Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Soul of the Machine

Hint: It's not chocolate, it's ...

When Fat City Cycles was sold to the holding company owner of Serotta Competition Cycles in ‘94, bike junkies everywhere wondered what would happen to the soul of the company. Riders discussed whether or not a Slim Chance or Yo Eddy! Made by Serotta’s builders still constituted a Fat Chance. The issue arose because the new owner of Fat City announced none of the old employees would be retained; only Chris Chance and his partner would move to Saratoga Springs, NY.

Soon after, Steve Elmes, Lloyd Graves and other former Fat City employees announced the formation of Independent Fabrication, complicating the question. There was no doubt any bike made by the Serotta staff would be fine, but the people behind Indy Fab had been touted as the heart and soul of Fat City. So what were they now, (pardon me) chopped liver? For those concerned with brand equity, the situation was something of a conundrum: In what did the soul of Fat City reside? Was it the bike with the FCC decal or the bike made by the world-famous staff in Somerville, Mass?

What gives a bicycle soul? People talk a lot about soul and which bikes have it. There's no doubt a Sachs or Weigle has it in spades, but some of that is only appreciable when you get off the bike—you can’t really admire the lug work at 25 mph. We can discuss beauty all day long, but bicycles are made to be ridden and the most important part of any evaluation of a bicycle should be based on the ride of the bike, not how cool the paintwork is (which, in the case of Weigle, Joe Bell or Brian Baylis is undeniably so). Judging a bike on ride quality is the only way to level the playing field, otherwise the bikes made by corporations would all be considered crap. Oh wait, I suspect there are a few bikies out there who already think that.

John "Columbine" Murphy's hand-cut lugs and stem

As a rule, soul is associated with any bicycle made by an individual; Sacha White's Vanilla Bicycles have soul even though most cyclists don't know much about the guy (worth finding out). Simply put, if the decal on the side of the bike is the name of the person with metal slivers in his (or her) fingers, the bike has soul. If the decal only carries the name of a corporation and therefore doesn’t point to an individual with the hands of a craftsman, we don’t recognize any soul. We seem to grant certain manufacturers soulful status due to the quality of their fabrication. I think most cyclists would agree that bikes from Serotta, Seven and Indy Fab all have soul. And yet you can’t know who built the bike just by looking at it.

At what point does soul evaporate? How much of that has to do with the head of the company serving as the personality of the company itself. Rob Vandermark doesn’t build frames himself, but who would argue that Seven’s personality, its soul, isn’t inextricably linked to his own. Seven is certainly a projection, a manifestation of Vandermark himself. It's the same for Ben Serotta. But what is Moots now that Kent Erickson has left? Wasn’t the alligator Erickson’s alter ego?

Richard Sachs was—for a time—bewildered by the fact that his most expensive frames are his most popular. The reason is simple: His most expensive frames demand more of his time. More of Richard’s workmanship translates to more of his soul in the inevitable calculus of craft. Who would want less of the legend?

The sexy lines of the LeMond Tete de Course

So now to play Devil’s advocate: Why can’t the bikes from the big corporations have soul? The auto industry isn’t like the bike industry; if it were, Ferrari would be disparaged for their engineering prowess. Consider that some of the biggest bike companies around build bikes from some of the most advanced materials available and ultimately sell some of the most expensive bikes on the market. So why can’t Trek, Giant or Specialized be cool in the way the independent framebuilder is? As a guy interested in the technical advancement of the bicycle, I’ve learned more by talking to bike company engineers in the last year than I have from anyone else in the industry (save the fitting gurus at SBCU, but that’s another post).

In my mind, I’ve begun to visualize the conflict as the difference in sprinting styles between the Merckx generation and current PROs. Merckx and his contemporaries had to execute their sprints with finesse and through high rpms. Today, it’s all horsepower. You don’t see Ale-jet or McEwen turn the pedals at 150 rpm but their accelerations explode with Porsche ferocity. Both sprints are things of beauty, as surprising in their unfolding as opening a Christmas present. So why should we prefer one to the other?

Monday, November 26, 2007

One Year of BKW

On Sunday, November 25th, BKW arrived at the one year mark. Funny since this blog was born from the mere intention of entertaining friends and providing an expressive outlet for my cycling passion.

Over the past year, BKW's readerbase has continued to grow every month only to exceed my wildest expectations and reach a level I could not have imagined back in November 2006. BKW's readers drop in from all over the globe and I am continually flattered when BKW is linked to from other blogs or when bloggers spread the word for us by devoting bandwidth to BKW in their own space.

