I’ve got this hangup about accuracy. I hate seeing history rewritten, or the present adjusted to conform to the past. Case in point, most cycling fans claim they not only hate Lance Armstrong now, they always hated him. It’s a pretty convenient myth. Certainly it’s out of fashion to claim we enjoyed watching him put the wood to Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso and Andreas Klöden, but for most folks to say they never liked him, well all those photos on Facebook of people wearing yellow bands would suggest otherwise. Most of us like watching him race; we needn’t be embarrassed by that.

I have the same reaction when people like to talk about how much they love the handling of Italian bikes, how they have always loved the handling of Italian bikes. I don’t fault anyone for saying that. The fact is, for anyone who thinks that, it’s because there are companies out there that have intentionally snowed us. The truth is Italian bikes today bear little in common with the steel rigs many of us cut our teeth on.

What follows is less a diatribe against any particular bike company and in truth an effort to give riders an accurate picture of how bike geometry has changed.


BEPO: Before EPO
The chart that leads off this piece is the geometry for what Eddy Merckx was riding circa 1970. The basics are unsurprising: 58cm seat tube, 56.5cm top tube, 73-degree seat tube angle, 40mm fork rake and a bottom bracket height of 26.5cm. What is unusual is the 72-degree head tube angle, which when combined with the 40mm rake yields a trail of 6.84cm (this last detail the chart actually gets wrong). The 72-degree head tube angle is why a bike with a 56.5cm top tube can possess a wheelbase of 100cm. Because BB height is dependent on the tire used and can be surprisingly variable, I’m going to talk about BB drop. The Merckx had a BB drop of 75mm.

This is a bike that turns only when you tell it to, and will rail down mountains.

Though Merckx was Belgian, his bikes were built by Italians—Masi, Colnago and DeRosa all supplied him with bikes at some point—and the geometry he rode was distinctly Italian.

Let’s fast forward to the 1980s. From the rise of LeMond through to those last five years that steel was the predominant material ridden by the pro peloton, little had changed from that early Merckx. Still common: 40mm rake, a 73-degree seat tube angle, a BB drop of 75mm. The big difference is that the head tube angle had steepened by a full degree to 73 for most Italian bikes.

Across the pond, here in the U.S., the bikes were quite different. Your average Serotta, Specialized or other race bike was likely to have a BB drop of 70mm—5mm higher, a 73-degree seat tube angle and either a 73.5-degree head tube angle paired with a 40mm-rake fork, or a 73-degree head tube angle paired with a 43mm-rake fork. Either way, you get 5.9cm of trail.

In short, you can sum up the difference between Italian rides and American rides this way: the Italian bikes had a lower BB and more trail compared to American bikes.

So why were the American bikes different? According to the people I’ve talked to, there is one big reason. The single biggest reason is domestic racing. Because Americans were racing criteriums and pedaling through the corners, the BB was raised and the trail decreased in order to keep the bike maneuverable. The Italians were designing bikes for racing grand tours—day in, day out, and in the mountains.

It’s the American geometry that was used when Asia began tooling up for carbon fiber bike production in the late 1990s. That’s because the American companies were the first to go to Asia to produce carbon fiber frames.


Practically magic
So what’s the difference between those two bikes, practically speaking? Talk to anyone who owned an Italian steel bike that was produced in Italy before Miguel Indurain’s last Tour win and they’ll talk of the bike’s handling in reverent tones. Telepathic, magic, confidence-inspiring; you hear the same descriptors used over and over. Nothing descended as well. And that was a function of the lower bottom bracket.

The America bikes, by comparison, were great for threading the eye of the needle, going flat-out through the last corner of a crit and going straight when you stood up to sprint. The higher the BB, the more it tracks straight when you stand.


The abdication
It’s the move to Asia for carbon that caused an irreversible shift in the geometry of production bikes. Not for the American companies, but for all the European ones. Look at today’s European companies and their bikes have the same geometry as the American ones, by and large. You’ll see some variation in head tube angle and fork rake, but with few exceptions they run in the 68 to 70mm range of drop.

Over the years I have asked a number of people why the Italian companies changed their geometry upon sourcing carbon fiber from Asia and the only answer I ever received that seemed credible (partly because it was off the record) was that the guys who first made the trips from Italy to Asia for sourcing weren’t the designers; they were executives, usually in charge of sales and marketing and had no clue about the geometry of the bikes. The Asian companies ended up doing all of the design work and stuck with the American geometry because no one asked for bikes with a lower BB or more trail.

In a few short years Italian geometry went almost extinct.


The caveats
Carbon fiber bikes produced today are notably different than those being produced in 2000. They are much stiffer in all the ways that are critical to handling. One of the reasons bikes in the 1970s had slack head angles, low bottom brackets and not much fork rake was that they were pretty flexible and you had to make those concessions in order to make a bike that you could handle with precision on a descent. Now that they are much stiffer, we’ve seen trail drop steadily, from 5.9cm to 5.6 and more recently to 5.3. On occasion, I’ve seen some big bikes with as little as 5.1cm of trail. Companies wouldn’t put bikes with so little trail on the road if the forks weren’t significantly stiffer than they used to be. You need precise handling in order to control a fork that steers so quickly.

Unfortunately, there’s a weird flip side to this. When you look at some European companies’ efforts to revive old steel models, in many instances they are building their steel revivals around current angles.


