Issue 02: Unfortunate Products

One of the biggest reasons that Salsa skewers were so popular is that they were available in a wide variety of anodized colors, including the crowd fave “rasta.”

Whatever the cycling curmudgeons might say about the bike industry post-index shifting, there has been a constant stream of innovations that have legitimately improved product for consumers. Clipless pedals, integrated shift/brake levers, tubeless tires, technical fabrics for sportswear, suspension components: all of these trends have found solid footing in the marketplace. These products can often be traced back to a particularly influential product or marketing effort. The clipless pedal system can trace its popularity back to the early LOOK pedals, though in truth there were a handful of even earlier products (Cinelli M71 “death pedals” spring to mind) that didn’t quite manage to find a following. People have a fondness for saying that a product was “before its time,” but it is often more accurate to say that a product had not been sufficiently developed before market introduction. This later perspective is useful when comparing the failure of Mavic electronic shifting systems to the current success of Shimano and Campagnolo product. But there have been other innovative products that were reliable, successful, and popular straight off the bat, and yet have led to some of the worst trends in the industry.

Maybe a product design ends up sparking countless imitations, often built with shoddy tolerances or materials. Or perhaps it was designed for a particular use, and then bicycle companies end up marketing the product to demographics or categories for which it is poorly suited. Sometimes a good design gets Combined slapdash with another reasonable trend to become totally stupid. Here are our top four innovations in the past two decades that have seeded the market with abominable trends.

Salsa Flip-off Skewers

Lightweight, quick-release skewers existed long before the late 80s mountainbike boom and widespread propagation of affordable CNC machines. But Ross Schafer of Salsa Cycles debuted an exquisitely simple “Flip-Off” design involving a machined alloy lever with a sculpted cam tightening on a Delrin washer. With stainless steel shafts, they weighed about 100gr, almost half the typical weight of the sturdy, smooth, but portly Shimano sticks. Of course one of the biggest reasons that Salsa skewers were so popular is that they were available in a wide variety of anodized colors, including the crowd fave “rasta” of red lever/gold washer cup/green nut.

Salsa skewers proved to be one of the most popular aftermarket accessories for mountain bikes of the 90s; they were more than a little popular on road bikes too. The truth though is that they were always just adequate for the task of holding a wheel axle in place, having nothing like the smooth sureness of a good Shimano skewer. General acceptance of Salsa skewers was surely aided by the fact that almost all road and mountain bikes by the ’90s had vertical dropouts; a hard dig on the pedals could jerk a Salsa skewered rear axle cockeyed in a horizontal dropout, especially if the dropout was a chromed steel piece that the Salsa’s non-knurled, alloy washer cup had difficulty gripping. But for what they were (and are still; available years after Schafer sold the company to QBP), the Salsa skewers were light, attractive, and did a decent job.

However, the Flip-Off skewer has since suffered countless imitators, and such a simple design can at best be equaled, not surpassed. Indeed, the majority of the imitations have been rubbish, and they are everywhere you look today. Poorly-profiled cam contours, low-grade alloys, plastic cam washers that are easily mashed out of shape. What’s worse is that basic design seems no more intuitive in operation to an unknowledgeable consumer than a standard QR skewer, but it is more fragile. It is relatively easy to get the lever cam locked wrong on a plastic washer. The extra attention required to prevent this does slow down wheel exchanges even for pro mechanics; the typical consumer frequently mangles the plastic washer. As the plastic washer becomes deformed, the cam action of the lever becomes less effective as well. And since the skewer disassembles into more loose pieces, people often lose the cup & washer.

The typical Salsa knock-off skewer is a little lighter and cheaper than the least expensive Shimano skewers and is often marketed as a lightweight upgrade on OEM bikes. But novice users are better served by sturdier, handier skewers while advanced riders should find themselves some classier pieces, if they have any self-respect.

Cannondale BB30

Cannondale introduced the BB30 bottom bracket standard in 2000 along with their Si (System Integration) crankset. The design had three main advantages. First, it allowed the use of a 30mm alloy crank spindle, which was lighter and stiffer than the 24mm steel spindles of the contemporary Shimano Octalink and ISIS bottom brackets. Secondly, the bearings were larger (42/30mm OD/ID by 7mm wide) and slightly wider-spaced compared to those designs, though not as wide as the later external bearing designs (eg Shimano Hollowtech, SRAM GXP, and Campagnolo Ultra-Torque). Lastly, and perhaps least intuitive to the casual observer, the larger diameter bottom bracket shell of BB30 suited Cannondale’s characteristic large diameter aluminum tubes.

