The New Carbon….Carbon Steel!
What’s lighter than a modern carbon bike? The new 13.5 pound Rodriguez Outlaw
This morning, I dropped my old truck off for repairs, and pulled my bike out of the back to ride on in to work. The mechanic was impressed with the nice paint job. It’s always fun to have someone lift my Rodriguez S3 bike and watch their jaw drop as they effortlessly lift it chest high with just one hand. So, I handed the bike over to him and said “Lift it up”.
Well, he lifted it, and as expected, his jaw did drop. He said “I gotta show this to the other guys!” So he rolled it to the back of the shop, lifting it several more times in disbelief as he went. Once there, he handed it to the other mechanics and told them to lift it up. Needless to say, they had the same reaction as he did. I asked them all “What do you think the bike is made of?” They all said in unison “Carbon fiber…”….then, noticing that I was shaking my head ‘no’ one of them said “Titanium?” “No” I said. “This is an American made steel bike, made right here in Seattle”. The surprise on their faces was evident as they all lifted the bike several more times, and one of them even took out his magnetic ‘pick-up’ pen device and stuck it right to the top tube just to make sure it was steel.
If you ask most people why they bought a carbon fiber bike, the answer invariably comes back “Carbon bikes are lighter weight”. Well, what if that’s not true? What if that’s just something you’ve been told? What if a comparably priced steel bike was just as light as a carbon fiber bike? Would you still want a carbon bike? Now, what if a comparably priced steel bike was even lighter than the carbon bike? How about one step further…what if a steel bike was lighter, less expensive and rode faster?
Think I’m crazy? Let’s peel the layers off of the onion and get to the truth about carbon fiber mania. The fact is, here at Rodriguez we did make carbon fiber bikes, but that was 35 years ago. Yes, you read right. 35 years ago we made custom carbon fiber bikes. I’ve written a slew of info about frame materials here if you are having trouble sleeping. Material World is a 4 part article that I wrote for the Bicycle Paper a while back.
Before we start: Is weight the only consideration for spending a lot of money on a bicycle? How about fit, durability, color, ride quality or longevity? Do these matter to you at all? If so, you’ll want to read on. If weight’s the only thing important to you, then you should read on as well, because I think you’ll be surprised.
Along for the Ride
We can start with the premise that most people prefer the ride quality of a steel frame to carbon. Heck, even a lot of carbon bike manufacturers cede the argument to steel for durability and ride quality. So what if you could pay less money, have a faster riding bike, more comfortable frame, and still have the lightest bike in the crowd? Sounds to good to be true right? Well, I’m actually talking about our 13.5 pound 2013 Rodriguez Outlaw, and it’s very real! As a matter of fact we’ve converted dozens of carbon frame riders to the Outlaw by just allowing a test ride on this amazing bike! Even the most die-hard carbon enthusiast will have to admit this bike cannot be beat.
All right, all right, back to business
I know, I know….you’re reading all of this, but then you pick up a magazine and read a glowing review of a sweet carbon fiber bike from some giant company. How can that be? Wouldn’t they be reviewing steel bikes if steel was so cool?
Let’s have a look at the vicious ‘Cycle of Business’ shall we?
Magazines review bicycles that their advertisers send to them for review. Companies send bikes for review that they want to sell. Look through the magazine and you’ll usually find an advertisement for the very bike that got that glowing review…..sometimes just opposite the review itself. It’s no coincidence. Big companies that advertise don’t make hand-built steel bikes. That’s because carbon fiber bikes are inexpensive to build overseas, so it would make sense to prime the public to want them. Not to say that the review isn’t genuine. The reviewer probably really liked the bike. It’s just that the opportunity to ride that bike for review is not a random selection, but a selection from an advertiser. The Cycle Continues
“Well, what about the pros?” you ask. “The pros only ride the best right? Almost all the pros ride carbon fiber, so doesn’t that make it the best?” Right and wrong. You see, the pros don’t ride a bike that they expect to last year after year (durability). Heck, a lot of them don’t even require their frame and fork to last one race. So, if by ‘best’ you include durability in your criteria, a pro has no need for that.
A pro does have a need for sponsorship though, and if their sponsor is trying to sell carbon fiber frames, then carbon fiber they will ride. After all, it’s their job to sell bikes. If we paid millions in sponsorship to a pro team, then they would be thrilled to ride steel Rodriguez Outlaw hand-built bikes (but, that’s not going to happen). If your criteria is “I ride what I’m paid the most $$ to ride” then at this point in history, carbon is the best. I’m not saying that a carbon frame will not perform, I’m just saying that it is not a superior performance to steel.
Fit note: – Realize also that the pros are riding bicycle geometries designed to fit them and their riding style. When you purchase that same frame in a store, you’re not purchasing a bike to fit you, but rather a bike to fit the pro it was made for. Ask your sales person what it would cost to get that same frame made truly custom to fit your body and riding style.
This ‘cycle’ of promotion steers the consumer to the product the manufacturers wants to sell. Now, obviously I’m trying to do the same thing, but I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is. Basically, you’ve got to verify weight if it’s important to you. I think that if you do that, you’ll find that here at Rodriguez, we can build your bike in America just as light as any overseas carbon bike. I’m confident that if you ride our bike back to back with a carbon bike, you’ll choose the Rodriguez every time….just like Steve and countless others have over last few years.
With the fashion sufficiently flushed, let’s get down to earth
I think that I’ve shown here that a light weight bicycle can be achieved through either material, so I would like to put all the hype about weight aside for minute, and talk about some things that are way more important.
1.) Fit: If your bicycle doesn’t fit well, you’re going to hate riding it no matter what it’s made out of. At Rodriguez we view fit as the most important component to any bicycle. We offer a fit guarantee with every bicycle we sell. Here’s a few articles that I’ve written over the years to back-up what I’m talking about on this subject. Ignoring fit when buying your bicycle is a huge mistake that many people make.
2.) Longevity: If you don’t care how long your new bike will last, then don’t worry about this section.
Most of our customers plan to ride their new Rodriguez for many years to come. What the consumer doesn’t realize is that our industry is steering very heavily toward a disposable product model by engineering bicycles to only last 5 to 10 years. Sure, carbon fiber frames with their short warranties are part of that model, but an even greater problem is wreaking havoc at bicycle repair shops all around the country. This is the trend of straying from industry standards to proprietary parts.
What the heck am I talking about? If you don’t know what ISO standards are, and proprietary parts are, you’re bound to end up on a bicycle that will end up in a land fill before its time. Yes, I’ve written a few things on the subject.
Here at Rodriguez, we reject the disposable bike philosophy, and substitute our own. A Rodriguez is built to be a forever bike.
3.) Personality: Do you have a favorite color? Why not paint your bike that color? At Rodriguez, your bike isn’t built until you order it, so you can choose any color you want. Obviously this isn’t a benefit exactly of a steel frame only, but Rodriguez customers love to have their new steed reflect their personality.
4.) Made in USA: I think there is something to be said for purchasing your bicycle from a company that is committed to manufacturing their products right here in the USA. We’ve seen almost every manufacturer move their production overseas in the last 2 decades in search of those creamy profits at the top. At Rodriguez, we’ve changed our manufacturing methods to provide the
The fact the we make your bike right here, means that we can customize more than just the paint. We can change geometry, braze-on fittings, tubing weights, wheel color, tires, you name it, we can do it!
