To read part one, click here.
So let’s talk ride quality. I’ll be blunt—I haven’t ridden another bike that offered as vibration-free a ride while maintaining a lively, responsive nature. I’ve ridden bikes that were stiffer in overall torsion. I’ve ridden bikes that were stiffer at the bottom bracket, too. But of all the bikes I’ve ridden that were meant to put a pillow over the face of vibration, none did so as effectively as the 622 slx. The closest was the Serotta Ottrot, and while I loved how that bike handled, it wasn’t exactly light and it lacked a certain lively feel on the road that the 622 slx possesses. That’s also a quality of geometry and can be part of the flip side of a bike that descends like water poured from a pitcher.
Allow me a slight restatement of that last idea. The last time I rode a bike that possessed as quiet a ride as the 622 slx, I was on a carbon fiber bike that didn’t particularly impress me. While it could turn a fair road into smooth pavement and a good road into a marble floor, those bikes (I’m not singling out any one manufacturer because there are so many of that ilk out there) lacked the stiff, responsive ride of something like the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL4. The 622 slx is unusual because it combines great stiffness—stiffer than most carbon bikes on the market as recently as 2005, though not as stiff as some current offerings like the Cervelo R5 VWD or Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL4—with a ride quieter than even the new S-Works Roubaix SL4.
Let me add that while the Serotta Ottrot is a fine example of a bike that mixes titanium and carbon fiber, it is by no means the only bike that does it. Sampson has offered one; it had most of the ride quality of the Ottrot at something like 60 percent of the cost. There have been other examples—especially Seven’s own Elium—but outside of Seven and Serotta no one has done a bike with as attractive a mix of ride characteristics.
I’ve made it clear previously that my favorite bikes send a fair amount of vibration through to the rider. Now it’s true that the amount of vibration that any bike delivers to the ride can be influenced by a number of factors; that’s a detail I’m aware of and do what I can to mitigate. I use the same bar tape on all the bikes I review. I will run a couple of sets of wheels I’m very familiar with on the bikes. Those wheels feature the same tires pumped up to the same pressure. The point is to zero out as many variables as possible, so that if a bike seems to be sending less vibration to my hands and butt, it’s not just a matter of needing to pump the tires up another 20 psi.
So while I’m a fan of bikes that deliver as much high-frequency vibration as possible to the rider, I have to admit that the feel of the 622 slx was something I quickly came to appreciate. Imagine driving a Ferrari for your daily commute, then you go on a weekend jaunt to Yosemite in a big Lexus sedan. The ride is ice-cream smooth, quieter than a field of wheat on a windless night, and more comfortable than your mother’s arms. It’s the sort of experience that could make anyone rethink the attraction of a sport-tuned suspension.
I have friends for whom vibration is a real issue, that it causes nerve impingement. I see them on rides sitting up to shake their hands in an attempt to restore feeling and bloodflow to their deadened mitts. For anyone who faces issues with nerve impingement and numbness, whether it be in their hands, shoulders or back, reducing vibration can increase not just enjoyment, but the number of miles someone can ride without feeling the discomfort of numbness.
When considered against bikes like Time’s VRS Vibraser or the Specialized Roubaix, the 622 slx does more to reduce vibration and insulate the rider from rough roads. Of course, that shouldn’t be the only reason someone chooses a bike, but let’s be honest—we are all aging. Every one of us. And while vibration may not be an issue for you today, it’s fair to harbor some concern that being rattled like a paint can for a dozen hours each week will result in some sensitivity as you pass your fifth decade.
Another factor contributing to the 622 slx’s comfort was the fact that this isn’t an über-stiff bike. In plain terms, this isn’t a race bike. It reminded me of the Kestrel that I rode for an afternoon at last year’s Interbike. That bike was designed to be enjoyable, not adrenal. There was no mistaking that when considered against the other two road bikes I was riding at the time, the Felt F1 and the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL4, the 622 slx simply wasn’t as lethal. Sure, it was sharp in its handling like any great road bike ought to be, but this was paring knife-sharp, not scalpel sharp. So what’s that in an absolute sense? Here are the specs from Seven:
- Seat tube length: 50.0cm
- Top tube length: 58.1cm
- Head tube angle: 73.5˚
- Seat tube angle: 73˚
- BB drop: 7.0cm
- Chainstay length: 40.5cm
- Top tube slope: 8˚
- Front center: 59.7cm
- Head tube length: 16.8cm
- Head tube diameter: 1.125″
Seven allows customers to choose four different parameters of ride quality as they go through the purchase. They are all specified on a 10-point scale.
