In a world full of absurdist concepts, I’ve got one that won’t make you blink: Your bicycle is on your shoulder and you don’t live on a second story walk-up. You are running through a farm pasture, have not committed a crime and your bicycle works perfectly well.
Sounds like a great time, huh? Such is our love of cyclocross. There’s something in this equation that doesn’t quite add up, and it’s not that we carry our bicycles. It comes when we put that bike back down and willingly lob our asses skyward. Whether we have dreams of procreation or not, the delicate business means landing sidesaddle in proximity to a collection of biology known to us primarily for its ability to remind us of what NOT to do, the event is meant only to speed our return to the pedals. Click, click—and we’re off again.
Years ago the process was a little more involved. You had to hit each pedal with your foot, flip it over and jam your foot back in. Because races took place on grass, the bicycle’s bottom bracket had to be much higher than that of a traditional road bike so the toe clips wouldn’t drag in the grass—this is a detail the Frogs figured out in the 1950s.
Fast forward to, oh say, now. Swing the right knee skyward and once safely aboard, the feet go straight into the pedal stroke, no flipping over of the pedals.
So why are bottom bracket heights on cyclocross bikes still on average 2cm higher than those on road bikes?
It wouldn’t be a cause for concern were it not for this little detail. Name another cycling event where the rider makes tighter turns? Add to that the fact that these oh-so-tight turns are conducted aboard bikes with 700C wheels and it’s fair to ask the question: What can we do to make this bike easier to turn?
The answer is simple: Make it easier to lean the bike over to carve a tight turn. Okay, so how do you do that? Simple. Lower the bottom bracket. Drop the center of gravity of the bicycle and leaning the bicycle into a turn becomes a good bit easier.
How much could it be dropped? It’s hard to say; there hasn’t been much experimentation with this. Pedaling through corners doesn’t happen to the same degree it does in crits, so dragging a pedal through the dirt isn’t a big concern.
To illustrate the point, let’s consider an example in extreme. Say you’re driving down a twisty road. Would you rather take the twists and turns in a Ford Expedition or a Mini Cooper? My preference would be for the Mini Cooper, with a center of gravity lower than most Congressional standards, it can turn circles around the SUV. Put another way, I’d rather run a steeplechase barefoot than on stilts.
I went to the trouble to build, with the help of Toby Stanton of Hot Tubes, a ‘cross bike with a low bottom bracket. In Part II I’ll describe the process of building the bike and racing it at ‘Cross Nat’s and since.
Photos courtesy Chris Milliman
Bill McGann riding with Mauro Mondonico in Tuscany.
On a late spring morning more that 10 years ago, I visited a nondescript commercial space in Ventura County, California. Home to Torelli Imports, it was my introduction to “Chairman” Bill McGann and his wife Carol. We changed into cycling clothing and he took me for a pleasant tour of the hills surrounding his home. By “pleasant tour” I mean that Bill took me out and schooled me. I’ve felt fresher after some races. Then we went out for burritos larger than some crainia.
For those who only know Bill from his ads, it might be helpful to mention that he was a Category 1 racer for many years and once knocked out a 100-mile training ride with one other guy in four hours. Ever modest, he claims to have been the eternal 3rd, but leaves out that his era overlapped that of Greg LeMond. He grudgingly admits an exception to his eternal bronzing, the time he turned a 56 minute 40k TT on a bike with 36-spoke wheels, drop bar and brake cables flapping in the wind. He was the fastest 28-year-old going in California.
If asked how far to the top of a 10k climb, Bill will tell you, “Just a little further.” It would seem he thinks anything less than two hours isn’t a proper ride. His idea of a good time: pulling off the front of a paceline at 26 mph and checking your calves for signs of weakness. I know this because I’ve seen him do it repeatedly. I always fear he will shout out as Gino Bartali’s domestique did the day he saw a vein in Fausto Coppi’s leg become swollen during a race—a sign Bartali took to signal fatigue in Coppi—“The vein, the vein!” he cried.
Bill has a fundamental belief that bicycling should be an extraordinary experience, that pedaling should, in itself, be a rewarding recreation. While fitness gained through brutal training is a wonderful thing, riding is enough. Those who ride with him know that this man who has been pedaling through the citrus perfume of lemon groves for more than 30 years proclaims his rides to be “paradise itself.”
Bill is the classic Renaissance man. He can quote historian Will Durant. He knows the top 10 on GC from every Tour de France in history. He understands Gothic architecture. He wrote (with the assistance of his wife Carol) a very fine book on the history of the Tour. He is a fiend for great comics and was hip to Frazz and Jef Mallett from virtually its beginning. He makes his own bread and composts in his back yard.
His bikes have never been the lightest on the planet, nor the very stiffest. What they do offer can be called all-day comfort, sufficient stiffness and handling so finely balanced you’d think the bike was designed with the aid of the Golden Mean. He describes it as stage-race geometry: bicycles meant to be ridden well by even the most fatigued legs. To ride a Torelli, fairly put, is to know what Bill believes to be a good time.
