Sunday, December 9, 2007

Range of Expression

The precision-moded edges of a Trek Madone head tube.

Road bikes have never been more highly differentiated than they are right now.

Carbon fiber has given bicycle designers the ability to treat a frame a lot like a quadratic equation—they can solve for more than one variable now. Even if you want a bike that is stiff, light and fits, you can find that without spending a princely sum. Well, compared to what a good bike ran 10 years ago, maybe we are paying princely sums. Regardless, the range of expression in the market is much broader than it was in 1986.

In the day when nearly all good frames were made using lugs and steel, there wasn’t much variety out there. Many will argue the point, but the fact is, beyond fit and handling geometry, the only other major variable was wall thickness and for the most part, builders didn’t request Columbus SP unless they were building a 58cm frame—or larger. The fact is, no matter what anyone has told you, all 1-inch steel top tubes with a .5mm wall feel the same, no matter what alloy is used. That’s just how it was.

Worse yet, if you were to scan a bicycle magazine from the mid-1990s or before, it was possible, likely even, that multiple bikes reviewed in the magazine were built from the same steel tubing. In that scenario, (and provided you had the proper fit) there were only three ways to distinguish between the various builders: lug or fillet brazing work, silver vs. brass and geometry.

Of those differences, only one is qualitative: brazing material. History has shown that a properly executed silver brazed joint will last longer. Geometry is a stylistic issue, but the difference between how a Sachs and a Tesch handle is significant and ultimately a necessary consideration. The final consideration—lug work or fillet brazing style—is the classic question of artistry and points to a customer’s emotional connection with the individual who built the frame.

Times have changed.

The differences between the manufacturers are almost too numerous to mention. Trek, Specialized, Giant, Cannondale, Felt, Scott, Look, etc. each source materials from a variety of manufacturers. Each bike uses a proprietary blend of materials; even if they all worked with carbon fiber from the same manufacturer, there’s no assurance they’d be working with the same blend. How much material goes where in order to dictate the frame’s stiffness also varies significantly. Some manufacturers believe in more stiffness at the saddle while others believe in delivering as much vertical compliance as possible without sacrificing torsional stiffness. Joining methods are an entirely different, but important, issue. Lugs are becoming obsolete and terms such as co-molding and net molding are the signal that the bike industry's use of carbon fiber is maturing.

We should marvel at the incredible diversity of road bikes on the market today. Whether you like each manufacturer’s line or not, road bikes have never been more highly differentiated than they are right now. And the manufacturers now recognize that not all riding experiences call for the same bike. We could castigate them for only recently learning something the ski industry has known for decades (can you say slalom, giant slalom, GS and downhill?), but we’re better off cheering the lightbulb now shining.

Specialized led the way with the Roubaix. In its wake Felt (Z-series), Cannondale (Synapse) and Trek (Pilot) have all entered the market with bikes that draw design cues from what we now call the vintage lightweights. These bikes have in common some slacker angles intended to offer improved vibration damping and calmer handling.

It may be that these bikes are, in part, a cyclic response to swings in bike geometry that have occurred every decade or so. They may be, however, a prelude to a new development in road bikes. This could simply be an early chapter in the gradually unfolding saga of suspension in road bikes. Ten years from now we might look back and realized that these bikes designed to offer improved comfort for their riders were a brave new step toward achieving heretofore unknown levels of comfort and handling in a road bike. While incremental improvements can be made in vibration damping and geometry, the industry will reach a point of diminishing return. There is, we know, a quantum leap forward, that proverbial “next level,” which will only be achieved by allowing the wheels to track the road more precisely and isolating the rider from each tiny bump. Don’t be surprised if that spring is made from carbon fiber.


Doctor Who said...

All of these new bikes, while certainly innovative, sometimes seem to be more an "appliance" for the task of going fast, rather than a machine that over the course of thousands of training and race miles, becomes less a machine, and more a partner – a mechanism, imbued with the blood and sweat of its manufacturer and with a soul of its own. I like those new curvy carbon Specializeds, Colnagos,, no matter if they were made in Taiwan or Italy, but the bikes that really get my attention are those that have received a human touch – such as a handmade carbon bike such as a Calfee, or a custom steel job, most of which are wonderful. Don't get me wrong, if I had the funds (and I wasn't a poor graduate student with $300 in the bank account), I'd ride a Look 595 with relish, but I've got the feeling that even if I had such a bike, I'd still prefer the custom Dedacciai Zero bike that a good friend welded up for me, warts and all.

Ron George said...

"The differences between the manufacturers are almost too numerous to mention. Trek, Specialized, Giant, Cannondale, Felt, Scott, Look, etc. each source materials from a variety of manufacturers."

Do you have any sources for this information?

"Don’t be surprised if that spring is made from carbon fiber."

