It was two years ago this week, that we launched Bike Hugger Magazine and focused on our take on the bike, and independent content. We celebrated our 24th issue last month, just got 25 out, and now we’re getting ready for big changes to the newsstand app (because of the free sample issue 00, the 24th issue was published a month ahead of our actual launch). We also relaunched our presence on Medium as a fresh-face to the mag.
We’ll have more to say about the newsstand changes, as a rev gets released.
Again, and as always, thanks so much for subscribing.
Gravel, All-Road, Bikepacker, Adventure Bike….marketing terms for a somewhat nebulous and ill-defined target demographic into which bicycle brands have desperately been hurling new product development. Golly, I do like bike design but I hate the debate over what is the most appropriate name for the genre. It’s just like that one song, “you say tomato, I say f*** you”.
As if one term can reign in all the conflicting ideas and give a hierarchy to the products, yet that is the goal of the nefarious science known as marketing. I don’t really have the head for that kind of mysticism and etherealism; I’m more interested in the corporeal, the carbon, and the titanium. What is the product, where did come from, where is it aimed?
With a stable of successful house brands including Surly and Salsa (and sort of successful brands like Civia), QBP have been quick to capitalize on recent trends such as fatbikes and now that….you know….gravel/adventure thingie. This month Salsa introduced the Cutthroat….named after some sort of fish (gotta name a bike something, I guess). They call it a mountainbike for dropbars, a race bike for the Tour of the Divide, equipped with 2.4” 29er tyres. Well, there have been dropbar mountainbikes in the past. Famously, the legend that is John Tomac raced a dropbar mtb on the NORBA circuit fresh off racing road with the pro European peloton about 25 years ago, but drawing a direct lineage between Tomac’s experiment and the Cutthroat is strained at best. That’s probably because the term “mountainbike” is hard pressed to encompass both a 2-3 hour NORBA-style mtb race and an adventure-style race that may a week or longer, basically unsupported.
The Cutthroat can be thought of a premium, carbon development of their metal-tubed Fargo series of framesets and bikes. Along with a series of offroad-focused dropbars (Woodchipper and the more subtle Cowbell series), these bikes have geometry that puts the drop into the hands of the rider by having a reach and stack dimensions dramatically different from today norm for mountainbikes. Though flatbars (and riser bars are really just a variation of the flat bar) give better control on really technical terrain, dropbars offer multiple hand holds that allow a rider to subtly change body position, something that becomes very important as the hours in the saddle pile on.
Twenty-five years ago, before suspension forks were ready for mainstream market acceptance, mountainbikes (with flatbars, of course) already had somewhat long top tubes relative to road or touring bikes, but they often had 135 or even 150mm stems to get the long reach needed for technical climbs. In the years that followed, fork travel grew and bike makers such as Gary Fisher kicked out the front centers and shortened the chain stay dimension on their frame designs. Today, mtb stems are most often shorter than stems on dropbar equipped road, touring, or cyclocross bikes. This makes the contemporary mainstream mountainbike particularly unsuited to being retrofitted with a dropbar, because the extra reach of a dropbar can’t be compensated for with a shorter stem. Also, the necessity of putting the drops of the bar high enough for technical riding requires a higher stack height from the frame, since threadless stems cannot easily replicate the height of yesteryear’s quill stems. Salsa’s Fargo and now Cutthroat designs remedy this by having shorter reach and taller stack dimensions. The stack is partially helped by having a suspension corrected 29er fork that is 483mm axle-to-crown
Oddly, if you just look at the numbers on Salsa’s geometry chart, you could reasonably conclude that Cutthroat was a touring bike…with 29er tyres….instead of a mountainbike with dropbar….again with the tomato song.
Whatever you call it, the strong point of the Cutthroat is its tuned carbon frame that also offers a multitude of attachment points for gear and hydration. The less compact front triangle leaves plenty of room for frame bags. In fact, Salsa/QBP plan to offer a line of bags to compliment the new bike. Though you could replace the “Firestarter” carbon with a XC 29er fork, you’d be stepping away from the Cutthroat’s goal of lightweight and efficiency.