A few years ago Bill told me of a conversation he had with Richard Sachs in which they all but swore a blood oath to start a club: Guys Who Race the S@#$ They Sell. They figured there would be little need to charge dues as there wouldn’t be many people eligible for membership.
Mr. Atmo himself, drilling it in ‘cross.
For the purpose of the adaptation we’ll expand this to anyone who rides a product he sells. It’s still a relatively select club, but one that will creates a large enough population to be worth pursuing.
I hope they’ll forgive this appropriation. There’s no truer route to the soul of a bike company proprietor than by riding with him. No one starts a bike company without a passion for cycling and there’s nothing like going for a ride with someone to learn about their passion for the sport. It usually leads to a conversation about a product they love to ride, one they have brought to market. The revelations are always interesting.
Stay tuned for future installments from rides with Guys Who Ride the Stuff They Sell (GWRTSTS).
Road bikes have never been more highly differentiated than they are right now.
Carbon fiber has given bicycle designers the ability to treat a frame a lot like a quadratic equation—they can solve for more than one variable now. Even if you want a bike that is stiff, light and fits, you can find that without spending a princely sum. Well, compared to what a good bike ran 10 years ago, maybe we are paying princely sums. Regardless, the range of expression in the market is much broader than it was in 1986.
In the day when nearly all good frames were made using lugs and steel, there wasn’t much variety out there. Many will argue the point, but the fact is, beyond fit and handling geometry, the only other major variable was wall thickness and for the most part, builders didn’t request Columbus SP unless they were building a 58cm frame—or larger. The fact is, no matter what anyone has told you, all 1-inch steel top tubes with a .5mm wall feel the same, no matter what alloy is used. That’s just how it was.
Worse yet, if you were to scan a bicycle magazine from the mid-1990s or before, it was possible, likely even, that multiple bikes reviewed in the magazine were built from the same steel tubing. In that scenario, (and provided you had the proper fit) there were only three ways to distinguish between the various builders: lug or fillet brazing work, silver vs. brass and geometry.
Of those differences, only one is qualitative: brazing material. History has shown that a properly executed silver brazed joint will last longer. Geometry is a stylistic issue, but the difference between how a Sachs and a Tesch handle is significant and ultimately a necessary consideration. The final consideration—lug work or fillet brazing style—is the classic question of artistry and points to a customer’s emotional connection with the individual who built the frame.
Times have changed.
The differences between the manufacturers are almost too numerous to mention. Trek, Specialized, Giant, Cannondale, Felt, Scott, Look, etc. each source materials from a variety of manufacturers. Each bike uses a proprietary blend of materials; even if they all worked with carbon fiber from the same manufacturer, there’s no assurance they’d be working with the same blend. How much material goes where in order to dictate the frame’s stiffness also varies significantly. Some manufacturers believe in more stiffness at the saddle while others believe in delivering as much vertical compliance as possible without sacrificing torsional stiffness. Joining methods are an entirely different, but important, issue. Lugs are becoming obsolete and terms such as co-molding and net molding are the signal that the bike industry’s use of carbon fiber is maturing.
We should marvel at the incredible diversity of road bikes on the market today. Whether you like each manufacturer’s line or not, road bikes have never been more highly differentiated than they are right now. And the manufacturers now recognize that not all riding experiences call for the same bike. We could castigate them for only recently learning something the ski industry has known for decades (can you say slalom, giant slalom, GS and downhill?), but we’re better off cheering the lightbulb now shining.
Specialized led the way with the Roubaix. In its wake Felt (Z-series), Cannondale (Synapse) and Trek (Pilot) have all entered the market with bikes that draw design cues from what we now call the vintage lightweights. These bikes have in common some slacker angles intended to offer improved vibration damping and calmer handling.
It may be that these bikes are, in part, a cyclic response to swings in bike geometry that have occurred every decade or so. They may be, however, a prelude to a new development in road bikes. This could simply be an early chapter in the gradually unfolding saga of suspension in road bikes. Ten years from now we might look back and realized that these bikes designed to offer improved comfort for their riders were a brave new step toward achieving heretofore unknown levels of comfort and handling in a road bike. While incremental improvements can be made in vibration damping and geometry, the industry will reach a point of diminishing return. There is, we know, a quantum leap forward, that proverbial “next level,” which will only be achieved by allowing the wheels to track the road more precisely and isolating the rider from each tiny bump. Don’t be surprised if that spring is made from carbon fiber.
In November 2005, I filled out an employee purchase form for my first Cannondale. Sure, I had sold thousands of these oversized, U.S.-made gems to countless cyclists on both coasts and points in-between. However, even with all of my theoretical understanding of Cannondales, I had very little first-hand experience.
I had just sold my Look 585 and I was hoping to downsize the cost of the frame in an effort to purchase an SRM. Employee purchase price – $800: frame, fork, and FSA headset. I ordered the SRM at the same time. It cost 3X the price of the frame. This was to be an experiment, an attempt to learn first-hand what the SRM was all about. Two seasons later, the SRM is gone and CAAD8 remains my go-to bike.