I won't be buying that :)

Anonymous said...


thing is, no matter what material if the back end of the bike is soft it feels vague (to me). tire pressure is an amazing thing and for all the choice you're describing.. its frankly irrelevant when the frame only comes in five sizes.

i agree that we are in the era of choice, and i think there is a range of stiff enough for all the critical areas of the bike although i personally tend to more stiff than less stiff... but i think that...

all the technology is going into how to mass produce the bikes rather than what is being produced....

and i think the one metric that matters.. is geometry.. and for that.. we are in the era of the strong biker (not cyclist, mind you) on the ill fitting frame.

i feel bad for all the pros on non custom bikes... and i'm always amazed at the contortions if lame fit i see on these bikes that are gorgeous pieces of a production process rather than function.

i'll take that boonen on a pegoretti made specialized custom aluminum... crossing the line in victory pointing at the bike anyway.. because the subtext was rich.


Anonymous said...

also... the only time in my life i've ever had a, 'man, my wheels aren't tracking the road properly' moment.. is descending a super steep pitch with extremely torn-up roads while on the brakes.

other than that.. i never ever have back wheel tracking as an issue... not in the last turn of a crit and not climbing the vibration fest that is yerba, never really.

i don't think engineers are good bike makers.

ok, that's my rant. i'll see you out on the road.. i'll be doing the morning rides again soon. keep up the good work....


Anonymous said... lemond used to race bikes that had a 72 degree seat tube angle, typically slacker than those of his opponents...
...while ostensibly counteracting his long femur length, the design gave greg a certain amount of comfort that his physiology found compromised by steeper angles...

...i can't imagine that mr. lemond would have let his aggressive racing style be hampered by poor rear wheel tracking... "i don't think engineers are good bike makers"...
...oft times engineers wish to re-invent the bicycle...
...good bike makers refine the parameters of bicycle design...

e-RICHIE said...

industry has soul atmo -

Brett Svatek said...

I like to think that the "tools" that I use to have some sort of spirit or energy to them. An energy either transfered by the person(s) who had a hand in making it, or by the previous owner that loved and respected it, and then handed it down, or passed it on for one reason or another. I can't explain it, but I know I can feel it. I am lucky enough to own a fillet brazed cross bike made by Keith Bontrager. I have never ridden a bicycle that felt better, save the fillet brazed road bike I made for myself. In both cases, I have to say it's by the hand of the makers that make these more than just me at least. I have lent the antiquated 'cross bike to many friends, all of which returned it with positive feelings. I think I paid $80 and a few Calgary beers for the Bontrager, and built my frame from a hodge-podge of frame tubes lying around the shop.
I wouldn't trade either bikes for any new-fangled,techo-better bike made with the latest incarnation of Unobtanium. (I did almost trade the Bontrager for a '69 Coupe De Ville that had 60k miles on it..but my dearest friend and Godfather to my son sold me the car for chump-change, knowing I was having a momentary lapse of reason.)

I have a rifle and a hammer from my great uncle that, as far I'm concerned, were inanimate objects until they became a part of his life. He was a superior marksman, and an excellent finish carpenter, and I can feel something special about both the rifle and the hammer when I am holding them, and they're both good for driving nails.

I digress...

Bikes are fun, ride your bike and have fun. Read books, listen to music, and eat pot-roast. Life is very simple.

Ol' Sport

Anonymous said...

Question for ya.... Where did Specialized get the idea for the Roubaix? Hint for the answer: There is a reason that a Specialized Roubaix looks just like a Serotta Fierte.

Anonymous said...

Quadratic equations don't necessarily have more than one variable.

GS is the same as giant slalom.

Anonymous said...

...brian...while i think 'specialized' cranks out a decent product, their old "innovate or die" marketing slogan, was chutzpah refined...

...never a company to stare a gift (read: appropriated) horse in the mouth... least they treat the ageless ned well...he deserves that much...

GOB said...

The question I would like to see answered is how long do these 15 pound bikes last? What happens when you touch wheels and go down? Is it game over? Do you trudge back to the bike shop and drop another 3400 on a replacement frame?

I'm all for innovation and stiffness and lightness and comfort, but I also like the fact that my 12 year old Land Shark has been dumped at least 5-6 times and is still straight and solid, and I still ride it every day.

I'd love to see a 12 year old Madone. I certainly wouldn't want to ride it.

Anonymous said...

Well, Noel took the words right out of my mouth! I will say further, that I am disgusted by the price tags on these euro frames that used to be the staples in the high end road market! I would rather pay 3500.00 for a custom Seven, IF, Calfee,Serotta, Sachs or whathaveyou/Made in America, then 4000.00 + a frame and fork for a Colnago or PickyourEuroframe. As nice looking as they look, it is just criminal, what they are charging now a days. Cannondale, Giant, Trek and Specialized are pricing thier frames out of reach of the little guy too. Out of control! Anyway that's my 2-cents. Ride Safe.

Anonymous said...

its a good point... look at all these american boutique builders right now...
seven, serotta, moots, titus
hampsten (not a builder but a portal)
russ denny
(there's tons more)

i mean.. there's a long list of small business and individuals making killer custom bikes in any material at prices as good as any off the shelf made in china or wisconsin.... i've never understood why anyone would go stock when the option for custom exists.

has the american side of the industry ever had this range of choice of materials and process? screw interbike.. i want to go to nahbs.