The Lightweight Urgestalt

The Lightweight Urgestalt

The act of creation is selfish. It’s a chance to see what’s inside that urge, to find out where that creativity will take you. It’s nothing short of an adventure. And so while the market wants us to believe that it’s important to know who your audience is, what market you plan to reach, The Shining wasn’t focus grouped. Neither was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That said, the growth of an audience does have the ability to sway the direction of someone’s work. When the kids went wild after Pete Townshend accidentally broke his guitar on a low ceiling, he started doing it deliberately.

When Lightweight introduced their first wheels, their goal wasn’t hard to comprehend. The wheels were instantly known for being lighter than the fingers of a pickpocket, stronger than the arms of Hercules and at least as aerodynamic as what else was on the market. One set of wheels led to a half dozen more, components and two framesets. Their standards are superlative, their quest for quality ruthless to the point of absurdity. I once watched a rider get up from a crash and ride home on the three remaining spokes of his Meilensteins.

Where bikes are concerned, Europe is a very different market than the U.S. They’ve adopted ebikes without all the hand-wringing and battle lines, and they still like their mountain bikes with triples. One is a bit easier to follow than the other. I’m in no position to say what succeeds in the German market, but I can report that some of my colleagues in the German media have championed a narrow set of characteristics—stiffness and weight primarily—that have caused some manufacturers to chase test jig numbers to the detriment of ride quality. I’m thinking primarily of the magazine Tour, though I struggle to understand why the magazine should be so deaf to real-world experience. I’ve spent time with two of their editors and they are delightful guys, not the sort I’d expect to hang the whole of a bike’s reputation on a handful of numbers.

That said, consumers, as a population, like conclusive answers. I get it. If I’m buying a microwave, I don’t really want to spend six months investigating power efficiency, radiation shielding, durability and whatever other dimensions—easy of popcorn popping, perhaps—might matter in such a purchase. Just tell me the best unit under $200 and let me get on with my life.

But for Pete’s sake, this is a bicycle, not something you’ll use to heat up leftovers. Great bicycles are as plentiful as excellent Beatle songs, and as diverse as the people on a Manhattan sidewalk. I mention this because many companies started to chase stiffness-to-weight ratios and other objective numbers, and for good reason. A bicycle that scores well in stiffness-to-weight won’t suck the way some bikes and forks I encountered in the 1990s did. As an industry, we have largely figured out how to make a bike that doesn’t stink. We’re still in an era where consumers can be swayed to think that an 1100 gram frame is light just because a big brand made it, but I can show you four frames from open-mold factories that are just as light. Honestly, that’s an aside. My bigger takeaway has been this: the German brands have chased the Tour criteria more than manufacturers from any other country.

Zing
When I get on a bike, what I want isn’t a set of lab numbers; I want an experience. I want a bike that will make me excited to get out of my driveway. That desire to be wowed by an experience has made me increasingly wary of some bike brands and some categories of bikes—particularly those still marketed with an eye toward racing. Riding a bike, to remind you of a truth that is obvious to the point of absurdity, is an act that is optional. You may commute to work by bike, but you don’t have to. We needn’t ride bikes for fun. Judging from what we watch on YouTube, some people have forgotten how to have fun for themselves. We watch videos of everything from people playing video games to people fishing. This was the stuff we used to do because we no longer played basketball or football. So you could just watch your TV all weekend.

But you don’t.

You go for rides on your bike because it gives you something you can’t get anywhere else. And the reason we care about the bike itself is simple: It matters. The bike really matters. Anyone who doubts that need do nothing more than go for a ride on a bike from Huffy; the difference between it and even an Expert-level Specialized Tarmac (forget S-Works) is tantamount to the difference between genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano and Cheez-Whiz. That stuff is so imitation they aren’t even allowed to call it cheese, which is why it’s Cheez.

But going from Huffy to heaven isn’t easy. There’s the bike’s geometry, your fit on the bike, how stiff it is, how heavy it is and, ultimately, whether it feels like an extension of your body or not. Get any one of these qualities wrong and the bike will feel off, external. I’ve even heard people use the word artificial.

The mount for the rear brake is elegant.

Perfection as a cycle
Lightweight’s tag line for this bike—”the cycle of perfection”—is cheeky enough I wondered just how full of themselves the Germans behind this bike might be. My time with them is limited, though they seem reasonably confident their methods are warranted. Out of the box, the bike went together easily and was one of those increasingly rare demonstrations of assembly mechanics making sure the bike operates perfectly, rather than just looks assembled, before packing it to ship. I didn’t need to adjust a single derailleur or move a caliper. The bike went together as if all I’d done was take the wheels off to wash the frame.

