For Part I, click here.
As I mentioned near the opening of this review, the C1R was part of that rare group of bikes in which I noticed the extra complement of speed provided by the aerodynamics in the first mile of riding it. I tell you, if you ride enough different bikes, the one with significantly improved aerodynamics will call attention to itself. Think Ford GT40 pulling away from a stoplight.
There was a short window earlier this year—prior to the birth of the Deuce—when my form was fair adjacent. I wasn’t actually fast, but I was fit enough to get to the front of the rides I did, even if I did blow up almost as soon as I got there. At least I could get there. With the aid of the C1R and a set of Zipp 404s, I had the ability to get to the front, do a brief pull and then get out of the way before blowing up. As achievements go, it was as dubious as a Wall Street broker claiming to save souls, but the difference for my own riding was too great to be ignored. The combination of frame and wheels was worth about as six weeks of training. It was as remarkable a change as the difference I’d experience from when I’d decide it was time to knuckle down on my training and that first day when I’d think, “Hey, we’re making progress here!”
That change takes about six weeks for most folks, me included.
My review bike was a large; it had a 57cm top tube, parallel 73-degree seat and head tube angles, 4.3cm of fork rake and 6.8cm of BB drop for neutral handling. The front center on this bike was a longish 59.8cm while the chainstays are a rather short 39.5cm. If that long front center and short chainstay design sounds familiar to any geo geeks out there, they ought to. This bike is the heir apparent to the old Litespeed Ultimate, arguably the most beloved bike Litespeed ever built. The C1R is offered only as a frameset. It goes for a very reasonable $2999. The C1, Ci2 and C3 are all offered as complete bikes and even the best spec’d C1 is only $5299.
Because so many riders seem so resistant to the idea that aerodynamics can make a significant difference in performance, I keep working to think of new ways to convey the extra speed. My initial rides on an aero road bike, on the Cervelo SLC-SL, was one of those Candid Camera moments, an occasion was so significantly out of whack with my normal experience that I doubted perception and nearly wondered if someone was messing with me. Fast forward a year and the same thing happened on the Felt AR. Then with the Cervelo S5.
Think about the difference you feel between sitting up with your hands on the top of the bar and then what you gain when you put your hands in the drops. Yeah, well an aero road bike is worth even more. It is easily worth a cog, sometimes more.
Now, we all know the knocks against aero road bikes. Riding one is like playing jockey to a jackhammer; they twist like Chubby Checker, and they offer all the road feedback of a couch cushion. Helluva pitch. Like trying to sell someone a box of ticks.
Imagine my surprise when I got on the C1R and it didn’t ride like I was doing laps over railroad tracks. I’m about to review a traditional road bike that has a harsher ride than the C1R. It’s no Specialized Roubaix, but I’d put it in a range of comfort on a par with almost anything rolling on 25s, or a fuzzy robe. The road sensitivity was a shocker, too. Wall thickness was kept to a minimum in the midsections to help transmit more high frequency vibration while the lack of paint or 3k weave cut down on the deadening effect of coating a frame in non-structural material. This thing is yet another argument for bike companies going to the extra expense to use materials like high modulus carbon fiber with resin infused with carbon nanotubes.
The engineer responsible for this bike, Brad Devaney, told me that the integrated seat post was a real point of conversation on the C-series bikes. He said he was determined not to let an ISP dictate the ride quality of the bike. Even so, he says the C1R will move to an aero seat post for 2014.
Brad also told me that wind tunnel testing confirmed that this bike gives riders a greater aerodynamic edge than a set of Zipp Firecrest 404s. That’s a bunch of free speed. Combined with a set of 404s and your friends will be inclined to kid that you need to pee in a cup. Trust me. On a long run out the coast to the far reaches of Malibu I found myself doing 24 into the wind on a false flat and I was only riding at a moderate tempo. Given my fitness at the time I estimate that’s 3 mph faster than what I would have done on a regular road bike with box-rim wheels. I was enjoying myself. Friends were coming up to me to comment on how well I was riding. Look, when you’re friends bother to comment on how well you’re going, when it’s so noticeable that they feel a need to comment, well that is all the independent confirmation I need.
As disclosures go, I should make clear that Brad and I go way back. Summer of 1989. We worked on two sides of a Park repair stand at the Peddler Bike Shop in Memphis, Tennessee. Brad was majoring in engineering at the university across the street and any time we ran into a thorny mechanical problem, something we couldn’t figure out how to resolve, we turned it over to him. He had a rare combination for insight into materials science, logical thinking and creative problem solving, even among a shop full of competent bike mechanics. I have a soft spot for his work because I really believe in him. He’s a fierce competitor with a gentle nature and the natural smile of someone who can give compassion as readily as he receives it. That compromises my impartiality, but if I thought this was a crap bike, I’d never have asked to review it. There are ways to dodge that kind of awkward.
