A couple of years ago a friend forwarded a video of a NorCal road race, one of those early-season shindigs where everyone hopes to blow the cobwebs out of the legs and get the first indications of how the season might shake out. The video in question was shot from the finish line and showed the bunch screaming into the finish over rollers when suddenly—as you guessed—there was a crash. This wasn’t one of those one guy goes down and takes two others with him. No, this was one of those body shrapnel explosions wherein the crash gets bigger and bigger, taking down ever more bicycles and guys escape one bit of carnage by running off the road only to go over the bar when their front wheel augers into a gopher hole. The crash lasted more than 30 seconds.
You’ll pardon me if I summon that image as a means of comparison for what’s been happening with Serotta over the last year. Or depending on your outlook, for the last 24 years. If you’re wondering just what I’m talking about (and I respect that not everyone reads Bicycle Retailer and Industry News or spends all their waking hours on the Serotta forum), Ben Serotta has been fired from Serotta.
No, that wasn’t a massive, gravity-generating typo.
Ben Serotta, the man with one of the most admired names in bicycle construction, has been fired from the company he has led for 41 years. It’s probably fair to say that things aren’t so heavenly at Divine Cycling Group, the latest owners of Serotta. It’s also worth noting that while Serotta says he and CEO Bill Watkins were fired, Brian Case, the chairman of Serotta and one of the directors of Divine, says the pair left the company.
The way I keep score is that any time there are competing narratives I award the point to ugly back-room dialog. This one ain’t pretty.
By “this one” I mean this version of Serotta. Serotta was sold back in ’89 to Archibald Cox, Jr. who went on to purchase Fat City Cycles in ’94. He consolidated the whole thing in Serotta’s factory in South Glens Falls, New York, only to learn that there were going to be few, if any, economies of scale. The Serotta/Fat City, LLC, merger became a classic money pit and management flail-fest. The company went through five CEOs in six years. Ben Serotta was able to buy the company back in ’97, while Fat City would survive on life support for three more years. The experience so demoralized Chris Chance, he left the industry.
Things seemed to be going well for Serotta post buy-back. He seemed to have climbed out of the problem that consumes so many businesses: the founder’s trap. Simply put, founder’s trap is where the entrepreneurial zeal of a founder cannot match the necessary management skills needed to grow a company. The Pon Holdings purchase of Cervelo suggests that they might have suffered a dollop of that as well. But Serotta had been running well for nearly 15 years when word began filtering through the industry that delivery on bikes was getting slow and erratic. Events escalated quickly.
I think it’s worth going over the timeline of what’s taken place:
- June 2012, Serotta sells building tooling and brand to Bradway Capital
- Mar. 28, 2013, Serotta lowered prices
- June 2013, consolidated under Divine Cycling Group with Mad Fiber and Blue Competition Cycles
- July 31, 2013, Serotta lays of 40 percent of workforce
- August 6, 2013, Serotta fired
As I mentioned, there was some disagreement between Divine’s announcement and Ben Serotta’s version of events. Bicycle Retailer and Industry News ran a letter he penned in the wake of his departure. While the entire letter is fascinating, I think his version of events is worth reprinting:
“Early last Sunday evening while stopped at the side of the road looking at a paper map with Marcie, thinking about where we should head to enjoy the remaining hours of a beautiful sunny, mid-summer evening, my cell phone rang and I instinctively answered it. One of the current company owners was on the other end and he coldly started, ‘I am terminating you. Your email password has been changed and your building access code has been deleted. You can arrange to get your personal things on Tuesday.’ And with that (no cause was given, aka terminated without cause) my life at Serotta the company, came to an abrupt end.”
Serotta’s letter revealed that Bill Watkins, Serotta’s CEO, had received the same treatment. Of Watkins Serotta wrote, “I’ve viewed as the company’s long missing link—someone who had the skills to lead the business end of the business, while I focused on brand and product.” It was a telling comment less for Watkins treatment than for Serotta’s explicit acknowledgement of where his strengths are and the company’s recurring issues with management.
CEOs get replaced in company purchases the way people put gas in cars. That Watkins might be tossed aside, despite having the confidence of the founder, is more surprising than it ought to be. However, tossing Ben Serotta aside strikes me as being as silly as the Dave Matthews Band touring … without Dave Matthews.
Divine’s Case says that Serotta should be back in full production shortly. The press release did contain a second bombshell, though. Case revealed plans to open Serotta to contract work.
Here’s where it’s useful to go back over the facts at hand. Serotta has had trouble delivering bicycles on time. Before waiting to get the company back on a firm foundation in capital and production, they announce they are going to … make even more bikes. That alone was pretty silly, but when you really consider his statement, it seems a bit ludicrous. How many companies are out there that need American-made frames produced on contract? The only name that comes to mind currently is Rivendell, and I think Grant Peterson has his thing running pretty well. Likely candidates aside, just which bikes are we talking about? Well, it would seem that we’re talking about steel, titanium and hybrid ti/carbon bikes. I don’t think anyone would want to stick another company’s decal on a Meivici, due to its distinctive look.
Case may have had what he believes are good reasons to jettison Serotta. A portion of his statement, which was obtained like the previous quotes from Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, suggests that he has some awareness of the importance of Ben Serotta to Serotta.
Who wants a Serotta with which Ben was not affiliated?
It would be different if he were dead and the staff was carrying on his legacy. That’s not the case. It would also be different if Serotta had been a serial entrepreneur and his departure was just him moving on to his next thing. But the name Serotta conjures high-quality bicycle frames, and his departure comes at the end of some ugly dealings, the PR battle over which Serotta has taken a decisive lead. The trouble for Divine is that Serotta’s personal DNA and the company’s are nearly impossible to tell apart. That’s part of what has given the company its caché. This isn’t Pete Best being dumped for Ringo Starr, this is Apple firing Steve Jobs.
So what of Divine Cycling Group’s other properties, Mad Fiber and Blue Competition Cycles? Well, Mad Fiber reports that all is well, nothing to see here. Maybe things are fine, but it’s hard to take that statement on face value once you read what Steven Harad, CEO of Blue, wrote in the comments following Serotta’s letter to the cycling community.
“Here’s hoping we aren’t next but it looks like we are. Lets catch up Ben Serotta.”
