When Jim Blackburn started his eponymous company in 1975, his mission was to create lighweight pannier racks welded from aluminum. They were, for their day, very hi-tech. By 1987, when I bought my set, they were still top-of-the-line and had squashed almost all their competitors, at least in the U.S.
Blackburn eventually sold the company to what is now Easton Bell Sports, and the Rhode Gear line of accessories was folded into Blackburn to simplify the number of brand names the owners had to promote. Today, racks are a tiny part of the product line.
Cynics could easily point to the brand as an example of corporate sell-out, a line that lost its roots. You can tell the cynics to file that under Polaroid. A much fairer comparison could be drawn with Canon or Nikon, companies that made the transition from film to digital media, broadened their product lines, and continue to be leaders in their industry.
It hasn’t always been easy for Blackburn. Their pumps have ranged from Corvette to Corvair. For many years their trainers were category leaders more for their ubiquity in bike shops than the outright supremacy of the product. But in the last three years, every product I thought was weak has been eliminated from its catalog. I haven’t tried every product they make, but every product I had tried and couldn’t recommend is gone.
But you have to replace 86’d products with new offerings to stay in business. I offer the Flea combo of lights as an example of what I’m talking about. Head and taillights need to be seen—that’s it. They should only be as large and heavy as necessary to ensure your visibility, right? At 20 grams for the front unit and 21g for the rear on my scale, they are shockingly, disappearingly light. Something this light shouldn’t be able to produce this much light (read it again), the way a bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly.
The Flea Front and Flea Rear both accomplish the impossible: they can nearly blind you with only four LED lights—white Nichia in the front and red in the rear. For those morning and afternoon rides this time of year (and in spring), these lights offer more than adequate visibility. If drivers can’t see you with these on their bike it’s because they were dead at the time.
In full darkness (that is, once any lingering twilight has last gleamed) the front Flea actually makes a passable headlight, so long as you don’t ride too quickly. It isn’t powerful enough, however, to provide significant lighting at dawn or dusk, but then it wasn’t made for that; Blackburn offers more serious lighting for those needs.
Each light has three modes. For the front there is a lower-power beam, a high beam (which is when the light makes a passable headlight—certainly better than anything available through most of the 1990s) and a blinking mode. The rear has two blinking modes and a steady-state beam.
Run times for the lights are very good. On the flashing setting they run 12 hours, while on steady they’ll run for 6 hours.
What helps make the light’s namesake-light is the fact that they use rechargeable batteries a fraction of the size of the typical 1.5V AA battery. The charger, pictured above, uses said AA battery to recharge the lights (one at a time) and I take an almost perverse delight in this innovation.
None of this would matter if the lights were difficult to mount on the bar or seatpost. To that end, the folks at Blackburn made things as simple as possible: Velcro. Whether your handlebar is round or wing-shaped the simple attachment should make mounting and point the light quick. Remove the Velcro strap from the rear light and a built-in clip will allow you to hook it to your jersey pocket.
My love for how lightweight and bright these lights are is matched by my affection for the simple mounting system. I can swap them from bike to bike in less than a minute without the use of a single tool. Thomas Edison would marvel at their elegance.
What would you pay for all this? Wait, don’t answer!
As it turns out, there are other versions of the light that comes with a charger that works off a USB cable or another that either charges via USB or a tiny solar panel. The standard combo with front and rear Fleas and the 1.5V charger goes for $54.99. Either the front or rear Flea can be purchased alone for $34.95The version that includes the USB charger goes for $5, while the combination of the solar charger with USB charger is $15.
Learn more here.
The 2010 Tour of Italy route has been announced and as is typical of the Giro, it is an adventurous route that will keep competition going until the pink jersey crosses the line on the last stage.
For only the ninth time in its history, the Giro will start outside Italy, beginning in Amsterdam and then contesting three stages in the Netherlands before heading south.
Here’s where La Gazzetta dello Sport’s understanding of drama differs from that of the Amaury Sport Organization: the race’s queen stage is the race’s next-to-last stage. That stage, from Bormio to the mountain top finish on the Passo del Tonale, goes over the Passo di Gavia as the race’s Cima Coppi—the highest point the race passes each year and named for the great Fausto Coppi—as the next-to-last mountain pass.
As if that weren’t enough, the race’s final stage, once again, is a time trial, and though it will only be 15.3km, it could erupt in unexpected heart-tripping developments, as this year’s race did following Dennis Menchov’s fall near the finish.
Were that not enough, the race features 10 mountain stages—five medium mountain stages and five high mountain stages and six of them—six!—end in mountain top finishes. Other mountains that will be used in the race include the Mortirolo, a brutally steep ascent exceeded in tortuous difficulty only by Monte Zoncolan, unless, of course, you count the Plan de Corones, which also makes an appearance. In hard numbers, the Zoncolan hits 22 percent and the Corones hits a whopping 24 percent.
