Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Is technology your friend?

Some people think that the Tour de France is at the bleeding edge of tech as far as the bicycle goes, but I suspect that apart from wider tires and rims, TDF tech probably plateaued at least 5 years ago. To me, most "advances" seem to be adding complexity and trying to fix problems that weren't there in the first place. Electronic shifting and a multitude of bottom bracket standards don't really trickle down in a useful way to the man on the street. Aero frames won't add that much value to your commuting day. Maybe disc brakes will be adopted soon in the peloton, although I cant see the average roadie actually wanting to bleed the brakes on his road bike. I know I hate doing it on my MTB's, and they are not even the "problem-brakes". The difference in performance doesn't actually look that big in this test with GCN, until it gets wet. (Video).
Kogel Bottom Bracket chart.
It seems to me that there is useful technology, and there is tech-for-tech's-sake, which is mostly just there to sell new widgets. I am as much a geek as the next person, maybe more so, but sometimes I ask myself if this stuff is good for the cause of the bicycle, which is in essence an inherently simple and elegant device.

The owner of this narrow wide
1x sprocket was cutting them out
in 2 to 3 weeks. He changed
brands which helped a lot.
You might say that taking an MTB drive-chain down from 27 or 20 speeds to 11 speeds by eliminating a front chain-ring is simplifying the drive train, but it would be a shame if the trade-off was advanced wear in shifters, chains, front sprockets and added weight and complexity in the derailer, and the fact that you could either ride to the trail at a decent pace OR actually ride up the hills, but not both. Not a problem if you don't ride in hills, or on the flat I guess. Where I live we actually ride to the trails. 1x11 is a Race Day Only compromise in my view. Why did we need 1x11? To save weight for XC racers? Why did we need narrow-wide chain-rings and clutch derailers? To stop the chain dropping off because we removed the front derailer. Fixing a "problem" that created several more actual problems.

I guess this is what you get with design. The more you hone a design to excel in one area, the more unsuitable it becomes for general usage. A Formula 1 car will cost a bomb, and will go like stink, but you wont want to drive it to work. This is where your Carbon road bike is right now, light, fast, and mostly uncomfortable. I used to own a Moto Guzzi Lemans, and while I loved that throbbing V-twin on the open road, it was a pig around town, where I preferred to ride my Honda CT90 postie bike.

Ideally the marketers want us to have many many bikes (N+1 is the number) rather than one bike that will do most things. New niches are constantly being created for the latest thing, Enduro, Gravel grinding or Bikepacking or what ever people have actually been doing for years anyway, but without a label. People used to ride their old steel road bikes off road, now its a "thing".

It would be interesting to see what people think the biggest recent "real" tech advance in cycling is. I suspect that its not electronic gears, maybe wider rims? The 650B wheel format that has been the norm for randoneers for years has been rebranded as 27.5 to create more confusion for the poor people who have only just changed from 26 inch to 29 inch wheels, (29ers just being 700c rebranded anyway.) If you think about it logically why would anyone make the move from 26 inch to 27.5 inches. The difference is too small. From a marketing point of view you would be better to go from 26 inch to 29 inch, then back down to 27.5 inch, which is the way it has panned out.

 Listen to a very  interesting podcast here on frame building and 650B vs 700  and how in this chap's view a 650B might serve most people better than their 700c roadie. It gives a bit of background on how 700c bikes got to where they are today.

This is a great piece with a similar angle on Why Are Bicycle Sales Declining  where the writer asks the question: "Imagine if car dealers only sold recreational cars. Cars for racing and off-roading. Cars not really suited to daily use". It's probably the most relevant read I've seen for years and answers the question of why my road bike sits unused in my garage even though it's probably the fastest, lightest and most efficient bike I have.

I think its really sad to see the adopting of bad designs or the creation of unnecessary designs. Company A comes out with a new bottom bracket standard called SPF3000. Company B says its rubbish and A will regret it. Buyers flocks to Company A like moth to a flame, and before long Company B is losing so much market share that they have to adopt the same standard or come out with their own new bottom bracket, PFTT 50210. This is probably what happened with Shimano going to 1x11 speed. Purely conjecture on my part though.

Now we are in the amazing situation of having our shifting available in electronic, wifi and hydraulic forms. Was there really anything wrong with cable shifting? There is a lot more fun coming up with the new axle standards too. I am not following it too closely, given that most of my 7 bikes run 9 speed I cant really be called an early adopter.