Word in the industry is that Blue has a shipping container full of bikes that they can’t pay for, which brings us back to one of the initial reports about just how bad things were at Serotta. Serotta said he had no operating capital for the company. An injection of capital which was to have materialized, did not.
My money says that customer interest will track in line with Ben Serotta’s location. If he extricates the name, people will be happy to continue buying Serottas, but if not, I suspect there will be far more interest in a line called “BEN” than one we all used to lust after. I’ll go a step further and say that I think Divine has badly miscalculated Ben Serotta’s value and the likelihood of this ugly breakdown to go public and not just tarnish, but ruin Serotta’s reputation. I’m aware that several of Serotta’s competitors have received a number of new orders because dealers lost faith that they will receive the custom bikes currently on order.
In almost any other circumstance, I’d be arguing for all life-support measures for Serotta, but this time I say leave the paddles in the crash cart.
Image: pilfered from Ben Serotta’s Facebook page.
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.
Some of my favorite bikes from this year’s NAHBS were items that clearly were not for sale. Don Walker has done a good job of courting companies that don’t seem the typical fit for the show, of which, most exhibitors have fewer than six people on staff. In encouraging both Serotta and Ritchey to attend Walker was able to embrace nostalgia in the show in the form of bikes that were built even before some of the builders present were born.
Ben Serotta got his start at Witcomb Cycles in England along with Richard Sachs and Peter Weigle. When Serotta first hung out his shingle he worked on his own, but he quickly followed a more traditional European model and began adding apprentices to work under him. Today, Serotta is lauded for straddling the worlds of production building with custom-fit frames.
The frame shown here is #164 and dates from the 1970s. Built before the terms “politically correct” and “female objectification” had entered the common lexicon of stuff not to do, the frame is a most unusual collaboration. Two sculptures, one adorning the head tube, the other wrapping around the bottom bracket were crafted by Serotta’s sister, Marcie. She also cut the lugs into their asymmetric feminine forms. Ben handled all the actual fabrication.
I’ve seen a great many bikes with lugs cut into unusual forms, but the combination of asymmetric designs paired with an unusual (and memorable) theme make this my single most favorite bike of the show. It shows a degree of creativity that would be fresh today, but was unheard-of for the 1970s.
I hope people can see beyond the two sculptures and into the greater celebration of the female form. I find a surprising harmony in it; I don’t really find the two sculptures titillating.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect to this bike was simply its appearance at the show. That it hasn’t been lost to the sands of time by being sold off to some collector is a great argument for why publicly funded art galleries should exist. I’d love to revisit this frame each year at NAHBS.
When I was a shop rat in the 1980s, I worked for the one and only Serotta dealer in Memphis, Tennessee. It was kinda like being the singer in the best band in Iuka, Mississippi, I suppose. Regardless, the Serotta Colorado was a bike I coveted the way a guy in a midlife crisis covets a Corvette. I couldn’t live without it, but had to. The swaged down tube that fit in a lug at top and was fillet-brazed over the lug points at the BB shell, the S-bend chainstays and the stellar paint had me dreaming about racing this bike over every road I could find. To me, the Colorado was the perfect marriage of superior design, impeccable performance and gorgeous appearance. It was Pamela Anderson in steel.
I’ve never owned one, though I’ve ridden a few and spent nearly a year riding its protege, an Atlanta, one of my all-time favorite steel bikes. Everything about the Colorado was class, right down to the sloping fork crown, pantographed with the word “Colorado” and the Serotta “S.”
I recall showing dozens of friends how the down tube grew in diameter so much that it fit over the socket for the down tube at the BB shell. It was my undeniable, irrefutable sales pitch for the superiority of the Colorado. You want stiff? This is stiffer than anything you’ve ridden.
Later, Dave Kirk, now of Kirk Frameworks, invented a rear suspension system. The DKS suspension was the only rear suspension for a road bike to go into serious production. Where the seatstays met the chainstays they were bolted together with the aid of a bearing. The curvature of the seatstays was designed to allow for a bit of vertical compliance. Kirk told me that for most riders, vertical travel was only about 1mm, but that single thumbnail was enough for most riders to sense and to recognize improved tracking on rough roads. To provide damping, two silicon bumpers ran along the seatstays. The bumpers were available in three densities and while folks at Serotta thought most riders would opt for the stiffest of the three bumpers, most riders who tried the system (including Davis Phinney and Ron Kiefel) preferred the light grey bumpers shown here, the softest bumpers, which allowed the greatest travel.
Though it’s no longer in production, the DKS suspension was a remarkable step forward. I’ll be interested to see what comes next.
This bike had to be the other real rock star of the show. Tom Ritchey built this frame in the 1970s for his father. Yes, his father. Sitting behind three other frames Ritchey built just for the show (a Swiss Cross and two mountain bikes), this one was rather easy to overlook. Despite its position at the back of the booth, it was, in my estimation the most interesting bike in Ritchey’s booth because it showcased Ritchey’s abilities in creative thought, mechanical wizardry and artistry.
You’ve already seen this shot and the incredibly filed and shaped lug. Be sure to notice the cap-less fork blades. The weep holes are situated at the very bottom of the fork blades to make sure water will drain should the rider (Dad) get caught in the rain.
Thanks to Ritchey’s way-before-its-time seat mast design the brake cable is perfectly centered as it enters the top tube just ahead of the seat lug and then exits what would otherwise be the bottom of the seat lug. It makes for a very stealthy look.
This has to be the single smallest cable guide I’ve ever seen.
The integration of the seat post into the seat is very cool looking and was no doubt really light for its day, but perhaps what is most surprising is that Ritchey had to have the fit absolutely dialed for while the saddle could be raised and lowered, fore and aft adjustment was not possible, nor was tilt. You got one shot to get it right.
These are the elusive Cinelli clipless pedals. They required sliding the cleat into the pedal and then locking the cleat into place by sliding the lever at the front of the pedal. All the sets I’ve ever seen were in display cases of one form or another. Even if they had been ridden, the fact that they were so hard to use without near constant crashing meant that after what were often fairly expensive (for those days) efforts to secure the pedals, no one wanted to get rid of them. They remained cool even in the face of near suicidally poor operation.
