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Road Kings: Racing Bicycles

A select few bicycle builders across the united states are hand-crafting the ultimate human-powered vehicles
Marc Wortman
From the Print Edition:
Vince McMahon, Nov/Dec 99

(continued from page 2)

Bicycling and the aerospace industry have long been linked--the Wright brothers built their plane, the Kitty Hawk, in their Dayton, Ohio, bicycle shop. More recently, the mountain bike industry has been influenced by aerospace technology. The consumer demand for innovation drives mountain bike manufacturers to push the envelope in materials and construction.

Road bikes have followed, sometimes reluctantly, in their wake. Racers are often like wrestlers preparing for a meet in their obsession for losing bicycle weight. Even though a lightweight steel frame weighs less than four pounds--astonishingly light considering the forces it undergoes--and can be lifted easily with one finger, the urge to trim away ounces drives some cyclists into a frenzied search for still lighter frames.  

Aluminum was the material of the late 1980s. Although very lightweight, it tended to flex too much for hard riders, especially bigger men. In the mid-'90s came titanium, a superlight material--weighing from half a pound to one and a half pounds less than steel per frame--that makes a durable and strong frame that hard-core racers appreciate. Next came carbon fiber variants. Recently beryllium, a metallic element used as a hardening agent in alloys, has found its way into bicycles. Some framemakers combine materials into special matrices. Others favor aluminum or carbon fiber for the front fork and different materials for the rest of the frame.  

Traditionalist riders don't subscribe to the trendiness of new materials. "Titanium is hot stuff," says Dave Genest, "but do you want to buy the latest fad? Compared to body-weight differences, the differences in bicycle weight are nothing. It's the person, in the end, who makes it happen."  

Sachs believes that the traditional chrome-and-molybdenum steel alloy tubes--upgraded and made lighter in recent years--are still the best, precisely because steel invites human enhancement of the finished product. "In my opinion, the reason bikes are not made of steel anymore is because nobody knows how to anymore. You wouldn't want Stradivarius to make violins out of plastic if he were working today, would you?"  

Tom Kellogg of Spectrum Cycles disagrees. Although he makes both steel and titanium frames, he rides a titanium, which was first cast for him by Merlin Metalworks of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to his design specifications, and then finished by him in his Pennsylvania shop. (Merlin also produces its own line of titanium frame bicycles designed by Kellogg but finished in its own factory.)  

"I've never ridden a steel frame that rides as comfortably or in as lively a manner as titanium," says Kellogg. "I'm a weight weenie. No other bike will give the weight savings. Nothing works with you like a good titanium frame." He puts strong emphasis on "good." A quality titanium frame is by definition expensive, at least $2,000 or more. A low-cost titanium bike, says Kellogg, "is not worth buying. Much of the titanium stuff out there really doesn't work well."  

Some riders learned the hard way. Until a couple years ago, J. Peter Weigle, a renowned frame builder whose shop and home are across the river from Sachs in East Haddam, Connecticut, feared that the widespread use of titanium would dry up his frame-making business, leaving only repairs and restorations. Instead, his backlog of orders for new frames runs close to a year. "I've had a steady stream of customers who've had titanium bikes and now want steel again," Weigle says. "It's the tradition, the beauty and the feel."  

The most obvious difference between steel and other materials is appearance. Kellogg admits, "Steel bikes look nicer, but that's a personal thing." Although titanium never rusts and resists dings and scratches, such bicycles are largely characterless. Unless painted or polished, which defeats the point of using it, titanium frames have a sort of lead color and dull finish.  

Steel is all about character. The construction process and finish on a handmade steel frame are important parts of the art, with the details separating the merely good from the great. The points to notice are where the various tubes and fittings join together. Most production frames are welded and sloppy jobs are more common than not. (Titanium requires a special electric welding process called TIG welding.)


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