Johan Bruyneel once complained of the unreasonable nature of asking racers to ascend a climb too steep to climb in a 39×25 gear. The willingness of organizers to ascend slopes better suited to skis is one of the things that makes the Giro as interesting as it is. How boring would the season be if all three Grand Tours were designed with the same guidelines?
Wait, don’t answer.
With only 36km total of individual time trials, the 2010 Giro will place less emphasis on the clock than any Giro in the last five years or more. While this edition won’t include something as fascinating as this year’s Cinque Terre time trial, there will be a 32.5km team time trial. The TTT won’t be as technically challenging as this year’s, but it will be gradually uphill the whole way. It should place the climbers on a more even footing with the rouleurs and give teams with a bevy of climbers a better finish.
Were the competition between the race courses and not between the racers, I’d have to say the Giro is superior to the Tour. It’s certainly the more interesting course, with more opportunities for dramatic finishes that might blow the GC apart.
Add in the fact that the first rest day comes only four days into the event and is essentially a transfer day to get racers back to Italy from the Netherlands, it means racers will have 12 consecutive days of racing before receiving a second rest day. Ouch.
So who will the favorites be going into the 2010 Giro? Given the reduction in ITTs, Menchov’s chances will suffer. Danilo DiLuca is unlikely to attend. It is this year’s third place, Franco Pellizotti whose stock may rise most. He has already offered to support teammate Ivan Basso at the Tour de France if Basso will support him at the Giro.
The fireworks begin May 8.
Since my post on Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo, there have been a number of comments about how the timed century isn’t a new concept, how centuries used to be timed routinely, how one organizer is doing them even now.
New or not, the gran fondo—or cyclosportif or whatever you want to call it—gets something right that the vast majority of organized events just don’t register. As long as we deride this new wave of rides (and yes, they are coming but more on that later) for claiming to offer something old as something new, we miss the real value they offer the cycling community.
The value of a gran fondo can’t be summed up with any one detail. The timed aspect is important, yes. Timing the event gives riders a clear sense of how they stacked up against one another. Knowing the event is timed puts all entrants on notice that the event is worthy of their A game, even if there is no prize at the finish.
A corollary to that is the mass start, though. Allowing riders to start what can essentially be a five- to eight-hour time trial whenever they are ready is a little weak. The starter’s pistol recalls sporting events for more than a hundred years in dozens of sports. It brings Hitchcockian drama with it as each competitor anticipates the crack and its fuel-injected adrenal burst. Seeing other entrants wait anxiously for the start helps build a sense of camaraderie lacking in the average century; after all, the people who roll into the finish of the century with you might have started a half hour after you did, or two hours before you did. Who knows?
The course is equally important as these other factors, though. If you want more than a couple hundred people to show up for an event, you need to serve up something more than a flat, four-corner, industrial-park crit. Hell, stick a hill in it; that still won’t make it special.
As much as I love racing, when I stopped racing I did so for two reasons: First was that my work demanded too much time each week to get in the miles I needed to be as fast as I had been. Second was the fact that I was simply fed up with doing crits. I raced crits simply to be fast enough for the road races, of which I generally only did maybe six each year, strictly for lack of opportunity. At some point all those flat, four-corner crits began to run together and I began to realize that I was missing some of my group rides and the friends I’d see on them. Never mind the fact that some of the guys I loved riding with raced different categories, so even if we were both at the race, we weren’t on the course at the same time.
The course for a gran fondo is meant to be memorable, if not downright epic, by comparison. I continue to ride centuries, and have done a number of remarkable ones in the last three years and I can say each one of them would have been more fun, gone more quickly and given more people a greater sense of accomplishment if they had featured timing with a mass start. Following the self-selection of the first climb everyone can find a group with which to ride.
Unless you have the incredible fortune to live in the promised land (France, Italy, Belgium, Spain or The Netherlands), there’s a good chance that cycling where you live doesn’t get the respect that you think it deserves. Forgetting for a moment the hostility one can experience on the roads, the larger issue is just how sexy bicycle racing appears to non-cyclists. The sexiness of cycling seems to grow in direct proportion to the size of the races in that area.
While I’ve encountered rude drivers in both France and Italy, easily the kindest, most considerate drivers I’ve encountered were in those two countries. Some of them made me enjoy having cars in close proximity. It was rather like swimming with whales.
It’s my personal opinion that every time an industrial park crit is held, not as a mid-week training race, but as a weekend, main-event, $25-entry, upgrade-points-verified-here race, the organizer has just done the sport of bike racing an incredible disservice. The problem isn’t that those races give non-cyclists the idea that cycling deserves to be confined to back roads; it doesn’t actually do that. Most average folks aren’t aware those bike races even happen, so what it does is help make bicycle racing invisible.
