Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ride Quality: Steelwool Secteur 18 Custom Project

Looking Back

A while ago I posted about the design process Will and I went through for my new Steelwool custom ‘all-road’ bike. I set out to improve on the ride quality of my first-generation Specialized Roubaix. Its a very good bike; light, fast, and stable on all terrain, including loose dirt. I’ve never been tentative on the Roubaix, no matter the severity of the terrain I’ve ridden.

Many virtues are espoused for steel. I knew there was substance behind these claims, but I wanted to try to get a sense of how a good steel bike compared to a really good carbon bike. Just how much does the hype associated with a particular material influence the way we perceive its ride quality? Situated in a culture where the “quality and usefulness of…goods,” including bicycles, “are subordinate to the artifice of their display," I wanted to wade through the web of discourse and get right down to the somatic level – the riding (Neil Postman 1985: 5).

After sending off the bike-cad file to the builder, I took to waiting. It was a busy time, so I had to put off completing my follow up post on the ride quality goals I’d set for the bike. Here is that installment. Its on the long side; a coffee or tea might make a nice accompaniment. This post is a little more rigorous than my usual products; this subject demands careful treatment. Here we go.

The Now

The careful reader will ask, what do I mean when I say I want the ride quality to improve? What constitutes ride quality? Stiffness? Tracking? Comfort? Yes, all of these are component parts. But the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I am aiming at holy grail of bicycle design, at least that which is sought after by a certain portion of riders out there: planing. All the other traits need to be present too, admitting, a la Richard Sachs, ‘stiffness’ is a amorphous term in this context. My Roubaix planes a bit...I think. But what is planing? Why not aim for stiffness, or low weight?

Planing is a term Jan Heine coined to denote "the ability to get in sync with the bike" (Bicycle Quarterly, Summer 2009: 3). The whole is greater than the sum of its parts; everything must come together just right for a bike to sync with its rider. Jan is the man at the root of our fat tire road bike obsession. He started importing the Grand Bois tires into North America a few years back, and Rodd was the first early adopter I know of. He spread the gospel with a fervor that only a maven like him can muster, and Tall Tree consequently started carrying them.

Jan's penchant for old, proven technology meets his scientific bent in the Quarterly, where he chips away at quantifying various nebulous aspects of bicycle design. One such aspect, or rather, characteristic, is the 'lively' quality certain bikes have. Lively bikes tend to be steel. I have almost never heard the term used in reference to a carbon bike, nor an aluminum bike (almost; I think David Bilenky might describe his lugged aluminum Alan ‘cross bike as lively…it’s a special bike). Some well build titanium frames are said to possess this quality. But what makes a bike lively? Is lively a good quality?

I’d like to turn to Padraig, of Red Kite Prayer and Belgium Knee Warmers, on this matter. In a September post on RKP, Padraig presents a compelling account of what he terms road feel:

For me, road feel is the great separator, the ultimate arbiter. But what is it? It’s that thing you experience when you get on a steel bike and go, “This feels so good.” You’ll feel it in titanium bikes as well. It’s an elusive quality, one that comes in many shades of gray. Aluminum bikes are almost uniformly devoid of it and for many years the vast majority of carbon fiber bikes were as out of touch with it as the pope is to the charms of Led Zepplin (I’m guessing here).....
So what the hell does that mean in bikes? On the very best bikes, stiffness is achieved with enough high modulus carbon fiber that the walls of the tubes can be thinned in the middle, the way double- and triple-butted steel tubes have thin midsections. These thin midsections attenuate a certain amount of road vibration but they still allow a small amount of high-frequency road vibration to reach the rider. Too much of this high-frequency road vibration results in muscle fatigue, a la lawn mower hands. However, a small amount of it will tell you a lot about the road surface you’re riding over and can be critical in trying to get the most out of a bike on a fast descent.
[Road feel] is the quality that is hardest to find in bikes, and one of the reasons is that it depends on very precise layup schedules (you can’t just use tons of material to get strength and stiffness and hope to have any road feel left) and demands a fair amount of high-modulus carbon fiber in order to achieve enough strength and stiffness....
I’ve still got my Torelli Nitro Express built by Antonio Mondonico. Its .7-.4.-.7-wall Nivacrom tubes epitomize excellent road feel, as does my butted titanium Seven Axiom. After riding those bikes, lots of bikes are just … not exceptional.
I’m not interested in commodities. I write about cycling because it transformed my life and a great bike can lead us to peak experiences. The bike isn’t the be-all-end-all, but a great bike can entertain us on an ongoing basis. I’ve ridden loads of bikes and the carbon bikes that are worth remembering have this rare quality of road feel and there’s no way to find out if a bike has it until you have ridden it. No test any German magazine can devise will find it. Achieving it requires a bit of art and a bit of science, but the result is pure art, and something every rider I know who has encountered it agrees upon. You might argue whether Pollock is art or not, but everyone agrees that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is great art. When you encounter real road feel, you’ll never want to settle for a frame without it.