I’ve been to a number of trade shows in different industries. Interbike is the only trade show that I ever liked other than NAMM, the trade show for the music instrument industry. Interbike is also the most crowded trade show I have ever attended. The show floor can be a truly confusing thing to behold. On a couple of occasions I managed to get turned around enough that I got lost and those events shocked me because I think of the layout of the Sands Convention Center as enjoying a very straightforward layout. I felt like I’d gotten lost in my own neighborhood. And as a small aside, I don’t mind admitting that I used the Powerbar and Clif booths as pit stops to keep me fueled during what has traditionally been a no-lunch day. It used to be the two booths were well-placed on the with one rather to the left of the primary entrance and the other dead ahead of the main entrance, but this year they were positioned very close together. I found myself oddly irritated by the move.
It’s a noisy affair and by Friday everyone is hoarse; some of the more enthusiastic marketing types are hoarse by the end of the first day. Keeping your body in working order demands terrific walking shoes, a bag that can hold a drink bottle (I’m sorry, but walking around the show with a Camelbak is the domain of the eternally single sock-and-sandal set) and lip balm.
The new Serotta Meivici AE is the market’s first bike that combines modular monocoque construction with custom geometry. It’s rather difficult to overstate just how significant this step is. There’s not a single lug to be found in the frame, giving the frame better ride quality and vastly superior aerodynamics. Built in eight sections, the pieces are co-molded in jigs to complete the frame. The Meivici AE ushers in a stunning new era in custom frame building.
The Zipp 404 carbon clincher is probably the best all-around wheel on the market, and even if it’s not, it is very likely the most coveted wheel on the market, which it deserves to be. The more time engineers spend testing products in the wind tunnel, the more they learn just how important aerodynamics are. The upshot is that in many instances aerodynamics a highly aero wheel will make a bigger difference in performance than will a super-light wheel.
The Zipp 808 is now available in a carbon clincher as well. The big surprise here is that with the new improvements to it including the Firecrest rim shape and Zed Tech, the wheel’s center of balance is very close to the hub, making it amazingly stable in a crosswind. This wheel is no longer restricted to windless days, or necessarily paired with a front 404 in breezy conditions. The only question I have is if these things would allow me to get away from the pack rather than just drag them around for a bit. Maybe I should train more instead. No, I need these, too.
The Assos airJack 851 answers the question of what happens when you cross Assos’ world-class materials, cut and design with FIM Superbike styling. Okay, so it’s a question maybe only they asked, but if there was a better-looking jacket at the show, it was within six feet of this one. I could see myself wearing this out just to make a style statement.
The iJ.haBu5 is a new jacket from Assos, but rather than getting caught in trying to say all that, just call it the Habu. It’s designed for late fall to early winter conditions, which is to say that for those of us not fortunate enough to live in Switzerland, it will carry you through most of the winter with only a single layer beneath it. And yes, that’s an iPhone in a lightweight mesh pocket on the right arm. So what’s it doing there? Assos doesn’t encourage people to ride with earbuds; you won’t find buttonholes in pockets to run your earbud cable. However, this pocket will allow you to slip your iPhone in and select music then listen to it on the iPhone’s speakers. Alternately, you could keep your pet vole in it.
Nalini showed off an impressive new jacket with built-in balaclava for days when you have trouble getting anyone to join you on the ride. If things warm up, just push the balaclava down and keep going. Better still is what the sleeves do.
The sleeves pull away thanks to this special zipper. Pull on the tab and the zipper pulls apart and you can pull the sleeves off and—voila!—you’re wearing a vest. I suspect that in really dry desert and mountain climates this jacket would kill.
Contracts to produce Grand Tour leader jerseys are highly sought-after. Nalini took no small pride in the fact they produced all three leader’s jerseys this year.
Bruce Gordon is a codger. He’s not one to suffer fools. His swipes at the industry with his SOPWAMTOS (Society of People Who Actually Make Their Own Shit) awards have inspired laughs as well as ruffled feathers. But that’s the kind of guy Bruce is. He does what he does because it makes sense to him.
That crusty exterior of his has been known, on occasion, to make him a touch less marketable. I’ve been talking to the guy for more than 10 years and his skeptical, cynical edge has been tough to chip away at. That said, I’ve made some progress and these days he talks to me honestly about what he enjoys doing.
Here’s the thing about his work. He knows it’s not just good, but great. And when people don’t get just how good it is, he can seem a touch irascible. When you’re as inventive as Bruce is, it’s fair to think your work should be appreciated.
For the 2010 San Diego Custom Bicycle Show, Bruce built a special bike. He has made a number of bikes and components over the years that have used titanium to great effect. The bike he showed at this year’s show went to truly unusual lengths.
The bike looked very familiar due to the fact that the lug lines and windows recall Bruce’s previous work. At first glance, the bike definitely looks like a Bruce Gordon. And then there’s fact that the bike is huge; Bruce makes all bikes he’s not sure he’ll sell at market rate in his size—61cm—just to be assured the bike will get ridden. But the fact that all this bike’s tubes were carbon fiber made it quite unusual.
Carbon tubes have been bonded to aluminum lugs for a generation. It’s been so done, it isn’t done anymore, generally speaking. And carbon tubes have been bonded to titanium lugs on occasion. One of the most notable examples was the limited edition Specialized Epic that featured titanium lugs. That Specialized has a familial relationship to this bike as it turns out.
The carbon fiber bottom bracket lug show above came from Serotta. In order to create this bike, Bruce—who has zero experience crafting tubes from carbon fiber—had to partner with someone. In the strictest sense this bike is a collaboration, rather than just a Bruce Gordon creation. Bruce worked with Mike Lopez, who runs Serotta’s composites facility in San Diego. Lopez has an interesting history in the industry. For more than 30years Lopez has been involved in bicycles that use carbon fiber. He has worked for Serotta, Reynolds and way back when, Specialized. He was involved in the carbon fiber Epics. As a matter of fact, the jig on which this bike was assembled used to be used for Epics.
Bruce says he likes the look of a bike with classic design elements and modern materials. In achieving his aesthetic of a touring bike with fenders he, Lopez and a few other people invested more than two months in the bike. Bruce says he has no idea what he would charge for the bike but is committed to making one more—for Lopez.
Bruce had to enlist the help of another guy as well. Salsa founder Ross Schafer did the CAD work that resulted in the lugs that were machined to Bruce’s specs from bar stock. Chris Hayes welded those pieces into actual lugs. On details like the rake of the forks, Bruce had to show Lopez just how to shape the blades both in taper and curve.
