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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.
“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?”