Let’s start with the 800-lb. gorilla: Dura-Ace. Shimano usurped Campagnolo’s position is the top dog in the OEM category on bikes even before Bill Clinton became a household name. The combination of smooth and simple operation plus high value made the Japanese manufacturer’s parts not just acceptable, but sought after.
With the introduction of Hyperglide (which was the first system to add individually contoured cog teeth to aid shifting) back in 1989, Shimano drivetrains took a noticeable step ahead of its competition; that technology was added to the redesign of Dura-Ace that was introduced in 1991. That iteration of Dura-Ace gave us eight speeds and—more important—the first integrated control lever. I assembled a Schwinn Paramount (“One of the Waterford bikes!” I exclaimed when I opened the frame box) with the new Dura-Ace and I was just enough of a Campy grouch to proclaim (largely because Campy’s Ergo lever had yet to be introduced) that the integrated control lever was “unnecessary.”
It is, perhaps, fortuitous that I turned down a lucrative career in crystal ball reading.
Had Shimano not introduced that revision of the group, I shudder to think what Campagnolo would have dreamt up as a follow-up to C-Record. My fear is that it would have been prettier than the Taj Mahal, sported seven speeds and weighed 15 pounds. Eight-speed Dura-Ace turned the tables on Campagnolo and the venerable Italian manufacturer spent a good six years rocked back on its heels—until 9-speed Record went into production. In the 20 years since the introduction of STI in Dura-Ace, the group has lost nearly two pounds, gained two gears, offers wider gearing options for us mortals and improved brake modulation to allow you to choose between scrubbing a tiny bit of speed or making an emergency stop, plus everything in between. Shifting performance has continued to increase as well.
The trouble with Shimano is that it has become the de facto standard and due to the company’s patent attorneys, their voluminous filings have done more to stifle innovation than give the company a competitive edge. For as much as I love their innovation, I despise the work of their legal team. But that dominance owes to their sales team. Shimano figured out the OEM game in a way that Campagnolo still fails to replicate. Shimano gives great pricing to bike manufacturers and they produce their parts very near where most bikes are made and assembled. It’s easy to do business with Shimano, so for that reason many product managers go with them. You get a great bike at a good price.
Best Features: So let’s start with what there is to recommend Dura-Ace 7900. First is the operation of its levers. The two-lever operation of the shifting and the fact that the brake lever doubles as one of the shift levers makes the shifting on Dura-Ace fairly intuitive. The genius part of the shifting system is the fact that you can brake and downshift at the same time. It’s a feature that I used in crits to my advantage and one that continues to serve me well on group rides. It’s rare that I’m braking with any real force and not downshifting at the same time.
Am I out of gears? A quick push on the lever gives instant feedback to whether or not you’re in your biggest cog. That the front derailleur has enough mechanical advantage and stiffness to shift from the little ring to the big one even while you are out of the saddle and pedaling hard is pretty impressive.
Durability is another real selling point for Dura-Ace. With no carbon fiber to be found in the crank, the rear derailleur or even the front derailleur, a Dura-Ace bike is likely to fair a little better in a crash than a Campagnolo Record or Super Record-equipped bike.
The shape of the 7900 control lever is good in that it offers multiple hand positions. I frequently find myself riding with my hands resting half on the bar and half on the lever, as opposed to wrapping my hands fully around the lever body, a position I seem to save for getting out of the saddle. That the 7900 lever now offers brake lever reach adjustment is terrific. I don’t have big hands and I like to run the levers as close to the bar as possible. Another nice feature of the brakes is the quick release lever that allows you to open the brake for wide tires, or in the event of a wheel knocked out of true, the ability to open the brake on the fly and ride home without it rubbing.
Worst Features: Unfortunately, the shape of the 7900 control lever is as attractive as a Ford Pinto. Where the 7800 lever had a slightly sci-fi-edged ergonomicity to it, this new one is blocky and the plus that both cables are run under tape can’t overcome the fact that the lever has all the style of a banquet table. Even worse is how if you remove the faceplate off the lever and turn in the screw to adjust the reach on the brake lever you are left with this open-maw appearance that gives the lever a look that is simultaneously not aero and oddly hungry. Slack-jawed is synonymous with vacant.
What I can’t wrap my head around is how after 20 years of STI you can still move either shift lever a full centimeter and not execute a shift. What’s with all that wasted lever throw? I’ve asked in the past and I’ve gotten answers, but the answers never made enough sense for me to memorize or even believe. Lever play seems to be a vestige of an era when we didn’t know how to maximize ergonomics and performance in the pursuit of all-out excellence. It reminds me of the criticism that the Ford Mustang is deficient because while it has a V8 engine, Ford coaxed less than 400 horsepower from it. Porsche does better than that with only six cylinders. And those aforementioned lever faceplates? They corrode. Shimano has trouble with plating periodically. Those of us who live near the ocean can tell stories of corroded chainrings and crank arms through various iterations of Dura-Ace. The finish seems to be good on all the other parts, though.
It used to be really easy to slide a 5mm Allen key beneath the hood and loosen the lever clamp to adjust lever position. It’s a pain in the ass, now. It’s difficult to roll the lever hood up enough to get a 5mm ball driver in there. Do not like. Another feature I’m less than enthused about is the half polished/half matte finish on the brakes, derailleurs and crank. I suppose that there are lots of people out there who like this, but 7800 was a much more attractive group.
On the cassette front, Dura-Ace gives you eight different options, three of which begin with a 12t cog. I’m sorry, but most of us don’t live in a place where the descents are long enough and fast enough to make use of a 53×11 or even a 50×11, nor are we strong enough to sprint at better than 40 mph—a 50×11 spun at 120 rpm works out to 42.6 mph; I never sprinted that fast.
