The following post is by a contributor new to RKP readers, though he comes with quite the pedigree. August Cole is, among other things, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal. One of those other things is a dedicated cyclist. We hope you enjoy this new (to us) voice—Padraig
The months of February and March reside well within winter’s confines, but still offer the passionate cyclist a visual bounty.
There is the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, where the apotheosis of frame building is on display to the merry pilgrims who can travel to Denver to seek meaning in machines.
In Northern Europe, brute paths and farm roads that for hundreds of years were the weary arterials of Western civilization begin to coat the peloton with the requisite mud and manure that precedes the professional cyclist’s ablution ahead of Holy Week – De Ronde and Paris-Roubaix.
Our eyes feast.
Yet, for many of us, our hearts are cold. Inside, winter’s bite stings. It is a deep chill, deeper than has been felt in years. Or ever.
Maybe it is midlife. Or worst fears realized. Or a sense of betrayal, the worst kind, by legends who we knew to be our physical superiors and discovered to be our moral inferiors. The sport’s elite have pushed their bodies farther than we can legally and morally abide. Yet we still clothe ourselves just like them.
Cycling is searching for its soul at the very time when the bicycle itself approaches technical perfection. We can ride perfection for less than a committed smoker spends on their annual habit. We know what we see, and we like it. The intimate hours spent online reading about the industry’s finest work attests to it. The wink of carbon weave in bright sun. Team knee warmers matched to arm warmers matched to socks. We ride perfection for less than a committed smoker spends on their annual habit.
What we are not sure is how to feel about the heart of a sport that takes so much but can give back even more. It is like the weeks after a bad crash, when the body’s deeper aches announce themselves only after the Neosporin has done its job for the skin.
If we do not know how to feel about cycling, then how do we feel about ourselves?
Some search for answers during “Holy Week” as the cobbles of Northern Europe become the transcendent place we want them to be. The days spanning the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix are filled with delicious tension. Closer to home, our local dirt tracks and potholed roads take on new springtime significance.
Others seek to imbue their handmade machines with a soulful energy that improbably comes from welded metal, made by men and women who have mastered working with fire. Others practice a mortification of the wallet and continuously lighten aerospace-grade carbon fiber bikes to better ascend.
There is no easy path. There is no single right answer.
What is most important is that we search together, on the road or off it. The best bikes, whether laid up in molds in Taiwan or welded in Watertown, Mass., are just vessels that we use to bring us closer. The camaraderie at a bike-shop Tour stage viewing matters so much more than the lead grimpeur’s VAM. When we see the peloton riding shoulder to shoulder, fighting for each extra centimeter of room on the Oude Kwaremont, we should marvel as much at their ferocity as at their proximity. The peloton binds them as it binds us.
Once winter ends and we ride together again it will be with our hearts, not with our eyes, that we see the beauty of this sport.
Some years back I was in an editorial meeting for a bike magazine when two of my colleagues suggested the publication for which we toiled needed to embrace bicycle commuters and the double-century crowd. It could have been a disastrous move for the struggling media property. Imagine Bobcat Goldthwait abandoning stand-up comedy to devote his time and energy to finger puppetry and you get the idea.
Somehow (I’m still now sure quite how I managed), I was able to dodge the editorial suicide by arguing: Commuters weren’t clamoring for bike magazines filled with tips on how to get to work faster/in better style/with greater training benefit/at less expense. The double-century set, no matter how dedicated they were as cyclists, were a population fractional to the size of the century riding set. The primary expression of the roadie lifestyle were the thousands of people doing group rides week-in and week-out and those were the people our advertisers were trying to reach, whether they knew it or not.
For the entirety of my life I’ve been at the shallow end of some bell curve. Hell, just being a cyclist confirms that. The irony here is that as a roadie who lives for his local group rides, I am, for once, the middle of the bell curve. For reasons I can’t explain, I can look at a marketing plan or advertising campaign meant to reach roadies and I can tell you instantly if it will resonate or not. I can’t do that with anything else. I’m not in the middle of the curve for anything else.
