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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Mother of Invention: UCI Weight Limit Edition

Over on the excellent Inner Ring, they mention a report that perhaps the UCI is reconsidering the (notorious) 6.8kg rule. The rule, for those not keen to the inner workings of pro cycling (read: you can stop reading now if this kind of arcane crap holds no interest), is of course that bikes ridden by professionals in UCI-sanctioned races can weigh no LESS than 6.8kg (which is 14.99 pounds).

The rule came along at a time when a 15 pound road bike still seemed kind of far-fetched, albeit not an impossibility. The technological march of progress has continued, though, and now pro mechanics must often reach into the tacklebox before stages to ADD small weights to bikes in order to meet the minimum. And, Joe Consumer (with $7k to burn) can fairly easily buy an off-the-shelf bike these days that weighs less than the bike upon which
Alberto Contador will win/not win/win and then have taken away later this year this year’s Tour de France.

This is the kind of ruling around which all sorts of stupid debate will spring up (just look at the first few comments on that inrng post to get a taste) about innovation, safety, fairness and blah, blah, blah. Some have taken this so far as to create a t-shirt that Sammy Hagar could love:

I don’t care much about such debates. This is not merely because I am currently carrying around well more than a minimum UCI bike weight of human fat on my own personal body, although that is definitely a big part of my non-concern. I also don’t care because any such weight limit is, by definition, arbitrary and kind of hard to justify.

I do care, however, for one main reason. Yes, it gets us back to the BB fixation o’ the year: hydraulic disc brakes on a road bike. As one of my sons likes to say: what the?! The fantastic unintended consequence of the UCI minimum weight rule has been removing the immense pressure to constantly lighten bikes by taking things away. By removing this incentive – and by even encouraging teams to add things to bikes – the UCI has indirectly expanded the market for reasonable and useful additions or extras. If you were going to have your mechanic literally add lead weights to your race bike, why not use that same amount of weight for a power meter while you race? Or, why worry about 250 extra grams for an electronic shifting system? Might as well test them out in competition, run them as prototypes, or just get more useful data that could never be collected in training conditions.

Thus, we return to the disc brakes. My slightly educated guess about hydraulic road disc brakes on road bikes is that you are looking at, let’s just say, about a half pound of additional weight once you get a workable system out there. This will come down significantly over time, of course. But, at the start, when the systems are more like modified mtb gear mounted on road frames not yet optimized for disc strengths/weaknesses, with first generation calipers and rotors, and with non-optimized wheels and rotor interfaces, there will definitely be a weight penalty. With the UCI 6.8kg rule in place, it is that much more likely that someone will start experimenting with hydraulic discs. The ultimate irony would be that, contrary to the protests of the “don’t limit innovation” crowd who oppose the 6.8 rule, the longer run necessity imposed by the weight limit would actually “mother” far more long-range, paradigmatic innovation in the cycling biz.

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Hydraulic Road Disc Brakes: Braking Update!

Sure enough, no sooner had I written more about braking options and ideas, I came across a few more choice tidbits.

First off, on the Fair Wheel Bikes blog, I saw this write-up of a newer hydraulic disc option – intended for MTB, but seems like it could be germane to the road situation as well. Rather than use tiny pistons (like current hydraulic calipers) this uses a system more akin to “bladders” or membranes to push the pads toward the rotor. The little red anodized line there keeps the two sides in balance with fluid, and the caliper body itself is apparently a single piece design. I feel like I saw another such system at some point, but can’t find it in my bookmarks file (by the way, I highly recommend Pinboard for bookmarking!). Anyway, the Fair Wheel guys note a more nuanced and modulated brake feel with these, even if they don’t provide the full-bore power of something like XTR Trail calipers.

photo via Fair Wheel Bikes.

These could be interesting, particularly for those who (wrongly, in my view) claim that hydraulic calipers are “too powerful” for the road context.

Secondly, I also came across a cool Canyon project bike from a couple of years ago….built around, you guessed it, hydraulic discs. Canyon’s approach was interesting, particularly for dealing with fork torsion loads. You’ll have to take a look at their site directly to see the one picture they’ve got up, but it’s worth the click. Canyon opted to go with a 2-rotor system up front. Yes, that means 2 calipers as well! This way rotors are very small and braking loads somewhat cancel each other out, it seems. Pretty impressive piece of engineering, although I’d like to see an update now that fork sizes have increased so much. Canyon came up with some kind of a shifting option integrated with the hydraulic levers, although it’s not clear from the picture what exactly their “fix” was; looks like extra levers of some sort.