Assembly and Maintenance: For the most part, installation of a new group is fast and easy. That’s good from a labor rate standpoint if you’re paying your local shop to work on your bike. Replacing a cable, however, is a real frustration. It used to be that you could feed a new cable in and the internals would guide the cable into the existing brake housing pretty effectively; with gear cables it was easy enough to pull the housing out of the lever while you ran the new cable. Running a new cable in a 7900 lever takes some time. On more than one occasion I’ve had to cut the electrical tape holding the housing to the bar before running the cable through and then sliding the housing onto the cable. Again, the upshot here is that if you do your own maintenance, it’s a time suck and if you’re paying someone else to do it, you’re spending more on labor.
I hear lots of people say they always replace their chain and cassette together. I replace my chain about every 2000 miles. When I was racing and my jumps had more spice (and torque), I replaced them every 1000 miles. Consequently, I don’t wear out cassettes. If you replace the chain often enough, the cassette cogs will last a long time.
Chainring wear has been very good with this group. I can recall friends eating through 7700-series chainrings in just a season.
Group Weight: 4.57 lbs. (2070g)
Best Internet Pricing: $1549
Let’s get the new year off on the right foot. I think fortune telling to be worth only slightly less than the word of someone working on Wall Street. And predicting the future contains all the science found in an episode of Entertainment Tonight.
So I’m going to jump in with a few predictions for this year. They may constitute wishful thinking more than actual predictions, but going into this new year, I’ve spent some time thinking about what the new season will bring.
Change will be the watchword for the year. I suspect the various changes in behavior we will see on the part of various riders, teams and companies will require lots of re-thinking. In some cases that thinking will go as deep as identity, but it could require rethinking less who you are than how you do business.
Change in Strategy: If Fabian Cancellara’s attacks at Milan-San Remo, Ronde van Vlaanderen, and Paris-Roubaix were bold, expect him to be more guarded this year. Don’t be surprised if he waits until later in the race to make his move. That said, for such a strategy to work, his accelerations will have to be more ferocious. A late-race attack needs afterburners to succeed because more of the favorites are willing to burn matches to ensure their own chances. Of course, because Cancellara has one of the biggest engines in the peloton, don’t be surprised if he goes even earlier in a bid to catch competitors off guard.
Change in Goals: Of the many teams that will be invited to compete at the 2012 Tour de France, Thor Hushovd signed with the one guaranteed to prevent him from attempting to notch another stage victory at le Grand Boucle. It could be argued that Saxo Bank would similarly clip the Norwegian’s wings, but with Alberto Contador’s 2012 season a matter of much speculation and at least some doubt, it could be that he could have signed with Bjarne Riis only to arrive with plenty incentive (and direction) to get some result, any result. Hushovd will have a free hand at Roubaix, but can that really be his only goal for the season? And if he doesn’t find success there (how often does a rider achieve his sole goal for a season?), what will become his plan B? Complicating matters for him is the fact that he will share the non-Tour spotlight with Philippe Gilbert, a guy who wins more often. There’s not a team with more promise or more volatility currently licensed. Years from now we could look back on this team as the one that put La Vie Claire and Astana to shame.
Change in Mission: Omega Pharma-QuickStep is a team that will be forced to reinvent itself. Having signed Levi Leipheimer and Tony Martin, the team management will need to figure out how to support a rider at—at the very least—shorter stage races, if not a grand tour. Given the lousy year Tom Boonen had (and only a rider of his stature can win Gent-Wevelgem and still have a lousy year), it would seem unwise to hang the whole of the team’s hopes on him for their big results. To do so would mean wasting the investment on Leipheimer and Martin.
Change in Business: Electronic shifting is going to change the evolution of component groups. The move from 10 to 11 gears and from 11 to 12 will no longer require new control levers. Instead just a software update will be necessary. Riders using Di2 will be able to purchase a Dura-Ace 11-speed cassette and instantly have 11-speed Di2. Neat trick. The upshot here is that one of the traditional drivers/limiters to a new group is a redesigned control lever. If adding another cog is as easy as software code, then you have to ask just what will drive the introduction of a whole new group. The question isn’t as easy as it seems. Is weight enough of a driver? Almost certainly not. How much performance increase is enough? That’s almost impossible to quantify, but there’s a tipping point, most will agree. With this technical hurdle out of the way, we may see Shimano and Campagnolo doing more to update their groups each year and in that there’s the risk of turning off the bike-buying public. Caveat venditor.
Change in Scope: Well, Bicycle Retailer let part of the cat out of the bag, but it wasn’t all of the cat by any means. You’ll see a post regarding the other half of that story soon. A change in scope is what’s happening at RKP. I began this blog as a way to publish work that wasn’t finding a home at mainstream media outlets. Belgium Knee Warmers proved there was an audience for it and RKP gave me a way to follow my heart on subject matter and make some money, so that I could continue to do that work. My one promise to myself was that RKP would be a home to good writing. That promise has taken on a slightly more epic cast (and while the word “epic” gets overused, in my personal circumstance I get to use it this time).
We decided to do some year-end awards here at RKP, but because we don’t see much point in awarding someone “best Danish single-speed cyclocrosser with no ink”, we figured we’d give some nods to those people, events and moments most memorable. And to add to the fun, we invited Whit Yost and Jeremy Rauch from Pavé to join in the fun.
So here we go:
Rider of the Year—Despite not notching a win another monument this spring, by virtue of the fact that Fabian Cancellara finished on the podium in Milan-San Remo (2nd), Ronde van Vlaanderen (3rd) and Paris-Roubaix (2nd), he proved to be the strongest rider in this year’s spring campaign. That Cancellara was chased as if an attack from him was everyone else’s ticket to glory was unseemly. It appeared—given those who latched onto his wheel—he was chased less to prevent him winning than as a springboard to anyone else’s.