So, with one year under our belt, I want to thank you, BKW's readers and fellow bloggers, for spreading the word and for dropping in and spending some time with us each day. Your comments and participation give BKW a unique depth that makes it special.

Thanks for your support and we look forward to another enjoyable year.


Thursday, November 22, 2007


The legend, our sun, at center and his planets in rotation.

When I became a serious roadie some two decades ago, part of the attraction to me was the shared adventure. Group rides that lasted 60, 70 miles or more through mountainous terrain defined my sense of fun. However, finding a group of guys whose idea of fun matched mine was a challenge; most of them headed home after that second hour. That is, it was a challenge until around 2000 when a subset of the riders I typically train with decided to focus more time on climbing the mountains nearby.

One of our number, a guy we refer to as a heat source, has served as a catalyst to drive our rides longer, faster and with more climbing. Unafraid to define someone’s masculinity in terms that would be censored from a Quentin Tarantino film, Sterno crystallizes all that the group itself is: from bonding us through our suffering to demonstrating our shortcomings with the stupid acts we undertake in traffic and the things we’re apt to say when the passions fire first, he is each one of us—only moreso.

And the guy is nothing if not stylish. From the Rapha and Capo Forma kits to the immaculately clean bikes, he's more PRO in appearance and riding style than any of us will ever be. And in a way that only an alpha can, he is the first to remind you what's cool and who has it.

So it is that Sterno is moving and leaving the nucleus for another set of mountains, ones more gorgeous and less hospitable. We kid about how long it will take for him to move back; I bet 8 months until his return in the pool we started. It gives us a way to joke about something we are all too sad to face full-on.

Sterno is that most necessary of ingredients. As the center of attention, he reduces each of us to supporting roles in his world, but for that we are enriched, for he can’t be the center of attention without the audience and we, his friends, never want to miss a moment. He keeps the rides together, strings them out and never lets them dull.

We’ve had our moments. I’ve said things to him I wouldn’t repeat to a construction worker. And yet he always wants me on the rides. Those flintier moments give our friendship an enduring spark I wouldn’t trade for gold.

So on this day of thanks, I express my gratitude for someone I simply can’t imagine riding without. We’ll miss you.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Record Kanadian Embrocation

It's that time again. Well, it's been that time most everywhere for some weeks, but now we've had time enough to try a few new embrocations. From Milano come Record products. They make a wide selection of embrocations for conditions that range from Hampsten on the Gavia to July in Provence.

Kanadian is made for the broadest range of conditions in a single day: from armwarmers at the start to unzipped at the finish. My favorite thing about the Kanadian is how easily it goes on. Some creams don't seem to flow well--some seem downright tacky, so to the degree you are inclined to give yourself a bit of massage to make sure everything is ready to fire like the old Saeco leadout train, this stuff allows my hands to glide over my legs.

I must confess a love that should not be named. For me, what I most love about embrocations aside from the smell (I'm with Radio Freddy, the smellier the better) is how they look after four hours of racing. The flypaper road grit look on the shins couldn't be more PRO even if you rode around with a signed contract from Slipstream. Pulling up to a coffee shop with legs that look like you just beat Eric Vanderarden in the sprint at Paris-Roubaix and getting strange looks from patrons and management alike makes me grin with glee. Anything that can make cycling appear more brutal, more ... Daniel Craig-style James Bond, I'm in for.

Overall Heat Rating - virtually none
Euro Style Rating - High, a bright sheen
Smell - Vaguely floral (tea tree oil and rosemary come through) and unlikely to upset the race HQ's hotelier
Durability - Extremely high, five hours plus

Torelli Imports is the U.S. distributor of Record products. I asked Torelli's public face and Guinea Pig in Chief Bill McGann how hard the stuff is to remove before trying it and he said it wasn't bad. He was right; Kanadian cleans up easily, which I like. When I asked his advice on some embrocations that seem to be part pine tar he suggested steel wool. Bill has a sense of humor ... or he takes delight in my misfortune. Pick one.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Tom Simpson: The Lion of Yorkshire

John Pierce of Photosport International began shooting the Tour de France 41 years ago--a record even Joop Zoetemelk would admire. His first day on the Tour was the day after Simpson died. John wrote us in response to our post Godspeed.

Everyone has their own “way” about these things. In many ways I agree with your sentiments.