Jason Lilly shaped the fenders, shown below. The paint, which turned out to be more challenging than expected, was applied by painter-to-the-stars, Joe Bell.
Sean Walling of Soulcraft, Mark Norstadt of Paragon Machine Works and Doug White of White Industries lent advice on machining the many parts involved in the frame, including the special dropouts and fork crown. Basically, nothing in the frame is off-the-shelf.
I saw a great many very fine bicycles at the San Diego show. I can’t think of a single one that showed as much individuality, practicality and beauty balanced as elegantly as this bike. Unique is a word that is used much too often. This is one of those times when it is absolutely appropriate. At least, until the other one is built.
The ongoing parade of new bike and gear reviews have, at times, had the ability to overwhelm the reviews written on those products we ought to remember. I began thinking about the cycling experiences that profoundly changed my perception of bicycles, shaping what I believed a bicycle could be, and the experiences one could enjoy on one.
I’ve assembled a series of vignettes of different experiences and recounted the bike I was riding at the time. Many of these moments have in common the fact that I was descending, but that isn’t the story for each of these experiences, which is why this is more than a compendium of going downhill.
1. Test ride, Miele Team
I bought a used Miele Team based on a single test ride. I wore Teva sandles and my mechanic’s apron, but by the time I made the second right turn on my brief (five minutes—tops) test ride, my brain was screaming ‘holy cow.’ Relative to the experiences I’d had on road bikes up to that time this was more lively and electric. It was as if I’d spent a lifetime eating tree bark and had just been introduced to M&Ms.
It’s still hard to say exactly what was so special about the bike, but I can share the following details. The frame was handbuilt by Miele’s expat builder, Giuseppe Ferrara (Miele was a Canadian company). It was equipped with Campy Super Record and that was my first ride on Super Record. The wheels were tubulars and though I was familiar with the ride of tuburlars, the wheels were lightweight and easy to accelerate. The bike was part of a limited run produced in 1984 identical to the bikes made for the Canadian National Team that competed at the ’84 Olympics in Los Angeles. Steve Bauer would go on to win a Silver Medal on just such a bike.
2. Mont Ventoux, Seven Cycles Axiom
In 2001, after riding the Seven for some four years, that I had an experience that was nearly religious. I was descending the north side of Mont Ventoux toward the town of Malaucene. There’s a long—5k—section of road that features only the slightest of bends and averages more than eight percent. During that drop, my speed never dropped below 51 mph. I know that you can go faster on a bike, that many people have gone a good deal faster on a bike. What I found remarkable on this ride was how calm the bike remained at this speed. Because I was at such a high speed for such a long time, I had time to think about the lethality of any screw-up I might commit, about how relaxed the bike was—specifically how the front end wasn’t getting loose—and how the bike’s relaxed demeanor allowed me to stay loose and even enjoy an existential meditation about cycling at armor piercing speeds.
As I began entering the sharper turns, switchbacks and even steeper drops, I was able to stay focused and enjoy the ride. It was a thrilling descent I would love to have repeated the moment I reached bottom.
3. Sierra, Moser Leader AX
Early every spring there is a road race in the western Sierra called the Pine Flat Road Race. In 1998 conditions were cold and wet. Cold to the tune of not quite 50 degrees at the start and wet on the order of light rain that became driving within the hour. That day I made the mistake of wearing knee warmers rather than using embrocation and the knee warmers soaked up enough water that they tried to scoot down my leg. The leg grippers ended up chafing my skin so badly I was raw to the point of bleeding at the end of the race. The howls from the shower caused my roommate to ask if I was okay.
Late in the race is a significant climb followed by a bombs-away descent. The bike I brought to race was the Moser Leader AX I was reviewing. It had an insanely low bottom bracket—26.2mm—and was built from a steep tube set that was as stiff as Al Gore. I made it over the top of the climb a few minutes off the leaders and with three riders hot on the chase. I picked off two riders on the descent which I conducted with no brakes in driving rain. I couldn’t see anyone chasing me by the time I reached the bottom.
4. Los Angeles, Merlin Extralight ‘Cross
I spent one season riding a Merlin Extralight ‘Cross bike in the Urban Cyclocross series. The tubing was not particularly large in diameter and the wall thickness was miniscule. There were times when riding the bike felt a bit like I was pedaling a hammock.
What I came to realize was that it was possible to become accustomed to riding an especially flexible frame without the experience being alarming. You simply get used to it. I’m sure Sean Kelly could share a thing or two about this experience. For all that its handling wasn’t, pedaling in the saddle over rough ground was noticeably less jarring than on the steel bike I’d been riding.
5. Vercors, Eddy Merckx Alu Road
The Eddy Merckx Alu Road is far from my favorite bike. Out of the saddle, hands on the hoods, the bike was great fun. On rough roads, I got rattled like I was a maraca in the hands of Carlos Santana’s percussionist. It was despite this quality that I learned an important lesson: Trust the bike.
I was on an Erickson Cycle Tours trip through the Alps. We were on the southernmost portion of the trip, riding through a mountainous area that wasn’t technically the Alps. Just south of Grenoble is an area called the Vercors. Several thousand feet above Grenoble is the town of Villard de Lans, which has hosted the starts and finishes of several Tour de France stages. I was engaged in chasing James, a former Cat. 1 racer, and Stella, a Masters’ World Record Holder in speed skiing. She had managed to control a set of skis at better than 145 mph.
They would sprint down descents, accelerating toward switchbacks long after I thought braking was the reasonable choice. Unlike Formula 1, where they tell you not to let the driver ahead of you drive your car, I didn’t brake until I saw either Stella or James get closer to me. Very often I was braking after the braking bumps had begun. The sensation of braking so late was adrenal and I would arrive at the bottom of descents close on their wheels and with my heart rate knocking on my threshold. To this day I’m not sure I’ve descended with as much abandon.
6. Pyrenees, Serotta Ottrott
Reader lobbying encouraged Serotta to loan me an Ottrott for a review at Asphalt. I quickly grew to love the bike and valued its calm demeanor on twisty descents in Malibu and Palos Verdes. I attributed its character to a few important details. First, the bottom bracket was the lowest of any bike I’d ever ridden, some 26.0cm. The wheelbase was on the longish side relative to most bikes that size and then there was the fork. The Serotta F1 fork may not have been light and may have used intermediate modulus carbon fiber by the pound, but they managed to build a fork that felt so smooth you’d swear it featured suspension. My one and only criticism of that bike was its weight. My 58.5cm top tube frame weighed 3 lbs., 6 oz. By comparison, my all-ti Seven Cycles Axiom was built six years earlier and weighed 3 oz. less. If this bike had been even the slightest nick under 3 lbs., I would have called it the greatest frame of all time.
