A Frame is a Frame is a
Frame...NOT! (Or...my super-secret mission in the shadow of
the US Postal Road Racing team)
[We're now well into 1999, and
I had no idea when I wrote the piece below, just 11 months prior, how much change was going
to occur in the frame world this year. The 1999 Interbike trade show displayed an
astounding number of welded aluminum frames, some of which were exceptionally flashy on
the outside (nice paint, smooth welds, etc) but made of such low-quality materials that
the average consumer is going to have a much lower opinion of what a nice bike is supposed
to ride like. This is a very bad thing...please consider the frame to be the
absolute most important part of any bicycle you're considering buying. It really is.
Sunday, January 18, 1998. Just got back from three days in which I
learned more about what makes a great road bike vs an also-ran...than I'd learned in my
previous 26 years of cycling, including both racing and retail.
How? I got to do something really special that most people will never get the
opportunity to. In the course of three days, I got to extensively ride 8 very
different road bikes, of various brands and frame materials, over the same
roads...actually, trading off frequently during each ride. What I learned blew me
away. I finally came up with what I feel is the definitive way in which virtually
anyone can tell the difference between a truly great bike and one not so hot.
Find a small hill. Might not even need one, but it will help. Go charge up it.
In a "wrong" gear. Either too high or too low, doesn't much matter.
On a truly great machine, even in a really wrong gear, it will still feel like it
wants to go and respond underneath you. On other bikes, you're going to find
yourself wanting to be in a different gear. Fast. Find the "sweet
spot" where you and the machine are most efficient. But on the really great
bike, to quote a line from an infamous movie (the original Meatballs, pretty lame, but not
to be confused with the even-lamer sequels), it just doesn't matter. The
great bike will make the best of anything you give it.
These differences were not subtle, and they weren't even directly related to price.
There were some clear correlations with technologies used to build them, which should not
be a surprise. One thing that did surprise me was that one of our competitor's
machines that I had thought would ride like a rock was actually very comfortable (so much
for the idea that outrageously fat tubes automatically make the ride too harsh)...but it
was a total failure at climbing.
We don't have to name names here. My favorite bikes, which we've been selling
zillions of over the past 16 years, came through just fine. And my "test"
described above...well, if you want to believe that this is somehow an unfair way to
evaluate performance, and that somehow it puts others unfairly at a disadvantage...fine.
Come up with something better. But for me, this past week represented one of
those "moments of clarity" at which things suddenly made sense and I had a
handle on how a small part of the world works.
And, at the same time, reading some reviews of some of the bikes I rode, I also have a
sense of just how ludicrous some of the "test reports" in bike publications are.
You know, the ones where they never really say anything bad about a bike.
Trust me, I now know, there are bad bikes out there. And
the differences are detectable by even an inexperienced rider.
But do be fair about it when you put the bikes to the test. If you use cycling shoes
with cleats, bring your own shoes & pedals for the test ride. And insist on full
rated pressure in the tires of all bikes you're test riding. Believe it or not, each
morning I was going over the air pressure and adjustments on the bikes I don't sell even
more carefully than for those I do. I wanted to be sure that the differences I
experienced where real. So do you.
One thing's for sure. I have renewed confidence in what we offer our customers, and
I'm going to be increasing our road bike orders this season, especially for our TREKs.
Oh yeah, the US Postal stuff. Turns out that the super-secret place we were testing
these bikes (someplace reasonably dry & warm during January) was the same place the US
Postal Team has their early-season training camp. Boy, talk about having to directly
confront the worst of your personal demons...the old "Am I a has-been or a
never-was?" Right there in front of me are 15 or so of the finest bicycle
racers on the planet, forcing me to re-live my past racing career in my mind, always
wondering what it would be like to have only one line in your job description...ride a
bike!...multiple masseuses (um...pretty easy on the eyes, we're not talking Heidi the
German weightlifter here).
And, by the way, they do love their OCLV TREK bicycles! A common remark was how
fortunate they were that they, unlike other teams, got to ride on such great equipment,
and further marveling that it was 100% stock! In fact, one of them (famous name) had
his bike lost in transit to a race awhile back and was amazed that he was able to walk
into a bike shop and leave with exactly what he was used to.
Chain Reaction sells bicycles & accessories
from Trek, Gary Fisher, BikeFriday,Shimano, Pearl Izumi, Continental, Descente,
Sidi, Giro, Blackburn, Speedplay, Oakley, Saris, NiteRider, Bontrager,
Torelli, Look, DeFeet, Rock N Roll, Hammer, Cytomax,
Powerbar, Fox, Clif
Bar, CamelBak, Chris King, Profile Design, Craft, X-Lab and many more!