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Tech Report with Lennard Zinn – What’s the next big thing?

People constantly ask me, “What do you see as the next big innovation coming with road bikes?” Their eyes tend to glaze over if I reply with any of the incremental improvements that every bike show or exhibition, like last week’s Sea Otter, is rife with. A new oversized bottom bracket standard will only briefly hold their interest. No, they want the goods, the “Next Big Thing.” It looks like the third coming of electronic shifting may be here soon, so mentioning that will no longer placate them. But what else is coming around the bend?

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By Lennard Zinn

Craig Calfee

Craig Calfee

Photo: Lennard Zinn

People constantly ask me, “What do you see as the next big innovation coming with road bikes?”

Their eyes tend to glaze over if I reply with any of the incremental improvements that every bike show or exhibition, like last week’s Sea Otter, is rife with. A new oversized bottom bracket standard will only briefly hold their interest. No, they want the goods, the “Next Big Thing.”

It looks like the third coming of electronic shifting may be here soon, so mentioning that will no longer placate them. But what else is coming around the bend?

The problem is, things are rarely ever actually really new in the bike industry. Almost everything has been around a few times before it sticks. Take dual-control levers; there were a number of inventive guys riding around with brake/shift levers long before Shimano introduced STI.

I have come to believe that one of the best ways to spot an actual new idea is to look for the naysayers lining up against it. Good examples are the Camelbak (boy, was I ever wrong about that when I first encountered it at the Texas A&M wind tunnel in 1989!), the aero handlebar (only triathletes would come within a mile of the original Scott one-piece aero bar) and the carbon-fiber frame (Craig Calfee was the object of much ridicule for that one). Fortunately, nobody listened to me about Camelbak, and Greg LeMond had the sense to adopt the latter two and make everyone see how good they were.

So, here it is, I’m going to lay on you what I predict to become the Next Big Things in road bikes. And in both cases, the UCI weight limit will help them to succeed. I am prepared to be as wrong as I was about Camelbak, and I think that if either or both does become a Next Big Thing that it won’t be anytime soon and may get swatted away by the market a few more times before they stick for good, but here they are anyway.

Next big idea No. 1: Road Suspension
It is worth asking somebody who actually had a good idea that did become the Next Big Thing what he thinks will be another one, and given that he is actually here at Sea Otter, why not ask Craig Calfee?

Jim Felt

Jim Felt

Photo: Lennard Zinn

Calfee’s answer: suspension for road bikes. I would tend to agree with him, especially after also speaking with Jim Felt about the experience of the Slipstream guys at Paris-Roubaix and since with a new special cushy bike he made for the team to ride in the Hell of the North. And we’ll see if Tom Boonen rides his winning prototype Specialized Roubaix SL2 in any other races; while not actually having any suspension travel, it is designed to reduce high-frequency vibration through the frame with elastomer damping inserts in the fork and seatstays without sacrificing the extra torsional stiffness demanded by Boonen (achieved with a special carbon layup and a tapered steering tube).

Calfee’s contention is that the same reduction in fatigue after a long, hard ride that had people switch from oversized aluminum bikes to carbon bikes, thanks to the better vibration damping, will bring people to road full suspension.

“I’m sure that vibration fatigues your muscles and makes them work less efficiently,” he says, “and I think you’ll be able to measure it with a power meter. I’m not talking about much – just a centimeter of travel, but guys will be faster.”

Calfee goes on to relate a story of one of his triathlete customers who races on a carbon Calfee and bought a bamboo Calfee for training, rigging both bikes up with power meters. Even though the bamboo bike was a pound heavier and less aerodynamic, he found that he was consistently faster on the bamboo bike over the 40K training course on which he has years of data from hundreds of repetitions. So, he chose the bamboo bike for the Ironman in Kona. Calfee attributes the difference to the greater vibration damping of the bamboo bike saving the rider’s energy. My own experience with lower fatigue at the end of a really long ride on a magnesium frame (high vibration damping) vs. on a steel frame (lower vibration damping) bears this out as well.

