Bike Tests

Good bike tests provide information that allow you to choose a bike that is right for you. Your bike need not look like the one that was tested, because it often can be customized to your personal tastes.

When we test a production bike, the bike we test is the bike that you would buy. If you don’t like the components, you’ll have to buy another set and replace them, which significantly increases the price of your bike. Thus, it makes sense to comment on each part and how it affects the feel and performance of the bike.

Testing custom bikes is different, as they are built to suit the customer’s preferences. That means if you don’t like the handlebar shape or derailleurs on a test bike, you can order your bike with different components. Or if you want a different geometry, the builder may be able to accommodate it. To reflect this, our tests of custom bikes convey two levels of information:

  1. How well the test bike performed for us. This is useful for readers who plan to order a similar bike, no matter which builder they choose. Here we discuss geometry, tubing choices, components, etc., and how everything works together.
  2. How well the builder crafted the bike. This is useful for readers who consider ordering a bike from this builder, even if their bike would be somewhat different from the one we tested. Here we look at the quality of the construction, the design and how well the various components and other parts (fenders, racks, lights) were integrated into the complete bike.

Of course, it often is hard to separate 1. and 2. After all, the builder sent us a bike they thought would work well, so if the geometry doesn’t offer precise handling, and if the components don’t work well together, then there is little guarantee that a customer’s bike with different parts would be much better. After all, a good builder will steer the customer toward a specification that works well, rather than leaving it up to the customer to figure out how to design the bike.

The best bikes we have tested worked together as a seamless unit. In those cases, the skills of the builder went beyond brazing the frame. The builder designed and built a complete bicycle where every part was carefully considered, and the whole was more than the sum of the parts.

This type of skill usually is transferable, rather than being limited the immediate bike we tested. For example, if somebody can build a great 650B randonneur bike, there is little doubt that their 700C version will ride just as well. (The corollary does not always apply: fitting wide 650B tires into a frame is much harder than designing a bike for narrower 700C tires.)

A good example is the Bilenky tandem we tested in Vol.  9, No. 2 (above). Our test bike was set up with multiple racks for a full camping load. It rode beautifully, but it was a bit on the heavy side. (This didn’t keep us from riding the tandem in a 400 km brevet at an average speed of 30 km/h, including stops.)

Does this mean that if you want a lightweight tandem, you should go somewhere else? Of course not; removing weight from the tandem we tested would be pretty easy.

In fact, Bilenky recently completed a similar tandem (above) that they claim to weigh 3 kg (6.6 lb) less than our test bike, simply by eliminating the extra racks and using lighter-gauge tubing.

We hope that most readers find our reviews useful and don’t get sidetracked by details that are easy to change.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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9 Responses to Bike Tests

  1. Jan, for some crazy reason, I only recently fully realized that practically all bike companies build their various sizes of their bikes with widely varying geometries, including the front end. Especially since your road tests really focus on geometry and its effect on carrying weight (besides the rider) on the bike, it seems that your road tests can only tell us so much about how any bike really rides.

    For example, you tested the Boulder Bicycle a while back, but their geometry varies wildly perhaps to avoid toe overlap. Their smaller sizes feature very steep seat tube angles and very relaxed, flop-inducing head tube angles, at 74-75 degrees and 71.5-72 degrees, respectively. That means the different sizes will ride dramatically different.

    So, really, your road tests only enlighten your riders about the size of the model that you rode. Somebody sized differently, especially much shorter, would have a totally different experience of that Boulder’s geometry, or any other bike for which the geometry varies by size. I really think this issue needs to considered in your otherwise very detail-oriented bike reviews.

    • For small bikes, you have to fit the parts of the bike between the wheels. Toe overlap is best avoided, but you also get into issues of the downtube having to fit above the front wheel. These issues mean that you cannot simply use the same front-end geometry for a small bike. For taller bikes, you get issues with tubing: What may work great on my frame with a 57.5 cm top tube may be too flexible for a tall rider on a frame with a 62 cm top tube.