A strange offshoot of that savant-like talent is that I can also look at geometry charts and tell you how a bike will handle. My recent post on the Roubaix-edition Felt F1 brought up some interesting questions both in comments and email. The most obvious and direct question is why Felt won’t be marketing that bike to the cycling public. Well, there are two reasons why not. The first is a simple one, at least, seemingly. The Roubaix F1 has a bottom bracket lower than 27cm and that violates a fundamental CPSC rule. In broad (very broad) strokes, that regulation says that a bike must be able to lean a certain amount with its inside pedal down without striking the pedal on the ground. The math ordinarily works out to a cheap rat trap pedal plus 170mm cranks equals 7cm of BB drop. A few sizes (56cm and smaller) of the Specialized Roubaix feature a BB drop of 7.2cm. I believe they manage this because of the 25mm tires spec’d with the Roubaix. Now Felt could get around the rule either by spec’ing a 25mm tire (like Specialized) or by marketing it just as a frameset; BB height rules don’t apply to framesets, which is why Serotta and Richard Sachs can build frames with a 8cm of BB drop.
I need to interject an interesting aside here: Trek’s new Domane has a surprisingly low bottom bracket. In most sizes the BB drop is 8cm. On larger frames, bikes with presumably longer cranks, the BB height decreases to 7.8cm. How they are getting this past the CPSC I don’t know, but I intend to ask. They also spec the bike with 25mm tires. Will it accept 28s? Likewise, I intend to find out.
But back to the larger point, the bell curve. When you’re a custom builder you don’t have to worry about the middle of the bell curve. If you’re going to NAHBS, you’re going to build a randonnee bike to show because it gives you a great chance to build tons of bike bling into the frameset. From trick routing of generator hub wires and Di2 cables to well-integrated racks, lights and fenders, they are a great way to show off a builder’s chops. But if you actually show up at a randonnee event here or overseas (especially overseas) the riders who want to make it into that top 20 percent of finishing times are on lightweight carbon machines.
Now, back to the real(er) world. Imagine that a product manager, say one from Cannondale, did some dirt-road ride like D2R2. And let’s say he decided to get behind a dirt-road spec for a new edition of the Synapse. And let’s, for the sake of fantasy or argument (your choice), say he managed to lay his hands on enough long-reach calipers to outfit all those bikes with brakes that didn’t conflict with the 28mm tires he spec’d for it. What happens if the market for dirt-road road bikes favors Specialized for reasons of spec, price or market affinity? Heck, it doesn’t even have to be another big company; it could be that the market simply favors custom steel builders. Let’s suppose that Cannondale runs 1000 of those bikes, just to be conservative. What happens if they don’t sell? Well, they get discounted later in the season. Depending on just how many are sitting in the warehouse, they might have to discount them a bunch, in which case they could be looking at taking a loss on the bikes. You can guess where this leads: Take too much of a loss on a bike that was a gamble to begin with and you risk more than your employer’s capital; you risk your job. And if you want to find out just how fickle the market it, just ask a rep from one of the bigger bike companies about color choice and inventory. It’s not uncommon to find that one color (such as blue) sells like Ecstasy at a rave, while the other color choice (lime green, for instance) is sitting in the warehouse, gathering dust.
Okay, let’s give Debbie Downer a chance to take a bow. The reality is a good bit brighter than that. The bike market is a good bit larger than it used to be. This is the legacy of the Lance Effect. Bunches of people who bought bikes because of Lance had the good fortune to join clubs, get a decent introduction to the sport and stayed with it. That bigger market has had a curious effect on what’s offered. (Okay, Debbie, we’re not quite finished; could you come back out a sec?) Factories making high-end product struggle to produce all of the frames, forks and components necessary to deliver bikes to bike shops each spring. You may think that consumer choice is the primary driver behind Cannondale offering the SuperSix EVO in Di2, 7900 and Red is to give consumers choices at different price points. That would be only partly true. Even Cannondale can’t get enough 7900 to equip all of those bikes with Shimano’s top mechanical group. Of course, these choices create another layer of risk for both the bike companies and retailers. What if consumers just don’t want to spend $8k on a carbon bike with Dura-Ace, but they’re fine with spending $9k on one with Red?
Let’s hope that shop has a crystal ball.
So that’s the minefield. But consider that we have bikes like the Specialized Roubaix, the Volagi Liscio, the Synapse (Cannondale) and now the Trek Domane (which is a replacement for the failed Pilot, oops). Our choices are increasing and the quality of what we ride has leapt. That’s a lot to celebrate. And it’s easier than ever before to find a custom builder thanks to the Interwebs. Here’s the thing about the bell curve: If the population grows, it grows. As events like D2R2 gain in popularity, more products that make those events more enjoyable will hit the market.
Okay, today I’m going to show just one bike. Partly because I’m that in love with it and partly because of this insanely slow Interweb connection I have. I could spend the day trying to upload photos. Ugh. Sorry for the excuse; I’ll do a serious image dump once I’m back home.