Why did Britain make a hero out of a doper? In this day and age--where doping is in the blood and controlled by doctors (up to nine doctors per team)--it seems a stupid thing for a nation to select a doper as one of their greatest ambassadors.

The perception and probably correct assumption at the time was that Simpson died because he pushed himself too hard. When his body gave up on him, he asked “put me back on my bike.” Harry Hall (who died last week) did just that. Simmy was already “clinically dead,” but the brandy and the amphetamines (a la discoteque) made him think otherwise. He died.

What Simpson had in his system was nothing like what Van Looy, Anquetil, Janssens or Darrigad were alleged to have used, i.e., enough strychnine to kill a horse.

Simpson, first of all, was a “small” person from a poor mining town in Yorkshire--much like many of the French--Pingeon perhaps. Simpson, however, was a gentleman, “from the old school,” and he played on that even before James Bond was on the screens. The French loved him, and they wanted more Brits, still do.

He was BBC Personality of the Year, a presentation awarded to him personally by the Prime Minister--not just some TV guy, like these days.

No “normal” rider has the “heart” that Simpson had. In Flandres they would have called him a "lion". If you mix up the likes of Roger DeVlaeminck, Johaan Museeuw and Felice Gimondi you will have what was Tom Simpson. But unlike those riders, Simpson was of a frail body--his family was very poor in his youth; his father (I think) was a miner.

Life in Britain at that time was far from good--Simpson was born just two years into the second world war ... in 1937. The war ended in 1945, when he was 8 yrs. old; there were still rations during his teens.

Simpson didn't die from the stimulants; he rode himself to death, and he did it because it was his last chance to move up the GC. Drugs cannot do that to a rider; cycling cannot do that to a man of his health, youth and vitality. Simpson pushed and pushed; the stimulants and the "bit of brandy" used in those days to quench the thirst (I used it when I raced) combined with the tremendous heat that day allowed him to ride way beyond his means yet still stay somewhat upright on the bike. (Tom also had a stomach problem having previously had a tape worm.)

From that stage to the finish in Paris the top six on GC did not change, not even for one day for one place. Simpson died on Stage 13.

Simpson’s team manger was a guy called Alec Taylor. I met him at the TdF start in 1997. He asked me if I had photos of Tom—Yes I will send them when I get home from the start (in Rouen). It was strange becuase his room number in the hotel was 13. We spoke about how everything was adding up to 13--the time, his race number, the stage, the date, the year and so on. He said Tom's “lucky number” was 13 because no one else wanted it.

I returned home for five days before going back to the TdF--so I mailed him the pictures. They arrived on the 14th July; his wife called me crying--Alec had died the day before--same time, same date—exactly the same 30 years after.

You work it out--

Britain has another person whose death we shall never get over--Princess Diana--both are held in the same esteem.

In later years, when the peloton passed the memorial, Merckx slowed and took his cap off. Millar did the same; in fact Millar threw his cap to Joanne, Tom’s daughter, as he passed in the Tour one time. Millar and Wiggins looked for each other, so they could pass together this year when they raced up in the Dauphine.

Simpson with protege Eddy Merckx on his wheel.

Of course everyone forgets who taught Eddy Merckx how to ride a bike--everyone except Eddy that is--it was Tom. I have a small piece of lunar-like granite from where Tom fell on the Ventoux . It was given to me by Joanne Simpson.

Jacques Goddet asked to have his picture taken (by me) at the Simpson Memorial standing next to Barry Hoban. Goddet was educated in Britain (Oxford University I think). In 1987, I received the Medaille du Tour de France, but not from the race director, or press chief Claude Sudres - It was presented by Jacques Goddet. That year the race was won by an Irishman I personally, face-to-face fixed up with the ACBB a few years earlier.

Small world. We're proud of Tom. I’m happy you were so moved as to have written your article. I’m attaching two shots of Tom, perhaps you have seen them before?

Cheers for now...

John Pierce (Photographer Cyclisme)
PhotoSport International

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Sean Kelly Drinking Song

It's the off season and you can afford a beer. Not just any beer, a proper Irish beer: a Guinness stout.


In August of 2000, I had the opportunity to climb what is arguably the Tour’s most infamous climb, Mont Ventoux. Rising just shy of 2,000 meters (a little less than 6,000 feet) from the floor of Provence, climbing the Ventoux is as humbling an ascent as a cyclist might undertake. July 13, 1967, Tom Simpson suffered heart failure 1.5k from the summit as a result of amphetamine use.

