Road Feel

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I’ve ridden dozens of frames made from each of the four frame materials. In the case of steel and carbon fiber, it’s more than three dozen of each. There’s a reason why carbon fiber is king these days. A manufacturer can achieve stunning stiffness for out-of-the-saddle efforts and yet package that in a frame that weighs less than a kilo. Simple market forces have been driving the bike industry toward lighter, stiffer bikes since before Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France.

At this point, the industry standard for bikes is this: Stiff enough not to get front derailleur rub in a 53×19 when out of the saddle and sub-kilo. Without those you need a gimmick to sell bikes. Lance Armstrong is a good one. Crazy aluminum lugs that look like aircraft parts worked for another company.

There are, at this point, so many companies achieving this benchmark in a 58cm frame (Cannondale, Felt, Giant, Scott and Specialized come immediately to mind) that those who don’t stick out (I haven’t weighed the new Trek Madone, but the previous version, while it handled better than any previous Trek, weighed 2.5 pounds in a 52cm frame … unimpressive). As a result, my A-list of bikes have been those that achieve great torsional stiffness, weigh less than a kilo, handle well and have great road feel.

For me, road feel is the great separator, the ultimate arbiter. But what is it? It’s that thing you experience when you get on a steel bike and go, “This feels so good.” You’ll feel it in titanium bikes as well. It’s an elusive quality, one that comes in many shades of gray. Aluminum bikes are almost uniformly devoid of it and for many years the vast majority of carbon fiber bikes were as out of touch with it as the pope is to the charms of Led Zepplin (I’m guessing here).

Allow me to use an analogy. I spent my formative years cultivating what creative talent I had toward a career in music. Among the many things I studied was recording engineering. My early mixes were marked by muddy mid-tones and booming bass. I played one of these mixes for one of the engineers I worked under at Ardent Recording in Memphis. He asked me where the high end was. Sounds lacked definition; attack was fuzzy and the vocals could be hard to make out. Over time he coached me into adding a great deal more high frequency EQ to my mixes. It was like shining a light on the music; it became easier to distinguish the guitar from the bass, the bass guitar reinforced the time keeping, the drums had definition, the vocals had actual sibilants (“S” sounds and such) and yet the low end, the fun in funk, didn’t disappear.

So what the hell does that mean in bikes? On the very best bikes, stiffness is achieved with enough high modulus carbon fiber that the walls of the tubes can be thinned in the middle, the way double- and triple-butted steel tubes have thin midsections. These thin midsections attenuate a certain amount of road vibration but they still allow a small amount of high-frequency road vibration to reach the rider. Too much of this high-frequency road vibration results in muscle fatigue, a la lawn mower hands. However, a small amount of it will tell you a lot about the road surface you’re riding over and can be critical in trying to get the most out of a bike on a fast descent.

The shot above is a cutaway of the new Specialized SL3, showing the increasing diameter steerer and the newly added ribs in the head and down tubes, as well as the reinforcing at the junction of the head and down tubes. You’ll notice they only use as much material as they feel is necessary. It’s key to the bike’s road feel.

This is the quality that is hardest to find in bikes, and one of the reasons is that it depends on very precise layup schedules (you can’t just use tons of material to get strength and stiffness and hope to have any road feel left) and demands a fair amount of high-modulus carbon fiber in order to achieve enough strength and stiffness.

I’ll draw another comparison that is true in the extreme, but unfortunately disconnected from any experience most of you have had. At Outdoor Demo, I rode both Parlee’s Z5 and Z4. The Z5 was a stunning success. It had the sensitivity of road feel that fewer than a half dozen carbon fiber bikes I’ve ridden have exhibited. Truly, an outstanding bike. The Z4, on the other hand, though roughly $1000 less in retail pricing, was pretty dead. It was stiff and it was light, but it just wasn’t sexy. The Z5 was Pam Anderson in spray paint while the Z4 was Pam Anderson in … burlap sack. Personally, I think they should discontinue the Z4. No one should be allowed to confuse that bike with just how good a Parlee really is. If you need to buy based on price, there’s Specialized and Felt.

I’ve still got my Torelli Nitro Express built by Antonio Mondonico. Its .7-.4.-.7-wall Nivacrom tubes epitomize excellent road feel, as does my butted titanium Seven Axiom. After riding those bikes, lots of bikes are just … not exceptional.