The bike in question is by Chris Bishop and it’s some of the most significant work I’ve ever seen at NAHBS. I can think of maybe a half dozen guys who have ever done work like this. It’s not that there aren’t more guys who can do it; there just aren’t many who choose to do it. The why is simple: It’s more work than trying to negotiate a nuclear treaty with North Korea.
This bi-laminate head tube is precisely what’s so great about this bike. The half-lugs of the top and down tubes flow into the head tube with the workmanship I’ve come to expect from a guy like Dave Kirk or Peter Weigle.
What I see going on in this randonnee bike from Bishop are all the values I hold highest in frame building, and all in one bike. The fillet brazing is exceptional. He thins the points of the lugs, which I can say from experience takes more filing than you’ll do in a year of fingernails. And he adds small brass fillets to the lugs to smooth the transitions from one tube to the other. Forget for a moment the incredible paint—including the exceptional pinstriping—Bishop didn’t do that.
I should also mention that the fact this is a rando bike has absolutely nothing to do with why this bike is so great. These fork dropouts with the polished stainless steel accents don’t look half as good in this photo as they do in person. I didn’t see a thing on this bike that needed more refinement.
Stunning, I tell you. Stunning.
NAHBS is ON. I tell ya, these days, I get more excited for NAHBS than I do Interbike. The trouble is, it’s gotten so big that it really is hard to make it around to everyone. Above is a fillet-brazed BB on a bike by Dave Kirk. This is going to be a short post because my allegedly fast Internet connection is not. And it’s making me crazy. Also, show organizer Don Walker tapped me to join his crew of judges for the awards panel. It’s taking more time than I expected but it has made reviewing the bikes a bit easier because we stand in one spot and the bikes under consideration come to us.
This seat lug is from a randonnee bike by Steve Rex. I’m really not into the randonnee thing, but the craftsmanship on this bike, as exemplified by this half-lug was outstanding.
This Cherubim was one of the more amazing bikes I’ve seen so far. But now I have to get to the judging.Trust me, once I’m back home with a better Interweb connection, there will be a much longer post.
The North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS) is upon us once again. Men and women with dirty fingernails, weld burns and ornately carved lug work will descend upon Sacramento with all manner of lovingly crafted bicycle objects.
Sachs, Sycip, Cyfac. Indy Fab, Eriksen, Ira Ryan. Hunter, Ellis, Cielo.
Many of the names are familiar, and this is their showcase event, the day all the shiniest bits and pieces exit the workshop and glimmer in the hot sun of mass spectacle. It’s called a show, but it’s more like an exhibition. No, an exhibit. When museums display art, they call it an exhibit.
And the builders at NAHBS are showing art, the fine point at the tip of bike building craft. An industry awash in production bikes, built in massive factories in big batches, still has room for the builders of NAHBS, some of them one-man bands, others mid-size companies, all simply taking a one-at-a-time approach.
This week’s Group Ride asks a couple of questions with NAHBS as backdrop. First, is there a future for handmade bikes? What was once the standard business model has been shoved aside in favor of mass production. That’s not a lament. It’s a statement. Time stands still for no one. The question is, can the craftspeople of the industry continue holding back the tide? It’s not a matter of building beautiful bicycles. It’s a matter of being able to build them, make a living, and grow a business.
And for those of you (us) who watch this segment closely. Whose bikes are you most looking forward to seeing? Who are the all-stars? Who are the up-and-comers? Despite the massive marketing disadvantage hand builders have against the big bike companies, it is now possible to go to frame-building school and learn this craft in a school setting, not just at the heel of a master craftsperson. As a result, the craft brands are actually multiplying. Who is pushing the state of the art?
It’s late. I got a late start and scrambled to see everything and nothing at once. I’ll fill in more in the coming days. The above seat cluster is by Mark DiNucci. It was some of the best lug work I saw today, performed by an absolute master.
By now you’ve seen plenty of images from this past weekend’s North American Handmade Bicycle Show. There were some very deserving award winners. In the interest of not contributing to overkill we wanted to include a few shots from bikes that really caught our eye and maybe didn’t get much airtime.
This lugged carbon and steel (correction: titanium) creation from Alchemy featured rounded points on the lugs to prevent stress risers from occurring at the ends of the points that could damage the carbon tubes.
Richie Moore is an alum of Litespeed and he shares the Tennessee company’s penchant for tubing with interesting shapes. His new venture is called Cysco, after his home town of Cisco, Georgia.
Special thanks to special correspondent Touriste-Routier for the images.