I called the folks at Serotta to see if they’d allow me to take it with me on a trip to the Pyrenees; they agreed. On descents that undulated, heaved, bumped and knocked, the Ottrot performed like a Swiss banker—with calm, unperturbed assurance. That’s not to say I didn’t encounter some descents that made me nervous. The west side of the Col de Marie Blanque made me wonder how bantamweight Spanish climbers on the ONCE team made it down that descent on aluminum Giants. I just couldn’t fathom how they managed, not without the benefit of daily training on a mechanical bull.
The Ottrott confirmed to me beyond doubt that bikes with lower bottom brackets perform better on descents. That’s not to say you can’t get downhill on a bike with a high-ish bottom bracket, such as that of the 27.2cm-high Specialized Tarmac, but if you want a bike that is as Braman bull relaxed and Olympic gymnast nimble, a bike with a low bottom bracket will give you what you seek. And so far as I know, Serotta is the only builder doing anything approximating production work with a bottom bracket that low.
It’s an interesting grab-bag of bikes. Some are favorites, some not, but each was memorable for one reason or another. I think most bikes give us teachable moments; it’s up to us to pay attention.
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.
RKP: Where are you based?
DK: I work from my home shop in Bozeman Montana. Bozeman is a small university and ski town of about 30,000 people located in southwest Montana about 90 miles north of Yellowstone Park. Bozeman is in a valley surrounded by mountains on every side and it’s the ‘big city’ in the area. When you leave town you have really left town and you can ride for miles and see no one at all. I like my solitude and I love Bozeman.
RKP: Is that where you grew up?
DK: No. I grew up in a wonderful small town in central New York State – Rome NY. The riding in the area is world class and for the most part no one knows about it. Every other road is called “farm to market’ road and they are all 1½ lanes wide and just meander through the countryside and farmland up and over 20% super steep climbs……… It’s like Belgium but with out cobbles and I speak the language. I lived in Rome until a few days after high school graduation and then a good friend and I took a road trip to Florida to meet girls. I ended up moving to Florida and went to school half-heartedly but raced BMX with gusto. The southeast was the place to be in the early 80’s for BMX.
RKP: What’s the riding like there (where you live now)?
DK: The riding around Bozeman is much different from Rome where I grew up. Instead of short uber-steep climbs Bozeman has very long alpine type climbs that go up to about 8000’. It’s easy to find climbs of 10 miles or more and it takes a much different mindset. You certainly don’t just stand up and hammer over them. Many of the roads here leave town and get narrow and rough and then turn to dirt. These are my favorite roads to ride. I like the feeling of being way out there and away from everything and slogging over the rough loose surface. I could do that all day. I ride alone most of the time. No wonder why I guess.
RKP: How long have you been building?
DK: I started working as a full time professional framebuilder in 1989 at Serotta in Saratoga Springs, NY. With the exception of one summer working as a water well driller and a few winters working as a snowboard school supervisor it’s all I’ve done since 1989.
RKP: How did you get your start?
DK: I was living in Rome NY and working at a bike shop in the area called “Dick Sonne’s Ski, Hike and Bike” when I got a call from a guy at Serotta. They knew of me through my racing and wrenching and needed more warm bodies in the building. I went and interviewed and Serotta at that time was in a barn with the paint booth being in the chicken coop. It wasn’t very impressive but I really wanted to work there. They offered me a job as a mechanic and I took it. About a week before I was to start I got a call from the same guy and he told me there was going to be a delay and could I start in two weeks. Sure, no problem. Two weeks turned into 6, which turned into 12, and I finally gave up. I started working at a small bike shop close to my home called Schuss Ski and Bike and about 2 years after that first call from Serotta I got another call. This time it was Ben Serotta himself and he told me he had just found out how I was treated first time around and apologized. He then told me they were looking for help in the frame shop and asked if I wanted to interview. The night before the interview I was out riding in the woods and stumbled on a bee’s nest and my hands were badly stung. They got so huge that I could barely drive. I went to the interview and kept my hands out of sight and it was all going well. I was then asked to go into the shop and use a few tools to they could judge my hand skills. I flopped my hands onto the desk and told them I didn’t think I could do that today. Everyone moved back a steep when they saw my freakish hands. They ended up offering me the job anyway and I started work as a framebuilder on October 2nd, 1989.
RKP: Is building your day job? If not, what else do you do?
DK: I am a full time professional framebuilder and it is all I do.
RKP: Have you held other positions in the industry?
DK: I started working as a kid in bike retail and as a mechanic. I’ve raced professional BMX and mountain bike and some road. I worked at Serotta for 10 years and ended up being the one man R&D department and was responsible for all new products, the tooling to produce them, as well and personally building the bulk of the bikes to be used by the professional teams Serotta sponsored at the time. I then moved to Montana and worked with Carl Strong as general shop help and he and I eventually formed a production company to produce Strong Frames as well and all the steel Ibis’. I then struck out on my own and formed Kirk Frameworks in June of 2003.
RKP: Do you ever work in a material other than steel?
DK: Over the past 21 years I’ve worked with most every popular frame material (and a few not so popular) but I now work exclusively in steel. I like working with and riding steel better than any other material. It speaks to me in everyway.
RKP: Who makes the tubing and lugs you like to use?
DK: I work with mostly Reynolds tubes but also use a bit of True Temper. The good folks at Reynolds make proprietary tubes just for me and they are vital to my getting the ride just the way I think it should be. For lugs I like Sachs and Llewellyn. I’m just introducing some dropouts of my own design and have plans in the works to expand my offerings. My job at Serotta was product design intensive and I missed the challenge. That combined with being unsatisfied by the parts available to the professional builder I decided I needed to design and make my own.
RKP: Tell us about the jig you use.
DK: I use Anvil frame and fork jigs. All my other tooling (bending, braze-ons, lug holders, etc.) I’ve designed and made myself. I love designing and making tools. It’s a lost art.
RKP: What sort of cutting and shaping of lugs do you like to perform? Does it vary from bike to bike or are there stylistic elements people can find running through all your bikes?
