The term he used was “expectation differential.” I was speaking with a custom bike builder about how people react to his bikes, TIG-welded, steel creations, beautifully painted, and he said that the biggest shock for most people was how well a steel bike could ride. He said there was a huge “expectation differential” between what they think steel is like, and what it is actually like here in the 21st century.
To be clear, expectation differential is the difference between how you expect something to be and how it actually is.
Most folks last rode steel in the ’80s. They’ve been riding aluminum and carbon (sometimes Ti), and now they expect today’s steel to be heavy and clunky. Then they get on a modern steel bike and they can’t believe how well it rides. It’s not that they can’t have their socks knocked off by a new carbon fiber bike. It’s that they expect to have their socks knocked off. The differential is smaller.
Another example from my own experience is the modern suspension fork. I am a very occasional, if enthusiastic, mountain biker, so I went something like a decade (it was more actually) without updating my trail bike. When finally I did it, it was really to get to a different wheel size, rather than feeling I was going to get great benefit from a new bike.
I was wrong. Suspension forks have come a long way. First time out on my new bike, my mind was veritably blown as I floated over rock and root. I was faster, more confident, and finished the ride feeling less beaten. Huge expectation differential.
This week’s Group Ride asks, what cycling product or experience has provided you the greatest expectation differential? Where were you coming from, and where did you get to? Was it a bike? A shoe? A tire lever?
As a latecomer to both the industry and riding at 28, I dove in during the spring of 2010 with the unbridled enthusiasm of a five year old at Disney Land. I wanted to learn everything about everything, immediately. My first lesson?
Lighter is better, carbon is lighter, therefore, carbon is better.
Cycling also turned me into a fierce competitor; someone who was obsessed with going faster and getting stronger—than other people. That was key. Going faster and getting stronger than other people. And to do that, I needed the best bike. I needed carbon.
And I did get faster, and I did get stronger, and eventually, I started to become the rider I wanted to be.
Very soon, I scored a job at an amazing bike shop in North Carolina, owned by a man renowned in the biz as The Vintage Expert. When he talked about the old racers and the old bikes, his eyes became brighter, his gestures grander. We sold carbon, but his first love was steel, and so the shop burst with his personal collection. An all original Masi Gran Criterium hung next to a 1950s Hetchins track bike that hung next to a Schwinn Paramount. I spent slow winter Tuesday afternoons studying them, honing my eye and discerning what made each one unique. I came to appreciate an even weld and a well-executed lug.
I even dabbled in vintage steel myself, scoring a beautiful red Gios with SLX tubing. I painstakingly pieced together an entire Dura Ace Black drillium grouppo for it, hubs and all. I found a Nitto Pearl stem and Sakae bars. I felt a true connection to that bike, but I still never rode it. I didn’t see the practical point, since it wouldn’t make me faster, stronger, or the rider I wanted to be. Eventually, I sold it to get money for a new carbon rig, sad at the loss but knowing it was for a greater good.
After moving to California in 2011, I found the state played the game at a whole new level. In my opinion, I had become a pretty good rider, but as soon as I saddled up on the West coast, not a single group ride went by that I wasn’t shot off the back. And so I had to up my game. I rode more and rode harder. I bought a newer, lighter carbon bike so I could benefit from every advantage and stay on track to become the rider I wanted to be.
But steel never went away. I bought a purple vintage Rossin off ebay. I loved the way it rode and preferred it to the feel of my race rig, but still treated it just a nice lark to play around with on rest days, an eccentricity. It wasn’t carbon, so how could it possibly help me be faster and stronger?
Because I was sure the carbon bike had a large part to play in my progression as the cyclist I wanted to be, and as such, I continuously looked for ways make it lighter and faster. Last year’s bike became disposable and next year’s bike became coveted in an endless cycle of discarding and wanting. It felt empty, but also necessary.
Then, my crusher friends Steve and Jason invited me on what would be my first cyclocross/road ride in the Santa Cruz mountains. I accepted, excited to be included on a ride with such strong company. Still, I felt that I needed every advantage possible, and so borrowed the lightest carbon cross rig I could for the occasion.