Most Valuable (Non) Player—This has to go to Francesco Moser for doing more to liven up this year’s Tour de France short of any rider other than Thomas Voeckler. By instructing the Schlecks on how to win at bike racing, Moser inspired Andy Schleck to take the single most interesting flyer at this year’s Tour. Frankly, it did much to illustrate the criticism that due to radios riders no longer know how to ride tactically. The greater lesson is just how the greats were. How about a mentoring program for today’s GC riders? The racing might get more interesting if we dusted off more GC champions from the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The We-Don’t-Know-What-to-Call-It Award—Thor Hushovd has easily been the peloton’s biggest crybaby for the last two seasons. Of his seemingly endless skills—honestly, has anyone else delivered more unexpected and surprising wins?—diplomacy isn’t one. He may be the only guy who could teach Bradley Wiggins a thing or two about badmouthing a previous team. That said, his cunning has proven he is more than worthy of both protection and a free hand. Maybe we should call this one the Wild Card Award. You just never know with this guy.
The Mad Ambition Award—This goes to Jim Ochowicz and the rest of the management at Team BMC. On one hand, they are geniuses for vaulting BMC to the top of the pops in just two years. Their ability to sign riders of real quality was confirmed in a royal flush back in July when Cadel Evans finally won the Tour de France. So how they managed to court and sign both Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd can’t simply be magic; it’s more like sorcery. Evans was on record saying anyone on his Tour team (and it is his Tour team) won’t freelance, won’t go for stage wins and will bury himself for the team. Somehow Gilbert and Hushovd—who between them took three stages of this year’s Tour—claimed they were okay with that. We also give this the Most Likely to End in Tears Award.
The Most Coveted Award—This has to go to Zipp for the new Firecrest 303. There’s not another set of wheels I’ve heard spoken of with a more covetous tone than the redesigned Firecrest 303. Lighter than a supermodel’s brain, more aerodynamic than a Cessna and more durable than any aluminum rim you’re riding, the only question is who doesn’t want this wheel.
The Relief Award—Bike fans breathed a collective sigh of relief with the announcement that Campagnolo will finally begin selling its long-awaited electronic group, EPS. Though we heard that the Italian maker was working on this group back in 2002, Shimano came to market with Di2 a full two years ahead of Campagnolo. This is quite a contrast from the introduction of index shifting and integrated control levers. Shimano’s stuff may have worked better in both instances, but at least Campy had a ready response. The good news is that EPS seems to be kink-free, so this year you’ll be able to enjoy electronic shifting and 11-speeds all in the same group.
Worst News of the Year Award—The demise of HTC-Highroad. To have Bob Stapleton depart cycling is the worst news the sport will get for a long, long time.
The Textbook Courage Award—If you needed any proof of the talent at Andy Schleck’s disposal, his attack on Stage 18 from Pinerolo to the Galibier in this year’s Tour de France showed exactly what the young and often hapless Luxembourger is capable of. Down on GC and running out of road, Schleck had to do SOMETHING. What he did was one of the most courageous and awe-inspiring attacks we’ve seen this decade. First, Leopard – Trek put Joost Posthuma and Maxime Monfort into the break. Then, Schleck attacked with 60km to go, took a gap, stretched it to two minutes and then latched onto Posthuma and Monfort to stretch his lead, ending just 15 seconds out of yellow, as Tommy Voekler buried himself on the imposing slopes of the Galibier. This is the racing fans have always wanted from Schleck, but he has seldom delivered. Cautious to a fault, on this day Schleck was a legend.
The Have No Cake and Fail to Eat It Either Award—I, for one, thought it was a good idea for Zdenek Stybar to try his luck on the road, especially with a Classics-oriented squad like QuickStep. Unfortunately, Stybie flopped in his first season and has now relinquished his dominance of the Euro Cyclocross World Cup Series to Kevin Pauwels. What’s the Flemish for “Oops?”
The Straight Face Award—It’s been 18 months since Alberto Contador tested positive at the Tour de France. The saga of inaction since then is well-documented. Under WADA guidelines, it doesn’t matter how or why the “adverse analytical finding” came about, the rider should be suspended, and yet Contador has argued, with a straight face, that he deserves to ride, and UCI head Pat McQuaid has gone on as if the fleet Spaniard isn’t receiving preferential treatment. If we say up is down long enough, will we all learn to fly?
The Ricco Suave Award—This award is reserved for dopers who approach the rank stupidity of Ricardo Ricco in their efforts to cover their tracks and/or protest their innocence. This year’s award goes to Ezequiel Mosquera. After a positive test for hydroxyethyl starch at the 2010 Vuelta, at which he was runner-up, Mosquera cried foul. But the test for hydroxyethyl starch has been around a long time, and that substance’s use as a masking agent for doping products is well-documented. Compounding Mosquera’s guilt, one of his Xacobeo-Galicia teammates, David Garcia, also tested positive for the same substance at the same race. The Spanish cycling federation (RFEC) rewarded Mosquera’s cheating with a two year ban ON TOP of the 14 months he’s already been off the bike. The rider has said he’ll retire. Don’t do us any favors Ezequiel.
Cyclist of the year—All new cyclists. They may be annoyances right now. They might reduce our cool, bad-boy cred. They may do stupid things in the road, at lights, on the trail, etc. But they’re making the world a better place for us. Growing the sport makes the roads safer, will eventually make the public more sympathetic, and some day, some of them will be giving us their draft as they pummel us in their wake. Cycling is growing so much that some places, like New York City, are experiencing a backlash. I think the backlash will be shortlived. We’re going to win and all new cyclists are helping.
The “Why Would Anyone Need X” award:
This year saw a number of new technical innovations: some good, some bad, but all the victim of some variant of the pace-line putdown “Why would anyone need <insert component here>”. The list of what would surely be past winners is long and filled with the things we take for granted today, and would surely include clipless pedals (“Too dangerous in a crash!”), index shifting (“I don’t need click-shifting to find my gear!”), Di2 (“If I wanted to play video games, I’d just stay home and play Nintendo!”) and 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and yes, 12 speed rear clusters (“Why would anyone need more than 5/6/7/8/9/10/11 speeds?”).
