Carbon fiber bikes have changed more in the last 10 years than steel bikes have in the last 50 years. I write that as a fan of steel and an owner of two steel bikes. While it’s hard to quantify just how much stiffer carbon bikes are now than they were when George W. Bush entered office, it’s easy to quantify the drop in weight. For most manufacturers, the weight loss on their top-of-the-line bikes is half a kilo, sometimes more, and on occasion, less.
Weight is but one method of judging a bike and were it our sole criteria, it would be a bad one. We’d end up with sub-kilo steel frames that are too small for chimps.
I’ve been interested in the calculus that goes on between large companies that do all their own engineering on their carbon fiber framesets and small outfits that work with some of the same manufacturing facilities and purchase frames that are produced in the manufacturer’s own molds. These frames are called “open mold” because literally anyone can buy these frames, provided they are willing to purchase enough of them.
The practice is really just a 21st-century version of how almost all American companies purchased steel frames from Italy and, later, steel and aluminum frames from Taiwan and China. If you’ve ever purchased Trader Joe’s-brand wine, then you’ve purchased a product sourced in exactly the same manner.
The Torelli Montefalco is sourced in much the same way Torelli has always sourced products: from smaller manufacturers selected for the quality of their work. While the Montefalco is not produced by the Mondonico family, but instead a smaller composites facility in Taiwan, the effect is the same. It’s a small operation focusing on quality work that isn’t producing for any of the big names out there.
Before throwing my leg over the Montefalco, I had a lot of questions: How would it fit? How stiff was it? How light was it? How did it handle?
Let’s dispense with the easiest of these answers: Following the conclusion of my riding, I dismantled the bike, removing everything save the derailleur hanger. Bear in mind most companies list their frame weight before paint. The painted Montefalco with derailleur hanger was 1010 grams in the large size (57cm top tube). I was impressed. I’m sure that derailleur hanger weighed more than 10g, so this qualifies as a sub-kilo frame by any standard. There aren’t a lot of sub-kilo frames out there; companies are increasingly resorting to eliminating that outer weave layer and paint. I’m willing to bet that the paint on this frame weighed at least 60g (about 2 ounces).
The elimination of the outer weave layer on some top-of-the-line frames is a true double-edged sword. On one hand, the look is fresh and stylish, and to produce a frame where the outer layer of unidirectional carbon looks good enough not to cover up with paint requires the utmost in care. There’s a problem, though. That weave layer, though it doesn’t contribute to the stiffness of the frame and adds weight, it serves an important function in protecting the carbon from any sorts of strikes. I’ve been asked repeatedly how much stiffer 3k weave is than 12k weave. There’s no difference. If a bike shop employee tells you that one weave is better than another, go talk to someone else. That layer is cosmetic and exists so that if you drop your bottle or a wrench on your top tube or a rock flies off your front tire and hits your down tube it doesn’t start a cancerous crack that will kill your frame.
And for the record, the Torelli site erroneously states that the Montefalco features 3k weave. It doesn’t; it features 12k weave—but the difference is 90 percent cosmetic, so the point is moot.
I’ve seen some crazy tube shapes lately, and on occasion, seemingly reasonable shapes used in odd ways. At the head tube of the Montefalco the top and down tubes have a rather triangular cross-section. To attain maximum stiffness in torsion, the best orientation of these shapes is for the triangles’ longest sides to be perpendicular to the head tube and as close to the ends of the head tube as possible, which is how they are oriented on the Montefalco.
The frame features a tapered head tube and fork steerer. What surprised me was when I pulled the fork out of the frame, the steerer was 1 1/8-inches in diameter until just a few centimeters before the crown, then it suddenly expanded to 1 1/2 inches. Though the increase in diameter was sudden, it was enough to do the trick.
Out on the road I’ve come to sense almost immediately the difference between a frameset with a tapered head tube and steerer and one without. I notice the difference most readily when I stand up to accelerate with my hands on the hoods. It’s a move I’ve made tens of thousands of times on different bikes and that bigger fork gives the rider the sense that the bike has an overall increase in stiffness. The days of me standing up and making the chain rub the front derailleur in the 53×19 are gone. Utterly gone and in the mid-‘90s I could make almost any steel or ti frame do that; I could even do it with most carbon bikes. Not any more.
