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11 August, 2020

Judge, Jury and Executioner: A Conversation with James Huang

By: Allied Cycle Works

The foremost technical expert in the English language about high-end bikes? Not much debate on that one -- it's James Huang.

In his role as Global Technical Editor for Cyclingtips.com, he cuts through the relentless tide of marketing puffery to give riders substance and insight.

James Huang  with a cut on his forehead and a missing front tooth

We think of you as the pre-eminent bike tech editor in the English language. But perhaps not everybody knows who you are. Can we do a round of speed dating here? Tell us about yourself -- your background, where you live and what you do.

I grew up on Long Island about half an hour east of New York City, and started riding road bikes in about 9th or 10th grade. My high school had a USCF-registered (I’m dating myself with that one…) club team, and our coach would regularly take us out for guided rides around the north shore of the island after school.

I left for college at the University of Michigan in 1992, got involved with the team there as well, and also started my first shop job when I came back home for that first summer (basically building whatever bikes Rick Stanfield told me to build). When I got back to Michigan, I found a part-time job as a mechanic at another shop, where I stayed until a year after finishing my undergraduate degree in microbiology.

I eventually got a job at a laser spectroscopy firm in Ann Arbor working on microscopes… and apparently decided that a full-time job wasn’t occupying enough of my time, so after about four months out of the industry, I was lured back by a friend who hired me as part-time service manager at a new shop he opened up in town. I stayed there even after I quit my "real" job and decided to go to grad school (for materials science engineering), again at U of M.

I started my own web site specializing in mountain bike front suspension tuning and maintenance while I was at that shop (angryasian.com), and it earned me enough of an online presence that I ended up freelancing for Cyclingnews.com while I was finishing up grad school. Shortly after my thesis defense — and with most of my job prospects involved the petrochemical industry and working on a floating oil rig — I moved to Boulder, Colorado to see if I could make the writing thing work for real. As they say, the rest is history.

Bike media feels over-served. There are SO many choices for content and news -- Cyclingtips, Cyclingnews, Velonews, Reddit, Twitter, Inner Ring, etc etc. How does Cyclingtips stand apart? Looking into the future, how does it build and retain an audience?

I guess that’s both the beauty and danger of online publishing: it doesn’t take much to get started, and you’re absolutely right that there are A LOT of choices out there right now — some better than others. What I think sets CyclingTips apart is the way we blend the personal feel of a blog with the professionalism of a more traditional outlet. Much of our stuff is intentionally written in the first-person so that it almost feels like the author is speaking to you directly.

And then, on the tech side, our main editors — myself and Dave Rome, who’s based in Sydney — combine multiple decades of experience between the two of us together with a steadfast dedication to providing our honest viewpoints, not just for gear reviews, but on where we feel the bike industry is going in general. It often nets us a lot of awkward (even angry) emails and phone calls when a company doesn’t like what we’ve written, but our goal has always been to present out viewpoints and findings in a way that brands can certainly still dislike what we’ve written, but can’t say that we were outright wrong. As far as we’re concerned, it’s far more important that we’re respected than well-liked.

James Huang cycling on a rural road
James Huang riding on a desert road with a little girl

Bike brands covet your attention. Nobody on the planet probably gets more bikes sent to them for free than you. Do you have any bikes that are keepers -- because you love how they ride, or because they mean something special on an emotional level?

Let’s get one thing out of the way right away: With very, very few exceptions (I can probably count them on one hand over fifteen years), test bikes that are sent to us for review are always sent back to the brand after we’re done with them. I think it’s absolutely critical from a reviewer’s standpoint that there be no expectation of a "free" anything — and likewise, I think there’s also danger in reviewing things that you’ve bought with your own money beforehand. After all, how many people will willingly rip into something that they’ve just spent a lot of their own money on?

Also note that I’ve intentionally put "free" in quotation marks. An industry friend of mine told me very early on that goes through my mind to this day: Nothing is ever totally free. And so whenever something comes my way that I truly don’t want to let go of, I’ll usually see what the company will be willing to sell it for, but only after I’ve finished the review. Whenever possible, I like to keep things clean. It’s just easier that way for everyone involved.

Five cyclists with their bikes behind them in a alpine desert

Favorite stretch of road? Favorite trail?

On the road, and assuming we’re keeping things local, I think my favorite descent might be St. Vrain Canyon coming down from the mountains into the small town of Lyons. It’s not particularly steep, but it’s fast enough that you can pretty easily outrun cars on the way down, there are lots of fun sweeping corners, and the pavement is really high-quality. Maybe best of all is how it seems to just go on forever. It’s definitely worth the climb up to get there. Otherwise, I’ve had the grand privilege of being able to ride on the island of Mallorca a bunch of times over the years, and while I can’t remember the name of the road, there’s one that descends out of the mountains and hugs the coastline as you sweep through what feels like a billion corners, all of them perfectly contoured with the Mediterranean sea off to your right. It’s just amazing.

