for the consumer market in the way Formula One does for the auto industry – in reality, it is often very conservative. Riders and mechanics prefer to stick with what they know and trust. ‘To finish first, first you must finish,’ is their mantra. However, Rotor’s support of the Cervélo-Bigla team has seen Uno tested at the very highest level.

“Everybody considers the [men’s] WorldTour the gold standard,” Turainsky says. “If you have Mark Cavendish using your product, or Peter Sagan, it is the ultimate. It’s a little bit misleading. It implies that Cervélo-Bigla is not as competitive.

“But this year is Olympic year. It’s a very important year for them; for the girls. So the level of competition is as high as on the WorldTour. The whole cycling community invests a lot of money in this. It’s becoming more of a focus, so it’s not that you can just dump products on them for testing.”

Turainsky’s view is echoed by Thomas Campana, general manager of the Cervélo-Bigla team, who, in an earlier phase of his career, was general manager of the men’s Cérvelo Test Team.

“In general, it has worked well,” Campana says of Rotor Uno.

“What we discovered was that you cannot simulate certain conditions on the computer or in training, but only in racing. It has to be crashed. You have to be in Strade Bianche. You have to be on the cobblestones. Then you get some results.

“The groupset in general has worked very nicely, but there are small details [to improve] and Rotor has worked very hard. We’re very close to getting 2.0, the modified version. Some of the riders with smaller hands changed to another product, but they will change back when we get the new version. Rotor is moving fast. They want to make it happen.”

Patent pending

Hope Technology is another company with an enviable reputation. Its products – hubs, headsets, chainsets, and bottom brackets among them – are known for their reliability, and a groupset looks an obvious step for the Lancashire firm. Yet Hope, founded and owned by former Rolls Royce toolmakers Ian Weatherill and the late Simon Sharp, have never entered the groupset market.

Weatherill is another, like FSA’s Bellin, to cite the constricting nature of patents, especially those issued in America.

“In America, they patent anything at all and then wait until people start battling over it,” he says. “Narrow-wide sprockets were on agricultural implements 100 years ago – we found one up the Dales – so are they new if they’re on a bike? But they were instantly granted an American patent.

“You have to fight like mad. As you get bigger, you get harassed more. In Europe, there’s a stronger legal setup.”

Hope manufacture in-house in Lancashire but deal in individual components, rather than complete groupsets

Quality control is another issue that prevents companies from entering the groupset market as readily as they might with frames, for example.

“There’s more engineering involved in the groupsets,” Weatherill says simply. “It’s a lot harder than people think. Anyone can design a frame and have a Chinese company make it.”

While subcontracting is feasible for moulded carbon frames, it opens the door to quality control issues in the component sector.

“Anyone with a bit of money can get a [frame] mould made,” says Weatherill. “It’s a lot easier. But it’s difficult to get components to work and to shift properly. We can do it because our manufacturing is in-house. FSA have very good control and Rotor make things themselves, so they have control.”

Big in Japan…and everywhere else

Ultimately, both FSA and Rotor are hoping – at this early stage – to grab only a small slice of the Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo pie. However, even the ‘big three’ description is not entirely accurate: Shimano’s resources are of another magnitude to those of either Campagnolo or SRAM. Shimano operates on an almost unimaginable scale but the company’s size is only one reason for its market dominance.

Shimano has forged a reputation over 95 years for quality and reliability. Furthermore, Shimano’s ‘trickle down’ philosophy means that technology introduced at the top tier is soon implemented in cheaper solutions for the masses.

Dura-Ace, the flagship road group produced at the company’s Sakai City headquarters, is the platform from which Shimano launches its new technologies. The 9000 groupset, for example, launched in 2012, introduced a four-arm chainset, a design which has since trickled down to the fourth-tier Sora groupset.

So if Dura-Ace represents the cutting edge – and the recently-launched 9010 iteration represents further refinement – are Shimano’s engineers constantly required to adopt the sort of ‘blank canvas’ approach that Rotor have adopted with Uno in ditching cables and wires for hydraulic shifting?

“We don’t tear up what’s gone before, as there are certain levels of quality and performance that bike riders expect from Dura-Ace,” says Ben Hillsdon, PR officer for Shimano Europe.

“But at the same time, like with Di2 for example, driven in part by the professional cyclists we work with, we identify areas of inefficiency and take inspiration from many areas of life to see what ideas we can adopt or create.”

Shimano has earnt its dominant market position through a combination of quality, reliability and innovation (Pic: Wouter Roosenboom)

One might imagine the trickle down philosophy to save time – a ‘copy and paste’ solution for the mechanical realm – but Hillsdon points out that things are not quite so simple. Lower tier groupsets are not inexpensive clones of the flagship; rather they are intended to serve a different audience. The commuter, for example, will expect longer service intervals than the racing cyclist, who accepts that lightweight, highly stressed components must be replaced more regularly.

“The challenge with the lower to mid-tier groupsets is to combine the technology with durability for all-round performance,” Hillsdon explains.

Shimano’s production capacity is mind boggling: some 700,000 chainsets are made each month in its Malaysia facility alone, for example.  Trade events like Eurobike, where each year hundreds of bike brands unveil their new models, most of them dressed in Shimano products, indicates the scale of its customer base.

Both Rotor and FSA told us that initial production runs of Uno and WE will be low – so, with only three major players currently able to satisfy customers as voracious as Canyon, Specialized, Trek et al, surely the choice is narrow?  Shimano says not.

“There are many road bike components and lots of products for the consumer to choose from, which is a good thing,” Hillsdon says. “We can’t speak for our competitors but our reputation is based on providing the best quality at each level.”

This last statement is incontestable. No-one has handed Shimano its dominant market position. It has achieved it through quality, reliability and innovation

The future

For road groupsets – specifically, transmission and braking – wider choice current means expanded offerings from just three dominant manufacturers. Campagnolo, for example, unveiled its new, aluminium Potenza group in March, as a direct rival to Shimano’s Ultegra. A case of ever decreasing circles, or the most revered marque of all attempting to serve a broader customer base? You decide.

But, with the arrival of groupsets from FSA and Rotor, the challenge to the hegemony of just three manufacturers should be welcomed. Imagine having only three frame builders to choose from for your next machine. Or just three wheel manufacturers.

Expect to see FSA and Rotor’s groupsets on 2017 bikes – whether they stand the test of time remains to be seen

“Competition is always good for the product, always good for the consumer, always good for your own everyday challenge,” Rotor’s Turainsky says of Uno’s power to inspire. “But I don’t think that you will suddenly see 20 or 25 different companies coming out with groupsets.”

However, Rotor and FSA are to be applauded, not only for the innovation of their Uno and WE groupsets and coming to market with genuinely unique technology, but in having the commitment to even to attempt to break up such a closed shop.

Both companies are aware of the significant challenge still ahead of them in cracking the dominance of Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo, but could the ‘big three’ soon become the ‘big five’?

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