Brad told me that it was important to him to give the C-series bikes lines that flowed, rather than taking a single aero shape and “sweep it from head tube to bottom bracket.” For me, that’s part of the beauty of this bike. One of the points he’s most proud of on this bike though was the concave surface on the down tube where the bottle bosses are. With that shape the bike is actually more slippery with the bottle and cage than it is without it. Yes, according to wind tunnel testing, this bike is slower without the bottle than it is with it.
As I noted previously, the frame’s weight was just a nick over 1kg. That relatively low weight for an aero frame was a big contributor to the ride quality both in overall comfort and road feel. But because it lacked another 200 or 300g in carbon fiber found in some of its competitors, this bike did flex some under out-of-the-saddle efforts. I’d compare it favorably to that first generation of oversized steel. You could move it around some in a sprint, but not enough to disturb the handling. However, descending was the one occasion when the bike’s tube shapes and low weight came up as something other than diamonds. On tight, technical descents, the bike lacked the crisp carving of the current generation of American carbon fiber road frames. It wasn’t sloppy the way the French carbon fiber stuff used to be, but it just wasn’t quite as precise as what I’m used to and that was enough for me to sit up a bit and scrub some speed with my torso.
It was on big, exposed descents, ones where cross winds can push you a bit that exposed the C1R’s greatest weakness. The constellation of C1R, Zipp 404s and cross wind created an oscillation that caused me some puckering. It wasn’t a typical high-speed wobble, but arguing fine points on the particular flavor of wobble isn’t really necessary. I suspect this bike would be a problem in the Front Range of Colorado and a few other mountainous places where you can encounter stiff winds.
That’s, what, maybe five percent of the United States? Most places I rode, most places I might ever ride, this bike handled perfectly fine. Even in crosswinds on the flat it wasn’t a problem. It was only after my speed was up over 40 mph and there was a crosswind that there was a problem. When I switched out the from 404 for a 202 the issue was cut considerably.
The lesson for me was that we’re at a point where all aero road bikes give up something. All of them. The S5 beats you to death. The Venge gives up a bit of speed to offer better handling and not quite as much pistol-whipping of your undercarriage. The C1R is the only aero road bike that gave up some torsional stiffness to gain ride quality and comfort. I don’t have any objective data to confirm that it’s as fast as the S5, but it is at least in the same class. As a result, for those considering an aero road bike, the C1R is a real alternative. A different approach to a common problem. This is easily my favorite aero bike I’ve ridden so far.
When I think about the riding I used to do in Tennessee, lots of flat roads that run straight for miles at a time, I appreciate just what a daily asset this bike could be. Man, if I wanted to race again, I’d train on a steel bike with box rims and then race this on the weekends. With this bike I could break stuff—legs, wills, records.
When I was a kid, the ultimate vacation I could take was to go to Disney World. I’d be excited for days, even weeks beforehand, dreaming of all the incredible rides I’d enjoy once through the park’s gates. Once actually through the gates, choosing what to go on first was no easy task.
Outdoor Demo has taken the place of Disney World for me. There are more bikes to ride and people to see than I possibly get through in two days, even after eliminating from the list everyone I’ll see inside the convention hall. But it never actually works out quite that way.
I began today with a spin on the Neil Pryde Alize, one of the bikes that I saw this summer at Press Camp, but for which I was too short on time to go for a ride. I rolled out with the early morning Lake Meade ride and while there are a great many people on that ride looking for a good hard ride as it could be their only chance to ride in the next four or five days, I decided to hide in the back of the group and take an early turn around so that I could get on to riding other bikes.
The Alize was a pretty nice bike. If anything, it reminded me of Felt’s Z bike before its newest incarnation. There was plenty of stiffness to be responsive but not so much stiffness you wanted to take air out of the tires. The handling was very predictable. Oddly, I found my heels hitting the chainstays, which, because I’ve got size 42 feet, is a very unusual—essentially unheard of—phenomenon. Aside from that one detail, a nice bike.
It’s been a while since I last rode one of Specialized’s more entry level road bikes. I rolled out on a Roubaix Comp mostly to see just how lively a ride Specialized’s more budget-oriented grand touring model would offer. For 2013 the Comp gives riders many of the features found in the previous Roubaix SL3 frame. Honestly, at this price point ($TK), I expected something on the doornail side of dead. Surprisingly, this bike was anything but.
There’s no doubt that the Zertz vibration dampers do mute some of the high-frequency vibration that would otherwise reach a rider’s hands and rear, but what surprised me is just how much feedback I was still able to experience. This bike is a good deal more sensitive than its predecessors.
The other aspect of the bike’s ride quality was the amazing stiffness this bike possessed. I wouldn’t expect too many bikes in this price range to offer the precise tracking or BB stiffness found in this bike. And while I have traditionally ridden a 56cm frame in the Roubaix (though I ride a 58cm in the Tarmac), I went out on the 58cm Roubaix this time and while the steering felt a bit light initially due to the high bar, I was able to shift my weight forward a bit in turns to make the bike handle a bit more predictably. I gotta say, though, riding uphill with a bar that high was more comfortable than a chaise lounge at the beach. Okay, maybe not quite, but I liked it in the same surprised-at-how-great-this-is experience.
