Carbon Calm

Carbon Calm

There can be too much of a good thing. As an American, I’m not supposed to believe that. I’m supposed to think that the answer to everything is more. The bigger house, the faster car, the more money, the smarter kid, the most wins in bike racing.

Ugh.

The last five years of my life have been an interesting journey in the bike world. I’ve been chasing things that haven’t always been apparent to me, let alone anyone else. Much of this can be filed under the header of flow states, but the implications have been far reaching. At a point when I was beginning, finally, to tire of gear reviews, I began to appreciate how flow informed my riding. Beyond just the experiences I chased, flow helped me understand what it is I respect about some products and why other creations, technical wonders they may be, can leave me cold.

We often talk about rider and bike becoming one. We’ve been circling an emergent phenomena, a kind of miracle and we’ve done it without knowing how we did it or why some things work better than others. That’s what keeps me engaged.

Which brings me to the Atlas from Alchemy Bicycle Company. Alchemy offers a whopping eight road models (that’s not counting their gravel models), four of which are cut from carbon cloth. It’s a staggering number of such a small outfit. The Atlas is a classic road bike, a creation ready for the local group ride, fondos and centuries and capable of threading tiny holes between riders in the closing laps of a crit.

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The magic
Alchemy is best known as a fabricator of carbon fiber frames based in Colorado, but that’s only part of the story. They build in carbon, steel and titanium. At a certain level, they’ve picked up the mantle of Serotta, offering production and custom in a wide range of materials. It’s fair to suggest they have the ability to build the right bike for anyone, no matter what their needs.

They get a fair amount of attention for actually producing carbon fiber frames in North America. There’s not much of that at all, and most of what there is is tube-to-tube construction. But Alchemy is rare unto carbon fiber producers because they are not only skilled enough to produce frames with a matte clearcoat, which will show any imperfection in that top layer of layup, they have the moxie to take it a step further and use small pieces of carbon to add decorative accents. I haven’t seen five producers capable of this level of work. It makes for an exquisite appearance and takes a matte finish into a fresh realm of eye-catching.

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The what
The history of the bicycle is a perfect example of descent with modification. Those proto-bikes were awful. Fun only because people had nothing better. But people kept at it, making little changes, evolving the design until by the 1970s, we had a design that is largely intact today. And the Atlas is a great example.

The Atlas comes in five sizes: 52, 54, 56, 58 and 61cm. All of the bikes are built around 7cm of BB drop. The 52 features 6.08cm of trail (72.7-degree head tube angle and 43mm-rake fork), while the 54 features 5.9cm of trail (73-degree head tube angle and 43mm-rake fork), the 56 size has 5.74cm of trail (73.2-degree head tube angle and 43mm-rake fork), the 58 has 5.55cm of trail (73.5-degree head tube angle and 43mm-rake fork) and the 60 has 5.57cm of trail (73.7-degree head tube angle and 43mm-rake fork). Chainstay length increases over the sizing run from 40.7cm on the 52 to 41.1cm on the 61. That gentle increase in chainstay length helps to offset the growth of the front center as the top tube gets longer, keeping the rider’s weight ideally balanced between the wheels. It’s deeply satisfying to dig into a geometry chart and see such thorough attention to detail.

This geometry is in a range of tried and true that makes it the geometric equivalent to the three bedroom home. If it doesn’t work for you, you must have some pretty specific needs. A third leg, perhaps.

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Such ultra-specific head tube angles are possible today in a way they weren’t back when tubes were mitred on lathes with dial-based scales. Being sure the angle you were cutting was 73 and not 72.9 wasn’t easy. With CNC-machine-cut molds, though, you can be exacting in your standards.

Sizing-wise the reach numbers go 36.5cm (52), 37.4cm (54), 38.8cm (56), 39.7cm (58) and 4.41cm (60). Despite the fact that the top tube lengths jump 2cm in size, the reach shows that in working with a fitter, you’re really only dealing with a roughly 1cm increase in reach from one size to the next. A good fitter won’t have any trouble figuring out the right size for you and then getting you fit, provided your height and proportions sit somewhere near the center of that bell curve for most humans. If you’re 5-feet, 0-inches or 6-feet, 5-inches, well, there are other options.

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The construction
Like the other carbon fiber offerings from Alchemy, the Atlas is made completely in-house. What differentiates this bike from their other models is that the Atlas is presented in production sizing only. No custom. But as I mentioned, the fives sizes they offer will fit a great many people.

There was a time when crazy shapes for top and down tubes were all the rage. And then real engineers realized that many of those crazy shapes don’t really increase a bike’s stiffness. What’s remarkable is to see Alchemy pull back from some of those round or boxy shapes and deliver a bike with some teardrop to triangular shaped tubes. So why would they do that?

