In the 15 years I’ve been coming to Las Vegas for Interbike, I cannot recall a year where the conditions were more inhospitable for riding than today and yesterday. One set of reports I saw put yesterday’s high temperature at 106 degrees, while today’s dropped a single degree but added a steady wind that could gust north of 15 mph. Not many things can dampen my enthusiasm for bikes, but feeling like I’m sitting in the oven along with the pizza I’m cooking isn’t conducive to bike riding. I didn’t ride as much today as I wanted or expected to, but the upside is that it gave me more time to talk with people.
Zipp had a couple of announcements. They revamped their Service Course bars to make them a bit more intuitive for fitters. There are three bars, all of which feature a flatter drop to the levers—the SL70 has the shortest reach of the bunch and is bound to be popular with riders who want to run a long stem. The SL80 has an 80mm reach, while the SL88, pictured above has the longest reach and a slightly modified take on the classic bend. I stopped using a classic bend bar even before Greg LeMond retired and can’t stand them now, but the bend on this bar is opening up just enough I can get my hand in there comfortably.
The 808 received a new hub that is supposed to be much stiffer than the previous one. It features virtual three-cross lacing, new larger bearing and plenty of input from Mark Cavendish.
Zipp says the change in the ride experience for the rider will be that the wheel will be much stiffer laterally without picking up any additional stiffness vertically. And for really powerful sprinters who have complained about the wind-up of Zipp wheels, this new 808 addresses that issue square-on.
There weren’t a lot of titanium bikes at the show, but I decided I wanted to try to ride each of the different frame materials once during the Outdoor Demo. I dropped by Litespeed and checked out the T1. This is produced from 6Al/4v and while this is meant to be the successor to Litespeed’s Archon model, it is also true that this is their flagship metal bike and in that it reminded me of the old Vortex, both in terms of stiffness and handling.
The chainstays are asymmetric, and while engineer Brad Devaney did a fine job of explaining just why they chose to build the bike around two different chainstays, the explanation will have to wait for a full review of the bike. It was a delight to ride.
To make the bike easy to build up with current parts and to give it as many performance attributes found in the current carbon bikes, Litespeed went with a BB30 bottom bracket.
It’s also easier to increase front-end stiffness if you’re not building around a straight 1 1/8″ fork. The T1 uses a fork that tapers from 1 1/8″ at the stem to 1 1/2″ at the fork crown. This was easily the stiffest ti bike I’ve ridden to date.
I’ve been dying to ride Felt’s redesign AR model since seeing it at their global product launch back in August. One of the reasons Felt has been such a great value at the mid and low end of the market is their price-point bikes come out of the same mold their high-end bikes do. This bike is the AR4; it’s exactly the same frame as the AR FRD, except for the material used. So while it didn’t offer quite the road sensitivity that their high-end bikes do, this is an Ultegra-equipped bike that retails for $3499. And honestly, some companies’ top bikes offer no more sensitivity than this one does.
The AR uses an unusual seat post and clamp that pinches not the post itself, but the walls of the post, allowing them to make an exceedingly thin-walled seatpost that doesn’t need to withstand crushing forces. The point is to increase rider comfort. I will say that this bike was stunningly stiff in out-of-the-saddle efforts. However, I wasn’t able to get much of a feel for how much comfort it offered because the road surface I was riding on was pretty smooth. And, frankly, I cut my ride short because there was a steady 10 mph wind that was gusting to 20 mph. An aero bike with aero wheels wasn’t dynamite, but truly, it was so bad out there that any bike riding wasn’t much fun. Where’s my Visine?
The large bottom bracket area not only helps smooth the wind’s flow over the lower part of the bike but helped give it the stiffness necessary to stand up to hard sprints. And because the rear brake was mounted to integrated posts, the braking offered terrific power and sensitive modulation.
There’s plenty more we saw at Outdoor Demo and more posts will be coming. Contributor JP Partland rode a great many bikes as well, so this won’t be the end of the ride reports.
So a couple of weeks ago when I posted about the Felt Media Day, there were two models I wasn’t supposed to mention—at all. One was the complete redesign of the AR model, while the other was the introduction of the IA, a brother to the DA. The IA is a triathlon-specific aero bike. Naturally, what makes the IA tri-specific are its tube shapes that in many cases exceed the 3:1 ratio set (arbitrarily) by the UCI.
I suspect that even now Pat McQuaid is dispatching goons to the corners of the world to make sure that no Cat 4 enters a local time trial on such a dastardly invention. All snark against the UCI aside, the IA is a pretty fascinating bike because it falls in the tradition of a great many bikes from companies like Lotus and Colnago, bikes that were responses to a very simple question: How aerodynamic can a bicycle be?
It’s a fair question and the UCI’s meddling in innovation hasn’t actually resulted in safer riders. Worse, it has stifled genuine innovation. I’ll also take a moment to add that the UCI’s claim that they restrict designs (and created the bike approval process) to ensure the safety of riders is silly for the simple reason that going to market with a bicycle that can’t pass the CEN standards is essentially impossible and there is no stronger motivation against marketing a shoddy product than the black eye that would come from having your bike disintegrate on worldwide television. Talk about powerful motivators.