Is it wrong to conclude that such a thing indicates pride in one’s work? I don’t really think so. If you’re going to plaster your creation with superlatives like “perfect,” making sure that everything is properly adjusted strikes me as walking the walk. Get that wrong, and I’d feel entitled to be suspicious.

The BB86 allowed for a boxy downtube for greater pedaling efficiency.

Ass in saddle
I lay this out to convey that very few bikes on the market have elicited as much curiosity in me as the Lightweight Urgestalt. Thanks to the name, which translates to archetype, this is a quintessentially German bike, right down to the fact that they didn’t translate said name for non-German consumers. Only in German. Forgive me for thinking someone winked and muttered “Americans can suck it.”

My greatest curiosity was whether this bike would be so stiff that its low weight would be rendered irrelevant by a ride unforgiving to the point that I’d wonder if the tires were pumped to 200 psi. Considering that making a disc version of a frame complicates construction by forcing the manufacturer to add carbon fiber in areas of the frame that are ordinarily meant to flex enough to increase comfort, I couldn’t help but be the Urgestalt Disc would compound problems I imagined the Urgestalt might manifest.

I double-checked the tire pressure before rolling out. Because the wheels were shod with 25mm tires, a size I don’t often ride here in Sonoma County because our roads are so in need of repair, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t over-inflate the tires and give the bike a less forgiving ride than it really delivered. I pumped the tires up to 90 psi, swung my leg over, clipped in and pushed off.

What happened in the next 20 feet caused me to lift my eyebrows in surprise.

Eliminating the brake bridge helps soften the rear end.

The only way I can explain it is by analogy. I spent a number of years as a drummer and there’s a funny thing that happens if you tighten a drum head too much—it hurts to hit the drum if you do it the way you would hit a slacker head. I’d learned that I had to alter my technique if I went from playing rock ‘n’ roll backbeats to playing intricate rudimentary passages on a snare with a super-tight head. The change had to do with how I released the stick following the strike; it’s important to relax for just a fraction of a second. Walloping a snare to make the kids dance does not require the same elan of movement.

Riding a bike that is just too damn stiff reminds me of a drum with a head that’s too tight for rock ‘n’ roll. The difference, of course, is there’s no way to relax to make the stiff bike more comfortable. It just sends shock waves through the bike and to your hands and butt.

The Ugestalt didn’t do that. The ride was elegant, comfortable and still sensitive. Even before I’d rolled to the first stoplight I could tell that the bright minds at Lightweight hadn’t pinned results from a Tour test to a white board and decreed they must exceed those numbers.

In short, they made a bike, not a test result.

The Urgestalt is a perfect example of why carbon fiber is such a compelling material from which to make a bicycle. It handled with the precision of a surgeon’s hands and didn’t launch my keister skyward every time I hit a bump, making descents on our broken roads fun, not scary. It was exactly the sort of bike I’d expect to encounter from Specialized, Giant, Felt or Cannondale—crisp in its entry and exit from turns, a terrific ability to hold a turn steady and a sense of immediacy in acceleration which is a cornerstone of why road bikes.

With a bike like this, you can’t help but want to get out of the saddle and lay down a caveman sprint or a Laurent Fignon-style uphill attack.

There’s not a wheel on the market as strong or as light.

The build
There’s not much to say where the SRAM Red hydro group is concerned. The group works incredibly well and while the levers are uglier than a 4chan thread, they really aren’t distracting when your hands are on them. They just feel like levers. The one aspect of the build that merits some comment are the Meilenstein wheels, which are simultaneously some of the best and worst wheels on the market. From a weight and durability standpoint, they are the Team Sky of carbon wheels. Just try to beat that.

However, from an aerodynamic standpoint, particularly where crosswinds are concerned, they are a box truck on a windy day in Oklahoma. As long as I stayed in tight, forested roads near (but not at) the coast, the wheels were no problem, but up on top of any of the climbs around here I couldn’t wait for the protection of trees. The problem here is that the Meilenstein is a classic deep-V rim, which is to stable handling something akin to the Greek government. Now that Lightweight offers the Fernweg, which features a rounded profile at the spoke bed, a la Zipp Firecrest and Enve SES, they can claim to offer a wheel with handling as good as its durability. Were I managing their product line, I’d send the Meilenstein molds to the recycler.

This rim profile is the wheel’s only fault. 