Bottom Line
For riders who had a Colnago, Masi or Pinarello back in the 1980s or ’90s and have missed the way that bike handles, there are very few options other than going with a custom builder. Ironic that the easiest way to get that Italian stage race geometry would be to talk to an American builder, but there it is. There’s one final, notable wrinkle. The rise of the gravel bike, a bike different from cyclocross bikes, that has seen a return to that 1970 Merckx geometry with a slacker head tube angle and lower BB. The one difference is more fork rake. Where the Merckx had a 72-degree head tube angle with a 40mm rake fork, today we’re seeing some gravel bikes with a 72 or even a 71.5 head tube combined with a 50 or 55mm fork. The driver is that big tire and the need to avoid toe overlap, or at least minimize it.

So there; I’ve said it. Italian bikes aren’t Italian bikes anymore. Not in handling, and certainly not in construction. There are exceptions, but those exceptions are all produced by smaller outfits. If you miss those bikes of yore, talk to a custom operation.

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  1. David Tollefson

    On frames I’ve built for myself, I’ve been hovering in the 70 degree range with 43mm rake forks (trail in the high 70’s), and LOVE the handling. Definitely not crit bikes, however. But the nod to the custom builder is, sadly, where we are in the industry — the big box companies can’t and won’t interpret how the customer wants the bike to handle.

    1. Author

      Thanks much!

      Those Guerciottis were amazing. Mondonico had a hand in those. And my Mondonico was one of the best-descending bikes I ever rode.

    2. Kevin

      I couldn’t agree more. While my late 70s Guerciotti has a bit more toe overlap than I’d like, it’s handing and fit are spot on. It’s always my 1st choice out of the stable, weather permitting.

  2. Touriste-Routier

    I know you are focusing on the front end of geometry, but with the shift towards historical American designs the rear end of the bikes have changed too. We are see shorter chainstays and steeper seat angles (for a given size) than we did in the 70s/80s. Not only that, we now see a lot of zero set back seatposts, so our weight distribution and how we sit on a bike may also have changed.

    Again, not really the point of the article, but don’t neglect that gravel bikes not only have more bb drop and slacker head angles than road bikes, they also have longer chainstays.

    Other factors in why Euro brands now have the same geometry as American designs could be: 1) Open Molds; many companies no longer design their own bikes, and use molds that already exist at the actual contracted factory. 2) With the rise of American companies as major sponsors in the Pro Peloton, the competition for high end bike sales has changed. The market is no longer Colnago vs Pinarello per se, it is Colnago vs Specialized and Pinarello vs. Trek. Comparisons are being made, and similarities need to be manufactured.

    1. Author

      Fair point regarding chainstay length and its effect on wheelbase and handling. Two reasons I didn’t go into more detail on that. This piece is already 1300 words and I didn’t want it to be 2000 words. Also, trail and BB drop are the two figures that every builder I talk to leads with. Chainstay length (and builders can feel free to correct me on this) ends up being a response to front center (for weight distribution), which is a result of top tube length and trail, and from front center and chainstay we get wheelbase. Designing around chainstay length would be putting the cart before the horse, though plenty of bike aficionados have talked about chainstay length as a way to discuss a bike’s personality. So, anyway, going into all that would have made the piece TLDR. And I’m sure I already did that to some people.

      Now, regarding the lack of Italian geometry in carbon, open molds aren’t a factor because that didn’t exist until ten or so years ago. By then Italian geometry was dead as most of the world’s bees. Everything I’ve been able to find out about Asian production of carbon fiber for Italian brands indicates that no one from those brands made a deliberate choice. The evidence is interesting. There are no abandoned prototypes with low BBs (none that I’ve heard of or seen); it was as if a switch was flicked. Also, the split can be seen in aluminum as well.

      This ought to be a joke: How do you tell an Italian-made aluminum bike from an Asian-made aluminum bike? No, not by which one breaks first. Which one has the low BB.

      One final thought: That Ernesto Colnago might allow Mike Sinyard to twist his arm on geometry is something I think he’s too proud to allow to happen consciously.

  3. HampCo

    Patrick, another thought on old-school geometry is that using a slacker head angle – along with the longer wheelbase – will yield a bike that is more comfortable on unpaved, rough, or cobbled road surfaces. I’m guessing that European roads in the 60s and 70s were somewhat worse that they are now – with the exception of the cobbled classics where the roads are probably still as bad as ever!

    Good article, as always.


    1. Author

      Thanks for the kind words Steve. You raise a great point about long wheelbase and slack HTA, and one that’s worth discussing more when I dive deeper on the Multi-Strada bikes. It’s one of those things that’s easy underestimate until you’ve experienced it.

  4. AC

    Very interesting. I have a ti DeSalvo that was designed for mixed surface Fondo’s here in WA (since I use it for everything – road, gravel, etc. I won’t slap the trendy ‘gravel’ term on it). We started with the geometry from my old Redline CX bike that I had been using, and Mike lowered the bottom bracket and lengthened the CS into something pretty close to the Italian geometry described.

    1. Patrick O'Grady

      As I recall, the Redlines already had a lower-than-usual BB (for a ‘cross bike, anyway) because the Northwest folks liked to run such fat rubber.

      I still love riding a ‘cross bike pretty much everywhere. Such versatile machines.

