Farewell to All That? Not Until “Drafts” is Clear!

So, it has come to this:

Big S is putting out disc versions of some higher-end road bikes next year. Quelle surprise, and now we can see if Specialized’s own gravity/market share succeeds in quickly sinking small ships like Volagi, even if they weren’t downed by Specialized’s legal power already.

No, they aren’t hydraulic. Yet. Wait until 2014, right?

Where does that leave us on here on BliggityBlog? No longer as a self-styled lone evangelist (read: I felt alone because I wasn’t bothering to dig in to other places where, no doubt, others were saying the exact same things) for hydraulic road disc brakes. No longer interested in paying that much attention to new product announcements for the unending and overwhelming tsunami of really cool but totally unnecessary bike shit that flows through the industry every week. And – dammit – most frustratingly with a couple of link-oid posts still in Drafts about disc-related road stuff. These should see the light of day: one on thinking through fork design in the new era of disc brakes (and thru-axles on road bikes; you had to have known that was coming), the other on English’s “show-stopping” NAHBS bike from last year.

The BB interest in bikes and builders has not really died, though. In fact, as vaguely referenced a while back, BB is in the process of starting (the very early parts of the process, that is) a new scholarly project on handmade bike builders. That might be the grist for another round of BliggityBlog activity in the next couple of years. By the way, that last target is not hard to achieve when one posts at the rate of once a month or so! Or we could talk about the other stuff that was supposed to be here: green/modern/innovative house design and building, the meaning of life in middle age, productivity, whatever. We’ll see.

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Hydraulic Road Disc Brakes: TRP Hywire Edition

No sooner had I spoken about being behind on the hydraulic brake lever news than another round of information on this TRP system pops up. I guess it is the TRP “Hywire” that will integrate with either Dura-Ace or Ultegra Di2. Bike Rumor – which somewhat out-of-the-blue has become a favorite destination for tech-ish info – has some interesting shots, for instance:

While this is neat to see (as it becomes more production’ish rather than purely proto)….is this not just a brake lever with the Shimano “satellite” Di2 shifters glued on?!

And, from the front:

This last angle is most interesting, for it demonstrates the big advantage I’ve been pointing to in my earlier posts: that is, the more you can pare down specific parts to a single function (or fewer functions), the more refined they can be for that specific function. In this case, the lever here only needs to function for braking (at least in as much as the shift buttons are placed in a reasonable position). No need for the brake lever to also initiate shifts and so forth. And, if the brake lever is really about braking, then why not radically reshape it to maximize ergonomics for braking from the hoods as well as the drops? Not very pretty, I’ll admit, but definitely demonstrates the great potential with this approach.

If you want more shots and information, Bike Radar has also posted an update on the system (including the calipers they have paired with these levers).

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Mavic Zap, in the Wild

Because I have mentioned Mavic’s original electronic shifting setup, ZAP, a few times, figured I should link through to some recent photos I saw of the gear. I’m always brining it up because it demonstrates the flexibility of an e-shifting setup that did not rely on dedicated shift/brake levers for actuation. Instead, one could use the little toggle button controller anywhere on the bars, freeing the rider to pick whichever brake levers they preferred regardless of how they connected to the shifting.

The actuator button:

The rear derailleur (which was powered by the motion of the chain through the pulleys, I believe):

via cycleexif.

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Ridiculously Complicated Fixes…: Wireless Electronic Brakes Edition

via BikeRadar.

Yes, it’s the stuff of potential nightmares: a wireless disc brake setup. As noted here on BB before (and many other places), we’ve kind of been down this road before in cycling, with the Mavic Mektronic shifting setup. Which was kind of a disaster/joke. And, no, it wasn’t a disaster because of the wireless shifting alone….but the wireless deal always seemed like a solution to a problem we never had. Shimano seems to agree, given that they have now released two, big dollar (even for Ultegra Di2) electronic shifting setups that use wires for shift “actuation” (and little motors to actually move the derailleurs; which may well be the “real” actuation, now that I think about it).