Readers of BKW already know my position on doping in cycling is uncompromisingly against. When Phil Liggett or some other broadcast journalist would pay some homage to Simpson in Tour coverage, I used to talk back to the TV and shout how Simpson didn’t “give his life,” but was a pinhead for using amphetamines. They weren’t a good idea in rock and roll, and they were a terrible idea in cycling.

When I climbed Mont Ventoux, I passed Simpson’s memorial without stopping. Tour riders don’t get a chance to stop there and recover, so neither did I. While I was in no way a fan of Simpson’s, I couldn’t not stop at a memorial to such a significant event in Tour history. I recovered at the top and then rode back down.

I laid my bike down and gingerly made my way up the rocky slope, Speedplay cleats and all. What I saw stunned me. Literally littering the three steps at the foot of his monument were tiny tributes to a fallen member of cycling’s own. Hats, bottles, old tires and tubes, a flag, the odd bandana, flowers and T-shirts so covered the steps, there was no room to sit down. I made the connection with the ancient practice of leaving food, hunting items, clothes, all the things one might need in the next life. And here, at this modest memorial, cyclists from all over the world were leaving Simpson whatever they had to wish him Godspeed.

Gradually, what hit me was a feeling of loss. Not that I personally had lost anything, but what Simpson’s loss was. Here was a guy, a human being, a cyclist for whom racing and winning meant so much that he had given⎯literally⎯everything; he gave his life. Were his choices wise? Certainly not, but could I really condemn a guy for bad judgment? Who would argue that he really understood the risk he undertook--and the price he ultimately paid--to race on amphetamines? The sadness that realization provoked in me was great enough I was glad for the glasses I had on.

As I looked closer I noticed how everything left seemed worn out and used. I was struck by what an insult that seemed to be. One's burial clothes are the finest available, not a ratty old T-shirt. Seeing the threadbare casings of the old tires only compounded my sadness. After a family climbed back in their car, I, to my own surprise, knelt down and wept. What struck me was how stingy visitors were to leave their castoffs. But what had I to offer? I felt my pockets and remembered my second, unopened Powerbar. I pulled it from my jersey and slipped it under a rock on the top step. Leaving the uneaten bar seemed the only respectful acknowledgement. It was private moment, one that I have not otherwise told anyone about, and only do so now as a way to show how profoundly moved I was by the memorial, and my grasp of his frail humanity.

My views on drug use and cheating will never change, but I can’t condemn Simpson for his tragic death. I am both chastened and inspired by his example. Many of us talk about how we’d love to die doing our favorite thing in the whole world. Simpson did exactly that, even if prematurely. In as much as any of us might wish to meet our maker in the saddle, doing so while racing the Tour de France goes down as going out with true panache. Godspeed to you Tom.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Unforgettable, Part III

Here they are, my three favorites. It’s a tough call. On a given day the first bike in this post could switch places with the top bike in the last post. Call me moody. And despite what the pencil-pushing statisticians would have you believe, atmo, weight does matter. An 18-lb. bicycle represents a 20-percent increase in weight over a 15-lb. bike. It will always factor into my evaluation of a bike, however, unlike the fits some folks have over 100g, it isn’t both alpha and omega.

If cost were no object, I would most probably own each of the bikes in the previous post. Similarly, I would own each of these, the difference being, I may still purchase two of the three. Previously I wrote of the five dimensions I consider when reviewing a bike: fit, handling, weight, torsional stiffness and comfort. I’m going to give each of these bikes a grade, a la Robert Parker. Because folks are accustomed to seeing grades on a 100-point scale, I’ll grade each dimension on a 20-point scale in the interest of making the results as comprehensible as possible.

Serotta Ottrot: My test frame weighted 3 lbs., 6 oz., which seemed unconscionable for a ti/carbon bike with a sloping top tube built after the turn of the century. Sure, it would have been unimaginably cool to have a frame with a 58.5cm top tube weigh so little in 1986, but in 2004, it was a little silly. The combined titanium and carbon frame possessed the primal aggression of a grizzly. I'm not sure I needed a bike quite this stiff, but the vibration damping offered by the carbon helped offset the discomfort I would have experienced had the frame been all ti. I rode the bike in mountains and struggled on the climb only to wind up all alone on the way down. With 8cm of BB drop, I poured down unknown mountains like water through a hose and only reached for the brakes at the stops. Six ounces lighter and I wouldn’t have complained. A pound lighter and I would have called it the perfect bike. I give it 92 of 100.

