Bikes Behaving Badly

There’s a Sisyphean task to being a writer bent on trying to use words to articulate the ineffable experience of riding a bike. As a reviewer I’ve often talked in fairly objective terms about what a bike could or could not do, but I haven’t often talked about what a bike that doesn’t handle well feels like. And in this instance, I’m going to focus strictly on road bikes. 

Let me give an example: I’m a pretty quick descender on the road. Twenty-ish years ago I was sent a bike to review by one of the cooler small manufacturers in the bike biz. I like the boss man there and have long respected their bikes and I was excited about receiving this dream bike. I was actively asking myself if I might want to buy it after the review. 

Before the advent of carbon fiber road bikes, the steel frames coming out of Italy had slacker angles with less fork rake and lower bottom brackets; that made the steering calm, but the bikes cornered easily thanks to the low BB.

The bike arrived. I assembled it. Everything went together just fine. I took it out for a shake-down ride, and everything seemed fine. Then I did a ride with friends up a canyon road, and when we turned around to go back down, one by one, my friends rode away from me. I got dropped by the guy who was usually the first off the back. 

The bike in question didn’t want to turn. I’d try to lean, and the bike wanted to go straight. I found myself slowing down to the point that I had to steer through turns. It was insane. I looked at their geometry and on paper—I still remember this—the steering geo was fine: a 73-degree head tube angle and 40mm of fork rake. That’s a very calm bike, but it isn’t resistant to turning.

My body was telling me that this was not a 73-degree head tube with 40mm of fork rake. The fork was carbon fiber, so there was no way the rake was off by more than a millimeter. Because the frame was built in a jig, there was some opportunity, though low, that the head tube was unusually slack. I never did fully figure out the problem, and the bike went back to the manufacturer with less than 100 miles on it. 

The aftermarket fork is a thing of the past, thankfully. Fork are designed as an integrated part of a bicycle because engineers have to consider more than fork rake; they look at axle-to-crown height, steerer diameter and aero shaping (if any).

I have a bit of a corollary to this. A few years later, I was up in the Santa Monica Mountains on a group ride and a friend started out down the descent before I did, saying he wanted to get going because he was a slow descender. He had recently replaced his fork. The staff at his shop had convinced him his carbon fiber was old and would break soon, and that he would be safer and faster if he replaced it with a supposedly more aerodynamic fork. 

The thing is, his old fork had a rake of 45mm, and the new fork had a rake of 40mm, which slowed the handling on the bike rather dramatically. I also suspect that the axle-to-crown distance was greater on the aero fork. There’s a geometry rabbit hole here I’m trying very hard not to fall down. 

Anyway. 

There are two different ways down this particular descent and as luck would have it, he took one and I took the other. I was waiting for him at the bottom, and he couldn’t believe I was already there. 

I told him it wasn’t that I was fast but that he was slow because his bike wouldn’t corner. I worked on him for the better part of a year to test ride something else, and when he finally did, he came up to me and said he didn’t know a bike could handle so well or he’d have bought it sooner. 

One of the advantages to buying a custom frameset is the opportunity to work with a builder who can turn a rider’s preferences into their dream machine.

My point here is that when someone gets on the right bike, it disappears beneath them, and they can carve the lines they want. If the bike has a lousy design, people will often, incorrectly, come to the conclusion that they just don’t have the skill set to ride well, when, in fact, the bike is the problem.

This final statement is one that I wrap in caveat: I’ve no reason to suggest to someone to buy a new bike; doing so gains me nothing and risks making me look like a shill. So, with that said, anyone who has the feeling that they aren’t good at cornering, can’t descend or are constantly worried that the bike will head in some direction undesired, get thee to the bike shop, preferably several. Try some different bikes; they aren’t all the same and for every rider, there’s a bike out there that will feel like magic.

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  1. Hautacam says

    My old Bridgestone RB-1 is a lead sled and probably one size too big for me but my god it lets me rail descents and corners like a banshee. I have another bike that probably fits better and definitely rides more lively but it is so skittish on descents and it corners so sharply that I do not wield it with confidence except under ideal conditions.

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