    2. Author

      I’m pleased to say that I had an unwitting role in the design of the (quite brilliant) Redline ‘cross bikes. I was on the phone with Tim Rutledge (the bike’s uber-fast designer) one day and we were talking ‘cross when he admitted that he designed the geometry around my praise of another bike with a low BB in a review I wrote for Bicycle Guide. To say I was stoked was an understatement. He told me he wanted a bike that you could slap skinny tires on and do road rides with when it isn’t ‘cross season. We also talked about how the high BB of ‘cross bikes had been a necessity due to toe clips (to keep them fro dragging in the grass as you remount) and with everyone running clipless pedals, the high BB was unnecessary. It was nice to find someone else who believed in the low BB, and as Mr. O’Grady notes, you can run bigger rubber if you’re starting with a lower BB.

    1. Mike E.

      Yes, this was a very informative article, and explains why some of my bikes ride they way they do.

  5. Pingback: Dumb Wheelbase Question

  6. Michael Levine

    Brilliant piece! Makes me so grateful that I started cycling in’69 on the old steel bikes that were similar to the ones you describe. I had Peugeot, Raliegh, Benotto, Atala, Myata, Merckx, Merckx, Merkx, Lemond, Lemond, (steel and Ti), Tom Kellogg Spectrum (THE BEST), and one of my favorites…Jim Redkay. They were all super bikes built along the same parameters of those early, perfectly riding frames.

    1. Author

      Wow. That list reads like a list of George Clooney’s ex-girlfriends. What haven’t you ridden?

    2. Ed Busch

      My first bike in 1974 was a1973 Bottechia. Road it for one year and then got a custom built Jim Redcay. I believe it was the eighth frame Jim ever built. Only bike l ever rode on, trained on and raced on for the next ten years…There was no reason to try anything else. Oh except for my 1974 Roberts Track Bike…

    3. Stephen Barner

      Tom’s daughter works with me and one day we were rapturously looking over her bike when xhe exclaimed “It’s nothing special. It’s just something my dad built!”

  7. kojo

    Padrig, I think we had a similar conversation regarding front end trail and handling about ~ 2years ago. I guess I’m not alone in liking a bike with more trail (like a track bike!). I think part of the issue is that bike manufacturers are trying to run the same fork across all of their sizes. In fact recently one manufacturer went from two fork rakes to one across the entire size range 4.4mm. Canyon has an interesting solution with variable fork rake via a fork shim, not sure how much adjustability there is but a novel idea. Might be fun to test one and play around w/ the shim.

    1. Author

      I was unaware of the shim in the Canyon. Sounds interesting. More trail can be great if the rider is either skilled or the BB is lower. A high BB and lots of trail demands someone like you (a former track nat’l champ) who knows how to tell a bike to do something. I’m reminded of the John Stenner’s Zinn TT bike that had negative fork rake. You really have to know how to countersteer to make a bike like that turn. It’s great for head-down drilling, though.

  8. Todd

    One thing to keep in mind about chainstay length is that as you lower the bottom bracket, the rear wheel tucks in closer to the seat tube, decreasing wheelbase. So, when comparing a bike with longer chainstays and more bb drop to a bike with shorter chainstays and less bb drop, you could end up with the same virtual chainstay length.

    1. Author

      Great point. That’s part of the reason I just don’t talk about chainstay length much. Chainstay length is neither absolute nor does it tell you much about a bike’s handling. Better to simply default to wheelbase.

    2. Ransom

      Makes me wonder whether much like the movement (if that’s what it is) toward reach/stack info, whether chainstay length and front center should be consigned to the dustbin of history in favor of measurements *horizontally* between rear axle and bottom bracket, and front axle and bottom bracket, with BB drop telling us the vertical component. Breaking these things into their longitudinal and vertical components seems much more useful. “Where are the wheels? And where is the rider, and in what position?”
      I am, of course, woefully underqualified to make it more than a tentative question.

  9. Gilles cantin

    Not to forget lighter wheels ……..this fact alone makes a huge difference in handling …so in order to get that famous traditional italian handling ……we cannot use the same geo specks as in the past …..simply said the designers that understand what they do made corrections through the years …as all the ones copying are still trying to understand Collago……..

    1. Author

      So true. Light wheels, especially a light front wheel will fundamentally change a bike’s handling.

    1. Author

      It’s hard to make cockpit length a part of a conversation of this sort because cockpit is a function of you. It’s relative and changes for everyone.

    1. Author

      I don’t know the full details of the bike. I know that it has a 74-degree seat tube angle (I have really short femurs; they are only half the length of my leg) and it has 7.5cm of BB drop, a bit less than my Bishop and my Seven. The top tube is 55.5cm because this is a multi-strada and I’ll use a 100mm stem with a long reach bar. That will give me a chance to sit up high as I climb, but a chance to get plenty of weight on the front wheel for descending. I believe the HTA is 72; not sure about the fork rake. Things like this happen when you trust the guy you’re working with. That said, I ask him loads of questions. I pepper him with questions just to keep the conversation going and keep him thinking. I’ve brought up all sorts of details and considerations that won’t be a part of this bike, such as disc brakes and dropper post.

  10. Kimball

    I really enjoyed this article Padraig. Can you elaborate a bit more about why lowering the bottom bracket allows you to fit bigger tires? Seems like chainstay length and spacing would be the key here.

    1. Author

      Lowering the BB doesn’t aid in fitting bigger tires. What it does is offset the way a bigger tire will raise CG. If you lower the BB by 5mm and you run a tire that elevates the BB by 5mm, you end up with the same CG as a bike with traditional road tires. There’s another reason to lower the BB, though, and that’s simply to lower CG to make the bike more maneuverable.

  11. Michael Barbosa

    Excellent article.