My very next bike was of a piece, the Giant Defy 0. This is Giant’s next to the top-of-the-line for its grand touring line, or as they call it, their “Endurance” line. Position is very similar to the Roubaix on this bike thanks to a long head tube. I tell ya, it’s kinda nice to sit up like that. The frame offered really good stiffness in torsion without being overly stiff vertically. Road feedback was good; it offered a bit more sensitivity than the Roubaix, but it wasn’t the high-volume feedback that I’ve found in some frames.
The seat tube and seat stay shapes suggest a bike that should be pretty harsh at the saddle, but that wasn’t my experience at all.
Of al the bikes coming out of Europe, the #1 bike that my friends covet has been Look’s 695. I’ve been curious what the draw is, so I spent some time hanging out at Look until one was returned. In differentiating the 695 from some of the top-of-the-line American frames Look staffer Kevin Padgett used a wine analogy. He suggested that American bikes were like California wines—bolder, more fruit-driven, and less apt to age well—whereas the Look was more like a grand cru Burgundy—refined, structured, less flavor-of-the-month. Does the comparison really hold up? It’s hard to say. I do think it’s a fun way to get people to think about differences between bikes, though.
Here’s what I can tell you about the 695: There’s a good reason that people have been excited about this bike. It offers exquisite sensitivity and provided one of the stiffest platforms from which to sprint that I rode in the two days of Outdoor Demo. Honestly, I was surprised by how much road surface feedback the bike offered; every French bike I’ve ridden prior to this one was as wooden as a barn.
The other detail I liked about the bike was its geometry; it didn’t feel overly aggressive, so on the fastest parts of the demo course, it felt very stable, it was still really easy to flick into a corner. This was one of my favorite bikes of Outdoor Demo and one for which I’d really like to do a more in-depth review.
The 675 is Look’s response to the grand touring segment. While there’s loads of seatpost showing in the photo above, the bike in question is a 56 rather than a 58. While not as dead as many of the French maker’s older models, the 675 was intentionally laid up with the goal of damping a significant amount of vibration to leave riders feeling fresher at the end of a long ride. It’s harder for me to comment on the handling of this bike due to its small size; with the bar so low there was enough weight on the front wheel to make the handling a bit sluggish.
The unusual integrated stem and top-tube design looks like it isn’t very adjustable, but spacers are available to raise the stem so you’re not locked into a single fit.
The Litespeed C1 was easily the biggest surprise of all the bikes I rode at Outdoor Demo. More than any other bike, I really want to have time to do miles on the C1 in order to do an in-depth review. The c1, for those who aren’t familiar with the bike, is Litespeed’s contribution to the aero road bike category. The C1′s design engineer responsible for this bike, Brad Devaney, told me that their wind tunnel data showed this frame and fork provides a rider with more aerodynamic gain than a set of Zipp 404s. The claim seemed to hold water because on the downhill run on the demo loop the bike was significantly faster than my previous two trips down. While I didn’t have a speedometer of any sort, what I noticed is that I had to brake for a turn that I’d previously sailed through due to higher perceived speed on my part.
Seeming fast and being fast may be two different things; I’m sure I’ll be able to settle that for myself if I have a chance to review the bike. The problem aero road bikes have typically faced is that due to their narrow tube profiles, they lack torsional stiffness, so they get loaded up with more carbon to make them stiff, but the extra carbon deadens the frame feel. Well, the C1 was nearly as lively in feel as some of my favorite non-aero road bikes. To get great aerodynamics, solid road feedback and world-class stiffness in one bike has been rare. I need more time on this bike.
The L1 is Litespeed’s newest bike, an 830g road frame (they are already working on a new layup that could shave even more weight) that can take on bikes like the Specialized Tarmac, Felt F1 and BH Ultralight (I dropped by BH to try to take an Ultralight out, but I couldn’t get anyone to acknowledge me, so I left after 10 minutes). Compared to the Felt F1, this was a less aggressive, more comfortable bike, yet it seemed to give up nothing in torsional stiffness or precise handling.
This massive BB looks like it’s going to be stiffer than a plate glass table but a surprising degree of comfort comes through to the saddle. For as responsive as the bike was, I was surprised by how pleasant it was to stay in the saddle on rough pavement.
While the size of the seatstays suggests stiffness, the fact that the seatstays merge with the seat and top tube enables Litespeed to use longer carbon fibers in its layup and that helps the ride quality.
On a separate note, a number of readers out there who work in the industry saw me in my RKP kit and came up to say hi. If I didn’t thank you then, thanks for taking a moment to say hi and thanks for reading.
When we left off yesterday, our hero was waxing less than poetic about the Vamoots handling. If you’d like to see what he was on about, go here.