We started riding.
Two hours later, completely cooked, I looked up at my friends riding 10 meters in front of me, side by side, their hands resting lightly on the tops of their bars and a conversation clearly on their lips. We were one mile into the three mile Empire Grade Road, a name synonymous in that area with steep, unrelenting stair step climbs.
I looked up at their bikes, now 12 meters in front of me. Jason rode an emerald Gunnar, a bike he had for ten years and rebuilt several times, the parts a mash up of forethought and whatever he happened to have in the garage. Steve rode his all-time favorite bike, a red Rock Lobster built for him by his good friend Paul. He painstakingly chose each component, making sure the overall picture was simultaneously beautiful and utilitarian. You could tell that each bike had a relationship with its rider, and you could tell that both bikes were loved.
Then I looked down at my bike. High modulus carbon, lightest of light, stiffest of stiff. But it wasn’t a bike I chose because I loved it. It was a bike I chose because I thought it would make me faster and better. Except it wasn’t. Jason and Steve rode away from me, while talking, because no bike could hide the truth: they were simply stronger riders than I.
But as their relaxed, upright backs disappeared around a switchback 15 meters ahead of me, that fact was suddenly OK. They were just enjoying their ride, and it was OK to not be as strong or as fast they were. It was OK to simply be the rider I was at that given moment, and to enjoy the ride with them.
With that realization came a sense of freedom. I could finally choose whichever bike I wanted to ride, simply because I wanted to ride it. I didn’t have to rely on a bike to try and turn me into something more, or better, of faster. I didn’t have to constantly strive to be the rider I wanted to be; being a rider was enough.
And my God, did I want to ride steel.
Today, I have two metal whips. A Caletti Cycles custom adventure road bike that will double as a cyclocross bike this fall, and the vintage Rossin. The Caletti is a light blue with black decals, and built with great attention to every detail. When I ride it, I feel like it’s a friend who will be with me for the rest of my life. The Rossin is a no nonsense, what you see is what you get sort of partner. It was a solid bike when made in 1989, and it’s still a solid bike today. I built it up with a mix of modern Frankenbike components. When I ride it, I feel like it says to me, “All right, ready to play?” I always answer yes.
Some days I’m strong. Some days I’m tired. But I’m always a rider. And these are my bikes.
Last year, as I was wrapping up my coverage of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show I went to some length in describing my newfound love for the builder Chris Bishop. He runs a classic one-man shop, Bishop Bikes. Simple, straightforward, right? Not at all. Other than the fact that his business model is simple, nothing else he does is simple. Every bike he brought to the 2012 show wowed me on multiple levels. His eye for the line of a point was exquisite. His tendency to fill in the hard transitions of some lugs with brass fillets is an old-school California thing favored by guys like Brian Baylis, Tom Ritchey and Peter Johnson. And then there’s the fact that he never takes the easy way out. I’ve seen a number of builders do what was essentially a paint-by-numbers thing where they simply played plumber with a box of lugs and a bunch of tubes. What they did seemed an insult to the term “craft.” They certainly didn’t merit the title “frame builder,” not the way Bishop does.
I was scarecely back home before I’d sent him a deposit. I can’t tell you the last time I fell that hard for a builder. Good thing he’s not as cute as my wife.
And, no, Virginia, this doesn’t mean he has an 18-month wait. It means that we waited until I’d recovered from my crash and had a thorough fitting (that session with Steven Carre at Bike Effect), and then gotten through the crisis that was my second son’s birth before we even began talking about the bike and what size frame would be the appropriate response to the fitting I’d had. From first drawing to now, scarcely a month has passed. And we went from final drawing to the shots contained here in about a week.
We talked a fair amount about the bike I desired. The big thing for me, aside from being stiff enough to stand up to hard, out-of-the-saddle efforts, was that I wanted lug work that was gorgeous but didn’t call attention to itself. That meant no fancy windows, but points thinned enough to draw blood and brass fillets to make them curve to the gentle contours of an industrial designer’s eye. I wanted a bike that would be pretty to anyone, but would contain an extra layer of special for those who knew a thing or two about frame building.
