“What’ll she do?”

HelensRocks

When I was a kid, I loved cars. My first question to any owner of a sports car was: “What’ll she do?” I approach bikes similarly – I care about how they ride first and foremost.

Some cyclists these days seem to be concerned what their bike is, not what it does. One camp will never ride anything but lugged steel frames. For another, it’s carbon or nothing. Some will never ride narrow tires, others would never consider a tire wider than 23 mm.

Bicycle Quarterly doesn’t fall neatly into any of these categories, even if we sometimes are perceived as biased toward steel frames, or French bikes, or wide tires. For example, Craig Calfee told me that he was surprised when I loved his “Adventure” carbon bike: “I thought you were more of a steel guy.” My answer was simple: “I like great bikes, and yours was a great bike.”

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It’s really that simple: We like any bike that performs. Our first question is: “How does it ride?” Given a choice, I’d rather be on a carbon bike that performs and handles well than a steel bike on which I bog down. I’d also much prefer supple 23 mm tires that fly over the pavement over 42 mm tires with stiff sidewalls that make the bike feel harsh and sluggish.

When I am on the bike, I don’t notice stickers or materials. What I care most about is whether the bike feels like an extension of my body. The best bikes do this, whether they are made from steel, carbon, titanium or aluminum. I am sure a good bamboo bike would, too, I just haven’t ridden one yet.

CalfeeLkWA

When I stop, I do look at the bike, and I realize that a beautiful bike is important to me. To me, beauty is independent of the materials. I can appreciate the hand-wrapped carbon tubes of a Calfee (above) as much as the finely filed lugs on my Herse (below).

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More than the joints, I care about the line of the bike. Is the frame well-proportioned? If there are fenders, do they follow the outlines of the wheels? Does the rack sit nice and low above the wheel? Beauty for me is first about the entire bike, seen from 20 feet away.

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I also appreciate the craftsmanship that becomes evident when you move in close and look at the details. While I can appreciate the whimsy of ornamentation, I am drawn to simple, beautifully executed details that express the function of the bike. The dropouts of this 1952 René Herse are a case in point: There is nothing superfluous here, and yet everything is supremely refined. It’ll perform as well as it looks.

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“Form follows function” has become a pretty worn phrase by now, but it expresses my aesthetics better than anything else. And that also gets to the heart of what makes a great bike: It performs beautifully, it looks nice, and it is superbly crafted. These qualities are complementary. If a bike is lacking in one area, it affects the others as well. An inelegant fork bend doesn’t absorb shock well. A poor fender line that may cause an accident if debris gets stuck between tire and fender. An ill-proportioned frame rarely has the flex characteristics that enable the rider to get in sync with the bike. “What looks right performs right.” The corollary to the cliché is that an unattractive bike rarely performs as well as it could.

These qualities have little to do with simple labels like “steel is real” or “carbon is fast”. True craftsmanship is possible with any material, and the results are remarkably similar in their ride quality. And that is a good thing, because it’s always the same human body pedaling the bike.

So let’s look beyond labels and stereotypes and focus on what truly matters: “What’ll she do?”

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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39 Responses to “What’ll she do?”

  1. Larry T. says:

    I stumbled upon this recently, which sums up my philosophy pretty well.

    http://www.prodigiosa.it/index.php/telaio

    I guess the difference for me is I have yet to ride any carbon, aluminum or other non-ferrous bike that I like as much as steel. I won’t say they’re not out there, but I have yet to ride one and have a tough time seeing the value in them as light weight is low on my list of priorities.

    • I share your enthusiasm for steel, but there are great bikes made from carbon and titanium, too. You should try the Lynskey Helix, the high-end Sevens and some of the Calfees – all offer performance similar to the best steel bikes. As for aluminum, I really like my old Alan cyclocross bike.

      • Larry T. says:

        Sure, but ALL of those cost a LOT more than what I’m riding now so I can see benefits only to those who are selling/making them. With three made-to-measure steel bikes plus a few other “off-the-rack” steel machines in my stable my interest level in alternatives is pretty low. Back-in-the-day “rides as good as steel” was the marketing claim, though few these days know what that means. To me a bike “just as good” but more expensive, though lighter in weight has little attraction as mine are all optimized for the DESCENT rather than the ascent.

  2. Bryan Willman says:

    (:-) One slow way to evaluate a bike is to look at your logs (which I at least keep) and see which bikes do (a) the most miles and/or hours (b) the most rides (c) the most chores (d) the most races or other such adventures.
    Of course this doesn’t work if you can only afford one bike and are trying to choose it. It’s very helpful in deciding what to sell or trade…

  3. GuitarSlinger says:

    Here’s a good reason … long known but only recently exposed on why not to ride carbon fiber bikes ;

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/sports/cycling/as-technology-makes-bicycles-lighter-and-faster-it8217s-the-cyclists-falling-harder.html?ref=international&_r=0

    And a huge +1 on the Lynskey’s recommendation .

