When I was in high school I took a course at the University of Memphis through their continuing education program on the music business. It was meant to serve as an introduction to how the business of making a record (this was in the days of vinyl and cassettes) takes place, including the basics of how a recording session worked, stuff that was included in a record contract, how ASCAP and BMI collect royalties, and the many forms of corruption that infected said biz, from payola to trading cocaine for … well, anything. Our teacher owned a recording studio that produced albums from Stax masterpieces to Led Zeppelin III and a host of ZZ Top’s biggest hits and more recently, the White Stripes. When he explained the business of record mastering, that is, the actual cutting of the acetate master, which was then sprayed with metal and turned into a positive from which a negative was created, which then was used to press the shape cut by the needle into the master into what would hopefully hundreds of thousands of pieces of vinyl, which would then be played by the needle in the record player, amplified by the sound system and then the speakers would pour forth sound. He got to the end of his description of the process and then exclaimed that he was amazed that anything that remotely sounded like the original music was ever heard. That it usually sounded very much like the sound produced in the studio was an ongoing source of amazement to him.
Those of us sitting in the audience, hoping to one day be intelligent rock stars (pretty much everyone present), the process he described had the effect of chastening us, giving us a fresh respect for everything that happened after, say, I hit a sheet of plastic stretched over a large wooden tube. Mind. Blown.
I have a similar experience when I think about all the factors that can influence one’s experience riding a bicycle. It can be a train wreck of an experience, like if I went for a ride on some big box bike assembled with an impact wrench. But it can also be a sublime revelation that renews my sense of wonder for these machines that have the power to instill a sense of freedom, even if we’re just riding around the block.
Let’s consider the Sage Skyline. The Sage name might be new to you, though hopefully not, as we have featured Sage on The Paceline Podcast. The brand was born in 2012 and is based in suburban Portland, Ore. Sage produces nothing but titanium bikes. There are a few reasons for that. The first being ride quality, and other important factors include durability, repairability and appearance. Making frames from titanium also allows a manufacturer to keep up-front costs more reasonable because their aren’t expensive molds to cut that need thousands of frames baked in them to recoup development costs.
Titanium shares in common, however, a characteristic with aluminum: It is possible to build a frame from titanium that rides like donkey dung. With aluminum, the problem is almost always a frame that is too stiff for the rider, making the ride quality harsh. Vitus, Guerciotti and Alan would be the exceptions to that. With titanium, I’ve ridden frames that were much too stiff (Serotta) and frames that bore more in common with a fishing rod than with a structural member.
The truth is, it is possible to make a frame out of any material that rides with all the liveliness of an extra in a George Romero film. It’s just hard to do with steel. With titanium, now that there are more sources, tube diameters and wall thicknesses available, builders have more choices, which brings me to Sage.
When I made a trip to Taiwan in 2018, one of the things I learned is that there are choices aplenty for a brand to source quality titanium frames made to their geometry. I’m not as clear on how many tube diameters and wall thicknesses available, but I can tell you that it is possible to buy a well-made titanium frame for less than you would pay for a steel frame made here.
Founder David Rosen chose to produce his frames stateside for a few different reasons. He lists quality control as his top reason, but based on what I know of titanium produced here in the U.S., I don’t think he’d be able to match the surface finish and ride quality of the Skyline. I’ll also add that being based in Portland (actually, Beaverton) gives him access to a very skilled workforce, which would be tougher to come by in, say, Mississippi.
So the Skyline is a ti road bike with a surface finish that recalls no other brand so much as Seven Cycles. Sourcing tubing with that satin surface finish isn’t easy, and yet, I can’t imagine why every ti producer out there doesn’t pursue that look. To my eye, titanium doesn’t look better than with that shimmering satin glow.