5.) Most importantly: Don’t buy a bike, buy a shop! Really, it’s not about the bike. I can’t stress enough how important your relationship to your shop will be for your cycling enjoyment. A good shop has mature, professional employees who spend an hour or more fitting you to a bicycle before they sell you something. You should get a fit/comfort guarantee with your bicycle as well. Can you bring it back for a refund if you don’t like it? This is important, right?
6.) Get a Guarantee!! I cannot believe how many people have expensive bikes that are only a few weeks old and they hate them (like Jane). Why don’t they get their money back? Well, the shop or manufacturer doesn’t offer a satisfaction guarantee. Realize, any bike can be comfortable on a 10 minute test ride. The real test is how you feel on it after a few weeks. That gives you time to really settle in to the fit that your fitting professional has recommended, and feel how the bike reacts to your daily riding style. If the shop, or bicycle manufacturer, you’re working with doesn’t offer free fitting (including free stem and bar swaps) for their bicycle customers after the sale, I would strongly consider another shop. A lot of shops do not offer such a guarantee, so it’s your job as a consumer to ask that question before you purchase.
If they don’t offer a 30 day money back satisfaction guarantee, then realize that you will possibly be paying hundreds of dollars for fit work at another shop in order to relieve your pains, or, like Jane, you’ll just ride your old bike and let the new one hang in the garage. Now-a-days, high quality bicycles sell for $3,000, $6,000, $10,000 or more! That’s a lot of dinero for a wall hanger!
Wow! That’s a lot huh? If you’re looking for an uber-light bike, a heavy duty commuter, or and all-around bike for any occasion, we’d love to have a shot at becoming your bicycle company. Here at Rodriguez, we realize that the most important choice you make when selecting your new ride is the people that you are working with.
Thanks for reading
Articles linked in this post
- Rodriguez Outlaw
- Material World
- The Perfect Blend
- Steel, the miracle material
- Weighing the Truth
- Another Convert
- Just Your Size
- Our 40 year Fitting History
- Fit to Finish
- Pioneers and Profits
- Chaos, the new bicycle standard
- Proprietary Parts Explained
- Integrated Headsets
- Vest Value in the Industry
- Made in USA
- The Bushnell Eccentric
- Satisfaction Guarantee
Thank you all for coming!
I can’t express enough how much we all appreciate your support for our Bike and Pike event. The whole team here had a great time. Seeing you all was a great start to the 2013 cycling season! Bike and Pike has become a special even for us here at R+E Cycles, and this year it was more successful than ever. We raised almost 40% more than last year for Food Lifeline….enough for almost 10,000 meals to local food banks. Thank you all for attending and making this year a great success.
It had been almost 30 years since Angel Rodriguez and Glenn Erickson had seen each other. It was a special sight to see them reminisce, catch up on life, and share photos over their phones and various electronic media. A big thanks to both of them for making the trip for the 40th anniversary. We were all thrilled to see them both. They had a great time catching up with customers from the 1970’s, and meeting our new customers as well. I hope that you all enjoyed seeing them as much as they enjoyed seeing you.
Customers often ask if they’ll see us at Bike Expo, NAHBS or some other exposition show that other custom bike companies attend. We do not attend these shows any longer. We’re not crazy though, read on.
2013 marks the 5th year that R+E Cycles and Pike Brewing Company have put on our own fundraiser event instead of attending other exposition type events. The first year, we had some trepidation about doing this, but since then we’ve learned that we can serve our customers and our community better this way. Doing our own event means that the show comes to us, and we continue our mission of serving our customers relatively uninterrupted. Now we don’t have put our customer’s bikes on hold in order to spend a week or two building and painting special show bikes for display, only to close the shop for a weekend so that we can show them off. Instead, we can keep building and painting the bikes that have already been ordered, thereby keeping our delivery schedule on track. Customers with bikes on order can come by and see their bike in progress during the event, and know that they are truly our first priority. Add to that the fact that we can raise thousands for a local charity, and it really seems like a no-brainer.
With the smashing success of this year’s event, we know that the Bike and Pike is going to be around for a long time. Thanks again for your support. Have a great cycling season!
“Why didn’t I see you at Seattle Bike Expo?”
This time of year, customers often ask if they’ll see us at Bike Expo, NAHBS or some other exposition show that other custom bike companies attend. So many customers have asked me that over the last 5 years that I thought maybe they were due an explanation. We do not exhibit at these shows any longer. Although that would have seemed like a crazy decision to me just 10 years ago, business models change to suit the needs of their customers. After 40 years in business, we’ve learned a thing or 2 about what our customers want from us. We’re not crazy (at least I don’t think so)….read on and find out why.
The story of a customer focused business trying to operate in a conventional way
Imagine trying to put together a bicycle display that will compete with Specialized, Trek, Cervelo, and all of the other national and international bicycle companies. Sounds like a big task right? Well, let’s keep going. Now, imagine trying to put that display together while at the same time running a full scale bicycle shop. You have to keep fitting customers for new bikes, selling new bikes, answering the phones, answering your email, and working the sales floor just like any other day. Sounds a little harder right? Well, that’s not all. In your shop, you have to keep welding, painting, and assembling the bikes that are already sold. Now, you also have to keep the ordering going full time so that parts are here for those sold bikes, and don’t forget, you have to run a full service bike repair shop too.
If all of this weren’t enough, assume that you’ve developed a large parts manufacturing business throughout the last decade. You have to do all of the previous stuff while at the same time manufacturing thousands of parts that have already been promised to overseas customers. After machining, these parts will have to be anodized, fully assembled, boxed and shipped to the customers.
The Hard Part:
Now here’s the hard part (I bet you thought you’d already heard the hard part). You have to do all of this on a small business budget with the same 15 staff members that work at your shop all year long. Looking back on it, it doesn’t sound hard as much as it sounds crazy. The truth is, we couldn’t do all of what we do well, and do an expo display well too. If you want to read more about what the last expo we attended was like, read on…
…the inner workings of preparing for an expo:
Going to an exposition sets us back about 3 weeks. There’s no way to do an expo without putting orders (parts and bikes) already placed onto the back burner. It doesn’t seem fair, but that’s how it is.
Here’s a quick timeline of how an expo worked for us:
After several planning meetings, various departments were assigned to do things to prepare for the show. These meetings were expensive, and so was the booth at the show ($4,000 the last time we attended) so it was important to make a big impression….at least it seemed important at the time.
Ignoring what’s really important:
First of all, we started preparing for an expo a few months ahead of time, by making room in the build queue for some special ‘show bikes’. By ‘making room’ I mean putting customer’s bikes on the back burner. Then, about 10 days before the show, we did nothing in the paint shop except paint show bikes. Again, customer’s bikes would have to wait. The repair shop was kept busy assembling bikes for the show, and helping me build whatever booth fixtures we had designed. Before you knew it, we were backed up in the repair shop too (even repair customers had to wait).
On Thursday before the event, we would need to pick up the rental truck to haul all of the show bikes and custom displays that we had built. Most of the staff spent Thursday and Friday carefully wrapping the bikes and loading the truck, only to unload it again at the event a few hours later. Customer repairs and fitting appointments were not allowed from Thursday until the next Tuesday. This was because our trained staff would all be at the show trying to make a good impression on all of the show attendees. The actual store would be staffed with temporary volunteer ‘friends’ until we returned on Tuesday.
