Some years back I was in an editorial meeting for a bike magazine when two of my colleagues suggested the publication for which we toiled needed to embrace bicycle commuters and the double-century crowd. It could have been a disastrous move for the struggling media property. Imagine Bobcat Goldthwait abandoning stand-up comedy to devote his time and energy to finger puppetry and you get the idea.
Somehow (I’m still now sure quite how I managed), I was able to dodge the editorial suicide by arguing: Commuters weren’t clamoring for bike magazines filled with tips on how to get to work faster/in better style/with greater training benefit/at less expense. The double-century set, no matter how dedicated they were as cyclists, were a population fractional to the size of the century riding set. The primary expression of the roadie lifestyle were the thousands of people doing group rides week-in and week-out and those were the people our advertisers were trying to reach, whether they knew it or not.
For the entirety of my life I’ve been at the shallow end of some bell curve. Hell, just being a cyclist confirms that. The irony here is that as a roadie who lives for his local group rides, I am, for once, the middle of the bell curve. For reasons I can’t explain, I can look at a marketing plan or advertising campaign meant to reach roadies and I can tell you instantly if it will resonate or not. I can’t do that with anything else. I’m not in the middle of the curve for anything else.
A strange offshoot of that savant-like talent is that I can also look at geometry charts and tell you how a bike will handle. My recent post on the Roubaix-edition Felt F1 brought up some interesting questions both in comments and email. The most obvious and direct question is why Felt won’t be marketing that bike to the cycling public. Well, there are two reasons why not. The first is a simple one, at least, seemingly. The Roubaix F1 has a bottom bracket lower than 27cm and that violates a fundamental CPSC rule. In broad (very broad) strokes, that regulation says that a bike must be able to lean a certain amount with its inside pedal down without striking the pedal on the ground. The math ordinarily works out to a cheap rat trap pedal plus 170mm cranks equals 7cm of BB drop. A few sizes (56cm and smaller) of the Specialized Roubaix feature a BB drop of 7.2cm. I believe they manage this because of the 25mm tires spec’d with the Roubaix. Now Felt could get around the rule either by spec’ing a 25mm tire (like Specialized) or by marketing it just as a frameset; BB height rules don’t apply to framesets, which is why Serotta and Richard Sachs can build frames with a 8cm of BB drop.
I need to interject an interesting aside here: Trek’s new Domane has a surprisingly low bottom bracket. In most sizes the BB drop is 8cm. On larger frames, bikes with presumably longer cranks, the BB height decreases to 7.8cm. How they are getting this past the CPSC I don’t know, but I intend to ask. They also spec the bike with 25mm tires. Will it accept 28s? Likewise, I intend to find out.
But back to the larger point, the bell curve. When you’re a custom builder you don’t have to worry about the middle of the bell curve. If you’re going to NAHBS, you’re going to build a randonnee bike to show because it gives you a great chance to build tons of bike bling into the frameset. From trick routing of generator hub wires and Di2 cables to well-integrated racks, lights and fenders, they are a great way to show off a builder’s chops. But if you actually show up at a randonnee event here or overseas (especially overseas) the riders who want to make it into that top 20 percent of finishing times are on lightweight carbon machines.
Now, back to the real(er) world. Imagine that a product manager, say one from Cannondale, did some dirt-road ride like D2R2. And let’s say he decided to get behind a dirt-road spec for a new edition of the Synapse. And let’s, for the sake of fantasy or argument (your choice), say he managed to lay his hands on enough long-reach calipers to outfit all those bikes with brakes that didn’t conflict with the 28mm tires he spec’d for it. What happens if the market for dirt-road road bikes favors Specialized for reasons of spec, price or market affinity? Heck, it doesn’t even have to be another big company; it could be that the market simply favors custom steel builders. Let’s suppose that Cannondale runs 1000 of those bikes, just to be conservative. What happens if they don’t sell? Well, they get discounted later in the season. Depending on just how many are sitting in the warehouse, they might have to discount them a bunch, in which case they could be looking at taking a loss on the bikes. You can guess where this leads: Take too much of a loss on a bike that was a gamble to begin with and you risk more than your employer’s capital; you risk your job. And if you want to find out just how fickle the market it, just ask a rep from one of the bigger bike companies about color choice and inventory. It’s not uncommon to find that one color (such as blue) sells like Ecstasy at a rave, while the other color choice (lime green, for instance) is sitting in the warehouse, gathering dust.
Okay, let’s give Debbie Downer a chance to take a bow. The reality is a good bit brighter than that. The bike market is a good bit larger than it used to be. This is the legacy of the Lance Effect. Bunches of people who bought bikes because of Lance had the good fortune to join clubs, get a decent introduction to the sport and stayed with it. That bigger market has had a curious effect on what’s offered. (Okay, Debbie, we’re not quite finished; could you come back out a sec?) Factories making high-end product struggle to produce all of the frames, forks and components necessary to deliver bikes to bike shops each spring. You may think that consumer choice is the primary driver behind Cannondale offering the SuperSix EVO in Di2, 7900 and Red is to give consumers choices at different price points. That would be only partly true. Even Cannondale can’t get enough 7900 to equip all of those bikes with Shimano’s top mechanical group. Of course, these choices create another layer of risk for both the bike companies and retailers. What if consumers just don’t want to spend $8k on a carbon bike with Dura-Ace, but they’re fine with spending $9k on one with Red?
Let’s hope that shop has a crystal ball.
So that’s the minefield. But consider that we have bikes like the Specialized Roubaix, the Volagi Liscio, the Synapse (Cannondale) and now the Trek Domane (which is a replacement for the failed Pilot, oops). Our choices are increasing and the quality of what we ride has leapt. That’s a lot to celebrate. And it’s easier than ever before to find a custom builder thanks to the Interwebs. Here’s the thing about the bell curve: If the population grows, it grows. As events like D2R2 gain in popularity, more products that make those events more enjoyable will hit the market.