I also wanted this to be a signature build for Chris, something that would stand as a calling card even without paint. That he cut the Bishop icon into the bottom bracket shell is too cool for words, says the word guy.
That he’s taken the time to not just show completed work but also place it alongside untreated pieces really helps show just how remarkable and subtle his work can be.
I told him, flat-out, “Go crazy.” I’ve sold off a few bikes that no longer fit, so to get one frame that should fit me for at least the next 10 to 15 years … well, I can make an investment in his time.
I don’t really want to imagine the amount of effort it took to remove the seat binder from that seat lug. But it sure looks cool.
An internally routed brake cable? Hell yes!
I really wish he didn’t have to paint the bike.
Those fillets at the dropouts are more than just beautiful; they’re harder to do than a quadratic equation.
Hiding the seat binder in the fastback seatstays is full-on ninja design.
When I saw this shot, all I could think was, “I’m going to get to ride that?”
An Anvil jig.
I’ve seen a lot of bikes over the years. I’ve seen a lot of great work. I’ve met plenty of builders who were capable of doing work of this quality. I’ve met maybe a half dozen who had the confidence/chutzpah/balls to do something like this. And until now, I was reasonably sure that all but one of them were California cats.
Learn more about Chris Bishop here. Do it! Click on that link. Srsly.
OK, we asked what your everyday ride was made from and here were the answers:
As many of you pointed out, it’s all about conditions and distances. Some live where the weather is sunny and roads are smooth. Others of us (like me) live where the weather is a cruel joke and the roads are more suitable for adventure racing than transportation.
It’s hard to know how scientific we’ve been. In general, if you named an aluminum bike with carbon stays, I counted it as aluminum. If you said you train on steel, but race on carbon, I counted you as a steel. Remember, we were looking for your everyday ride.
So from the thousands of readers who stop by RKP everyday, if we extrapolate out from our small sample, a little over a third are either still riding steel bikes from back when that was the best a (wo)man could get, or have stayed true to their steel feelings. In my case, it’s both. A new-ish Surly Cross Check and a vintage Moser 51.151.
After steel came carbon, though there seemed to be some overlap with the aluminum people. You all seem to like it stiff and fast, and really, given the right conditions, who doesn’t?
I’m not even sure what to say about the titanium crew, not because I have strong positive or negative feelings about titanium. My wedding ring is made of the stuff. Titanium obviously affords its own advantages, chiefly lightness, but also stiffness and repairability.
If you’re like me, you’re loyal to the bikes you’ve got, but always, always, always curious about what other people are riding. Is it better? Is it worse? Are they faster because they’re bike is lighter, or are they faster because they train properly? No. It must be the bike.
Let’s take a break from the race-oriented blather and talk about our bikes some more, shall we? Some of us watch the Euro races avidly, but probably all of us pedal circles or squares or rhombi with greater regularity, nes pas?
This week’s ride focuses on that age old question: What material to ride?
Are you a “steel is real” rider? An aluminum stalwart? A titanium beast? A carbon-fiber, um, person? Or, maybe, just possibly, a bamboo bandit?
This isn’t a theoretical question either. When we ask what your material of choice is, we don’t mean, “What would you ride if you had a better job and double the free time?” We mean, “What do you ride every day?”
Speaking for myself, I ride steel. This is a function of some vague notion I have that steel was good enough for riders of my ilk (i.e. slow) twenty years ago, and it’s good enough now. Further, it reflects my socio-economic situation. As the father of two and a mortgagee, I don’t feel I have the liquid assets to devote to a more modern material, not that aluminum is very modern. Finally, steel is, I believe, still thought to be the most forgiving of the frame materials in current use, and I can use all the forgiveness I can get. Sure, I dream of a carbon rocket, but I ride steel. Every. Damn. Day.
And so, Group Ride #13 rolls out of the lot.