DK: I favor simple, purposeful and straightforward designs. While I like and admire frilly and baroque designs they aren’t what I like to do. My bikes are all a bit different but there is a common theme to the look. While I offer lugged bikes I also offer and love building fillet brazed bikes. I think the beauty of a properly proportioned fillet joint has few rivals.
RKP: When fitting a customer for a bike, how do you usually work? How often is it in person?
DK: Being in the middle of nowhere I get only about 3 people a year visiting for fittings. I welcome all to visit but understand that isn’t very often possible. I design the bike based on the customer’s body dimensions, and how the bike is to be used. I double check the design by getting the contact points of their current bikes as well as feedback on how they feel these bikes fit, ride and handle. I will sometimes ask for photos of the rider on the bike just to see how they tend to hold themselves. All of this info, along with the answers to an extensive questionnaire I send out, gives me a very full image of the rider and their needs.
RKP: Let’s talk about geometry: Would you say your all your bikes have a consistent ride that is your signature, or do you vary your geometry based on the customer’s preferences and needs?
DK: Some of both. I think all of my bikes ride like a ‘Kirk’ regardless of what the intended end use is. They all have that same Kirk DNA. I feel the most important thing is to be sure that the bike will fit and handle well considering how and where it is to be used. From there the numbers are picked to give a certain ride in those conditions. I like my bikes to have enough stability to give confidence and at the same time have a lot of ‘snap’ and jump’ to give the bike spring and life. This is done by not only getting the geometry right but also picking the proper tubes for the rider.
I feel very strongly about forks and every Kirk frame goes out the door with it’s made to match Kirk fork. I do not offer off the shelf forks. Each one is designed and built to match the frame’s geometry and the desired ride qualities. It’s next to impossible to get the handling and alignment just right when ½ of the design was done by someone else who knows nothing about the needs to the rider. The frame and fork need to be designed together to work properly together and to give the proper handling and ride.
RKP: Who does your paint?
DK: The one and only Joe Bell paints everything I build.
RKP: How long is the wait for new customers?
As of January 2010 my wait is about 11 months from receipt of deposit to delivery.
RKP: What’s your pricing like?
DK: I offer two different levels of build. My standard lugged frameset sells for $2900 and a fillet brazed frameset is $3000. I also offer the JK Series names after my father John Kirk. They differ from my standard frames in that they use a bespoke blend of lightweight tubes (953, S3 and special tubes Reynolds makes for the JK series). I offer the JK Special road frameset for $3600 and the JK Cross frameset for $3700. All these prices include a single color Joe Bell Signature paint job. If the client wants more elaborate paint that is done at an upcharge.
RKP: What keeps the work fresh for you, gets you up in the morning (or out in the evening) and excited to build?
DK: I work a pretty standard work schedule and I do my best to never work too late or start too early and I never ever work weekends. I do my best work when I am fresh and rested and wanting more. This is hard to do sometimes because I really like the work itself. I love going over the tube bin and selecting the tubes to be used in a given bike and laying them all out for inspection and letting the process happen. It’s this process that keeps me excited and motivated. I’ve built thousands of bikes over the past 21 years and it’s always been the process that motivates me.
RKP: You’re part of the Framebuilder’s Collective. What was the motivation to get involved in an association devoted to what can be a pretty solitary craft?
DK: Can you say “herding cats?” I am one of the eight founding members of TFC and I originally became interested in forming a group after spending so many hours in the shop talking with Carl Strong. We were frustrated by the lack of resources for the new builder and by seeing so many talented and skilled builders hang their shingle, build some very nice bikes and then go out of business because they didn’t know how the whole business thing worked. And at the same time we saw plenty of other hobby builders hang their shingle when they were not at all ready to build bikes for paying customers. There is just no professional standard for building or business practices in this industry and each bad business transaction a customer has, and every poorly constructed handbuilt frame out there reflects poorly on the whole group of us professional builders. We want to do what we can to promote professional building and business practices and to further promote the image of the handbuilt frame.
RKP: What’s your life away from building like? Are you racing or do you have outside interests?
DK: I love to be outside and moving quickly. I ride my bike as much as possible in the mountains surrounding Bozeman, I snowboard and cross country ski and I race autocross. The autocross (also known as SCCA Solo) gives me that competitive rush I seem to need in a big way. I’m proud to say that I‘m two time state champion racing a Birkin S3 in the modified class and this year I’ll be moving into a 2005 Lotus Elise and trying to up my game. I like the process of learning to set up and drive the car at it’s limits. It’s always the process. I also love spending time with my wife Karin hanging out in the greenhouse or the garden, watching the plants grow. There’s not much better in life than getting back from a dirt road ride, cracking open a good dark beer and hanging out in the garden watching our four cats play and chase each other around. A good thing in every way.
Images pilfered liberally from Kirk Frameowrks
It’s only natural that a bike meant for longer days would be designed to eat vibration the way a whale sucks down krill. Specialized includes its Bar Phat bar tape with gel inserts to further cut vibration at the handlebar, before lawnmower hand has a chance to become a problem. This tape, of course, is wrapped around a wing bar, easing the degree to which your hands have to wrap around the bar.
The wheels are Roval’s Roubaix, a modern answer to the 32-spoke, 3-cross wheel that remains the favorite of pros racing the event that gave rise to this bike’s name—Paris-Roubaix. The wheels feature 24 spokes front, 30 spokes rear, two-cross, bladed spokes with machined aluminum hubs featuring a Swiss-made freehub rolling on a Specialized 25mm-wide Roubaix tire.
So what else can you do to reduce vibration transmission? How about a Specialized Body Geometry Toupé gel saddle?
Zertz inserts, Bar Phat, wing bar, old-school wheels (sorta), big tires and gel-filled saddle, it all adds up to as many different responses to vibration as I can think of. You might say a no-stone-unturned approach to reducing vibration.
Reducing vibration does more than just increase comfort, though. It reduces muscle fatigue and has the power to make five hours feel like four, leaving you fresher at the end of a long ride. This probably isn’t as big a deal for young riders, but for riders who have celebrated their 50th birthday, nerve pinches and back and neck issues become very real obstacles to comfort if not outright completing long rides.
I don’t want to go too far into the parts spec for this bike; it would be unfair to Specialized to judge the bike relative to my like or dislike of Shimano componentry. There are, however, some important points to touch on.
