Introducing the On The Bike Review: A new twist on bike reviews

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Digital video technology today offers a whole new approach for reviewing bike stuff. Armed with a GoPro Hero helmet cam, a reviewer can offer a running commentary while he or she rides the bike — providing observations and reactions as the ride progresses. The effect is to put the viewer right there on the bike with the rider, giving a real feel for how a bike or component is performing.

The concept occurred to us as we were doing a torture test of Schwalbe’s Hans Dampf all-mountain tire on the back side of Mount Tamalpais in the birthplace of mountain biking, Marin County.

Instead of writing up a review and attaching a video — as we’ve done for many BikeIntelligencer evaluations — we decided to just talk out loud about what we were feeling as we rode the bike…while all the time pointing out what the tire was going through on our test.

The result we dubbed OTBR — On The Bike Review.

Tires are tailor-made for On The Bike reviewing, but other components can be critiqued just as easily and effectively. Among them are suspension (droppable) seat posts, front and rear suspension systems, brakes, drive trains — in fact, just about anything worth reviewing can be adapted to the On The Bike review. The best fit of all may be evaluating a new bike itself — recording reactions as they occur to the reviewer in real time.

We wish we’d had this setup when we first rode the Crank Brothers Joplin suspension seat post back when. We could have dramatically illustrated the frustrations with trying to raise and lower the post using the Joplin’s under-the-saddle lever. Remote controls have since made the Joplin approach obsolete, and Crank Brothers itself has a new post called kronolog.

How does OTBR differ from conventional reviews?

The first thing to understand is that OTBR would not be possible without GoPro’s sound technology. You need a mike that can pick up voice in just about all conditions. The Hero gets the job done, offering amazingly adaptable audio pickup as the ride progresses. Combined with the camera’s visual feedback, the OTBR gives the listener/viewer a truly real sense of how the bike is performing. For the viewer, OTBR is quite literally the next best thing to being there — on the ride itself.

Contrast that with text reviews where the writer discusses reactions in the past tense, often leaving out key information and having no way to show exactly how a component behaved. There’s just nothing like being there.

We at BikeIntelligencer used helmet cams for nearly a decade before the GoPro. They were heavy, bulky, difficult to use and suffered from low video resolution (barely TV quality back when TVs were big heavy tube things with fuzzy pictures — you remember!) as well as short battery life.

When we did reviews with them, the best we could do was voice-overs during editing.

When we began using the Hero it immediately occurred to us that its versatility lent itself to bike reviewing. But we tended to use it the same old way we did pre-GoPro: With mostly dubbed-over commentary. The visuals — riding along a favorite singletrack — may have offered some sense of what the ride was like. But without real-time, simultaneous commentary, the “review” element was not as effective.

The model here might be those outdoors videos where adventurers whisper so as not to disturb the wildlife. The commentary imparts a greater sense of immediacy and participation. It puts you right there on the scene. It’s just plain more real.

Beyond being more real, OTBR is more spontaneous and honest. If a fork seal pops, it’s right there on pixels and you see the travel die. If a suspension post wobbles, you can show how and why right there in the saddle. If your brakes fade, it’ll show right there as you pin the lever to the handlebar on the next corner.

With the Dampfs we wanted to test traction, durability and stability. We picked the nastiest downhill around, Blithedale and Eldridge grades on the back side of Mount Tam, to just pound the stuffing out of the Dampfs and their Snakeskin sidewalls. If we so much as rolled a bead, chipped a knob, tore a sidewall or dented a rim, we’d have it all right there on video.

OTBR’ing is so effective we hope that Web reviewers and YouTube denizens will adopt it with time. It may even merit its own queue on our favorite review site, MTBR.com (it’s no coincidence that OTBR shares so many initials with MTBR).

To do the job right, OTBR does require a bit of thinking on the feet (or pedals), good audiovisual instincts and an articulate narrator. The reviewer has to be able to make observations beyond the American Bandstand approach — “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.” But that’s true of reviewing in general.

We think OTBR would be a great tool for our favorite reviewers — folks like MTBR’s Francis Cebedo, PinkBike’s Richard Cunningham and BIKE mag’s Vernon Felton. With the resources of their supporting publications (far better than BikeIntelligencer‘s modest lot), they should be able to take OTBR to a much more sophisticated level.

In the meantime, here’s our humble OTBR offering, featuring the Hans Dampf on one of the nation’s most popular mountain bike rides.

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