Cannondale had always been a trendsetter for big-tubed alloy bikes. Before Cannondale and Klein became well-known, the market perception of aluminium bikes was largely formed by lugged & glued European road frames; they were somewhat lightweight but famously flexy.

Improved welding/heat treating techniques allowed Cannondale and Klein to join thin-walled/big diameter tubes and create stiffer structures with an industrial aesthetic, featherweight, and rocket acceleration; though, perhaps a bit harsh riding.

By the end of the century, Cannondale’s tubes on their flagship road bikes were huge even by the standards that the company originally pioneered, with wall thicknesses inversely proportioned. But there are limits to how thin you can make the tube walls, and it becomes a problem when you need to join a bulbousbut thin-walled down tube to a thick-walled BB shell that was barely half the diameter of the down tube.

Cannondale’s massive BB30  shell matched better to the other tubes, giving a larger weld joint to better disperse the stresses induced by the pedaling rider. The bearings were directly pressed into the shell against snap rings fitting into a machined groove. The middle of the shell was heavily relieved internally to reduce weight. Aluminium is well-suited to this design, because it is easily machined and its relatively low density keeps the weight down. As a whole, BB30 was a well-engineered design that set a new standard for optimization through integration. The Cannondale CAAD6 looked like a sleek jetfighter, with Si crankset complimenting the integrated headset & fork. Proprietary bottom brackets had existed before BB30 (by several American builders including Klein and Merlin), but they used traditional square taper spindles. Cannondale created a complete system that made superior use of modern materials and manufacturing techniques. And then they licensed out the standard for other builders use.

If other builders were slow to jump on the bandwagon, it was probably because it would be hard to market a high-end frame that uses another framemaker’s crankset. But soon FSA was making BB30 cranks, which made the BB30 standard more attractive to both product managers and consumers since FSA cranks had already become a hot item in the early ’00s. What would really push the standard was the rapid adoption of carbon fiber frame construction among manufacturers. All the structural frame features that BB30 allowed to aluminium designs, work even better for carbon frames. Carbon tubes are often even larger than the biggest Cannondale alloy tubes, and the need for having a metal BB sleeve for a standard, threaded bottom bracket is far from ideal in a carbon monocoque structure. Such a threaded sleeve must be bonded into the frame, with the carbon structure beefed up in that area well enough to distribute the stresses to the surrounding monocoque. The larger diameter of a BB30 insert disperses the load over a greater area, requiring less material bulk.

Eventually the BB30 evolved into another variation, known as PressFit BB30 or PF30. Rather than directly inserting the bearings into machined shell with c-clips, the same bearings are permanently mounted into Delrin-plastic or alloy cups with an external lip, that are in turn press-fit into the slightly larger-bore PF30 shell. The plastic cups should theoretically tolerate small variations in bearing alignment, eliminating the need for precision machining the faces of the shell like on BB30 or threaded BB shells. The simpler shell, without grooves for c-clips, need not have any metal insert and can simply be a moulded feature on either side of the monocoque structure; obviously this means even more weight reductions. The same cranksets fit BB30 and PF30, so the transition from one to the other is relatively seamless for product managers.

As impressive as all of its attributes sound, BB30/PF30 isn’t universally appropriate for all bike designs, nor are its advantages overwhelming compared to other high-end standards. For one thing, the crankset weight advantages of BB30 are only realized when high-quality materials are used. The lower-end cranksets are heavier than the premium carbon cranksets, so entry-level bikes aren’t likely to be especially light. Also after BB30’s introduction, the external bearing cranksets (first popularized by the Shimano Hollowtech II designs in the XTR and Dura Ace lines) had bearings that were larger than featured on previous designs of 24mm splined-spindle bottom brackets; these bearings are fitted to cups that thread into a conventional 68mm shell (or 70mm for Italian thread) and hold the actual bearings outboard of the faces of the shell. If the bearings aren’t as quite as large as BB30/PF30, they are more widely spaced; thus cranksets like Dura Ace’s 7800/7900/9000-series have always been benchmarks for stiffness, while no slouch in the weight department.