- Handling: 6 (1 is stable; 10 is agile)
- Drivetrain rigidity: 7 (1 is lightweight; 10 is stiff)
- Vertical compliance: 3 (1 is comfortable; 10 is stiff)
- Weight-to-performance: 8 (1 is lightweight; 10 is responsive)
When I went through the custom process back in ’97, there were only two scales to choose from—handling and stiffness/weight. Seven has a much improved ability to control for these different variables now. What is perhaps most impressive in these numbers is that they were able to achieve such high numbers for drivetrain rigidity and weight-to-performance while keeping the bike remarkably vertically compliant.
Perhaps the most remarkable detail I haven’t revealed about this bike so far is that it wasn’t custom. Though the fit was remarkably good, this bike came from a demo fleet. They shipped the frame and fork to Shimano for my review of the Dura-Ace 9000 group. It was assembled by one of Shimano’s techs. Incidentally, after our tech presentation and initial ride on the 9000-equipped bikes, I had a chance to speak with the tech who assembled my bike. Actually, he approached me. He wanted to make clear to me that of all the bikes that they assembled for this shindig, the Seven was the easiest to install the group on, the most fun to work on because the cable routing was so straightforward, and all the fittings and threads so perfectly cut.
Even though the folks at Seven expressed a high degree of desire to take me through the custom process again, I sold them on the idea of letting me do a “stock” bike. If after my review hit they didn’t think they’d gotten the high marks they hoped for, I said we could then do a custom bike. So why do this? I wanted a chance to ride a bike that was meant to be emblematic of the ride Seven wants to sell. I don’t know if they would necessarily call this bike emblematic, but because it was built as an example of their work meant to woo a prospective customer, this bike must possess many of the qualities Seven thinks are among its most winning. Sure, they can build a lighter bike or a stiffer bike or a pig that can carry panniers, but this bike is meant to be nothing so much as a good time.
And I can say it is. Once you’ve let go of being the fastest guy (or gal), or having the ultimate climbing bike or whatever, and you just focus on the qualities that will make a bike enjoyable on group rides, on solo rides, at long gran fondos and short recovery rides, this bike does it all very well. It was yet another occasion of packing a bike in a box only under duress. I’d have continued to ride it regularly.
Here’s the thing I keep thinking about when I contemplate reviewing a custom Seven: I don’t think I would have requested this bike and in that you, the readers, would have been cheated. Sure, the dimensions in the wake of my fitting last winter would be different, but I’m talking about issues larger than just fit. The fit on this bike was perfectly workable. I probably would have requested a bike that was a 7 or 8 in handling. I would have asked for an 8 or 9 on drivetrain rigidity. I’m not sure I’d have had the presence of mind to request the maximum in vertical compliance relative to the drivetrain rigidity I requested. And for weight to performance, that’s the one number that is probably close to what I would have requested.
To me, the point of going with a demo bike was to learn more about what Seven thinks is a good time, not what I think is a good time. It was a chance to gain more insight into what Seven hopes to deliver to customers. Granted, their bread and butter is custom work, but once you’ve built tens of thousands of road bikes, you come to some conclusions and they are reflected in this bike. When you’re not driven by making a race bike, you’re suddenly free to make something that places enjoyment ahead of performance.
There ought to be more bikes made with that priority.
Statement of bias: To the degree that I’m not impartial where Seven Cycles is concerned, I, like many other people, have admired the company since its launch. My affinity goes further than just a Facebook-deep “like.”
I’ve owned an Axiom for about as long as anyone has been able to own one. Mine is C0028. Back in 2010 I had it cut in half and S&S couplers installed to turn it into my travel bike, a purpose for which I’ve used it several times a year since. When I originally reviewed the Axiom I called the bike, “the best I’d ever ridden,” a statement I was able to stand behind for 10 years. They used that quote in marketing materials for nearly as many years and I don’t mind admitting to feeling some pride at seeing the way they put that quote to use.
I’ve wanted to revisit Seven for a review ever since they introduced the Odonata, a bike that changed the course of the industry back in 1997. Before the Odonata, there were no road bikes with titanium, aluminum or steel frames sporting carbon fiber seatstays. The Odonata was the first bike to substitute carbon fiber seatstays (and seat tube) for what would otherwise have been 100-percent titanium construction. Plenty of other bikes had mixed materials. Trek had helped popularize carbon fiber main triangles bonded to an aluminum rear triangle. But Seven turned that formula around, using lively titanium in the main triangle and then positioning carbon fiber in low-stress spots on the bike.
