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.