Companies like Giant and Trek have devised BB standards that fit such 24mm spindle cranks but with bearings either fitted directly into the frame (like Trek’s BB90/BB95) or press-fit within Delrin cups (like Giant’s BB86/BB91 developed with Shimano), in a manner analogous to BB30/PF30 but enjoying a wider bearing spacing. In this context, BB30/PF30 is only marginally lighter than competing designs while requiring a crank that cannot be retrofitted to bikes with traditional threaded bottom bracket shells. Ultimately, the two unfortunate trends that BB30 spawned are the high-end framemakers inventing their own painfully exotic variation on the BB30 and large-scale manufacturers now marketing BB30 in the wrong frame materials.

Cervelo, always marketing themselves as scientifically-grounded innovators, created a BB30 with asymmetric bearing spacing, the non-drive bearing now roughly as far outboard as that of 24mm-spindle/external bearing. Called “BBright,” it theoretically offers greater optimization, but in reality the benefits are the definition of marginal. Cervelo more or less co-opted a fully developed concept by changing one dimension and passing it off as a real innovation. In contrast to Cervelo’s nonsense, Italian framebuilder Wilier worked with FSA to create the BB386EVO, a crank standard that could potentially become a bridge between conventional threaded-shell frames and those built using BB30/PF30. I’m not saying that the world needs one more BB standard, but if it must be, then it should be a standard that brings some “standardization” to componentry. Rather than a tower of Babel that splinters bike designers, the next crankset/BB should aspire to be a Rosetta Stone.

The whole point of BB30/PF30 is to make a frame and crank package that is lighter and/or stiffer than what can be achieved with a threaded BB shell and matching crank. The idea fails if in order to fit a 30mm spindle crank, the frame gains more weight than the crank saves. A BB30/PF30 shell is by definition larger than a traditional, threaded shell. Aluminium and carbon are low density materials, so making the shell a little bigger adds but a small weight penalty. But a steel BB30 shell is heavy while the 39-40mm diameter of a typical threaded BB shell pretty well already matches the typical range of tube diameters of steel frames. A complete BB30/PF30 bike with a steel frame is going to be heavier and/or higher cost than a steel framed bike with a typical external BB/24mm spindle crank.

Titanium is less dense than steel but still more so than aluminium; its modulus (material stiffness) favors a tube diameter somewhat intermediate to aluminium and steel. Looking at a complete system of titanium shell/BB/crankset and knowing lightest, practical frame tube diameter/wall-thickness would be independent of BB shell diameter, I discovered that unless a very lightweight 30mm spindle crankset is spec’ed, the heavier shell negated the weight savings of the crank. The higher density of steel exacerbates the weight gain of the bigger shell. To sum it, you need a pricey crank to get any benefit from BB30/PF30 titanium frames, and for a steel frame the same oversized BB shell penalizes you on both weight and cost. Manufacturers are marketing steel bikes with oversize BB shells because the layman doesn’t understand the BB30/PF30 standard in the context of frame material.

Mavic Helium Wheels

In 1996, French rim and hub maker Mavic introduced the Helium as a wheel system. Up to this point, bicycle wheels were just combinations of spokes, hubs, and rims, often sourced from different manufacturers at the discretion of OEM product managers or your local bike mechanic. Mavic changed the perception of premium wheelsets.

Before, the lightweight race wheels were made by individual wheelbuilders and the quality and durability of wheel necessarily varied due to choices of materials and individual skills. Already well-known for rims and hubs, Mavic was in good position to market a complete wheel. To set the new product apart from conventional wheels, Mavic used a straight-pull spoke hub design that was unique to the new wheels, using an odd, radial 26-spoke front and radial/2x 28-spoke rear. In a brilliant final touch, Mavic gave the hubs and rim a red anodized finish. When Mavic debuted the wheels on the sponsored team bikes at the Tour, those red Heliums really stood out in the peloton. Soon everyone wanted some. Ed note: including me!