For roadies, the biggest news is that the company’s aero road bike, the AR, has been completely redesigned for 2014. They scrapped the existing design and built a new bike, one tube at a time. Dave Koesel, Felt’s road product manager, reports that while the new AR isn’t as stiff in torsion as the F bike, it is significantly stiffer than its predecessor; it now matches the stiffness of the Super-Stiff layup of the previous generation of F. This is the bike that most Garmin riders were riding. While the AR is a better sprinting bike, the company’s testing has shown that it is much more comfortable than most aero road bikes. Comfort-wise, the AR is said to fall between the F and the company’s grand touring road bike, the Z.
Irvine is but two hours from the San Diego Low-Speed Wind Tunnel. If another company has spent more time there testing and developing new designs, I’d like to hear who it is. Among their many trips to San Diego, Felt took aero bikes from its competitors and after building up each bike with the same components and wheels in an effort to make the tests as fair and equal as possible and then “blew” (as the engineers at the SDLSWT like to say) each bike. Felt says the AR was the fastest bike of the set.
Of the AR’s many innovations, one of the more surprising was what the engineering team did with the seatpost. They created a clamp that pinches only the carbon fiber walls of the post, not the whole of the post. The channels you see in the post are what allow the post to slide up and down on the clamp. Once saddle height has been set, there are polyurethane plugs that can be cut to length to fill those slots. The design allows Felt to go with thinner walls for the post, which is part of what helps give the AR its reportedly improved ride quality.
One of the changes that the engineers made in the redesign of the AR was to move the rear brake under the chainstays. Because a few different companies have done that, Shimano has come up with this quick release for the rear brake to make fixing a flat a little speedier.
The brake used on the AR has a very low-profile design and offers plenty of stopping power, in part because each brake arm mounts to its own post, much like U-brakes or cantilevers.
You’ll notice that both the AR and IA have a checkerboard pattern to their layup that is uncharacteristic of other top-shelf carbon fiber bikes. That’s because they use a material called Textreme. So far, Felt is the only company in the bike market to use this material. You can find it on each of their bikes that carry the “FRD” (Felt Racing Design) designation. If the look is at all familiar to you, it may be because you saw the same pattern on the F FRD ridden to four stage victories at this year’s Tour de France by Marcel Kittel.
Textreme is interesting enough to merit a post of its own, but its manufacturer has figured out a way to produce sheets of material that looks much like traditional 3k or 12k nonstructural weave but offer structure while remaining lightweight and still providing a degree of impact resistance. It’s an intriguing material, and so far, Felt is the only company using it.
The bottom bracket area on the AR has been built up substantially to give the bike better handling and a more responsive demeanor under out-of-the-saddle efforts. And naturally, like all Felt bikes, the AR is going to come in a full range of spec, some of which will be remarkably affordable.
I’m going to have a chance to ride the AR soon and I’ll be able to report some first impressions. Even if it’s not the absolute fastest aero bike out there, if it can be reasonably comfortable and stiff enough not to scare me on a descent, I’m intrigued.
My buddy Eric has moved twice in the last two years and has three kids. You math types out there probably have a differential equation to show that it wasn’t just likely that something would happen to his carbon fiber bike, it was unavoidable. But ask anyone who has ever had a carbon fiber frame damaged due to factors others think are inevitable and they’ll all tell you the same thing.
Inevitability can go suck it.
So before I dive into the specifics of what the damage was and how it was addressed, I should give you a tiny bit of back story on the frame itself. Eric, the owner of this frame isn’t just a buddy; he was also one of the people responsible for the beer fund. I know folks who know folks and at the end of the ’08 season Felt had some Garmin team frames that the team never took delivery of. I put Eric in touch with the right people and good things happened. Let me add, this is not the sort of transaction that gets advertised, but sometimes the right person gets lucky. His enthusiasm for this bike is what everyone ought to experience any time they buy a new bike.
This particular beauty is the previous generation of the F-series frame and is one of the rare Sprint layups. If memory serves, it tipped the scales at roughly 1100g (about a 10 percent increase in weight) but was closer 15 percent stiffer. Because this frame was painted, it was probably closer to 1300g. The important detail in this is that prior to his purchase, this frame had never been built, much less ridden, so the three-plus years of use he’d put on it were all it had. There was no chance there’d been any underlying damage due to previous use by a pro.
Unfortunately, one day Eric walked into the garage and noticed a crack on the non-drive-side seatstay. The crack wasn’t super-apparent, but it was noticeable and when he pressed on the carbon near the crack it would flex with some ease. Ugh.
He got in touch with me to ask about options. My one and only recommendation was that he contact Carbon Frame Repair. I’d met owner Joe Hendig at an event and was impressed with his work. He has worked in aerospace repairing carbon fiber structures (think carbon fiber jets and bombers) and doubles as a bike geek. It’s a handy combination, not unlike the electric guitar and Pete Townshend.
Eric says he wasn’t able to get a photo that captured the damage, but Joe at Carbon Frame Repair took a shot midway through the repair.
While this shot better shows the door to his repair shop than it does the seatstay (damn autofocus), you can still see clearly how layers of carbon fiber have been sanded away to remove damaged material, leaving a void that shows the inside of the seatstay. On a cognitive level, I understand the steps necessary to do the repair, but the reality of how to vacuum-bag a completed frame mystifies me. He talks a bit about the fact that he does the operation, and for those who don’t know why it’s necessary he explains how it’s important to achieving proper compaction so the frame will be as strong as before, not to mention weighing the same. Leaving a lot of old resin in the frame would add weight without adding any strength or even restoring the previous strength.