In Bikepacking circles (also known as Bike Trekking or Cycle Touring) there is a thing called MYOG, make your own gear, where people are building their own luggage systems. This is an example of something that is needs based, not "marketing-based". Some folks get so good at it that they go into business, like Revelate or Porcelain Rocket. Now some of the big guys are jumping on the bandwagon for a piece of the action, big hitters like Thule or Blackburn. Whether they can react to demand like the way the small guys can is yet to be seen. 2014 Tour Divide winner Jefe Branham still builds his own gear, such is the culture of DIY or "self-supportedness" in that scene.

Lael Wilcox. Image from Revelate's Instagram
To check out some "useful" tech in action look at some of the Tour Divide bikes.  Lael Wilcoxes bike has a carbon fibre frame with a state of the art luggage system with an internal skeleton. A dynamo hub that powers lights or charges GPSs, phones and spare batteries. On this bike she was able to cover over 260kms of wilderness riding each day to finish the 4418km Tour Divide in 17 days. Tour de France riders average a paltry 160kms a day and take 21 days to cover 3360 .

Did technology enable her to ride faster for longer? Possibly, but there are pros and cons. Her press-fit bottom bracket failed her and was replaced mid-route, as did Jay Petervary's. (Jay's Bike). Jay is a legend in Bike Packing circles having won most of the major endurance events of that genre and he was riding the latest hi-tech offering from Salsa, the new carbon fibre Cutthroat, a purpose built Tour Divide bike. I'm not sure how long it took to replace Jay's BB on route when it failed, but the guy who won, Josh Kato only did so by around 20 minutes. 20 minutes after 14 days in a non-drafting race is as good as a sprint. What was Josh's tech level like? Not very high. Josh rode a 3x9 speed titanium Salsa Fargo with bar end shifters like you get on time trial bikes, with a "friction" option. Almost anti-tech. No fast wearing narrow-wide chain rings or overly complex clutched rear derailer for him. Instead, the much maligned XTR rapid-rise (my favourite). If your cable breaks it defaults to the biggest rear sprocket, and at 34, instead of a 42, its going to offer a lot more options if your front shifting is still working. Following his incredible (failed) attempt at the Tour Divide the year before (an amazing read) he was leaving nothing to chance and was probably hauling a lot more gear than most. He didn't use a dynamo hub for lighting or charging, but he did have a spare GPS after seeing his partner's one fail the year before.

Editor of Bikepackersmag Neil Beltchenko's rig.
Tour Divide drive-train placings
1st, 3x9, Josh Kato,
2nd, 2x10, Jay Petervary,
3rd, 1x11,  Neil Beltchenko

Australian Jesse Carlson has just finished the TransAmerica, a self-supported 6,800km race across the US. He finished in 18 days, 480kms ahead of his next competitor. Thats 377kms a day, double what the Tour de France riders do, but unlike the Tour Divide, it's all on road. Check out his bike, a plush titanium Curve with hydraulic disc brakes, electronic shifters and  dynamo hub powered lights. Don't look at his seat. Not much padding on a 98 gram seat.

Some of his gear is from the high-end German manufacturer Tune and some of it is from his own company Curve Cycling. Jesse's SP dynamo hub was not only charging his kLite lights, but also his, Shimano Di2's external battery and his Iphone and Garmin Etrex 30 GPS. Why an Etrex 30 and not an Edge series GPS? Safety.The Etrex series has a longer burn time than the more modern touch screened versions and it can take batteries from a gas station or convenience store on route as an emergency back-up should his charging regime fail. Did Jesses charging regime fail? It did actually. This year the temperatures in the race were so high at times that his USB converter, which alters the current from the dynamo to enable charging of his devices, got cooked in the heat. His GPS also suffered temporary thermal shut-down and his Iphone charging cable fried. With weather hot enough to cook cables he changed tack, deciding to do more riding in the cooler evenings, as the dynamo hub and lights were unaffected. He went to plan B for charging devices which meant a USB charger in power sockets. Always have a plan B where tech is involved. Specs on Jesses bike and kit.

Another one of these endurance events, which is closer to Henri Desgrange's original ideal of what the TDF was meant to be is the Transcontinental . It's another self-supported race that this year went from Belgium to Istanbul. Around 4239kms for the winner; you get to choose your own route. The winner Josh Ibbet cranked it out in under 10 days. 423kms a day. Here is something to think about when choosing a sleeping mat, a quote from Josh.  "Last year, I thought I was travelling really light with a lightweight air mat. After the first or second night I really couldn’t be bothered to blow it up". Now he uses nothing. That's low-tech. The fact that there is next to no time traveling in the wilderness means they don't need too much gear, but it's interesting the lengths he goes to for comfort while riding. 28mm tubeless tires, aero bars and hydraulic disc brakes like Jesse's TransAm bike. This is the kind of bike you could commute on, although he mentions that previous riders who used Di2 say the batteries flatten after around 11 days of constant use. Check out his kit list here for more details.