The CAAD8 arrived four weeks later and it was a vision of practicality and functionality. The frame was brushed al-u-min-e-um with a clear coat. The tubes were classic Cannondale/Fosters: (largely oversized) with welds that were ground smooth. The decals were PRO-style (read: big and everywhere) and, aside from the legal disclaimer on the down tube, the bike looked the same as Cunego’s: PRO. The fork had a classic curve to it: sexy, like the forks of yesterday and a trait that appears to be less common as the years go on. The fork was Cannondale’s Premium and had alloy drop outs.
I promptly built the CAAD8 with a Record group, Classic wheels, and an SRM. It was fully equipped to handle the rough winter that lay ahead. I immediately packed the bike into a box and shipped it off to Massachusetts for my annual winter training camp. I spent hours and hours on it, alone, hammering the back roads and quaint villages of the New England seacoast. I spent most of my time pushing buttons on the SRM and watching the numbers. The bike was almost invisible, a trait I often equate with excellence. The ride was stiff; stiffer than the 585 vertically but laterally, the bikes stiffness reminded me of stepping off a loading dock. The BB was rigid and uncompromisingly stiff.
Following the winter camp, I arrived back home and eagerly joined my local group ride. I wanted to talk numbers with other power users and to see how the Cannondale rode in a group environment.
My experiences at this point were limited to solo rides on smooth country roads. The Cannondale had performed no better or worse than any other bike I had ridden. But when paired with 30 other eager roadies and let loose in a group setting, the CAAD8 unleashes a side of its personality that can only be defined as brutal and 100% business. To quote my pal BI, the bike becomes a weapon.
Cannondale has managed to capture the heart of a killer in a sweet and innocent package. Of course, the CAAD8 was the choice of Cunego (despite his access to the CAAD8′s big brother, the SIX13) and for good reason, but when one compares the Cannondale’s price tag to that of other PRO machines (Colnago, Pinarello, BMC) it can easily be dismissed as unable to deliver the soul and liveliness of these other, higher priced machines.
The stiffness generated in the BB would lead one to think the corresponding ride would be too stiff, abusing the rider and beating their kidneys into submission. However, Cannondale has blessed this bike with the ability to deliver a very comfortable ride, one that is not often associated with oversized aluminum. My longest ride on this bike hovers around 4.5 hours and, at this point, the ride has yet to leave me asking for relief. When paired with tubulars, the bike takes on an even greater degree of comfort.
When out of the saddle the CAAD8 begs for more, any effort put into the pedals is directly transferred into forward momentum, driving even a clincher tire to sing like a silk tubular. The stiffness of the BB is simply intoxicating. The bike begs you to train harder and to hit the weights in the off-season in an effort to build the very legs this bike deserves. Whether slamming closed a gap or shooting for the town line sprint, the Cannondale is as eager as a groom on his wedding night.
There is only one sensation from the CAAD8 that can rival its acceleration and that is cornering. I’d be selling the Cannondale short by suggesting anything less than taking one for a spin, but for the sake of this post, this is where the weapon analogy really takes hold. The Cannondale is like the friend in high school who was blessed with the ability to avoid trouble and injury, he always had a way of talking you into doing things you knew you’d regret. The Cannondale is simply fearless in turns. High speed sweepers or off camber 90º turns, the CAAD8 is up for it if you are. Go ahead, I dare you.
It may seem tough to believe that a bike could be so inexpensive and perfect at the same time. Well, there were some issues with the bike. Upon arrival, the clear coat was applied over some oxidation on the tubes, giving the creases and corners of the frame a smokey, black appearance. I recall thinking this must be a fact of the employee purchase price. But then again, an employee purchase would indicate the CAAD 8 would be leveraged to sell other Cannondales. Perfection should be a priority.
The other issue was the fork: the Premium fork was a constant source of concern for me in the early months because I was never able to adjust the HS and have it stay snug. After a couple of rides, the HS would work its way loose again. I pulled the fork and replaced it with a Premium+ I purchased from eBay. Apparently, the Premium+ was not available as an aftermarket option so gray market was my only choice. With the Premium+ installed, my problem was solved. Although, I am not one to believe a small change such as carbon drop outs vs. aluminum drop outs would affect the ride, but the Premium+ is a better riding fork. The Cannondale rep said the fork had a different carbon lay up, but I wasn’t able to confirm this. My thought is that it’s doubtful Cannondale would change the lay up of carbon for the Premium+ without sacking the fork with a “premium” price tag.
The CAAD8 has served me very well, better than most road bikes, the Cannondale has remained in my stable longer than any other production bike (barring my Bridgestones).
I have ridden the CAAD8 with Record, tubulars, clinchers, light wheels, heavy wheels, and with an SRM and without. The bike has been built in many a livery, most recently Dura Ace. Back in July of this year, following a brief Italian holiday, I cobbled the CAAD8 back together in an effort to perform a side-by-side comparision. A winner takes all competition that would pit the Cannondale against the Don from Cambiago. It was not about pride, or bragging rights, it was about money. More specifically, the 4k I had tied up in the Colnago. One weekend, one bike left standing.
My Cannondale enters season three in December.