Friday, December 28, 2007

Frank Vandenbroucke

VDB defines the Euro PRO look. If there's a style guide for the neo-pros in Europe, VDB wrote it. Whether it's his calf-high shoe covers, drop-top arm warmer style, the seemingly careless roll of the handle bars, or the ever-present sheen of the BKW, VDB embodies it all. And, of course, the dude is from the cycling capital of the world. Almost every team in the PRO Tour has offered him a spot at one time or another. Team Directors are willing to run the risk of hiring him because maybe, just maybe, he will show his brilliance again while on their watch.

VDB has unparalleled natural talent. In 1999, VDB showed the greatest promise of any of the neo-pros by winning Het Volk and Leige-Bastone-Leige. In fact, he won LBL with a style reminiscent of Babe Ruth by announcing before the race his plan of attack. Frank's talent is further evidenced by his performance at the Tour of Flanders in 2003. The dude shows up with fewer spring miles than a club cyclist, makes the break, and holds onto VanPetegem for second spot on the podium. Frank carries a natural talent; one that defines the sport. Just one look at VDB's position on the bike and his fluid riding style will make you green with envy. Frank was born to race bikes. Frank has been a teammate of almost every big name in recent cycling; mostly because he changes teams annually.

The 2007 season is wide open for Frank. With a new team (Aqua Sapone) and endless natural talent, the PRO world is VDB's oyster. "Come on Frank, one more time? Show the new guard how it's done."

Frank Vandenbroucke was originally posted on 12-6-06 and seemed like a good follow-up to the VDB video.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

How High?

In a world full of absurdist concepts, I’ve got one that won’t make you blink: Your bicycle is on your shoulder and you don’t live on a second story walk-up. You are running through a farm pasture, have not committed a crime and your bicycle works perfectly well.

Sounds like a great time, huh? Such is our love of cyclocross. There’s something in this equation that doesn’t quite add up, and it’s not that we carry our bicycles. It comes when we put that bike back down and willingly lob our asses skyward. Whether we have dreams of procreation or not, the delicate business means landing sidesaddle in proximity to a collection of biology known to us primarily for its ability to remind us of what NOT to do, the event is meant only to speed our return to the pedals. Click, click—and we’re off again.

Years ago the process was a little more involved. You had to hit each pedal with your foot, flip it over and jam your foot back in. Because races took place on grass, the bicycle’s bottom bracket had to be much higher than that of a traditional road bike so the toe clips wouldn’t drag in the grass—this is a detail the Frogs figured out in the 1950s.

Fast forward to, oh say, now. Swing the right knee skyward and once safely aboard, the feet go straight into the pedal stroke, no flipping over of the pedals.

So why are bottom bracket heights on cyclocross bikes still on average 2cm higher than those on road bikes?

It wouldn’t be a cause for concern were it not for this little detail. Name another cycling event where the rider makes tighter turns? Add to that the fact that these oh-so-tight turns are conducted aboard bikes with 700C wheels and it’s fair to ask the question: What can we do to make this bike easier to turn?

The answer is simple: Make it easier to lean the bike over to carve a tight turn. Okay, so how do you do that? Simple. Lower the bottom bracket. Drop the center of gravity of the bicycle and leaning the bicycle into a turn becomes a good bit easier.

How much could it be dropped? It’s hard to say; there hasn’t been much experimentation with this. Pedaling through corners doesn’t happen to the same degree it does in crits, so dragging a pedal through the dirt isn’t a big concern.

To illustrate the point, let’s consider an example in extreme. Say you’re driving down a twisty road. Would you rather take the twists and turns in a Ford Expedition or a Mini Cooper? My preference would be for the Mini Cooper, with a center of gravity lower than most Congressional standards, it can turn circles around the SUV. Put another way, I’d rather run a steeplechase barefoot than on stilts.

I went to the trouble to build, with the help of Toby Stanton of Hot Tubes, a ‘cross bike with a low bottom bracket. In Part II I’ll describe the process of building the bike and racing it at ‘Cross Nat’s and since.

Photos courtesy Chris Milliman

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Let it R.I.P.