Now, we’d been working non-stop 10 ~ 12 hour days the week before the show, and now we would work 3 more 12 hour days in a row. Saturday would start early and would be a 12 hour day of standing on concrete floors and shaking hands. It’s really great to see the customers, but it was also a little embarrassing when someone with a bike on order would ask “How’s my bike coming?” Obviously, they had a bike that was put on the ‘back burner’ while we prepared for the show.
Sunday (usually a day off for everyone here) would be another 10 hours on the concrete floor, and then a long night. After the show closed, we carefully wrapped the bikes and loaded all of them and displays back onto the truck. We then drove back to the shop, and hastily unloaded everything. I usually took the staff out for pizza at this point before we all went home and collapsed in our beds.
Monday (usually our other day off for everyone) was spent putting everything back in order on the sales floor, returning the rental truck and any other rented items, and trying to assess the state of the bikes and parts on order (How far behind were we? Who do we need to call to tell them their bike will be late?).
Doing an exposition means that most of the staff loses their 2 days off that week, and we start the next week in a stupor. All of this, while putting our customers on the ‘back burner’ just didn’t make sense anymore.
What are we doing?
If you’re still reading, then you’ve just read a brief synopsis of our last expo (over five years ago now). Imagine going through all of that effort to discover at the last minute that your booth would not be in the prime location that you reserved several months in advance, but rather in the back of the event. In short, you got ‘bumped’ for a larger company. This is what happened to us, and it really lead us to examine what our mission was as a company. Our mission is to ‘exceed our customer’s expectations for service’, but were we doing that?. After analyzing the amount of effort put into that show, we couldn’t get away from the fact that we were being drawn away from our mission when taking part in these expo type events. How were our customers being served by being ‘bumped’ for ‘show stopper’ bikes?
While it was disappointing to be ‘bumped’ to the back of the room, it was no different than what we were doing to our customers
It was after this last show that we decided to do something very different, and the Bike and Pike was born. The Bike and Pike Event is our way of celebrating Seattle, cycling, and the customers who make our business possible. We can do this in a way that doesn’t disrupt our daily work, and in fact, we build bikes all the way through the show. No staff member misses their days off, so we continue on fresh the next week. Attendees have a great time, enjoy some incredible Seattle brews, bikes and more. No special bikes have to be built, as ‘the show’ is watching us build the bikes that are in process already. That’s more fun anyway, right?
Supporting the Seattle community:
The Bike and Pike offers two important things for Seattle
1.) A low cost way for new Seattle businesses to show their stuff. Seattle small businesses that are friends of the shop like Willie Weir, Bikelava, T’s Leatherworks, Jenise’s Jammers, and others get to display their products to attendees and we don’t charge them a dime for the booth. We see it as a way to help them get their businesses off the ground.
2.) Giving back to the community. Before the first Bike and Pike, Charlie and Rose Ann of Pike Place Brewing Company and I got together and discussed what type of event we would like to have. It was great to have an inexpensive way for small Seattle businesses to get the word out, but we also thought we should find a way to raise money for a local charity. Food Lifeline has been a great resource here in the Northwest for local food banks, so we decided to put 100% of any money raised on the event to them.
It’s a keeper!
The success of this years event was sensational! After 5 years, we’ve decided that Bike and Pike really fits our mission, and has allowed us to present our true product to attendees. That product? Dedication to service and to those customers who put their trust in us as their manufacturer, bike shop, and friend. Thank you all for choosing us, and here’s to 40 more great years in Seattle!
Thanks for reading – Dan
We’re 40 and we’re thrilled!
Our 40th year in business has started off with a BANG! Here it is, only February 7th, and we already have 15 sold tandems in progress! That’s a tandem every 1.7 days for every day that we’ve been open in 2013. This is a record number of tandems to have on order this early in the year. Amongst this record tandem trend, we have huge number of touring, sport and race bikes in progress as well. If that weren’t enough, we are also on track for a record Rohloff year. Yes indeed, we’re off to a very busy 40th anniversary year!
Make it a Double
As 2013 marks 4 decades of business here in Seattle for our company, it also marks a major anniversary for me as well. 2013 is my 20th year as owner of the company. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years, but I checked my watch and it’s true. Time flies when you get to work with great people I suppose. I really believe that we have the best staff in this industry, and the best staff that has ever been at R+E Cycles. I wish that everyone had the chance to work with the people that I work with on a daily basis. I’m not just talking about the staff though.
I would also like to take just a moment here to thank all of you who’ve given us the opportunity to be your bicycle company. Unlike other manufacturers, we don’t buy expensive advertising in magazines, and word of mouth is really our main form of attracting new customers. All these years you’ve been telling your friends and family about us, and that’s really what keeps us going. Each day here in the shop is like a family reunion as we recognize most customers by name. Year after year we see the same faces. I don’t want to forget about the new members of the Rodriguez family either….the long distance members. Over the last 5 years the internet has really brought a lot of new folks to the team. About 50% of our bikes are now shipped out across the U.S. or even to other countries. Even though you guys can’t make it to the shop, we still value your patronage and hope that we have been able to serve you as well as those who visit us in person.
40th Rodriguez anniversary, my 20th anniversary as owner…….I figure that’s really a double cause for some major upgrades around the shop as we venture into our 5th decade of serving our customers. Even though we are busier than we could have anticipated this winter, we’ve still cooked up some incredible projects around the shop to celebrate. Here are just a few things that we’ve been up to:
- Historical Rodriguez Display is in place
For 20 years I’ve wanted to put up a historical Rodriguez bike display. We have several Rodriguez bikes that people have donated over the years, and I’ve been storing them until I had the time to put together the display. Well, I didn’t have the time, but this winter I committed to it anyway and we got it done!
- Rodriguez tandem review in 2013′s first issue of Recumbent & Tandem Rider Magazine
Recumbent & Tandem Rider Magazine wanted to review a Rodriguez tandem. I told them that the big difference in tandems is the manufacturer’s relationship with their customer. To highlight that relationship, I wanted them to review the whole process of creating a custom Rodriguez tandem. From Fit to Finish, they took me up on it, and we built a custom tandem for their reviewer. The review is very thorough and covers the fitting process, the paint selection and everything that our customers experience when they order a Rodriguez custom tandem.
- Angel Rodriguez and Glenn Erickson both attending our open house celebration
There are not many custom shops that last 40 years. The legacy of R+E Cycles is a long one here in Seattle. For our Bike and Pike celebration this year, we wanted to have both R+E founders here to mark the occasion. I contacted both Angel (my old boss) and Glenn, and they’re both up for the event. Join us on Saturday, March 2nd and you’ll get to meet them as well as many other Seattle bike legends.
- In-store slideshow image displays
We have thousands of photos from the past and present that now live on a photo server here at R+E Cycles. We have three monitors mounted around the shop that are continuously displaying the images in a slide show fashion. It’s truly amazing the memorabilia a trip to the crawl space can produce when you’ve been around for 4 decades! I actually found boxes of photos and magazine articles hidden under the floor boards since the 1970′s. I’ve caught myself almost hypnotized watching the photos roll by, so be careful.
