Shimano is better than most at keeping secrets. Ask Pinkbike Tech Editor Mike Levy. He spent a good deal of time at the 2017 Eurobike Expo drilling product managers for any tidbit of intel that related to Shimano's upcoming XTR group. Levy was not very successful, but he took a flyer and used his often vivid imagination to paint a picture of how the new XTR might go down. It was 99-percent speculation, but it still caused quite a stir in Japan.
Bike brand product managers would be among the first to know. They must finalize their component specifications and estimate sales numbers six months or more in advance of production, so parts makers like Shimano swear them to secrecy before showing them pre-production samples, printed mockups, and specification charts of their following season's components. It's hard to believe then, with all that information floating about, that anything
can remain a secret in this sport.
Leaking next season's secrets can (and often does) backfire, when customers decide to keep their wallets safely in their pockets during peak selling season and wait until next year's models arrive. That alone is reason enough to zip your lips. But, do component makers have any recourse? I've never verified a single case, but rumors (there's that word again) persist that critical product deliveries and special race team deals have been known to "fall behind" following major intel breaches.Hiding in Plain Sight Test Pilots
: Innovators need real-world test riders, so another option is to hound dog the sponsored racers and hired guns who are paid to evaluate prototypes and early production samples. You'll have to be fit, though. In just a few seconds, the likes of Ritchie Rude can make you very small in his rearview mirror. Test session are usually staged in remote locations, but you'd be surprised to know how much goes on in plain sight. It can get comical. Last time I was riding in the woods near Santa Cruz, California, Ibis, Specialized, and Santa Cruz Bikes were all testing secret stuff. Everywhere we went, someone was hiding behind a tree - including me, riding a prototype Ripmo. Detectives:
Playing detective is a great game for the media, but we are bound by secrets as well. If someone shows up with it at an event or Whistler bike park. it's fair game. Spy shots are always in demand. Visit a factory, however, and you don't have to look far to see unreleased models in production, often from a handful of brands. To gain access to a story, we often agree to not see this, or speak about that. They trust us not to divulge that knowledge and most journalists don't.Sneak Previews:
Often, bike and parts makers will bring in journalists well ahead of production, sometimes before the patent processes are complete, so there are no surprises when a potentially revolutionary concept is going to be released down the road. Wholesale rejection is easier to deal with before a business commits a few million dollars to full production. Occasionally, that trust lasts for a number of years before a word is spoken.Embargoes:
Media Embargoes are the present rage. It's like a time-release promise. Bike and parts makers use them to corral a number of media outlets in one location for a dog and pony show, tell them all of their secrets, and then schedule an advantageous embargo release date for all parties to publish their stories. Bike brands like embargoes, because they provide time to put out fires from any negative impressions at the launch, and it gives media a grace period to access them for more information.
So, back to Shimano's big secret. To begin with, in a conversation I had with Nick Murdick, the mountain bike product manager for Shimano American Corp, XTR9100 was on schedule for a redesign this year. Shimano's time frame for discussing what changes or improvements may be necessary begins shortly after a new XTR group debuts. Reportedly, it takes about four years from "napkin sketches" to first production, but the heavy lifting begins about two years before the upcoming version's release date. That's when design teams must commit and start making prototypes.
Eight years ago, the landscape was much different, and as Shimano's XC/trail heavy M9000 series reached completion, the long-travel trailbike began driving the market in a different direction. Shimano knew early on that they had missed the mark, so there was consensus (not the rumored shakeup) at the planning meetings, that the upcoming XTR series had to be completely refocused.
"Enduro, the EWS, made it easy for us." says Murdick. "We could get back to XTR's purpose and redesign it purely for racing, because enduro had turned all-mountain into a competitive sport. Now we only had to make XTR to do two things: cross-country and enduro."
How did Shimano keep XTR 9100 under wraps for so long? The answer is, "All of the above." Only the most trusted were allowed in on the planning stages, but ridable prototypes and visual samples have been circulating for quite a while. Chances are that nobody would have seen a finished product until this week anyway. Shimano manufactures XTR in its Osaka, Japan, facilities and almost every step is automated. A recent factory visit revealed that first production of the new XTR was just rolling off the production lines - a testament to the lengthy setup times required for robotics, and also to Shimano's ability to manage "just-in-time" manufacturing. Nobody saw XTR 9100, because essentially, the real thing didn't exist. If you don't have it, you can't show it off - maybe that's the big secret.
And, Mike Levy's predictions? If you want to see how well Levy's crystal ball was working back in August, 2017, click here and see for yourself