Here’s a shot from his web site of another repair he did that shows the work area in better focus:
I’ve seen a number of carbon fiber frames repaired. Many of them included lumps and wrinkles or other obvious cues that a repair had taken place. The lack of any effort to repaint them and conceal the repair was, honestly, unnerving. Of course, paint alone shouldn’t make you feel good about a bike that has experienced this:
As it happens, Joe has also repaired a number of surf boards and surfers won’t suffer a board that looks like it just returned from a war zone. Eric tells me he can’t see the repair, that the only way he even knows it’s not completely original is lack of the dashed lines denoting the argyle in the blue and orange diamonds. He says the color is spot-on.
This is the repaired side:
This is the undamaged side:
I’ve looked at a number of images and can’t find the repair. Eric tells me that the transition point happens in the “o” in Vittoria. What he says he can see in-person at reading distance is a slight change in color in the weave; the new stuff is lighter in color that the original. He took a number of images and says he couldn’t manage to record it. In his words, “The human eye can see it, but the camera can’t.” He adds, “At 10 feet, even I can’t see it. He blended the weave so well that the only way you can discern a difference is by the color.”
Joe at Carbon Frame Repair offers an a la carte menu for repairs. It varies by the severity of the damage, from “Mere Flesh Wound” all the way up to “Hella FUBARed.” Refinishing is separate and ranges from just clear coat (Raw Dog) to what Eric had done (Pimp My Repair). With shipping, Eric’s repair came to $540. The site does a nice job of spelling out what your expectations should be. From what I can tell, he’s a miracle worker with frames, but he can’t Lazarus everything. Some frames are beyond repair. And some stuff he doesn’t touch. He won’t do forks, any carbon components or some wheels.
Dude’s got 20 years of experience. It shows.
The repair took four weeks, start to finish, including shipping.
I have two boys and a garage full of carbon fiber. One day, hopefully not soon, I know I’m going to have an experience like Eric’s. It’s nice to know I won’t have to ask around about what to do when that day comes. Does that sound like an endorsement for a service provider I’ve never used? I’m okay with that.
If the day comes that your baby needs rescuing, just click here.
So there’s this news that Specialized has built its own in-house wind tunnel. My professional reaction was nothing short of “Holy cow!” It’s a colossal investment for a facility that will do nothing for a company that produces mountain bikes, city bikes, kids bikes—even an electric bike—and none of the bikes in those categories will be affected by this new facility. For a week or two Specialized’s PR team had been posting little teases on FB and Twitter, photos that were mostly just jokes, along with the phrase “aero is everything.” I was curious, but mostly only because I could tell it would lead to some announcement. But what?
More than four years ago the road product manager at one of Specialized’s competitors told me flat-out that we had essentially reached the end of the line in terms of big gains on weight and that all the real advances in technology that would aid performance would come from aerodynamics. The point being not that bikes wouldn’t continue to get lighter, but that the gains would be so incremental and at such an incredible cost in terms of durability and expense that for most bike companies the diminishing returns wouldn’t justify the investment. Instead, the gains to be made in aerodynamics were (and are) relatively low-hanging fruit.
Computational Fluid Dynamic software has speeded up development time by giving engineers virtual wind tunnels on work stations. But that software has limitations. The work stations are crazy expensive (and thats from a guy who doesn’t find Apple products to be unreasonably priced) and the license for the software costs what an engineer does. And then there’s the fact that you can only learn so much in CFD. At a certain point, you have to go to the wind tunnel. When you consider just how expensive wind tunnel time is (it can run what a good recording studio does) and how much of it you need (eight hours is barely enough to get a fair picture of how a single bike with no rider performs), then you can see how it would be possible to keep one busy for three shifts per day.
Having been on-hand for a company’s rental of time from the San Diego Low-Speed Wind Tunnel, I’m aware that you rack up a host of other costs any time you do testing. There’s the down-time for travel, and while a SoCal-based company like Felt can drive to San Diego before rush hour, Morgan Hill is a full day’s drive; any other location requires a boarding pass. Add meals and hotels to your transportation costs, and suddenly renovating a warehouse starts to sound like a pretty good idea.
I should also add that there are a great many products on the market that bear the signifier of “wind-tunnel tested.” It’s a do-nothing claim. I don’t mean to suggest that companies lie when they report that. No, the point is that plenty of companies visit the wind tunnel after the design work is complete, molds are cut, and production units are about to ship to retailers. “Blowing” a bike or helmet or wheel after the design work is complete means you know how much drag it generates. Wind-tunnel development requires multiple visits and for longer periods of time than are required just to make the claim of tested.
Significant in this that the staff and students of SBCU will gain access to the wind tunnel to aid them un better understanding the aerodynamic implications of a given fit; it’s yet another good reason for a retailer to send staff to Morgan Hill for training.
There is a darker side to this announcement, though. This ratchets up the bike development arms race. If you’d asked me which company would be first to introduce an in-house wind tunnel, I’d have said Zipp. I gotta figure the boys in Indiana have one on the drawing board. Prior to the PON acquisition I’d have guessed that Cervelo was working on one as well. Methinks that the new owners might be a bit more conservative in their spending.
While you might have winced at the industry’s first $10k bikes, news that Specialized had developed a $20k version of their Venge in conjunction with McLaren caused more than a few people to require the Heimlich Maneuver. Marketing costs generally get spread over an entire company’s bike line, which is why it’s so important to have a popular $200 mountain bike if you want to sponsor a big pro team. However, development costs are charged to the category of bike that generated them. You can expect to see all S-Works bikes tick up with this additional expense.