    • “We are aware that not everyone in the industry is as thorough or responsible when it comes to using carbon and checking the quality of their products,”

      The above quote is from the NY Times article, and it’s the reason why I am very concerned about affordable carbon bikes and carbon forks. When a complete bike that retails for $ 1500 comes with a carbon fork, you know it’s not going to be made to the highest standards. I am less concerned about the top-end carbon frames and forks. They may not survive a bad crash like steel would, but they aren’t likely to fail without cause.

      • GuitarSlinger says:

        Jan ; Regardless of who built the bike or how high the quality of the Carbon Fiber used … it is a One Hit and Trash It material . No matter how insignificant the hit CF has the tendency when impacted to mask the damage underneath the top visible layers not visible unless X-Rayed .. and then later with the slightest of secondary hits to fail catastrophically . This has been proven by everyone from F1 [ where I have several contacts ] to the very high end bicycle manufactures [ again one being a personal friend on the very high CF end of things ] Fact is I’ve been warning people about this as well as having seen the results of my warnings not being heeded first hand for years . Fact is … Calfee etc … as good as they may be …. and as much as they may claim otherwise are unable to prevent this reality because it is inherit to Carbon Fiber in its every form . The only manufactures so far able to circumvent this has been Pagani Automobili with their Carbon Fiber/Titanium hybrid weave and BMW in the i3 / i8 with their new plastic/carbon fiber hybrid

      • I understand the basic concerns about carbon fiber, even when it’s laid up correctly. However, if it’s not laid up correctly (as it often isn’t in inexpensive frames/forks), the risks of failure without prior impact is much greater yet.

        The reality is that many high-end carbon bikes have been ridden hard, and haven’t failed. On the other hand, there are plenty of stories of low-end carbon bikes (and especially forks) failing out of the blue after relatively few miles.

      • Steve Palincsar says:

        Another issue is that carbon can fail as a result of fairly trivial off-angle impacts. I know two people who had to replace carbon frames because the bikes fell over when they’d been leaned against trees or fences, and the twisting force of full water bottles caused splits in the down tube — just like you’d split a stalk of bamboo. I own a fair number of bikes, and I can’t recall one that hasn’t fallen over at one time or another in just this way.

  4. Dave says:

    The comments above bring focus to the fact that a rational bike purchasing decision considers “What’ll she do?” in the context of reliability and longevity. This is especially the case when considering used bicycles; I wouldn’t hesitate to buy a carefully-inspected, hand-built, steel or titanium frame that’s 30 years old, but a carbon bike that’s five years old could be a disaster waiting to happen, even if it looks like new.

    • I agree on the used carbon bikes, but old titanium bikes also aren’t immune to failures. The early Ti bikes seemed to crack with alarming regularity. They were bought as “the last bike you’ll ever need”, but unfortunately, it often didn’t turn out that way. Well-made steel bikes often last 100,000 miles or more…

  5. niggle says:

    Well I am a lot less concerned about the carbon frames or forks on mid price new bikes than those on a second hand high end bike- it seems to me that a new bike with a carbon fork and/or frame from a big name brand that has been selling huge numbers of bikes across the world for decades, even at well under $1500 and including in the litigation happy United States, is unlikely to have been designed with inherent weakness that would fail in normal use, or I am sure we would all have heard about it and seen the lawsuits by now, whereas a second hand ‘quality’ bike may have suffered impacts that the seller does not disclose to the new owner.

    For instance the Specialized Allez Sport being sold in the UK for under $1300 (and no doubt cheaper in the US): http://www.bicyclechain.co.uk/productdetails.asp?productid=27433&gclid=CPzxl96r7L8CFfMZtAod1WsABQ

    In fact I would extend that to the offering from Europe wide chain store Decathlon with their Triban 5, normally priced at ~$730 and currently discounted to ~$560 http://www.decathlon.co.uk/triban-5-road-bike-black-id_8239801.html (not trying to argue it is a good bike, but that it will be safe)

    • I agree that buying any carbon bike with an unknown history could be a problem.

      However, I have seen or heard of too many failures of mid-priced carbon forks from REI (Novara), Civia and other brands to share your assessment. These carbon forks are dirt cheap, but there is a reason for this – made by the lowest bidder, and quality control is left up to the sub-contractor… In Civia’s case, they didn’t test the fatigue of the disc brake version, but only of the rim brake version, and then “re-used” the certificate.

      On the one hand, there are relatively many of these bikes, and not that many failures. On the other hand, not many of these bikes are ridden hard, so if you do ride hard, you are likely to be the one who experiences the failure that then prompts the recall…

    • Aaron says:

      It happened to me on a Specialized Allez. One month after buying it new, the fork snapped out of the blue while I was sprinting out of the saddle. That one hurt but it taught me a very valuable lesson about manufacturing and materials.