- New R+E Cycles T-shirts
I almost took this one off the list for 2013, but then out of the blue, our T-shirt screening company called and asked if we wanted to run T-shirts this winter. When I explained that I was too busy to go out there and put together the order, Darla offered to meet us here at the shop. Well, just this morning the first new R+E t-shirt design in over 15 years was delivered in the form of t-shirts! Lots of ‘em and they look great! They’ll be on sale at the shop for $19.99. Act now, and get one at a special retro price of just $14.99 until our open house on March 2nd.
- A huge collection of Rodriguez bike photograph galleries on the website
Beau has been snapping photos like a wild man over the last few years. With about 1,000 photos of the Rodriguez bikes we’ve built just over the last 2 years, it was getting difficult to sort through them on the website. Jeremy put together a sortable database of the image galleries that you can now access on our website. It should make looking through pictures of Rodriguez bike models more fun than ever!
- The Rodriguez on-line customer scrap book is now sortable and easier to view
Since the website went up in December of 1994, the on-line customer scrap book has been growing and growing. This winter, Jeremy put together a database of the scrap book entries, and made it searchable. Now you can view the adventures of Rodriguez owners in a more ordered way that relates to the topics that you want to see. It was a trip down memory lane to format the letters and photos for the scrap book, and lots of fun times were churned up in my mind. You’ll have the same experience I’m sure, so you should check it out.
- 40th Anniversary coffee mugs and pint glasses
We had some special coffee mugs and pint glasses made for our 40th anniversary as well. They will be on sale in the shop for $6 each or $20 for a set of 4. All proceeds up until and during our March 2nd open house will be donated to Food Lifeline.
- Last and least
We’ve given the shop some needed deferred maintenance. Along with all of the other goodies, we’ve refinished the floors, painted the frame shop, and had a new sign made to mount above the entry door.
So there you have it. We’ve been very busy this winter and we hope that you enjoy some of the improvements that we’ve made to the shop and the website. Really though, it’s all about bicycles here at R+E Cycles, and now I’ve got to get back to the business of designing bikes so we can get them built. I do enjoy writing a bit, and I’ve enjoyed this time out to tell you about what we’ve been up to, but the CAD program beckons me to continue yet a few more tandem designs (one for a California customer and one for an Oregonian). Now let’s get that 5th decade underway, shall we?
Thanks for reading
Look Ma! No Derailleurs!!
(As originally published in The Bicycle Paper in Summer of 2011
Over the last 8 years or so, we’ve seen a lot of interest in internally geared rear hubs (IGH for short). A bike with an IGH has all of the gears housed inside the rear hub instead of using traditional cogs, derailleurs and chain rings. Remember your old 3-speed (or your parent’s old 3-speed)? It’s like that, but with a lot more gears. IGH technology is an old one (over 100 years old actually), but with the invention of derailleurs, the 3-sp IGH was abandoned by most cyclists for the unlimited gearing options of the derailleur. I don’t see the end of derailleurs anytime soon, but for those who are investigating IGH, we’re trying to help you with your homework.
When Todd Bertram, a master frame builder here at R+E Cycles in Seattle, returned from Germany in 2003 he brought with him something special. It was a finely crafted piece of German engineering known as the Rohloff Speedhub. He’d spent almost two years in Germany, worked in the Rohloff factory, and had seen a lot of these on bicycles throughout Europe. He had a sneaking suspicion that soon, this engineering marvel would capture the eye of American cyclists as well.
A Rohloff hub has 14 speeds instead of just 3. Now the IGH rider could have the same range of gearing that would be found on a traditional 27-speed touring bike. A bicycle equipped with a Rohloff Speedhub has no derailleurs to worry about, and is virtually trouble free as far as shifting goes.
Since 2003, news of the Rohloff Speedhub slowly made the trip around the world to the United States. What used to be a curiosity is now an accepted design. Because of its trouble-free reputation, it has become a popular item with touring cyclists, and ‘go-anywhere’ cyclists. Building Rohloff equipped bicycles has become an industry in and of itself. The special hub calls for some special frame design to make life easier for the rider though. Custom frame builders all over the U.S. are trying to design adaptations for their touring bikes to accommodate customers who are requesting this new hub.
As the builder of Rodriguez Bicycles, we got lots of questions from curious adventurers, but we didn’t start getting a lot of orders until 2009. Since then, sales have ballooned. We’ve seen our sales of Rohloff equipped bikes double each year over the last 3 years. As of November 2011, Rodriguez Bicycles has become the number one builder of Rohloff equipped bicycles in the United States as confirmed by Cyclemonkey, the exclusive U.S. Rohloff importer. (Probably the reason we were asked to write this article).
Who wants an IGH? While most of our Rodriguez Touring bikes are still equipped with derailleurs (just Shimano these days) higher end touring cyclists have been looking for alternatives to derailleur equipped bikes. This is because Campagnolo, SRAM and Shimano have all but abandoned the high-end touring market. Instead, the big 3 have focused their advertising and development on racing equipment that’s expensive, doesn’t hold up for touring, and limits the gearing ratios too much for touring. Shimano still has a some great derailleur options for the sub $2,500 bike market, but for the high end, a lot of folks are now considering the move away from derailleurs.
Another customer who has interest in IGH is the urban commuting customer. Commuters are very hard on their equipment, and some of them are very attracted to the idea of a bike specifically designed as a trouble-free commuter.
What are the IGH options? With the worldwide popularity of the Rohloff Speedhub on the rise, Shimano has taken notice of this new market as well. Shimano has been building some IGH hubs for several years, but their offerings have always been suitable for more of an urban commuter bike rather than a serious touring bike.
Last year, Shimano introduced their first serious entry into the field of IGH touring hubs, the Alfine 11. Now that Shimano is making a run at the high-end IGH market, that has spawned a lot (and I do mean A LOT) of IGH questions from around the world. People (as well as us) were hoping that the new Shimano hub would give them Rohloff performance at Shimano prices. As a major Rohloff builder, a lot of those questions have come to us.
When the The Bicycle Paper asked me to write an article comparing IGH hub options, Jeremy and I were actually in the middle of answering those very questions in the form of an FAQ series on our website. So, as it happens, we have the answers:
In addition to Rohloff equipped bikes, we have now built and sold several bikes with Shimano IGH hubs on them as well. Our experience with the different hubs shows us the best use for each.
We’ll compare 3 different hubs (the 3 we’ve built with): The Shimano Alfine 8-speed, the Shimano Alfine 11-sp, and the Rohloff Speedhub 14-sp. Shimano does make some lower end 8-sp IGH hubs (Nexus), but this article is ‘geared’ toward the more serious cyclist.
You’ll need to be familiar with a few terms:
Gear Range: This is the % of gearing change from the lowest to the highest gear. A good range % between high and low is important for touring. ie. the higher the better. Unlike a derailleur system, for the IGH the gear range is forever. A standard modern day touring bike will come with a gearing range of about 450%. It can easily be adjusted to about 600%, but the 450% gives us a good starting point. By comparison, an old 10-speed bike from the 1970′s would come with a range of 250% or so.
Gear Ladder: Another thing to consider is what we call the Gear Ladder. The Gear Ladder is the % of distance between each individual gear change. On a derailleur system this is adjustable by using different cogs or chain rings, but for an IGH, you bought it, you got it.
We’ve built several urban commuter bikes with this hub, and even a few sport/fun tandems.