Yeah, but does it fit?
Unless you hail from Lilliput or are as gargantuan as its most famous visitor, the answer is probably yes. The Urgestalt comes in six sizes: 48, 51, 54, 56, 58 and 60. My review bike was a 56 with a 56cm top tube, 73-degree head tube angle and 45mm of rake for 5.69cm of trail, making it not nearly as aggressive as some low-trail bikes like the Tarmac. BB drop is 69mm and the seat tube angle is 73.5 degrees, which is a bit steeper than many bikes, but actually made for a better fit for me.

The Urgestalt appears to have been designed around top tube length, rather than reach and that is literally the only fault I can find with the bike. Top tube length and reach numbers go:

48: 51.5cm top tube and 37.1cm reach
51: 53cm top tube and 38.0cm reach
54: 54.5cm top tube and 38.2cm reach
56: 56cm top tube and 39.3cm reach
58: 57.5cm top tube and 39.7cm reach
60: 59.0cm top tube and 40.0cm reach

The 51 and 54 are unfortunately close in reach. I could easily see putting a diminutive rider with poor flexibility on the 54 to take advantage of the longer head tube. Similarly, there’s not a lot of difference between the 58 and 60 in terms of reach, though the slacker seat tube angle of the 60 (72.5 degrees vs. 73) will give a rider just a bit more room. The good news is there aren’t any really any big gaps in the sizing run that would cause a rider to struggle with how to get a good fit.

The Urgestalt disc is thru-axle front and rear. 

Bank account siphon
Lightweight has two claims to fame. First, as I’ve mentioned, is the astounding durability of their wheels. Voldemort should use them the next time he wants to make a horcrux. The other is their Department of Defense contractor cost. The Urgestalt frame goes for what passes for a down payment on a house almost anywhere except the land of fire—I mean California.

As built, the bike is roughly $15k. However, Lightweight doesn’t sell complete bikes. The Urgestalt disc goes for $5750, which, while expensive, isn’t an exercise in absurdity. The Meilenstein wheels are $6800, which makes them nearly double Zipp’s top-of-the-line work; they are, understandably, a little harder to swallow, cost-wise.

For every reader who excoriates me in the comments section for reviewing this bike, there will be someone else who will order one. It’s a remarkable world. Clearly, at that kind of expense, the folks in Friedrichshafen (where they are based) aren’t looking for world domination. Their goal is to build the best bike they are able, and what they have achieved is a bike that could easily be appreciated by any road rider. I can’t imagine anyone getting on the Urgestalt and saying, “Nah, I’d still rather have my Bumpulous.”

Hell, even the bottle cages were impressive. 

The Urgestalt is cycling’s answer to the King Crimson album In the Court of the Crimson King. It didn’t make a huge dent in the market, but because musicians everywhere were listening to it, the music had an incredible, and lasting, impact. It was, in a word, influential. The Urgestalt is guaranteed to be one of those bikes that the R&D teams at Trek, Specialized, Giant, etc. have in their possession and are riding. The scary thought is that someone has probably baked one apart to examine the layup schedule. That’s like tearing apart a Ferrari in a way that prevents it from being reassembled, just to see what makes it a Ferrari.

You may never ride an Urgestalt, and you may think anyone who drops the hay to do so a fool. However, this isn’t a foolish bike. It’s a bike that will leave its mark on other bikes, one of those rare efforts that will nudge the market a few degrees to the left and in so doing, remind us all that riding a bike is an experience, not a lab experiment.

Final thought: This is an argument for playing Lotto.

 


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9 comments

  1. Neil Winkelmann

    I can’t forgive how little effort they put into their name and logo. Just a description of a characteristic of you product, written in “Lucida Calligraphy”? Really. A MS font?

    1. Thomas

      Perhaps it’s a testament to how much of their budget goes towards paying engineers, and how little goes towards paying graphic designers?

  2. Jay P.

    I’ll buy — figuratively — the zen of the frame. But I have never, ever been able to understand the attraction of their wheels. Not at all fast or functional. The only points where they are head and shoulders above everyone else are workmanship and the astronomical cost.
    Always seemed like the ultimate expression of a product made for people who like to spew money all over the landscape just to make other people look at them.
    Good wall art maybe, if the guests in your home don’t know anything bout aerodynamics.

  3. Rod

    Interesting Padraig.

    Would you say this is the ‘best’ frame on the market, or are people like Parlee, Argonaut, Legend, doing better?


    1. Author
      Padraig

      When I encounter something that I think is truly the best without reservation, I actually have this horrible habit of putting it in print. This is a great frame, but the way I look at a purchase, there are other terrific options worth considering alongside this.

  4. Lucien Walsh

    Well based on this review I would certainly consider buying one!

    Just one problem. Based on your earlier insights, wisdom, and fine writing, I just ordered an Allied Allroad. 🙂

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