I’m not interested in commodities. I write about cycling because it transformed my life and a great bike can lead us to peak experiences. The bike isn’t the be-all-end-all, but a great bike can entertain us on an ongoing basis. I’ve ridden loads of bikes and the carbon bikes that are worth remembering have this rare quality of road feel and there’s no way to find out if a bike has it until you have ridden it. No test any German magazine can devise will find it. Achieving it requires a bit of art and a bit of science, but the result is pure art, and something every rider I know who has encountered it agrees upon. You might argue whether Pollock is art or not, but everyone agrees that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is great art. When you encounter real road feel, you’ll never want to settle for a frame without it.

25 comments

  1. mark

    Nice work, Padraig. I’m glad you set the boundaries for stiffness and weight before getting into feel. A frame may have great feel, but if it’s a four pound noodle, what’s the point? Conversely, a manufacturer that happens to sponsor a very high-profile Pro Tour team makes wonderfully light, stiff frames, but the ride is so harsh, lawnmower hands, as you put it, I can’t imagine being on one for more than a 40 minute crit.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Mark: Thanks for the kind words. One point I’ll have to address at another time is how the PROs have different needs than we do. Just as many of us ride compact gearing these days, rather than 53/39, most of us don’t need a bike as stiff as the PROs need/tolerate. Even so, you’re right; I don’t understand how some guys can tolerate some of those bikes for more than a 40-minute crit.

      As an aside, after having ridden the roads of the Pyrenees, I don’t see how the climbers negotiate those descents and valley roads at race speeds on many of the bikes they are supplied.

  2. Tony

    I appreciate your perspective on road feel. A quick question from someone not able to test ride a lot of bikes – have you ridden Cervelo enough to have an opinion on the RS they rode in Roubaix and it’s road feel?


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Tony: The Cervelo RS is on my to-do list for the ’10 season. The SLC SL was impressive, if unpleasant. It was the second stiffest bike vertically that I ever rode. They do very good work and I don’t feel my vocabulary is complete without trying an RS soon. Stay tuned.

  3. Larry T.

    Nice job Padraig. I’m glad the reference standard for ride quality is still a high quality frame made from butted steel tubes. When you think about how long steel bikes have enjoyed the refinement process it should be no surprise. Sadly, I think too many current riders lack this reference point-they began their cycling lives on MTB’s or aluminum bikes that were plenty stiff but not very smooth-riding. I have little doubt the carbon-wizards will eventually get a carbon bike to ride just as nice as a Mondonico while weighing a lot less and flexing not a millimeter when Joe Crankarm stands up in his 53-11. Meanwhile I’ll keep riding my Mondonico and Torelli steel bikes as neither sub 1000 gram frames or stiff sprinting feel means much to me, though I understand the improved performance(and marketing hype)they make possible. The best thing about bicycle racing is it’s still the athlete that wins races, NOT the bicycle, despite what a lot of bike makers would like us to believe.

  4. Trev

    very good article. I even aree with the BMC reference to the airplane lugs. But if you ride a Team Machine you know that in that frame is something special. I have ridden more expensive frames, but nothing compares (even the Pro Machine) to that half bike-half airplane hybrid.

  5. Larry T.

    Regarding Padraig’s note above, I remember Andy Hampsten years ago saying something to the effect, “the only thing worse than racing up big mountain passes WITHOUT a superlight bicycle is racing down the other side WITH one.” With the UCI mandated minimum weights I’d bet they can do some tuning to improve compliance since they now have rigidity taken care of. Some folks forget that (other than the tires) the suspension on bicycles is the chassis. A too stiff frame/chassis/suspension can reduce performance on any surface that is not billiard-table smooth, just as overinflated tires will. I’ve long thought the average guy who doesn’t race up huge mountain passes would be better served by a bike more more like one used in Paris-Roubaix vs one optimized for Tour de France mountain stages–but the marketing mavens say otherwise.

  6. Seajay

    Given the range of good frame to average frame MAY be 5%. I submit that it would be close to impossible to make OBJECTIVE claims about ride feel. I claim this because change in tires and tire pressure alone will affect ride upwards of 70%. Other items may fill in another 20%. Given this…unless you were very scientific about eliminating ALL variables (tires, tire pressure, bar, bar tape, saddle, seatpost and chamois) you can gain only a SUBJECTIVE opinion on road feel.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      All: Thanks for the great comments. To Seajay’s point about subjective vs. objective, I do agree that you cannot objectively grade road feel. At least, not yet. It may be that someone could at some point measure which frequencies come vibrating through the bike and help establish objectively what we prefer when we talk about road feel, but to say that road feel is strictly subjective is somewhat misleading. I think the word subjective isn’t quite the right descriptor here. If something’s subjective, I might like it and you might not. I don’t think that’s the case with great road feel. It’s more a right-brained experience. It’s hard to find the right descriptors, but when we ride a truly great frame, we generally agree on it. Further, what makes for great road feel in a frame can’t be completely blunted by tire pressure and other factors. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you’ll never confuse a skinny guy in a down jacket with a linebacker in a T-shirt. I do what I can when reviewing a bike on my own turf to spend some time on familiar roads riding a known set of wheels with my favorite tires while sitting on my favorite saddle, and while it’s not perfect, it’s a more conscientious effort than anyone else in the industry has made.

