Product recalls happen far more often than I could relay even if that's all I wrote about. The truth is that manufacturers and sellers, from local artisans to multinational conglomerates, sometimes create and sell defective products.
When I say "products," though, I should note that it's often a little more granular than that word might suggest. Rarely is the entire item defective; instead a broken or faulty part destroys the functionality of the whole--a bad apple spoiling the bunch. The website of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is loaded with instances of a faulty whatsit or an overheating doodad creating enough concern to prompt a nationwide recall of the product it's a part of.
Another of these problems recently made the news: the Silicon Valley bicycle company Specialized Bicycle Components, Inc. ("Specialized Bikes" or "SBC" in this article) issued a global recall of one of its models over a faulty fork that has apparently been known to break during the bicycle's use.
Which Products Are Affected?
According to the CPSC report issued February 15, the problem is found in Specialized Bikes' 2018 "Allez" model road racing bikes, including its Sport and Elite derivatives. The recalled bicycles were sold for roughly six months at a price between $750 and $1,200 before the first breakage report was received. The Allez models have an aluminum alloy frame and carbon-composite fork. The affected variants are pictured to the right, though each model has other available color schemes.
The company's "Specialized" brand label is printed on every cycle's downtube, "Allez" is printed on the bottom of each fork leg and "FACT," an acronym for "Functional Advanced Composite Technology," is printed on the inside of the left fork leg.
What's Wrong With Them?
The recall suggests that the fork, the bifurcated piece that links the handlebars to the front tire's spokes, is capable of cracking or breaking during use. In the pictures to the right the fork is visible in colors that contrast with the unit's aluminum frame, on either side of the front tire.
Carbon fiber, all the rage for the last few years as a manufacturing composite and a darling of the ever-on-the-bleeding-edge tech industry, is highly versatile. It's five times stronger than steel but a fraction of its weight. It's used in textiles, transportation and aeronautics, and all manner of consumer goods that need to be perceived as both rugged and fashionable, from wallets to guitars to sports equipment. It's no surprise that an elevated brand like Specialized Bikes would try to integrate it into their products, partly for its "wow" factor and partly as a reason to raise their per-unit prices.
Carbon fiber is generally regarded as safe to use, but as with any composite that's partly going to depend on how (and sometimes where) it's made. FACT, the company's acronymous carbon engineering system, is advertised on its website with all the reverence you might expect a company to use when describing the value of its own products. They don't delve into the science, but that's to be expected. Instead the website says "There isn't a straightforward means of explaining how it works, so consider it a bit of carbon sorcery."
Since the problem was been directly identified as the bicycle forks, that more or less means it has to be a fault in their carbon fiber composite material. If it was forged incorrectly before they shaped the Allez forks out of it, those forks would then be frail or breakable. That's not an indictment of the technology as a whole, but rather a suggestion that SBC may have developed or imported a bad batch of the stuff.
More Manufacturer Information
Founded in 1974, Specialized Bicycle Components, Inc. appears to have a solid record of bicycle manufacture and sales. Their models are moderately expensive but many reviewers both personal and professional say their overall performance makes them worth the cost. Of course, not every review is glowing--some riders mention their models shedding or breaking parts--but the general consensus seems positive.
After browsing through the company's website a bit to get a feel for it, I had a few snarky bits planned about their marketers' expert use of Silicon Valley's favored jargon (I quickly spied "sustainability," "innovation," and "extensive data acquisition"), but I'm not sure what I expected marketers to do aside from...well, their jobs. Modern markets are saturated with this kind of language, and while I do attribute certain words' overuse to the Bay Area and its appetite for "disrupting game changers," any company that wants to compete is right to use the rules of the game.
In their site's section about the FACT process, Specialized Bikes mentions its commitment to quality control:
"...To be sure that our bikes live up to all of our expectations, every one of our bikes undergoes extensive testing in the lab, as well as on the road or trail. We test every frame prototype at all of the load points, test ride them with our pros, and then make multiple iterations, repeating the process from scratch, if necessary, until we're satisfied."
Despite what I'm talking about today, I don't doubt that the company runs everything through rigorous stress-tests. It's in every company's best interests to keep their buyers safe, since their reputation is part of what keeps sales up. Unfortunately, it's pretty clear that things still manage to escape notice until there's a hazard on the end-user side. Those users then say things like "I think that the tires were defective" or "the bottom bracket on my bike broke" or even "I noticed the pedals feeling spongy and the chain coming off frequently." Those are quotes from reviews about the company's "Sirrus" model cycle, and echoes of those negative elements may cause fluctuations in the company's bottom line.