I chalk up those races to laziness. Yes, it’s hard to find sponsors and it’s hard to recruit volunteers and it’s hard to get a town to approve a course and the bigger the event, the more time it takes to organize, but once you analyze the impact an industrial park crit has, I’m not so sure that a tiny race is better than no race at all.
Those events provide one thing only: An opportunity for racers to get their fix. You don’t see many wives or girlfriends out there and certainly the town doesn’t come out to greet the winner. And they do nothing to inspire new generations of cyclists the way the Tour does for thousands of children each year or the way the Coors Classic did for many notable American PROs during its heyday.
When you send a mass of cyclists down a town’s main drag, you make the cyclists feel special and cycling cool to everyone who isn’t on a bike.
Of course, there’s always the proof of the über geek—the objective correlative. Sure, you may get some fields to fill in a criterium, especially if there is no other racing nearby that weekend, but a good turnout for a bike race in the United States is usually on the order of 700 racers. Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo filled. It sold out all 3500 spots. Santa Rosa loves it some cycling.
Bottom line: Timing isn’t the key. The course isn’t the key. A big star isn’t the key. Mass-start isn’t the key. Big sponsorship isn’t the key. But they are all important. Give riders something memorable and non-cyclists will remember it too. And that will do more to strengthen the cycling community and cycling’s place in the mainstream than all the advocacy organizations combined.
Some weeks back I wrote a remembrance of the Killington Stage Race. It was easily the best event in which I ever participated. The officiating was thoroughly professional, the timing quite good (there were always some goofs, but they always sorted them out), the race bible PRO enough to be a keeper (I still have all of mine) but really, it was the course that got you there. Each day’s course was memorable and a showcase of what makes Vermont the jewel of New England. The downtown Rutland criterium remains the most consistently fun race I ever watched. Dick Ring’s crowd primes at the top of the hill eased greenback from wallets faster than charity.
Killington is back.
The organizers are the same people behind the Green Mountain Stage Race and given the longevity of that event, this bodes well for Killington. The Green Mountain Stage Race will remain in its Labor Day Weekend spot and because the annual Fitchburg Stage Race has had a lock on the Fourth of July weekend since before some of us were born, organizers made a thoroughly sound choice: Killington V.2 will occupy Memorial Day Weekend. The format will be three days, featuring a long ITT, a circuit race (likely over the former Sunrise course) and a point-to-point road race.
Here’s to hoping that the event grows and they can bring back elements like Brandon Gap, the downtown Rutland crit and finishes on Killington Access Road. Yeah, that last wasn’t exactly impartial journalism, but this ain’t Time magazine.
For more info, go here.
Image by Jonathan McElvery and was pilfered from the Killington Stage Race site.
But Doesn’t Interbike Need Trek and Specialized (and Now Cannondale and Felt) to Survive? The Critical Mass Theory.
A lot of industry observers, including me, have despaired for the future of Interbike without some of the industry’s most powerful players on hand. (To be fair, Specialized has maintained a good-faith presence at the show for a number of years, and used that presence to their advantage this year to showcase their Globe line).
Well, those observers, including me, were wrong. For the first time in awhile, retailer numbers at Interbike ’09 were up.
So, Short Answer: No.
There’s plenty of retailers and retailer dollars left over, even after the big companies have taken their slice of the pie, something on the order of half the total industry budget for bikes alone and far more than that for equipment; not to mention plenty of suppliers who want those dollars. As long as those numbers maintain a kind of critical financial mass, Interbike will do just fine, thank you very much. In fact, a number of distributors prefer Interbike without the Big Guns there, because it means that much more retailer attention for themselves.
The Longer Answer to this question involves a complex set of dynamics I call Bike 2.0 and discuss in more detail here. This bit may be a little, ah, statistically dense for most folks, so enter at your own risk. Basically, Bike 2.0 as of 2010 is a lot like how the bike industry would have developed over the past 30 years had the Schwinn leviathan not swum onto the sandy shores of the mountain bike era and promptly collapsed, crushed under its own bone-breaking weight like a freshly beached whale.
Meanwhile, Trek and Specialized (and Giant and Felt and Cervélo and Cannondale and other companies who go the dealer show route) have reached their own equilibrium in the one-upmanship earlier-than-thou (also known as the “get-to-the-retailers’-checkbook-first”) game. Presumably they might want to show new product even earlier than late July, but they’re prevented from doing so by three reasons:
- Shimano’s next-year prototypes aren’t available in sufficient quantities yet. And Shimano (not to mention frame factories) can’t have production protos available much sooner than late July because their own production backs up against the Asian Lunar (Chinese) New Year, a two-or-more-week rout celebrated sometime between late January and mid-February, depending. (For 2009, it started Jan 26th; for next year, not until Valentine’s Day). The holiday leaves not just factories but entire towns deserted, rather like the nations of France and Italy in the first two weeks of August each summer.