I expect we’re going to see a faster Venge. I expect to see that. What I wonder is if we’re going to see a more aero Roubaix. I don’t really care for how this is going to ratchet up bike development costs. But we’re going to learn a lot because Specialized is going to learn a lot. I love learning. I’m an eternal student. That part excites me. For that, I can’t freaking wait.
The efforts to tame the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix have included everything from running lower tire pressure in 28mm tires to wrapping the handlebar with foam pipe insulation and even using cyclocross bikes. The cyclocross bikes have been a less than stellar option for a few reasons. First, they’ve been chosen because the standard race bikes from the teams’ sponsors have allowed clearance for 28mm tires; in some cases they won’t even allow 25mm tires. Second, they feature geometries that include high bottom brackets (for pedal clearance) when the average Roubaix rider wants a lower BB to make the bike easier to handle over the bumps.
Felt has taken a novel approach to meeting the needs of their sponsored riders. For this year’s Paris-Roubaix, the Argos-Shimano team rode on a special run of the company’s F1 frames. How these frames differ from a standard F1 might surprise you. Unchanged is the bike’s layup and stiffness, which many might guess would be the first concession made to the cobbles. In fact, the changes are deeper in the DNA of the machine.
Felt’s engineering team changed the geometry of the F1—giving it handling and tire clearance perfect for the cobbles—without cutting new molds. Seems like an impossible trick, huh? Let’s cover the changes to the geometry and the rationale for it and then we’ll get into just how they did it.
The F1 seen above features head and seat tube angles a full degree slacker than the stock bikes. They also have a 10mm longer front center and 13mm longer chain stays to keep the weight distribution virtually unchanged. Felt’s engineers also managed to drop the bikes’ BB height by 3mm even after the addition of 28mm tires. And of course, the modified the fork and the rear triangle to create clearance for those bigger tires.
Again, the amazing thing here is that they managed all these changes without cutting new molds for bikes that will essentially be raced once a year. So how’d they do it?
They designed new dropouts that moved the rear wheel back and up (relative to the old position) which dropped the rear end of the bike and increased the wheelbase of the bike. Up front, new dropouts raised the fork crown and increased the rake, compensating for the decrease in head tube angle to keep trail consistent. The slacker seat tube angle allows riders to sit back a bit more, shifting some weight off their upper bodies to give their hands, arms and shoulders a bit of a break.
And to compensate for the changes to the fork and rear triangle, non-series Shimano long-reach calipers handle the stopping duties.
This isn’t the first time Felt has done this. In 2008 when they were sponsoring Garmin-Chipotle, which included Magnus Backstedt pictured above, Felt produced a run of F frames for the team. Those frames also featured Felt’s “Superstiff” layup, a feature that wasn’t required this time around as the new F1 is both lighter than the previous F1 (standard layup) and stiffer than the Superstiff layup.
While Trek and Specialized realize excellent marketing benefits from putting their sponsored teams on the new Domane and established Roubaix, Felt’s approach yields a bike more purpose built to the racers’ requirements. Both the Roubaix and Domane feature more trail than their racier counterparts. What’s most surprising here is that more companies haven’t had the insight to create a second set of dropouts to give their top-flight race bikes more versatility. Maybe this will help illustrate just how bright Felt’s head of engineering, Jeff Soucek, and his team are.
When Belgium Knee Warmers‘ Radio Freddy got in touch with me in the fall of ’06 his call and its contents were unexpected. “I’m starting a blog,” he said. “I’d like you to contribute.”
He wanted it to address his passions and to be a positive response to the sport. At the time, I couldn’t picture what he had in mind. The limitation was mine. Back then, cycling blogs mostly went something like this, “Yeah bro, we were like doing 25 in the Cat IV race and I was all like raaaar, and Dudenut was all gnarthrashed cuz he put his front wheel into a ref when he gave a victory salute in the second group. We spent all afternoon at the ER waiting for him. Sunday night we drank PBR and watched porn.”
Yawn. My conception of blogging was that it was so personal as to be codified and—worse—without insight. The lack of universality in experience made cycling blogs pointless, at least to me. It would be a few more months before I’d run across BSNYC and Fat Cyclist.
This wasn’t the first time Radio Freddy and I had considered a collaboration. I had attempted to recruit him to do advertising sales for my magazine Asphalt. While he was interested, his availability was modest.
Any opportunity for us to work together seemed doomed when Asphalt went under. Asphalt had been my dream, my life’s work and when my partner exited the operation she forced the magazine into a sort of bankruptcy. I’ll leave it at that as the ugliness of what transpired between us should remain private; I’ve nothing positive to say about the end of the magazine.
What I can tell you is that I was more than depressed. I wrote the post Thanksgiving II in reference to that chapter of my life. And whether the rest of the bike industry felt it or not, I believed I was persona non grata because I was the captain of the ship when it sank.
I hadn’t considered writing about cycling or how I might pursue it since Asphalt. It simply didn’t seem possible that I’d enjoy another opportunity to write about cycling. Even so, when Radio Freddy got in touch, I wasn’t sure that I had anything to say.
Let’s back up a sec. I began writing about cycling in 1991. I was interested to write about a sport in which I’d developed a consuming passion. And while I had this passion to write, I really didn’t have anything to say. Newbie writers frequently ask me where I get my ideas for the pieces I write. I’m more than familiar with their plight. The strange part is that I have no idea how to answer. Back then, I was casting about, looking for opportunities—subjects—to write. I had no idea how to share my passion. Despite this, I managed to get some bylines with Dirt Rag, The Ride and even VeloNews. Most of my stuff was pretty straight journalism.