Specialized Roubaix: I have several hundred miles on this model, though on different copies; some have fit better than others. If I were shopping for a bike to take to the Alps or the Rockies, a bike that needed to be Robert DeNiro cool at 50 mph, and light enough to ascend like a hawk on a thermal, the Roubaix would be my first choice. I’ve not ridden a more comfortable bike over dirt, gravel and rough roads. It’s the love child of the Masi Gran Criterium and a Honda Goldwing. A bike for the poker set—relaxed under pressure. And despite the longish head tube, with the help of a skilled fitter a racy fit is easily achieved. The S-Works bike has a very rare blend of low weight, great handling and an unusually adaptable fit. All that said, this bike is something of a miracle--its introduction ran counter to product development in the road market. Plenty of smart people doubt the Zertz work, but I have yet to experience this much comfort on another bike over rough roads; I have not ridden another bike that can make 8-bar tire pressure feel like 6. I’ll give it 96 of 100, but with even more miles and a perfectly dialed fit, it could score higher.

Seven Cycles Axiom: This frame has been my favorite, all things considered. I estimate I have more than 50,000 miles on this thing. Stiff enough for my out-of-the-saddle efforts and agile enough to corner well on tight mountain roads, this 3 lb., 3 oz. frame remains my favorite mix of weight, handling and stiffness, despite the fact that it is 10 years old. The bottom bracket is low enough to make it easy to lean and the butted titanium tubing offers a degree of vibration damping you might not expect. My fit is no longer ideal (I’m shrinking) but Rob Vandermark’s crew hit it over the wall when they built this frame. Relative to its time, I would have given the Axiom a 97 of 100; nothing has surpassed it, but today I think that bike may be out there, and I’m looking.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Unforgettable, Part II

Here are the bikes that I have hundreds, even thousands of miles on, the bikes the manufacturers sometimes had to call repeatedly to get back. They are listed roughly in order of preference.

Carrera Zeus: This bike was one of the first oversize steel frames I ever rode. It proved why more stiffness could offer performance benefits. The seat tube was ovalized at the bottom bracket and stood up to anything I could dish out.

Serotta Atlanta: You didn’t need to ride a Colorado to understand that Ben Serotta was something of a cycling genius. This bike handled beautifully and wasn’t unreasonably heavy, relative to its time.

Merlin Cyclocross: I spent a whole season testing (racing) one; riding it on rough surfaces was not unlike pedaling a high-performance hammock. It was springy, light, easy to turn and only accepted E tickets.

LeMond Tete de Course: This monicker has been used on a number of bikes, but I’m thinking specifically of the series of bikes that shared metal and carbon in the frame—the “spine” bikes as they called them. The Tete de Course was titanium and carbon and while I was critical of how one fork rake was used for each size, resuling in ever-changing trail, my size, the 57cm, cornered with the precision of a draftman’s straight edge. Light, stiff and agile, I didn’t like packing it up.

Giant TCR: I fell in love with this bike rather accidentally. I tried one as I was researching how my fit might evolve on a shorter top tube compact frame. And while not as stiff as the Time VXR, it is noticeably more comfortable. Next time you think comfort is overrated, you might visit a La-Z-Boy showroom. Giant continues to offer the most aggressive compact geometry out there; the result is a broad range of fit and cornering like a cat on carpet. I've heard complaints about too little stiffness in the largest sizes, but I love the medium. First ever unplanned bike purchase.

Moser Leader AX: This steel rig descended like a boulder rolling down a mountain--with an inevitability that reassured its rider. It had a bottom bracket height of 26.2cm and while I’m no longer sure I need a BB that low to corner well, the experience at the time inspired confidence in me more easily than a good beer could. It had stiffness, nimble cornering, a great fit, clean lines and gorgeous fillet brazing.

Hampsten Strada Bianca: Had I been a pro I would love to have raced Paris-Roubaix. For reasons I can’t define objectively, I love taking road bikes on dirt and gravel roads. Not many bikes are specifically designed to make a non-Asphalt surface enjoyable. The Strada Bianca had a low BB, fat tires, a fair amount of trail and a long wheelbase. More fun than driving a Mini Cooper down a spillway.