With a trail of 6.37cm, the Vamoots has roughly a centimeter more trail than many race-oriented bikes for this size. It’s also got a longish wheelbase, but I didn’t have trouble getting the bike to turn thanks to that lower bottom bracket. Compared to a Specialized Tarmac, the BB is 5mm lower. On descents, at speeds between 30 and 40 mph, the bike was calm as a United Nations diplomat. My concern with bikes with this much trail is that while they can be ultra-stable at 12 mph, they can get loose when you get up to 50 mph. I suspect—though I didn’t have the opportunity to try—that would not have been a problem because of the short-ish 57cm top tube, which keeps plenty of weight on the front wheel.
My one issue with the Vamoots had to do with the bike’s trail. Across nine sizes, five different head-tube angles are spec’d, ranging from 72 degrees in the 48cm frame to 73 degrees in the 60cm frame. The increase in angle is only a quarter of a degree at a time. To their credit, they spec three different fork rakes, 40mm, 45mm and 50mm. The issue is that a 5mm increase in fork rake is almost equal to 1-degree increase in head tube angle. The upshot is that trail on the nine sizes jumps around a bit—the 56cm frame with the same head angle but 5mm more fork rake is going to be a sharper handling bike, noticeably so. To offset a quarter-degree increase in head tube angle you only need increase fork rake by 1mm. I’m being picky here, I admit. While the choice of forks isn’t ideal, they get credit for taking a much better approach than some companies that use a single fork rake across six or seven sizes. It’s good, better than some, but not ideal.
It’s a bike, so the issue of weight invariably must come up. I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to weigh the frame alone on this bike. They claim a 56cm frame weighs 3 lbs. Given the bike’s stiffness, that number is unsurprising. I’ve yet to ride a steel bike with that combination of weight and stiffness.
I’ve ridden more than a dozen different ti bikes over the years. I’ve ridden a half-dozen or more Litespeeds alone. The first thing I noticed about the Moots as I rolled from my driveway was how surprisingly stiff the bike was at the bottom bracket. It was stiffer than most steel bikes I’ve ever ridden, most ti bikes, too. Certainly it wasn’t as stiff as the current crop of carbon creations, but this ride is more 7-series than M-series to use a BMW analogy; it’s meant to be comfortable.
Out on the road one of the bike’s most distinctive features was its muted road feel. While some ti bikes allow a fair amount of high-frequency road vibration to reach the rider, the Vamoots was plenty sensitive but turned the treble down on the highest stuff. It’s an understandable approach if you’re going to be on the road for hours riding centuries and gran fondos. Honestly, this bike is perfect for a long day in the Alps.
The Vamoots is the sort of bike that will build a rider’s confidence. It’s stable, yet responsive and stiff without being jarring. There’s going to come a day when my agility has gone brittle, my confidence cheap. I hope to age with some grace, which to me means staying on the bike but dialing back my ambition. While I love this bike today, its relevance as the correct answer to my life will sharpen in 15 years.
What I most wanted to do while this bike was in my possession was to roll from my front door with no agenda. Simply head out one morning with three pockets stuffed with food. No worries about pace or destination, maybe spin through downtown, hit the Mulholland rollers, maybe head up the recently reopened Angeles Crest Highway, the Vamoots would have been perfect on its sweeping bends. Alas, my review bike is a demo that needs to circulate … and can’t spend months in my garage. In their wisdom, they will rely less on my word than your experience. Good plan.
It is my firm belief that it is within the nature of men to covet things. To develop passions that steal our senses from us and cause us to do things like drive to Montreal by moonlight on a Saturday night after the bars close with the lights off and the cassette player blaring Tom Waits.
This is not a statement of mankind, but specifically of men. It is in our nature to fall in love with well-made inanimate objects. Art, yes, but also: cars, record albums, bottles of wine, chairs, guitars and, of course, bicycle frames. As a young person there were many things I loved, but the first object I can ever remember summoning a nearly sensual response in me was a Merlin mountain bike frame.
The year was 1989 and titanium was Hollywood starlet exotic. It was shiny, lustrous, of immaculate proportions and even when motionless promised a ride unlike anything I had ever experienced. I think this is how eight-year-old girls react to pictures of unicorns. It was no less magic in my eyes.
Little more than a year later I bought one. I had been in a car accident and lost the better part of a summer. I took a fair chunk of my settlement and bought a Merlin mountain bike frame. It was my most cherished possession, ahead of my handmade Miele equipped with Super Record. And yes, the experience of riding that bike lived up to the fantasy I had spun in my head. The geometry of that bike gave it a poise Grace Kelly would have found remarkable.
Unfortunately, the three founders of Merlin—bright guys all—turned out to be terrible businessmen. The company managed to squander a clear lead in the ti bike market that ultimately resulted in the company’s purchase by its chief competitor, Litespeed. Suddenly, I knew how Paul McCartney felt when Michael Jackson bought The Beatles’ catalog. Ouch.
Merlin’s bad luck didn’t end there. While the owners of American Bicycle Group (Litespeed’s parent) certainly meant well by the brand and were better businessmen than their predecessors, two titanium brands in one house is as pointless as a band with two drummers. Trust me on this, I’ve been there.