Electronic shifting seems fairly simple compared to braking. For one thing, the total force and energy needed to complete a shift (which is actually just the force needed to move a derailleur a couple of millimeters at a time) must be lower than pushing the disc pistons with sufficient force, right? So, if the biggest manufacturer of components in the world – with a massive R&D budget and all that – decides to not even bother with wireless shifting, why would anyone bother with wireless braking??

If it did work, though, what are the possible advantages of a wireless braking setup? I think there are two fundamental (and obvious) ones:

  • The simplest (potential) advantage: lack of cables/hoses (and needing to accommodate cabling in/around the frame). With wireless braking, the set-up work would be almost completely centered on the caliper. You would bolt on the caliper, do the adjustments and attach whatever pneumatic source is required for the actuation of the caliper. But, this is probably going to be a hydraulic setup, right? If so, you are not actually removing the hydraulic actuation process from the bike, you are simply moving it from the brake levers on the bars to the caliper area itself. So, running a hydraulic cable from the levers is only really adding the marginal increase in hosing (a couple of feet) and whatever amount of extra hydraulic fluid is in that hose. I can say, having just installed new caliper and levers on my MTB, that there really isn’t much fluid in those hoses (the inside diameter of hydraulic hoses, in other words, is quite small). Thus, I don’t see much advantage to removing the hoses, apart from freeing up one more (albeit fairly minor) parameter for frame designer, who would no longer need to think about internal routing, external hose mounts, etc.
  • The other potential advantage is reducing the complexity of the brake lever/actuator on the bars. If you only really need some kind of electronic device that measures how much a lever is being moved and translates that into an electronic signal sent to the caliper/receiver (which would translate the movement of the actuator into an analogous movement of the “real” brake), you don’t need much up there on the bars. This could very easily (I would assume) fit into the body of even an old-school, simple brake lever. I suppose you could even have multiple actuators (think brake levers on the bar tops of cross bikes, as currently used), allowing the rider to brake from almost any position. This last option is a bit more compelling…but, then again, it’s hard to imagine many more places on the bars from where I’d rather actuate the brakes.

As I think this through here, the wireless braking idea still seems like a big loser. Or, maybe just another ridiculously complicated fix to a non-problem that we didn’t really have. Given that we still don’t have a real road hydraulic disc option yet, let’s hope for the development of one over the next year or two. Once the “traditional” hose/line-actuated hydraulic setup has been refined, then maybe – maybe – the idea of a wireless braking setup would be worth considering.

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I’ve Been Scooped: Velonews Edition

After sitting on some partially-finished draft posts on the topic of the Road Bike of the Future for months, I done got friggin’ scooped by Velonews in a recent “end of year predictions” article. The gist of their prediction was: 1) (Hydraulic) Disk Brakes Everywhere, and 2) Electronic Shifting. So, maybe this will serve as the kick in the ass I’ve been needing to get back on the blogging track here. I therefore hope, over the next few weeks, to put out a series of posts explaining the various pieces of the puzzle that could all be put together to create the new road bike paradigm. We’ll see…

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White Bikes of the Future

photo via Cyclingnews.com.

Nice shot here of David Moncoutie in the Vuelta this week. He’s riding the crazy new high-end Look bike (which I believe is the 695). Yes, the bike is white. However, this time I’m highlighting the Look for another reason: it takes us closer to what I believe is the BIKE OF THE FUTURE!

The basic trend is system integration of all sorts. This is not shocking – it has been going on for a number of years now, and Cannondale has even used the “system integration” moniker for quite some time. Look now takes this further, with the combination of integrated crankset/bb, stem, and integrated seat mast.