2011′s award, based on the seemingly never discussions on the topic, goes to disc brakes in cyclocross. With a battle cry of “if they were good enough for De Vlaeminck*, they’re good enough to me”, the canti-devoted dismissed the disc as unnecessary – too heavy, too powerful, not hydraulic, and just plain pointless. It’s true that the disc options when using brifters are incomplete; quality cable actuated brakes like those from Avid aren’t quite as effortless as hydraulics, and the mechanical/hydraulic adapters look like a mechanical in the making. That said, any mountain biker will tell you there’s no denying the performance of discs in the muck. Wet or dry, discs just work. It’ll take a few years for vendors to come up with ideal, rather than adapted solutions to discs in cyclocross. But when they do, I suspect the naysayers will see their benefits and at the very least, wish they were on discs too. Hey, give me hydraulic brifters, and I just might be willing to move off this 9 speed setup – because really, more than 9 speeds is silly, but disc brakes are awesome.
The shut-up and ride award—By now, we’ve all seen the video of Juan Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland getting whacked by the errant media car in Stage 9 of this year’s Tour de France. Both men suffered injuries that would have sent most of us crawling into an ambulance or at least the broom wagon. What was impressive, though, is that both of them got up, finished the stage and then made it all the way to Paris nearly two weeks later. It’s a story worth bringing up next time one of your non-cycling friends tries to tell you that American football players are the toughest athletes on the planet.
The great French hope—It was fun to watch Thomas Voeckler reprise his 2004 role as the beloved – but doomed – defender of the yellow jersey. (Voeckler actually earned the jersey as part of the aforementioned break from which Hoogerland and Flecha were taken out.) Voeckler is now 32 and his years may be numbered. It was inspiring to see the entire Europcar squad rise to the occasion and protect the jersey for 10 stages … all the way up to stage 19 when another member of the team earned the spotlight and maybe even signaled the start of what would be a welcomed renaissance in French cycling. Pierre Rolland showed more than a flash of brilliance on the slopes of l’Alpe d’Huez, out-classing Samuel Sánchez and Alberto Contador atop that storied climb. Not only did he win the stage, he grabbed the best young rider’s white jersey for good and finished the Tour in 11th on GC. Like another promising young rider in the season’s final grand tour, you have to wonder what this guy could have accomplished had he not been saddled with domestique duties for most of the race.
Maybe, just maybe, we will see an end to the French drought at the Tour, a race the hosts haven’t won since 1985.
Out of Africa―Having grown up in in Kenya and South Africa, Chris Froome showed he was more than able to meet the challenges of the European peloton in this year’s Vuelta a España. Froome finished second in the Vuelta and one can only imagine how the 26-year-old Team Sky rider would have fared had he not been obligated to ride in support of Bradley Wiggins at critical moments in that grand tour. As is the case with Rolland, I’m looking forward to seeing Froome ride without other obligations holding him back.
The No-Man-Is-an-Island Award―This last one is purely personal. Not to beat a dead horse, but I’ve hit a few rough spots over the past few months. Had you told me in January that things would have taken the turn they did in July, I would have predicted that I would just curl up in a ball and stay in bed. The darn thing, though, is that there are folks out there who just wouldn’t let that happen. Anything that I’ve accomplished or anything positive that has happened to me over the past months is purely due to the fact that people have been generous and spectacular. I have to extend my thanks to a host of people, including the gang over at NYVeloCity.com, their readers, the folks who follow me at LiveUpdateGuy.com, countless friends and family and, of course, those responsible for my new home here at Red Kite Prayer. I can’t even begin to count the ways that I have reason to be thankful. All of you gave real meaning to the words “cycling community.”
Most Disappointingly Successful Stage Race-Winning Strategy—Thanks to victories by Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans, and Juan José Cobo in this season’s grand tours, it was easy to overlook a rather unexciting “trend” in the art of winning stage races. Of the eleven non-grand tour stage races on the 2011 World Tour, eight had at least one time trial. Of those eight, seven were won by men who took either only the time trial or no stage wins at all, a race-winning strategy calling to mind Miguel Indurain.
Take Bradley Wiggins for example. The Brit from Team Sky won the Criterium du Dauphiné—without winning a single stage. The same can be said of RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer at the Tour de Suisse. Both riders used top rides in individual time trials as the foundations of their victories then simply hung-on for dear life in the mountains. Of course, both victories were well deserved—after all, consistency goes a long way—but race fans can’t be blamed for wanting to see a bit more aggression from their champions. At least Germany’s Tony Martin actually won stages (both time trials, though) at Paris-Nice and the Tour of Beijing for HTC-HighRoad on his way to taking both overall victories.
What does it all mean? Not much, perhaps. But it could inspire more time trialists to find some climbing legs for a week every now and again. Or maybe a few of the sport’s aggressive riders might find themselves spending some time in the wind tunnel or behind a motor scooter, doing their best to defeat the sport’s Martin’s, Wiggo’s, and Leipheimer’s at their own game.
Then again, this is professional cycling—there are no style points. Victories bring contracts and unless your name is Thomas Voeckler, no one cares about how much excitement you generate in losing. We need to give credit where credit is due, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.
Much about professional cycling can be understood in terms of the Brady Bunch, that late ’60s, early ’70s television confection that taught a whole lot of us American types exactly how to function within the confines of an idyllic suburban milieu. The Brady Bunch took everyday family problems, turned their volume up to 11 and broke off the knob. If I hadn’t seen that one episode (“Mail Order Hero”) in which Bobby fakes a terminal illness to get a visit from his hero, Jets’ quarterback Joe Namath, then I most certainly would have employed that strategy to win a visit from my own “hero” of the time, Farrah Fawcett.
Whew, that was a close one.
The Grand Tours are like the Brady girls, Marsha, Jan and Cindy. Sure, Marsha (the Tour) is the oldest, prettiest and the one whose route you’d most like to explore, but she’s so conceited and self-centered sometimes. Seriously, high maintenance girls/Grand Tours can be so much more trouble than they’re worth. Jan (the Giro), on the other hand, is smarter and more well-rounded and probably deserves more lines in the show. She has a subtle sophistication that Marsha lacks. You could spend your whole life with her, grow old together, raise small tours of your own, like Suisse or Eneco. Cindy (the Vuelta) is just cute as hell, but it’s hard to build a whole show around her. She has that adorable lisp, and you’re just sure that when she grows up, in that future that never comes on television, she’s going to be a real knock out.