I have to point out that if I’m going to draw a parallel with Seven Cycles, I need to comment on the quality of the welding. These are double-pass welds and in some locations they could pass for work I’ve seen from Seven. Sage sets themselves apart with a machined brake mount the chainstay is welded to as well as another machined fitting between the drive-side chainstay and the bottom bracket which increases tire clearance without sacrificing chainring clearance, and I suspect doesn’t hurt bottom bracket stiffness at all.
There’s a trick to making a great riding ti bike. The frame stiffness has to be balanced against the geometry. It’s relatively easy to make a ti road bike with relaxed geometry feel really nice. What is much harder is to create one with the reactivity of a race bike and has just enough stiffness to make the bike easy to control, without overdoing the stiffness and ruining the ride quality. One of the lessons I learned in riding many iterations of the Specialized Tarmac, as well as some under-performing ti rigs, is that frame stiffness must go up in proportion to quickening geometry. Raising the bottom bracket, steepening the head tube angle and/or using a fork with more rake will increase the reactivity of the bike and if the frame isn’t stiff enough, that lack of stiffness can create some perceptual confusion. My body tells me I don’t know what the front wheel is doing. The solution is either to relax the geometry or to increase the frame stiffness. Those old Vitus frames were made for road racing, not crits.
My overwhelming takeaway from riding the Skyline is of a bike that balances stiffness against handling. Leaning into a turn, I felt assured, confident, and comfortable. The bike comes in seven stock sizes: 50-62cm in 2cm increments. For anyone concerned with fit, that’s much better than the four of five stock sizes found in many bikes. I rode the 56cm frame, which has matching 73.25-degree head and seat angles, 69mm of bottom bracket drop, 43mm of rake for a trail of 5.75cm. This is not nearly as aggressive as some of the road bikes out there now, which is one reason the bike was so nice to ride. I didn’t feel like I needed to be on high alert every time I apexed a corner.
Reach for the Skyline in my size is 39.5cm, which falls within a good range for me, but the stack was only 56.4cm, which is the one aspect of this bike with which I took issue. The drop from the saddle to the bar with only 2cm of spacers under the stem reminded me of just how aggressive my position was when I was in my 30s and early 40s. Bending over that much now isn’t great for my neck, but having that much weight on the front wheel always makes for nice handling.
Sage calls their road bikes “all-road” machines. They are designed around a much more modern philosophy. The bikes all feature clearance for up to 32mm tires, making them suitable to riding on some dirt roads and anything you’d saw was paved until recently. We’ve got a lot of that in Sonoma County. Thru-axle spacing in the rear (142x12mm) makes it compatible with an ever-increasing number of wheels. It can be ordered with braze-ons for either electronic or mechanical shifting. The tubes are ovalized at certain locations to maximize comfort while maintaining good out-of-the-saddle stiffness. Fender mounts are handy for wintertime riding, unless you’re in Portland, where friends tell me they refer to fender weather as “today.”
Another detail that impressed me was cable guide that bolts to the underside of the down tube via a welded fitting. It reduces what would otherwise be three welds to just one and incorporates barrel adjusters for a mechanical drivetrain.
A la carte
The Sage site allows more customization than most other sites I’ve encountered (possibly any other), and that’s for a stock-size frame. Pick from frame, frameset or complete bike. If you pick the complete bike option, you then select a drivetrain and each component on the bike, from stem length and bar width to rotor size and headset and spacer color. A Stages power meter is even one of the options.
The options are so complete that I could see a fitter working with a client and spec’ing everything on the bike. This eliminates swapping stems, bars, cassettes and other frustrating loose ends that are common to a production bike. The best part? With each choice, the user can see how an option affects the price. Transparency, yo! (You’d think that healthcare providers could figure this out, amiright?)
All of this leaves out the fact that Sage also offers custom construction, so a guy like me could order a Skyline with a 3cm longer headtube, or request a design with a lower BB.
Honestly, everything about this bike was so impressive that had it fit me better I’m not sure they’d have it back yet.
Final thought: Calling someone a sage is to imply they are wise; seems legit.