Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Cage Match

Pro Racers vs. Bike Construction vs. Sponsorship

It used to be the relationship between a bicycle sponsor for a professional cycling team and the bikes the team rode was limited to decals, paint, and cash. In the 1980s, when 7-Eleven first entered the Euro peloton, they rode frames made by Serotta. Later, team management signed Huffy as a sponsor, but Serotta continued to supply the frames, which was a lot like putting a Ford decal on a Ferrari. 7-Eleven was riding what was easily one of the best bikes available.

By the late 1990s, it was becoming apparent that with the entry of big American bike manufacturers into the European peloton that the face of sponsorship was shifting for obvious economic reasons. Cannondale, Specialized, and Trek all sponsored Division 1 teams, thanks to their marketing muscle, but there was no way a boutique builder like Serotta or Seven Cycles could hope to compete for a frame sponsor position.

Given the diverse shapes of current composite frames, there is little opportunity to try to put a Ford decal on a Ferrari. The bikes are pretty readily recognized. What’s more is that in the quest for ever lighter frames, design has shifted away from traditional lugged designs. That shift doesn’t portend well for ideal fit. Most frames are using a variation on monocoque construction that require use of a specific mold for each size. In round numbers, each mold for each size runs roughly $100k. Such high tooling expenses really don’t permit custom frame sizes. They do, however, permit companies to construct the lightest and stiffest frames ever made.

We’re not going to engage in a pissing contest about whose bike is stiffest or whose is lightest. Suffice it to say that production bikes tend to be the very lightest and stiffest on the market.

Which is what brings us to Tom Boonen. The Specialized Tarmac can not be made in a custom format. Forgetting pro teams for a moment, consumers today are forced to make a choice. When purchasing a frame, you must either choose perfect fit and idealized geometry from such manufacturers as Serotta, Seven, Hampsten, Parlee, or Calfee or you can pick something that is incredibly light and stiff, such as Specialized, Trek, Cannondale, Kestrel, Scott, Giant, or Time. Of these, Parlee is one of the few bikes that is bridging the gap between custom sizing and light, stiff performance.

Back to Boonen. We haven’t been given much info about his back trouble. He wasn’t complaining of back trouble last year when he was riding a Time. Somehow, the switch from Time to Specialized aggravated his back—whether or not there was a previous injury to his back we’ll never really know, and it isn't important. He said his back hurt and that’s enough. As for what we’ve been told of the new, “custom” bike, all we’ve heard is that it is 13mm longer. Umm, hello, is this thing on? Thirteen millimeters where, exactly? Is that 13mm in the wheelbase? In the top tube? In the front center? Just in the chainstays? Could it be that Tom Terrific was just too big for Special Ed’s biggest frame?

We shouldn’t conclude that just because Boonen was moved to an aluminum frame that it is stiffer than his old rig. Frankly, to make a bike stiffer than the Tarmac would require the addition of steel rebar. And not all aluminum frames are unduly stiff. From Alans and Guerciottis to the Cannondale CAAD7, there are plenty of aluminum frames no one would confuse with unduly stiff. In fact, the Alan is the most popular cyclocross bike of all time precisely because it isn’t stiff.

What can be said of aluminum is that it tends to transmit a great deal more shock and vibration to the rider than frames made from other materials. Part of this is just the nature of the material and the rest is due to the fact that virtually no one—save tandem manufacturer Santana—uses double-butted tubing, which was proven to dampen shock long before the Beatles hit the airwaves.

The Tarmac comes in a 61cm size that features a 60cm top tube. That’s long. Boonen is 6’ 3”. Without knowing other details it's difficult to guess what his preferred frame size is, but he could easily require a 61 or 62cm-long top tube. It’s true that his new, aluminum bike looks like the Langster fixie, but as the largest size of that bike comes with a 58.8cm top tube, there’s little chance the folks with Special Eyes elected to saddle the Monster from Mol with an even shorter top tube. Given that his bike has an assortment of braze-ons that permit him to stop (other than on-contact) and shift gears and one can safely take the release at its word. The bike is custom. The real question is if his sponsor is examining the possibility of offering a new, larger size in the Tarmac. It would be suicide to commission a $100-grand mold just for Boonen; the question is, how many 6’ 3” customers might there be?