Where is the design going? Who is going to buy it? The Cutthroat is about bikepacking, riding over long trails with very little dawdling about on the way. The bike is meant to store a lot of gear in bags that keep the loads centralized on the frame, so as not to affect handling on singletrack. In this respect, the Cutthroat stands apart from traditional touring bikes, which rely on traditional panniers and racks to carry supplies. But while gigantic saddle bags and fitted frame bags keep the Cutthroat agile offroad, I would rather have traditional panniers for regular around-town needs, since the good panniers are quicker to strap on or off as well as being more convenient for loading things like groceries. The Cutthroat isn’t going to rival a good cross-country machine on a typical race course either. In the end, I’m just not sure how this bike is going to do on the market. I mean, it’s interesting….but really does have a narrow range to shine. Too bulky and overbuilt for road touring, not agile enough for hairy end of technical riding, and too expensive to have as half-hearted fling. Maybe bikepacking will grow as a demographic, but it’s hard to see it garnering as many fans as fat bikes. Fat bikes are chugging along on the idea that fat tyres are more fun for all situations not just Iditabike (frankly I have my doubts that they can sustain that kind of growth anyways…and I’m not the only one in the industry to say that), but Salsa is specifically linking the Cutthroat to the Tour of the Divide. On the other hand, images of the Paris-Dakar Auto Rally have probably sold a lot of Range Rovers over the years, and probably a lot of those consumers don’t even know where Dakar is.
Last week Cannondale popped in out of nowhere with a little video production featuring the Slate, a gravel bike using a version of their unique Lefty suspension fork. But while the eye is immediately drawn to the awkward asymmetry of the 30mm travel pogo-stick-with-disc-brake, Cannondale threw a curveball by equipping the Slate with 650B wheels/tyres. This is pretty hot to me, since I’ve sorta been hip to the 650B renaissance for a while now. Many readers already know that 650B (aka ISO 584mm) is a rim/tyre standard that shares the same origins as the far better known 700C (ISO 622). Before it was chosen at the Goldilocks/mid-sized wheel for mountainbikes about 6-8 years ago, 650B had only survived on city bikes and French randonneur bikes. This year there is hardly an mtb maker that doesn’t have at least one model with 650B wheels (or 27.5” as the marketing people want you to think). Now with supporters like Pacenti, Compass Bicycle, and Grand Bois, there has been a recent resurgence in road tyres for the 650B standard, particularly large volume casings 32 to 42mm wide.
Why a different wheel standard? Well, just about everyone on both sides of the market agrees that wider tyres are better for these gravel bikes, but how wide can you make the tyre before you have to compromise the geometry of the frame to fit it? Once you get bigger than 32mm you start to run into problems in the area behind the bottom bracket. With a typical road bike having chain stays 410-420mm, the tyre is competing for the same lateral space as the chainrings and the chain stay tubes themselves. As the outer diameter of the tyre approaches 38mm, clearance between the tyre and the seat tube becomes an issue. Eventually the frame designer must either lengthen the chain stays or abandon road cranks with their narrow chainline and chainrings bigger than typical mtb options. The Cutthroat does exactly that, having 445mm chain stays and using cranks typically seen on 29er mtb. That’s fine for carrying stuff for a multiday adventure into the wilderness, but that’s a far cry from the spirited handling of a road bike. By using 650B x 42mm tyres, the Cannondale Slate achieves the desired air volume without encroaching on frame clearances. Even more, since the disc brakes don’t require a specific rim diameter you can actually alternate wheels/tyres between 700Cx28 and 650Bx42 without changing the bottom bracket height, since the two combinations have the same outer diameter. Sure, Jan Heine would say that the 650Bx42 tyre is faster in ALL CONDITIONS, but I like the option of running regular road wheels. Going back to that Lefty-equipped Cannondale Slate, the 650B wheel also keeps the stack height at the front low and sporty for the road.
I find the idea of suspension for all-road intriguing. I have ridden extensively on a Rock Shox Paris-Roubaix SL fork, the very same design that won Paris-Roubaix three years in a row during the early 1990s, but the only thing I can say without reservation is that 25 year old suspension technology sucks compared to modern one-piece lower castings, 32mm plus stanchions, and dampers that actually work. If Cannondale wants to make a road/all-road/gravel suspension fork with up-to-date features and construction, I wanna test it out. If a 30-50mm travel suspension forks proved to be a hit, who knows how the designs could change and genre evolve?
Of course, Cannondale’s offering has to be taken with a grain of salt. Cannondale has a long history of flashing product to the media long before its development is complete, and a less generous opinion is that they serve up a lot of vaporware (does anyone else remember the Cannondale/Magic Motorcycle showbike?). The Slate bikes in the video are clearly welded aluminum, which while still a viable production method and one that few companies do better than Cannondale, the ease at which it can be used to quickly create one-off designs doesn’t really impress me that Cannondale is committed to this idea.
