Note from James: This is the long awaited first post from guest contributor Michael Downes. His timing couldn’t be better since I am too busy to post anything right now (I’ll probably be back at the end of this week). I really enjoyed reading this post, and I think you will too. Thanks Michael.
The problem with our modern industrial/consumer society, a problem that as an industrial designer I have shamelessly contributed to, is the tyranny of the new. In our collective headlong sprint to the future, perfectly good solutions and ideas are regularly jettisoned in favor of the latest fad or fashion. The bicycle industry, driven like all industries by the needs of profit and the glitter of marketing, is as guilty as the next in foisting questionable products on its customers. We talk a lot, in the industry, about ‘tradition’ but sneer at those who aren’t sporting the latest material or components or whatever other doodad that is giving us wood that year. Tradition, in the lexicon of bicycle marketing, has less to do with good ideas and a whole lot to do with legitimatizing our respective brands and the products that we are trying to sell you. I don’t mean to suggest that all the new products are bad. Far from it. The modern bicycle is a marvel of materials and engineering but in our adulation of the latest we often forget the great products of yesterday many of which are still relevant and still work now just as well as they did then.
Case in point: Powergrips, those deceptively simple foot straps that emerged out of the mountain bike explosion of the eighties. It would be easy to dismiss them as an anachronism to be heaped on the junk pile of history alongside all those Slingshots, Girvin Flexstems, and those stretchy Day-Glo helmet covers we all thought looked really cool. I would argue, however, that Powergrips are so brilliant, so sublime in their simplicity and economy of material, so superior in function and practicality that it is a crime they are not standard equipment on all new mid and entry level mountain bikes, hybrids and city bikes. Simply put, they rock!
For those poor saps who either never heard of them or who have but dismissed them let me explain. The Powergrips consist of a pair one inch wide straps that mount diagonally across your pedals. They are constructed of some kind of nylon-ish, vaguely canvassy material (the actual recipe is a closely guarded secret) that is flexible but stretches very little. The rider inserts their foot into the Powergrip at an angle, heel out as they would unclipping from a clipless pedal. As the rider rotates their foot parallel with the plane of the bike the strap tightens across the riders foot and voila! Unlike those sad toe clips & strap combos we used to endure there is no adjustment necessary. The rider’s foot is securely held. Disengaging from the pedal is as quick as a clipless pedal and much safer than toe clips with there tendency to snag on shoe laces and such.
I can guess what your saying, ‘That’s all good but how are they better than my Spuds?’. Well, I will tell you. Firstly, just like your SPD’s Powergrips have ‘float’ but unlike your clipless pedals it is also possible to adjust your foot fore and aft on the fly. How many of us have bought new SPD compatible shoes and spent the first week dicking around with the cleat to fine tune the position (having first dug out all the gunk that has accumulated in the allen-head bolts)? Or having repositioned the cleat failed to adequately tighten them resulting in an ignominious go down when we pull up at the next stop sign? Secondly, how many of us have experienced total SPD pedal shutdown in extreme mud? You know the feeling: the mud caked cleat sliding across the mud packed pedal. Not a problem with Powergrips, they keep on functioning whatever the conditions. Thirdly and finally is the issue of shoe aesthetics. Let us imagine you want whiz down to your local coffee shop for a low fat, decaf macchiato (if you are man enough to request such a thing) and all your bikes have clipless pedals. Your choice is either a) pull out the Lycra ensemble to go with your snazzy racing shoes which seems a bit silly as the coffee shop is three blocks away or b) just wear your cycling shoes and then feel like a complete tool standing in line while everyone considers how well your garishly colored shoes go with your tan chinos or finally c) just endure the discomfort of riding clipless pedals while wearing brogues. Neither of these options is entirely satisfactory but if you had Powergrips you could wear your Sperry Topsiders and still out sprint that Lycra weenie with the spangley Colnago on the way to the coffee shop. The beauty of Powergrips is that it allows you to have your cake and eat it too. You can look like a normal human being and pedal efficiently.
Powergrips where the invention of Darek (pronounced like Derek) Barefoot, a cyclist and inventor back in the eighties and are currently manufactured and marketed by Mountain Racing Products in Grand Junction, Colorado. In business, as in many things, timing is everything. Powergrips were launched the year before Shimano launched their first SPD and the marketing challenge has always been the same: do you pitch Powergrips as an upgrade from toe clips & straps, as a poor mans SPD or as something else entirely? Despite being overshadowed by clipless pedals sales of Powergrips have remained steady and indeed improved in recent years. With the growth of urban riding and the retro grouch appeal of single speeds and fixies a new generation of riders is discovering the advantages of Powergrips. And don’t think for a moment they are just for the casual cyclist unwilling to give up their Doc Martens. Check out Kent Peterson‘s Blog. Kent rode the Great Divide Race in 2005 sporting Powergrips and speaks eloquently of their virtues over SPD’s. The GDR is an off-road, solo, self supported race that goes from Canada to the Mexico along the Continental Divide. It is 2,490 miles in length with 200,000 feet of elevation gained so if anybody knows it’s Kent!