Thursday, October 29, 2015

Carbon vs. Steel & the Bike Geek Divide

NOTE:  This post is rated R for mild strong language and mature themes.


This post was inspired by the book It’s All About The Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels by Robert Penn.  It’s a very good book (the New York Times applauds Penn’s “vast and endearingly shaggy bicycle boffinry,” and yes, “boffinry” is well worth looking up).  As I read this book, though, something dawned on me:  Penn resides on one side of a bicyclist divide, and I’ve gradually crossed over to the other. This post examines that divide.

The divide

On the one hand, you have dudes riding Brooks saddles with actual rivets; on the other, guys who use (and can sometimes even spell) Fi’zi:k.  The first group—let’s call them Crusty Old Veterans—favor handbuilt wheels laced 3-cross.  The other group—the Tech Weenies—don’t much care how their wheels came to be, so long as the front is laced radial and the rear has something similarly aerodynamic going on.  The COVies say things like “steel is real,” and the Tweenies prefer carbon fiber (even if they irreverently call it “plastic”).  One side is enraptured by hand-cut lugs; the other by bike weights in the low teens.

Perhaps you can tell from my unflattering descriptions (equal-opportunity bashing, if you will) that I don’t overmuch care for either group, or for anybody with overly strong opinions about seemingly trivial matters (notwithstanding my own fierce brand loyalties regarding ketchup, Band-Aids, and deodorant.)  The point is this:  your opinion about which bicycle cult(ure) to embrace is largely based on taste, but also—I’ve recently decided—on politics.  Not in the sense of red/blue, liberal/conservative, but about what you think a bike ought to be, and what a bike company ought to be doing.

The common ground

Since I’m about to label Robert Penn a COVie, and then advance the case for Tweenies, I better pause for a moment and praise his book some more.  Specific preferences aside, all bicyclists love to ride; they wish more people rode bikes (or at least wish fewer people drove cars); they believe bicyclists have a right to use the roads; and probably most feel somewhat claustrophobic when driving a car (especially in traffic).  Penn does a great job of celebrating the bicycle—a tribute society sorely needs, with so many Americans thinking of this noble machine as a child’s toy.  Penn’s book provides a fascinating history, describing a huge number of bicycle-related inventions that were later adapted for cars.  Bikes were a dominant industry at the turn of the 19th century; almost a third of all US patents went toward the bicycle and there was a whole separate building just to process the bike patents.  It strikes me that the bicycle, in its heyday, was like the mobility industry of today.

Penn’s dream bike

It’s All About the Bike interleaves historical ruminations with the blow-by-blow report of Penn’s global quest to build the perfect bicycle, part by part. He has the frame built in England, heads over to Portland for a headset, has the wheels laced in Marin County, and visits Italy to find a fork and some handlebars.  It’s kind of like Anthony Bourdain’s book A Cook’s Tour, except that Penn doesn’t eat everything along the way. 

What would you choose for a dream bike?  I can’t really answer this question.  I’ve learned not to get too attached to my bikes, because they keep breaking.  (Over the last decade I’ve broken six frames.)

That said, I can tell you one trait I’d definitely avoid in a new road bike:  a steel frame.  “Steel is real?”  Yeah, it’s real lame!  Look, I know all the great things about it:  you can cold-set it, it rides nicely, it has a long history, it’s durable, yeah, yeah, yeah.  All true.  But it also fricking rusts.  I hate that.  I’ve had to retire two steel road frames before they even had a chance to break, because they got so rusty I was afraid to go fast on them.  Once I had a steel fork snap on me, right at the steerer tube, due to unseen rust.  That was a painful crash. 

(Full disclosure:  four of the six frames I’ve broken recently were aluminum, but at least they were far, far lighter than the two steel ones that broke, one of which was the most expensive frame I’ve ever owned.  By the way, I’ve been using carbon forks for twelve years, and haven’t had a single failure.)

What’s that?  You’ve been on the same steel frame for decades without a spot of rust?  Well, you must have naked pictures of God or something.  Steel frames invariably have chrome in the fork and rear triangle, and nobody does good chrome.  (The chrome fork doesn’t have its origins in durability or aesthetics, but in cheapness.  Frame builders weren’t interested in building forks and bought them from some third party that did a good-enough job; chroming all of them was easier and cheaper than trying to match frame paint or arranging to have them painted at the same factory.)  And no, I haven’t stored my bikes in a shed or even the garage—they always live indoors, in my office or bedroom.

So, getting back to Penn, I found it curious that for his once-in-a-lifetime dream bike, he chose a steel frame.  His reasoning was even more surprising.  For one thing, he writes, “Steel is not prone to sudden failure.” (Yeah, right.  I refer you to the three counterexamples above.)  He trots out “steel is real.”  (Whatever, dude.)  He argues that the supposed comfort of carbon frames is a fallacy, maintaining that it’s the tires and such that make a bike comfortable, not the frame.  (This is so obviously, empirically untrue I’m not even going to bother debating the point, other than to mention that Penn did select a carbon fork for his dream bike.)