  7. Trev

    I agree with you Larry. I used to think the lighter the better. My mechanic used to to say that the slightly heavier stuff will get you across the finish line when the light stuff may not. Although I think he was referring to super light wheels of 4 or 5 yrs ago. But even recently a friend of mine on a BMC Pro Machine was racing down the side of a small mountain with me and I was on a heavier aluminum, lugged Team machine with Campy Proton wheels we hit slightly over 80kph and he had to slow down as he couldn’t keep it straight, the wobbles scared the crap out of him. Me, I probably could have reached down for my bottle no problem. My bike weighed about 1 lb more that his. ANd I can climb along side any of my peers. I like the Paris roubaix monicker rather than the tour monicker anyways……..

  8. Da Robot

    Perhaps this is apples and oranges, but, because I don’t race, I find that most of the road bikes being marketed right now, really aren’t made for me. I feel as though all the big companies want to sell me a space shuttle to get to the coffee shop.

    Most of my riding is in an around a big city. I do longer rides that take in some challenging climbs and virtually none of the surfaces I ride on would be termed smooth.

    So I have an old, heavy (by comparison) steel frame that doesn’t leave me feeling like I’ve been in a paint shaker all day. I’m as fast as all of my riding companions because a) they don’t race either and b) I don’t carry any extra weight on my endo-skeleton.

    In my mind, the industry sells mostly fetishes instead of bicycles, and the mistake most of us make (me included) is spending too much money on fetish and not enough on ride.

    But that’s me.

  9. Larry T.

    Part of my opinion is surely based on my 20+ years of wrenching, seeing all kinds of SLS (stupid, lightweight shit) failures. It’s tempting to say bike evolution/development peaked with the machines Eddy and Felice raced on as they could do pretty much anything from Paris-Roubaix to Giro d’Italia on ‘em. But I have to admit the componentry of back-in-the-day is not something I enjoy using these days. While I love to admire vintage steel bicycles, any rides I’ve done on original or restored ones have had me remembering how hard you had to squeeze on the brakes to shop and how much fiddling (and skill) was required to shift, not to mention would the thing stay in that gear when you stood up to sprint over the top of a small rise? The ride quality was heavenly but I’ll take modern components on mine any day, so I’d never claim all of the recent evolution/improvements are negative. I’ll try to dig up an old “Ten Innovations that changed cycling” essay I wrote in 2007 and send it to Padraig. Perhaps he’ll put it up somewhere on RKP for others to shoot at and argue about?

  10. lachlan

    I feel like I’m reading guys talking about very very old kit, and equipemtn trade-offs.
    I’ve ridden a fair few steel, custom steel, and now carbon bikes, and my current ride was both the lightest pro tour bike for a couple of years running and a double winner of the Paris Roubaix… so, er, which thing are we tradding off today? I’m gonna bet that half of the tour bikes are lighter, stiffer around the BB and more vertically comliant that anything any of us were riding ten years ago. Sure you can still over cook it with 800g wheels etc, but you can easily hit UCI limits and be touch enough for roubaix.

  11. MCH

    Great stuff Padraig! As a rider who stuck with custom steel frames through the aluminum, titanium, and into the carbon era, I’m happy to see some manufacturers begin to focus on this aspect of frame building. It also very nice to see your thoughts on this ellusive, but critical quality. Perhaps I was lucky to have waited so long to convert to carbon. The Cervelo R3 I purchased several years ago was a revelation. As a 6’4″, 190# rider, I’ve always searched for a frame that was reasonably light, lateraly, and more importantly to me, tortionally stiff. What a surprise to build a bike with normal components and achieve sub 15#s. I share Larry T’s aversion to SLS, so nne of that. Better still, the bike is comfortable, has similar raod feel to my old steel bikes, and is magnatudes stiffer in all the important planes. I’ve got fond memories of my old Italian SL frames, Campy SR components, and Campione del Mondo tires, but I’d never, ever go back. Technology deployed intelligently is a wonderful thing.