As a product, the Mavic Helium was little more than a standard semi-box rim extrusion with a relatively low spoke-count and a hub design that internally was almost identical to their conventional flange hub, MR601. The straight-pull spokes were unusual for the time but were hardly a technical innovation. There were plenty of lighter hubs and rims at the time that could be built into much lighter wheels, but by bringing wheel production in-house, Mavic was able to establish a consistent level of quality for the product. Not coincidentally, by selling a complete wheel Mavic made a profit off the whole wheel rather than just the rim and possibly the hub. Mavic sold a tubular and clincher versions of the Helium.

There were other wheel systems before the Helium, particularly deep-profile aero wheels such as the Campagnolo Shamal, various Hed wheels, and Mavic’s own Cosmic. Moulded carbon wheels like Specialized Composite Spoke wheel, developed in a collaboration with DuPont, were also present. Though they were popular among triathletes and time trialists, they didn’t catch the attention of the road market like the Helium did. A decade or more before the aero road frame trend, a lugged steel frame was still the standard and consumers easily warmed up to the idea of a lightweight yet sturdy wheel that could accelerate well. The Helium was a good all-around choice of wheel, had Euro pro aura, had established distribution channels, and could be ordered by any retail shop. Mavic ultimately failed at marketing an electronic shifting system but the Helium laid the foundation for an even more successful product line, the Ksyrium. Today, Mavic produces several lines of road and mountain wheel systems but no longer markets individual hubs.

Of course success begets imitation; virtually every major manufacturer has their own brand of wheel systems. At the budget end of the product spectrum, cheap, machine-built wheels proliferate the OEM market. These wheels frequently are the first thing to fall apart on entry-level bicycles, and there’s often no service channel to help. Often the wheels are little more than disposable items. Perhaps this has always been true, but at least in the past spokes were always silver so bike shops usually had the right color in stock to replace the spokes as they broke. One reason that the cheaper OEM wheel systems don’t hold up is that sporty-looking, low spoke-count wheels get spec’ed to all sizes, so big riders get wheels that barely hold up under lightweight riders.

At the premium end, Mavic, Campagnolo, and others may have product benefiting from more rigorous development, but often the individual wheel subparts may feature a high degree of system integration. Put it another way: spokes, rims, and hubs may all be unique to a particular model, so replacements are in turn exotic, expensive, and difficult to acquire. It is not uncommon for a single broken spoke to sideline a wheel for weeks because because no replacement can be located. Except for bearings and cassette bodies, the first 3 generations of Mavic Ksyrium wheels are no longer supported with service parts from Mavic. Without service parts, older Ksyriums cannot be rebuilt. Once upon a time, a good hubset a was a lifetime investment, to be rebuilt as rims wear out or are damaged; maybe a rider decides to rebuild his tubular race wheels into more practical clinchers when he decides that his racing days are done. Now, an old Ksyrium hubset is just useless junk.

As the industry has decided that the money is in marketing wheel systems, the selection of quality hubs on the market shrunk. Campagnolo barely makes their Record hubs anymore, and they’re only available as 32H. Good quality 36H hubs are particularly hard to find, which is particularly disappointing for touring riders. In fact, available wheel systems in general are poor choices for touring.

Replaceable Derailleur Hanger

By the 1950s, derailleurs had more less become an expected feature of road bikes, and the derailleur manufacturers more or less agreed to mount the derailleurs into a threaded eye formed into the lower edge of the right dropout, as epitomized by the Campagnolo #1010 dropout. This dropout, like most at the time, was formed of stamped (forged ) steel. It was a strong, tough piece, but if bent in the event of a crash, it could almost always be realigned. Decades later as aluminum frames became popular, the alloy dropouts were proving to be less tolerant of bending, sometimes snapping clean off the dropout during realignment. An alloy frame with a broken deralleur hanger was essentially ruined, since a new dropout could not be simply brazed in like with a steel frame. For carbon fibre frames, either the dropout is an alloy piece bonded into the carbon frame, or the dropout is moulded from carbon fibre and requires some sort of metal hanger anyways, for the derailleur to thread into.