Back in the day, I had the pleasure of working with an eccentric guy we called Pants. Among other things, Pants has a vocabulary that is second to none. Pants loves bunnies, excellent java and, of course, a great burrito.

But there is another side of Pants that sets him apart from the rest: Pants takes pride in his ability to ghost ride his machine further and faster than anyone else. And we are not talking about just a light roller where the bike comes to rest in some brush just up the trail. We are talking HUGE, hucking style with ample hangtime and the potential for utter devastion upon re-entry. Off a bank into a deep stream? No sweat. Into a thick of trees? Why not? Pants is never afraid of consequences and the allure of going higher and faster always tempts him.

There is eery silence that blankets onlookers when a machine has left the safety of its owner and is rocketing toward fate, alone, solo, as its momentum faces an eventual demise. No matter the conditions, no matter the company, Pants is always up for some wicked ghost riding.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The San Diego Low-Speed Wind Tunnel

BKW recently had the opportunity to tag along with a manufacturer for a trip to the San Diego Low Speed Wind Tunnel to watch some product testing. This was our first opportunity to see the fabled facility that has tested many of the bike industry's most aerodynamic bikes and parts. It has also escaped decommission death more times than James Bond.

We can't reveal who was testing, nor the results (those are embargoed for first release by the manufacturer), but we can offer a virtual tour of the facility that has helped some of the world's great riders refine position.

The facility is built on a continuous loop. The propellor that creates the wind is positioned roughly 180 degrees around the loop from where products are tested.

The propellor blades are handmade wood laminate.

Because the wind tunnel is a continuous loop, after each run, or "blow" as they are referred to, a retractable screen must be used to arrest the air flow. Trying to change products in a 30 mph wind would be cold, unpleasant business.

The facility was designed during WWII; construction began in 1944. Prior to the invention of calculators and computers, calculations were figured by a battery of slide-rule equipped staffers. Three men now do the work of more than two dozen. These photos were taken in the early 1960s.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

1961 World Championships

Bern-Bremgarten, Switzerland. September 3, 1961

Distance: 285.252
Time: 7h 46m 35s
Average Speed: 35.861 km/hr
Conditions: Cloudy, September temps
71 riders started, 32 finished

1. Rik Van Looy (Belgium)
2. Nino Defilippis (Italy)
3. Raymond Poulidor (France)

There are very few items remaining from my father's youth. Over the years, most of his keepsakes were either tossed, lost, or left behind from his move to the U.S. from Argentina. Because very few cycling pieces remain, his cycling experiences are mostly confined to memory.

A few years ago while cleaning up, my father came across an envelope containing a few small things he had collected on a trip from Buenos Aries, Argentina to Bern, Switzerland to view the 1961 World Road Championships. The trip comprised of travel by ship, train, and car to meet up with his mentor and friend, Bruno Loatti. Bruno was an Italian track and road racer who had traveled to Argentina to participate in six-day races and road events. My father had served as Bruno's mechanic throughout his stay in South America.

In 1938, Bruno had won a silver medal in the Amateur World Championships in the Sprint event and had stayed involved for many years after, racing and eventually coaching.

Digging into this envelope was a special moment for me. As his son, it provided me with a glimpse into my father's life and, as a cyclist, it was a door into the past. My father and I sat and drank Stellas as we recalled his trip and the sights and sounds of the World's. As a guest of Bruno's, it meant that my father had an "all-access" pass that gave him access to the course, and because of Bruno's continued involvement and love for cycling, he was also treated to the hospitality of the PROs, the Italian, South American, and even the Belgian, riders. My dad recalls the enthusiasm in both the Italian and Belgian camps, excitement that one of their countrymen would finish the day in the rainbow stripes. He recalls Rik Van Looy's confidence and sitting with the Belgian team as they sipped tea at 11:00 p.m. at the local cafe, too jacked up on adrenalin to sleep. He smirked as he described the crowds laughing at the Japanese team's breakaway in the 20th KM of a 285 KM race.