How Widespread is the Problem?
The defect was first reported in December and Specialized Bikes immediately issued a bulletin to known purchasers and riders of the affected Allez bikes. According to the numbers given by SBC they want to recall over 13,000 bikes globally. Of those, roughly 5,550 were sold in the U.S. and another 650 in Canada and Mexico, between June and December of 2017.
Like most product recalls, those numbers don't indicate any major threat to society as we know it. In fact, no injuries have yet been reported--while that doesn't conclusively mean none have occurred, the company voluntarily took active measures after learning that some customers experienced cracking or breakage in their bikes' forks. The recall was put through the CPSC's "Fast Track Recall" process, where a company works with the agency to quickly release recall information to protect consumers.
What Can Consumers Do About This?
The remedy suggested by the recall is a repair-and-replace campaign voluntary enacted by SBC. After getting reports in December and doing some math, the company started manufacturing replacement forks. With the CPSC's blessing and cooperation on February 15, they began their program.
Customers are urged to discontinue use of their Allez bikes and reach out to SBC to arrange for a specialist to replace the possibly-faulty fork with a new one. Specialized bikes are somewhat complicated, and the company encourages Allez owners to contact an authorized retailer in their area.
The site offers a locator for nearby retailers, or consumers may contact Specialized Bicycle Components, Inc. in one of the following ways:
- Call the company toll-free at (877) 808-8154 from 8am to 6pm Pacific Time Monday through Friday,
- Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Dangers of Raising Expectations
Someone else reporting on this recall said that "sometimes faulty parts just slip through the cracks," and that could be what happened here. However, I suggest a followup rule: The bigger a deal a firm makes out of all the innovative materials and exhaustive quality-control their finished product involves, the fewer excuses there are for dangerous flaws.
When I see a company that wants to communicate how special both its products and processes are, naturally all that hype creates high expectations. SBC is right to market enthusiastically, but in carefully detailing its "commitment to innovation" it makes clear that what its buyers will get is in essence a novel product they can use safely and rely on for a long time. When the Taiwanese factory that actually churns out the Allez bikes doesn't quite adhere to the lofty ideals laid out in Morgan Hill, CA, consumers aren't necessarily getting what they pay for.
Products liability law revolves around the idea that companies and consumers have an agreement with one another about what a product can do and what that function is worth. In buying it consumers agree that the charged price is fair per their understanding of what they're getting. In selling it, vendors agree that they truthfully showed or explained realistic expectations about that product's capabilities and composition.
Here's a different example: If I buy a bag of pens from a dollar store, nobody has led me to think they'll do anything special. There's no hooplah about their exciting gravity-fed ink-delivery systems or space-age polymer caps. I probably won't be able to write upside-down, underwater, or on the moon with them. But that's fine! I bought them with the understanding that they're for stuffing into an old coffee cup, using occasionally to scribble out grocery lists, and eventually losing without remorse. They're not pricey, they're not special, and my expectations are set based on those understandings.
If I buy a thousand-dollar bicycle whose makers showcase the virtues of its oh-my-gosh lightweight monocoque frame assemblies and gee-whiz carbon fiber fabrications, I'll assume a very high standard of quality--including the understandable belief that a critical part of the bike won't break during normal use.
I know that Silicon Valley isn't a cheap place to work or live. From all reports, the rent on a small apartment in Palo Alto would make a Saudi prince blush. I get that to keep things rolling (cycling pun not intended), SBC has to set their products apart from every other manufacturer that promises two-wheeled nirvana. To do that, they might have to upgrade their materials and their engineering process, and also tell everybody they're doing so loudly and often. That's just business, and more power to them for every bike and accessory they sell.
Moreover, to their credit they also issued their voluntary recall as soon as they heard the first news about a possible malfunction. We can assume it was just as much about business as it was about altruism, but the important thing is they acted quickly. My only concern is that maybe they shouldn't have put themselves in a place where such rapid triage was necessary at all.
I'm just saying that Specialized Bikes, like anyone else, shouldn't let their mouths write checks that their...seats...can't cash. Promising the wonders of cutting-edge technology is a staple of any firm doing business in Silicon Valley, but SBC has made bikes since 1974 and shouldn't be falling victim to the same quirks as its electronic neighbors. If it doesn't keep its quality in line with its advertising, products liability attorneys will take it to court for a breach of implied warranty.