Taking that Canyon Project bike from 2006 and adding the Fair Wheel Di2 hack…you’d basically be at the point of having a viable hydraulic disc road bike. Or, better yet, take the Volagi frame, add the Canyon dual-caliper fork, run Fair Wheel’s Di2 system, and you are there.

In the next installment, I’ll focus on fork design options…and eventually get to the ultimate goal: internal shifting.

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Hydraulic Road Disc Brakes: Braking

First off, the keywords for the BB Bike o’ the Future: integration; single-purpose components.

So, in Part I of the Bliggity Blog Road Bike of the Future series, I pointed to the upcoming/already released Volagi carbon frames as, to my knowledge, the first instance of a production line of racing and/or sportive-oriented road bikes designed around disc brakes. Just going by what you can see online (I have not touched nor seen a Volagi in person), these seem like about the best option going – at least given the current design and technology constraints. However, I would expect that, once the disc brakes on road bikes ball gets rolling, the Volagi design will quickly be seen as a v. 1.0 attempt at truly leveraging the potential strengths of the disc brake paradigm.

Braking

Right now you pretty much have to use cable-actuated mechanical calipers – probably either Avid or Shimano. Again, I have not used either of these, but I know from endless online debates in the MTB world that mechanical brakes have their proponents. However, mechanical discs are just plain stupid. For one, you still have to monkey around with adjustments, cable stretch and cable degradation over time. Secondly, they just do not seem to offer the power of hydraulics (at least when each is set up to the best of its abilities). Finally, they are clunky…and, overall, likely to be heavier after a few more rounds of hydraulic revision in the next couple of years.

So, what if you wanted hydraulics on your (drop bar) road bike, right now? You are pretty much out of luck. One option is to rely on the the previously discussed mechanical-to-hydraulic converter, which appeared at Eurobike 2010. Although it brings a weight penalty, this would allow for any shifters/brifters you would like. Another minus: it’s ugly. I will say, though, that this is pretty elegant given the fundamentally kludgy nature of what it is doing. I suppose this thing could be further refined, and it is somewhat neat to think it would allow you to swap “brifters” over time, without touching the braking system.

It isn’t hard to imagine how a nice, super lean hydraulic road caliper could look – just think of the new Shimano XTR race calipers with maybe even a bit more taken off. And, how long would it be before some crazy cool composite rotors started to appear for the road market. Like this:

Still, what is really needed is a true, purpose-built hydraulic disc shift/brake option. I would bet good money that Shimano has one or more of these mules buried somewhere on a test bike in Japan or Irvine, probably machined from Alu with Sharpie notations all over it. For now, though, this is vaporware. Why would it be Shimano (apart from deep pockets)? Because, in my view, you cannot address the hydro disc issue without addressing the shifting issue…and Shimano, more than anyone else, has dealt with the shifting issue. Which leads us to….the next episode, which is forthcoming!

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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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Sociopaths We Have Known: Lance Armstrong Edition

Was going to post on this issue before the Tour started, but didn’t get around to it…and wasn’t sure if I cared enough! The run-up to the Tour this spring was, of course, filled with lots of talk about whether Lance Armstrong (LA) would be leader/win again/etc. Scratching the surface, however, there was also mounting evidence that things could get ugly in the next year if Greg LeMond’s (GL) lawsuit against Trek continues to move forward.

The basic gist of that one is that GL is suing/counter-suing (I’m sparing you the details) Trek bikes claiming that they intentionally screwed up his bike brand (which they owned) because LA was angry about GL’s comments about LA and allegations or doping – stretching back to the early years of the LA Tour dynasty. Trek claims the opposite, that LeMond wasn’t holding up his end of the bargain on promotion, etc., thus undermining Trek’s business interests. Whatever the cause, LeMond bikes no longer exist.

