Winter PressCamp, Part IV

Winter PressCamp, Part IV

If you go to Europe and spend enough time kicking around bike shops and talking to distributors you’ll find that seemingly every pro who ever won Paris-Roubaix more than once or stood on the top step of the podium of a grand tour has his own line of bikes. Most of them never made it stateside, and among the ones that did, Eddy Merckx is to exception what Bernard Hinault is to rule. I know of at least two attempts to bring his bikes to North American that ended with such anonymity you’d think the line had been launched by one of his domestiques, not the Badger himself.

Into this non-fray Chris Boardman, holder of the “absolute” hour record, has chosen to distinguish himself. Here’s the funny thing: he just might pull it off. Forget for a second that you need a great product with killer marketing to connect with consumers; you’ll never get there if you don’t have distribution. By partnering with Competitive Cyclist (which has had a near-Midas-touch with helping to give a brand credibility) while also seeking select high-end dealers, Boardman is off to an effective start.

Another important ingredient: effective public speaking. Brands need a figurehead, someone who can help project a persona on which to hang the identity of the bikes. I watched a video of Boardman talking about his bikes and the development that went into each model and realized that he has a rare talent for talking intelligently about his product line; he’s good in front of the camera, engaging like few CEOs in the bike industry.

Then there’s the product. My visit focused on the road bike, the aero road bike and their ‘cross bike. I was able to ride the road bike on the second day’s ride but never shot it. Insert sizable d’oh.

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What I saw in the bikes that made me interested in them was a simplicity of design, a lack of affect, that is, funny contours that can’t be supported by solid engineering. I love great industrial design that results in products that are as beautiful as they are functional, but that means that if a bike looks like it was drawn by a Victorian costumer so that it has frills and ruffles where a straight line would do, well then I’m probably out.

In the Boardman line I saw bikes that repeated the best ideas that I’m seeing on a number of other bikes. The down tubes are massive and squarish. The seatstays had all the moxie of a number two pencil. The chainstays curved upward in an effort to make the rear triangle a little more supple; think pasta al dente. Of course, all of that could have just been sharp presentation. Making a bike that looks like other popular bikes is easy to do, especially if you already have a Taiwanese factory ready to work for you, but making it ride right is another matter.

When I took the road bike out, I’ll admit that I wasn’t holding my breath. Sure, my conversation with Fletch and Andy, the Boardman representatives, went well, but I’ve had people fudge significant details before. The bike I rode, the SLR 9.8 is SRAM Red 22-equipped and frame weight in the medium size (55.5cm top tube) is said to weigh 798 grams. I can say from some experience that once a frame is down under the 900g threshold, the bike will feel lively just because there’s not a ton of material to result in a dead-feeling frame. The more material in the frame, the more zombie-like the feel.

Stay tuned for a review of the Air, their aero frame, sometime later this year.

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This was my first chance to take a look at Box components. They are better known as a maker of BMX components, but they’ve been gradually adding more and more mountain components to their range of offerings. They’re offering some stuff that will be of interest to ‘cross riders, such as a linear-pull brake that mounts to cantilever posts.

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What makes them especially interesting is that they’ve branched out beyond just those parts that are easy to CNC machine—namely, linear-pull brakes, cantilevers, levers, stems and the like.

 

 

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Box has been working in concert with their sister brand Promax (owned by their factory), to introduce a hydraulic disc brake.

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This is the Promax-branded version, but a Box version, which should look a bit more elegant is on the way.

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But here’s the really impressive part: Box has tackled the drivetrain. This rear derailleur is already in production.

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This is the shifter, which was the most exciting component to me. This shifter is the patent minefield, the thing that requires not just some good engineering sense, but creativity by the warehouse. To downshift, you simply push the paddle forward like you would other shifters. To upshift, you push the portion of the paddle past the fold (with the little dots) in toward the shifter unit.  In my time playing with it in the stand it performed solidly.

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Orbea, the Basque brand best-known for sponsoring the Euskaltel-Euskadi team for their run, was on-hand to show two mountain bikes, the Alma and the Rallon (say Ray-own). While the company is best-known in the U.S. as a road brand, they’ve more than proven themselves as a mountain bike brand in Europe due to the success of cross country riders like Julien Absalon and Georgia Gould.

The Alma is a hardtail Orbea offers in 27.5″ and 29″ wheels. Unlike some (most) brands that will base a model on one wheel size, Orbea took the approach of using 27.5″ wheels for the 15.5″, while offering the 17.5″ in both 27.5″ and 29″ wheels and then offering the 19″ and 21″ versions in 29″ wheels exclusively. It’s their belief that wheel size is less a choice than a function of rider size and to a lesser degree type of bike. It makes a lot of sense to me.

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The Rallon is the company’s new enduro bike. It features 27.5″ wheels and 160mm of travel front and rear. They’re putting a big push behind this bike with the announcement of a new enduro team they’re sponsoring. As much as I know the Alma is the bike that Orbea is known for, the Rallon is the bike I’m excited to ride.

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4 comments

  1. atlaz

    To be honest, Boardman’s main success comes down to the fact the bikes ARE good (especially for the price) and they sell them in accessible places (well, basically online and in a generic motoring chain store). Boardman is probably the single most credible pro-turned-bikebiz-dude around and probably the single most credible person in the UK as a cycling spokesman

  2. Ifjeff

    At what point does frame engineering reach a pinnacle and differences between designs only appear in the analytics with little to no translational effect? I would think we will find the edge of frame design and performance where concumers are unable to differentiate any true performance variance, as there is none. Then, brand and spokesperson draw us in almost exclusively and drive our preference. Smaller Brands like Boardman and LeMond could really thrive against larger hype promoting producers (with tarnished images). Imagine the effect on the pro peloton when a career after racing selling frames was based on character.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Ifjeff: You ask an interesting question. Even though I’m noting increasing similarities in appearance between sport (racing) bikes, the fact that the layup is unique to each model and size means that the bikes might feel similar, but they don’t reach a point where they are just indistinguishable. To your point on character, that seems to be something that the bike world has begun to care about to an increasing degree. We care about our community. It may have some effect on the success (or not) of some companies.

  3. steependdown

    The thing with Chris Boardman is that he is genuinely interested in bike design in a way that goes a little deeper than your average road rider. That will go a long way to keeping the brand successful in the fast growing UK market which in turn gives a sound base on which to venture into new markets. I have an early carbon entry level bike that I’ve been very pleased with. It will be interesting to know if the higher level stuff can please your more diuretic tastes.

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