If you tried to fill a one-car garage with all the bikes I’m willing to call unforgettable, there would be room enough left over for a Honda Civic, if only one of the 1970s variety. This is not to say most bikes suck or that I’m a snob unwilling to recognize quality. Rather, it is a recognition that on special occasions elements of fit, geometry and material come together to give the rider (in this case me) an experience parallel to the imperative that a tweaker feels: I need more of that!
Before going into the bikes that I’ve loved, I should mention a bit about what I look for. First and foremost, it must fit me like a bespoke suit; it needn’t be custom, but the geometry must be well enough thought through to make an average length stem work. Next, I want a bike that handles spectacularly in the mountains. For me, a bike’s truest test is its ability to descend. I can get anything through a four-corner crit course; making it down a mountain descent requires sterner stuff. Absolutely necessary is a mix of light weight and stiffness—I don’t want to stand up and push the BB around. Finally, the bike must be comfortable vertically and dampen vibration; I have no interest in riding an I-beam. In my head, I score each of these five dimensions (fit, handling, weight, torsional stiffness and comfort) on a 1-10 scale. No bike has ever scored a perfect 50.
Let’s get out of the way a few of the bikes that didn’t make the list:
Colnago—Their importers have always been very tight with test bikes. I’ve never tested one. And it’s not like I wasn’t interested or didn't ask.
Calfee—I don’t think I ever anticipated a bike more than the Calfee Dragonfly. It fit nicely, was more than stiff enough and the boron-blend tubing was so dense the ride quality felt, well … ferrous. Neat trick. Just one problem: I couldn’t get it down a hill without fear for my safety. On all but the most sweeping turns it felt like I was skiing a slalom course on downhill skis.
Litespeed Vortex—After the boys in Chattanooga changed the Vortex to triangular and other oddly shaped tubes, they changed the geometry and the handling went out the window. Roll the clock back to 1997, when the tubes were round and it was one of the stiffest, lightest and best handling bikes on the market.
Cervelo, Parlee and Crumpton—I’m interested, very interested, but the opportunity just hasn’t happened yet.
Next, those briefest of observations, bikes that I have fewer than three hours on. Let me hasten to say there is a lot I can detect in only five miles. I'll detect 80 percent of what I will learn about a bike in those first miles. That last 20 percent may take hundreds of miles, but is critical to really knowing a bike.
Richard Sachs Signature—I rode a bike belonging to the teammate of Richard’s one dusk while at the Killington Stage Race for maybe an hour. It was like kissing Angelina Jolie just once. It might have been the finest experience I never repeated. The key to the ride was the cornering; it leaned like a reed in the wind.
Specialized Tarmac SL2—Yes, a production bike. It’s easy to slag on the big three (Trek, Specialized and Giant), but each is at the top of its game these days. I am convinced some of the most intelligent engineering in cycling is being performed by the folks at Specialized. Plenty of very reasonable individuals have tried to convince me that better work is being done, but atmo, I haven't seen much that makes as much sense and rides as well, especially when you consider rider comfort, geometry, materials and torsional stiffness. The bike is surprisingly comfortable, easy to turn, light as a cotton ball and stiffer than some felony sentences.
Next, Part II: Those bikes I have ridden hundreds, even thousands of miles.
Image courtesy of Specialized.