Felt Z1: There are two companies on the market who really get classic geometry for high-performance production bikes. Specialized is the first and Felt is the other. The Z1 isn’t the edgy, aggressive bike that the F1 is. It is nearly the ultimate century bike. Light and stiff enough to climb like a cat up drapes, it still descends with enough agility to keep the racer happy, but without the edginess of the F1. Think of the Z1 as the Super G to the F1’s slalom.

Torelli Nitro Express: My bike was a custom built for me by the man himself, Antonio Mondonico. I’ve ridden the bike in the mountains, the flats, the hills of Tuscany and always come to the same favorable conclusion. That said, with a 59cm top tube, this bike is no bantam weight. The frame tips the scales at 4 lbs., 2 oz. and determines whether I get to the top of a big climb with the lead group or some time later. Frankly, arriving a little late can be worth it. This is one of the best descending bikes I have ever ridden. It is the antithesis of crit geometry. To ride this bike is to understand Italian stage race geometry. If the cycling lexicon needed one phrase to be understood by all, this would be it. This is cycling's answer to the grand touring sedan--sensitive, responsive, calm, gorgeous, with an understated class. I bought this bike and still ride it.

In Part III, I reveal the top of the heap so far.

Photos courtesy Felt Bicycles and Torelli Imports.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Unforgettable, Part I

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.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Not-So-Venerable Bike Review

For most of the world, the bicycle is a commodity recreational device, different from a basketball only in its cost and the number of moving parts it possesses. There is, however, a whole industry devoted to making machines special enough to elevate a simple form of transportation into a quality-of-life experience. Those experiences—when a bike ride becomes an event—are a life altering pursuit for many of us. Finding the bikes that can give us those experiences are, to one degree or another, what we are really talking about when we compare notes on bikes.

All well-written product reviews are meant to give the reader the objective details of the item in question before evaluating if the product actually delivers the manufacturer’s stated goals for the product. It’s this second bit that guys at many of the bike magazines tend to miss. If ever you want to read a truly impressive review of a high-performance product, check out automotive writer Dan Neil’s (of the Los Angeles Times) review of the Mini Cooper. This review was cited by the Pulitzer committee when it awarded him its eponymous accolade for criticism. Neil’s work is distinguished by his attention to the vehicle’s stated purpose and its performance relative to its category. Well, that and his Swiss-precise language.

Given that our lives are so occupied by jobs and relationships plus tasks that aren’t fun or rewarding, we don’t get nearly as much to spend time on our favorite activities as we’d like. And because there isn’t much need for Consumer Reports to investigate whether or not the latest integrated seat mast rig descends well, the only reviews worth reading (or writing, for that matter) are those that point to exceptional products, those items that are so superior they will increase our enjoyment while on a ride. Done right, such a review can provide enough enjoyment to keep us excited about the sport even if the sun is down and the temperature outside is below freezing.

So on one hand, there’s virtually nothing in the road bike market that anyone needs to be warned about, at least not with the sort of urgency that you’d depend on a friend to mention, say, an invasion of army ants or a new reality show. On the other, there exists the opportunity to excite the reader with a heads-up to a guaranteed good time and the knowledge that they are shorter on time than California is on rain.

So why bother? Diversity. Road bikes are more diverse in their ride experience and range of expression now than at any time in history, save at the inception of the bicycle itself, when inventors had yet to agree on just what a bicycle was.

Twenty years ago, it was possible to look at five production road bikes and the only difference between them would have been the paint and minor differences in geometry. If the frames didn’t all use the same Columbus tubing, the tubes still possessed the same diameters and wall thicknesses. Trying to find a difference between such bikes is like claiming a Big Mac is healthier than a Whopper. Spare me.

Today, unless one really takes time to look at geometry charts, it is easy to dismiss some of the differences in bikes as just fancy marketing copy. But that’s just not the case. If you inspect the lay-up schedule for each size of a given model you are likely to find changes in the lay-up to give each size the same flex pattern relative to rider weight, rather than stiff small frames and flexy big frames. Formerly, the only time you saw geometry changes between models of 700C wheel bikes were the changes found in time trial, track and cyclocross bikes. Now, some manufacturers offer a second high performance road bike that offers a different ride experience.