The influence of the Odonata cannot be overstated. It was introduced at the ’97 Interbike show and at the ’98 Interbike every company who wanted to be seen as contemporary had an aluminum, ti or steel bike (or all three) with a carbon fiber wishbone. That wishbone was a response to the Odonata and companies produced them like McDonald’s makes burgers for the simple fact that it worked. Just how we define “worked” is something I’ll return to later.
Long before Seven ever existed, Merlin Metalworks had done some research to determine which areas of the bicycle flex the least and are subjected to the lowest load under riding forces. Their research led to the RSR, a frame that combined less-robust commercially pure titanium (known to the industry as CP) with the more commonly used 3Al/2.5V———
The RSR was an attempt by Merlin to offer a less-expensive frame without lowering their standards for welding or alignment. The bike wasn’t a success, at least not in the commercial sense, but it did teach Rob Vandermark a lasting lesson.
My old boss at Bicycle Guide, Garrett Lai, reviewed the RSR and said he’d pick the RSR over any other road bike Merlin produced “based on ride alone.” After joining the staff, I had a chance to put a few miles in on the bike before it was sent back to Cambridge. It was a remarkable bike and unlike other ti bikes I’d ridden up to that point, it made me realize it was possible to make a ti road bike stiff enough to race.
So what the hell does the RSR have to do with the 622 slx? They are kissing cousins. To complete the connection, though, I have to go back to the Seven model called the Elium. The RSR and the Elium are nearly brothers. The Elium replaces the RSR’s CP ti tubes with carbon fiber ones; it features 3/2.5 tubing in the head tube, down tube and chainstays, and carbon fiber in the top tube, seat tube and seat stays. The 622 slx differs from the Elium in that it takes the carbon fiber usage to its logical conclusion. It is a six-carbon-tube frame: top tube, down tube, seat tube, seat stays and head tube. Only the chainstays remain titanium, partly for ride quality, partly for durability in the face of chain slap.
It’s worth noting that the Odonata had simple, blunt joints. To the degree that the bike was attractive (and I thought it was gorgeous), its beauty arose from its precision—the stack-of-dimes welds, the gap-free joints, the rich luster of the titanium tubes’ surface finish and the nearly iridescent look of the fiber-wound carbon fiber tubes. However, the 622 slx takes a page from its steel forebears by shaping the titanium lugs, giving them points like steel lugs would have. They even cut windows in two of the points to include the brand’s signature numeral 7.
However, I need to note that without the history of point shaping the way a guy like Peter Weigle has, there’s a certain flair that these points lack. Don’t get me wrong, this bike is gorgeous, front to back, but when I see lugs, I’ve been trained to look at the lines of the lugs, to watch how the points curve. The best among them have a certain geometric progression to them, starting shallow and then flairing out as they near the joint; it’s not a line, but a curve. There’s an angularity to the points and windows that doesn’t reflect the look of the most heralded steel lug work. It’s important to keep in mind that lug points weren’t just a triumph of aesthetic; they had a function, too. They were meant to distribute stress over a greater area and the swoopy curves were part of the effort to make sure that stress didn’t collect in some corner, so part of what my eye sees in a beautifully cut lug is artful engineering, defeating stress before it gains a foothold.
Having just written that, I’m aware that people have a right to wonder if I’ve got bowling balls for testes for criticizing the look of a Seven frame, but I know that had those points been shaped by the likes of Peter Weigle, Brian Baylis or Peter Johnson, they wouldn’t take quite that line. My gall notwithstanding, it’s an opportunity to make the frames even prettier. The particular workmanship required to shape said titanium points might be a nightmare, just not my nightmare, though.
Some years back a mechanical engineer friend of mine told me that if bike companies got smart, they wouldn’t need to use funky elastomers or even suspension to insulate a rider from vibration. He works in aerospace, where a common method of reducing vibration has been to change materials between point A and point B. Think of a seatpost. Imagine that seatpost is 100 percent carbon fiber. Vibrations will move up that post toward the clamp and the saddle. If you transition from carbon fiber to, say, titanium, a great deal of vibration will stop dead at the transition point. I’m simplifying here, but the point is that by mixing materials, you reduce vibration more than you can with a well-made carbon fiber frame. I have to add that modifier “well-made” because while on paper a mixed-materials frame ought to eliminate more vibration than a full carbon frame, my experience is that there are carbon fiber frames out there that are as lifeless as a rubber glove. In those instances, part of the issue is that they don’t offer the same level of stiffness that most of us have come to expect from a top-shelf frame today. While the 622 slx attenuates vibration, I need to be clear that this frame is not lifeless. It’s far from that.