To carry the metaphor to the next, and even more absurd, level, the Tour of California is Mrs. Brady, not your first choice, but you’d do her. Come on, she (it) is gorgeous. The Tour of Oman is Alice, the maid. Her timing is all wrong, and she’s not pretty, but you can’t help but feel she brings something necessary (warm weather training) to the show.
The three big component makers, Campagnolo, Shimano and SRAM are like the Brady boys. Campy is Greg. He’s the oldest. He’s a bit of a playboy, but also sort of a mess. Shimano is Peter, the middle child. He’s the go-to if you need to get something done, because you get less drama than with Greg. Sure, he’s prone to fits of fancy, like that one time when he imagined he was a great detective, prancing about the tiny screen with a deerstalker hat on (Di2 anyone?), but ultimately Peter is your friend. When everyone else is at tryouts for football or cheerleading, Peter is on the couch, doing his homework. SRAM is Bobby, the young upstart. Bobby’s got real potential. He learns the most from his mistakes. He’s going to be a solid grown up.
The Brady house is actually a good metaphor for the pro peloton as a whole. Mr. Brady is an architect, he designs other people’s houses, i.e. he sets the style for how other people race and ride. The Brady house was, at the time, a super cool, modern design that all suburban families were jealous of. It managed to be futuristically perfect for a family of eight, plus maid and dog, but also homey and comfortable. Just like the peloton of that time, though, the Brady house looks hopelessly dated through today’s eyes. What was once cutting edge, now looks sort of silly, like Greg LeMond’s time trial helmet.
I shouldn’t pretend to understand really. I’m just Tiger, the family pet, out in a small house of my own in the backyard, only sporadically involved in the show, never really allowed in the house for fear I’ll ruin the furniture.
A love of gear is an expansive love. And it’s not a love that blooms in isolation. It grows from our infatuation with an activity and the gear is nothing more than the physical manifestation of that activity.
I won’t say that cyclists love cycling more than runners love running, but the devotion seems different, and—naturally—to our eyes, more enjoyable.
It should be no surprise that our love for the bicycle itself extends to the stores that sell them. If the bicycle is a good time waiting to happen, then a shop is countless adventures yet to unfold. In each of those bicycles—even the ones we wouldn’t buy—we see our lives as we want them to be: The excitement of dressing for a five-hour ride with friends every day of the week.
And yet, we love bike shops not because of what they are, but in spite of what they are. Few of us have the sort of shop we dream of in our backyard. Even when our buying experience isn’t what we’d like, or as good as we believe it ought to be, we continue to love bike shops at least as a concept.
I’ve been in plenty of shops that were professional enough, but seemed empty of passion and that seems to be where I draw the line. Unless a shop is doing something to excite me about my sport and make me feel like my riding life is important to them, I won’t really go in for more than chains and cables.
I think that may be why operations like Mill Valley’s Above Category and Studio Velo engender such fanatical love. They are to cycling what Miracle-Gro is to roses. Ah, to live in Marin County. Slurp.
So why don’t we love the average bike shop the way we did back in the 1980s? My memory of shops back then was that they were cool the way Fonzie was cool to me when I was in second grade.
Once I take off the rose-colored glasses, I can see that a retailer had a much easier job in 1986 than they do today.
The number of bike categories they had to address was much less. The shop I dealt with had road bikes, a few mountain bikes and at Christmas they’d get a few kids’ bikes. One or two of the bikes were touring models and the rest were traditional road racers.
Replacement parts held in stock mostly amounted to freewheels, cables, brake shoes, a headset or two and five sizes of ball bearings. Aftermarket upgrades amounted to one or two groups, a few choices in pedals, a couple of rear derailleurs and a saddle or two.
In all honesty, the clothing selection was lousy.
I don’t recall anyone angling for a discount back then. Of course, the most expensive bike my shop carried didn’t cost 10% of the annual income of its more affluent customers, either. Even college students could come up with $1000 to purchase a Campy-equipped Torpado.
All of the decoration around the shop involved photos of PROs riding the bikes the shop carried.
Retailing is a much tougher business today. Online competitors and deal-shopping consumers squeeze profits like a kid with a ketchup bottle. The number of models a brand offers has in many cases tripled or quadrupled and retailers are rewarded better pricing based on just how much they stock. The array of replacement parts a shop is expected to stock has multiplied with the ferocity of cockroaches in a dirty kitchen. And while a frameset could hang on a wall for three or four years without losing its relevance or value, the same cannot be said today.
So who’s to blame? Well, this is one of those occasions, like the economy, where there’s plenty of blame to go around. Consumers (us) can be faulted for wanting deals that ultimately undermine the service we get when we visit a shop. As they shave their margins, they shave their ability to sit on large amounts of stock and their ability to pay livable wages to their staff, which hurts their ability to keep employees who talk like Competitive Cyclist copy.
The shops can be faulted for caving to every request for a deal. If they all held firm like unionized workers, we’d all be paying list prices. Some can also be faulted for running their shops like sidewalk lemonade stands and not really knowing basic statistics that are key indicator’s for their business’ health or how to connect with consumers on an emotional level.
Finally, the bike companies get a buffet-sized helping of blame for their ever-increasing number of SKUs. Let’s ask the question: How many price points do you really need to hit?
Speaking of connecting with consumers on an emotional—even visceral level—I’ve got to ask why none of the bike companies out there have resorted to enticing men with sex. You know, busty babes? I’m guessing that shots of Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie stand in for traditional hard bodies for most women (well, if not, it works for my wife), so why not use the Bay Watch approach to luring more men into the sport?
I don’t mean to trivialize the issue, but a great many very large, very successful multi-national corporations resort to sex as a means to short-circuit men into purchasing their widgets. Given how ubiquitous the approach is, isn’t it fair to point out that the approach continues to be used because, well, because it works? Wouldn’t photos of Heidi Klum astride a Specialized Amira bring some new consumers into the sport, riders who won’t expect Dura-Ace at 105 prices?