I parlayed those limited credits into a gig with the magazine Bicycle Guide and moved to California, more specifically, Los Angeles, which my friend and former UMASS Cycling Team teammate, Bicycling contributing editor (and former Bicycle Guide contributing editor) Alan Coté pointed out was “the on-ramp to the apocalypse.” He stole that from a sit-com, but that didn’t make it less accurate. That I was willing to move there was a measure of my determination.
At Bicycle Guide I was assigned a broad range of stories. Bike reviews, newbie tip articles, first-person narratives, it was the perfect incubator for an ambitious writer. Despite the fact that I had already earned a Master’s in English, I consider that period another chapter in my education.
I love writing bike reviews and speaking with the different builders; they were stories that were far more interesting to write than race reports and rewarded creativity and determination. However, my greatest growth, what most inspired my ambition, were columns and those first-person narratives. Getting away from the office and putting myself in a landscape with a bike and writing about that adventure of the senses and the richness of the experience for both the exterior and interior was really everything I could have asked for as a writer. For me, it was heaven on earth. I realized that I had something to say.
When Bicycle Guide was shut down, it took only a couple of days for me to conceive of Asphalt, a magazine where presentation would match the quality of the experiences and equipment we presented. We had our hitches; there were color problems in the first issue and we ran almost as slow as another quarterly currently on the market, but readers and advertisers were signing up. When that went down the pipes, I figured my future in cycling had gone with it.
Ultimately, what drew me back in shouldn’t surprise me or anyone who’s ever read my work. It was a story. Specialized had inked a sponsorship deal with Quick Step and after only a few races on the Tarmac SL, Tom Boonen began appearing on a custom-made aluminum frame. Sure it was custom, but it wasn’t the flagship ride Specialized was featuring in all its ads. It was a PR black eye that had erupted on the Internet into a torrent of obscenity-laced insults aimed at the company for demeaning the finest Classics rider of the day with an aluminum ride.
I’d spent enough time writing about bike companies to know that there was more to the story at Specialized.
So I called them.
I began talking with PR beacon Nic Sims and told him straight up they were being murdered on blogs and forums and none of the magazines were helping them by setting the story straight. I admitted that BKW was a small blog, but maybe if we got the story right, others might pick it up.
Naturally, he talked to me. He told me that the aluminum bike was simply a tester, that they wanted to make sure they got Boonen’s fit exactly right before cutting a mold for him. That whole measure twice, cut once thing.
The post was fun enough that I did a follow-up and came up with a few others for Radio Freddy. The readership went from tiny to small to noticeable—i.e. more than a 1000 unique viewers per day—in a matter of months.
I’d chosen a nom de plume to publish under for a simple reason; I was afraid that my name could be a liability. Suddenly, I began to see the alias in a new light. It was a chance to see if we could build a following just on the quality of the work. Rather than try to trade on our bike industry experience, our knowledge of cycling would either inform our writing and appeal to readers, or it wouldn’t. There’d be no baggage of history.
In the summer of 2007 I was getting ready for the Markleeville Death Ride and had adopted a super-model diet in my quest to get back to my old race weight. One day I was thinking about how hungry I was and about how eloquent Lance Armstrong had been on the subject of weight loss. I recall him saying something to the effect of, ‘It’s simply a matter of suffering.’
I dashed off a post called “The Lance Feeling” in less than a half hour. That one post marked a turning point for me. It helped me conceive of blogging as a chance to write an editor’s column over and over and over. Without the constriction of a monthly, bi-monthly or even quarterly publication schedule or the need to address issue themes, I could muse on any subject that itched my fancy. And I could do it whenever the urge struck.
Ohmigod, this blogging thing has possibilities.
What unfolded on BKW over the next year is one of those occurrences in publishing that comes along maybe once or twice in a career.
Radio Freddy and I shared a common background in bicycle retailing. We’d spent serious time in the trenches. Additionally, we’d both turned wrenches for riders whose bikes had to work right. Him at a prominent Chicago pro shop and me, for a spell, for the US National Team’s juniors. Our time in shops had also taught us a love for routine and working in a consistent fashion. We both had a love of working efficiently, of knowing the über tricks and watching for the moves of the elders. We were fundamentally students of the sport.
Radio Freddy’s posts conveyed hard-won wisdom of the ages, techniques that were less tips than meditations on quality. An interplay began in our posts. While we could discuss the fact that it was happening when we spoke on the phone, neither of us had the ability to explain how it was happening. It’s hard, even now, to look back and put my finger on why one post of his sparked me to write a particular one of mine, but there was a kind of gestalt relationship.
The way the readership grew during this time was all the confirmation we needed that the chemistry was palpable. It was rare that I’d ever have chosen a subject that Radio Freddy selected, but his choices influenced mine and vice versa.
The way our ideas dovetailed could fire me up like few things ever have. One night, as my girlfriend (now wife) was watching TV, I wrote three different posts. They all ran.
It was around this time that I landed a gig to write a guidebook on Los Angeles. I was reinventing myself. Next came an op-ed I wrote for the LA Times that suggested the UCI should enact and truth and reconciliation commission to get to the bottom of cycling’s doping woes. I’ve heard many people take credit for the idea, but I can tell you my piece was the first into print and was read by some two million people. A friend gave the piece to the powers-that-be at the UCI. I hear there’s a price on my head. It’s not much, but you might be able to take your sweetie to dinner on it.
