Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Equipment - Dream World (Custom Frames)

For the longest time I've wanted a custom frame. At first it was because I wanted to get a frame that was especially designed for me, for my needs. I had no idea what that meant, but I wanted a frame that was, well, unique.

As I learned more and more about bikes, I started dreaming of some of the extreme bikes I saw in bike magazines. The one that really caught my eye was a specialty crit bike. This thing was insane, with super steep angles, high bottom bracket, and, get this, such a short chainstay that the tire wouldn't clear a normal seat tube.

In fact, it wouldn't even clear a grooved or indented seat tube.

Therefore, in order to make the thing work, the builder put two chainstays in place of the seat tube and stuck the rear wheel through the opening between them.

(To my ultimate badness, I cannot remember the name of the framebuilder of this dream bike. He was featured in Bicycling and one or two other magazines in the early 80s... Anyone?)

Back then that was the absolute schnizzle, the top of the heap when it came to US style bikes. No laid back positions here, no mid-foot cleats (or so they appeared), no traditional lower saddle heights. This was an era of change, inspired by wind tunnels and such.

At that time Lemond rode on his tippy-toes on his bike (and won the '83 Worlds like that), his teammate Marc Madiot rode 180s to a stage win (and he rode a 55 cm frame), and "aero" became the new catch-phrase.

So in this age of change, of innovation, and in my time of "exploration", I dreamed about land speed records and crit bikes in alternate fashion.

Of course, like slot cars and Lamborghini Countachs, things which I dreamed about literally for decades, the dreams remained dreams.

Then some surprising things happened. Over the course of 15 years, two friends invited me to sit in Countachs in their possession. I even got a ride in one. I have to tell you that no one could wipe the grin off my face after those magical moments. The drive, holy smokes, that was crazy insane.

Then reality sunk in.

Although it's all exotic and all that, I've realized that the Countach has the aerodynamics of a brick and a cobbled together engine. Seriously. They used layered cylinder head gaskets to increase displacement, and they regularly provided significantly up-powered cars to journalists so the cars would be fast "in print".

As it is, my blue car is faster than a Countach. Less powerful, yes, but faster. And it has almost-as-wide tires (the Countach had the widest production tires for a long time). But, still, as dreams go, if you offered me a chance to drive a Countach... Look, just count me in, okay? I'll work out my schedule and fit in a Countach drive.

Then, a couple years ago, the missus (and her mom) got me a beautiful slot car set, with F1 cars even.

And now I'm starting to think about the possibility of seeing through that custom frame dream.

To be frank, my frame dreams have evolved over the years. At first it had to do with short wheelbases and insanely short chainstays. Later, as I realized what I'd been missing on my smaller-sized frames, I started dreaming about more normal things, like a 73 degree head tube angle.

On a short frame like mine, my shoes (and toe clips) would hit the front tire when I turned the bars. In order to avoid such contact, manufacturers would use slack angles and lots of rake. This reduced foot overlap but resulted in lazy, pain-killer haze handling. Once I realized this I wanted to experience a more responsive front end. Steeper angles and a normal rake, in other words.

Those head tube angle dreams then morphed into top tube dreams. My ape-like stance, with short legs and long torso, made it necessary to use a short seat tube, but my torso forced me to go with long stems. On the 50 cm frames I rode forever, I typically used a 14 cm stem, then a 14.5, and just before quill stems withdrew from the spotlight, I briefly contemplated using a 15 cm stem.

For me, a 51 or 52 centimeter top tube seemed short. I could sit comfortably on friends' 54-56 cm bikes, with long stems and everything, and the reach felt reasonable, even comfortable. But my feet dangling a couple inches above the pedals, I couldn't fix that part of fitting myself to their bikes.

I thought maybe a 55.5 cm top tube would be the best I could do. I bought a size M Giant TCR, with its 55.5 cm top tube. As a bonus it had a 73 degree head tube angle, or something close to it.

The bike felt great, my arms finally doing something other than dangling downwards, with a reach about 3 or 4 cm longer than before. I could steer while hammering out of the saddle, thanks to the steeper head tube angle.

But the dream rapidly crumbed. The head tube was too long, the bars too high.

I experimented with bar positioning, now emphasizing height as well as length. After some convoluted calculations, along with a bunch of Sharpie marks on my bright yellow frame, I decided I could ride a size S Giant just as well.

I moved to the size S, happy with the lower bars. They made a huge difference in my sprint, but they felt too close.

In a fit of "fulfilling a bunch of other stuff", I bought my current steed, a Cannondale SystemSix. Now, if I was someone like a Bennati, I could just get a custom version of my frame. Talk about a dream bike for me - a 52 seat tube with a 58 (!!) top tube!

But I'm a lowly Cat 3, and even with some begging and pleading, I couldn't score the most blemished, unrideable Bennati frame.