So when I wrote earlier that the Odonata “worked” what I meant was that the amount of vibration at the saddle was less than many similar frames. For most riders, that translated to less lower back fatigue after three, four, five hours.
Even though the 622 slx appears to be an essentially carbon fiber bicycle, it’s very different from most other bikes on the market. The presence of the titanium lugs and chainstays means that a good deal of vibration that would ordinarily reach the rider doesn’t. It would be really easy to deride this bike as old tech. after all, Specialized and Trek both made something very similar to this bike. However, neither of them used carbon fiber tubes that were as stiff, strong and light, so it’s impossible to compare the ride quality. The Treks, of which I rode a few, were only slightly more lively than a cadaver. They were popular because it was a lot of bike for the money, not because they rode like a signal flare on methamphetamine.
Next up, Part II: the ride.
Images of Seven Odonata and Merlin RSR pilfered from the Interwebs thanks to Google
Since Steve Jobs’ recent death I’ve learned more about the iconic leader of Apple Computer than I ever wanted to know. I admit I was curious about him. Based on my read, he and I shared some basic traits: creative, big-picture thinkers on the intense side. So that made him interesting to me and even, on occasion, a north star to stay true to my personal views and beliefs.
His taste was impeccable, even if he did tend to dress day-in-and-out in the same wardrobe. I wish I had his taste. But as I’ve read more, I’ve learned other, less attractive features about the man. He could be tone-deaf to others’ feelings; I’ve suffered that at times. He could be both cruel and petulant. He could be a bully. I’m relieved those aren’t mine.
Malcolm Gladwell has called him the ultimate tweaker. It doesn’t seem to be a job title many of us would want, but Jobs turned it into something memorable. He seems to have been a man of extremes. His complicated nature make me more curious about him, even if I wouldn’t want to share more in common with him. I may have to read Walter Isaacson’s book.
The bike industry is full of complicated figures, too. Mike Sinyard of Specialized burns with a holy light for cycling. He rides more miles each year than plenty of guys I know half his age. He can be generous and warm. I’ve also heard that he can direct his wrath at employees who don’t measure up.
Friends in the industry who have worked with the Bikes Belong Coalition have told me that the great unsung hero of bicycle advocacy is Trek’s John Burke. People say that Bikes Belong wouldn’t be as well funded or as effective without his involvement. Yet from the sources I have, Burke never rides and he is known for being callous. One former employee told me that the wife of a staffer made a wistful comment about how she wished she saw more of her husband, to which Burke replied, “Get a dog.”
Cycling just lost one of the most interesting guys in the sport: Bob Stapleton. By all accounts he had vision, was both organized and disciplined and even ethical. The sport’s loss.
Then there are guys like Rob Vandermark of Seven Cycles, a guy whose business acumen seems as natural as Michael Jordan’s basketball talent, but whose personal life couldn’t be more shielded from public view. No one seems to know if he rides or not, if he does anything other than work. As a public figure, he’s unfortunately two-dimensional. On the other hand, we have Richard Sachs, a frame builder who has had more words devoted to his work than all other frame builders combined. Hmm.
The question today is: Who interests you, and why? Do you like the principled monastics like Sachs or do you find the complicated figures like Burke interesting? Or both?
Naturally, this leads to yet another question: Are there figures we ought to turn the spotlight on here at RKP?
I recently completed a feature that will run in Issue 6 of peloton magazine about New England. While I could have devoted a good 2000 words to all the great racers who cut their teeth there or on all the cycling writers who came from the region—there was a time when most bike magazine editors either hailed from or lived in Vermont or Massachusetts—I focused on the bike companies based there.
It had been a while since I’d visited the subject, more than 10 years if the truth is told, and as I dug down I realized there was more going on than I realized. It became so complicated that I decided to create a little family tree to remind me the begat, begat, begat sequence of the companies.
Some, like Pedro’s and Parlee didn’t have their genesis in other companies. Others, such as Serotta and 333Fab aren’t New England companies, but their relationship to the patriarch of the industry couldn’t be denied. This family tree isn’t particularly scientific, and certainly not to scale, but it speaks to what I most like about the region.