Prior to the purchase the big differences between Merlin and Litespeed were geometry, finish appearance and the double-pass weld (Merlin) vs. the single-pass (Litespeed). In broad terms, the double-pass weld is believed to result in a better-aligned frame with better-looking welds. I’ve heard a few people claim even greater differences, but we’ll leave it at that. There was no denying that the satin finish of a Merlin had a rich appearance that the unpolished frames from Litespeed lacked. Geometry was a slightly different matter. Merlins benefitted from the expertise of Tom Kellogg and Joe Murray on the road and mountain frames, respectively. They were some of the finest handling production frames on the market. Litespeeds, on the other hand, were all over the place. While the Classic handled great, the geometry on the Vortex changed almost as often as the Litespeed decals.
To make clear the differentiation between the two brands, ABG began engraving the Merlin frames. I can only surmise, but I’ve talked with many friends and they all came to the conclusion I did: If the tubing was thick enough to be engraved, then it was heavier than necessary and therefore not really the perfect titanium bike. Ultimately, even ABG couldn’t save the brand and shuttered it.
Enter Brendan Quirk and Competitive Cyclist. Last week Competitive Cyclist announced it had purchased the former belle of Boston. For Quirk, the acquisition was personal, like a rally nut trying to revive Lancia, though perhaps a little less Sisyphean a task. In his post on his blog “What’s New” Quirk talks of his love for Merlin as only a former flame can spin. What’s amazing isn’t the way he plans to return the brand to its former glory—exactly—but that he’s honest in revealing he hasn’t fully decided just what will become of the brand. When will they be available? Unknown. Will it be sold to bike shops? Unknown. Will it be their house brand? Unknown. Will they include a box of Girl Scout cookies with each purchase? Unknown.
Clearly, this is a purchase that wasn’t made following a thorough examination of a business case. MBA students all over the country are ruing the lost opportunity. You’ll pardon me if I’ve had a bit of fun here; the circumstance begs for a few chuckles, however, there’s a more serious observation to be made.
I haven’t been shy about professing my respect for the bunch in Little Rock. It’s easy to bad-mouth Internet retailers but the fact is that any time an Internet retailer drives a brick-and-mortar under, that shop wasn’t doing its job well. Whenever I am researching a product and want to know more than what I read on the manufacturer’s web site, I go to Competitive Cyclist. It used to be people went to bike shops to learn about a product before purchasing online. Today, I can’t think of too many shops who have an employee half as knowledgeable about every product in their shop’s inventory as the product descriptions contained on the CC site. Imagine walking into a bike shop where every single employee had exactly the same level of knowledge and competence. That last wasn’t meant to get a laugh.
It may be that Brendan Quirk’s greatest talent isn’t in understanding what shoppers need to know about a product, but in how to spin a yarn about a brand. Quirk might turn out to be the best shepherd Merlin could ask for. He may have been just what this brand needed all along.
I’ve missed that Merlin handling, though I think my Seven Cycles Axiom is very close. The only way to know is by getting one to review. And to do that, I’ll send him every box of Girl Scout cookies I can get my hands on.
There are lots of designs out there that claim to offer compliance. You’ve done some research on the subject, haven’t you? Do any of those swept seatstay designs really off any sort of suspension effect?
I may be one of the only people on the planet that feels this way but I think road bike suspension is the Holy Grail of road bike design. I’ve done years of work on this and was awarded a patent for the Serotta DKS design. It’s patent number 6,109,637 and was awarded on August 29, 2000. It’s fun to look up and you can easily Google it.
Road bicycles are the only high-speed device raced in the world that I can think of that doesn’t employ some sort of device to improve traction. Everything from skis to cars to skateboards all employ suspension to great effect. Please note that I didn’t list comfort as being the primary reason for suspension even though one could make a very good argument for how added comfort will reduce rider fatigue and make them more competitive in longer events. I see road bike suspension as being a means to keep the rear tire pressed against the road with the most constant force possible, full stop. I think the rear wheel travel need be no more than 10mm max and that as little as 5mm can be extremely effective.
A traditional road bike has near perfect front suspension in the form of a cantilevered beam. The fork is allowed to flex a lot. Just clamp your front brake on firmly and rock the bike back and forth and watch how much the fork moves. Even super stiff forks move a good bit and this acts as a form of trailing arm suspension. The front wheel encounters a bump and slows as it tries to go over the bump yet the rider’s mass keeps the whole thing moving. The fork flexes rearward (and in the case of a properly designed curved blade fork compresses vertically) and then it rolls over the bump with very little interruption of the rider’s momentum or with the tire’s contact with the road.