You buy this bike as a module (which Look calls a “pack”):

What are the next steps toward the kind of bikes we will be seeings ten years from now? As the frequent readers of BB (reader??) might guess, an immediate addition would be hydraulic disc brakes. It cries out for them, in fact. Take a look at the profile shot:

Not very hard to imagine those brake calipers removed from the bike. Maybe a large rear disc caliper mount (large meaning triangulated) down there at the chainstay/seatstay junction. And, picture a fatter, or at least deeper, bladed carbon fork with an integrated caliper mount at the end. Perhaps a shift as well to MTB-style through-axle fork/hub interface (like Rock Shox’s Maxle Lite, but smaller for road)

So, now you just need some very simple, single-purpose hydraulic brake levers up on the bars. And, you still need to buy your own bars…but it’s hard to imagine something that taste-based and unique ever going away.

Next step – and this is the BIG one – is a move to internal gearing. Electrically actuated internal gearing. Think Shimano’s Di2 wires and battery, but only running to the rear hub. You’ve now dropped the front and rear derailleurs, cables/housing, cassette and double rings from the equation. You have a single cog on the rear (attached to the Rohloff-like internal hub…with maybe 16-18 gears eventually), a single chainring mounted to the integrated crankset, and a couple of tiny shift actuator buttons OR maybe integrated buttons like on Di2. But, even Di2 now has the “remote shifter” button option – that is, a shift button that can be placed on top of the bars.

In this new bike purchasing paradigm, you have two major costs:

1. Frameset module/pack like you see with the Look 695. You buy the correct rough size and then custom tune the stem and integrated seat mast to your size and comfort level.

2. Wheelset. These are complicated, but integrated. Big ass hubs for large axle (in the front), disc brake rotors and mounts and a very expensive rear hub with the internal gearing. Deep carbon rims, designed without a braking surface (you’ve got disc brakes, remember), probably tubular (because you don’t have to worry at all about overheating rims and melting glue from braking).

What else do you buy?

3. Handlebars

4. Hydraulic calipers, levers and rotors

5. Saddle

6. Chain

7. Shift actuators, wires (if not built in to the frame), battery

Maintenance is almost nill – clean the chain, but that only involves spraying it with solvent, wiping clean, and re-lubing. You want to change bikes? Basically you only need to buy another module/pack from a different manufacturer; wheels and minor parts just shift straight across.

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Fisher & The Present and Future of Road Bikes

Cronus Black

(photo by James Huang of cyclingnews.com)

Gary Fisher seems to have been reading my mind, for a preview of his 2010 road offerings popped up on cyclingnews recently (and later on velonews)…and it paralleled pretty much everything I’d been thinking about my ideal road bike recently (more on those dreams in another post). I was kind of turned off with Fisher/Trek this past year as they clearly just ginned up a Fisher road line after the falling out with LeMond – the bikes seemed just…meh, really.

However, mark my words here, the Fisher 2010 line-up of road and cross machines will be viewed as seminal.

What is so cool with these bikes (actually, there are just two framesets, but built into a few different models) is that they are totally practical but still cutting-edge road machines. The carbon frames – which are, apparently, just as tricked out as the new Madones – have clearance for 28mm tires! So, you can have a bad-ass, full-on carbon racing bike…and still run Rivendell’s Rolly-Polly tires. Further – built-in, low profile fender mounts are included, so these race bikes can be equipped with full fenders easily.

Cronus White

(photo by James Huang of cyclingnews.com)

At the risk of sounding a bit hokey here, I believe that we are entering (or have already entered, in the past two years or so) a new era of useful bike design. Most fundamentally, we are seeing the (re)emergence of useful bikes to a degree probably not seen since the 1980s. This would seem to be the confluence of a number of distinct trends within the business, some of which I wouldn’t have anticipated all that long ago, and some of which, while not so surprising, are interacting with others to produce some unintended consequences.

For one thing, cycling is just more popular again. Of course much of this derives from the Lance Armstrong factor. Perhaps some is to be attributed to a general reorientation toward frugality and simplicity in light of the ongoing recession (as well as concerns about energy, oil and environment). The fixie culture is both a sign of this popularity, but also (in an indirect way) a source of innovation and pressure for innovation in the “mainstream” cycling biz. The fixie thing (and cyclo-x to a point) seems to have opened the door to more lower-end innovation in product lines – companies competing in the sub $1k range, or even lower, by working on parts spec, paint and overall style.