I will finish off this rambling diatribe with two (mostly) different approaches to tech. The 1st and 2nd place getters in last years 360 mile Oregon Outback gravel race. Jan Heine's almost retro looking rando bike and  Ira Ryans Breadwinner cycles custom rig.

I think it would be safe to say that the only thing they have in common is frame material and down-tube shifters. Yes down-tube shifters, like in the olden days, well, sort of like in the olden days. Ira's used a mechanism tweaked to accept 11 speed TT shifter internals, while Jan's is a two levered system. Nothing much to go wrong there. But they are both very usable bikes that are unlikely to let you down, which is what you want when you are out in the boonies.

RIDER  Jan Heine Ira Ryan
Frame Rene Herse steel custom rando bike Breadwinner B-Road, steel
Fork  Steel, made by Kaiesi Enve carbon CX disc fork
Wheels  650B 700 c
Tires  42mm Compass babyshoe Pass Extralight 38mm Panaracer Pasela Tourguard
Front rings 46/30 Renee Herse crank. 50/34 Shimano Durace 
Rear Cluster 5 speed 14-22 11 speed shimano 11-25
Derailers 1930s Nivex rear, custom built suicide shifter front Durace rear and front
Brakes Mafac Raid centerpull (1970s) TRP Hylex hydraulic disc
Saddle  Brooks Professional Sella Italia Flight  (90's)
Shifters Down-tube 2x5 Down-tube 2 x11
Bottom bracket Press-fit (Edit) see Jan's comment in the "comments" Threaded english 68mm.
Extras Dynamo hub/lights and mudguards

*Most of this info was gleaned from CX Magazine. Ira's Bike and Jan's Bike.

Check out Jan's cluster. 5 gears, with a beautiful Rene Herse crank. Imagine how strong and light a 650B wheel with 5 sprockets could be. Read the links to CX Magazine or go to Jan's blog for a fresh angle on the bicycle.

It does make you think about how important the "technology" is on your bike. Is it an advance or a liability?

Jan Heine's Rene Herse custom. 2nd in the Oregon Outback. Image from Bicycle Quarterly

Ira Ryan's Oregon Outback winning Breadwinner B-Road

Links from this post.

Jay Petervary -
Jays bike
Jan Heine's bike in CX-Mag.
Ira Ryans bike in CX-Mag.
Breadwinner cycles
Josh Ibbet pre-TCR
Josh Ibbets bike and kit.
Revelate Designs
Josh Kato interview
Josh Kato's kit list.
Josh's Bike
Josh Katos 2015 TourDivide scratch. Amazing read.
Curve Cycling
SP Dynamo hubs (plays annoying music)
kLite Lights
Road Bike Review - Do-disc-brakes-stop-you-faster-than-rim-brakes

Disclaimer: These are my own personal views, and opinions, and are no more or less valid than anyone else who has a blog's view.  They come from my experiences as a rider and consumer of cycling products across several genres: XC, CX,Track, TT, Road and Bikepacking. I have never worked in the industry. I do 95% of the work on my own bikes and would like to keep it that way. I currently foolishly have 8 bikes but if the zombie apocalypse comes the one bike I would like to have at my disposal would be my early model Karate Monkey. I am not afraid of technology, I have been using a PowerTap power meter for years and have recently brought a dynamo hub and all the accoutrement's.


Anonymous said...

Nice write-up. One minor comment: My Herse doesn't have a threaded bottom bracket, but a custom-made shell with pressed-in bearings, as on the original Rene Herse bikes from the 1940s through 1970s. Many of those BBs still spin smoothly after more than 50 years without a single overhaul. The bearings are a bit larger than modern ones, and thus a tad heavier, but it's worth it for the peace of mind. And many modern bike designers would do well to look at the dust caps that both locate the bearings and create a labyrinth seal to keep out contamination...

ibikenz said...

Really enjoyed this post Jeff.

It's the weight vs durability balance that seems all out of whack to me. My Pugsley has ridden through sand and salt water every week for nine years. The original stainless steel chainring and steel cassette cog (Surly singlespeed) show almost no wear. Do I care the cogs weigh a bit more than alloy? You know the answer to that question.

The "modern" bottom brackets really scare me. Folks on fatbikes seem to kill them with ease. I use the apparently poorly designed (bearings too small) ISIS cartridge BB. I'm on my second one after nine years of salt water and sand immersion. The first one still spins like butter, just developed a little play that used to annoy me, I've kept it as a back-up.

- Antoine

Nursekato said...

What a great read! Just stumbled upon this post while in prep for my 2016 run down the Divide.