The rear wheel is another matter entirely. With a traditional double diamond road frame the rear end of the frame forms a triangle and this triangle cannot move or at least cannot move in any meaningful way. So when the rear wheel encounters the same bump that the front wheel just sailed over it loads up the frame and that in turn loads up the rider and the rider then bounces off the saddle. This little bump redirected the entire mass and momentum of the bike and rider upward for just a moment and that has two effects. The first one is that there is a loss of forward momentum or speed and this obviously slows the rider down. Not a lot but we are constantly hitting small bumps in the road that do this and the cumulative effect is large. The second thing it does is lessen the pressure of the rear tire on the road. In many cases it loses contact altogether. Either way traction is compromised. If you are just rolling straight down the road without a need to turn or brake or accelerate traction is not a real issue. The rider doesn’t need the to use the full limit of the traction of the tire. But if the rider is cornering, braking, or accelerating then it’s a different matter. We’ve all gone around a fast downhill corner and had the bike all loaded up with the force of the turn and then hit a bump mid-turn and had to do some serious correcting to keep it all in line and on the road. Similarly we’ve all been sprinting at our limit for a townline sign at our local Tuesday night World Championships and had the rear wheel skip and bounce causing us to back off and/or correct to hold our line.
Well it takes very little rear wheel suspension travel to minimize or even completely eliminate the issue and I’ve spent more time working on this issue than I care to admit. The amount of time I’ve spent lying on the road with my face pressed against the cold hard ground so that I could see the rear wheel of the racers going by bounce is embarrassing. But that said it’s a real eye opener when you do this. There is daylight under the rear wheel all the time. The front is stuck like glue and the rear spends a surprising amount of time skipping and bouncing along.
Tell us about your involvement in the Serotta DKS suspension system.
Way back in the day when I was the R&D department at Serotta, Ben was very cool and gave me lots of leeway to work on what I wanted to work on. I’d seen some of the bikes like Ritcheys and Litespeeds with a long graceful bend in the seat stays and wondered if it could be a benefit. Ben and I were walking around the Interbike show one year and every other bike had this same curved stay and they all claimed it made the bike more comfortable. I didn’t give a damn about the comfort thing at all but I did care about the traction issue. Standing outside the hotel that night I suddenly had an idea of how to do it better.
So we went back to New York and I was excited to work on the idea. It turns out I was the only one that was excited but Ben let me do my thing as long as other stuff didn’t slide too much. So the first thing I did was to make a frame like everyone else was doing (simple long radius curve from end to end) and put it on my testing table and load it up (like the rider was hitting a bump) to see where and how much it moved. Most of the current designs had no more wheel movement than a traditional straight stayed frame, or less than 1 mm. So I started playing with different radii and duration of bends and while I could do better than what was being offered it still wasn’t worth the trouble in my opinion. I knew something else needed to be done to free up some movement. At the same time I was worried about fatigue issues where the stay attached to the seat tube and the dropouts. It was then that I flashed on the idea of putting a pivot at the bottom of the stay where is attaches to the dropout and then have most of the bend of the stay low so that most of the flex would take place there and not where the stay was welded to the seat tube. This not only took care of the fatigue issue but also allowed the stay to compress more allowing more rear wheel travel.
A this point I built a frame that had bolt on seat stays so I could make any configuration of stay I wanted and lab and road test them. Some stuff worked pretty well and some stuff really sucked. I ended up with the “J” curve design and it worked very well but I was concerned with it having too much travel and with it being bouncy. The stay was now acting as a spring but it had no damper to control its movement.
The next task was to figure out a way to damp the movement. What I originally wanted was rebound damping only and it proved very difficult to do in a simple and super light way. I then realized that if I gave it compression damping that it would have nearly the same effect because it would just interrupt the bouncing cycle. It was at this point that I developed the “strap on” which was a stainless steel strap with some special silicone made by GE to be an ‘ultra damper’, bonded to it. It was then bolted to the stay and acted as both a travel limiter and a damper. I ended up picking three different hardness’s to give more or less travel based on rider preference and/or weight. The funny thing was that I gave this damper part the nickname “strap-on” knowing it’s other meaning and we used the term inhouse and snickered about it the way boys do…… especially when one of the girls from the office would come out and ask if we had a strap-on or how a strap-on worked. Good fun. At some point the product was released and I couldn’t believe that the Serotta catalog listed that part as a “strap-on.” Somehow it got through editing.
In the end I think the design was successful. I wanted to continue to develop and refine it but at some point one needs to draw a line in the sand and call it good and sell some of the things. The design allowed for about 12mm of rear wheel travel for most riders, which I now think, was more than we needed. But it was a good first step and I would have liked to make the design more race oriented, more aero and lighter. But I had worked on the design for about 14 months and other stuff needed to be done so I moved on. I left Serotta shortly thereafter to move to Montana and to be in the big mountains and in the snow.
Serotta continued to produce and sell the bike for a few years after I left but it was never a big seller. I think that the sales and marketing folks there didn’t like the time it took to explain what it did and how it did it when they could just push the normal offerings and make the same money. The DKS (Dave Kirk Suspension) now has a cult following of sorts and I get a few emails a week about it with questions about how it works and about finding a used one somewhere. They seem to command a hefty price on eBay at this point. I think over the years I’ve had all of the big three bike companies contact me as ask about the design. One engineer even pretended to be a customer interested in buying one when in reality they were looking for a way around the patent. I think the Specialized Zerts inserts deal is a good example of the design being tweaked and using different materials to get around the patent. I’ve never ridden one but hear some folks like them.