The age of the aluminum bicycle in professional racing ran roughly concurrent with the Clinton administration. It started and ended about the same time, was no less exuberant, though ultimately felt just as uncomfortable. To put a rider of Boonen’s caliber on a soda can today does seem criminal, but the upshot has one curious effect.

For years boutique builders have staked their reputations on the importance of ideal bicycle fit. Led by Serotta, custom builders (or as Richard Sachs likes to say, “made to measure”) have almost always claimed fit is more important than materials. Companies such as Seven Cycles include very specific instructions on the fitting process for potential clients. Boom-Boom Boonen’s increased comfort on an aluminum rig suggests that a custom-fitted bicycle is more important than the frame material used. When faced with the option of riding a not-so-optimally sized but terribly advanced carbon fiber bike and a custom -itted but low-tech aluminum ride, former World Champion Tom Boonen seems to be happier on the tailored pop can.

If Ben Serotta, Rob Vandermark, and Richard Sachs start talking smack about production bikes, cut ‘em some slack.

BKW long time friend and powerhouse cyclist Padraig sent us this piece as a follow-up to the original Boonen piece posted to BKW.

Photo courtesy: cyclingnews.com


gewilli said...

"part of this is due to the fact that virtually no one—save tandem manufacturer Santana—uses double-butted tubing, which was proven to dampen shock long before the Beatles hit the airwaves."

Gary Klein...

don't omit THE Al pioneer. What he was doing 15 or more years ago people are just not starting to implement.

Pretty astonishing to see copy cats of almost all of his patents popping up on bikes now.

Radio Freddy said...

True, GK was indeed way ahead of his time. Also important to note is that there are very few new concepts in the bike world. Most have made their debut in one form or another in years gone by. Evidenced by the Japanese Data Book originally published in 1983 by Mr. Noguchi.

e-RICHIE said...

Quote from blog entry:
"If Ben Serotta, Rob Vandermark and Richard Sachs start talking smack about production bikes, cut ‘em some slack."

More than anything, ALL of this reminds me of the scene at the beginning of the film 'Sunset Boulevard' when actors William Holden and Gloria Swanson meet with this exchange:

JOE GILLES- "You're Norma Desmond, you used to be in pictures. You used to be big."

NORMA- "I am big, it's the pictures that got small."

Anonymous said...

on the topic of Boonen's back problems, I believe that they began after 2005 Gent-Wevelgem when he collided with a photographer after crossing the finish line and performing a somersault onto his back

Kris Hicks-Green said...

I'm convinced that Specialized shipped Boonen an aluminum frame because they wanted to fill his fit requirements as quickly and cheaply as possible. I'm guessing that once he gives one of the new frames his blessing, they'll build a carbon fiber version. And I'll bet it'll be a custom layup--not using a complete custom mold.

Anonymous said...

Almost every aluminum bike known to man uses butted tubing. Double, triple, gradient, you name it.

Jeremy Schultz said...

There's a good quick analysis of Boonen's "new" bike at Podium Cafe: What's he on?.

Anonymous said...

How does double buting a tube dampen shock? Unless the frame is built with a shock absorber or is very flexy, it will not be absorbing any shocks. High frequency vibration dampening is another thing.

Aluminum frames have the reputation of being stiff because builders originally had to overbuild them to make them strong enough resulting in super rigid frames.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to hear your analysis of the latest twist in the Boonen bike story -- what's the deal with his PR bike? It kinda looks like a Cannondale: http://www.cyclingnews.com/photos/2007/apr07/roubaix07/tech/index.php?id=/photos/2007/tech/features/boonen_specialized_roubaix/gbBoonenBike11