  6. Chuck Davis says:

    This is may be one of your best posts At 70+ I sure as hell have more bicycles than I will/can wear out; in the past some ridden more than others for objective and subjective reason (depending) but in retrospect, I don’t have a bad one!

  7. Paul Knopp says:

    I once rented a Peugeot 205 Sedan and drove it on the autobahn for the first time. It seemed like the fastest car I’d ever driven. The sensation of speed was incredible. A week later I rode in a BMW Sedan and the feeling of speed wasn’t there…it was smooth, quiet, and boring. The problem was that I was going 120 mph in the Peugeot and almost 150 mph in the BMW.
    After reading your tire results and talking with people I have come to the conclusion that people ride stiff plastic bikes with skinny tires because they feel faster. There is zero scientific evidence to show that a 15lb bike which is impossible to ride in a straight line is faster than Miguel Indurain’s 23lb Pinarello which goes on a rail. Your tire tests prove hard and skinny is not faster, now you need to prove that snaking down the road on a crash-waiting-to-happen is not faster than what Merckx rode.
    People are very subjective and carbon bikes feel really fast…but they aren’t.
    Side note: If carbon has revolutionized bicycling, why did they copy steel geometry? Seems a 15lb bike would need a hyper-stable new geometry to enable the rider to maintain some level of professional control rather than ramming into signs, selfie-shooters, and each other.

    • Jon Blum says:

      Seems like a 15-lb bicycle should go uphill faster than a 23-lb bicycle, all other things equal, but the significance of this is different for a typical recreational rider vs a 130-lb guy racing across the Alps in the Tour de France. It ought to be possible to make a 15-lb bike that handles stably; I can’t see why lightness and stability at speed would have to be mutually exclusive. Jan points out that that several materials can be used to make good bikes, and the outcome depends on the design and execution. I have seen structural failures of steel and Ti frames at various prices, not to mention the aluminum “death fork” (a design flaw more than a material problem), so this is not limited to carbon. Not that I am advocating for unsafe bikes, but aren’t most crashes due to rider error, driver error, and traffic and road conditions, while frame failures are a tiny fraction? I’d guess that the most common bicycle structural failure leading to a crash is a front tire blowout, not a fork collapse. Perhaps someone out there has information on the relative contribution of these factors to accidents.

      • The 15-lb bicycle will be faster, all things being equal. That is basic physics. The question is how much faster. Our testing (and basic physics) show that the difference is so small that it gets lost in the noise. If one frame allows you to put out a tad more power, that makes a bigger difference than a few pounds of weight. I wrote about this here.

        As far as stability goes, the weight of the bike shouldn’t matter much. After all, even Contador weighs at least 130 pounds… I suspect the problem is more with forks that don’t absorb shocks and thus the ride becomes choppy over bumps that a classic steel fork might have absorbed without problems.

      • niggle says:

        I think one concern with carbon fibre, especially forks, is the ‘fail mode’ i.e. sudden and potentially catastrophic due to lack of warning, not even if you inspect before every ride, Generally the different metals are more gradual in there fail modes, with steel and titanium being quite forgiving in terms of crack development, normally, so regular inspection will usually spot a problem before it fails, or when failing the process is gradual enough for the user to stop before it results in a crash and injury, as long as they are curious about major changes in handling etc.

        One other trouble spot with forks can be the steerer out of sight inside the head tube: I have seen/heard of examples of aluminium steerers failing there without warning due to stress risers being caused by slightly loose headsets allowing contact with and marking of the steerer by other headset parts. Obviously the root cause is poor maintenance but it is easily done, you have to dismantle to inspect and a steel steerer would be far more resistant to this type of marking.. A lot of cheap carbon fibre forks have alloy steerers….

      • msrw says:

        Bikes designed to be nimble in the peloton don’t go in a straight line quite as easily as, say, a touring bike. And they require more skill for fast descending. But it doesn’t take long to get used to the handling.

      • I agree that most modern racing bikes do require more skills for fast descending than, for example, a good randonneur bike. That isn’t necessary – it’s possible to design a bike that is both stable and nimble, especially with the 25 mm tire most racers now use. Racing bike design still is stuck in the era of 19 or 20 mm tires, where you needed extra trail to keep the handling predictable in mid-corner…

    • Larry T. says:

      http://bikeraceinfo.com/tech/weight.html

      offers some interesting insights on bicycle weight and performance.

      • The calculation shows a 6 second gain on a 20-minute, 7% climb for each pound lost. That is meaningless for a rider riding alone. However, if you ride in a peloton, losing 6 seconds means you are dropped, and probably won’t be able to catch back on – such is the aerodynamic advantage of a peloton. (If the road immediately goes steeply downhill, you may stand a chance if you are a good descender.)