I’d never have written that piece had I not been composing analysis pieces about Floyd Landis’ CAS appeal. Say what you want about the particular breed of crazy Landis keeps in his pocket, his defense team did their work brilliantly and the outcome of that case was a travesty.
Where were we?
The LA Times piece led to offers for copywriting work for several industry companies, among them Felt.
I was back in.
When I review a bike, I tend to hit the “road feel” aspect of a bike’s ride pretty hard. I’ve done it enough and gotten enough subsequent questions about just what I mean and what I value that it seems high time I spend devoted some pixels just to the subject of road feel.
It used to be that road feel or “ride quality” was an indispensable dimension of any bike review. Even Bicycling Magazine would address it in their famously brief reviews. Those publications that devoted more than a couple hundred words to a review tended to spend more time defining not only a given bike’s ride quality but also made an effort to assign some sort of value to the quality. I’m not seeing much conversation on the subject these days, save the reviews Ben Edwards pens for peloton magazine.
While it may seem that ride quality and road feel may be essentially two different phrases for the same phenomenon, I do see them differently and I believe historically that “ride quality” was often used to define not just the feel of the frame material, but the interplay of that material with the bike’s geometry. In a nutshell, I use road feel to address the sense of road I get based on the frame material alone. It has nothing to do with the frame’s overall stiffness.
So any discussion of road feel is limited to the sense of road the bicycle’s frame imparts to the rider. Many of the bike’s components can affect just what you experience. Ride a bike with 100 psi in the tires and then ride it again with 140 psi in the tires and you could be forgiven for believing you were on a different bike.
Bar, bar tape, seatpost, seat and tires will all affect road feel, but none of these will usually have the effect that a significant change in tire pressure will bring. Additionally, different shorts and different shoes will affect what you experience as well. When reviewing a bike, I never get the chance to normalize for more than wheels and tires. I’ve got a set of wheels I know intimately and have some trusted open tubulars on them. That will zero out the wheel/tire combo. Ride a bike long enough and you’ll even see through differences in shorts. All that aside, the most important feedback you get comes through your feet and butt.
Okay, so all those factors can skew what you feel, but that doesn’t answer the central question of why road feel matters.
I’m fascinated by road feel because it is one of a handful of the dimensions of a bike’s overall composition that can affect how I descend and corner. When a bike is pushed to its performance limit, road feel can have a profound influence on just how far I’m willing to go.
People will use descriptors such as “lively,” “dead,” “springy,” and even “razor-sharp” to discuss the way the bike feels as they ride it. That feel is road feedback. Think of your frame as a pair of glasses and the road as the sky. The frame you ride is essentially the lens color of your glasses. You can ride a frame that blots out most of the sunlight to tame a sunny day. Or it can be a high-contrast yellow lens for the low-light situations you find on early morning fall rides. And whether you choose a dark or light lens, the quality of that lens will determine the clarity with which you see.
While this may be obvious almost to redundant, the road surface has a huge influence on just what you experience. The smoother the road, the less input you get and the deader the bike will feel. Some amount of texture is helpful for descending and cornering.
When I first started reviewing bikes, my sense was that the changes I experienced in road feel related almost entirely to frame material, that all bikes created from a frame material were sort of static in feel. However, the market was being flooded with new steels and I quickly learned that some of the new oversize steel tube sets (such as Columbus EL-OS Nivacrom) felt different from older stuff (such as Columbus SL). Even though the material density was the same, the bikes felt different.
So why was that? The best information I have from engineers is that it was related to wall thickness. If density remains consistent, a thinner wall will transmit more vibration. Increase wall thickness or decrease density and the feel changes. Titanium is half as dense as steel; aluminum is a third as dense as steel.
But the vibration transmission is affected by other factors. Butting makes a huge impact on road feel. No matter what material is used, if the tubes are straight gauge, the bike will have a harsher feel; more vibration will radiate through the frame.
So what constitutes good road feel and how much vibration should a frame transmit? Well, there are a variety of opinions on this. The French manufacturer Time does all it can to eliminate as much road vibration as possible; they include materials like Kevlar to make the frames mute to vibration. There are other manufacturers, such as Specialized, Cannondale, Felt, Look, BH, Parlee and even Bottecchia that offer bikes with a nude finish; that is, decals and no paint. No paint means an absence of 80 to 100 grams of material that contributes nothing structural to the bike. When you’re talking about a potentially 800g frame, that means 10-12 percent of the bike’s weight does nothing to contribute to strength or stiffness. You might as well just wrap the frame with electrical tape.
While 80g of paint is a liability in the weight department, the presence of paint does an interesting thing to a bike’s road feel. It deadens the frame. Not terribly, but it does fundamentally change just how the bike feels.
I’ve had the opportunity to ride bikes from a couple of manufacturers with paint and then with a decal-only finish. The difference in feel has to do with high-frequency road vibration. It’s that high-frequency stuff that gives you the greatest sensitivity to the road conditions. And though Trek doesn’t offer (so far as I’ve seen) a single nude-finished frame, it’s absence suggests less that they aren’t concerned with road feel and more that they aren’t confident in the cosmetics of their unpainted frames.
