We have reached an era in road bikes where there is very little to differentiate between road bikes. The worst carbon fiber production road bike out there is a pretty darn good bike. The biggest criticism I can level against those bikes at the bottom usually has to do with a poorly spaced size run. As I’ve written before, I haven’t run across a single bike you need to warned not to by, a la Consumer Reports, at least, not in more than a dozen years.
The flip side of this benefit is that it has become harder and harder to create an interesting or surprising road bike. That’s not to say it isn’t being done, but it’s increasingly rare. Part of this is caused by the fact that there are only a couple of questions that the average road bike addresses:
- Maximum tire clearance
- Type of brake
In truth, there’s another point, ride quality for price point, but that is the doesn’t drive the development of new bikes.
What’s amazing is how rarely a company makes a big deal about ride quality. Sure, they’ll talk about stiffness, about weight, about any number of quantifiable features, but because ride quality, how a bike feels as you roll down the road, isn’t directly quantifiable, it usually gets left out of the heart of the marketing copy.
I rode a bike today that reminded me yet again how ride quality is the most interesting aspect of a bike’s ride, as far as I’m concerned.
I’m at PressCamp in Park City and this event is serving as the domestic introduction for the Factor brand. I’ve been following this brand for a couple of years, ever since I met CEO Rob Gitelis on a ride in Taiwan. I’ll never forget how after we introduced ourselves to each other he sized me up and said, “My clients wouldn’t like it if I let you inside my factory.”
Gitelis has a personal history that is virtually synonymous with the development of carbon fiber bikes in Taiwan. He’s a master of process, of methodology, and understands that quality and reputation come from repeatability. Our conversation that day and the conversations I’ve had with him since have been illuminating. I’ve met few people who have spoken as bluntly about what it takes to make a great carbon fiber bike. And he has the ability to back up what he says because he has produced some of the world’s most coveted carbon fiber dream machines.
So when I rolled out on the Factor O2 this afternoon, the question in my mind wasn’t whether or not this would be a good bike. I was confident that it would be very good, at the least. What I wondered was whether or not it would be comparable to those legendary bikes like the Cervelo R5.
The first few pedals strokes felt good, but the moment of truth is the same for many bikes: It’s that first time you pull away from a stop, clip in, and then stand up and accelerate up to speed.
Sure, the bike was stiff, and it was well-balanced, but the combination of a good design and great materials wins every time. Bikes like these bear something in common with great steel and titanium frames.
There’s a lot I still need to learn about this bike. I know only the basics about the fit and geometry.
That said, I’m not finished yet. In addition to the frame and fork, Factor produced, produced the bar, stem, seatpost and wheels. And where the wheels are concerned, they actually produced the rim as well as the hubs. The wheels fly under a banner of their own; the brand is Black Inc. Because so many carbon wheels have okay but not great aerodynamics, I have wondered if the Black Inc wheels would be just another good but not amazing wheel. This was the big surprise. On several occasions I dropped off the back of our group to make sure I was getting no draft and let the crosswinds hit me. If I hadn’t known better I would have thought I was riding box rims.
I’ve ridden wheels from only two other companies that were this good in crosswinds: Zipp and Enve. To put the Black Inc wheels alongside them is praise I’m surprised to give after only a single ride, but there was no mistaking how well those wheels handled despite the wind.
As I was pulling my pedals off and looking the frame over, something Allied CEO Tony Karklins told me, how there’s no real mystery to making great carbon fiber bikes. It’s just hard work.
Keep an eye on Factor.