I priced out and contemplated a lugged carbon tube kit, a Dedaccai-made "kit", but the bottom bracket-seat tube angle on my long, low frame wouldn't work with their stock sizes. Fortunately, as it turned out, because the lugs in these kits failed regularly. When I heard this I went to my now-unused "carbon frames" bookmark list and found that virtually all the bikes I'd bookmarked had disappeared.

No one wanted to admit to making such a frame.

Dedaccai ended their kit production, now making only full frames, or at least front triangles.

So, for the last year or so, I meandered aimlessly in the frame geometry jungle, looking for that perfect situation, that perfect scenario.

Let's see, exactly what would it be like?

First, the frame would be made by someone I could communicate with, a racer maybe, one that does crits, track, and doesn't climb that much. But he'd climb more than I did so he could tell me, "Oh, you really don't want to do that, it would climb horribly".

Second, the frame would be unlimited as far as geometry goes. 44 cm seat tube? Fine. 58 cm top tube? Fine. I'd forgive the lack of availability of weird things, like a split seat tube that allows a 35 cm chainstay, but for all round tube design possibilities, they ought to be available.

My fantasy numbers include the following (assuming a reasonable 73 degree head tube angle):

1. 44-46 cm seat tube, as short as possible and still fit in a tall bottle on the seat tube, with room for a pump or a Down Low Glow just above it. This would let me clamp my seat post in a workstand (a normal one). It also feels better in general, the shorter seat tube.

2. A seat tube angle that allows me to move the seat-tube-slash-top-tube junction point forward by 2 cm on my 52 cm frame. This would let me center the saddle on the post, not slam it all the way into the stops.

3. A 58 cm top tube, maybe a 56 based on the fact that the top tube will be 2 cm forward based on #2 above.

4. At most a 12 cm head tube, maybe an 11 cm one.

5. BB30, so I can keep my mega-expensive SRM cranks, and so I'd have a lighter, stiffer bike.

6. 1.5" lower headset race, so I can use a Cannondale fork (I think they rock the house).

7. A non-noodle frameset.

8. Shorty chainstays so my rear tire stays planted with the long front end.

Finally, price. I can't afford a $4000 frameset, and I seriously doubt I'd ever buy one anyway. It's my "low buck, high performance" mindset, the functional way of approaching things. I appreciate handmade things, like a 1955 Aston Martin. Things of beauty, incidentally, with gorgeous aluminum bodywork.

But compared to a modern sports car? Or even a modern "sporty" car?


Give me parallel A-arm front suspensions, a sophisticated multi-link rear, independent on all corners, big honkin' brakes, and a smooth, efficient engine mated with a smooth shifting transmission. My car illustrates that point, at least the blue one does. It's a low-buck way of having fun driving a car. And it doesn't have very much of that "old fashioned craftsmanship" in it, just good design and proper procedures. The body may look sleek, but it was pounded out by robots, not artisans.

Heck, my car doesn't even have a throttle cable! It's got an electronic wire attached to a computer.

Anyway, my point is that I don't need the exquisite workmanship of the frame building "masters". Give me a frame with the right geometry and durable construction and I'll be happy.

And of course all that could never, ever happen. I felt safe in my little dreamworld.

Then, to my utter dismay, RTC let it slip that there's a framebuilder that offered something like that stuff above - Tsunami Bikes, out in the west somewhere. They make aluminum frames, from $600 to $1500+.

And they do custom geometry.

Okay, I can handle $600 framesets to start. I can handle the $50 upcharge for BB30. I'm good with aluminum tubing, because as I've written before, fit > material. Look, if it was good enough for Tom Boonen, it should certainly be good enough for me.

So I'm good with the basics. What's the custom geometry upcharge? I was figuring at least $300 or so, based on conversations with frame importers and such.

So I emailed the folks, half seriously. I don't want to waste their time, and if the frame ended up at even a paltry $1000, it'd be hard to justify in a cash-strapped environment.

I got a response. Things looked good, too good even. I called the guy up. We talked on the phone.

$600 is the frameset price, built to whatever geometry agreed upon by the builder and buyer, painted some normal range of colors.

NO upcharge for custom geometry.

Since I want to keep my BB30 SRM, and I like BB30 anyway, I'd want BB30. $50 upcharge.

Now we're looking at $650.

For a full custom, BB30, custom painted frame.

Well now.

Not only that, I could take delivery just before my California training camp. Now wouldn't that be the end all? 30 or 40 hours on a brand new frame, just enough time to really get used to it.

I spoke with the missus. She gave approval.

So next I'll be visiting the local shop, one that has a fit bike thing on the floor. I'll experiment with sizing and report back to the builder.

And we'll see what happens from there.


Bobke Strut said...

The brand of bike with the split seat tube was Rigi. Here's a gallery of a few Rigi frames:

Aki said...

Aha, that's the one. Very nice. And the webmaster has a 51 cm!

Crazy. 77 deg head tubes. 79 seat. 6 cm shorter wheelbase.