    My favorite bike in a 1962 Masi Special that I got that year in Milan. The 56cm frame has an 8cm BB drop, 16cm setback, and as best as I can calculate, a 55+ trail. It’s a dream ride. Yes, it’s a little squirrelly out of the saddle but who cares? The bike rides like a limousine.

    My modern CF bike made by Calfee in 2000 is a fine machine. But I hate it. The BB drop is 7cm, a seat setback around 15cm, and worse, my shoe overlaps the front tire (tubular). Unfortunately, many modern bikes have front end overlap. I can’t understand why a builder would make a road bike with front wheel overlap. The trail seems to be a hair under 5cm. I am terrified riding the bike on fast descents and can barely ride it without hands.

    My dream, when I win the lottery, is to have a CF bike made with the Masi geometry.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the kind words. I envy you the Masi. When you hit the lottery, go talk to Argonaut, Alchemy, Nick Crumpton or Sarto. They’ll make that dream bike for you.

    2. Pete Ewart

      I agree got to ride my brothers Masi from Alberto 84 model comfort plus confidence on descents and good for the finish . The carbon bikes I have ridden don’t inspire confidence going down hill the back end seems to want to do its own thing ,I always thought it may have had something to do with the weight

  12. Jorgensen

    In looking at the geometry of many current production road bikes, disappointment is confirmed often as 70mm is largest bottom bracket drop. Keeping in mind that many more are using 175 mm crank arms compared to Nuovo Record era, as today’s pedals almost universally provide more cornering clearance than an old Record pedal, 75 mm of drop should be the norm.

    406-410 mm long chain stays are overrated.

    At one point Richard Sachs mentioned he liked 8 cm of drop.

    1. Author

      I’ve been told by a few people that the reason for American bikes usually having 7cm of BB drop (and very rarely any more than that) was because of the CPSC’s pedal strike test. That’s been refuted by one person, but I’ve spoken to engineers who worked from that understanding, so blame it on the government. Last I knew, Richard was building with 8cm of drop. I’ve not seen anyone exceed 8cm of BB drop.

  13. Robert

    One correction about Merckx: you’ve overlooked his Belgian builder F. Kessels, who produced many bikes for Eddy early and late in his career. Many of these can still be found on Ebay in Europe, and some in America. Many were Merckx badged bikes with Molteni orange, and later with Fiat or C&A silver.

    1. Author

      I knew someone would give me shit for this. I didn’t say those were the ONLY builders he worked with. I left out a bunch of Merckx’ builders, like Pela. Tracing a history of all the builders who supplied him with bikes could be a piece of its own.

  14. Richard Sachs

    That schematic appeared on Paul Ketelaar’s Facebook post first, and I saw the discussion that followed. Wow! Anyway, he and I privately shared that we don’t believe the numbers pasted in are original or even accurate on balance. So teeing off on them as if they represent anything might be a bit misplaced.

    1. HampCo

      And I’ll point out, as Richard mentions above, the numbers shown may not be accurate. My BikeCAD program gives me a whopping 67.8mm of trail using 72º HTA and 40mm of rake, NOT 55mm as shown.

  15. Author

    Everyone: Thanks for all the comments. It’s gratifying to have a post spark so much conversation. The one caveat I should probably have made a greater effort to emphasize is that this is meant to be a 30,000-foot view of geometry. There are loads of exceptions and some wonderful threads of history that you could chase after using this as a starting point. For the avowed bike geek, this piece is a bit rudimentary. The larger point I’m trying to make is that there was a big break in what we think of as Italian geometry and historically, you can place that break point in the late ’90s when Italian carbon fiber bikes began to come out of Asia. There’s before and there’s after and when an Italian bike company wants to brag about their great handling, it’s worth wondering which handling they are talking about.

  16. Tad Hughes

    I don’t think one of the biggest drivers in geometry changes and fit was not mentioned: The advent and adoption of the Aheadset system, driving geometry and even handlebar designs to accommodate.

  17. Les.B.

    This is an eye-opener.

    First, for the current crop of road bikes basic frame geometry has been determined quite capriciously — by a particular group of suppliers being first to get to the Asian manufacturers, and their specs being set as the industry standard.

    And that the driving force behind the change from the Italian model was a niche market in the US. What proportion real-world cyclists benefit from the new paradigm?

    I thought the grand tours, and not the practices of a narrow spectrum of American cyclists drove bicycle design. Must be a matter of the money trail.

    I suspect that my 2008 De Rosa Idol is of the original “Italian” design. First of all, it IS Italian, truly Italian, as De Rosa was building these at their factory in Milano at the time. And I notice when I try out demos of more modern bikes, that riding with no hands is a breeze compared to the Idol, which is quite tempted to go its own way when I take my hands off the bars.

    1. Author

      I don’t think it’s fair to conclude that basic frame geometry in use today is in any way capricious. Every bike company out there gets feedback from the racers they sponsor. The resources that Specialized (for example) has poured into spending time with the teams they sponsor and getting feedback from them on what they can improve is really impressive. Current bike design isn’t haphazard.

      If you have trouble riding your DeRosa no-hands, then I suspect it has a higher BB. If there’s one thing that’s easy to do on a bike with a low BB, it’s ride no-hands. That said, an inability to ride no-hands can also, frequently be a sign of a poor fit—too little weight on the front wheel.

  18. Charles Nighbor

    Interestingly, the De Rosa-built machine that Merckx used in 1974 had a 73.5° head angle and about 47 mm offset, which results in 51 mm trail. I measured that one myself when we photographed it for our book “The Competition Bicycle”, so I am pretty confident in the measurements. Merckx won the Tour, the Giro and the World Championships on that bike – so it must have descended just fine.