The reason this has gotten uglier and uglier is in GL’s insistent collection of evidence in support of allegations that LA did indeed using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), at least at some points in his career (both pre and post cancer, most likely). Nothing here is radically new for those who have followed the David Walsh-style investigative inquiry into LA: most of the same evidence and arguments (positive result at ’99, multiple positives for EPO in analyses run on Armstrong’s “b” samples from earlier Tours, multiple confessions/convictions by former teammates, lots of talk about doping methods at Postal by others in the biz, etc.). To his credit (or folly, depending on your perspective) GL simply hasn’t backed down from this and, in fact, has really intensified his claims now that the gloves are off with Trek and LA. Most notably – and in questionable moral and legal judgement – LeMond released a detailed phone conversation he secretly (and in direct contradiction to what he told the other party) recorded with a woman who worked for Oakley as LA’s personal liaison and was apparently in the room during the notorious LA confession to his doctors about PED use as part of his very original cancer diagnosis and work-up. The short story is that she had told people privately that LA confessed to PED use while in the hospital (the same story repeated by Andreu husband and wife, who were there), but ultimately testified that he did not. However, in GL’s phone conversation, she admits that she lied under oath, for understandable reasons (single mom with a long-time job at stake, etc.).

What I find most intriguing/perplexing in all this is the underlying irrationality of someone like LA thinking that he could actually control information so completely as to eliminate any possibility that the truth would eventually sneak out. My view is obviously motivated by my belief that Lance Armstrong did indeed use PEDs and other forms of doping (e.g. blood transfusions). On sporting grounds, this does not really bother me – but this is the subject of a future post. What bothers me is the self-serving deception on the part of LA. Choosing to dope does not seem strange or surprising, but why would you think that you could actually conceal this forever, particularly as you become one of the most famous sportspeople in the world? It just doesn’t compute; after all, LA knows about this confession issue, and there are likely a good number of people in the know about transfusions and other funny business from the Postal years.

The only answer I could really come up with before the Tour is that LA is essentially a sociopath – or at least has a good dose of anti-social personality. I am by no means the first to suggest this, but it just seems clearer and clearer the longer things go on. Suffice it to say, I was thrilled to see Contador beat the crap out of Armstrong in the 2009 Tour. Contador was amazingly poised, attacked when he needed to, and then presided over a pretty dismal time trial by Armstrong in the final week (a tt he absolutely demolished). Now, a bit more of the behind the scenes stuff from the Tour and Astana is trickling out, and things sound much, much worse than they appeared during the Tour. In a translated article from El Pais posted by nyvelocity, we see all sorts of powerplays by LA at Astana. In light of these revelations, Contador’s performance is even more impressive. I only hope he can find a good enough team for support next year, just to come back and serve LA’s ass on a platter.

The entire LA comeback strikes me as fundamentally sociopathic. Here the guy has the greatest record of all time in the Tour, fame, fortune, etc. and probably the knowledge that there are many out there who hold his secrets. Yet, he decides to reopen all of these issues and relationships by deciding to comeback in order to promote his supposedly morally-driven crusade. This is hubris of a stunning sort. The guy quietly knocks up a girlfriend, has a baby a month or a bit more before the Tour (which, by my reading, has NEVER been discussed), rules with an iron fist in the team when, in fact, he is the weaker rider, and then engages in all sorts of sneaky behavior to undermine Contador. This, to me, is anti-social behavior. And, the sooner LA is gone from cycling (again), the better.

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Cycling Style: 09 TdF Edition

Was happy to see Velonews devote an article to Milram’s Focus bikes. Milram has been a style favorite of mine for some time now – very clean and linear kit, no goofy crotch-coloring bibs (like the new Cervelo kit), and equally clean bikes. Hard to argue with this:

tdf09_milram_focus01

(photo by Zack Vestal at Velonews)

The custom painted Lightweight wheels (with the white-tipped rims and white spokes) are probably the coolest things on these bikes. I only wish SRAM levers were a bit taller; too many guys end up running them low on the bars and they end up looking too small, in my view. Having now seen a number of people in a few different forums commenting on running tubulars with Stan’s, Vittoria, or other sealants, I have to admit to being a bit intrigued by using tubulars as everyday tires. The guys at Above Category mentioned injecting a flatted TUFO tire with sealant, pumping it up for a seal, and then intentionally poking and prodding it with wire, thorns, etc….and being unable to re-flat the tire.

Lightweight wheels are so nice that most racer folks would, in my opinion, be better served buying a basic aluminum frame, kitting it out with SRAM Rival, and then blowing huge bucks on those wheels. The semi-aero version is particularly beautiful – and imagine the following (Landshark carbon) with Milram styling:

Landshark Carbon White

(photo from abovecategorycycling.com)

Landshark White Side

(photo from belgiumkneewarmers)

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*Updated with new Landshark pic*