The solution seemed simple enough: a replaceable derailleur hanger that could be aligned without consequence. Even if the hanger snapped, a new one could be fitted. In fact, if the hanger was designed such that it preferentially bent before the frame suffered any damage, so much the better. This is especially true of carbon fibre frames. However, the derailleur hangers one typically finds on a stock bike bend like overcooked linguini. I pretty much assume that every brand new bike that I pull out of the box has a bent hanger. And when I thread an alignment tool onto a replaceable hanger, it is shocking how easy it is to bend the one compared to an old forged steel dropout. Inattentive cyclists can easily bend a hanger just putting a bike into the boot of a car; a racing cyclist can easily bend a hanger in any kind of fall.

So what is the big deal with a bent hanger? The worst that could happen is that an inward bent hanger allows the inboard derailleur cage plate to catch on the rear wheel’ spokes as the rider shifts into the biggest cog. Then the rider’s momentum on the bike gives the wheel enough torque to perhaps rip the derailleur apart and wrap the chain around the cassette. It is in just such a scenario as this that the replaceable hanger fulfills its purpose, since no hanger made of aluminium could likely survive that much twisting and distortion. However, in order for this to happen, the hanger must first be bent inward and then the rider must ride without noticing. If the hanger was stouter, chances are good that the hanger wouldn’t have gotten bent in the first place, or alternately the inciting event for bending the hanger would have to be a lot more dramatic (ie impossible to have escaped the rider’s notice).

The more common problem with bent derailleur hangers is that indexed shifting systems require the hanger to be parallel to the plane of the rear wheel. If not, then the lateral distance per shift that the derailleur moves the chain will be less than the exact cog-to-cog spacing. Consequently, the system looses shifting accuracy, often at one end or the other of the cassette range. Perhaps, the misalignment is great enough that shifting obviously off, that the derailleur consistently misbehaves. That situation is one which is vulnerable to getting the derailleur caught in the spokes, but there are usually warning signs in the form of dismal shifting. More frequently, the shifting is just a little bit off, or varies depending on how hard the rider is pedaling. Without the aid of an alignment tool, even an expert eye can miss a bent hanger, and maybe the bike doesn’t misbehave when running through the gears while it’s on a workstand. Without knowing the hanger is bent, the shifting issues could be plausibly due to any of a dozen other maladies.

Over the years as indexed shifting systems have moved from 6sp to the current 11sp, the cog-to-cog spacing is almost half of what it once was. That means that less angle of misalignment is required before a bent hanger creates some sort of shifting problem. Every time Shimano and Campagnolo add another cog to the cluster, the situation gets worse.

So why are replaceable hangers so easily bent? For whatever reason, they are typically made from relatively low strength aluminium. Since strength and elongation (ductility) are often inversely related in various alloys, this means that the hangers are less likely to crack when bent and are tolerant of being manipulated multiple times without snapping (even if they don’t break, it is not uncommon that a hanger can be so warped from getting caught in the spokes that it can’t be straightened properly). One would think that stiffer, stronger derailleur hangers would be a good thing. In fact, top-level professional teams often get custom hangers made from stronger 7000-series aluminium, stainless steel, or even titanium. Several manufacturers also supply their sponsored teams with framesets with non-replaceable hangers; the philosophy being that consistent shifting and improved single-crash toughness is more important than long-term frame survivability. For the rest of us, we will just have to be especially careful of the right rear quarter of our bikes.

One last comment about replaceable derailleur hangers is that sheer number of variations is reaching ridiculous levels. Wheels Manufacturing is a company that supplies aftermarket replacement hangers, and they alone list about 200 individual sku numbers. This makes ordering the correct replacement hanger difficult, especially in a situation where the broken hanger is incomplete and the model year of the bike is unknown. Like that, it is virtually impossible to order the correct hanger without internet access and a pool of knowledge deep enough to be able to infer the model year of a frame from that of its components. On an older bike, that might also mean being able to guess which components are original in the first place.

For every gem of an idea that originates in the bike industry, there must be dozens of half-baked ones that quickly fail and disappear by next year’s marketing campaign.

Even the best innovations are sometimes tainted when the wannabes just don’t wanna try hard enough, or maybe they were a just good ideas at the time but the context has evolved. Our advice? Learn to read between the lines of marketing hype, keep your own needs in perspective, and just try to take the good with the bad.

Ed. note: After a good run of 42 issues, our magazine app is no longer available, but we’ve archived the content here on our blog.

Also published on Medium.

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