Moreover, Penn leaves out what I would consider the best reason for buying a steel frame:  the ability to specify custom geometry.  I’m not aware of a single manufacturer who will build a carbon frame to order, though a handful will do custom aluminum.  (No, I didn’t research this thoroughly … I’m too lazy, and I want   to leave the door open for people to set me straight.  Providing an opportunity for smug indignation is my little gift to the world.)

Custom geometry:  COVie or Tweenie?

Hey, here’s a puzzle:  is custom frame geometry the domain of COVies or Tweenies?  On the one hand, custom-built frames have been around for many, many decades; I spent many an afternoon drooling on The Custom Bicycle, published in 1979.  (That’s where I got the tidbit about chrome forks, if memory serves.)  Of course that book is now COVie territory since it predated the vast majority of non-steel bicycles.  On the other hand, a five-star reviewer of it says, “In spite of a number of efforts involving higher-order differential equations performed on a Cray computer nobody has been able to derive the equation for bicycle frame stability.”  What could be Tweenier than that?

Custom geometry may be the nexus between COVies and Tweenies because it’s a traditional trait of an old-school top-end bicycle, but also a highly technical matter compatible with a performance-at-all-costs ethos.  Part of my distaste for COVie bikes is that they’re heavier, less aerodynamic, and therefore slower than cutting-edge bikes (even if only marginally).  When I’m gloating over my new bike, I’m not thinking, “Oh, it’s so beautiful!” but rather, “Man, I’m going to hurt some people with this thing!”  (No, I don’t often have such delusions of grandeur, but if a guy in the throes of New Bike Syndrome can’t indulge some grandiose notions, when can he?)

Custom geometry, since it doesn’t add weight or wind drag, really is an unalloyed good thing.  (Sorry about the pun.  I couldn’t help myself.)  I had one racing bike, a Ten Speed Drive team-issue Guerciotti, steel, that just had the best geometry.  When it rusted, I bought another Guerciotti from a web merchant, and it had the worst geometry.  From the first pedal stroke I knew I hated it, and my opinion never improved.  (When it got too rusty to ride at high speeds, I turned it into a commuter bike, and it was great for that, until it broke.)

Having learned my lesson, I had my next frame custom made.  (It was aluminum.)  I based my design largely on that first Guerciotti, with a couple alterations, and produced something like this:

(I say “something like this” because the above is the second generation of my custom geometry; the first didn’t have the slightly sloping top tube.  The manufacturer refused to do a non-sloping top tube for my second frame, but I didn’t really care.  The essential geometry is the same, and the frames rode identically.)

So how did that custom geometry work out?  It was amazing!  As soon as I climbed on and started pedaling I had this exhilarating sensation of perfect rightness.  How to describe this feeling?  Well, hypothetically speaking, it’s like when you’re doing the bone dance and your condom breaks.  To be precise, it’s that brief moment when the bad part about the condom ceases to be a problem, but just before you realize why everything feels suddenly better—that is, before you realize what this means.  You know, the delighted “aaaaaaah” just before the terrified “AAAAAAAAAUGH!”

A friend of mine summarized this description as “fits like a condom.”  I can see his logic in extending the laudatory “fits like a glove” description, but in fact a custom frame fits like a lack of condom.  It’s the beautiful sense of freedom from that which constricts and pinches.

Is custom geometry worth it?

So, should we accept the limitations of steel if it means getting to have custom geometry?  This depends a lot on the rider.  Those with strange proportions (e.g., really long legs and an incredibly short torso) have more to gain from custom geometry.  For most riders, adjusting the saddle and getting the right stem will do the job, though it’s worth pointing out that on my second Guerciotti I was able to get my body oriented how I like, but the stem was too long, which made the steering weird, and the head tube angle was too shallow, which made it handle like a touring bike, and the seat tube angle was too steep, which meant I couldn’t get the saddle back far enough without resorting to a setback seatpost (which I couldn’t bring myself to buy).

The big challenge with custom geometry is knowing what you want.  Robert Penn worked closely with a frame builder to optimize the position on his bike and so forth, which is ideal.  Most people would probably just guess, based on bikes they had that felt particularly good. 

A couple years ago, my fourth custom-made frame broke, and the manufacturer no longer offered frames with custom geometry.  Their stock geometry sucks balls so I never even considered it (even though all four frames were warrantied, which by the way is a benefit of going with a huge company, in stark contrast to many small-shop frame builders who will take forever to fix or replace your frame, unless they’re too arrogant to even admit it was defective).  So I switched to a stock frame from another manufacturer (a giant outfit based in Taiwan).  Was this a problem? 

Actually, no.  Here was a case of the free market actually solving a problem:  because there are so many companies making bikes, chances are somebody just so happens to offer your desired geometry (at least, if your physique isn’t too weird).  It’s easy to shop for frames online when geometry is your main selection criterion, because manufacturer websites almost always provide geometry diagrams.  (This is how I selected the frame for my backup bike, which has almost my ideal geometry other than the seat tube and head tube being too long, which spoils the aesthetics.)  Once you know what geometry you want, you’ll probably be able to find it—and in carbon, no less!