On my interpretation, Padraig speaks of what some would call the elusive quality of liveliness in the bike. It is the perfect synergy of bike weight, flex, comfort, and power transmission. Its not just the right amount of road buzz he’s talking about. A bike could have just the right amount of ‘feel’ but handle like a tank or feel like a wet noodle out of the saddle. In order for a bike to ‘sing’ for a particular rider, all the elements of the whole must come together just so.

Jan Heine often remarks on whether a bike urges him to attack...or whether it seems happy to plod along. Whether a lively bike is right for a particular rider is a matter of taste, predicated on experience on different bikes. That is, if a rider has never ridden a lively bike, the might not like the feel. In case you are wondering, ‘hey, what happened to planing?,’ I’ll make it clear: a lively bike is a bike that planes.

My Roubaix at Battenkill 2009

After the Hell of the North 2009

The current crop of carbon frames tend to be optimized for 'torsional stiffness and vertical compliance.' Huh? Basically, this means the wheels are supposed to track in line, the bottom bracket/seat-tube is supposed to resist flex, as are the chainstays and headtube, while the bike retains a degree of bump absorbing ability, usually in the seat-stays and top tube. Most companies say their bikes have these qualities, though they tend to vary considerably on both counts. But I think it is safe to say that most high end carbon frames resist flex more than a steel frame might. This is considered beneficial by most, mainly because the marketing 'info' put out by companies producing these bikes has hammered this message into our heads: stiff good, flex bad. However, this is a very simplistic rule of thumb that stands at odds with the concept of planing. As Padraig points out, a stiff carbon frame should not be equated with superb ride quality. Like any other material, carbon requires careful lay-ups akin to the butting process for alloyed tubes in order to provide the beneficial flex and ‘road feel’ that translates into a pleasurable, efficient ride. I believe my Roubaix is a good example of a frame with such an effective lay-up. Padraig has just posted his review of the Roubaix, confirming my evaluation. But two questions remain: would a bit more flex make the Roubaix more efficient; and, just how much beating can a frame like that take anyhow? Does it matter? If Gary Fisher is right, we don’t really want bikes to last a long time anyway. In the Nov/Dec issue of Road, Gary Fisher states:

"[t]he philosophy back [in the late 1970 and early 1980s] was that a good steel bike would last 20 years. Nowadays nobody wants to be stuck with the same bike for 20 years. Nobody wants to be stuck with anything for 20 years! (40).

Is he right? If so, why are steel bikes seeing a resurgence right now? Why are so many people putting down serious money for custom steel bikes? I think Fisher is generalizing far too broadly here. I’ll leave this aside for now and get back to the plot.