Studies have demonstrated the connection between vibration and fatigue in truck drivers, and Calfee hopes to see laboratory studies published bearing this out among cyclists.

“We had a Ph.D. student working on this who did not follow through. I really want to get another person working on it. I understand that the nerve synapse is like a target, and if the muscle is vibrating so much that the nerve impulse does not hit the center of the target, then the firing impulse to the muscle is not as strong.”

And if the very large performance benefit claims that companies making special stretch tights and tops designed to minimize muscle vibration (again adopted by triathletes) are even partially right, Calfee may be on to something.

Obviously, road suspension is not a new idea. It has been only embraced by an eclectic few and generally rejected a number of times by the market. Case in point of the former is the Moulton bike; try to get a dyed-in-the-wool Moulton rider to give his up, along with its little elastomer springs, and you will meet with a world of resistance. As for the latter, Klein and RockShox, brands already once largely responsible for Next Big Things in the past (namely frames welded out of oversized aluminum tubing and bicycle suspension forks), have tried road suspension and not seen it take off like gangbusters. When was the last time that somebody rode past you on a Klein Réve or with a RockShox Ruby Road or Paris-Roubaix SL?

It's been done before

It’s been done before

Photo: AFP (file photo)

Even Greg LeMond racing the Hell of the North on it could not give the latter idea legs in this country, nor could George Hincapie keep the former alive (he used the Klein system in his Trek a couple of times with distinction at Roubaix). And Paris-Roubaix victories by Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle in 1992 and ’93 and Andre Tchmil in 1994 on RockShox Paris-Roubaix SLs did not translate into sales in Europe. In 1994, Bianchi, who was responsible for the next big paint color early in the last century, staked its reputation on suspension (even coupled with the legendary Bianchi Celeste color) and missed at Paris-Roubaix under Johan Museeuw.

However, I think there is a fine line between a heating-a-baby-bottle-with-a-blowtorch overuse of technology as those Bianchi and RockShox projects represent and a refined approach offering a little suspension and vibration damping that Felt delivered at Compiégne.

“We completely re-did that bike three times in a month,” says Felt, “ and those were not just little tweaks; they were complete geometry and layup redesigns. Maggy (Magnus Bäckstedt) told us what he wanted, and we worked at it until he said it was perfect. It’s such a shame after all he’s been through this year that his race was ruined by broken wheels. He was so psyched and was feeling great.”

The bike has a long fork rake and such a shallow head angle that it still has “a ridiculous amount of fork trail,” says Felt, without pinning himself down to the actual numbers. It has clearance for 27mm tires caked with mud and a carbon layup designed to soften it even more.

It’s not so much comfort that Bäckstedt and other top Paris-Roubaix riders are seeking. “These guys are willing to take a beating,” says Felt, “but it’s a control at speed issue; they want it to hold the (cobblestone) road. And it can’t be quick handling, since one swerve on wet cobbles and they’re down.” It’s no wonder that the most highly prized members of motorcycle racing teams are their suspension technicians – not to make the riders more comfortable, but to make them faster thanks to better handling.

It may be more than just control for pro cyclists, though; it may be the fatigue issues Calfee points to that have Slipstream’s toughest guys liking them beyond the cobbled classic. “We made 12 of these bikes, and every rider pre-selected for Paris-Roubaix had one,” continues Felt. “I got to ride one just before we shipped them, and I loved it. I think we should build them!” Felt also figured these would be one-race bikes for the unique demands of racing on cobbles, but Tyler Farrar, among other team members, loves his and now wants to use it in other races.

A critical criteria for commercial success of any high-end road product is top riders racing on it. And any suspension system will add weight to the bike. Which is where the UCI’s 6.8-kilo weight limit will help, since it will still be possible to build suspension into a road bike and still meet that limit. Everything is lined up for it to happen; time will tell if road suspension indeed becomes the next big idea.

For the Next Big Idea No. 2, check back next week.

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