- This hub is limited to 308% gear range. More than the old 10-sp, but not really enough range for serious touring.
- The Gear Ladder is very uneven. Ranging from 1st gear, it looks like this: 23%, 16%, 14%, 17%, 23%, 16%, 14%.
- Wheel attachment is bolt-on only, so no quick release rear wheel.
The gear range is 409%. It doesn’t quite get you to the range of a stock touring bike, and nowhere near the range of the Rohloff.
- Although Shimano originally planned an evenly spaced Gear Ladder, the final result was disappointing to many rabid IGH fans.
- The spread between first and second gear is a whopping 30% jump. The ladder runs even 17% and 18% for the rest of the gears, but that first 30% jump is really big.
- The absence of a quick release makes this hub less desirable for many serious touring cyclists as well.
- Also, for you belt drive fans, use of a belt drive on either Alfine hub will limit your tire width as well.
The King of the IGH! For the truly serious touring cyclist, the choice is the Rohloff Speedhub. We’ve built touring bikes, mountain bikes, and serious tandems equipped with Rohloff Speedhubs.
- The Gear Ladder is a uniform 13.6% all the way through the range.
- The Speedhub can also be ordered with a quick release axle or a bolt-on axle.
- The design allows for better belt drive/wide tire compatibility.
All in all, the Rohloff is better suited for the customer who wants an IGH, and wants a real replacement for their touring derailleur setup.
The serious touring cyclist will still have to choose between derailleurs or the Rohloff Speedhub.
Since a high quality custom touring bike will run you about $2,000 in our shop, a serious IGH touring bike turns out to be quite a bit more expensive. Even so, many folks are choosing to go that route in order to have the convenience and low maintenance of the Rohloff. We run about 70% derailleurs, and 30% Rohloff for the touring bikes at this point.
If you’re considering a Rohloff or other IGH equipped bicycle, the FAQ section of our website has a dozen or so articles comparing, contrasting, and listing all of the pros and cons of each design.
In our industry, products from the past seem to re-appear quite often. Bicycle disc brakes are one such item. Like a Phoenix, they’ve risen from the ashes a 3rd time in just the last 40 years. Since their acceptance as a superior brake for the mountain bike, it seems that more and more people are asking about them for their road bikes. Most manufacturers are happy to just slap them on, but is there more to consider? Are they better for every type of bike and every type of riding? Let’s follow the history a bit, and see.
This article is for those who want to learn more about bicycle disc brakes. It’s not to convince the reader that disc brakes are good or bad. My purpose is to let you all know that disc brakes have been around a long time in our industry, and there are upsides and downsides to them. We’ve built hundreds of frames over the last 40 years that are designed for disc brakes (over 100 in 2012 alone). We also run one of the largest bicycle facilities in Seattle (since 1973) and we service disc brakes of all types on a daily basis. We have more history and experience than most to draw from. So, if you’re ready to separate the fact from the fiction, put on your dancin’ shoes and boogie, this is the article for you.
It was the 1970′s! The BeeGees were ‘Jive Talkin’ all over the music charts, and all the kids wanted to be Vinnie Barbarino (Welcome Back Kotter). I was the resident bicycle kid in my Junior High class, and I rode my Raleigh Rampar all over the area all of the time. So, imagine my surprise when my buddy Barrett showed up at school on a new ride…..one with all the candy! He was excited to show me his new bike, but class was about to start and we didn’t have time to go back outside and look at it. I got a quick verbal description (including hand motions) painting a vivid picture of this futuristic 10-speed. “It has numbers on the gear shifters to tell you which gear it’s in….like a car!” he said as he motioned the international ‘stick shift’ hand signal that all boys of my generation understood. “But, that’s not all! My bike has disc brakes like a car!” Could it be? I thought. Disc brakes on a bicycle? Wow! How cool is that?
What Barrett had purchased was a Western Flyer 10-speed at the local auto parts store (Western Auto) in our small town. After school, we looked at his bike together, and he did indeed have a bike with all of those features.
As it turned out, in 1975, Shimano actually had just released 2 versions of disc brakes for bicycles. One hydraulic, and one cable-actuated. Here’s the page from the 1975 Shimano catalog showing both types of Shimano bicycle disc brakes.
I know a lot of people, even people in the bicycle industry, think that bicycle disc brakes weren’t even invented until the 1990′s. There are probably older versions of bicycle disc brakes, but from my historical perspective, life began in the 1970′s shortly after the invention of the wheel, so that’s as far back as I’m going to reach in this article.
Back to the story
Now, finding out that he had a Western Flyer eased my jealousy quite a bit (Western Flyers were just Huffies by another name). I proudly rode a Raleigh from a bike shop in a neighboring town (our small town had no bicycle shops).
As the 1970′s disco’ed on, so did the introduction of more and more bicycle disc brakes. Bridgestone, Japan’s largest bicycle company, introduced their new cable actuated disc brake, and Phil Wood came up with a super high-tech disc brake that we here at Rodriguez used on tandem bicycles.
Just a quick note: Some people think that we at Rodriguez bicycles are anti-disc brake. As you can see, we’ve used disc brakes on our bikes since the 1970′s. Most of our customers choose cantilever brakes for touring and tandem bikes because they like them better, not because we don’t offer them with disc brakes.
Good Money Gone Bad!
All that money spent on R&D, but the bicycle disc brake would die in the early 1980′s along with disco. Now, everyone knows that disco burned itself out, but why didn’t the disc brake stick as a bicycle component through the 1980′s?
A lot of people will say “Well, those old disc brakes didn’t work well” but those people would be wrong. They may not work well by comparison to disc brakes of today, but comparing them to rim brakes at that time, they worked great! The industry was behind them, and they spent tons of R&D cash to develop, manufacture and promote them. So, why didn’t they catch on? Eventually, the disc brake was sent to the scrap heap of ideas gone bad.
The ‘Road’ to Failure
In the 1970′s, every bike was a road bike. The fact was, even though disc brakes worked well, they were a lot heavier, and a bit noisy. Add to that the fact that they were harder to adjust, and parts (like pads) were hard to find at your local bike shop. For road bikes, rim brakes worked fine and they were lighter as well as less expensive, and any bike shop or sporting goods shop had pads in stock for them. In short, the benefits of the disc brake were outweighed by sacrifices….at least as far as road bikes and tandems of the 1970′s were concerned. The need for a disc brake really didn’t exist until the introduction of the mountain bike a decade later. Besides, we all needed to save our money for some new dancin’ threads.
The Metal Years
Fast forward to the late 1980′s. Disco is dead, Poison, Motley Crue, and other bad boys (that looked like girls) topped the charts, and a few high-end mountain bike companies are looking for brakes that will work even if the rims are bent and covered in mud! I know! How about disc brakes? Yes, the disc brake is resurrected in the late 1980′s by a few high-end mountain bike companies.