I do not experience much planing on my Roubaix. The frame resists lateral energy from my crank arms. A smooth pedal stroke will yield good results on the bike, but it never really feels alive. The closest it comes is when I rock it back and forth in a steady groove in the saddle and effectively side-load the bb. It kinda-sorta planes a bit then (the bike damps a lot of road shock, but we’ll discuss that more in another installment). In contrast, my early 90s Pinarello 'cross bike does feel alive when I get into the right pedaling rhythm. I discovered this in the spring on a training ride. I could not discern it while riding off road/racing cross. It was a revelation, as the Pinarello is the first high quality steel frame I have ever spent time on. The bike has character. Before really feeling the bike plane, flexing in sync with my pedal strokes, I did not understand the concept on a somatic level; it was just a theoretical entity. I now understand that the bike was flexing in the seat-tube, not the bottom bracket shell. It is constructed out of the smallest diameter steel tubing available. To look at it one might wonder how it could take my abuse, being a large, strong rider. It takes it, and it gives it back too. Despite all this, the frame is not particularly light, and it feels like it would be better if it returned my energy quicker. Perhaps the seat-tube could use a little more butting…I don’t know.

My early '90s Pinarello cross in race trim

The giving back is key. When the seat-tube flexes it stores energy rather than resisting it. That energy is returned on the next pedal stroke, carrying momentum into the subsequent stroke. This is the sync Jan speaks of. The big question is: how much flex is optimal, and how do we achieve it? From my perspective, this is the most challenging aspect of the design process, choosing the tubing for the rider. I didn’t have much in the way of options for my new bike. I knew going in that because this is my first custom bike, it will not likely be perfect as we have designed it. I see it as a test bed that will inform future Steelwool bikes. It will surely be followed by another instantiation, built by either Will or Thom.

Secteur 18 in All-road trim

Secteur 18 in Double Cross trim

So, to pull this together, I set out to try to improve on my Roubaix with the new Steelwool. I now have the bike, and have done a few loops of the Gatineau Parkway a loop past Wakefield, our Double Cross, a proper cross race, and a few bike path/trail rides on it. Its got about 500k on it. What have I learned?

1) My new bike, the Secteur 18, is definitely heavier than my Roubaix, and that does matter. How much does it matter? Depends on what I’m doing. On a smooth road like the Parkway, there is just no way you can argue that the heavier frame and fork are doing you any good. They are not. This is not a bike suited to Parkway ripping as it sits.

2) Bigger tires are not necessarily slower. I’ve got 30s on the Secteur 18, and they don’t feel much different from my 28s (both Grand Bois). Where the larger tires will hurt a bit is on smooth climbs, where there suspension does not factor much, but their additional weight does.

3) On the flats the new bike does not seem to have lost much, if anything to the Roubaix. In theory, a steel frame will absorb road shock better than an aluminum or stiff carbon bike, which translates into greater efficiency for the rider. This steel frame is being compared against likely one of the smoothest carbon bikes out there. That’s tough competition. So far, the frame actually feels stiffer than the Roubaix in terms of road shock transmission. This begs the question: why run steel?

First, as I mention above, I knew going into this process that I’d not likely actually pull off my goal. That’d be pretty lucky, too lucky. My frame is built with a 28.6mm top and seat-tube, and a 31.8 downtube. Would I be better off on a 25.4 top-tube, like that on my Pinarello? I don’t know...yet. I don’t have confirmation of the tubing profiles used on the bike, so I don’t know how much thinner the tubes can get. Obviously, reducing thickness would reduce weight, and afford more compliance. How much more is desirable? I don’t know. So, again, why bother?
Foremost, I feel more confident about steel’s ability to retain its structural integrity through time. I’ve had numerous frame failures over the years, all on mountain bikes, and I can attest to how bad that can be. One must be able to trust their bike. Yes, I am aware Specialized, and other reputable companies, test their frames very rigorously. I have been told that the Roubaix takes a massive beating before failing on the test machines. I believe it. But at what point do I retire the bike? I don’t have a clue, and I can’t know. When I retire it, what do I do with it? Recycle it? I’d rather not buy carbon bikes every 3 or 4 years, just to wind up in the recycle bin. I want my bikes to enjoy long lives. Steel offers that. Its repairable without fuss. In addition, once one attains the magical quality of a steel frame that sings, that syncs with one’s effort, there is nowhere one needs to go. Sure, select carbon frames might be able to offer the same ride quality. But will they fit like a custom? Will they age like a steel bike does, with grace? I have my doubts.