    Thus, Patrick Brady’s proclamation that until the 80s, “Italian geometries” were 72° and 40 mm offset most definitely aren’t true for De Rosa. Much of Patrick Brady’s stuff seems to be based on hearsay, not original research, so I wouldn’t put too much weight on his proclamations of what certain geometries do or don’t do.

    On the other hand, LeMond’s Gitane (his first bike as a pro, also featured in “The Competition Bicycle”) had slightly shallower head angle (73°) and a little less fork offset (41 mm), resulting in something much closer to Brady’s “Italian geometry”.

    Brady is right that American 1980s frames did get steeper head angles. Also from the book, the Landshark/Huffy on which Andy Hampsten won the 1988 Giro has a 74° head angle… However, having raced for 10 years and almost 60,000 miles (including training) on a Marinoni with 74° head angle, I don’t think anybody can claim that these bikes didn’t descend well. More than once, riders on other, lesser bikes crashed when they tried to follow my wheel.

    Jan Heine


    Bicycle Quarterly

    Seattle, WA, USA”

  19. Charles Nighbor

    George Mount

    11:56 AM (43 minutes ago)

    For the most part, real bike racers ride bikes and don’t care much about this. I’ve never weighed or measured a bike and go down hills plenty fast if I want to on any race bike I’ve ever had. The only people who passed me on descents in races in Europe crashed.

    Geometry is for frame builders and it’s only part of the equation required to build a proper bike for it’s intended use.

    George Mount

    Livermore, CA USA.”

  20. Charles Nighbor

    ”Thanks George!

    Here is the 753 frame I made for George to ride in Italy. Notice the BB height is not very high.

    I spent quite a lot of time designing bike frames. I was able to ride many different bikes over the years. If you want to see the geometry of almost all the Merz frames I made you can go to Merz Bicycles on facebook and look in photos. Choose albums, and go down to the bottom and check Merz frame build sheets and Merz frame build sheets II. I was influenced by Italian frame designs when I started building bikes, a good starting point. But I came up with what works by building and riding many, many frames. No magic with frame geometery. Most riders cannot tell the difference. I can.

    Jim Merz

    Big Sur CA USA”

  21. todd

    My favorite rude is still team 7/11 Merckx from 88, i have 4 ither Edyy’s but none feel as connected to the road.
    I have gone the route of custom builder, utilizing Stinner Framewroks from California, theyve built in all the qualities i want and workmanship is stellar

  22. Duffy

    I don’t know about this. The bb drop on a 54 cm Dogma F8 it’s nearly a half centimeter lower than on a a 54 Tarmac while seat tube angle it’s a quarter degree more slack. Rake in the Pina is 43, for the Tarmac its 44. Wheelbase on the Pina is a more than 2cm longer than on the Tarmac. While not as exaggerated as on old steel frame — you rightly mentioned that much of the traditional geometry was in large part dictated by materials and the stiffness of carbon exaggerates the handling characteristics lent by geometry — in practical terms the two bikes, with the same set up, ride and handle like two different animals and the theory trends noted in the article can still be seen. I wouldn’t ever recommend a Tarmac to someone whose rides average less than 15mph. I could recommend to them a Pinarello. Lastly, the biggest difference and one not mentioned is that even in their entry level bikes, Pinarello offers more sizes. In the Dogma you’ve got 13 sizes, making you’re very seldom bastardizing frame geometry for the sake of fit. * Written from my smart phone, please excuse random typos *

    1. Duffy

      Another typo seen…it’s not the theory trends, it’s the geometry trends. Again, IMO, while the trend towards ‘grand tour’ geometry can still be seen in many Italian race bikes (I used Pina as an example because I own a Dogma and have ridden and raced multiple Tarmac models), to me the biggest difference in how those bikes handle comes down to sizing and fit. Having ‘between’ sizes like the 53cm F8 I ride makes a world of difference in the stem length I can run, my saddle setback, and general balance on the bike.

    2. tenderloin

      “I wouldn’t ever recommend a Tarmac to someone whose rides average less than 15mph.”

      You would not sell many Tarmacs, in that case.

  23. MCH

    I wonder how much influence the material of the day had on old-school geometry. Columbus SL/SP and Reynolds 531 tube sets were far from stiff. I vividly recall how steel frames built with these materials would ‘wind-up” when tipped into a corner and snap back on exit, or how the poor torsional stiffness would result in the bike moving in all sorts of directions in a sprint.

    Is there an ideal geometry for a bike frame regardless of material, or is geometry variable based on frame material?

  24. Aaron A.

    This is an important conversation. There are some great points made here from a group of well informed cyclists. I’ll chime in here to say that the point made about companies not making what people actually would choose to ride is one that needs attention. It’s all too true, very rarely do you see engineers and designers taking feedback from the cyclists that best represent the true consumer.
    Most Bike racers have the weirdest preferences, most extreme fit/position on a bike and tend to stick to irrational trends purely because of tradition or even superstition in some cases. point being, what you or I want or need in a bike, even as a seasoned cyclist, is usually quite different than that of the people bike designers take their cues from.
    “Ride Character” is the single most important thing about a bike aside from safety in my opinion. Our major brands seem to have forgotten what this is or at least they’ve forgotten how to talk about it aside from using the pointless broken record of “stiff and light”. The people in marketing don’t seem to know how to describe bikes aside from cliche terms and perhaps none of the big wigs wish to talk about it. Perhaps they assume the average cyclist isn’t worthy of that discussion?
    My point is, this is a discussion more cyclists should have, more bicycle retailers should engage in and as a result, we may get some bikes that are better for everyone.
    This is why I ride custom bikes. North American brands began copying custom builders with regard to fit. It’s safe to say there wouldn’t be a Specialized Roubaix were it not for people like Serotta and Seven. A lot of custom bikes are made differently than modern production bikes for a reason. My bikes always have a bit more trail and BB drop. Why, the handling is just better FOR ME. Having seen cyclists who are not as seasoned as me struggle through corners and technical terrain on bikes designed for professional racers, it’s safe to say everyone would benefit from a geometry reset in the industry.
    Great post Padraig, great feedback everyone!