While I could try to illustrate the point of sensitivity with the analogy of a condom, let’s go with a stereo instead. On a traditional stereo with volume, bass and treble controls, if you turn up the bass and then turn down the treble, you wind up with gangsta rap—a pumping sound that has little definition. Carbon fiber frames with nude finishes feature a little less volume overall (because the frames feature an incredible amount of internal butting at junctions) but offer clarity that can only come from keeping the treble cranked up. Think of top-40 radio and the way those melodies can carry even when played on a lousy department store PA.
The Trouble With Color
Painted carbon can look amazing. It can also give a manufacturer the opportunity to cover blemishes in substandard work. It even offers a very minor degree of impact resistance. But it does nothing for road feel.
Bikes like the Specialized Tarmac, Cannondale SuperSix EVO, Felt F-series and BH Ultralight feature next-generation carbon fiber construction that has eliminated the use of foam in junctions where compaction has traditionally been a problem. Internal forms help make sure the bike achieves optimal material compaction. I suppose there are others using these techniques, but these are the bikes I’m aware of so far. Tap a fingernail on the down tube of one of these bikes and you’ll hear a distinctly metallic sound. The greater the material density, the higher frequency the sound. Both frame strength and road feel benefit.
It’s easy to conclude that greater high-frequency sensitivity is strictly an aesthetic preference and that one can make a strong case for a frame that stamps out vibration like ants in a kitchen. Unfortunately, there are objective reasons to seek out a frame with less vibration damping.
If your goal is a frame that maximizes strength while still achieving a competitive ~800g weight, you have to go with a nude finish. I’ve yet to come across a bike that offers the strength and weight equal to the world’s top frames that also feels dead. I’m so glad. But, God, how I wish Cervelos were available in a paint-free scheme.
A final note: One needn’t ride on the roller coaster roads of Malibu to make use of the benefits of superior road feel. I try not to push bikes to the point of breaking the tires loose (at least, on the road), but when the roads are wet, a bike that gives me great feedback will help me get down a descent faster. And as a rider, the greatest challenge I ever face on two wheels is riding in the rain. Descending in the rain? Nearly guaranteed flow state, and it’s times like that I want all the data I can get, even if it’s 100 percent right-brained.
Day two of the Outdoor Demo began—for some, at least—with a ride to Lake Mead that began at 8:00. I borrowed one of Felt’s AR1s, which is the company’s aerodynamic road bike. I had hoped to spend more time on the F2, but the previous afternoon one of the two demo bikes in a 58 got slaughtered in a hot corner by a staffer … d’oh!
The ride begins downhill and I had the distinct impression that some of the riders present weren’t accustomed to such a fast descent in a pack. There were times when even moving to the front of the group remained interesting. Nonetheless, it was a fun bunch. I turned back a bit early because I promised the folks at Felt I’d have the bike back in time for 9:00 demos.
I’ve spent some time watching wind tunnel testing and I’ve noticed a few things about the very fastest bikes. First, the top tube is parallel to the ground. Also, there are no hard edges out where they can catch the wind. I haven’t seen the AR in the wind tunnel, but I have my suspicions that it is a very clean bike to the wind.
BMC has been making inroads and I wanted to find out if the bikes are really that good. The Team Machine is part of a select group of bikes I rode that had superb handling, definitely in the class of the F and Tarmac. It does more to dampen vibration than some bikes I rode.
There simply aren’t many bikes on the market that combine the degree of stiffness that the Giant TCR Advanced SL possesses with precise, balanced handling and genuine road sensitivity. Where this differs from the F and Tarmac is with a stiffer rear triangle. It’s a crit meister’s dream.
I’d never ridden a Moots before yesterday and the Vamoots was a revelation. They should all come with a boarding pass for Europe. This bike is no race machine, but that doesn’t mean it’s not high performance. It was plenty stiff and the handling crisp, but what I most wanted to do on the bike was just pedal into the sunset. The Vamoots wasn’t typical of the bikes at the Outdoor Demo, but it really was one of my favorites.
Next up was the Moots RSL. This sub-15 lb. bike is an indestructible race machine. I’m going to recommend it to a Cat. 2 friend of mine who has terrible luck with crashes. Very stiff with sharp handling. I wish I had more time to write more about it.
The Focus line has been interesting to me and I can say they are doing excellent work. The stiffness was on a par with the other top-end bikes I rode and the handling was exceptional; it reminded me of the BMC. It damps vibration more than some bikes and if you prefer a bike that really mutes vibration without making the bike feel dead, you should have a look at the Izalco.
This new glove from Giro is ultra-thin and super form fitting. It was like wearing a skinsuit for your hand. Pretty fun stuff. Just takes a bit to get it back off.
I ended the day with a ride with the folks at Cervelo. Above is Roger Hammond on the right. We rode the R3 featuring the company’s new BBRight crank and bottom bracket design. Phil White gave us a little presentation and then we took (thank God) a very leisurely spin through a nearby neighborhood. The R3 is fast becoming one of my favorite bikes.
I’ve got to give some thought to my three faves of the two days of riding. I’ll do a short post on that soon.
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.
When Felt Bicycles came back from the brink of extinction a few years back I took note. Jim Felt had been a motorcycle race mechanic for a great many big names in motocross, names like Johnny “O-show” O’Mara. He was a good fabricator and had a creative mind.
And then he got interested in triathlon.
It turns out, some of the riders he worked with were starting to do tri’s to stay fit. He started doing them as well and noticed a funny thing. He couldn’t get the triathlon bars low enough to get a truly flat back while riding a properly sized frame.