      Obviously, we can test only bikes that fit us. By sheer coincidence, all our testers are of similar size, whether it’s Hahn, Mark, Alex or I. For riders who ride a 56-60 cm frame, that is great. (And after switching bikes with you on a ride once, I know you also fall into that range.) But what about riders who are significantly taller or shorter? It would be neat to shrink and stretch ourselves and compare three bikes from the same maker, in different sizes. Do they handle the same? Do they feel the same? Do they offer the same flex characteristics?

      Unfortunately, we’ll never know. However, we are working with two riders, one much smaller, one much taller, who recently got custom 650B randonneur bikes. We are looking at the geometries and tubing used for their bikes, and get their feedback on the bikes. We’ll also look at how some builders handled small and tall bikes, and hopefully publish all that in the Spring 2012 issue of Bicycle Quarterly.

      • wildeny says:

        I’m very interested in reading the bike test review for small riders. Especially I have been thinking about getting a S&S coupled bike fitted with fenders, no more the plastic ones.

      • Harald says:

        I’m very much looking forward to the small/tall article, too. I’m 1.98m tall and so far have only ridden stock bikes. This has worked reasonably well, but I’m curious what the ideal custom bike for me would look like and what the important things to look for/beware of are for tall riders.

      • Tom Carstens says:

        As a tall rider I can report the following: I ordered a bike from Rene Herse/Boulder bicycles and Mike Kone told me that super light normal size tubing wouldn’t work for a 66 cm frame, which was as of last spring the largest he had built. He also told me that he isn’t aware of any Herse bicycle ever built that large, but he was certain that Herse himself would have used larger diameter tubes for one back in the day. So, he built me a bike with thin walled tubing (I believe 747 but I could be wrong) but with oversized tubes and even still he was a little bit concerned that my bike might be too flexible. In fact, my first ride in the parking lot of his shop was sort of scary in that I couldn’t ride it no handed without it shimming/wobbling excessively. My first thought was this kind of bike (low trail, thin tubes) doesn’t work; however, after riding it for 3 days everything changed. I could now ride the bike easily without hands! It’s a nice responsive machine that rides wonderfully. As far as it’s geometry, it’s similar to other low trail bikes, except for a very slight upward sloping top tube. I like to have my bars close to but not even with the saddle. It’s very slight, not really noticeable to the eye. And since I wanted thin walled tubing, I couldn’t have a larger seat mast as a solution for higher bars. Mike said that 66cm was the largest he could go with the thin stuff.
        The other issue with large frames is that I really can’t go with a 650B bike without using heavier tubes because of the need for a longer head tube with the smaller wheels.

      • Thank you for the detailed comment – lots of food for thought. A thicker head tube should not affect the ride… and wheel size is independent of frame height, because it affects the handling more than anything. If fact, the outer diameter of a Grand Bois Hetre with fenders is at least as large as that of a 700C x 23 mm tire, so a racing bike will have the same issues.

  2. Spiny Norman says:

    My favorite bike has a ton of toe overlap. It’s just not an issue, even for trackstands at stop lights. Lack of toe overlap is vastly overrated in the hierarchy of design parameters.

    • I am glad you enjoy your bike. Everybody’s comfort levels with various risks are different.

      Toe overlap is like a balcony without a railing. You can go for years without it being a problem. After all, you rarely even touch the railing. But it only takes one unguarded moment and a quick step backward…

      Like you, I rode a bike with toe overlap for years. During more than 25,000 miles, it never was a problem. Then one day, I was doing a quick left turn in traffic, and as I straightened the handlebars, my foot was on the wrong side of the wheel. I wobbled, but did not crash, which is a good thing, because I am not sure whether the concrete mixer truck barreling down on me would have been able to stop in time.

      Most of all, toe overlap is unnecessary. It is easy to design bikes that don’t have it, yet handle as well or better than the bikes that do have toe overlap. So why run the risk?

  3. cept says:

    speaking of future tests, you should conduct a test on mid-foot cleat placement.
    http://www.stevehoggbikefitting.com/blog/2011/04/power-to-the-pedal-cleat-position/

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