The upshot is that judging stiffness increasingly means judging just how much you can sense twist between the handlebar and the bottom bracket. The only steel frame I ever rode that possessed this much stiffness was made from Columbus Max. There are builders out there still working with that tube set (notably Hampsten and Zanconato) and God love ‘em for doing it, but that tube set is a bit much for me. (I’m sure right now legions of Hampsten, Zanconato and Pegoretti fans are mailing me skirts.)
For my money, the Montefalco offers more than adequate stiffness while still yielding enough that I wasn’t uncomfortable on long rides. Notably, the smaller frames have some material eliminated to keep the flex pattern consistent. Think of it as today’s answer to making a 54cm frame from Columbus SL tubing while making the 58cm frame from Columbus’ heavier-gauge SP tubing.
The Montefalco comes in five sizes. The top tube lengths are 52.5, 54, 55.5, 57 and 59cm. That the sizes come in 1.5cm increments (except for the 2cm jump from the 57 to 59) means that it’s easy for most riders to find a frame that will fit. If you’re either Lilliputian or Gulliver, well, this might not be the bike for you.
Bottom bracket drop on the large is 6.75cm. My review bike was built around a 19cm head tube, parallel 73-degree head and seat tube angles and 40.8cm chainstays. Fork rake is 45mm, yielding 5.69cm of trail. The top tube, as is visible in the photo slopes slightly. Wheelbase is a fairly standard 100.8cm. It uses a 31.6mm seatpost. I’m not wild about this for two reasons: 1) it isn’t a terribly common size and 2) I like the flex that a 27.2mm seatpost gives when I hit bumps. It’s not much, but I notice the difference on these bigger seatposts.
Not much attention gets paid to handling geometry these days. Trail, bottom bracket drop (or height) and wheelbase determine a bike’s character and whether the bike reacts to you or you react to the bike.
As I’ve mentioned previously, my proving ground for a bike is a canyon road in Malibu called Decker. I made two different descents of Decker on the Montefalco. I ride this descent rather aggressively, but not to the point of risky. What I want from a bike is the ability to wait as late as possible when approaching a turn and then make a sharp turn-in. I also want it to remain calm and neutral feeling above 40 mph. I don’t get that from all bikes. The Montefalco was rock solid when I needed it to be but aggressive enough that I could dive into turns. It reminded me of the Specialized Tarmac in its handling. Butcher’s knife-sharp but with the manners of a debutante on leaving finishing school.
There are a number of little details about this bike I really like. The gear cables pass through the head tube, both guiding the housing and preventing the housing from wearing away paint, or worse, carbon (gasp). The rear brake cable is internally routed as well and its entry and exit points are really clean and attractive. The red/white/clear paint scheme looks really gorgeous in sunlight and benefits from just a few decals on the frame.
Suggested retail for the Montefalco is $1800. There are some less expensive framesets being made from carbon, but I’ve yet to ride anything with this much performance retailing for less.
Torelli is also offering a limited-edition version of this frame with a seat mast called the Perla.
When painted matte finishes first appeared on bikes in the mid-1990s, I found the look novel. Then I tired of it, the way we all tired of florescent colors. The lack of a clearcoat over the decals made bikes look rather third-rate, cheap.
I have a different opinion of matte finishes in carbon fiber. When I see a matte finish on a carbon fiber bike, I see a frame that the manufacturer has optimized for weight and performance. At some point, someone will probably produce something of questionable quality that will make a lie of my assumption, but currently, the frames I see in matte finishes tend to be plenty stiff while weighing less than a kilogram (2.2 pounds).
Paint, as it turns out can mean the difference between breaking the 1kg barrier and not. Even on small frames paint weighs at least 2 ounces (56 grams), often more. Think about it: Paint can add 3 oz. to a 56cm frame with no increase in stiffness whatsoever.
