Material Differences

Nature doesn’t need much help with color this time of year:

Still, yesterday I figured I might as well throw a little purple into the mix:

This bike began life as my Midlife Crisis Fixie Mark II in the summer of 2021:

Then my son grew into it so I set it up for him to ride at Kissena, and he got lots of good use out of it in the phenomenal Star Track program. However, he’s not doing Star Track this semester, and even if he was the season’s just about over anyway, and so I figured it was about time I got reacquainted with it:

That henge-like configuration is of course the Grand Central Stones, placed there in the year Nineteen Aught Five as part of an epic Building Material Shootout:

After all that work, as I understand it they ultimately went with the cheapest option, and 118 years later it sure looks as though, functionally speaking, the differences between the various materials ultimately amounts to fuck-all. In this sense, the stones would appear to be a fitting analogy for all the different types of steel bicycle frame tubing, which people also fuss over, but which is of questionable import–provided of course it’s of sufficiently good quality, and the person or people building the frame put it together properly.

So how much difference is there between all the different steel frame tubes, anyway? I once knew someone who explained to me at length how he could absolutely discern the differences between frame tubes, and that Italian tubing felt different from Japanese tubing, and so on and so forth, and obviously this person was completely full of shit. Meanwhile, blind tests reveal that in fact different tubes don’t feel the way they’re “supposed” to:

And when riders try to guess what type of tubing a bike is made from it seems like they usuall guess wrong:

So what accounts for the way a bike feels? Here’s a video from Ultraromance where he attempts to explain:

Now, I did not watch the video all the way through–no offense intended to Ultraromance, I was just busy so I kind of skipped around, and I wanted to make that disclaimer. I generally regard Ultraromance as someone who knows what he’s talking about, and from what I did see everything he says here makes lots of sense. Bar flex, saddle flex, seatpost length, tires, geometry…all of this stuff is what informs the way a bike feels. Vertical compliance from frame material, he explains, is a “myth,” because a frame is a triangle and a triangle cannot flex in that way:

[He meant “No such thing…,” not “So such thing…,” I guess the misspellings are just part of his jean-shortsy vibe.]

I’m inclined to agree with this for the most part, and I’ve always felt this way myself–the idea of ascribing ride quality to frame material when there are so many other things on your bike that visibly flex is borderline absurd. For that matter, simply changing lever shape or bar height or reach can be enough to transform the way a bike feels–I recently changed the saddle angle on the Cervino by a couple degrees and the bike went from feeling good to feeling phenomenal.

At the same time, I have experienced certain phenomena with certain bicycles that I’ve had a difficult time explaining any other way:

[Well, maybe it was the frame material.]

For example, I’ve used various tires on my Litespeed, from light, supple racing tires to relatively heavy, puncture-resistant urban-ish tires, and while the differences between them is very noticeable, there always seems to be an underlying smoothness that’s unique to the bike no matter how it’s shod. Could it be something else, like the saddle, or the bars, or the fork, or simply the fit? Sure. Could it be years of hearing how titanium has some sort of magical ride property? Of course–though if anything I’m such a contrarian that consensus usually compels me to reject it. Again, I’m totally willing to believe the fact it’s made from titanium is incidental to how smooth it feels, but I also can’t completely rule it out.

The Soma is another case, and a more compelling one since there’s no reason this bike should feel good–and yet even in its earliest incarnation it also felt very smooth and comfortable in that way nice steel bikes are “supposed” to feel:

This is true despite the short wheelbase, track bike geometry, and sizeable bar drop, all of which should conspire to make the bike uncomfortable, especially on rough pavement. Is it just the quill stem (maybe a little more flexy than threadless) and/or the fact that there’s a fair amount of seatpost showing? Maybe. But I had one of these years ago and even when I was young and stupid I found it very uncomfortable:

I don’t miss the way it rode in the least, but if I’d known they were going to become a cult item I would have waited to sell it. Indeed, I was barely even aware track bikes were becoming a thing when I listed it on Craigslist all those years ago, though when I got like a million emails almost immediately I began to get an idea. Also, the person who came and bought it had never ridden a fixed-gear before–or clipless pedals (it was sporting these at the time):

[Pic from here.]

I remember wondering if he would be able to make it home. Maybe he never did.

Anyway, all of this is to say I can’t help wondering if the bike feels nice because of the tubing. I’m totally willing to believe that’s not the reason, and in fact I’d rather believe it, since it makes more sense. That cheap-ass State I’ve had set up a million different ways and that my older son still rides to school also feels pretty nice, and that’s made from high tensile steel, upon which most bike dorks wouldn’t be caught dead:

[It does not look like this anymore, it’s completely beaten to hell. But it’s still going strong!]

The point is that I used to totally dismiss the importance of frame material, but after riding lots and lots of bikes now I’m not so sure. Then again, maybe riding lots and lots of bikes has just made me love bikes more, and if I were to ride that scranus-pummeling GTB today I’d get all nostalgic and rhapsodize about its fantastic ride quality.

Frame materials aside, I do use a brake when riding a track bike on the road, because I am and will always be a “woosie:”

You’ll note there’s a good amount of clearance for a track bike with short-reach brakes, and that the height of the fork crown puts the pads at the end of their adjustment range. The rear stays are also supposed to provide more clearance, probably to facilitate (God help us) tracklocross or whatever the hell fixie people are doing now:

To be honest though I think the S-bend chainstays are mostly for looks, because while the crimping does increase tire clearance, the bowed section at the rear mostly just gives your heels something to hit:

Not that it’s a problem–I’m a heels-in toes-out person so my heels graze the stays occasionally on pretty much any bike–but it seems to me like you’d be able to accomplish the same thing without them sticking out so much. Then again I don’t build frames to I may be completely wrong on that.

Oh, and those are the shoes Vittoria sent me way back in 2009 when they were trying to cash in on the fixie craze:

Back then they were just retro, but now they’re old enough to be vintage retro.

Before gravel took over people used to go on and on about how fixed-gear bicycles were a “zen” thing. I dunno about that, but they do have a way of making your usual ride feel different, and of making flat routes seem a little more interesting:

Must be a zen thing.

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