Now, one would expect to see the Bridgestone, Shimano and Phil Wood discs simply re-appear…..right? Well that’s not how we do things in the bike industry. Even though these would’ve been great starting points, we started again, re-inventing the same designs that used to exist. Here’s an example of a 1980′s mountain bike with a set of Suspenders hydraulic/cable disc brakes. There were a few different high-end disc brakes in the late 80′s. Most of them were expensive and difficult to adjust. Some of them worked alright, but some didn’t really cut the mustard. Shimano put out the V-brake (yuck!) somewhere in the early 1990′s, and that really became the brake of choice for most mainstream mountain bike customers. Only the really high-end specialty mountain bike ran disc brakes…
A quick deviation into the 1990′s tandem world
As is custom in the bicycle industry, tandem builders tend to think that something made for a mountain bike will work great on a tandem. Don’t ask me why, but for some reason there are people that see a correlation between a 180 pound guy trying to stop while riding through a muddy stream at 20mph, and a 350 pound tandem team trying to stop while screaming down a mountain pass at over 60mph on asphalt. I fail to see the similarities, but none-the-less, as high-end mountain bikes started using disc brakes in the 1990′s, tandem people requested them on a regular basis. Here at Rodriguez, we used a lot of the Hope disc brakes in the 1990′s on tandems. We only used them as an auxiliary brake, and never as a primary brake. As a matter of fact, I still have 2 of these brakes sitting here beside my desk as I type this. I can tell you many stories of mythical tandem disc brakes (sometimes resulting in very aggravated customers), but suffice it to say that this brake was not at all capable of stopping a tandem, just slowing it down.
The point of this deviation is: Mountain bikes use disc brakes not because they work better, but because they work better on mountain bikes.
..So, as a high-end mountain bike brake, the disc brake limped along through the 1990′s, but never took off as a standard to be used as primary brakes on tandems or touring bikes. Really, that’s not what they were designed for, so that makes sense right?
Home Sweet Home
The disc brake finds its home in the new millennium
Benefits Galore! To the mountain biker, the disc brake is a gift from above. Now the off-road rider could bash his/her rims completely out of true and their brakes don’t rub. They can ride through a muddy stream and their brakes don’t clog up. They don’t have to worry about sand and grime all over their rims getting trapped in their brake pads and damaging their rims. The mountain biker is willing to trade the noise and extra weight for these benefits. Noise doesn’t matter much because off road riding is pretty noisy anyway.
As companies embraced the disc brake, lower cost versions of cable actuated disc brakes developed and the V-brake could finally all but disappear from the industry. Not soon enough I say…the V-brake was the worst of both worlds really, but that’s a whole different article.
Now we see almost all mountain bikes with disc brakes (as we should) and we see the tandem and road bike companies offering them as well. We offer disc brakes on any bike we make. The question often asked of us is “why not use disc brakes on all bikes?” Believe me, it would be easier for us to just use disc brakes on all bikes and tell people the same thing that are reading in the magazines…..ie. that disc brakes solve all your problems and are the perfect solution for every type of riding. We do have an obligation to the truth though, and the truth is that there are certain applications where a disc brake is preferable, and certain applications where they are not the best choice.
The theory goes “If they work better on a mountain bike, won’t they work better on a road bike or tandem as well?” Gee…where have I heard that logic before?
One size does NOT fit all
In reality, there are applications that are better suited for disc brakes and there are applications that call for traditional brakes. When you think about it, all bicycle brakes are disc brakes. A disc brake uses a disc brake caliper attached to the frame to grasp a spinning disc (rotor) attached to the hub. A traditional brake is a caliper that uses the rim (also a spinning disc attached to the hub) in place of the rotor. This eliminates the need for the second spinning disc (rotor). I’ve got an anecdote about this theory if you want to take a break from this article. There are benefits and drawbacks to disc or traditional depending on your riding conditions and desires.
It’s Important to Be Careful
Improper assumptions by you, a bicycle manufacturer, or a bike shop can result in serious injury or even death. Want some proof? Here it is.
What should I do?
We’ve come full circle with the disc design, and they look a lot like those 1975 Shimano brakes don’t they? There are very good cable actuated and hydraulic disc brakes. Even so, the benefits and drawbacks remain the same as they did in the 1970′s. Nothing’s changed in terms of road bike uses. The mountain bike brought on a whole new style of riding and with it, many innovations that wouldn’t have come around otherwise. The disc brake is proof of that. The mountain bike brought the disc brake back from the dead, and it’s the perfect application for it.
Controversy where there should be none
I had some reservations about even writing this article, and I’ve put it off for a couple of years. I’ve actually had some people get mad at the fact that we see any downside at all to the road bike disc brake. It seems that over the last few years, magazines and blogs have been buzzing with glowing reviews about road bike disc brakes and one who dares to suggest that there is anything but perfection in the design is labeled a ‘retro-grouch’ and shunned. Well, maybe shunned is too strong of a word, but there have been occasions when I’ve had discussions with folks who seem to get angry at the fact that most of our road bike customers prefer a rim brake.
Here’s a quick story about one such occasion.
As it turns out, paper doesn’t refuse ink, keyboards don’t refuse fingers, and the internet doesn’t refuse opinions of those who have vested interets. Its up to those who have decades of experience building and servicing bicycles to bring the facts to the surface (facts are stubborn things).
I decided to go ahead and write the article though, and I hope I’ve done so in such a way as to not offend the true believers. Being the kind of shop we are, we won’t try to push you into one style of brake or another. Instead, we’ll just put together a list of the benefits and compromises attached to each type of brake and you can decide yourself which brake suits your style of riding and budget. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen: Behold…The List!
Thanks for reading,
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Bike and Pike news, updated as the day gets closer.
|Fork||Rodriguez Lugged Cro-moly|
|Shifters/Brake levers||Campagnolo Veloce 10-sp|
|Brakes||Tektro 538 Long Reach|
|Cranks||Campagnolo Champ Triple 52/42/30|
|Front Derailleur||Campagnolo Triple|
|Rear Derailleur||Campagnolo Comp Triple|
|Hubs||Formula Sealed bearing 32 hole|
|Spokes||Stainless 14 gage|
|Wheels||Handbuilt w/3 year warranty|
|Handlebars||Kalloy Uno Compact|
|Headset||FSA 1 1/8″ threadless|
|Bar Tape||Black cork|
|Seat post||Alloy 27.2|
|Seat||WTB Speed V sport|
|OX Platinum frame||$300|
|Rodriguez Carbon Fork upgrade||$250|
Since our series on 700c vs. 650c ran, I’ve gotten a lot of e-mail questions about 26″ (mountain bike sized or 559 size) wheels.
The question that people have is “why don’t you use mountain bike sized wheels instead of 650c? Wouldn’t that give the customer more rim and tire choices?”
The funny thing is, we love 26″ wheels as well. 26″ wheels offer all of the same design advantages for the petite cyclist as the 650c. Actually, we build a lot more bikes with 26″ wheels than we do with 650c. I’ll bet we build more 26″ wheeled road bikes than just about any other custom builder around. One quick look at our website, and you’ll see that we have several models that use 26″ wheels for every frame size, and all of our touring bikes come standard with 26″ wheels for all of the smaller sizes. Our popular UTB has run 26″ wheels since 1996, and the Rodriguez Adventure touring bikes have run 26″ wheels for the small sizes since the creation of the model as well. We were a pioneer in 26″ wheeled tandems and touring bikes throughout the 1980′s and 1990′s, and still offer 26″ wheels on any tandem or touring bike we make. As a matter of fact, more than half of Rodriguez tandem riders (including myself) choose 26″ wheels. Just look at our main photo on our custom tandem page or the Toucan ST tandem page. Almost all of our new Rodriguez Make-shift customers order their bike with 26″ wheels as well. I can’t leave out our exclusive Rodriguez 8-ball convertible tandem/single travel bike either. Since it’s inception in 1995, all but 2 of these have been built for 26″ wheels (one went with 700c, and one went with 24″ wheels). Here’s a gallery with just a few of the 26 inch and 650c bikes that we’ve built last year alone.