- They can barely get retailers to show up in July by offering free airline tickets (for the high rollers, anyway) and free beer. Besides,
- I think there’s some of big bike race scheduled that month anyway. Hard to get those expensive A-List athletes to show up much before August, anyway.
And the punchline to the early dealer presentations is this: retailers aren’t stupid. After just a couple of years being trotted around the block, they know to hold off their orders until they’ve seen everything their Alpha suppliers have to offer. And then they hold off another big chunk until Interbike anyway, just in case something better shows up.
So what’s the big driver for Trek and Specialized (and now other companies besides) to spend literal millions of collective dollars schlepping bikes, retailers, and their own overworked staffs all over the country in a frenzied rush to accomplish nothing concrete, sales-wise? The answer is simple: retailer attention. By putting on their own show, the big guns can get hours and even days of buyers’ undivided attention, present their products in the very best light, and do a little beer-drinking together while they’re at it.
The late July/early August part is mostly because it’s the earliest they can possibly do so.
The Bottom Line. Barring another Bio-style power grab (which you won’t even find references to on the Interwebs anymore), Interbike is doing just fine where (and when) it is.
Why Las Vegas? The Black Hole Theory.
Nielsen (the company that wons Interbike and a whole bunch of other shows besides) loves Las Vegas because it’s close enough for dealers from SoCal to drive in, and enticing (and cheap) enough to get less-local retailers to fly in. Plus from the show management’s point of view, it’s easy to work with: centralized services, a very effective infrastructure, and—given the fact that Nielsen hosts a half-dozen other shows there each year—god only knows what kind of illicit perks, kickbacks, comps, showgirls, drugs, leather-clad teenage boys, free show tix, in-room massuesses, and deposits into secret bank accounts in the Lesser Dutch Antilles are going on in the back room.
The Short Answer: It’s one of the few places big enough that retailers will actually go to. At least that’s what Interbike thinks. Plus there’s a huge inertial pull—sort of a reality-distorting black hole—surrounding Las Vegas that sucks all other thinking past its Event Horizon.
The Longer Answer. Interest in moving Interbike to someplace, anyplace, other than Vegas comes up every couple of years. And Interbike does a survey.
Suppliers, for the record, uniformly hate Vegas—the heat, the dust, the unions, the prices, the sheer budget-numbing cost of moving all their people and stuff halfway across the country for five days. Retailers tend to hate it for most of the same reasons, plus it’s a crappy venue for bikes and a crappy excuse for a vacation besides.
But Interbike and the NBDA claim that a huge number of retailers prefer Las Vegas to the other locations big enough to hold the whole extravaganza under one roof (currently Denver and the new facility in Anaheim). So back to Vegas we go, year after year.
Interestingly, I’ve been trying literally for years to find out who these retailers are who demand Las Vegas as their destination of choice, just to see what kind of creature could like both bikes and that curious tumbleweed-infested patch of desert called Sin City. I’m sure they exist, these retailers, but in thirty years in this business I have yet to meet a single one.
The folks I see drinking and gambling far into the night (and sometimes when I get up early to make a 7:00 meeting, into the next morning, too) tend to be low-level employees on both the wholesale and retail sides of the business who treat a once-a-year trip to Vegas as a sort of combination paid vacation and five-day drunk. Store owners and senior distributor types have too much work going on to mess much with stuff like that. For them, Interbike is the toughest work week of the year, and one that comes after thirty or even forty days of show prep (or, in the case of retailers, summer sales frenzy) without a day off.
No wonder half the industry is sick the week after Interbike. It’s not the germs as much as it is sheer exhaustion.
The Bottom Line. Yeah, it sucks, and everyone knows it. But we’re going there again next year, and the next, and every year for the foreseeable future. And some people seem to like it. Besides, what do you think Interbike is about, anyway—selling bikes?
Theories of Dynamic Tension, Critical Mass, And Black Holes.
In the wake of the, ah, mixed reviews that ensued from Interbike Demo East last week, now might be a good time to reconsider the whole Interbike question from an insider’s perspective…and why it makes almost no sense whatever that the biggest trade show of the year is held in the middle of September, without many of its biggest players, in the bike-unfriendliest district of what is already one of the least bike-friendly cities in North America.
Better minds than my own (which, I realize, could be just about anyone’s) have struggled with this problem, only to give up under the Sisyphean challenge of making sense of the whole messy thing. If I have succeeded where others have failed, it’s only because I realized early on the possibility—indeed the very probability— that trying to make sense of any and all questions concerning Interbike’s location in time and space are ultimately doomed, because in fact they make no sense whatever.