So I’ve been disappointed that it has been hard to find matte-finishes on bars, stems, seatposts and bottle cages. Matte finishes could reduce the weight of these components, sure, but more importantly, they would look more harmonious with the frame. And while it would seem to make sense to want matte finishes on the carbon fiber components of Campy groups and aftermarket cranks, I’ll give those a pass given the beating they can take.
But my prayers have been answered on one front for the first time. Blackburn offers a carbon fiber water bottle cage, the Camber CF, in either glossy or matte finish. I tried the matte finish, which matches my frame and found the advertised weight of 32g to be accurate; if the glossy finish weighs more, I can’t say. The topmost layer of carbon is a 3k weave, which is still the most popular top (cosmetic) layer of carbon for road frames, further helping to match the appearance of many bikes.
Last year I tried a set of handmade carbon fiber cages that weighed 14g apiece. The bottom tab broke on one, bottles bounced out and they scratched up the bottles, making them look like they’d rolled around on the road.
I’ve been using the Camber CFs for more than six months and they haven’t broken, hold bottles securely, and leave the appearance of said bottles unscathed. I’ll admit, a water bottle cage isn’t really worth writing home about, but it should never, ever detract from the look of a bike. Ideally, it should complement the look of a bike, underscoring what a cool ride you have.
The Camber CF retails for $39.99. Learn more at http://www.blackburndesign.com/.
A few years ago I got to spend a few months riding Zipp’s Contour SL bar. It was the first carbon fiber handlebar I had ridden that weighed less than 200 grams and one of the more comfortable wing bars I’ve tried to date. It was stiffer than single-malt Scotch straight from the bottle.
Since then, I haven’t encountered many truly sub-200g bars. Lots of companies advertise that their super-light Ultrabar X weighs less than your conscience, but a simple fact distinguishes reality from marketing hype: mold. Well, the plural: molds.
Most companies producing bars in the 200-250g range are doing so because they produce all the bars in halves, trim the sections to length and then bond them to the clamp section. Three pieces. The extra weight comes from the overlapped carbon in the bonded areas.
All sub-200g road bike handlebars have in common monocoque construction. The key to producing one is machining a mold for each size and each bend. Given that carbon fiber handlebars start in cost around $250 and run upwards of $500, each new mold can run a few thousand dollars to cut, a company has to sell a shipping container’s worth of bars to recoup the development cost and turn a profit.
To achieve its low weight the Zipp engineers had to resort to what may seem like a bit of old tech. To combine ultra-low weight and race-worthy stiffness the engineers had to employ a round bar profile throughout its length—no cable grooves, no wing shape. The wing shape adds about 20g. My test bar weighed all of 177g.
zipp_bar_dropsWith the SL bar, the company’s lightest offering, riders can choose from four widths (38, 40, 42 and 44cm c-c) and three different bends (traditional, ergo and compact). That’s 12 molds total. It’s a significant commiment to fit and comfort at the high end of the market.
My review bar was the 42cm compact (or as they call it, short and shallow). No matter what you call it, the compact bend, when compared to more traditional bars, reduces both reach and drop, usually in the range of a half to a full centimeter. While I’ve heard some riders deride the compact bar for making your drop position as the same as your bar top position, anyone who has compromised flexibility (rhymes with 40th birthday) can appreciate three usable hand positions. Unless you are still racing, comfort rates more highly than aerodynamics, and three usable positions is a winner.
This was my first experience with a compact bend and the big thing I noticed was how easy it was to ride in the drop position after having spent time on the hoods. The short drop from the hoods to the drops is easy to manage four hours into a ride when my hamstrings start to tighten up.
What I found most unusual about the short and shallow drop was the bend of the drop. The traditional bend is a bar that has fallen out of favor with product managers, but not with pros. No less than Lance Armstrong still runs a traditional bend bar on his bike. I prefer the ergo bend, but found the short and shallow to be a most unusual compromise. The bar bend isn’t as tight as a traditional, but because it doesn’t flatten out the way an ergo bend does, you don’t turn your wrist when in the drops. On the off-chance you may not have noticed, when using a traditional bend bar, your hands don’t bend at the wrist when using the drops, but when using an ergo bend, you hands bend sharply at the wrist. Anyone who has ever had carpal tunnel syndrome can tell you ongoing road shock makes ergo bars hell due to the wrist bend.