Looking Forward

Bottom line, I do not believe steel bikes offer the best ride quality of all frame materials. I do believe they can be very, very good. And for most of us, that should be good enough. There is more to the question of what is ‘best’ than performance alone. A good steel bike, tailor made for you, with braze-ons to fit everything you need, is far more affordable than a carbon equivalent. And it will age gracefully, providing years and years of service. It may even outlive you, and carry your spirit along with whoever has the good fortune to ride it.
As I ride the Secteur 18 more, I will provide more insight into its attributes. I have yet to have opportunity to descend on dirt at high speeds (above 60k/hr), and look forward to seeing/feeling how it handles that. My experience on the Double Cross was the first ride I did on the bike that made me love it. It was nimble yet as stable as I could hope for. I loved it. I love it. As soon as I get the right housing and tape on it I’ll post up some more photos and talk a bit about the name.

We'd love to hear what you think about all this ride quality stuff. What material(s) do you like, geometry, tires, and why?


Dan said...

"Why are so many people putting down serious money for custom steel bikes?"

Bikes have become a fashion statement lately. Hipsters are getting into riding single-speed or fixies because it's "cool".

As soon as it's no longer fashionable to ride one, they'll be chucked away like a broken down department store bicycle.

Pascii said...

Latest post on the True North blog re-enforces the longevity/practicality of steel bikes:

I think that steel's robustness and repairability are a good trade off for what you MAY be missing in ride quality when comparing a good carbon frame.

Also, I'd rather support a small builder and have a frame that fits perfectly and lasts a lifetime than to spend over and over again on big production bikes that I'll have to throw out eventually.

rob.parniak said...

Good post Matt. I've never owned a carbon frame of any sort but I've had a few steel frames including a Lemond road bike, a Team Marin hardtail. Now I've got two Steelwools.

I've put many thousands of KM on the Pure Laine road frame over two seasons. This frame caused me to totally rethink my opinions on road bikes.

I got the frame concerned about so many compromises: the steel frame is nearly a pound heavier than the aluminium frame it was replacing, the angles are a bit more slack, the wheelbase was longer and the chainstays, specifically, were significantly longer. Based on years of reading magazines full of "laterally stiff verically compliant" bike reviews I expected the new Steelwool to be a bit more comfortable but less "snappy."

Five minutes into the first ride -- with the same components as the old bike -- I realized how naive I had been. The bike feels so smooth and stable! This makes it faster. Case in point: a couple of years ago I rode my old bike up Mt. Washington on Vancouver Island. It's something like 18km straight up from the Pacific to 6000 feet. The first four KM are at 18% or something. It's insanely hard to climb and on the way down the speeds can really get out of hand. On my old Specialized I just wasn't confident descending this thing! After many minutes over 80kph the bike was beginning to twitch and I had to slow down. It wasn't the fastest I'd ever descended but the extended periods at high speed really brought out the handling characteristics of the bike. This summer I did the same descent on the Steelwool with the same wheels and tires and never felt any of the unnerving handling traits of the Specialized. The longer solid bike descended like a champ. Maybe it was less windy -- I don't know -- but my sense is it had a lot to do with the bike.

I think this was mostly a geometry thing -- not so much the frame material -- but it really got me thinking about what's important in a bike. Most of the garbage put out by bike marketers means nothing on a real bike ride.

Matt Surch said...

Thanks for offering your thought guys, its nice to keep the conversation going. As both Pascal and Rob suggest, I think there is certainly more to consider when choosing a frame material than weight and stiffness. Marketing speak does tend to reduce product designs to these easily quantifiable aspects, and provide an interpretation ready made for the would be consumer: our bike rides awesomely well and will make you a better rider. Check out Padraig's review of the Roubaix (Pt II) for more on stiffness and weight. These aspects of a design matter. But there is more to the story. And while a custom carbon bike might meet all our needs (carbon is repairable), few of us have access to, or can justify the expense. Steel can offer incredible performance at a lower price, while retaining adaptability and repairability pretty much anywhere. The material also allows us to tweak things a bit down the road (like adding canti bosses ). But lets make no mistake; a high performance steel bike has a fatigue life just like anything else. But I suspect most will be put out to pasture before that time comes.