Do you ever build with it today?
No I don’t. Even though I am listed as the inventor on the patent Serotta is the holder of the patent and it is their design. Some have told me they think this is unfair and I firmly disagree. Ben Serotta gave me a place to work and paid me well to develop the idea in the first place and without his backing it would have never been more than a napkin sketch in a bar at a tradeshow. He paid for it and he owns it. It was Ben that decided it should be called the DKS. I only found out it was named after me when the decals showed up and I was given one. I was honored then as I still am. Ben is a good man and treated me very well.
When I started my company I knew I’d revisit the idea at some point but also knew that there were changes I wanted to make if I could. The fact that I chose to work only in steel also required a major design change since the original DKS was titanium. I knew I wanted it to be firmer and to have less travel. I knew I wanted it to be less complex and cheaper to make and I knew I wanted it to look cooler. It was then that I developed the “Terraplane” design (Terraplane meaning “flies over the land”). I experimented with different tubing, bend radii as well and bend duration and then did a lot of road miles on prototypes to get the final design nailed down. Most riders will see 5mm or less of wheel movement with a Terraplane and one can’t not feel the difference from a straight stayed bike while climbing or sprinting. It takes a sudden and large load to get the wheel to move and the rider cannot move that fast so it will not react to rider movement. So there is no mushy or ‘MTB on the road’ feeling that some expect. The Terraplane just gives a more hunkered down and calm feeling than a traditional bike. Some folks will get their new Terraplane and ride it for a few weeks and then get back on the bike they rode before and only then feel the marked difference in cornering and descending. It can be a real eye opener for some.
I’ve extremely proud of the Terraplane and how it performs. Some love the look of it and some hate it and I know I can’t please everyone that way but I’ve never put someone on a Terraplane and had them not like the performance.
In your view, what are the pros, cons and challenges with regard to the development of suspension for road bikes? Do you think it would help that much?
I think that there are large gains to be had with a proper road bike suspension for the reasons I’ve listed above. I think the down side could be complexity and cost if the design isn’t properly elegant. There were some suspension road bikes years ago that were really short travel versions of MTB designs and they sucked for road racing use. It has just too much travel, weight and complexity to work as it should for the road.
I think the big thing that will prevent a good design from being adopted by the masses, and therefore be used in the pro race ranks, is that the marketplace is just too traditional. I think the marketplace pats itself on the back a bit too much for how innovative and forward thinking it is when in reality it hates anything truly new. A change in material from steel to aluminum to titanium to carbon to whatever is just fine but to do something truly different and better has historically not been rewarded in the performance road bike market. Look at all the crap being thrown at the new Shimano electric stuff. It work and works well and my hat is off to them for even going there but it’s not like it’s gotten a very warm reception. I’ll bet if they stick by their guns the marketplace will adapt and we will see the other two major players scrambling to catch up and we’ll see little kids riding around our neighborhoods pushing buttons to shift.
It’s going to take a bit of letting go of the traditional fashion of this industry to allow it to make any real jumps forward. Hell there are still interweb forums full of people arguing about which is better – sloping top tubes vs, horizontal tube tubes. It’s all fashion and that is just the way it works. I am for the most part OK with that but it can be frustrating at times. What did that Billy Crystal character on SNL say years ago? “It’s better to look good than it is to feel good”?
Thanks for the opportunity to address some of this stuff and thanks for reading.
As much as I love going to Interbike to see new bikes and parts each year, I need to be honest and say I’m far more excited to see friends both old and new. One of the things that has kept me in the bike industry for more than 20 years is friendship. I’ve had the good fortune to make friends with a great many people in the bike industry and each year my trip to the show is often my one guaranteed annual chance to see these great people.
Above is Brad Devaney, an engineer with Litespeed. Brad and I met in 1989 while working for the Peddler Bike Shop in Memphis, Tennessee. The Peddler crew was a tight-knit, collegial bunch and we frequently rode together. Of the mechanics I worked with, Brad was clearly the most resourceful and mechanically adept. A few years ago I bumped into Brad and asked him about one of our old coworkers, a triathlete named Corey; Brad and Corey were tight. It was there on the show floor that Brad told me Corey had been hit by a car while on a ride and killed. The show floor was a rotten place to hear the news, but there was no one I’d rather have delivered it.
I ment Alan Coté when I joined the UMASS cycling team in the fall of 1989. Alan was very fast and one of the only guys on the team who knew how to wrench on a bike. We spent a portion of one summer working at Bicycle World Too in Amherst before he moved to Boulder to be with his girlfriend (now wife) Megan. Today, Alan is a contributing editor to Bicycling and has been writing about cycling for longer than I have. He got his start freelancing for VeloNews and worked his way up to Bicycle Guide. It was as a result of Alan’s help that I got my foot in the door at Bicycle Guide. He questioned my sanity when I expressed my willingness to leave Northampton for Los Angeles—”Pat, isn’t Los Angeles the on-ramp to the apocalypse?”—to which I responded, “Dude, I’ve been to Mississippi.”
