The Big Story of the past few days is the revelation that the Specialized bike company has threatened legal action against Canadian bike shop Cafe Roubaix if it does not change its name. The shop owner went to the press, the story exploded on social media, and suddenly it seems like this is all anyone in the cycling world is talking about.Even those who aren't incandescent with rage are thinking about it, mostly by wondering if or why they should be angry.
I think it's worth looking at both why one should be tempted to dismiss the anger as overblown, and why it still makes sense to be angry with Specialized. For me, it comes down to the name of a post-industrial city in northern France, Roubaix, that has hosts the finish of one of cycling's oldest and most famous races.
Let's get straight down to brass tacks: "Roubaix" is way overused in cycling culture. Rather than being evocative, it is hackneyed. It is lazy. It is as empty of authentic, personal meaning as "epic" (also TM, Specialized). Of course, it is also a powerful marketing association for any organization in cycling to make, precisely because it is so hackneyed. The fact that it has become imbecilic shorthand for the romance of mud, cobbles, hard men, hard days and transcendent victory is the very reason that Specialized and this bike shop in Canada want to use it to sell their products and services. It's not like either Specialized or Dan Richter are guardians of the sanctity of Roubaix. It's as commercial as Coca-Cola at Christmas. But there is still some sort of faint hope that, at the end of this we at least we have one fewer cycling institution leaning on a haggard old trope rather than contributing to building a fresher, more original, more relevant cycling culture.
Still, none of that makes Specialized look like any less of a bully, and there's no reason why they should be the ones to win out over the right to Roubaix. If anything, the sheer universality of Roubaix in the cycling vocabulary magnifies the extent to which Specialized appears to be run by a bunch of assholes. And threatening legal action against someone who can't afford, even if they are actually and unambiguously legally entitled to use the word "Roubaix" in the name of their shop, to prove that they are right, is the definition of asshole behavior, isn't it?
So maybe, after the dust settles, there's a bike shop in Canada with a slightly less stupid name. That doesn't mean there's no reason for anyone to care. That Specialized itself has worked so hard to suck out what few drops of blood remained in "Roubaix" is reason enough to find the way they cling so jealously to its husk distasteful. This word is the domain of hucksters! Of mental midgets! Of empty imaginations too cynical and lazy to build their own stories or their own (brace for it!) brands! So let it go, Specialized. Be bolder.
I, personally, am watching this story with more detached astonishment than raw anger. I've only got so much fury to go around. Right now, it's devoted to the mundane aggravations of my daily life. But Specialized sure is looking like a bunch of dicks, and I'm completely empathetic with the people who do care so much. And now the story has got even more interesting, since ASI (Fuji bicycles, basically) saw a PR opportunity and swooped in to "magnanimously" grant permission for the beleaguered shop owner to use the name. So I'm sure we'll be watching and ranting and raving on this story for a while.
Update 12/13/13: This issue is since resolved, and Specialized even appears to be reconsidering its aggressive policy on intellectual property enforcement. I now hope this post can now stand on its own as a plea to cycling fans: please, please consider going to a different well to build a brand for yourself. Not because you're less likely to be sued, but because you'll be telling a truer, more personal story.