Off-road, one of my favorite local downhill segments is the Longhorn trail at White Ranch in Golden. It’s chock-full of fun little drops and hits from top to bottom, a lot of the corners are pleasantly bermed, and there are even sections that are closed off to hikers and equestrians so you can really just let it rip. If you hit it in the early morning before it gets too hot, it’s absolute bliss. So, so much fun.

Further away from home, I’d probably have to put nearly anything in Pemberton, British Columbia on the list. I was fortunate enough to join in on the Pinkbike Field Test last autumn, and was blown away by the quality of terrain surrounding that tiny little town. I’d ridden a bunch in BC before, but this was on another level in terms of how the trail builders used the natural terrain and the sheer variety of options on tap. And oh my god, the dirt. It was so, so good.

IF YOU COULD SOLVE ANY SINGLE PROBLEM WITH MODERN-DAY BICYCLES, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

Tolerances. A lot of the headaches people complain about these days (press-fit bottom brackets, disc-brake alignment, etc.) aren’t really things that should be problematic *in theory*. However, the sloppy tolerances that are often associated with mass manufacturing mean that a lot of these systems don’t work the way their designers and engineers intended.

That said, I do still hate press-fit bottom brackets (so many tools, so much hassle, so much waste…) and I absolutely loathe flat-mount disc brakes. Post mount may have been a little clumsier-looking and heavier, but it’s far more tolerant of slight variations in alignment, is annoyingly restrictive (I think there are plenty of riders who could benefit from 180mm-diameter front rotors, for example), and it's tons easier to set up. I hate it so much.

Most overrated piece of cycling technological "progress" of the last decade?

Press-fit bottom brackets. Sure, they save a few grams and the wider shells of some press-fit formats allow for more design flexibility for frame designers, but they’ve also ruined the rides for thousands of people thanks to incessant creaking and maintenance issues. It’s an era of the bicycle industry that I wish had never happened, all ostensibly in the name of saving a few grams. It’s just totally stupid.

Fast forward 10 years into the future: What happens to the balance of usage between eBikes and non-eBikes? Will non-eBikes strictly become a thing for racers and fitness freaks, or will they have broader longevity?

My guess is that a lot of people won’t be happy that I’m about to say this, but I see cycling evolving along a path similar to what we’ve seen in skiing. In that world, lift-access is the norm, while cross-country and backcountry stuff are more of the outliers. Interestingly, both of those segments consider themselves to be a little more "core" than skiers who only stay inbounds and sit on a motorized chair to head back up the mountain. Sounds familiar, right?

I don’t think non-motorized bikes are going to go away, but as far as the mainstream goes, people ultimately are in it mostly for fun, and whether you like them or not, e-bikes are undeniably fun. There are plenty of ways this might not happen, of course: they’re super expensive, and there are also all sorts of regulations and whatnot governing how they can be used, especially in the United States.

That said, I still think that, in the long term, e-bikes are going to outnumber regular bikes. In fact, for some of the bigger brands, that’s already happened.

Let's talk about things besides bikes…What's on heavy rotation on your Spotify playlist? What's the best book you've read lately?

I’m almost afraid to admit this, but my wife is a huge bluegrass fan and I’ve clearly let my tastes be heavily influenced by that (doesn’t help that we share a Spotify account). These days, I feel like I find myself turning to music more to settle my mind and calm me down, and I’ve found that genre to just be relaxing and fun. Big fan of the Wailin’ Jennys. One of the best concerts I can remember.

As for books… well, I’ve started a whole bunch of them in recent years, but I rarely have time to finish them, especially after our daughter was born. If I have spare time on my hands, I generally find myself trying to get out for a ride, or trying to get some more work done (I’m a bit of a workaholic). My wife devours books in bed, almost more as a function of her using that to help erase the worries of the day so she can sleep. Me? I’m out nearly as soon as my head hits the pillow.

Tell us about your media diet: What do you read on a daily basis? Do you have email subscriptions that you like best?

While I’m not much of a bookworm, I’m a voracious consumer of news and longer-form periodicals. I have subscriptions to the New York Times and Washington Post (because I feel strongly about supporting good journalism), and frequently pick up copies of the Atlantic, New Yorker, and The Economist. I actually don’t find myself reading other bike publications, but I do read a lot of car web sites and magazines. I find myself increasingly disdainful of car culture, but still love them from a technological aspect, and enjoy the act of driving when I’m fortunate enough to be behind the wheel of a suitably fun car on an appropriate stretch of road. I miss my old ’96 VW GTI VR6 dearly, and still pine for "a fun car", but the reality is that I drive so little these days that it’d be hard for me to justify spending a chunk of money on one. Case in point: instead of finding some older used hot hatch, I bought an Urban Arrow e-cargo bike. I don’t regret it :)

Your technical expertise regarding bikes is mammoth. Do you have a life passion where you take a similarly analytical approach (wine, cars, stereos, etc, etc)?

I don’t think so, to be honest. My brain is too tired.


James Huang riding down a desert mountain road with cyclists behind him

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