Felt introduced its 2011 line of bicycles yesterday at its headquarters in Irvine. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine how a company of just 58 employees can do so much in a year. They have a new full-suspension mountain bike called the Edict. There’s a full-carbon version of the company’s ground-breaking Virtue. There’s a redesigned DA (and I’m glad I’m not a time trialist because it would make me a covetous letch).
They’ve got as many new bikes and products as you’d expect from a company the size of, say, Trek. Perhaps even more.
However, it was the company’s redesigned F1 that most intrigued me.
It’s rare that a company dumps their top-of-the-line bike and designs a replacement from the ground up. For the record, I rode the 2010 F1 and found it to be one of the most impressive road bikes on the market this year. It made the short list among the sport’s most elite bicycles, such as the Specialized SL3.
Gone is the 68mm bottom bracket. Gone are the ribs. Gone is the one-size-fits-all rear triangle. Gone is the 1 1/8″ headset. Gone is the 900 gram weight.
The new F1 is BB30. It uses a blend of carbon fiber that results in extraordinary stiffness and strength, but more on that in a minute. New, proprietary removable polyurethane bladders used inside the layup allow the frame to be constructed without fillers that traditionally smooth transitions around sharp corners. Every one of the eight elements used in each of the six sizes is specific to that size. Why eight? Well, they’ve molded hollow carbon fiber dropouts for the frame. And because each of the three polyurethane bladders used inside the frame is size specific, that means that there are some 66 different molds used to make the full size run. That’s a fortune in tooling cost.
Oh, and that offhand comment about the bikes not weighing 900g anymore? The new F1 weighs just 800g in a 56cm frame. It’s important to note that most frames in this weight territory—sub 950g—feature unidirectional carbon on the outer layer. While unidirectional carbon is structurally sound, it’s not so good at impact resistance for things like dropped water bottles or worse—wrenches. Felt went with a 1k weave to give the bike some amount of impact resistance. They say it’s more than you’ll find in bikes of comparable weight.
The fork features a tapered steerer with an epoxied-on crown race. The upper part of the fork that you see is the aluminum race on which the bearing turns.
I noticed immediately that the tube shapes had changed a fair amount. The top and down tubes were fairly square in shape at the head tube. Head of engineering Jeff Soucek says that’s to keep the bike stiff in torsion. The top tube is round where it joins the seat tube because FEA analysis showed that the top tube was twisting rather than suffering torsional loads. The down tube is round in its midsection but returns to its squarish profile at the BB.
My ride on the bike was short, shorter than I wanted. It was, however, extraordinary. I’ve never experienced a bike that was so stiff and lively at this weight. The key to the bike’s extraordinary character is its exceptionally thin walls throughout the frame. Tap a tube and it resonates the way a great steel tube does. That sound reflects high density and thin walls. There is no substitute.
I’ll review this bike as soon as I’m humanly able.
Day 2 of the Outdoor Demo gave me a chance to try eight more bikes. The photos of the five bikes contained here are the ones I liked well enough to mention. They were the Specialized SL3, the Look 586, The Fuji SST 1.0, the Cannondale Super Six and the Felt F1.
The SL3 is the bike Specialized was trying to make when it brought out the SL2. This new version eliminates the chatter that spoiled the ride of the SL2 on all but the smoothest roads. It’s stiff torsionally and uses enough high modulus carbon fiber that it offers an unusually high degree of road sensitivity. Easily one of my three favorites for the show.
Overall, the Look was a nice riding bike and would be great for long days, especially centuries. The handling reminded me of the way European steel bikes used to handle. It took a lot of countersteering to get this thing to turn. It was rock solid in a straight line, of course. Were I to review a bike, I think I’d be more interested in the 585, though.
The Cannondale Super Six is much improved from last year. The rear end used to flex a fair amount and while there wasn’t a lot of flex in the front triangle and fork, the stays flexed enough to make the BB feel a little soft, but that’s been corrected now. Unfortunately, the bike was set up with the bar so high I couldn’t get a feel for the handling. The carbon fiber felt a little more dead than some of the others.
The Felt F1 offers an incredible blend of stiffness and sensitivity to road surface. The mold is the same one used for the last few years but a new blend of carbon and a new layup process results in greater stiffness with no weight penalty I’m told. This bike balances stiffness, road feel, weight and durability (impact and abrasion resistance) better than almost any other bike out there. One of my three faves for sure.
I’ve been seeing the Fuji around here and there and wanted to try it to see how it stacked up to bikes from more established players in the carbon fiber field. I was pleasantly surprised. While it doesn’t offer the sensitivity to road surface that the Specialized and Felt do, it was on a par with the Cannondale, which is real praise. Despite the seat mast design, it didn’t transmit an unreasonable amount of road vibration to the saddle.
My top three bikes for the ODD were the Specialized SL3, the Felt F1 and the Parlee Z5. I hope to review them in the coming months. Plenty of companies are getting their frames stiff enough, but they need to spend more time looking at road feel, in particular, sensitivity to road surface. It’s a dimension that is easy to overlook, but balancing the need for sensitivity without allowing too much road vibration to zap the rider can make the difference between a vibrant bike and a dead bike. Dead-feeling carbon is so 1990s. I find it especially interesting that these three bikes, though all produced overseas, come from three different facilities, meaning it isn’t just the factory engineers who know how to dial in some sensitivity when you ask for it. Clearly the people managing these product lines know there’s more to a great ride than just stiffness.