So he built a few bike frames. They were notable for quick handling and very, very short head tubes. Head tubes that in some instances measured less than 10cm. Riding a Felt was the only way to guarantee your position was as aerodynamic as possible, relative to the time. And the proof was, as they say, in the puddin’. Big names, names like Paula Newby-Fraser began to win on Felts.
In 1996 I spent a week on a Felt. Manufactured by Answer Products in Valencia, Calif., through a licensing agreement with Jim Felt, the frame was TIG-welded from 7000-series aluminum, which needed no heat-treating, thereby dropping manufacturing costs dramatically and increasing the chances that the frame was properly aligned. Back then, Answer employed a number of manufacturing staffers who were part of the ‘90s aerospace diaspora. At the time, I lived in Valencia and rode on a regular basis with a half dozen of them. A few of them told me that if they couldn’t make $60k working in aerospace, then working on bikes was at least cool.
The aerospace bit wouldn’t be important were it not for the fact that their experience made the bikes damn good. The welding was exquisite and alignment superior to any other aluminum bike I’d seen at the time.
Back to that Felt I rode in ’96. This was the same bike Chris Horner won Athens Twilight on and a career making stage at the Tour DuPont in a two-up sprint against the more experienced U.S. Postal rider, Nate Reiss; ’96 would prove to be Reiss’ last season with Postal. Oops.
The bike I rode was unlike any bike I had ever ridden. It was unusually lively for aluminum, as stiff as any Klein I had ever ridden and carried exquisite grace of a filet knife. It scared the shit out of me.
Then Answer went through what we’ll term a transition. In 2000 the new management decided to get out of the business of road bikes and cut Felt loose.
It turns out this was the best thing that could have happened to Jim Felt and his brand.
Bill Duehring, a former VP with GT and all-around industry lifer, had partnered with Michael Müllmann, the owner of one of Europe’s most successful distributors, Sport Import, and the two wanted to start a bike company. The three decided to team up and together they forged a formidable partnership. Felt was known for his ideas about frame and tubing design. Duehring was known for impeccably spec’d bikes at great price points and Müllmann had access to capital and distribution channels.
It was this incarnation of Felt that loaned me a road bike to review when I published Asphalt. Ron Peterson, the editor who reviewed the bike, lauded it for the feel of the butted Easton Scandium tubing and the handling which he adored for crit racing.
At the next Interbike the company showed off its first carbon bike, the F1. A quick look at the tube shapes told me it wasn’t an open-mold design with their decals. It was their own design, engineered in-house. The F1 was essentially the company’s long-admired road bike geometry in carbon form.
In 2007 the company introduced a new road bike model, the Z1. Like the F, the Z was offered at a number of price points, but the Z1 was notable because it used the same blend of ultra-high, high and intermediate modulus carbon fibers as the F1. The similarities ended there.
The Z-series bikes are grand touring bikes. Compared to the F-series bikes, they are built around longer head tubes (not hard to do), slacker head tube angles and more fork rake. They also get longer chainstays. The slackish head tube angle, generous fork rake and longish chainstays gave the bike a longer wheelbase while maintaining the same weight distribution between front and rear wheels as the F-series bikes.
It’s easy to be cynical and just say Felt was aping what Specialized did with the Roubaix, but there are a few differences worth noting. First, the bottom bracket is a bit higher on the Z than on the Roubaix. Next, the Z doesn’t use the Zertz vibration dampers—Felt’s head of engineering, Jeff Soucek, says he doesn’t believe they do anything to help the ride quality of the bike; I’ve argued the point with him, but that’s a different story. Third, as mentioned previously, Felt specs exactly the same blend of carbon fibers in the Z1 that goes into the flagship F1 model. My 56cm Z1 frame weighed in at 906 grams (g).
Lots of companies will talk a good sub-kilo game, but far fewer are doing it than you might think. I watched a 52cm Trek Madone—minus seat mast—tip the scales at 1133g. I haven’t had a chance to weigh a Specialized Roubaix SL2, which would be the frame analogous to the Z1, but when I asked a Specialized representative what it weighed I was told “around a kilo.” I take that to mean north of a kilo, because if it was consistently less than a kilo, that feature would be touted like the cup size of a porn star, I expect.
Let’s talk competitive models for a moment. I have to volunteer that I have some trouble taking a bike company seriously if they don’t offer a grand touring model. Now, in the case of a company such as Seven Cycles that builds bikes to suit the rider, there’s no need to offer a specific model for one geometry, but production-oriented companies are another story. Trek’s got the Pilot, Cannondale the Synapse, Cervelo the RS, Bianchi the Infinito and Giant the Defy. Interestingly, Scott claims to offer two “performance” oriented models “more relaxed geometry. Those two models, the CR1 and the Speedster are more relaxed in marketing copy alone. They have the same BB drop (6.7cm) same chainstay length (40.5cm) and same head tube angle (73 degrees for the large size) as their racing model, the Addict. Indeed, the CR1 became “relaxed” when they introduced the Addict. Perhaps they were referring to the fact that the head tube is a massive 2cm longer on the CR1 and Speedster than on the Addict. Whatever.
The vast majority of these bikes feature a watered-down carbon fiber blend (compared to flagship models) and a component spec that says century riders won’t notice an extra three or four pounds. Anyone who thinks only fast racer types will spend big bucks on a bike have completely misread the bike market. Completely.
Next: Part II