Lastly, there’s Open Cycle, the new brand started by Gerard Vroomen, formerly of Cervelo. Initially with a focus on hardtail 29er mountainbikes, Open chose a gravel/all-road frameset as their second offering, but what a rather ambitious and unusual design it is. Besides all carbon construction and front/rear thru-axles, the Unbeaten Path (or “UP”) plays the dual wheel size trick with 650B/700C, but instead of 42m tyres the UP can take a honking 55mm x 650B better known to mountainbikers as a 27.5” x 2.25” knobby (incidentally the UP can also take a 40mm x 700C tyre). Remember what I said about big tyres and short chain stays being busy behind the bottom bracket? Well, Open beats the problem by dropping the driveside chainstay down to snake below the point where the tyre tread gets closest to the chainrings, thereby allowing the chain stay to keep a meaty enough section to maintain drivetrain stiffness. And the UP can still fit a 50/34 compact road crank. Surely 3T had an easier time designing the Luteus II fork to fit an equally wide tyre up front, but it is still worth noting that the new fork surely has more tyre clearance than any other full-carbon fork at a 395mm axle-to-crown, which is something of an industry standard height for cyclocross fork. It is yet unclear whether the fork will be available through 3T distribution channels or whether it will remain an OEM exclusive to Open Cycle. Beyond fitting inches of rubber into rear triangles like clowns into circus cars, the UP has what looks to be a rather low stack height, putting emphasis on speed. This bike is more gazelle than pack mule. In fact, the prototypes don’t even have eyelets for racks or fenders, which struck me as daring but stupid from a marketing perspective, as it would thoughtlessly limit the bike’s capabilities. I was relieved to find out that these were stage 1 of a 3 stage development progression, and that eyelets were planned for later after the rest of the design details had been tweaked.
I’m really interested in Vroomen’s design philosophies. I saw a steady evolution in geometry during the time he was at Cervelo, in particular how the first Cervelo road bikes all had 73deg head angles and 43mm rake forks regardless of frame size. As some of you readers would know this means that the smallest frames end up with wicked toe overlap, something I personally dislike. More recently, the smaller Cervelo road bikes have slacker head angles balanced out with longer rake forks, so that the trail dimension is kept relatively constant throughout the size range. However, I have my doubts that the market is sophisticated enough to appreciate the possibilities that 650B/700C dual capability gives. The other thing is that I don’t understand Vroomen’s marketing/distribution strategy. It seems like he’s going direct sales and using pre-sales of the UP to help with development costs. More power to him if it works out, but Open Cycle will never have the sales numbers to really shape the market segment. Pity that, because I think I like what he’s got cooking.
Ed note: While Mark wasn’t as interested in it as me, another bike in this new category is the Trek 920
Zipp introduces their new Firecrest track wheelsets in the “404” (58mm deep) and “808” (82mm) rim versions. Another touted feature is the new “303” track hubs.
So I guess SRAM feels like they can still eke out some cash from the Red Hook Crit crowd. Maybe I’m just a Debbie Downer, but the brakeless/fixie criterium racing seems like the tail end of the fixie boom/fad of the ’00s.In a way it somewhat parallels the BMX boom of the early to mid-80s when BMX racing carried on in pockets of this nation while trickriding/freestyle disappeared until the X-Games era. That’s not exactly analogous because BMX racing wouldn’t have existed/survived without the progression of junior/juvenile age-groups, whereas the Red Hook Criterium series is the logical evolution of underground, unsanctioned alley cat races into corporate-funded “unsanctioned” live entertainment. Well, maybe “brakeless track bike criterium” racing will show sustainable growth or maybe it’ll just live on as search words for cycling crash video clips on Youtube, only time will tell. Regardless I can’t see these Firecrest track wheels as being the first choice for track cycling’s elite, because the whole Firecrest design philosophy was optimized for road cycling, not track.
The whole point of the Firecrest wheels was to develop a rim shape that produced low drag numbers at a relatively wide range of apparent wind angles (yaw). A wheel being driven forward experiences an apparent wind vector that is influenced by the speed of the bike and the direction/angle of the wind due to the environment. Basically that means that the resulting vector is almost always a few degrees to either side of dead ahead. Ideally the form of the rim should be narrow to reduce cross-sectional drag (basically the force required to punch a hole in the wind equal to area of the bikes cross section) and also promote smooth, non-turbulent airflow around the surface opposite of the side the wind comes from. The wide, bulbous shape of recent aero wheel designs such as Hed’s current Stinger wheels and Zipp’s FIrecrest series are designed around those goals with maximum sectional widths of 26-28mm, whereas wheels before about 2005 invariably had long teardrop shapes no wider than 20mm (to keep cross sectional area to a minimum) with sharp trailing edges. The newer aero wheels (as well as aero frames and other components) give lower drag numbers over a wider range of real world riding condtions….on the road.