My dad talked about the drive home from Bern to Milan where he and Bruno smoked tax-free cigarettes at elevation, making both of them lightheaded and dizzy. We chatted about how the Alfa station wagon labored to cross the Swiss passes, and even the Swiss World's team still on their machines passing the car on the descent as they rode back to the hotel.

It was obvious to me that my dad was enjoying telling the story as much as I was enjoying hearing it. Unfortunately, because most of my dad's cycling memorabilia has been lost, the people and places are just a memory. For this very reason, it makes the 1961 Worlds even more special for both of us.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Guys Who Ride the Stuff They Sell

Bill McGann riding with Mauro Mondonico in Tuscany.

On a late spring morning more that 10 years ago, I visited a nondescript commercial space in Ventura County, California. Home to Torelli Imports, it was my introduction to “Chairman” Bill McGann and his wife Carol. We changed into cycling clothing and he took me for a pleasant tour of the hills surrounding his home. By “pleasant tour” I mean that Bill took me out and schooled me. I’ve felt fresher after some races. Then we went out for burritos larger than some crainia.

For those who only know Bill from his ads, it might be helpful to mention that he was a Category 1 racer for many years and once knocked out a 100-mile training ride with one other guy in four hours. Ever modest, he claims to have been the eternal 3rd, but leaves out that his era overlapped that of Greg LeMond. He grudgingly admits an exception to his eternal bronzing, the time he turned a 56 minute 40k TT on a bike with 36-spoke wheels, drop bar and brake cables flapping in the wind. He was the fastest 28-year-old going in California.

If asked how far to the top of a 10k climb, Bill will tell you, "Just a little further." It would seem he thinks anything less than two hours isn't a proper ride. His idea of a good time: pulling off the front of a paceline at 26 mph and checking your calves for signs of weakness. I know this because I’ve seen him do it repeatedly. I always fear he will shout out as Gino Bartali’s domestique did the day he saw a vein in Fausto Coppi’s leg become swollen during a race—a sign Bartali took to signal fatigue in Coppi—“The vein, the vein!” he cried.

Bill has a fundamental belief that bicycling should be an extraordinary experience, that pedaling should, in itself, be a rewarding recreation. While fitness gained through brutal training is a wonderful thing, riding is enough. Those who ride with him know that this man who has been pedaling through the citrus perfume of lemon groves for more than 30 years proclaims his rides to be "paradise itself."

Bill is the classic Renaissance man. He can quote historian Will Durant. He knows the top 10 on GC from every Tour de France in history. He understands Gothic architecture. He wrote (with the assistance of his wife Carol) a very fine book on the history of the Tour. He is a fiend for great comics and was hip to Frazz and Jef Mallett from virtually its beginning. He makes his own bread and composts in his back yard.

His bikes have never been the lightest on the planet, nor the very stiffest. What they do offer can be called all-day comfort, sufficient stiffness and handling so finely balanced you'd think the bike was designed with the aid of the Golden Mean. He describes it as stage-race geometry: bicycles meant to be ridden well by even the most fatigued legs. To ride a Torelli, fairly put, is to know what Bill believes to be a good time.

A few years ago Bill told me of a conversation he had with Richard Sachs in which they all but swore a blood oath to start a club: Guys Who Race the S@#$ They Sell. They figured there would be little need to charge dues as there wouldn’t be many people eligible for membership.

Mr. Atmo himself, drilling it in 'cross.

For the purpose of the adaptation we’ll expand this to anyone who rides a product he sells. It’s still a relatively select club, but one that will creates a large enough population to be worth pursuing.

I hope they’ll forgive this appropriation. There’s no truer route to the soul of a bike company proprietor than by riding with him. No one starts a bike company without a passion for cycling and there’s nothing like going for a ride with someone to learn about their passion for the sport. It usually leads to a conversation about a product they love to ride, one they have brought to market. The revelations are always interesting.

Stay tuned for future installments from rides with Guys Who Ride the Stuff They Sell (GWRTSTS).