My time there left a mark. To the degree that I’ve got any entrepreneurial spirit, I think it was incubated while working for a number of small companies. From Richard Fries’ Ride Magazine to an upstart Apple retailer, I saw people go out on their own time and again. For me, it rubbed off from just being around them. There are those figures who cultivate that individuality; Rob Vandermark seems to be doing a lot of that at Seven Cycles, whether intentionally or not.
Part of the story this doesn’t tell, though, is the way that Richard Sachs has mentored dozens of new builders. Some of it has been indirect, as through his prolific writing about his brand and the craft of building. Some has been direct, in the form of offering concrete advice to up-and-comers.
The tragedy in this story is the demise of Fat City Cycles; it was Chris Chance who really began the scene from which all this grew.
There have been plenty of rounds of musical chairs. Parlee and Pedro’s have even picked up people who have done stints at other area bike companies. In that regard, the bike biz in New England is different from we see in California, where bigger players dominate and after a few years in the biz you stop being surprised to see an old friend in a jersey. And maybe that’s the difference, those smaller companies give employees a real window into what entrepreneurship is.
On Saturday night I kissed the wife and kids and rode off on my freshly tuned bicycle to a launch party for the Ride Studio Cafe Club. Ride Studio Cafe is, in essence, exactly what it sounds like, a high end bike/coffee shop. Studios are always high end. Otherwise, they just call themselves ‘shops.’ Regardless of the price points and the stylish marketing, what sets the Ride Studio Cafe apart is the characters behind the scenes and the approach they take to cycling (and coffee).
Rob Vandermark, the founder and president of Watertown, MA. based Seven Cycles, is the prime-mover on the bike side, and Jennifer Park, who operates two very successful local coffee shops,
heads up the cafe side did some informal consulting during set up.
Unlike other bike/coffee shops that simply merge the two elements into one, Ride Studio Cafe has sought to explore the top end of both businesses, decanting super high end bike frames and accessories as well as single source, artisan coffees.
Their website bills the Club (the reason for the party) this way:
The Club is a collaborative of friendly cycling enthusiasts and racers that congregate around all the positives aspects of performance cycling.
The purpose of the Club is to engage riders to be more connected to riding. To ride more often and to enjoy it more; to find riding routes—and routes to cycling—that are more fun and more challenging; to support camaraderie that brings out the best in us—on and off the bike.
It all sounds very genial and community-spirited, but I’m a skeptic. I was born that way.
Ride Studio Cafe is located in Lexington, MA, a wealthy Boston suburb surrounded by other wealthy suburbs. They sell Seven there, and Rapha apparel, and coffees whose origin can be described with reference to location, farm and roast date. One could assume, I think reasonably, that these people are some serious snobs. I walked through the door braced for pretentiousness.
I must confess that hearing Vandermark talk about “coffee cuppings” (tasting events) was my first exposure to the phrase, and I was surprised to hear a bike guy talking about java the way wine people talk about that grape juice they drink. Despite that (I am, after all, something of a Philistine), I found Vandermark able to speak humbly and passionately about what they’re trying to do. Repeatedly he acknowledged the high price of the products and services on offer at the studio, but explained that they really believe what they’re selling is the best of the best, and, in the end entirely worth it. There was no bravado or condescension, just a humble request to give it a try.
The Club presentation was made by Vandermark, cyclocross racer and photographer Dave Chiu and cyclocross/endurance rider Matt Roy. Chiu talked about the RCS race team and about the ability to move from the club rides and race events up into the full pro/am team. Roy talked about club-sponsored brevets and other endurance events, running from 100k to 200k, 300k, 400k, and 600k distances. An upcoming “dusk-to-dawn” ride was mentioned.
It all sounded like good fun, and Chiu and Roy both made an effort to welcome riders of every ability. There was beer. There was wine. I scored a cup of entirely potable coffee. Someone brought cupcakes. Everyone was friendly. There was even a group clustered around the indoor bike rack cooing over the various and sundry machines the attendees had chosen to ride in. It was, if you’ll forgive the phrase, a pretty sweet rack.
I began to think this might be a place I should spend more time. High end, low end, middle, um, end, these are bike people, and they want you to be bike people too. Highly caffeinated, merino wool-clad bike people.
And who among us is against that? For locals, you can read more about the club, and its benefits, here.
Image courtesy Gregory Brown
Correction: This piece originally stated that Jen Park was a part owner of the Ride Studio Cafe, which is not the case. She is simply a friend of RSC’s ownership group. See correction above.