The Roubaix is spec’d with a compact drivetrain. The crank is Specialized’s carbon fiber S-Works model with 50/34t rings. It is mated to a Shimano Ultegra 12/27t cassette. When one considers that this bike’s most likely consumer is a non-racer, the choice of a compact crank and widely spaced cassette is an entirely logical pairing. Why not give the bike gearing meant for mortals?
The shifters and derailleurs come from the 7900 Dura-Ace lineup, while the brake calipers are Ultegra. The only real fault I can find with the bike is in the Ultegra calipers; they simply don’t offer the same stopping power and modulation as the Dura-Ace grabbers, but that’s something I’m aware of due to riding different bikes. Someone without the same frame of reference won’t have any issue with the Ultegra brakes as they do an adequate, if not pro-worthy performance. On the other hand, the mix of Dura-Ace and Ultegra parts helps bring the cost of the Roubaix Pro in at $5000, as opposed to the cost of the Roubaix SL2, which runs $2200 more. Heck, that’s another bike!
So what’s the Roubaix like out on the road? I think it’s simply one of the most comfortable bikes on the market. People often confuse vibration damping with road shock. The Roubaix won’t fill potholes, hide rocks or smooth driveway ramps, but it has a very real ability to hit everything you ride over with 300 grit sandpaper. It won’t make every road glassy smooth, but it will definitely take the edge off any rough road.
Vertical compliance is an elusive quality to track. I don’t often believe I’ve found it in today’s carbon fiber bikes due to their incredible stiffness. Consider that Dave Kirk, the builder who invented the Serotta DKS suspension, said that suspension system, even when equipped with the softest of the three silicone dampers included with the bike, only saw 1-2 millimeters of vertical travel in the chainstays. I’m sure you experience more vertical compliance with an old Vitus or Alan than any of the current crop of carbon wonders. However, I’ve identified occasions when there was too little vertical compliance and found a bike to be chattery on rougher roads. Yes, a bike can be too stiff. That said, this bike doesn’t have nearly as much vertical compliance as an old Alan or Vitus. I wish that were enough to put the conversation about vertical compliance to rest, but it won’t.
The debate still rages on about whether energy is lost when a bike flexes, particularly when it flexes at the bottom bracket. I’ve got my answer, and had it long ago. For new riders, the answer is much simpler, though. A stiff bike allows someone still developing their skills to apply more force to the pedals with fewer hazardous overtones. On the Roubaix, any power you put into the bike will cause it to continue in the direction it is pointed with nothing so much as increased haste.
Torsional flex is yet another dimension of frame response that can be problematic. In the extreme, torsional flex can make a bike really hard to handle. Anyone who ever rode a Schwinn Twin tandem will tell you it handled like al dente pasta. Early carbon fiber forks from Europe (I’m specifically excepting the Kestrel fork) flexed enough in hard cornering to alter my line. I experienced no torsional flex that I could comment on with this bike. With its enormous-diameter tubes (I could fit a Navel Orange in the down tube) this thing tracked as straight and true as a sheet of drywall, even in aggressive cornering.
The bigger deal with the Roubaix is its handling. When I began building my vocabulary of bikes through ongoing shootouts and reviews, I quickly picked up on a theme of preference. I liked bikes that had really calm manners. They didn’t tend to feel too exciting when I first got on them, but after four hours you appreciated the way they held a line and when on a descent they made 45 mph feel like 35. And because your perception of speed is often the great decider for when you hit the brakes, any bike that makes you feel more in control and less like you’re doing something reckless is going to inspire confidence and a feeling of safety. Heck, you’re likely to go even faster.
The Roubaix seems a first cousin in its handling attributes to some of my old favorites. When I look back on the best descending bikes I’ve ever ridden, many of them have been Italian. CPSC rules prevent American bike manufacturers that deliver complete bikes (as opposed to framesets) from designing with a bottom bracket drop of more than about 7cm; you’ve got to calculate pedal-down lean-angle clearance very carefully to get any more BB drop than that. As I mentioned, Specialized squeezed another 1.5mm of BB drop into the design; it may not seem like much, but even that tiny amount makes the bike easier to lean into turns.
Out on long rides, the easy handling of the Roubaix is a pleasant departure from the twitchy reflexes of many bikes. You can sit up and look around, enjoy yourself, see the sights—and not worry that you’ll soon run off the road. Is there a more appropriate bike to take on a century traversing back roads of questionable maintenance? Maybe not.
The issue of weight must be addressed or it will seem like I left out the be-all, end-all number. It’s not, but that number is 16.06. Given the pavé-capable wheels and tires spec’d on this bike, that’s a very impressive number.
The number of people who enjoy road riding has has increased by multiplicatives in the last 10 years thanks to charity rides, Lance Armstrong and a host of other factors. When you consider how many of them joined the USCF (their numbers are up, but they haven’t doubled) you realize a very small percentage of newer roadies have moved into what many folks think is a much more aggressive expression of the sport. The Roubaix is an appropriate response for tens of thousands of riders who don’t need the agility of a bike like the Tarmac.
The 2010 Roubaix does feature some different parts spec from the 2009. That it has taken me so long to write this review is something of a disservice to Specialized. I’m sure you’ll be able to find this bike on the floor at many bike shops, but I’ll note the differences in spec for the new season. The big changes are as follows: a Dura-Ace 50/34t crank is substituted for the Specialized carbon fiber model. An Ultegra front derailleur replaces the Dura-Ace model. An even wider-spaced 11-26t cassette is exchanged for the 12-27t one. A narrower, 23mm tire replaces the 25mm one; both feature 120 tpi casings with Flak Jacket protection that seem impervious to all but land mines. Finally and most significantly, the Roval wheels on the ’09 bike are replaced with Roval Fusee SL wheels, a noticeably lighter set. The 2010 bike will weigh closer to 15.5 lbs. out of the box.
As a reflection of the population, grand touring bikes ought to be dominating road bike sales. Specialized did much to remove the stigma from these bikes by offering the Roubaix in carbon fiber and giving it top quality parts spec. In a world dominated by bikes made for American crit racing, the Roubaix is one of the most intelligently designed bikes I’ve ever ridden. Easily one of my all-time favorite bikes.