Easy. Ride quality.

There’s no real upside to designing a bike layup that is substandard. You always want the carbon fiber to be molded with as much integrity as possible so that the frame or other component will be as strong and durable as possible. What it doesn’t necessarily need in excess is stiffness. So you flatten some tubes or make them less round so that they aren’t as resistant to torsional forces.

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25mm at 85 psi
For the sake of consistency with my own past, my first two rides on this bike were conducted with the tires pumped up to 100 psi. I spent a couple of decades riding bikes on that platform, so for the need of referencing my own body of experience, I did two rides on tires pumped up to what now feels like bursting tick. Yeesh. There are roads here that are smooth enough to replicate that feel I had of rolling kilometer after kilometer on smooth asphalt, but I have to search them out. Life is better when I just roll out at 85 psi if I’m riding 25mm tires.

In all honesty, the Atlas didn’t impress me at first. Pedaling around town, spinning along the bike path, the bike was unremarkable. I had to remind myself that great bikes don’t call attention to themselves. Of course, I didn’t bother to remind myself of that until I was on a road out in West County that has some undulations as it descends that can throw your steering off. Those little bumps can get badly magnified on super-stiff bikes. It was in hitting one of those ripples and the bike’s reaction, which wasn’t to send me into the other lane of traffic, that I realized the bike had that graceful demeanor I find myself missing in some uber-performance rigs.

Just as you want your family sedan to understeer a bit in dicey situations, namely because people tend to overreact when under stress, it’s helpful to many riders to have a bike that takes a certain amount of steering input and channels it into frame flex.

The amount of flex I felt in the Atlas, whether I was hitting bumps, kicking over a rise with my hands on the hoods, or dealing with wavelets in asphalt caused by settling earth, wasn’t significant. The bike is plenty stiff, but what it isn’t is overly stiff. No one will call this thing harsh.

What I keep returning to as I review bikes is that ability for some rigs to disappear beneath me. They cease to be bikes and my brain accepts them as extensions of me, so reliable is their response to the road and my input. With enough experience, most riders can get there on most bikes, but every now and then you encounter that on a bike during only your first couple of rides. Those are the bikes that stay disappeared. The Atlas has that quality, that innate ability to stop being an excellent tool and simply become the lens by which you see the road. Such a bike is no accident. I wish more manufacturers valued this experience.

Final thought: The Atlas would get slaughtered by the German magazines. Thank God.

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8 comments

  1. Waldo

    That’s high praise, Patrick. As years go by, however, and I gain weight and become a more and more nervous descender, I don’t know if I want a bike that’s an extension of a fatter and sketchier me. So, what sort of bike should I look for?


    1. Author
      Padraig

      My default geometry-wise is always a lower BB and a bit more trail. That serves anyone who needs help being relaxed and it also serves those of us who are more affected by gravity than we used to be. To get prescriptive, I’m talking classic Italian stage race geometry: at least 7.5cm of BB drop and somewhere in the neighborhood of 5.9cm of trail.

  2. Robert

    Do any of the current crop of big name brand carbon race bikes (endurance or race) have that much bb drop or trail? – I haven’t found one. It’s like it doesn’t exist.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      The Trek Domane has 8cm of BB drop. Nothing else from the big guys is in the same realm. The why of this is beyond curious and based on conversations I’ve had with product managers and engineers has everything to do with the CPSC. How Trek got that by the CPSC I don’t know, but it’s the big opportunity.

  3. Gus C

    Hi Padraig, I think i missed the insider joke on the very last sentence of your report: “Final thought: The Atlas would get slaughtered by the German magazines. Thank God.” Why is that? the bike is not flashy enough? Not ridden by pros? Pls clarify. I currently own a (definitely older) bike that was voted best of the year in 2010 by some German magazine. The bike is simple – a Cannondale Six. So I don’t quite get the reference – would you care to elaborate?

    By the grappling with different perspectives, such as “flow”, is quite descriptive in its simplicity. Well done.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Thanks for the kind words. The German magazines value stiffness over all else. The stiffer the bike, the better they like it. So a bike like this escapes the understanding of the German editors.

  4. Lyford

    Given my age, my riding goals, and the poor quality of the pavement in these parts, I have no use for twitchy sneeze-and-you’re-in- the-ditch handling. Stability is a Good Thing. I understand the appeal of racebikes, but they’re not for me.

    Some of the gravel or “all-road” bikes have geometry that makes more sense for folks who’d like stable descents.

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