Like so many things in the bike business, understanding Interbike is like peeling an onion: by the time you reach the center, you discover there’s nothing there. That and the stink on your hands, of course. So here’s a series of three multilayered questions and answers designed to peel away the layers a diverse as misplaced corporate greed, the rise (and fall) of the mountain bike, and the ever-changing dates for Chinese New Year (really!). All presented one at a time so you can discover for yourself the Great Nothingness which resides therein.
1. Why September? The Dynamic Tension Theory
The Dynamic Tension theory, for those of us old enough to remember Charles Atlas ads in the back of comic books and/or to’ve had sand kicked in our faces by bullies at the beach, involves equally strong opposing forces counterbalancing each other. Which, we might point out, accomplishing exactly nothing. In the case of bike business trade shows, those opposing forces are suppliers and retailers. But the results are the same.
The short answer is, suppliers want dealers’ orders as early as possible in order to book their own orders for factory time and materials, and then have the retailers take delivery on their product as soon as possible. This accomplishes three important things: it streamlines the manufacturing process (meaning better prices and improved reliability of delivery), locks down as many of the retailers’ open-to-buy dollars as possible, and most importantly, puts the inventory in the retailers’ warehouses instead of their own.
Retailers, understandably, want to see suppliers inventory their own darn product and deliver it to their places of business as needed. That’s—according to retailers, anyway—what suppliers are supposed to do. (Suppliers, needless to say, have their own version of this theory, mentioned above, and which they propagate by means of non-cancellable advance orders and 180-day lines of credit. Both theories have their merits and disadvantages.)
“As needed,” for a big chunk of the country anyway, means March or April. In California it can run as late as May, which is when that quirky state’s joke of a “rainy season” ends. (In Seattle, on the other hand, it rains all the damn time anyway, so people tend not to care what month it is.) And for virtually all retailers, September is still a critical part of the selling season and one of their best months for making money. And as a result, one of the worst for having trade shows. This is one reason Interbike is always held in the middle of the week—so retailers and their staff can get back to work as soon as they blow town in a haze of jet exhaust and beer fumes.
For years, bike industry trade shows were held in January (BDS) or February (the old Toy & Bike Show in midtown Manhattan), or even (in the case of the now-defunct CABDA show), as late as March. Retailers would slog through the snow and ice (or go to sunny Long Beach where the BDS show was held, literally, in a basketball rink that always smelled funny), order up what they wanted for the coming season, and expect to have it delivered a couple months later.
They didn’t get it, of course, but that’s what they expected.
Now here’s the longer answer. The balance of power in the industry was changing. Prior to, say, 1980, you had Schwinn Bicycle Company of Chicago on the one hand—Schwinn being the equivalent of modern-day empires like Trek, Specialized, and Easton-Bell Sports, all rolled into one and ruled like a kingdom by whichever male member of the Schwinn Family Trust happened to be dictator-for-life at the moment. And on the other hand, you had, well, everyone else.
Schwinn was so powerful, in fact, that they could book their preseason orders pretty much whenever they wanted, and with the actual product largely sight unseen, and leave the scraps for the peons.
But in the 1980’s two things happened: the rise of the mountain bike, and the collapse of Schwinn family. Some historians correlate these events to a higher degree than others, but the net effect was the same either way. Schwinn had a massive, vertically integrated, almost industrial revolution approach to supply chain management. The new breed (like Specialized and GT and, later on, Trek and Cannondale) had much less interest in being in the manufacturing end of the business. They saw—correctly as it happened—that Asian-sourced manufacturing was not just cheaper, but ultimately better than Made-In-USA product (with the possible exception of the old Schwinn Paramount factory, which survives to this day as the artisan brand Waterford). But Asian manufacturing meant longer lead times—that ocean’s not going to cross itself, you know. And lacking the power of suppliers to compel retailer orders the way the old Schwinn had, that meant earlier trade shows.
The Bottom Line. Strategically, Interbike is all about getting retailers to the show. Everything else is window-dressing: deliver enough retailers ready to buy stuff, and suppliers will flock to Tierra del Fuego on Mother’s Day. And the current fourth-week-in-September dates represent that point of dynamic tension between the latest date suppliers can wait for retailers’ orders, and the earliest date when the retailers are willing to show up and deliver them.
Tweaking these dates get you into hot water no matter which way you jump. Move them up a week and you’re in the middle of the High Holidays for those of the Jewish persuasion. Push them back a week into October and even more suppliers will defect and decide it’s more cost-effective to put on their own shows, as any number of big (and even not-so-big) suppliers are doing.
Some folks might even say naive things like, why don’t we time our trade shows/model-year introductions to generate excitement among consumers and maximize increase sales industry wide? But as shown above, that would just be silly.