I don’t really think sex is the answer, but it is such an obvious tactic that if bike companies and retailers are missing this one, I can’t help but wonder what else they are missing.
And yet, like the faults we find in our best friends, we’ll never stop loving bike shops. Around every corner, in nooks and basements, they never fail in their ability to fascinate and excite.
Back in the early ’90s I ran across a catalog for a Utah operation called Sierra Trading Post. It was the very first mail-order retailer I had run across selling closeout products from high-end outdoor manufacturers. The market has changed a great deal since then, with a great many new retailers entering the market and the paper catalogs giving way to Internet sites.
However one thing remains constant: Everyone loves closeout pricing.
New sites have proliferated at a rate roughly equal to political sex scandals. Of those, the site formerly known as Backcountry.com has relaunched as a site with more broad-based appeal, hence the name Department of Goods.
Nevermind the fact that in five years the logo is going to look more dated than an episode of the Brady Bunch, the relaunched site not only has great brands (Time, De Rosa Santa Cruz, Patagonia, North Face and Salomon, among others) but has products from these companies that you have likely lusted after. One of the issues I had with Sierra Trading Post back in the day was the fact that if they had my size, it was a color I didn’t want, or vice versa.
With the economy hitting incomes and more, rather than review another premium product that you may or may no accept at its given price point, when I ran across the Department of Goods I thought a heads-up might be in order.
The site is easy to navigate and the discounts real. Most stuff is at least 30 percent off, but deals of 45 percent off or more are there. I’m a big believer in brick-and-mortar retailers, but I’m a bigger believer in spending responsibly so you can afford your lifestyle.
Twelve years ago the Sea Otter Classic was a collection of bike races with some industry friendliness thrown in. It is an unusual event in that it embraces nearly every discipline of bike racing going. Back then, people hung out to watch the racing and during the road events, Laguna Seca’s famed corkscrew would host dozens of spectators. Mountain bike teams would set up their rigs in the infield and a handful of companies would set up small expo booths.
There’s road racing, cross-country, downhill, dual slalom and more. Throw in a 24-hour event, an alley cat and some track racing and all that would be missing would be the West Coast’s first spring ‘cross race. Yes, Virginia, there is a pump track if air time is more important to you than speed.
Today, the Sea Otter boasts an enormous expo, larger than Mammoth Mountain’s was back in the late ‘90s. Every company that has a serious presence in racing has a rig there to support their race programs and generally provide limited support to their customers. Bike shops sell everything from tires and tubes to helmets and cassettes. Frame builders show off their latest creations.
There’s stuff for kids to do, right down to races of their own. And they can meet the Sea Otter mascot.
Periodically, attendees will see a cordoned-off area with a bunch of (mostly male) journalists taking notes and pictures with impossibly small cameras. The fact is, Sea Otter has becoming the go-to locale for product introductions that weren’t ready for the prime time of Interbike. Truly, unveiling a product at Sea Otter can be advantageous to a company. How many story lines can you really hope for the press to cover at Interbike? For those companies constantly on the move, Sea Otter gives you a way to space out product intros so that a company can get press on a more year-round basis.
SRAM took the opportunity to announce another road group, Apex. So what’s the big deal? Gearing. With Apex, SRAM has slain the triple. Apex does a good deal more, though.
With a possible low gear of 34×32, Apex can get any cyclist up any hill. It carries a suggested retail price of $749, which is impressive given that Apex enjoys a 10-speed cassette and can be used to build up a 16-lb. bike. Theoretically, it will appear on bikes as inexpensive as $1500.
Some years ago I wrote that Shimano’s 9-speed Ultegra group was the best value in road groups ever produced. It was available in both double and triple versions, could easily build a 17-lb. bike and could be purchased at retail for $600. All in all, a fantastic value. I stood by that analysis until Friday. Last Friday.
Apex has the ability to make road cycling friendly to a great many people. I’ve seen plenty of new roadies ride around in a 39×23 and ask me what to do if they encounter a hill. Those days are—once and for all—over.
Apex comes in four
cassette sizes: 11-23, 11-26, 11-28 and 11-32. Walk into any shop in America and you can talk to a salesman who has sold mountain bikes just because the customer was overweight and was concerned about having gears low enough to get up a hill near home. Apex solves that issue—even for San Francisco. SRAM refers to the new system as WiFLi—Wider, Faster and Lighter.
Two different rear derailleurs were designed for Apex. The 11-23 and 11-26 cassettes work with a traditional short-cage derailleur while the 11-28 and 11-32 work with a longer cage version. Price and gearing are the only details that make Apex noteworthy. Everything else about the group is just very … SRAM. By that I mean the levers feel like every other SRAM lever I’ve ever used.
One of my issues with Shimano’s more affordable groups has been the degradation of shifting performance and lever feedback as price drops. In the Sora and Tiagra groups it’s been bad enough that I always steer people away from bikes equipped with those groups. By contrast, the Apex levers feature very firm spring response. There’s no mistaking when or how far you’ve shifted.
I refuse to discuss Campy’s “affordable” groups in this post. I haven’t seen anything less expensive than Chorus on the road in years. For reasons I can’t explain, I’m suddenly reminded of the scene in American Beauty—“It’s all I smoke … It’s $1000 an ounce.”
Similarly, the brakes feel like every other set of SRAM brakes I’ve used. In short, they stop. The constantly shifting sand underlying Shimano brake performance can be a colossal frustration. And since when did a less expensive bike have a reduced need to stop? Does it really make sense than Dura-Ace, Shimano’s most expensive group, would have the greatest stopping power? I’m thinking new riders want to be convinced they’ll stop in plenty of time. After all, a good deal of getting a new rider into roadiedom is reassuring them that they will have sufficient control over their bike.