  25. Ted Durant

    For an attempt to clarify history, this article is short on research. Merckx set the hour record on a geometry he thoroughly tested with the assistance of E. Colnago. Documented in Bicycle Guide in 1991: 75 degree head angle, 55mm offset, 31mm trail, 65mm BB drop. Kvale and Corbett in 1981 wrote an article, “A Fresh Look at Steering Geometry”, published in Cycling USA, in which they measured their Cinelli and Masi road frames at 74-75 degree head tubes and 50mm offset, for trail in the low 40’s.

    1. Touriste-Routier

      While I am not disputing the statistics you cite (as I haven’t read the articles you refer to), the context is not the same.

      The hour record bike(s) were specifically made track bikes for a specific 1-time) time trial attempt on a velodrome. Comparing geometry of a track bike to a road bike is not going to yield much useful information in regards to the subject of this post.

      FWIW, the BB drop on Merckx’s hour record bike might be reflective of that he reportedly used 175 mm crank arms, which was not common on velodromes.

  26. neil

    i have to say that waxing about an old italian steel bike makes me a little sleepy. scwinn continental, bertin, whitcomb (usa), myata (champion tubes), serrotta steel, fondriest alum/carbon, seven evergreen ti with sns couplers. this is the 46 year chronological of my road bike ownership till this past March. with the exception of the Miata, every single bike was and improvement over the prior for many many reasons. The biggest one was probably the way we ride has changed through all that time. yesterday I did a 30 mile mixed terrain ride and the New England snow in November I did three weeks in Japan. The old Italian Road geometry just don’t cut it any more

    1. Stephen Barner

      Your list of bikes leaves me wondering if you’ve ever spent much time on a bike with classic Italian geometry.

  27. Alex Mueller


    Would this be why more and more people are using zero offset seat posts or putting their saddles forwards? This also seems to be an American fitting phenomenon?

    1. Author

      I think the two are unrelated. I think we just understand more about good fit today and have realized that an awful lot of people can’t get their knee over the pedal spindle with a saddle centered on the rails over a 20mm setback seatpost inserted into a frame with a 73-degree STA. I’m one of them. I need a 74 STA and a zero offset post if I’m going to center the saddle on the rails and have my knee over the pedal spindle.

  28. David Finlayson

    Excellent, technical article. While it’s true that racers have moved forward with new technology to win races, Italy never stopped building these bicycles for those who want them. I personally enjoy one of the biggest names, the Cinelli SuperCorsa. Cinelli never stopped making this bike, and have never change the geometry. The only thing they change is applying the latest steel technology from parent company Columbus to increase strength to weight. I also have an Italian brand full carbon bike with Campy Record. My best local fast descent ends with a 90 degree turn. I hit it faster with better feel on the SuperCorsa. However I do finish that 30 mile ride much faster on Carbon. I don’t think it’s just the geometry that makes all the difference. The flex and rebound characteristics of steel have a lot to do with it. You can’t have everything.

  29. Robert Borchert

    Absolutely brilliant words, Padraig!

    I rode a Centurion for decades, a humble steed I kept in new condition since I bought it in 1985. Even kept the original SIS downtube shifters working well for over 120,000 km, perhaps as much as 150.

    Years ago I had a riding buddy that switched rides with me, he had a custom Spectrum. I was amazed at how she handled.

    Years later, I settled on a custom steel ride made my Jon Tallerico locally. It was built using the true Italian geometry of the “old days”. As a randonneur, I have found true cycling happiness in its manners and handling.

    I have always been one to adapt to the machine, but in this case, I can personally attest to just how nice she rides. I’ve accumulated 80,000 on this one, as there are so many wonderful roads here.

    It’s refreshing to see your explanation for part of the difference in experience.


  30. carlo

    It will be interesting also to see if the ” italian steel” geometry changed as the composite fork appear in the “peloton”, as for dimension coming from molds, as for behavior of material… but again can be another story.
    And if, those who are pleased of an Italian ride , are with composite fork.

    Good research anyway!

  31. Author

    Everyone: Again, thanks once again for your kind words.

    A brief word on exceptions to what I’ve suggested in this post. There are lots of exceptions, a great example being track bikes. That’s not germane to this conversation. The real point of this post is to make people aware that there was a significant shift historically in the geometry of Italian bikes. Stage race geometry (a term I first heard from Bill McGann when he owned Torelli) describes that geometry perfectly. It typified the offerings from Colnago, De Rosa, Mondonico, Pinarello, Guerciotti, Masi, Carrera, Moser and a great many others. Most, in fact.

    That bike, regardless of what you think of it, is gone from production runs.

    And if you liked those bikes, that handling, going custom is the only answer these days. That’s all.