As you can see, 26″ wheels have a very long history on Rodriguez bicycles
This series of articles was focused on road racing bikes, and there is a disadvantage to a 26″ wheel on a road racing bike. That disadvantage is tire and rim availability. Although there are plenty of rims and tires available for 26″, the selection that a racer would want to use is extremely limited. 650c offers a decent selection of lightweight racing tires from 23mm to 28mm by companies like Michelin, Vredstein, Serfas, Continental, Hutchinson, etc… 26″ offers the rider great variety in wider touring tires, but almost no 23mm options, and very few light weight rim options.
Road Race bikes are a different animal than tandems or touring bikes
For a couple of years, we ran 26″ wheels on the smaller our best selling Rodriguez Rainier road model, but we found that rim and tire choices were too limited for some of our ‘go-fast’ road bike customers needs.
In a perfect world, the industry would begin manufacturing 26″ tires and rims in racing weights, or 650c rims and tires in touring weights. But for now, the petite racer has a much better selection on 650c, and the touring cyclist has a plethora of excellent choices in 26″.
Why not a bike for both 26″ and 650c?
What’s really cool is a bike that will use both 650c and 26″. We’ve built several of these through the years, but requires some special considerations when it comes to brakes. Standard brakes will not work for both wheel diameters, but if the rider is willing to adjust their brakes, they can have a bike like Nancy’s (above), that can use both wheel sizes.
In summary, nobody would like to see the acceptance of one standard wheel size than I, but suffice it to say we will continue to offer the petite cyclist choices that suit their style of riding in any wheel size.
To see more 26″ and 650c wheel bikes, visit our website and look through the image galleries for the different models. Every image gallery has bikes with various wheel sizes. To get you started, here is a gallery of just some of the 26 inch and 650c bikes that we’ve built last year alone.
This is part 8 of 8. Here is the start!
When someone in the industry (people in the industry should know better) tells a smaller rider “small wheels are slower”, what I hear them saying is “riding with knee pain, discomfort in your shoulders, neck, back and numbness in your hands on a bicycle that’s harder to control can make you ride faster.” This doesn’t sound like good advice to me. Especially when there’s so much proof that their “smaller=slower” claim is completely false.
The truth is, when someone tells you “smaller wheels are slower”, what they are saying is “I have nothing with proportional wheels to offer you”. At Rodriguez, we’ll offer you either size, and give you the facts about both.
There’s really two myths that people are told about why 650c wheels are slower than 700c. We can easily put the facts together to show that both of these theories, while having some truth in them, ignore several other aspects of the differences. Those differences easily offset the reasoning that is used by so many in bike shops around the country to try and scare petite riders into bigger wheels.
Warning: Severe Facts Ahead
This part is true. A 650c wheel has to turn 823 rotations to travel 1 mile, while a 700c wheel has to rotate 763 times for the same distance. Salesperson says “More rotations = more friction in the bearings and that causes you to go slower.” …..not exactly. All other things being equal, this would be true, but there’s more to the equation.
What the salesperson doesn’t know, or has neglected to inform you of is that the 650c wheels are 8% lighter than the exact same wheels built in 700c. Think about it. A smaller rim, shorter spokes, smaller tire, tube and rim strip all add up to big weight savings for the 650c. Just for fun, ask that same salesperson if heavier wheels are faster than lighter wheels? We all know of course, that lighter wheels are the best way to speed up any bicycle. That’s because of those darn facts again. This time it’s rotational mass….read on and see what I’m talking about.
Friction, Bricks, and Rotational Mass
When an object (like a bicycle wheel) is spinning, it is subject to the laws of rotational weight. Rotational weight is the ‘evil’ that everyone with any size of wheel is trying to get rid of. This is because of rotational mass. Imagine a brick tied to the end of a string. Pretty easy to hold up right? Now swing the brick around in a circle. It feels much heavier. If the brick is lighter and the string is shorter, then it’s easier to spin. Rotational weight of a wheel is magnified in this same way. As a wheel starts to spin, all of the weight out at the end of the spokes is ‘the brick’. Less rim, spoke, tire, tube, etc. equates to a ‘lighter brick’ to spin, and a smaller diameter equates to a shorter string. A lighter wheel is much easier to spin up to speed than a heavier one.
Need more scientific evidence than a ‘brick on a string’? Here’s a scientific article detailing the effect of weight and size on the rotational mass of a spinning object.
“C’mon Dan! That article was way techo-geek speak!” “How about some easy proof that everyone can understand?”
How about a spinning ice skater? Here’s a quick article of how an ice skater speeds up their spin. By pulling their arms closer to their body, they pick-up speed right?
The 8% weight savings for the 650c wheel sizes easily negates the added friction for the additional rotations that it makes.
I’m sorry, but I have to pause here to say, if a salesperson ever says that to you, find a way to politely leave the store. You’re either dealing with someone who’s trying to mislead you, or they really don’t know what they’re talking about. Either way, I recommend finding another shop. I’ve had people come to my shop who’ve been told this very thing by dealers who know better.
OK, rant time is over and now it’s time to educate you on why gearing shouldn’t even be an issue in this topic.
We’ve already established that one rotation of a smaller wheel is a shorter distance that one rotation on a larger wheels right? So wouldn’t one rotation of your cranks results in less forward motion too? Actually, it has all to do with gearing ratio, and nothing to do with wheel size. Now, if you put exactly the same size gears on the 2 different bikes, then the statement would technically be true, but that would be stupid. The gear ratio is selected for your style of riding and your strength. It’s the same on a car. A Porsche with small wheels is geared higher than a dump truck. The Porsche with smaller wheels is faster than the large wheel dump truck because the Porsche is geared for higher speed. Does that make sense? We use higher gearing to accommodate for smaller wheels, and lower gearing to accommodate for larger wheels. We can make any wheel size any gearing.
In the bike industry, gear inches are calculated the following way:
(Front chain ring size) ÷ (cog size) x (wheel diameter). For 700c x 25mm tires, use 26.77 for the wheel size. For 650c x 25mm tires, use 24.8 for the wheel size.
As you can see in the sample below, a simple change of one tooth size on the cog or chain ring is all that is required to gear the bikes almost identically. Actually, in the sample below, the 650c wheel bike is geared higher than the 700c. Any shop worth dealing with is going to work with you to determine the right gear ratio for your riding style and strength at no charge anyway.
Here’s a quick sample of a common road bike gearing for three different wheel sizes
|Wheel size||Front Chain rings||Rear Cogs||>Highest Gear||Lowest Gear|
|700c wheel||52/39||12-24||116 inches||43 inches|
|650c wheel||52/40||11-23||117 inches||43 inches|
|24″ wheel||55/42||11-21||113 inches||44 inches|
You can easily see now that it’s misleading to assume that all bikes have to use the same gear sizes when showing someone a gear chart. Gearing is a non-issue when it comes to speed and wheel size.
“OK, these are all great facts, but are there any world class athletes that ride smaller wheels to victory?” You ask?
