If you have read more than a couple of bike reviews, you’ve probably read terms like “nimble,” “agile,” or “twitchy” for race bikes, or “confidence-inspiring.” What the heck do these terms mean? Generally, what the writers are trying to convey is how a bike handles direction changes. Here, we’ll look at the factors that go into handling so you can understand what these terms mean, and how to make sense of a bike’s geometry figures.
Front-End numbers: The stability factor
One of the critical elements of bike handling is the front-end geometry, which is determined by the interconnected numbers of head tube angle, fork rake, and trail. Quick-handling machines like road race bikes have steeper head tube angles and less trail, while slower-handling rigs like gravel bikes have slacker angles and more trail. (See the illustration below for a visual explanation of what each element is.)
“I call it the stability factor,” said Dean Bikes founder John Siegrist, who has been handbuilding bikes since 1989. “And you can isolate the variables of head tube, rake, and trail. As the head tube angle gets shallower, from 73 to 72 to 71, that increases the stability factor. As you reduce the fork offset, you increase the stability factor. A 40 mm offset is more stable than 45. And both of these variables determine the trail. More trail increases the stability factor.”
How much stability is good depends on what type of experience you are after. Steep bikes let you maneuver with a light touch — desirable in race bikes when riding on smooth roads in tight quarters. Slack bikes allow the machine to stay on course without bumps flicking the front wheel to and fro — desirable for applications like gravel.
At the most extreme ends of the spectrum, a “twitchy” track bike will often have a very steep head tube angle and a very small amount of trail, while a “stable” super-slack gravel bike like the new Evil Chamois Hagar has a very laid-back head tube angle and an enormous amount of trail.
Frame length and drop numbers
“Most all aspects of bike geometry affect the handling somehow,” says Specialized road product leader Stewart Thompson. “This includes head tube angle, fork offset, wheelbase, bottom bracket drop, and more. Stiffness, weight, and rider weight distribution affect how a bike responds to rider input as well.”
Generally, a longer wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear wheel hubs) means a more stable ride, or a higher stability factor in Siegrist’s terms. Again, look at the “twitchy” track bike that is 200 milimeters shorter than “stable” Chamois Hagar, with road bikes running from race bikes to endurance bikes to gravel bikes along that twitchy-to-stable spectrum.
“A bigger wheelbase means the bike tracks better, and is more stable on a longer straightaway, such as you’d want on a gravel bike,” Siegrist said. Bottom bracket drop (how far the center of the cranks sit below the wheels’ hubs) also contributes to how a bike feels. Generally, lower means more stable. Again, look at the spectrum ends of the track bike versus the Chamois Hagar.
The X factors — and the balancing act
Beyond a frame’s geometry numbers, the bike’s construction itself can play a role in handling.
“I was on a test a number of years ago, where we all rode Émondas that had identical lab stiffness values, but were achieved with material in different places,” said Trek road product marketing manager, Anders Ahlberg. “One bike hit that stiffness with more material in the chainstays, another in the down tube, et cetera, until the engineer running the test told us we were fighting about how a few of the bikes must have had different geometry.”
And there is certainly divergence in philosophy on what “good” is for any given type of bike geometry. For instance, at Specialized, the geometry on the endurance Roubaix bike was recently changed to align with the quick-handling Tarmac race bike.
“We had used slacker geometry and longer wheelbase as a way to provide a smoother ride on the Roubaix,” Thompson said. “Now, with the FutureShock and balanced rear compliance, we no longer have to compromise on handling geometry to provide control and compliance to the Roubaix rider.”
As with so many things on a bike, handling is all about balance — both of the various angles and elements of the frame as of the type of riding you like to do. But if you are looking for a single number to determine “twitchy” or “stable,” look to a bike’s trail number.
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