  32. Happy Freedman

    Loved the article I think each of you must read for anybody in the cycling industry. A specially those who have been improved less than 10 years. It is also a but you must read for people selling bikes and people fitting bikes. Especially those with less than 10 years’ experience. Specifically for people who did not grow up with a steel bikes and variety of bicycle geometry as that existed in the sixties seventies and eighties and nineties. The onset of the monocoque bicycle frame made the mold. The number of geometric options available for a bike has declined and can be said with the introduction of a carbon fork. If you go into a bike store to buy high and bike people discuss when it’s made out of what the bicycle weight is. Today it is very rare to find a discussion of ride characteristics that have to do with rake and trail. Most people don’t know what rake and trail mean. I would say that can be applied many bike fitter and salesman.
    I have been fitting bikes for over 30 years .the discussion of how fit and the discussion of geometry are an issue the ability of the cyclist to find that the center point of balance is key to setting up a bike properly. Fork and seat angles as well as chain stay length are important considerations when doing the bike fit. Unfortunately most bike fit schools in that teach frame geometry as a component of BikeFit. Most bike fitters don’t even know what the terms mean.
    Most people don’t realize that the modern bike design an increase in crashing during the tour. Ben Serotta talks about the rigidity of the modern bicycle wheel combined a tight rigid frame as a contributory factor to the multitude of crashes during the tour De France. From a BikeFit point of view I feel the center of gravity has shifted to four forward in addition to the use of very long for stems in combination with frames and you too short in the cyclist using them increasing the risk of going over the bars. We need to get back to basics when looking at new bike or fitting an old one

    Happy Freedman
    Orthotic Consultant
    Bike Fitting Specialist
    Prosthetics and Orthotics
    Hospital for Special Surgery
    510 East 73rd Street, Suite 201
    New York, NY 10021

    646.797.8343 fax

  33. chuckster

    Great commentary! As someone who has always thought it would be really cool to weld up my own frames (but like most, realistically may never get around to actually doing it), I love hearing about the philosophies and realities behind angles, materials and measurements.

    My only comment was regarding the article’s lead about Armstrong. I (and most friends who followed back then) will definitely acknowledge that we all viewed Armstrong 1.0 (BC… to borrow from your BEPO acronym) at that time as a force of nature and a future king of 1 day races – big fans *then*… and the ’98 Vuelta and Worlds 4th were what I thought would be the high water mark of a comeback from cancer… The next 7 years were sort of a roller coaster with his metronomic TdF wins always playing back and forth with the ugly bulk of the doping era, that in my mind kicked off with abandon after Festina – fandom for Postal and Lance but with creeping speculation tucked away in a deep corner of my mind as he, and teammates current and former rode out of their skin – Hamilton w/ sling grinding his teeth down and the peloton too, Landis’ monster escapade, Hincapie crushes everyone on a mountain stage, etc…

    Anyways, we all know the rest and certainly a more contrite Armstrong could have saved a few fans the way some others have.

  34. souleur

    thanks for the conversation Padraig

    thanks to the past intro to cycling geometry 101, this class continued concepts of cycling geometry 112, i have passed and understood the entirity of it.

    Its a fact, that most cyclists understand a little about the geometry. It does take interest on ones part, and as mentioned in the thread, many within the industry have many differing views, opinions and motives. That said, and as this thread evidences, the views on the proverbial bike geometry certainly has opinions. These are of course held to as tightly as a politician to their superPAC monies….tight.

    After coming across a great vintage grouppo, circa 1981 that was literally unused, i have been looking at framesets of the era. It amazed me, having to revisit this very thing. The geometry used was widely different, as i am only looking at steel. The Italian geometry is clear, the american is clear, then the british is completely different as is the Belgians/Dutch makers. Rake and trail help, BB heights help, and then there is also the different stack and reach and seat tube lengths. Nonetheless, interesting and grateful i was able to understand.

  35. regsf

    Comments here suggest “pros” just ride what they’re given and don’t care. Some do, some don’t. I think a certain pro named Eddy won a few races, descended quite fast and payed a lot of attention to all of the details of his bicycle.

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  37. Fuzz

    I’m a weekend warrior who rode a 58cm Medici ( built in San Diego) for 19 years, which was built with a 73 degree head angle and a 40mm fork offset. My 60cm Trek 5200, which I’ve been riding for the past 17 years, has a 74 degree head angle, with a 45mm offset. I loved the Medici, but when I got on the Trek, it was a wow experience. I always felt like I had to push the Medici through the corners, whereas the Trek just felt much more intuitive, right off the bat. And I do like that my shoes do not hit the wheels when I’m sitting at a stoplight.