The politics of bicycles

No, my little “free market” comment above isn’t where politics come in.  (I think it takes a pretty fringe mentality, in this country, to oppose capitalism.  I for one do not.)

What I’m talking about is a somewhat political undertone I noticed in Penn’s book.  This was something like nostalgia, for a time when things were made by hand, by people in first-world countries who made a good wage with solid benefits.  Workmanship seems to be a core value for Penn.  For example, he bought his dream hubs from Royce, a company in England that makes only super high-end stuff, including these bling-y gold things that you’d expect a rapper to have if a rapper had a bike. 

Penn went to Portland for his headset, and goes on at length about how cool Chris King is.  It’s a small company with good benefits and happy, educated employees who bike to work and are fed a free lunch.  Sure, their headsets are really expensive, but hey, they’ll last forever, and isn’t it better to bring your business to a responsible company?

Well, it’s great that Chris King uses soy oil in its machining, and turns metal shavings into little pucks that are easier to recycle.  Perhaps they deserve my business for that reason alone.  And yet—who cares about headsets?  I never wear them out.  I have three steel frames in my garage (two broken, all rusted) with perfectly good teenage headsets I might yet harvest one day if I come across an old frame I want to use.  I refuse to blow $150 on a headset, because it won’t make me go faster.  And the soy oil is a drop in the bucket compared to basic choices I make, like how often my vacations should include air travel.  (Penn surely did more environmental damage flying around the world buying bike parts than he’d ever save by preferring eco-friendly manufacturers—but I’ll cut him some slack because a) he was writing a book, and b) he’s a cyclist.)

Now, getting back to those Royce hubs:  what’s up with all this amazing craftsmanship and beautiful finish when the product is technologically obsolete?  Their fancy gold hubs cost almost $1500 a pair; even their apparently budget-minded Venus rear hub costs $480, and yet you don’t even get straight-pull spokes!  Look, I’m sure these are great hubs, but in my experience, straight-pull spokes break less frequently, and tend to make a lighter wheel.  I’m not going to get into a whole separate debate about this, but for $480, shouldn’t the design be different than what’s on my 1960 Triumph 3-speed?  For $480, I want wind tunnel testing, space-age materials, Bluetooth, and a fricking motor!  (And, to flip it around, would Penn settle for a cottered crank, if the materials and finish were good enough?)

To be clear, I have absolutely no problem with Penn, or anybody, buying a ridiculously expensive bicycle.  After all, my own bicycles (at least by my wife’s standards) are ridiculously expensive.  I just have a different opinion about what kind of companies we cyclists should reward with our business.  He seems to especially admire the “boutique” style companies, which make conspicuously high-end stuff for those who can afford it and want to show off.  He makes the classic COVie move (COVerture?) by springing for a $250 Brooks Team Pro saddle, which sports a 50-year-old design and little eyelets for a saddlebag.  (Is he unwilling to concede that any technological progress has been made in half a century?  At least Fi’zi:k saddles are vegan.)

Myself, I am more impressed by companies that invest so much in the design that relatively cheap stuff can still perform wonderfully.  Take, for example, the Shimano Sora derailleur:  for about $20, I’ll bet it shifts better than the Campy Super Record I had on my ’85 Mercian.  Maybe I overpay for my Dura-Ace, but at least I’m subsidizing the R&D that improves all kinds of basic, inexpensive bike parts.

Here’s another example:  a second wheel innovation Penn passed up, which is a laughably simple one, is the new generation of wider rims.  An American company, HED, experimented with this a few years back and discovered that wider rims give a much smoother ride, because of how they affect the profile of the tire.  With traditional rims, the cross-section of the tire looks something like a light bulb, tapering inward where the bead fits into the rim.  With a wider rim, the tire profile is improved:  the tire deflects less during cornering, and can be run at a lower pressure, and the ride is much more comfortable without any compromise in speed.  The beauty of this innovation is that the wider rim doesn’t make the wheel more expensive the way traditional advancements (e.g., carbon rims, titanium axles, etc.) always do.  So the benefit can “trickle down” to cheaper wheels.  (And if there is no actual benefit, and I’m just drinking my own bathwater, at least I didn’t pay big bucks for the placebo effect.)

To my mind, Penn’s dream bike is more like a bespoke suit, hand-tailored from whole cloth:  certainly a nice thing, for those who can afford it, but not ultimately much better than “off the rack.”  Getting to talk face to face with the guy who laces your wheels is a nice personal touch, but not anything most of us need; I’d say it’s the rough equivalent of getting a shave from a barber (who theatrically hones his straight razor on a leather strop and soaps up your face with a beavertail shaving brush) instead of shaving your own face with a 25-cent Bic. 

I would love to see a bicycle industry that does a better job of making everyday, affordable bikes faster and lighter and more pleasurable to ride.  What’s ultimately the better service to society and the planet:  satisfying the aesthetic fetishes of the very wealthy, or bringing a reasonably high-quality experience to the cycling newcomer, so he might actually get out there and ride?

No comments:

Post a Comment