Jeff Winnick is an independent sales rep in New England. His lines have changed over the years, but he’s the same warm, straightforward and honest guy I met while working at Northampton Bicycle in 1990. I took Jeff to lunch one day to ask his advice on how to move from retailing into the industry side of the biz. He was generous with his time and knowledge, still is.
If you’ve ever raced a bike in New England, chances are Merlyn Townley wrenched on your bike in a neutral pit at some point. Merlyn and I met at the Olympic Training Center in 1992 when we were there to get our mechanics’ licenses. He was a delight to share a room with then and we worked together at many events over the next few years. Merlyn always impressed me with his utterly tireless enthusiasm for working on bikes. He is one of the only mechanics I can say reminds me of the great Bill Woodul. Today Merlyn has an upstart OEM wheel building business based in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Devin Walton called me up in May of 1994 to work neutral support for Shimano at the 1994 World Cup mountain bike event at Mt. Snow, Vermont. Over the weekend I worked on more bikes than I typically saw during a week at a shop. Devin’s professionalism filled me with a new respect for Shimano and the talent they assembled. Today, Devin is still with Shimano and has one of the company’s most coveted posts: media relations guy. He handles all media relations as well as some pretty heavy lifting on the PR side.
One of the other mechanics on hand for that June 1994 weekend was this guy, Mike Conlan. Mike was the first bike mechanic I ever saw don latex gloves for grimy work. A real pro and a very nice guy. Today, Mike is the manager of Outdoor Sports Center in Wilton, Conn. His instincts are as sharp as ever and he is a guy whose opinion I always ask when it comes to retailing trends.
I met Larry Theobald in Greenfield, Massachusetts in 1991. He was working for Breaking Away Tours in the summer and riding with us in the spring and fall. His wife, Heather, was finishing her doctorate at UMASS and I rode with her from time to time. In the winters, I’d frequently see him at one of the cross-country ski areas up in the Berkshires. These days Larry and Heather have a tour company called Cycle Italia that is known for excellent rides, great accommodations and even better food.
Butch Balzano may be the only mechanic in New England who is even better known than Merlyn Townley. I worked a few races with Butch in the early ’90s and thought him so competent as to make me superfluous. He has been providing race support through Campagnolo, Shimano and now SRAM for more than 20 years. He’s as easy going a guy as there is, and one of the few guys I can say for whom a 12-second wheel change is routine.
Richard Fries became known to me as a Cat. 1 who started a magazine called The Ride. I began freelancing for The Ride with its second issue and gradually became more involved in the magazine, eventually writing a column called Shop Talk. It was funny to write for a magazine whose publisher would frequently feature in headlines (I recall many along the lines of “Fries Wins Again in Marlborough”). Richard and his wife, Deb, published The Ride for more than 10 years; it was easily the best regional I ever saw published. Along the way a funny thing happened: Richard’s son, Grant was born and became old enough to ride his own bicycle, and Richard got concerned about where Grant could ride. Today, Richard is one of the nation’s most ardent and effective voices for bicycle advocacy, working with a variety of organizations, including Bikes Belong. Oh, and if you ever need to know anything about the Civil War, he’s faster with the facts than Wikipedia.
The man in the Reynolds booth is another former Northamptonite, Jonathan Geran. Jonathan’s easy way has seen him in sales for Merlin, Parlee, McLean Quality Composites and now Reynolds. The one thing we try not to do when we see each other is to discuss the mountain biking we used to enjoy in western Mass.
Chris Carmichael called on me to help the Junior National Team with several races in 1993. He was easy to work for and had the ability to tell each rider exactly what they needed to hear right before a race. I remember thinking it was no wonder he was head coach for the U.S. National Team. In the years since, Chris has been generous in giving me quotes for many articles and a book.
Derreck Bernard was one of the first people I met when I joined the staff of Bicycle Guide. He was part of the ad sales staff and was as nice and easy going a guy as you’d want to work with. He helped change my perception of the high-pressure ad sales guy. Since Petersen’s sale and re-sale, Derreck joined the staff of Hi-Torque Publications, where he sells ads for Mountain Bike Action, Road Bike Action and BMX Plus! Thanks to my freelance work for Road Bike Action, even though we don’t work together directly, its fun to think of him as a coworker again.
Carol and Bill McGann are the former owners of Torelli Imports. Bill and Carol are an incredible team and really collaborate on everything; their affection and respect for each other is something to envy. Bill still works for the company some, so I still get to see them in the Torelli booth each year. He is one of the rare guys on the manufacturing side of the business who really taught me a lot about the industry, rather than just his line. He’s got an incredibly expansive view (he’s an armchair historian which may help explain his ability to see the bigger picture) of the bike industry and has helped me see trends as they develop. He’s also one helluva travel companion and the week I spent with him in Italy will go down as one of the finest weeks of my whole life.