Next week: Part II
The course for the 2010 Amgen Tour of California has been announced. The eight-stage event will once again start in northern California and take its tradition run south, but for 2010, the route will be substantially different.
Thanks to its move from February to May, the event will enjoy substantially improved weather that will allow the race to tackle some new challenges. For the first time in the race’s five-year history a stage will feature a mountain-top finish. The time trial will be moved to the urban streets of Los Angeles and the race’s final stage will take competitors over several climbs in the Santa Monica Mountains.
There has been a fair amount of speculation about how the race’s move to a later date in the calendar will affect attendance by European PROs. It’s true that you won’t see a single Italian GC rider at the Tour of California as they’ll all be at the Giro, but there are many riders who have traditionally taken a different approach in preparing for the Tour de France.
The Dauphiné Liberé and Tour de Suisse have been used as traditional build up races for those with ambitions for the general classification at the Tour de France. The Tour of California’s new position in the calendar will give riders yet another shorter stage race as they prepare for Dauphiné/Suisse double.
There are a couple of small problems, though. Even with a great position in the calendar, nothing will change two of the PROs’ biggest concerns: getting in an aluminum tube of a Petri dish and nine—yes nine—hours of jet lag.
Despite these obvious challenges, the organizers have announced four of the biggest names in American cycling will be in attendance at this year’s Tour of California: Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie and David Zabriskie. A May date and these eight legs will guarantee that every team present will bring their A-game. But how many European teams will that entice?
The Tour of California has an ace up its sleeve: The blessing of the Amaury Sport Organization. It’s safe to say that 18 of the teams that will compete at the 2010 Tour de France will come from the ProTour. They’ll leave out at least one team just to maintain their independence from the UCI and then pick a selection of wild card entries. The Tour of California could potentially serve as some teams’ last-ditch effort to impress the ASO and earn entry to the Tour. While the ASO has typically announced the wild cards in May, and the Tour of California could give them a nice platform to make the announcement for those teams on the bubble.
Yet detractors say we’ll never see a Boonen or Bettini or other Euro star here again. There is that chance. But if it happens, what harm is there? Boonen wasn’t mobbed when he was here this year and he rode anonymously. What if a lesser-known European rider were to come over and make a name for himself with a suicide breakaway the way Dominique Rollin did during the 2008 race? Rollin is no star in Europe, at least not yet, but his breakaway during stage 4 into San Luis Obispo won’t be forgotten; he has earned a permanent spot in the race’s lore.
While the racing is unlikely to be epic in the cold and rain sense, the better weather and with some dramatic new courses thrown into the mix, it seems unlikely anyone will come away from the event thinking it should have remained unchanged. We’ll know for sure when the sun sets on May 23.
To the degree that this site might struggle to find a broad readership within cycling, I take full responsibility. I can geek out on aspects of equipment that some cyclists couldn’t care less about. I read geometry charts the way some folks read biographies. If they could examine geometry charts on Mythbusters, I’d record it and watch it daily.
I’d apologize, but the reality is, I enjoy it and from time to time I write something that actually turns out to help other cyclists.
One of RKP’s readers, Sophrosune, commented on the “Road Feel” post and asked me for my take on the Colnago E1’s geometry and to respond to Bicycling’s assertion that the bike was squirrelly on descents, something our reader claimed to experience as well.
I’ve talked a lot about geometry in theory, but this is a great chance to look specifically at one bike and just what information you generally get and what information you ought to get. So let’s start with the basics.
The Basics: If you really want to know a bike’s personality on paper, there are a handful of dimensions you absolutely need. They are:
Top tube length: this is the single greatest determiner of a bicycle’s size. Simply put, bigger people need longer top tubes.
Seat tube angle: this will have a huge effect on saddle setback and can change the effective top tube length by more than a centimeter on small size bikes and more than two centimeters on larger frames. The longer your femur, the slacker the seat tube angle you need to achieve knee-over-pedal spindle, but that’s only meaningful if you believe in that standard.
Trail: steering geometry is defined by the interplay of head tube angle and fork rake; if a chart lacks one or the other, there’s no telling how the bike will handle. More trail means the bike is more resistant to steering input; less trail means the bike is more reactive to steering input.
Bottom bracket height (or drop): these two numbers are virtually interchangeable, though one, BB drop, is absolute because it defines the distance the BB is below a line that bisects both axles. BB height is influenced by the tires used and any given BB height is dependent on a specific tire. A lower BB (a drop of 7.5cm or more) makes the bike easier to lean into a turn; while it makes a bike more responsive, many riders report that a bike with a lower BB feels unusually sure-footed. A bike with a higher BB (a drop of less than 7cm) requires a bit more countersteering to execute a sharp turn but feels more stable when out of the saddle.
