Thursday, June 6, 2013
Project Orca - Episode 1: Choosing a Frame
My question is this: why do we make the equipment choices we do? Recently I've often asked riders I meet why they chose the bike they're on. A very frequent reply is: a friend recommended it and they got a good price. I know how influential friend's ideas can be - one of my best riding buddies told me a couple of years ago that I ought to consider one of the big classic Italian frame builders. The idea sort of took root, and soon I could be spotted drooling over Bianchis and Pinarellos in shops. But I wasn't really able to justify why these were better than what I already had, so it never really came to much. The price point is of course a very good argument.
In the past I admit I made some of my choices of bike, like many do, based on what the people I most respected rode. My ownership of a Trek, a Principia, and a couple of Felts were all at least indirectly due to what I saw great riders on. I guess I might be getting a bit more sensible in my old age though, because I don't tend to get the player and the instrument quite so confused anymore.
I'm doing a lot more riding now. When you ride a lot, you start to notice things you probably didn't before, you become more acutely aware of your strengths and weaknesses, you get a clearer distinction between the kind of rider you are, and the kind of rider you want to be.
Recently I realized it was time for a new frame. It was partly the age and gradually deteriorating condition of my current #1 workhorse/racing machine, but it was also the realisation that somehow the thing had become too small for me!
Actually it's been slowly dawning on me for a while now that my ideas on frame sizing need a bit of review. I guess I'll have to admit I'm guilty of obstinately sticking to principles that have now become outdated.
My idea was that a smaller frame would be stiffer and consequently better for transfer of power - especially in a climb. I suppose in the era I grew up it may have been true, given the stock sizing of most tubes on the old steel frames we rode, but now the technology of carbon is light years ahead of that. They now build different sized frames with completely different geometry and wall thicknesses for different sized riders, so that such concerns of stiffness and transfer of power are utterly redundant.
A larger frame will now also mean a longer wheelbase. I'm no engineer, but as I see it if you're on a frame that's too small for you it will feel less balanced - kind of like putting a BMW on a Mini's wheelbase - it won't have the stablilty.
I'm 183cm tall and I'm using a "54" frame with a 53.5cm top tube, whereas most bike-fitters would have me on a 56 or even a 58. This means I use a long seatpost to get the height I need and a few spacers between the head tube and stem so the bars aren't too low. For me to feel stable on this bike, I can't really use a very long stem or I'd be too far over the front of the bike's center of gravity. So to find a balanced position in the middle of the bike's gravity, my cockpit length is only about 53cm.
This is OK with my hands on the hoods - and since most of my riding involves climbing and on my own, it hasn't been so noticeable in the past. Nowadays I'm doing more riding with groups and my lack of ability to stretch out in the drops and get both aerodynamic and comfortable is starting to frustrate me.
So, given the green light (by the boss) to indulge my fantasies, the mountain of choices suddenly becomes a very real 10-headed beast to grapple with.
This is the list of priorities by which I whittled it down:
1) Stiffness in the bottom bracket/chainstays for power transfer. Most modern carbon frames have it.
2) Super-light. Again, it's carbon. Most manufacturers shave a few grams off every generation.
3) Lateral stiffness for climbing. OK, the choices are diminishing slightly.
4) Comfort. Not so easy. Something with lateral stiffness but vertical flex. Lots of bike claim to have it though.
5) Aesthetics. Yes, ultimately it has to fit with one's idea of beauty.
It's interesting how this idea of beauty evolves. Something that we thought looked super-cool 10 years ago, looks like a shopping bike now. Of course it's all down to marketing and planned obsolescence, and it's hard not to feel manipulated when you realise how capricious your tastes have become. But hey, we cycling addicts spend so much time looking at top-end bikes in races, it really has to be expected that we come to feel comfortable with the current look.
Given all of the choices, this is a shortlist of the frames in contention for me:
1) The Bianchi Oitre - great looking bike though not sure how it handles, but I would trust the manufacturer as they certainly have the pedigree. I liked the naked carbon one with the thin lines in their trademark celeste but I don't really have much history with the local dealers, so not confident.
2) S-Works Tarmac - again, seems to have the required gubbins, but not sure how it is really as a climber and again I don't really have a good feeling about the local distributor.
3) Felt F1 - definitely a good choice, and I've been riding an F3 for something like 8 years and love it, and I do have faith in the local distributor. Somehow though I can't justify such a conservative choice. It's time to change.
4) Orbea Orca - famously stiff bike, developed under the riders of the Euskatel team in the Basque Pyrenees (I love Spain!). The latest gold models are stunning, and I do have a great relationship with the local distributor - in fact it's my local bike shop! Bingo!
And before you all yell "biased!", this was the bike that won Olympic gold in the Beijing road race (though Samuel Sanchez's legs might have played a part), and I have been using an Orbea as my training bike for the past 6 years.....and yes, it was recommended by a friend and I got a good price :)