The cranks come in three versions: 53/39, 50/36 and what is likely to be the most popular, the 50/34. And because we’re talking SRAM, they are available in lengths from 165mm to 180mm.
So after sitting through the dog and pony show, I headed back to the booth the next day for a test ride of the group. We’d do a 1.5-hr. loop culminating in the climb back into Laguna Seca. For those who have never visited the race track, the access road is a roughly 1-mile climb that reaches grades of 16 percent. Armed with a 34×32 low gear, we were assured we could remain seated for the whole of the climb.
Our guide for the ride was Michael Zellman (above), the PR manager for road products at SRAM. One of the features of Apex is its compatibility with other SRAM groups. To prove the point, Michael substituted the rear derailleur on his Red group for Apex and replaced his Red cassette with an Apex 11-32 cassette (probably added a longer chain, too). Boom. Mountain climbing machine.
Of course, the big question regarding the cassette is the spacing. Little known secret: You are most apt to notice a problem with spacing when you’re at or above threshold. If the jump is too big, you’re heart rate will go up just out of sheer frustration. I tend to notice this when I’m upshifting to find a bit more meat and my concern was that jump from 32 to 28. It wasn’t a problem. The biggest jumps come elsewhere in the cassette.
While I’d like to have a chance to get 1000 or so miles on the group, what I can say for now is this: In a pinch, you could easily do a fast group ride with the 11-32 cassette. It’s true that a triple would offer smaller jumps between gears; however, most triples will replicate roughly six gears and weigh an extra 10-15 percent more than the Apex solution. And Apex gives you more low-end and more high-end gearing than the average triple would.
This is, in all likelihood, the best value in road groups we’ll see for years to come.
Cutting the chase: the image above, which I snapped on the way back into Laguna Seca and right about where you’re certain that a 16-percent grade can only be attributed to engineering compromised by methamphetamine is, I believe, the lasting image that SRAM would like to convey. On the right, the past. On the left, the present.
Stay tuned for a more in-depth review.
The wheel market has exploded with the vengeance of the mosquito population at a stagnant pond in the Deep South during a drought-plagued summer. We’ve been overrun with wheels, much the way I just overran my good sense and your patience in that last sentence.
Doubt that? Nearly every company that used to offer wheel components—DT, Campagnolo, Mavic, Shimano, American Classic, Chris King and Ambrosio for starters—now offers complete wheels. There are some notable exceptions, such as Wheelsmith and Sapim, who have elected to stick with spokes and nipples, and Phil Wood (hubs), but the vast majority of companies that produced components that I used to build wheels from now offer complete wheelsets.
By a certain sort of math, you could make an argument that expansion brought about a tripling of the wheel market. The result has changed what it means to purchase a high-end wheelset. Given the incredible number of poorly built handmade wheels I saw over the years (How many racers did I see not finish a race because their wheels didn’t hold up?), this isn’t a bad thing … on one level. On another, it can be terrible at times.
Gone is the conversation between the budding racer and the sage mechanic. I’ve been on both sides of that conversation and the chance to learn about or to teach lacing patterns or the value of equal spoke tension is a chance for someone to become a more knowledgeable, more engaged cyclist. Those conversations and choices were substantive. Clydesdales need to be steered away from alloy nipples just as bantam weight climbers ought to be steered to butted spokes. On group rides these days, so often I hear guys discussing wheel choices based on color.
Recently overheard: “I went with the American Classics because the white matched my frame.”
I’ve tried a number of aftermarket wheelsets with Campy freehubs. In both 10- and 11-speed configurations a great many of them have a problem that I consider colossal, but I rarely hear anyone complain.
That problem? Rear derailleur spoke clearance.
If I hear the rear derailleur cage tick, tick, ticking against the spokes when I’m climbing, I’m concerned. It is the bicycle equivalent of driving to Dubuque with the idiot light on. And the people who do complain about this? They are the ones who had exactly this problem—undiagnosed by their shop mechanic—stood up and flexed the wheel enough to catch the cage, sheer the carbon fiber scissors through wrapping paper and destroy the rear derailleur, the wheel and the derailleur hanger, if not the frame along the way.
I’ve encountered this problem on more wheels than I ought. A healthy supply of 1mm spacers hasn’t corrected the problem for most of the wheels, either. One can ask the question of whether the problem is with the wheels or the derailleur, but because Campagnolo and Fulcrum wheels never have this problem—proving that it is possible to make wheels that don’t suffer this incompatibility—I lay the blame with the wheel makers.
A good review of a set of wheels really ought to be based on qualities of superior distinction, such as multiplying your power output or a freehub that dispenses cash when you hit 500 watts. Congratulating a set of wheels for competency is a bit like giving a kid AP credit for reading Harry Potter.
Regardless, the starting point for this review is the fact that the spokes of the Torelli Bormio Ceramic Ultra-Lites don’t rub on a Campy rear derailleur cage. This one feature makes them worth considering if you’re looking for a set of Campy-compatible wheels. Is that enough to warrant purchasing them? Not by a long shot.
In fact, my biggest single wheel pet peeve is trueness—actually lack thereof. I monitor wheels as I review them to see how they are holding up. Within the first 200 miles of riding these wheels I had to perform a slight truing of the rear wheel, tightening two spokes that had de-tensioned slightly. I’ve done nothing since.
Last fall I rode Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo. For those of you who recall my ride report of the event, you may recall some grumbling about a record number of flats I experienced that day. These were the wheels I was using. The reason for the trouble was a rim strip issue.
When I returned from the ride I e-mailed Todd, the owner at Torelli, and told him about the trouble. He was on the phone to me within the minute I hit the ‘send’ button. When I saw the “Torelli” on the caller ID, I thought it was just a weird coincidence.
He asked me what color the rim strips were. When I told him they were yellow, he told me to throw them in the trash, that those were early production and had caused problems and had been since replaced with different rim strips that wouldn’t move. I’d have some new ones the next day. And I did.
Every dealer that received wheels with the yellow rim strips have been shipped the red rim strips I received.