Wheelbase: changes in front-center distance (center of the BB to center of the front axle) and chainstay length can have a big effect on wheelbase length, even though the difference between many road bikes at a given size may only be 1cm, which translates to roughly a one percent difference. Ultimately, most bike designers will tell you wheelbase isn’t as important as BB drop, but not everyone agrees.
The Colnago E1: Colnago is one of a teaspoons-full of European manufacturers that didn’t completely abdicate its manufacturing in favor of a factory in Asia. This is significant.
Let me try to make a tedious story short.
The first Asian production of carbon fiber frames was largely set up in conjunction with American companies producing bikes for the United States market. The frame designs were based on a CPSC requirement for pedal clearance; most manufacturers comply with this requirement by designing their road bikes with a 7cm of bottom bracket drop.
Italian companies don’t have this same restriction. Italy also contains the Dolomite mountains. That last detail may or may not have a lot to do with why most Italian bikes had a BB drop of 7.5cm or more. I can’t say for certain because most Italian companies treat their geometry charts like state secrets. They will, on occasion, say something like, ‘We want our bicycles to descend with proper confidence.’
Any bike designs available from Asian factories through what are termed “open molds”—our engineering (reverse engineered from one of our clients with a great engineering team), your decals—were all built around 7cm of BB drop (not to mention a shorter wheelbase and less trail).
Suddenly, a great many Italian bike companies had bikes with a BB a half centimeter (or more) higher than they traditionally were.
If you were someone who had just purchased your first Taiwanese- or Chinese-made Italian bike, you might not notice the change in handling. However, if you’d been with that brand since the 1970s, you’d notice the difference.
However, that’s not the case with Colnago. In the case of the E1, the BB is a millimeter or two higher than it was in the steel bikes I’ve ridden; same for the chainstays and front center, a millimeter or two shorter.
The one shortfall in the geometry is in the fork. The fork rake for each frame size is 43mm. The head tube angle, though not given here, gets steeper as the sizes go from smaller to larger. As a result, the trail decreases (handling gets faster) as the frames increase in size. Each size will handle a bit differently due to the variance in trail.
An aside: I’ve wondered from time to time if more trail in a small frame would be useful in overcoming the decrease in wheelbase length and lower center of gravity that comes with a smaller frame. I’ve talked to women who have ridden a variety of bikes in smaller frame sizes and those bikes with the slackest head tube angles (72.5 degrees or less) and relatively little fork rake (some had 40mm of rake) did what was expected—they didn’t want to turn. Scratch that idea.
So many builders will tell you they build a given model around a given trail. While a custom builder can build a fork to any rake, at best, bike companies will offer two different fork rakes for their size range.
Okay, so what about the question? Is this a squirrelly bike as Bicycling suggested? There are two problems with our data set: We have no wheelbase length and no head tube angle. Despite that, a quick comparison of this bike with a few other frames I’m familiar with shows the BB is 3-4mm lower (as it should be) and the chainstays on average a half centimeter lower than typical American bikes. The front center is pretty typical for a given size.
But is it squirrelly? Based on what I see on paper, my gut says it’s great on fast descents. For anyone not already accustomed to Italian bikes, out of the saddle, this bike is a bit more maneuverable than might be comfortable. I could see how someone might drift off their line on their first few out-of-the-saddle sprints.
The are other unknowns that will make a huge difference in how this bike handles, and two of the most significant are the combination of stem length and handlebar height. Suppose you set up one 56cm frame with a short (say 10cm) stem with 4cm of headset spacers and another with a longer (12cm) stem and no headset spacers will handle so differently as to seem like a completely different bike.
I’d expect this bike to seem rather maneuverable out-of-the-saddle, but great on descents, unless, of course, it had a short stem and a high handlebar, and then it would seem squirrelly all day, every day.
Moving beyond the specifics of this bike, this geometry chart shows how leaving out one or two key details can render the rest of the geometry chart almost useless. For me, the question is why so many European bike manufacturers treat head tube angles as trade secrets. Changing stem length and height will make a much bigger difference in handling than even a full degree of head tube angle. In a way, we’ve brought it on ourselves. So few riders look at geometry charts the manufacturers aren’t motivated to offer more; if they aren’t going to give a complete set of information, then they ought to just give top tube and head tube length and stop there.
I get a lot of questions about the cycling publications that feature my work. As much as I love writing about cycling, I am loathe to promote myself or my work. It’s odd that a writer who depends on having an audience in order to pursue his work would be reluctant to mount a personal advertising campaign, but so it is. Launching Red Kite Prayer was a monumental and difficult effort if only for the fact that I knew my name would be all over it.