    Keep up the great work! If you get the chance to ride any of the new Cervelo stuff (supposedly all new in 2010), I for one, would be very interested to read about how it stacks up against your current favorites.

  12. Sophrosune

    I have to confess I remain somewhat mystified by the tube material “feel” phenomenon people speak of. I come nowhere near the experience of Padraig in riding all the different materials numerous times. I rode two steel bikes (a Bianchi Campione D’Italia and a DeBernardi Thron Deluxe) for the better part of 18 years. The DeBernardi was significantly better than the Bianchi in getting the power from your pedal to forward movement, I believe because the Bianchi was never properly aligned. But that aside, late last year I bought a Colnago E1 carbon fiber frame. I was amazed at the difference in geometry (sloping vs. traditional (tube angles, etc.)) and the lightweight was immediately apparent. But the “feel”? I am not sure. I have described a vague sense that the steel feels “electric” where the carbon fiber feels “invisible”. The CF is not more harsh, or stiff, or less compliant. It’s lighter and has a different geometry that makes it feel different underneath me. Am I missing something here? I have to say now that I have the CF Colnago I am not at all tempted to ride the steel. Steel is real, really? It seems like it’s just heavier.


  13. Author
    Padraig

    Trev: The speed wobble your friend experienced could have been addressed with a fitting. Alignment isn’t the issue it once was with frames, but poor fit (too little weight on the front wheel) can often bring about speed wobbles. I try not to pass judgement on a frame until I know what the fit is like. Also, wheel weight will change the handling of a bike. If you want your bike to steer quicker, put on a lighter front wheel.

    MCH: “Technology deployed intelligently is a wonderful thing.” Amen.

    Sophrosune: Your terms “electric” and “invisible” get at the gist of the discussion. Invisible is little or no road feedback. You can’t “feel” the road surface through the bike. I think that’s a problem, whereas electric definitely gives you some input.

    As riders, what we need is input without overload. You need to feel the bike beneath you, but you don’t want every change in road surface to fatigue you prematurely.

    I’d encourage everyone to stop by some of their local dealers and try some of the bikes they carry. We’re surprisingly perceptive. You can learn more in the first mile than you think.

    Oh, and one note on geometry: Bike handling comes down to three numbers, trail, BB drop and wheelbase. Everything else is either fit (TT length and seat tube angle) or window dressing (most riders don’t need to know a thing about front-center).

  14. Dan O

    Great write up on something so subjective. I’d agree tire size and pressure make the most difference in feel.

    Being old school steel guy, I wanted to hate carbon fiber. After demo riding a bunch of bikes – including carbon – yeah, I bought a carbon frame. You can feel the difference and I love the way it rides. The vibration or feel of it, is much more muted then my previous steel frames. I dig that – the smoothness of it. Then the BB area is incredibly stiff and it’s super light. Tough to beat.

    Of course, what feels great to one person – may not be another’s “cup of tea”, so to speak.

  15. Sophrosune

    I am with Dan O on his preference for “muted” and the resulting sense of “smoothness” on a carbon bike. I want to feel where the limits of the bike are on turning, but I don’t want to have to know the date and time of the last time the road saw new pavement.

    Padraig, I liked your list of the key handling measurements. Could you elaborate, i.e. if the BB drop is low or high, you will experience X?

    Also, I would like to ask you specifically about the geometry of the Colnago E1. I have read on a forum referencing an old Bicycling Magazine review that the bike behaved a little “squirrelly” on descents. I have felt this somewhat too, but I am not sure if this is a product of my poor descending abilities or inherent in the bike.

    This topic is much appreciated. Thanks.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      All: I should add one additional clarification regarding carbon fiber: While the road feel of any steel bike made with today’s current materials will all be very similar, the same can’t be said for carbon fiber. There is a great deal of variability in road feel. That muted feel you find in some is much less so in some others. As the high modulus carbon fiber content increases in a frame, the amount of high frequency road vibration coming through increases. Hi-freq. vibration is neither good nor bad; this isn’t a black or white condition. In my experience, there’s a sweet spot where enough vibration comes though to give you a good sense of the road surface. Too little makes the bike feel dead, like a lot of carbon fiber frames. Too much rattles you like a paint shaker, which is my sense of many aluminum frames.

      Sophrosune: I’ll take a look at the Colnago E1. Lots of things can contribute to a bike feeling squirelly, though. Too high a bar or too much saddle setback can upset a bike’s balance independent of its geometry. Do you know which particular year we are talking about? The geometry could be different today than from then.