Rob, you should look up the angle on your Allez versus Laine. It would be interesting to see where the differences are.

Rob Young said...

Neat post Matt. I honestly can't read marketing on bikes any more, I think too much is made about stiffness, compliance and materials. Websites like Henry James do a good job to present an alternative view which I enjoy. :)

I've had a number of different bikes, steel, titanium and aluminum, and I've really liked every one. Perhaps I'm not picky enough? I've found the geometry and tube choices of the frames made a much bigger difference on the ride feel of the bike than the material choice.

For me, steel and aluminum are the materials of choice for bike frames. They're economical, I wont be out too much cash if I break the frame, and they've been around a long time. "Best" is subjective, it's nice to be riding a steel frame and not sweat the nuts and bolts too much.

I have the good fortune to have the opportunity to try my hand at lugged steel frame building over the winter. The frame is going to be a commuter for my gf, who's 5'2"; geometry is the main issue of the build, it took so long to arrive at (what will hopefully prove to be) a suitable geo.


Pascii said...

why is it that sometimes photos can be clicked on to enlarge and sometimes they can't?


Matt Surch said...

I don't know Pascal. I upload them all the same way, and some work while others don't. If any more competent bloggers can shed some light, I'd appreciate it. I think is a glitch.

jimmythefly said...

Matt, you absolutely need to try a "standard" diameter tubeset, and specifically a nice butted standard diameter tubeset(.8/.5/.8 or similar). I believe the tube diameter and wall-thickness issue was discussed in more than one of Bicycle Quarterly's articles, and it definitely matters.

My completely seat-of-the pants comparisons of steel bikes I've owned confirms this, and it seems like you admit it too when talking about your Pinarello.

It's actually a bit confusing that you 1)like the Pinarello so much, 2)wanted to improve on the Roubaix, and 3)be as light/lighter than the Pinarello, yet chose not to imitate it's tubing for the Secteur 18.

I didn't read your earlier post about the design process, so if this was addressed please forgive me. I arrived directly here via the iBob list.

Matt Surch said...

jimmythefly, thanks for checking this out and contributing; I'm glad Rodd posted this to the ibob list.

I did read the BQ test you reference, which is probably what sparked my process of questioning tubing diameters. I was pretty sure I didn't want OS tubes, but generally on the fence. Thing is, really thin oversized tubes can still damp a lot of vibration. I've ridden aluminum frames that had really good ride quality, and very very lard diameter. Not as comfy as a lot of steel frames, but comfier than some.

When it came down to deciding on tube diameters in the final hours of the design process, we opted not to go with standard tubes for two reasons: 1) the builder was not really game, 2) I already have a standard diameter frame (Pinarello). So the new frame was to be a test bed of sorts to get a sense of differences between the diameters. Apples to oranges a bit, as they don't share the same geometry. But its a start.

From speaking to other builders, there seems to be a lack of consensus around the ride characteristics of standard diameter tubes, at least top tubes. I've been told that they often promote shimmy, something my Pinarello does while sitting up no hands (with a wobbly tubular on pavement anyhow!). My Steelwool does not shimmy with the same wheels on it. Hmm.

Lastly, and I hope I've addressed your comments so far, I don't think 28.6 and 31.8 tubes are necessarily going to be heavier than standard diameter ones. I'm a relatively heavy guy at 180lbs, so I don't think standard diameter tubes could be specced superlight for me. THINK is the operative word here, cause I still want to learn more. Jan's BQ test suggests I should go standard as light as I can get. At least that's how I read it. However, I have to wonder how such a tubeset would handle my 'kamikaze' downhill style.

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