As I did with bikes I reviewed at BKW, I’ll be scoring bikes on a 100-point system. It will take into account every facet of the bike: price, design, effectiveness for given consumer, parts spec, fit considerations, handling, weight, stiffness, road feel and even availability, the idea being a $2000 bike has the same chance of scoring 100 points as a $10,000 bike if it accomplishes its consumer-oriented goals.
Specialized Roubaix Pro: 94 points
By the time I walked out of the Interbike show last Friday I was threadbare. My feet hurt like they never did when I went on long hikes in the Boy Scouts, but then, I was 30 years younger and the trails a good deal softer than the polished concrete floor of the Sands Convention Center.
Each year at the end of the show I have this nasty habit of walking through the parking structure on my way to my car during which time I will suddenly flash on all the companies I never met with. This year was a bit of a switch in that the flashes I experienced were of the companies that I realized hadn’t had a booth at the show.
I was shocked when I couldn’t find Ochsner Imports on the map. I was embarrassed when I thought back on having seen Rudy Reimer, my contact there, in the Italian Pavilion and told him I’d meant to make an appointment to see him, but that I’d drop by later. His response: “Yeah sure.” It seemed a little brusque at the time, but then my statement had probably seemed ingenuine. What a gaff.
I had expected to see Red Rose Imports, the distributor for Carrera, Olmo, and Nalini’s custom clothing line. I had expected to see custom clothing manufacturers Verge, Pactimo and VO Max at the show. It’s not uncommon to see a line like Serotta or Independent Fabrication be at the show for a year or two and then drop out, only to return the following year, but again there was no Indy Fab. Serotta was at the show but sharing booth space with Ford, to what purpose I’m still not sure, but when I did my initial search of exhibitors online, they didn’t turn up. I must have flubbed the search or just couldn’t read at the time.
Cervelo put on a very nice reception/party Thursday night, and while I had several fascinating conversations, I didn’t have any interesting/substantive conversations about the Cervelo line of bikes, which was, after all, my bigger mission at Interbike.
Cross Vegas was a great race and a wonderful event with more than double the turnout of the first year I attended, but I was tired enough by the time the men’s event got underway I would have been happier back at the hotel, getting ready for the next day. Each day I heard people tell stories about being out drinking and carousing until 3, 4 even 6 o’clock in the morning. Those who can pull it off have my admiration (and a fair dollop of envy). I try not to be a spoilsport, but even having the opportunity to write about such a fun industry is something I regard with gratitude and I don’t want to be falling asleep as I load photos, or am trying to string together subject and predicate to form comprehensible sentences. Writing good (well? decently?) stuff is a great enough challenge even when firing on all cylinders.
Most of the manufacturers I spoke with said they weren’t writing orders at the show. Their reps had done that already. Most retailers confirmed that practice and said their only reason to be at the show was to actually see their lines in person for the first time, or to check out other lines they were considering picking up. A few told me that they probably wouldn’t be back next year.
Interbike says numbers were up this year, despite the down economy. That might be true from an objective perspective. However, from my little crow’s nest, this was the weakest Interbike show since I last went to the Philly show back in 1995.
A great many manufacturers I spoke with refused to speak on the record about their challenges with Interbike. The two biggest complaints were: too little return on investment and too little time with the dealers. More and more companies are focusing their efforts on marketing directly to the consumer in print, online and sometimes TV advertising. And rather than constantly searching for new dealers, most manufacturers are working to strengthen their relationship with the dealers they have. A dealer even gives them a captive audience for days, not an hour.
The good news is that dealers are a savvier bunch than they used to be. Interbike used to be the perfect place to sell a line based on the parts spec of a bike. Most dealers I spoke with told me the questions they ask now aren’t about parts spec and frame material but about support. What kind of support will they get; what will the dating be?
For manufacturers, Interbike is most useful for selling a new dealer on your line. Existing dealers can be addressed in large dealer events like those Trek, Specialized, Giant and Cannondale have or they can be reached out to with on-site visits with a demo fleet the way Specialized, Cannondale and Felt already do. Everyone seemed to agree that Interbike wasn’t a good atmosphere for education.
One aspect of Interbike I haven’t heard addressed elsewhere is how Outdoor Demo has changed the nature of conversations between shop staff. It used to be you’d hear retailers ask each other, “Have you seen the X?” Today, the question is, “Have you ridden the X?” Cycling ought to be a meritocracy and word of mouth between the people in the trenches can cause a powerful stir.
I like Interbike. I loathe Las Vegas, but I’ll go wherever the event is held. I like seeing the people, the new products, and watching how the industry trends. That said, I came away from this year’s show convinced that Interbike isn’t meeting the needs of manufacturers or retailers. Many people I spoke to go because they don’t have a better alternative, not because it meets their needs. There’s no one to blame for this; it’s not a matter of the folks at Interbike being asleep at the switch. Rather, the market is evolving and while people seem to agree that there is a need for a trade show, to be considered a success (not just passable), Interbike needs to meet the needs of a changing industry.
So here are my suggestions to the folks at Nielsen Business Media, the owners of Interbike:
1) Why not focus on a solely Outdoor Demo format? It’ll cut costs dramatically for manufacturers and give many companies an added incentive to offer more bikes to ride at the demo, thereby cutting down on the amount of time waiting to get bikes to ride, which would give riders more time to ride each day. Getting through more than eight bikes in a day was tough for most riders.
2) Were Outdoor Demo held in a space large enough, booths could be arranged in a large oval to keep those walking between booths on the inside of the oval and those leaving for rides on the outside of it. Think LAX—cars on the inner loop, planes outside the loop of terminals. This would cut down on the crush of bikes and walkers weaving between the 10×10 tents.
3) Leave Bootleg Canyon. Given the number of facial lacerations I’ve seen at the show the last two years, some of the trails are way beyond the skill level of at least some of the riders, but the blowing dust is hell on bikes, contact lenses and cameras. Were Outdoor Demo held somewhere a trifle more pleasant, say Marin County, equipment wouldn’t suffer so and there might be fewer injuries and a bit less sunburn. I know that Las Vegas is king because of the low airfares and plentiful and cheap hotel rooms, but if the show better met the needs of all attendees, I bet you’d sell space to Trek, Specialized, Giant and Cannondale. And if you were selling space to them, you’d be selling it to Cervelo, Felt, Seven, Lynskey, etc. And if all those companies were present, retailers wouldn’t pass it up, even if it were noticeably more expensive than this year’s trip to Vegas.