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.