It took me a few weeks to get accustomed to the different bend. It seemed to reduce the reach to the levers a bit (I couldn’t figure out a decent way to measure this) and gave me a very comfortable position for descending. Under hard sprinting the bar felt unusually stiff, if not the stiffest bar I’ve used, then easily in the top three.
I assume the SL stands for Super Light. If so, mission accomplished. Price-wise, the bar sits squarely in the middle of the price range of carbon bars at $375. So the tally is: very light (lightest?), very stiff (stiffest?) and not most expensive. I like those numbers.
A few words about the SL145 stem: I’ve used a few different carbon fiber stems that have a certain amount of flex. While I don’t mind vertical flex in a stem due to the comfort it can bring, I never notice flex in that plane. What I notice is twist when I grab the levers and stand up. Years ago I had a very light, very trick titanium quill stem that twisted like Chubby Checker.
The Zipp SL145 doesn’t twist. At all. I’ve ridden it in the 120 and 130mm lengths and couldn’t detect any change in flexibility. Zipp reports the stem is made from 50 different pieces of carbon fiber in order to achieve its combination of stiffness and low weight (my 120mm weighed 152g). It retails for a cool $200.
My only criticism of the stem is the face place. I live near the ocean and occasionally I encounter an aluminum part with what is in my view substandard plating. I’ve ridden this two copies of this stem and despite judicious cleaning, my time near the beach has caused the face plate to corrode and the plating to flake off with fewer than six months of riding. For 90 percent of the country, this won’t be an issue, but those of us who live near salt air will find this phenomenon frustrating. Zipp needs to offer either replacement face plates or—better yet—they need to improve the plating on the face plate.
Taken as a whole, the SL bar and SL145 stem are truly exceptional. Light enough to keep climbers happy, stiff enough to keep the sprinters jazzed and with enough fit choices to satisfy the fussiest fit, they are a formidable combination, an inarguable choice for any rider determined to find the optimal combination of fit, comfort, stiffness and weight without having to pay top dollar.
But I don’t care.
I’ll admit the first time I saw the K-Wing it looked as ridiculous as Kiss’ stage outfits do today. I mean, a riser bar for the road? What gives?
Then one day its beauty clicked. I realized the K-Wing is a deep-drop bar that isn’t. The mistake I commonly see in setting up the K-Wing is by positioning it so the bar top is at the same height as the previous bar. Wrong!
What makes the K-Wing so great is the ability to position the drops at the same height as other bars (thus making the levers the same height) which ultimately places the bar top a full centimeter higher than it would be otherwise. The result: You sit up higher while climbing while needing fewer spacers below the stem. Your bike looks more PRO in profile.
I’m not one to get too hung up on the look of a bike; I’ll flip a stem upside down if it’ll give me the fit I seek, but there is much to be said for a bike that looks elegant.
I will admit I’ve struggled to reconcile the fact that the switch from aluminum to carbon fiber as the raw material caused prices to quadruple while cutting lifespan to strictly single-serve. Crash it: Replace it. So yes, I struggle with more expensive and greater fragility. But then I get back on a bike with an aluminum bar and even with cork tape I wonder who turned off the comfort. I don’t have carpal tunnel, but I don’t want to get it either. The vibration damping that comes with carbon fiber increases comfort so noticeably it’s a wonder we didn’t make the switch sooner.
The first time I rode a carbon fiber bar I felt like a soon-to-be addict trying crack for the first time: “Where have you been all my life?”
The internal cable routing is—I won’t lie—a pain in the kiester to deal with and the tight bends can reduce braking and shifting performance if you’re not careful. I keep a special cable around to aid with the routing when I replace housings. But the liability posed by price ($229) and limited lifespan are more than overcome in my opinion by the deep drop that doesn’t require increased flexibility.
I hope this bar is never discontinued.