Since receiving the new rim strips, I haven’t had a single flat and that’s even while running the paper-thin Specialized open tubulars (whose ride continues to grow on me). I remain deeply suspicious of mylar, plastic and all manner of rim strips that are anything other than Velox for one simple reason: Velox rim strips have adhesive on the bottom. Granted, it doesn’t have the sticky factor of Chinese rice, but it really doesn’t need much to just not move.
Okay, so lets move on to the bullet points featured in the marketing literature. The rims have a claimed weight of 380 grams. The front wheel has 20 spokes, the rear 24 spokes. The front is radially laced, the rear features radial lacing on the non-drive side and two-cross on the drive side. The stainless steel J-bend Sandvik spokes are bladed (0.9mm x 2.2mm) for increased aerodynamic efficiency and easy replacement.
Torelli claims they weigh 1380g for the pair—that’s with rim strips and a Shimano freehub. I have yet to review a set of wheels that weighs within 10g of the advertised weight, but these were pretty close; they came in at 1412g. I attribute the difference to the Campy freehub, but that’s just a wild assertion of the same general vicinity as most stories in the National Enquirer. I haven’t weighed the two freehub bodies. I really don’t know. At all.
The rear wheel contains six ceramic bearings and inside the freehub is a needle bearing to reduce freehub drag while descending, of which, it does an admirable job. Spin the rear wheel up with the bike in the stand and once you let go of the pedal it moves no further. It’s also remarkably quiet when freewheeling, which is a quality I associate with low drag and stealthy approaches, both of which I find handy.
Compared to many wheels in this weight range the Bormio Ceramic Ultra-Lites are surprisingly stiff laterally. Certainly there are stiffer wheels out there, but stiff isn’t really the selling point on these wheels. Their weight, incredibly low rolling resistance due to the ceramic bearings and machined aluminum braking surfaces, all for a suggested retail of $650 is why you buy these wheels.
Who doesn’t want raceable weight and low-drag bearings in an everyday wheelset?
Torelli does suggest a 180-lb. weight limit for users, but I suspect that at that weight (or more) you would be inclined to seek out a stiffer wheel regardless.
A great set of wheels really isn’t about the graphics (which on these aren’t exactly going to win any design awards—but can’t anyone get graphics right on a set of wheels anymore without sacrificing function?); it ought to be about bringing the various elements together to make a wheel set perfectly suited to its intended purpose.
In the last year I’ve tried six different aftermarket (non-Campy/Fulcrum) wheel sets meant to work with Campy. Considering functionality, weight and price, these are the best of the bunch.
My first experience with Sampson products came back in 1987 when a coworker at the bike shop I worked at bought a Centurion Ironman spec’d with Sampson pedals. For those of you who don’t recall these pedals, they featured an unusual L-shaped cleat that wrapped around the back of the pedal. They featured a unique clutch that held the pedal in place after you clipped out so that upon clipping in again it was in (hopefully) exactly the right position to clip in without fumbling around with your shoes.
The cleats were very difficult to walk in and broke. A lot. I wasn’t exactly impressed.
A few years went by and I received a test bike from Sampson. It was made from Reynolds 853 steel. For construction, Eric Sampson sought out Reynolds’ famous frame shop in Nottingham, England. This was the frame shop where all the Ti-Raleigh frames were built, a shop with as much history as there is to be found in the bike industry. The bike included a few different Sampson components, including cranks.
The bike was one of my favorites of the quartet that I reviewed. My opinion of Sampson changed dramatically.
Since then, I’ve reviewed two more Sampson bikes. Each time, he has done something essentially unknown among his competitors: He calls me and asks me what could be better. Invariably, I get another call a few months later in which he tells me about what changes he was able to make to respond to my suggestions.
I confess, during these calls I rock back in forth in my chair, grinning at my obscene power. Weekly calls of this sort could give me an ego transportable only by 18-wheeler.
So a couple of weeks ago I received a pair of the new s5 pedals. They feature steel spindles, a lightweight alloy body, a 62mm-wide cleat platform, three cartridge bearings and a cam-graduated hinge to make entry easier. The s6 pedals feature a titanium spindle.
Sampson claims a weight of 121g per pedal. My test pedals weighed exactly 121g each (the titanium model has a claimed weight of only 99g per pedal). I was so dumbfounded, I weighed them a second time. I can’t recall the last time a weight was accurate to the gram. Eric says he weighed at least eight pairs himself just to make sure the weight was dead-on.
Eric says that unlike most competitors’ pedals the contact plate on the s5 is replaceable to allow you to keep the look of the pedals new. The spring tension is also very adjustable thanks to a 20-position indexed Allen bolt. The cleats mount via a standard three-hole mounting pattern.
I’ve been a Speedplay X user for more than 10 years. While I have some other pedals at my disposal, Speedplays have been my pedals of choice. Non-Speedplay users tend to be critical of the system, pointing out how shoes will rock side-to-side when the cleats are worn. I tend to replace my cleats pretty frequently and never have any complaints about rocking or the amount of float when using them. It feels perfectly natural.
Okay, so that said, the Sampson’s are striking for their secure feeling. My cleats featured no float, which added to the ultra-positive power transfer. Entry and release is easy enough. I’ve set the release tension pretty low; thrashers afraid of unwanted release can increase tension dramatically.
Suggested retail for the s5 is $139, while the s6 goes for $239. Initially, they will be available in red and white. My test pedals are pre-production; they should be available in black in June.
I’m not sure there’s much more to say about a pair of pedals other than they are light, easy to get into and release and, best of all, provide a secure platform. By comparison both the Dura-Ace 7800 and 7810 pedals—while good pedals—they are heavier than the Sampsons, don’t feel quite as secure and are more expensive. Same for the Look Keo Sprint.
For years I wrote that Sampson products were a terrific value because they typically offered 85 percent of the performance of the top-drawer stuff for 50 percent of the cost. Those days are gone. He said he wants to compete head-to-head with companies like Shimano. After riding these pedals, there’s no denying that they are a great alternative to Shimano and Look.
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.