In Los Angeles a former emergency room doctor is accused of injuring two cyclists by stopping short in front of them. Dr. Christopher Thomas Thompson is charged with seven counts as a result of the incident, including reckless driving causing injury, two counts of battery with serious bodily injury, reckless driving, mayhem and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon. The charges stem from a July 4, 2008, incident in which Thompson is alleged to have stopped short in front of Ron Peterson and Christian Stoehr after a brief exchange of words. I’m reporting on these events for VeloNews.
On the chance that you’re not currently following the Thompson case on VeloNews.com, I encourage you to visit the site and follow the proceedings, not because I’m the reporter, but because I think the outcome of this case could tell us a lot about how American society feels about cyclists in general. It’s been tough work so far, work I’m unaccustomed to doing; fortunately, I’m working with terrific editors—VeloNews’ online editor Steve Frothingham and contributing editor Patrick O’Grady. Frothingham is an AP and Bicycle Retailer and Industry News veteran and O’Grady is known as a contributing editor to both VeloNews and Bicycle Retailer and Industry News.
To the degree that you are curious why I’m writing about the trial for VeloNews and not for RKP, the answer is simple: While the RKP readership is sizable, the VeloNews readership is much larger and these proceedings deserve as broad an audience as possible.
In addition to my occasional work for VeloNews, I also contribute to Road Bike Action. Most of my work for the magazine has concerned travel, but there have been a couple of technically oriented features as well as a comparison of the ’09 Astana team to the ’86 La Vie Claire team, commissioned by the magazine’s editor, Brad Roe. My relationship with Roe has been one of the easiest and most pleasant working relationships I’ve had in the industry. Despite (or maybe because of) the amount of research I did for the Astana/La Vie Claire feature, it ranks as one of the most enjoyable features I’ve written on in the last 10 years. In addition to the magazine features I write, I’m also contributing to the magazine’s web site twice a week (Mondays and Fridays).
For reasons I can’t explain, I find it nearly as enjoyable to write stories about the industry as to write about the equipment and racing; maybe it’s the chance to engage in some analysis. As a result, I also contribute, whenever the occasion arises, to the industry’s magazine of record, Bicycle Retailer and Industry News.
This winter Menasha Ridge Press will publish a book I’ve written called “Ride Like a Pro!” It is an instructional guide for entry-level roadies and contains everything from pack riding skills to chapters on metallurgy and geometry. I hope it will serve as a reference text for riders new and experienced alike.
I’m grateful for the readers who come to RKP. For those of you who enjoy my work and would like to see even more of it, I hope you’ll take a look at these other publications. This is probably as close as I’ll ever come to self-promotion. P.T. Barnum would call me a putz.
Concerning my present assignment for VeloNews, if you’re not already following this story, I hope you’ll check in on it from time to time in the coming weeks. It’s rare that cyclists come across a driver who might act in a deliberately harmful manner. Regardless of whether Thompson is found guilty, the facts of the case are shocking and the injuries gruesome; it should serve as a reminder to us of just how things can go wrong when we least expect it.
Cyclists in the United States do not have a reputation for successful activism. Causes to which their efforts would be well applied rarely get the effort they deserve. Group rides are facing increasing pressure from police and cities to clean up their acts, races are losing permits and mountain bike trails have been closed.
Strangely, though, this unusually Internet-savvy bunch made its presence known to Google, arguably one of the most powerful companies in the on-line world. Its application Google Maps provides a service with greater flexibility and more substantive information than anything you could get from the auto club. And while it offered more variations on mode of travel than the auto club did, those options were limited to driving, public transit and walking.
However, in the near future another option will be added: bicycling. Cyclists have been lobbying Google for more than a year to include cycling in its mapping routes and can now celebrate because the Palo Alto data aggregator listened.
The announcement was all but buried in a post on Google’s Lat Long blog, which is maintained by the folks at Google Earth. Four paragraphs down, software engineer Andrew Lookinbill mentions new datasets (now there’s an arcane noun) that include bike trails and paths. Lookinbill writes, “Soon we even plan on providing you with biking directions to take advantage of this new data.”
One wonders how far behind Map My Ride can be. That site is so forward thinking (and fun) it’s a wonder they don’t already offer proactive suggestions on routes.
Many riders in bigger cities complain that bike commuting is difficult and dangerous for the simple fact that finding a route composed of bike-friendly roads can be difficult. If Google gives weight to bike paths, bike lanes and bike routes, the feature could help usher in a new wave of bike commuters. And for map fiends (like yours truly), the ability to map a route that includes bike paths in advance and get accurate route notes and mileage is a dream come true. Imagine planning a European tour down to the last kilometer before ever leaving home. Where’s my passport?
There’s no word on how long until Google implements the new feature, but RKP will bring you an update once it is out and we’ve had a chance to test drive the mapping and compare it to existing software. Stay tuned.