All of the above seem like strengths of the market right now. Yet, on the other hand, it also seems to me that these could be read as weaknesses of sorts. At base, is this new situation not simply a reflection of  a total productive glut in the cycling biz? There seems to have been a steady growth of peripheral “manufacturers” that aren’t actually making anything – they are spec’ing bikes from a variety of suppliers (think the re-born Masi, Tommasso, Motobecane, etc.), commissioning parts (a la Velo Orange), and working on marketing and branding. If you are willing to take a real plunge, there are even quite a few full-carbon Asian framesets available at crazy cheap prices as well – and not just junk, but bikes with good details, integrated seat masts, etc.

This is not a knock on these bikes, because one of these artfully spec’d generic bikes will likely be my next. However, if anyone with a good eye, the right connections and the money up front to place orders through Asian contracting networks can put together a small line of bikes and sell them through the web or ebay….then, well, EVERYONE can do it! And, when everyone can do something, that is usually the time to stop doing it…at least if you want to make any money doing it.

The intensifying competition in all of these distinct niches within the the bicycle market certainly is a good thing for those of us interested in useful and interesting bikes. Differentiation through design is a good thing – and the Fisher line shows that there is absolutely no reason NOT to design even a high-end race bike to also be, you know, useful to those buying it. But maybe these are ultimately the signs of dark clouds on the horizon?

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Good Parts

First off, Soma Fabrications is importing some amazing Suzue hubs from Japan. These are cassette hubs with HIGH flanges and the totally cool styling from Suzue’s original freewheel and track hubs familiar to those of us who were into bikes in the 80s. Amazingly cool….although super expensive.

Suzue Hubs

For those who have been subjected to my “future bike” rant at some point, you will recall my firm belief in the future dominance of internal gearing – both on mtn (less controversial) AND on road (more controversial) bikes. Internal gearing has many advantages (no “wasted” gear ratios through redundancy or impossible chainlines, cleanliness, no need to change chains and use super expensive ones, quick shifting independent of pedaling, and general adaptability to system integration of the bicycle). I think that real ticket will be for internal gearing that is electronically actuated – allowing for placement of “shifters” anywhere/everywhere needed on the bars (a la the original Mavic Zap system).

The internal gearing options got much better with Shimano’s release of the Alfine 8 speed internal hub. The Alfine internals were apparently beefed up significantly over the original Nexus system, and another gear was added. It even appears that Shimano made a running change to the model (going from 500 to 501 in the model number) that further improved shifting quality. Most important, the Alfine 8 is disc compatible (I believe it takes Shimano Centerloc rotors), making it hip to the modern mtn bike. Internal gearing really has the potential to revolutionize full-suspension mtb design because it eliminates (with front internal gearing – like the hammerschmidt system) differential suspension performance based on chain positioning.

One drawback to trying Alfine on road has been the lack of shift actuation options. Alfine at least brought with it a high quality trigger shifter, so flat bar performance was fine. Jtek is making a bar-end style (what we used to call “bar-con” shifters back in the day) Alfine shifter as well for drop bars, but this was about the only mainstream option.

I have just seen on the Soma Fabrications site, however, that a real brifter style option now exists for Alfine. From what you can see on their site, this appears to be based on the body of the Dura-Ace 7800 knockoff shifters badged by, amongst others, Nashbar. They have probably just started with that and then modified the cable pull to fit the Alfine shift indents (this is why electronic actuation is such an obvious advantage). Soma has these listed for some totally insane price….but that can’t last long. There is likely one factory in Taiwan or the PRC stamping these things out and selling them to all these distributors/marketers.

Good stuff, all of it!

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PS — Come to think of it, I should put my “future bike” outline up on the blog soon anyway. This way it will be saved for posterity and future “visionary” cred.