  16. Sophrosune

    Hi Padraig,

    Cool! Thanks, dude. Here’s a URL with the geometry http://www.theoldbikeshop.com/geocharts/brerageo.jpg. It is a 2005 model–New Old Stock, as they say. I really only begin to feel a little wobble at above 35 mph. Like I said, apparently this was what one of the reviewers at Bicycling Magazine said at the time of the bike’s release. And it makes me wonder if this is why they changed over to the Cristallo in 2006, which was essentially the same as the E1 but with curved seats stays.

  17. MCH

    Padraig, I’d respectfully suggest that a 4th metric should be added to those you mentioned as influencing bike handling: tortional rigidity. There is no question in my mind that trail, BB drop and wheelbase have a major influence on bike handling. However, the exponential increase in tortional rigidity in carbon frames has influenced my thinking on this topic. I should note that I ride a 60cm frame. The long tubes on my frames move around a bit more than on a smaller frame, so perhaps my experiences are somewhat unique. When I ride one of my steel frames now, I really notice how much they twist and as a result how much the wheels move in and out of plane. On fast switchback decents I feel the frame load / twist as I lean into a turn and snap back / untwist as I exit. The fact that the wheels do not track perfectly has a major influence on handling and stability IMO. In the past, more trail, a lower BB, and a longer wheelbase were the answer for increased stability. Now, just as with performance cars and motorcycles, increased rigidity means you can have razor sharp handling with aggressive frame geometry and have stability that was not available with previous materials. It truely is a facinating, modern age we live in – and a great time to be cycling.

  18. Dan O

    As seen by the number of comments – this is an interesting topic.

    Not mentioned is the affect of the fork on road feel. The fork plays a big factor in how a bike feels – no? It should make a difference on comfort and steering precision, depending on flexibility of the fork blades.

    MCH – you mention the increased rigidity of modern motorcycles and cars. Interesting note on Moto GP motorcycles – a few years ago, frames became too stiff – and when racers were totally leaned over in corners, removing some of the suspension action – they lost some of the handling. Engineers tuned some flex back into the frame and swingarm to make them handle better. That was my take on reading about it anyway.

    My interest in motorcycles parallels my bicycle interest. Both two wheel versions are addicting and fun.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Torsional rigidity is a big deal in making a bike handle well and fork design must be managed in concert with the frame design. I didn’t address fork design specifically because with the companies I was referring to indirectly, fork design is part of the overall frame design process. Properly done, the fork will use a blend of the same materials going into the frame so that the rider experiences a harmonious similarity in road feel between the frame and fork. I’ve been on bikes with a lively fork and a dead frame and it was weird.

      Back to torsional rigidity: I didn’t address this factor in this piece because I think it falls outside of road feel, but it is a terribly important metric. Interestingly, we refer to torsional rigidity now because manufacturers have essentially conquered bottom bracket rigidity, which was the more acute problem in the past. We can make the frame stiff enough to eliminate that problem so now riders can discern the twisting of the wheels out of plane. Some of the early carbon fiber forks displayed this problem, enough so to make hard turns a little unnerving. And yes, the early aluminum motorcycle frames were so stiff they caused the rear wheel to chatter, the very problem we experience with some carbon fiber frames today.

      One of the big problems I have with the use of aftermarket forks is that there is no way to match the flex pattern or feel of the fork to the frame. Even if those factors don’t matter to you, I can’t help but wonder why a company willing to design its own frame would saddle its frame design with an already determined fork length and rake. It’s kinda like designing a handlebar around the computer mount.

      And before anyone says anything else about fork design, I do know the cause and effect there: Companies choose to buy aftermarket forks primarily because of product liability; buying someone else’s fork can save you huge dollars in insurance premiums. But really, if that’s how you do business, shouldn’t you be in the printing business where product liability is kinda unknown?

      So yes, torsional rigidity and fork design are intertwined and they do have a big effect on handling. I’ll have to address these further in another post.

  19. swimdad

    thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed report. However I must take exception to the reported ride quality of 2 of the bikes I am very familiar with the Tarmac SL3 and Fuji SST 1.0. I am 6′ 0″ 165lbs for reference and have raced Cat2/3 for 20 years. both of the mentioned bikes are incredible at power transfer and have great road feel on good to slightly rough road surface but when you get on rough chip and seal or broken asphalt they will beat the snot out of you. This is especially true of the Fuji. I would suggest to anyone to test these,or any bike, over the worst roads you can find and do it at speed.

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