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.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Winter Rules

During the summer months, the rules of the group ride state riders may not wear headphones during the ride. I support this rule and I feel it makes the ride safer overall. I mean, it is tough enough to corral 50 riders at 25-30 mph but throw in some loud music and it is an accident waiting to happen. But in October the group becomes smaller and the tempo slacks. And so do some of the rules. From October to May wearing headphones is fair game. For the same reason the headphones are dangerous in the summer, they become a welcomed relief in the winter. The headphones remove the rider from their surroundings just enough to take the edge off the cold. Some club members joke that with the music piped directly into their ears, they feel warmer and insolated, allowing them to tough out another hour or two of cold pavement and biting wind chills.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Monday, December 3, 2007

Cannondale CAAD 8

In November 2005, I filled out an employee purchase form for my first Cannondale. Sure, I had sold thousands of these oversized, U.S.-made gems to countless cyclists on both coasts and points in-between. However, even with all of my theoretical understanding of Cannondales, I had very little first-hand experience.

I had just sold my Look 585 and I was hoping to downsize the cost of the frame in an effort to purchase an SRM. Employee purchase price - $800: frame, fork, and FSA headset. I ordered the SRM at the same time. It cost 3X the price of the frame. This was to be an experiment, an attempt to learn first-hand what the SRM was all about. Two seasons later, the SRM is gone and CAAD8 remains my go-to bike.

The CAAD8 arrived four weeks later and it was a vision of practicality and functionality. The frame was brushed al-u-min-e-um with a clear coat. The tubes were classic Cannondale/Fosters: (largely oversized) with welds that were ground smooth. The decals were PRO-style (read: big and everywhere) and, aside from the legal disclaimer on the down tube, the bike looked the same as Cunego's: PRO. The fork had a classic curve to it: sexy, like the forks of yesterday and a trait that appears to be less common as the years go on. The fork was Cannondale's Premium and had alloy drop outs.

I promptly built the CAAD8 with a Record group, Classic wheels, and an SRM. It was fully equipped to handle the rough winter that lay ahead. I immediately packed the bike into a box and shipped it off to Massachusetts for my annual winter training camp. I spent hours and hours on it, alone, hammering the back roads and quaint villages of the New England seacoast. I spent most of my time pushing buttons on the SRM and watching the numbers. The bike was almost invisible, a trait I often equate with excellence. The ride was stiff; stiffer than the 585 vertically but laterally, the bikes stiffness reminded me of stepping off a loading dock. The BB was rigid and uncompromisingly stiff.

Following the winter camp, I arrived back home and eagerly joined my local group ride. I wanted to talk numbers with other power users and to see how the Cannondale rode in a group environment.

My experiences at this point were limited to solo rides on smooth country roads. The Cannondale had performed no better or worse than any other bike I had ridden. But when paired with 30 other eager roadies and let loose in a group setting, the CAAD8 unleashes a side of its personality that can only be defined as brutal and 100% business. To quote my pal BI, the bike becomes a weapon.

Cannondale has managed to capture the heart of a killer in a sweet and innocent package. Of course, the CAAD8 was the choice of Cunego (despite his access to the CAAD8's big brother, the SIX13) and for good reason, but when one compares the Cannondale's price tag to that of other PRO machines (Colnago, Pinarello, BMC) it can easily be dismissed as unable to deliver the soul and liveliness of these other, higher priced machines.

The stiffness generated in the BB would lead one to think the corresponding ride would be too stiff, abusing the rider and beating their kidneys into submission. However, Cannondale has blessed this bike with the ability to deliver a very comfortable ride, one that is not often associated with oversized aluminum. My longest ride on this bike hovers around 4.5 hours and, at this point, the ride has yet to leave me asking for relief. When paired with tubulars, the bike takes on an even greater degree of comfort.

When out of the saddle the CAAD8 begs for more, any effort put into the pedals is directly transferred into forward momentum, driving even a clincher tire to sing like a silk tubular. The stiffness of the BB is simply intoxicating. The bike begs you to train harder and to hit the weights in the off-season in an effort to build the very legs this bike deserves. Whether slamming closed a gap or shooting for the town line sprint, the Cannondale is as eager as a groom on his wedding night.