Racing on a velodrome isn’t the same as a road race, time trial, or triathlon on the road, especially indoor velodromes. At the World Championship or Olympic level, indoor 250m tracks are a pre-requisite, so there never is a breeze to give any angle to the apparent wind. In such a case, reduction of cross-sectional area remains a higher priority. That’s why you don’t see those big bulbous rims at the top levels, because those shapes are slower in those windless conditions. In fact, the fastest non-disc aero wheels seem to be designs such as the Mavic Io and Corima 4-spoke that date from the early to mid-‘90s. The Hed 3 was originally designed in the late ‘80s and is still used competitively today. Ironically, all those hours people have spent in wind tunnels to devise more sophisticated aero wheels has led away from those older shapes that still do best on the track. And though I’m just barely touching on the topic of disc wheels and track racing, rear discs are used almost without exception at the top levels, and front discs in many non-mass start events. A fine example is Bradley Wiggins set the latest hour record with front and rear discs.
Yes, there are a lot of recent trends for road bikes that have no traction in track racing. I’m specifically talking about WIDE tyres, a subject that Bike Hugger has often discussed these past few years. Yet I still see people rolling around on cyclocross bikes with 23mm tyres for city use for some reason. For some people like Compass Bicycle’s Jan Heine, wider tyres for performance riding has become their raison d’etre, but all the ProTour teams have moved to 25mm tyres for even the smoothest roads when once they would have been on 21mm tyres nailed at 125psi. The idea is that a tyre with a larger volume combined with a supple casing can have the same or less rolling resistance as a narrow tyre, and the larger tyre can do this at lower air pressure. The lower air pressure means the rider’s mass bounces less, and with less bounce there is also less energy lost from driving the bike forward. The kicker is that these wider tyres also work better with those new, wider aero wheels. Cool, right? Why of course it is, but it’s all mainly useless for track racing. Those guys will stick to 19-21mm tyres at 160psi plus because the best track are deadly smooth and they will be using narrow wheels. I think I heard that Wiggins used 200psi plus for the hour record and that is certainly plausible.
But what if you aren’t Bradley Wiggins or Gregory Bauge? What if you don’t race on indoor velodromes? Because most of us don’t. Then the Zipp Firecrest track wheels could be optimal for you. On a slightly bumpy outdoor track like Marymoor’s 400M oval, a windy day can totally change your tactics. It would certainly be desirable to have a front wheel that performs well at various yaw angles. Having a non-disc rear wheel is nice in the sense that it might reduce rotational inertia and perhaps be more versatile, but a disc might still be better choice in race conditions. Admittedly, this is all fine margins we’re talking here, and of course the difference between narrow and wide aero wheels isn’t going to put packfodder onto the top step of the podium. And these Firecrest rims are quite fast even in indoor conditions after all. It’s just at the top level the riders wouldn’t give any advantage away.
As for the Zipp track hubs….meh. You’re buying the wheels for the rims and you can’t buy the rims a la carte. Zipp has a patchy history of road hub designs (I’m being polite here), but their track hubs have been competent though never remarkable. The concept of a “wheel system” is a little weak in this circumstance, as the rim and spokes are clearly off the shelf items while the hub design isn’t breaking new ground. Zipp uses a conventional high-flange design with a bolt-in axle, so you tighten it with a 6mm allen key. The allen key method is convenient because the necessary tool is small, but you’ll never get as much force as if it used 15mm tracknuts. I never liked that the 6mm bolt-in axles personally. But I guess a lot of mass produced track bikes have built-in chain tensioners, so maybe the extra security of 15mm tracknuts threaded onto 10mm axles is superfluous. I do find it odd that Zipp chose to use 28 spokes front and rear on rims that they would only use 24 spokes if they had disc brake rotors.
As I explained it, friction shifting builds character, and every cyclist should learn how to do it. Read about the history and development of the derailleur bicycle in Frank Berto’s Dancing Chain. This Trek 1400 was equipped with SunTour.
The thought of a modern carbon bike that can fly over pavement like a racing bike, but handle rough gravel like a mountain bike, and everything in between, is truly exciting.
and I can’t wait to talk to him more about it. If there’s one thing the industry needs is to de-niche their lines, and bring back the all-around great, road bike. Call it made for adventure, gravel, all road, or whatever.
Is it just me or is all the excitement in the dirt these days? Compared to say, thin aero road bikes with cowled brakes.