Well, I’m glad you asked. You could listen to what Stacia has to say. She set the cycling speed record for the Seattle Danskin Triathlon.
You could take
Lee’s word for it (if you can catch up with her).
Maybe you’d like to talk to Anna after she won first place in her first Olympic distance triathlon.
No you haven’t hear of these people, but if you’re a petite cyclist, chances are you’ve seen them kicking the shorts off of folks out there in the ‘regular people’ world of cycling that we all live in. We’ve got thousands of customers out there like Nancy B. who thought 650c wheels would be slow, but have discovered how fast they are.
Again, I’m not trying to say that smaller or bigger wheels are faster or slower, and I don’t care what wheel size that you want to ride. I ride 700c wheels on my road bikes, and 26″ wheels on my tandems. I think that it’s important though that you understand that choosing smaller wheels to make your bike fit will not make you slower.
Are smaller wheels just for the ladies? How about something for the guys? Are there any tall guys who choose to ride smaller wheels professionally? Yes! Some of the worlds fastest bicycles were piloted by men and have really small wheels.
Obviously if bigger wheels were faster, one would expect to find bigger wheels, not smaller wheels, on record setting bicycles that are ridden at speeds of over 150mph. Yet, these guys chose really small wheels. Maybe they didn’t talk to the guy at the shop.
Don’t believe me? Ask these guys.
Al Abbott sets the world record riding past 138 mph in 1973
John Howard sets the world record at 152.2 mph in 1985
Famous sprinter Laurent Jalaber becomes a climbing champion on a 650c bike in the 2001 Tour de France
Examples like these are easy to find, and number in the thousands. Again, I’m not saying smaller wheels are faster, but just that wheel size isn’t determinant of speed.
Still have some questions? email me, I’ve got plenty of testimonials and other articles on the subject. I’ve got no incentive to push either wheel size, and I own bicycles with both wheel sizes. I just hate to see people receive bad information and get a bike that doesn’t control well and isn’t comfortable.
The Real Cause of “Slow”
One thing that everyone can agree on is that discomfort, pain, and low confidence for controlling a bicycle will always result in slower riding. This isn’t even up for debate. Feeling comfortable and in control is the best way to speed up your ride. When the industry (or bike shop) is telling smaller riders “bigger wheels are faster”, I think what they mean to say is “make my job easier by compromising the comfort, fit, and confidence that taller riders experience.”
The real truth is that Comfort and Confidence = Better Performance and Faster Speed.
A quick summary of the compromises that have to be made when designing bicycles for people under five feet, five inches tall.
Compromise 1, Accept Toe Strike
Some manufacturers choose to compromise safety instead of handling. By designing a bike for proper trail numbers, and a short top tube, this manufacturer has designed a bicycle that is very dangerous when trying to avoid an obstacle (like a car door or pedestrian) when riding. At Rodriguez, we no longer build with this much toe strike because we have had to buy back so many small bikes over the years for this reason. No matter what someone tells you, you’re not going to get used to it, and too much toe strike is not OK.
This drawing is an exact re-creation of an actual bike that came in for repairs because the customer crashed while trying to avoid a car door. The rider was confused as to why they went down, but was sure they didn’t hit the car door.
The picture on top shows that the bike looks perfectly fine, and normal to the untrained eye. The fit measurements line up just right for most women around 5’3″ tall. The same drawing on the bottom shows the issue of toe-strike.
Compromise 2, The Magic Top Tube
On the face of things, this second bike has no toe overlap, acceptable handling geometry, and the right fit numbers. What the untrained eye doesn’t see here is that this is actually a trick. The seat tube angle has been designed very steep, so the top tube is artificially shortened. This way the manufacturer can list the bike in a catalog with a short top tube.
In real life, this is the worst compromise for most riders because it makes the reach almost impossible to shorten. Riders that have bikes like this soon find out that their knee is way too far forward and they have developed knee pain when they ride long distances. The only way to correct it is to push the seat way back, effectively lengthening the reach to the bars too far for a shorter rider. Now the rider needs a stem that’s shorter than any thing available. Unless your fit numbers call for a really steep seat angle, I recommend against this option.
On the top, you can see that this bike looks normal. On the bottom, you see that this is actually the worst way to design a small bike with 700c wheels if you consider fit and control as important. Many, many companies use this slight of hand to pass off a small bike as ‘women’s specific’ design.
Compromise 3, Ignore Control All Together
One way to get the big wheel out of the way of the rider’s foot is to slacken the head tube angle…..a lot…like a chopper. This option says “let’s build the bike to fit right, and we don’t care how it handles”. The bike drawn below is an exact re-creation of an expensive titanium custom bike that a 5′ 2″ tall woman brought in because it didn’t handle well. When I rode the bike, I would liken the handling to my grandfather’s 1966 Ford pickup without power steering. ie….it was a chore to steer this bike.
Although this option allows for a carbon fork, I suggest strongly that you try it for a weekend before you invest in a bike built like this. I also suggest that you try compromise 4 and 5 as well. I think that you’ll find that handling characteristics are much more important that you may think.
On the top, you can see that this bike looks normal to the untrained eye. On the bottom, you can see the result of a ‘chopper-style’ front end.
Compromise 4, Go Old-Style
The very best way to put a 700c wheel on a smaller bike is the same way that we used to do it in the 1970′s and 1980′s…..use a steel fork. By using a steel fork, we have the option to put a custom amount of rake in the fork to offset a slack steering angle. This keeps the handling characteristics correct, and allows us to build to the proper fit and knee angle.
Proportional wheels are always going to give the bike better handling, but this compromise will allow those who really want 700c on a small bike to have them. The drawbacks to this option are that the fork ends up being heavier, and you still have some issues related to large wheels on a smaller bike. Read what what a serious athlete of smaller stature has to say on that subject.
On the top, you can see that this bike looks normal to the untrained eye. Actually, it looks (and rides) a lot like the an old Peugot or Raleigh from the 1970′s. On the bottom, you can see that it results in pretty satisfactory numbers as well. This option is preferable to 3 previous options, but doesn’t really provide the petite rider with the same level of quick handling and control that the taller riders get on their bikes.
Compromise 5, Perfectly Proportional but more limited selection of tires
The very best way to build a smaller bike considering handling, comfort, fit, and speed is to use wheels that are proportional to the frame size. Using a 650c wheel allows the builder to correct for all of the drawbacks listed above and use lighter wheels and carbon fork as desired.
The drawbacks to 650c wheels are that your tire choices are more limited. The cycling industry ignores the needs of female cyclists to a very large extent, and stocking 650c tires just isn’t cool. If you ride widths from 23mm to 28mm, and you don’t mind carrying a spare, then you’ll have no problems with 650c.
On the top, you can see that this bike looks well designed and proportional. On the bottom, you can see that all of the fit measurements are right, as well as the handling geometry. The only compromise being a more limited tire selection. The petite rider can experience the exact same performance and control as taller riders do on their bikes.
There you have it. A full graphic illustration of the ups and downs of wheel sizes and smaller bikes. A lot of smaller riders and women get a lot of advice from friends who ride, but aren’t actually bike designers. We’re happy to build your smaller bike with 700c or 650c wheels. I think that it’s important that you consider the differences as explained by someone who designs bicycles for a living.