There is only one sensation from the CAAD8 that can rival its acceleration and that is cornering. I'd be selling the Cannondale short by suggesting anything less than taking one for a spin, but for the sake of this post, this is where the weapon analogy really takes hold. The Cannondale is like the friend in high school who was blessed with the ability to avoid trouble and injury, he always had a way of talking you into doing things you knew you'd regret. The Cannondale is simply fearless in turns. High speed sweepers or off camber 90º turns, the CAAD8 is up for it if you are. Go ahead, I dare you.

It may seem tough to believe that a bike could be so inexpensive and perfect at the same time. Well, there were some issues with the bike. Upon arrival, the clear coat was applied over some oxidation on the tubes, giving the creases and corners of the frame a smokey, black appearance. I recall thinking this must be a fact of the employee purchase price. But then again, an employee purchase would indicate the CAAD 8 would be leveraged to sell other Cannondales. Perfection should be a priority.

The other issue was the fork: the Premium fork was a constant source of concern for me in the early months because I was never able to adjust the HS and have it stay snug. After a couple of rides, the HS would work its way loose again. I pulled the fork and replaced it with a Premium+ I purchased from eBay. Apparently, the Premium+ was not available as an aftermarket option so gray market was my only choice. With the Premium+ installed, my problem was solved. Although, I am not one to believe a small change such as carbon drop outs vs. aluminum drop outs would affect the ride, but the Premium+ is a better riding fork. The Cannondale rep said the fork had a different carbon lay up, but I wasn't able to confirm this. My thought is that it's doubtful Cannondale would change the lay up of carbon for the Premium+ without sacking the fork with a "premium" price tag.

The CAAD8 has served me very well, better than most road bikes, the Cannondale has remained in my stable longer than any other production bike (barring my Bridgestones).

I have ridden the CAAD8 with Record, tubulars, clinchers, light wheels, heavy wheels, and with an SRM and without. The bike has been built in many a livery, most recently Dura Ace. Back in July of this year, following a brief Italian holiday, I cobbled the CAAD8 back together in an effort to perform a side-by-side comparision. A winner takes all competition that would pit the Cannondale against the Don from Cambiago. It was not about pride, or bragging rights, it was about money. More specifically, the 4k I had tied up in the Colnago. One weekend, one bike left standing.

My Cannondale enters season three in December.

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

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Handlebar and Grill

Let’s be straight about this: Americans have done a lousy job of memorializing their achievements in cycling. Go to Belgium or the Netherlands and bars routinely double as the home base for a great cyclist’s fan club. That ought to be the natural order of the world.

The Handlebar and Grill in Denver helps to right previous wrongs. It’s a sports bar, to be sure, but a sports bar with a twist. Owned and operated by cycling enthusiast Mike Miller, the Handlebar and Grill starts with a basic (American) premise: good food at affordable prices. The menu focuses on burgers and sandwiches, but is broad enough to please anyone thanks to its generous range of salads, steaks and pasta.

What is different about the Handlebar and Grill is its décor. Miller is a charming guy and has met the elite of American cycling. Name a name from cycling’s (American) past and you’ll see what his—or her—signature looks like somewhere within the confines of his establishment.

It’s not enough to have some cool signatures. Taking care of them, matching them with pictures and framing the stuff nicely is what gives the Handlebar and Grill its charm. Funny how a nice frame makes you take something more seriously. Hey, it worked for the Mona Lisa.

From old team pictures to promotional trading cards and race posters, Miller deserves serious pack rat props. He obviously saved this stuff for ages. You’ll recognize the cover of Winning following Andy Hampsten’s Giro win … framed along with a pink jersey signed by Hampsten. There’s a 7-Eleven jersey with pictures of each of the riders. Other jerseys include this nifty white jersey with rainbow stripes on it, a signed Coors Light team jersey and a Team Z jersey with signed photo of Greg LeMond below it. There are bikes and bumper stickers and banners a-plenty. To reveal any more might spoil the fun of discovery as you walk around the place.

If you’re in Denver, it’s worth the trip. Heck, if you’re in Colorado, it’s worth the trip.