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A few more bike thoughts

I know that they once made road bike frames that were reasonable. I've seen some fairly antique road frames on the bike racks. They had canti-brakes and rack bosses and enough clearance so that you could run mildly wide tires with a fender, but they were road bikes, not cyclocross bikes. That people took their old road frame and stripped it down and raced cyclocross with it was evidence of their versatility.

See, if you are a regular cyclist and try to climb a hill on a bike that's twenty pounds lighter than your present bike, you will probably notice a difference. If you are an elite cyclist and are racing, you might notice a half-pound to a pound of weight. But, for most folks, a pound or two of weight difference on the bike isn't much of anything. However, this means that, as manufacturers try to offer the cheapest and lightest bike possible, bikes that are a smidge heavier but sturdier and more adaptable are left by the wayside.

At the same time, there are a lot of folks out there who take the urge to simplify altogether too far. Somehow, people have decided that a few grams of weight taken up by an otherwise unused eyelet for a rack or a water bottle screw is a big deal. Thus, bike makers make frames that are actually less useful and advertise it as a huge fancy feature.

And, finally, there are plenty of features that do not serve to make the bike lighter but make it look faster. These will also make the frame less useful yet are advertised as positive features.

At some point, I figured out that the only way to get a frame that was built more like a classic road frame, able to be used for sport-touring, randonneuring, cyclocross, or road riding was to buy a bare frame that was intended to be fitted out with a custom parts selection. There's actually a decent variety of road frames out there. The problem is that if you go to a shop and order up a bike like that, even if you assemble it yourself, it adds up quite fast.

Now, the thing to understand about the bike business is that it's been a long time since somebody actually built things down to the level of bearings or gears or whatnot. Most of the parts that are fiddly about bikes like the shifters and gears and derailleurs and brakes are all products that you can purchase. The big thing that the bike maker did was select the parts and build a frame. Eventually, instead of a few people building frames in a shop, we've got giant factories. And even big bike makers don't necessarily own their own factories. There might be a split, such that the higher-end bikes get made in America, the mid-end bikes get made in Taiwan, and the low-end bikes get made in China. The overall overreaching company specifies the designs and provides a support and marketing organization. And there's actually astonishingly few large-scale bike factories.

Naturally, if you dispense with the support and marketing parts of the company, you can cut the price. If you don't have dealers to piss off you can sell them via mail order. It just takes a willingness to buy shipping-container quantities of a production run. Enter BikesDirect. It turns out that it's actually cheaper to buy a bike with the parts you want from BikesDirect than it is to buy the parts individually. So eventually, I realized that if I got a BikesDirect bike with the componentry I wanted and then purchased a frame, even after paying somebody to do the work, it's still not an unreasonable amount of money to spend on a frame.

Of course, there's still a wide range of prices. My urge for fastidiousness is up against my stingyness. My mental ideal is a bike with the exact geometry that fits my bill, one that has eyelets in the right spots, takes the component load I want, etc. As I'm not trained as a bike builder nor have I ridden a truly wide variety of frames... most especially frames with flawed geometry, I end up having to vaguely trust somebody else's experience on many points.

There are custom builders out there who will sell me bike frames at all sorts of prices made exactly right. Most of them work in either Steel, Titanium, or Carbon Fiber. On the other hand, there are some lower-end framebuilders out there, which won't be exactly how I envision things. And I recognize that I can be incredibly anal about little details and have to step back and say that, rationally, they don't actually matter. Most of them work in steel.

I'm a child of the space age and with a vague understanding of materials engineering that's enough to grasp vague concepts but not enough to debate it with any one of several friends I've got with degrees in materials science and engineering. I'm a non-ferrous metal fetishist. I don't like steel because I feel there's higher tech elements out there. I don't like carbon fiber because of the failure properties and because I understand the higher degree of engineering required. I do like Titanium which ends up being very hard to fabricate but with excellent working properties. And I can usually deal with Aluminum because it's less expensive.... except that custom bike buyers tend to dislike Aluminum.

Thus, I'm fairly close to buying a bike from BikesDirect with Ultegra 6700 parts, riding it for a bit until I decide exactly what the new frame is to be, and then moving the parts over. The way I look at it, the parts that are no-name is largely the frame, saddle, and wheels. Very few of the bikes I've looked at had what I'd consider totally suitable wheels because I think of a 36 spoke wheel as suitable. Saddles are awfully personal. And the frame and fork is already slated for replacement, once I figure that out. Otherwise, it's all name brand kit from brands that have generally worked out well for me.

First, I was waiting till the Ultegra 6700 version came out. Then I was putting it off until my knee healed up well enough to go on long bike rides. Right now, I've just got to get the nerve up to actually buy it...

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