        However, looking at weight alone can be misleading. The human body/bike interaction is complex, and a bike that allows you to put out just a few percent more power will save you more than 6 seconds on the aforementioned hill. That is how a great steel randonneur bike can keep up with some of the best titanium bikes that are several pounds lighter.

  8. Dave says:

    “More fun flogging an underpowered car than trying to drive an unmanageable overpowered car”. My weak old RX7, devoid of torque, is still a hoot to drive like a madman.

  9. ed b says:

    Having owned several CF bikes, a couple of Alu, and and handful of steel frames, I am having Leonnard Zinn make me a custom Magnesium frame for Randonneuring owing to its unmatched dampening characteristics and of course he understands that many frames don’t fit tall riders very well. What will she do…..32mm Compass Extra Legere tires and a (properly sized) Mg frame. Could it get better? We’ll see, I get it soon. (Weight has nothing to do with my selection of Mg, it was all about dampening and the right fit)

    • Chuck Davis says:

      Magnesium was/is a material that really caught on or took off for no particular reason, maybe corrosion or “welding”/fabrication concerns The old cast Kirk frame never made more than “ripple” as far I know, I obtained a couple of magnesium frames of eastern european origins at my little shoppe some years back that that were somewhat “interesting” that really didn’t work out for other reasons.

  10. Trazymach84 says:

    Jan, have you really experienced 40mm tyres riding harsher than 23 mm tyres? Is that even possible?

    • Yes. A Schwalbe Marathon 650B x 42 mm had more road buzz than a Deda Tre Giro d’Italia 700C x 23 mm. Granted, the Deda measured 24 mm in actual width, but it became obvious that casing construction and tread pattern and thickness are more important than width. Of course, the Deda in a 42 mm width would have been even better – which is why we developed the Compass Extralight tires…

  11. KT says:

    What thoughts on Contador’s broken bike during this year’s tour? And from hitting a pot-hole? I am nowhere near engineer-smart, but looking at where his frame broke all but convinced me that the quest for the super-light frame, using CF, is a risk not worth taking.

    • Larry T. says:

      I don’t think the real story about this issue will ever be revealed unless someone who was there (but doesn’t have a financial interest in the issue) decides to speak out. On one side there’s a claim the bike broke into pieces after hitting the pot-hole and the other side claims the damage was caused by contact with another bicycle while on the roof rack of the team car. No matter what really happened, it’s disconcerting to see bikes picked up from the ground with nothing more than the control cables holding the pieces together – a rare sight back-in-the-day of metal frames.

      • From what I have read, the team car tangle story appears to be true. Specialized did themselves and the industry a lot of damage by making up stories on the fly before they knew what really had happened.

        However, it has led to more press about the vulnerabilities of carbon fiber, and that is a good thing for consumers.

  12. marmotte27 says:

    I was only maybe half a mile away when the crash happened, but on the wrong side of the pass, so I didn’t see anything of the crash. Unfortunately going down, there weren’t many other spectators on that stretch of the road either. But knowing the road quite well, while the surface isn’t very good on the whole (I was hoping it would be redone for the tour but it wasn’t), there aren’t that many potholes there, at least not of the kind that could or should break a bicycle frame.

  13. form follows function is not always correct Has an architect I seen many form come 1st that the function is integrated into it. Look at church design. there was no need for those medieval churches reaching to the heavens. Yet they were built and function was second to design
    Charles Nighbor, Architect

    • A cathedral is perhaps the best example of “form follows function”. If you want soaring spaces, whether for the acoustics or other qualities, the Gothic arches and flying butresses are a great way to achieve them, especially if you build in stone or brick.

      The problem with many 20th century architects was that they defined “function” too narrowly, as in “how much space do we need to seat 500 people”, and so you either got dreary office buildings or Brutalist monstrosities. To me, the human experience of a building (or bicycle) is central to its “function”

  14. Weight on a bicycle. No matter if steel, carbon fiber, aluminum, ti the components can all be the same. so only weight difference is the frame and fork weight. and with a carbon fiber fork only the weight of the frame is the difference. any weight savings is minimal. Winters builds an 11 pound steel frame . which is very light. that puts it in the same weight class has other materials.
    Losing body weight is never discussed. Lose that extra body weight 1st before buying a lighter bicycle. I ride with 8 pounds of tools has I like to be able to fix my bicycle rather than getting another way home

    • It’s not the bicycle’s weight that matters – otherwise, your bike would be much slower with a full waterbottle – but the flex characteristics. And a lightweight frame flexes differently from a heavier one… Losing weight on your body won’t change your bike frame’s flex characteristics, so you don’t get the same effect.

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