Saturday, March 30, 2019

Thoughts on Great Bikes



A new Waterford and an old Gordon, a fairly typical day at the shop working on great bikes.  I am reminded that a great bike is always a great bike. What made a bike great thirty years ago still makes the same bike great today. Craftsmanship. Care. Design and proper use of materials. Hand Work, not machinery or computers. Newness doesn't make a bike great, Carbon Fiber doesn't necessarily make a great bike. Steel doesn't always make a great bike. Great bikes aren't cheap, but expensive bikes aren't always great. If you buy a great bike today it will still be a great bike in thirty years. A mediocre bike today will still be a mediocre bike in thirty years, if it lasts that long. Who wants to ride a mediocre bike for thirty years? Who among us has bought a mediocre bike thinking it was great? Who among us has sold a great bike in order to finance a new bike, only to find out the difference between "great" and "new?"

What makes a great bike?

1. Fit. The rider can embrace the machine without strain, and function with it as if one.

2. Design. The bicycle has features demanded by its intended use.

3. Handling. The frame is straight. The fork is straight and complements the geometry of the frame. The bike goes where you look/lean/steer.

4. Execution. Craftsmanship. Attention to detail. The closer you get the better it looks. Even this beat-up old Bruce Gordon is beautiful when you get right up close to it.

5. Feel. The final personal judgment. The bike feels good when you ride it. Every time. At the end of the ride just as at the beginning. The flex of the frame is matched to the weight and style of the rider. A bike which is great for one rider might be merely good for the next. No particular feature or characteristic sticks out-you can't describe it as "light" or "heavy" or "rough" or "quick" or "chattery" etc. Any single dominant trait will detract from another. The bike is balanced. A great bike is both heavy AND light, depending on the demands put on it in use. A great bike is both quick AND stable. A great bike disappears to you in that it has no distracting manners, it does just exactly what it is expected, when it is expected, as many times in a row as necessary, without drawing attention to itself. It is quiet, competent, sublime.

You can't tell a great bike by riding it once. You have to own it. Use it repeatedly, in different situations, and come to know it.

One of the good bikes that I own, all I can think about when I use it is, "stiff." When turning, "stiff." Accelerating, "stiff." Rough pavement, "stiff." Twenty miles later, "stiff." Looking at the bike, seeing the components, weighing it, you'd think "great bike." But no, merely good.

Another of my bikes at a distance looks like a third-world castoff, scraped paint, dirty tires, saggy old leather saddle, bleached and chipped bar tape. Fenders. Kickstand. Dull corroded old sidepulls. But get closer: Phil hubs, Record headset, 531 tubing, Bluemels, Brooks, Nitto, AmClassic, Chorus. And you begin to doubt the battered finish and the dirt and the corrosion. And what doesn't show, evident only after much use: perfect handling, absolutely neutral. Straight. Ride figure-eights in the parking lot no-handed. Comfortable right away, comfortable an hour later. Absolutely trustworthy and predictable, it has become my foul-weather bike that goes out for the worst, coldest, frozen and most dangerous commutes. Great bike.

A fancy expensive bike I had beat the hell out of me. Seventeen pounds of torture. Rides I couldn't wait to end. I took this machine on Triple Bypass, which turned out to be one of my worst rides ever. My opinion became that it is useful for short rides only, in dry sunny weather. It eventually cracked and went to warranty heaven. All the hype and marketing and Tour de France pedigree said it should have been a great bike, but actual use exposed it as much less. Overpriced piece of caca, good riddance.

Sometimes it takes a discovery. Another bike I have was never comfortable. Straight, fast, quick, lively, damp, a good bike generally, but somehow hard. Hard. Wanting only wider tires to be great. And once I discovered that it became a bike that I might never sell. A very similar bike was reviewed in a journal I respect, which declared it to be among their most-favorite bikes ever, once the wider tires mounted. That gave me a feeling of vindication.

There aren't many great bikes out there.  Is yours one?

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Reminder

Don't forget, during your ride, or your workday, during heavy storms or light days, to look up and see the world unfolding around you.