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  40. Ves Mandaric

    Hi guys, I am little slow, but…..ughm, don’t even remember why I came to this page.
    Anyway, for those who don’t know, I make frames, measure people, or they do that, take those dimensions, calculate, make CAD, make frame. Had some 1-2 people not liking what they got, in last 40 years. Soooo…..
    Italian Geometry Myth (made by American) of a steel frame.
    Officina Meccanica Ciclo is actually Machine Shop for making Bicycles. Those people (literally no name) would make 10,000X of frames per year. For anybody. There were certain rules:
    1. Frame geometry is subject of EASINESS of frame usage.
    2. Frame geometry must conform to safe riding.
    3. Frame geometry must be subject of easy controlling, tracking bike.
    Might be some more, but….
    1. Why small frames have steeper seat angle? Small people weight distribution asked for shorter chainstays and lower BB (stand over) In that time of life, drop outs were horizontal. With short chainstays, and BB down, rear wheel came seriously to ST, so much that it couldn’t be taken away from HORIZONTAL DO. Solution, move ST forward. Nothing to do with anything else. Just move it.
    2. Why small frames have slack Head Angle, Simple, no toe overlap. Remember when Cavendish flipped on the steep hill in Italy on Pinarello? Those frames have same rake – 43mm, for all frames, 42-62cm?????? But, head angle from 69-73.5 degrees. Rake/Angle dictate how bike behave. 69/43 is disaster. But who cares, no overlap, or at least it’s minimal (what is even worse, short people sometimes have extremely short arms = stem. Short stem + 69/43 + 20% up hill + Out of the saddle = you go down!
    3. The best handling bike is not the most stable bike. It is the most controllable. Controllable bike, ughm, you have to control. Italian manufacturers wanted easy ride, for masses, not something you’ll have to work with. That’s the reason why they have more relax geometry, they float, track by themselves.
    Many other things were done in geometry of the steel bike, in those days, to be fast easy production. Remember, Colnago sold in 1981 65,000 bicycles. Comparing to today that’s small. But, those bikes were made by hand, brazing, cutting etc. You need really high end crafted people to do that work. Not like today in China factory, where someone apply layers of carbon, in the same pattern again, and again, and again.
    So, nothing glamorous about Italian Geometry. Same manner like nothing glamorous about Chianti. I prefer Cote d’ Rhone more. But, Italian cheeses, that’s different story…

  41. John

    Numbers (dimensions) can be all over the place and honestly not worthy of remark. It all comes down to the net result. Whenever I hear some individual start quoting numbers (typically an American disease) I just walk away.

    I will say that experience has proven to me a low BB height is the way to go whenever possible, combined with BALANCED dimensions / geometry – preferably a lot of setback – a relaxed seat angle and head angle with more than adequate trail so as to render neutral handling and a non nervous (“slower” handling) frame. I’ve had two quick handling frames that one could not relax on and this becomes more problematic as higher speeds are achieved.
    Best frame, hands down that I ever had – and I’ve had several is one I still insist on having and riding just as it was 35 years ago when I bought it. Yes, it is Italian. Most would guess it was from the greater Milan region (school). Wrong. I’ll only say it is from the Venetian region and no, it is neither Willier or Pinarello. The handling is beyond superb, the ride pure Rolls Royce. There is no limit to the frame in terms of handling, comfort or speed. If only by virtue of the aforementioned I have on several occasion been able to exceed several others on downhill runs where their nervous frames demand they pull in the reigns, whereas my reigns are without any hold back. All I can say is “Wow”.
    Yes, it is (of course) as is any bike of mine full Campy and Cinelli, 32x3X HD wheels on sew-ups. The more I ride it the more I realize the importance of a balanced frame that allows for comfort and stability first and last. My knee is behind the spindle, never in front allowing me to make huge power. Today, the new age idiot formula has reversed that and it’s ridiculous (pathetic) spinning, making no power and actually going slower. Who’d have thought………?
    I hope to see somewhat of a turnaround in the public’s awareness regarding superior steel (I prefer lugged, thank you) and always classic geometry, not BS compact nonsense. The masters out of Europe knew what they were doing many years ago. To change things around so often proves beyond fruitless. Well, at least to those of us who know.
    I hold that steel (regardless of brand) when well thought out, fabricated is still the best overall for someone who is not racing. I am not remotely interested in saving weight. I only desire that balanced ride that appropriates liveliness and feedback and to that end steel reigns supreme.

  42. John

    Numbers (dimensions) can be all over the place and honestly not worthy of remark. It all comes down to the net result. Whenever I hear some individual start quoting numbers (typically an American disease) I just walk away.

    I will say that experience has proven to me a low BB height is the way to go whenever possible, combined with BALANCED dimensions / geometry – preferably a lot of setback – a relaxed seat angle and head angle with more than adequate trail so as to render neutral handling and a non nervous (“slower” handling) frame. I’ve had two quick handling frames that one could not relax on and this becomes more problematic as higher speeds are achieved.
    Best frame, hands down that I ever had – and I’ve had several is one I still insist on having and riding just as it was 35 years ago when I bought it. Yes, it is Italian. Most would guess it was from the greater Milan region (school). Wrong. I’ll only say it is from the Venetian region and no, it is neither Willier or Pinarello. The handling is beyond superb, the ride pure Rolls Royce. There is no limit to the frame in terms of handling, comfort or speed. If only by virtue of the aforementioned I have on several occasion been able to exceed several others on downhill runs where their nervous frames demand they pull in the reigns, whereas my reigns are without any hold back. All I can say is “Wow”.
    Yes, it is (of course) as is any bike of mine full Campy and Cinelli, 32x3X HD wheels on sew-ups. The more I ride it the more I realize the importance of a balanced frame that allows for comfort and stability first and last. My knee is behind the spindle, never in front allowing me to make huge power. Today, the new age idiot formula has reversed that and it’s ridiculous (pathetic) spinning, making no power and actually going slower. Who’d have thought………?
    I hope to see somewhat of a turnaround in the public’s awareness regarding superior steel (I prefer lugged, thank you) and always classic geometry, not BS compact nonsense. The masters out of Europe knew what they were doing many years ago. To change things around so often proves beyond fruitless. Well, at least to those of us who know.
    I hold that steel (regardless of brand) when well thought out, fabricated is still the best overall for someone who is not racing. I am not remotely interested in saving weight. I only desire that balanced ride that appropriates liveliness and feedback and to that end steel reigns supreme.

    ps: I’m American

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