Years from now, we may look back on the early 21st century as the golden age of the road bike. Bicycle design has never been more advanced. Fit has never been more scientific. Materials have never been stronger or lighter. Riders have never had more opportunities to find comfort. Craftsmanship of custom bikes has never been higher. Frankly, there have never been more reasons to have half a dozen hooks in the garage. The only real question is whether or not a bike review tells you something useful. Reviews should be a useful tool in finding the perfect bike. After all, having the perfect bike for the day's ride is pure PRO.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Review: Time VXR Proteam

Not many road frames generate the sort of PRO hip reaction as Time does. The VXR Proteam is Time’s highest-quality frame that doesn’t use the Translink integrated seatmast. It is alleged to weigh roughly 70g more than the VXRS Ulteam, though still under 1kg.

I’ll get to the point: This is one of the stiffest bicycles I have ever ridden. The ovalized top and down tubes do less to impress upon me vertical compliance than torsional stiffness. With a 44cm (c-c) bar, when I stood up, this thing moved in only one direction: forward.

Too much has been made in the media about how Quick Step riders complained that the Specialized Tarmac SL was not as stiff as the VXRS. The VXR and VXRS both employ the Safe+ fork which was the first to use a multiple diameter steerer (1-1/8” and 1-1/2”). I can’t say that the Tarmac isn’t as stiff torsionally—I simply don’t have enough time on it—but I can see how a rider accustomed to the VXRS might conclude anything else was less stiff, especially if the new ride offered more vertical compliance—and there’s no doubt the Tarmac does do that.

Are the asymmetrical chainstays necessary to achieve the drivetrain stiffness I experienced? Maybe, maybe not, but I can say that under very hard efforts, I detected no lash between the front and rear wheels. It’s funny how our measure of stiffness has changed over the years. In the late ‘90s, I deemed a bike stiff if I couldn’t get the front derailleur to rub the chain when sprinting uphill in a 53x19. Now, my concern is lash, which is much, much harder to judge. Honestly, there are times when marketing hype is unnecessary; this bike is simply stiff enough for all mortal cyclists.

There’s something in the VXR’s unyielding character that inspired an unusual degree of aggression in me. My experience might not be yours at all, but I can tell you that in talking with another rider who had lately spent some time on the VXR, he described the same catalyzed aggression—when riding the VXR, he simply wanted to put the hammer down.

Time uses an interesting blend of high modulus carbon fiber and polyamid fiber (the stuff used in Kevlar) that results in a ride with plenty of sensitivity without all that jarring hum straight gauge tubes are known for. Any comfort I experienced came from the vibration damping quality of the tube materials, not from any vertical compliance.

I spend as much time riding in the mountains as possible and I couldn’t wait to try the VXR on a long descent. The margin of error between nervous, responsive but confident and sluggish is slight. A designer has about .5cm of trail to work with, maybe 2cm wheelbase and another .5cm of bottom bracket drop. On paper the 55mm of trail and 27cm high bottom bracket looks responsive, but what I’ve seen on paper has deceived me in the past; there’s no substitute for long, hard rides.

For evaluation, I need a descent that takes more than 5 minutes. In that time I pick up enough speed that I stop thinking about the bike and focus on the road. If the bike handles too quickly, I will avoid the white and yellow lines, while if I can initiate a turn easily but not before I choose, I’ll apex corners more closely. The bottom line is precision of handling and that is what stiffness offers. With the VXR I experienced an unusual degree of precision: Swiss watchmaker addresses gravity.

My test bike was a 57cm—1cm bigger than ideal. It was built with Campy Record, an FSA crank, Fulcrum wheels and weighed in at 16 lbs. without pedals. I was able to achieve a good fit and even better was possible with a cut down fork and 11cm stem. The VXR comes in seven sizes ranging from a 51.5cm top tube in the XXS to a 58cm top tube in the XXL. The size run features some odd jumps in top tube length as well as two different trails. The range works out like this: XXS (65mm), XS and S (64mm) and M, L XL and XXL (55mm). So from the M to the XXL the steering geometry is all the same while the XXS through the S are virtually the same but with a centimeter more trail, which means the small sizes are going to handle quite a bit slower; naturally, the shorter wheelbase will make a difference, but the end result is that the smallest bikes won’t handle the same as the largest.

I’ve ridden bikes used by ProTour teams and thought them decidedly not PRO. I can say that for the average size male, the VXR is a very PRO rig, just the sort of ride to leave you destroyed Saturday afternoon.

In the last 15 years I’ve ridden more forgettable bikes than I could name, or remember. I’ve probably ridden fewer than a dozen bikes I didn’t want to give up. Add this one to the list of unforgettable bikes.

Time Sport