Cycling Fashion Victims

Cycling Article Index

– a rant against bicycle design and it's impact on Breton Bikes...


Progress. What a wonderful thing – progress has brought us reasonably priced lightweight touring bikes, reliable wheels and gears, great tyres – the list is long.

But... But it's not that simple, because the bicycle industry seems to have an addiction to stupid and needless 'upgrades' to an extent only matched by women's shoes and equally driven by fashion.

40 years ago, 'when I were a lad' I had a five-speed racing bike. The chainring was 48 teeth and the largest sprocket was 24 teeth. It was very second hand, but my friend had a ten-speed, with a 52/42 chainring and a biggest sprocket of 23 teeth. Made of gas pipe these 'lightweights' probably hit 40 lbs and were 'powered' by the skinny, feeble legs of two twelve-year-olds. Now exactly what was the manufacturer trying to prove here – those bikes carried gearing ratios that Bernard Hinauld would have recognised. In effect Raleigh (for they were the culprits, though far from alone) were selling children a bike geared for a professional cyclist's power output – the equivalent would be to gear an 850 mini to do 180 mph – and of course not only did we spend our time pushing up hills, but also abandoned bikes for powered vehicles as fast as we could.

As so many times in the history of cycling the design of the bike was dictated totally by fashion and the result was something unfit for purpose and which put millions off cycling completely.

Today with the huge range of bikes available such madness doesn't get repeated quite as often, but it is still difficult to buy a bike that is capable of being an every day workhorse or taking you round the world. It's rather as if the car industry made lots of very cheap but horrible cars, single seat racers for the road and big 4X4's but no quality family saloons or estates.

So bad is the situation that we at Breton Bikes have ended up having to have bikes made to our design because nothing off-the-shelf is suitable*.

So what are my 'beefs'

1 – position.

The mountain bike was a wonderful invention, at a stroke it gave soft comfortable frame angles, clearance for wide comfortable tyres (once you'd ditched the knobblies), powerful brakes and a wide range of gears. Even now, 30 years on, one of those early lightweight steel MTB frames makes a great basis for an expedition tourer/city bike. The problem is that as MTB racing became serious the riding position morphed into the bum-up-head-down position of a typical 'racing' bike.

What is good for aerodynamics and ultimate power output is very bad for comfort and simply looking around. But because MTB's needed the racing 'look' even at the cheap end, we end up with frames that give you a stretched out position that make a day touring agony.

Recently manufacturers do seem to have come to their senses and introduces 'city' and 'leisure' bikes which do have a more upright position but these tend to be at the cheaper end of the market.

Touring bikes from the major manufacturers continue to ape racing practice with hands lower than seat – why? If you go to a CTC (Cyclists Touring Club) meet, you can sometimes see hundreds of bikes. Next time you do have a look at where everyone sets their handlebars. I think you'll find that the vast majority will have them right at the 'stop' marks as high as they will go. Some will even have third-party extensions and the like to help raise the handlebars.

Now think about it – if a car manufacturer went to a carpark and saw that every single car had the driver's seat racked as far back as it would go, they would immediately go back to the drawing board and redesign the driving position so it moved backwards. It's not rocket science and yet bike manufacturers ignor the obvious.

One recent (well the last 20 years?) innovation has made this situation even worse – the almost universal adoption of the 'aheadset' where rather than an adjustable stem sliding up and down inside the steerer, you have a horizontal 'quill' that bolts directly to the steerer. That means that not only can't you adjust the handlebar height, but the maximum height is dictated by the short steerer. Why has this been adopted? Because it's what racers use because it's theoretically lighter and stiffer. On a racing bike it might be, but on a 'normal' bike it needs all sorts of spacers and hinges to get the handlebars to a sane level which end up with a heavier, more wobbly and even creakier alternative to the traditional handlebar stem. It's a bodge of the first order, and on a touring bike the manufacturers addiction to racing design means that most owners are driven to third party quills and such like with extreme angles to get a decent position. However the poor customer is stuck with whatever position he/she can get – there's no fine adjustment, if you find it's 1/2” too short you have to buy another quill and try that and so on. The hinged quills you can get are invariably wobbly, heavy, creaky affairs that seriously shorten the bike as you raise them – almost worse than useless.

As a result we've designed the BB Specials with a sloping top tube and very long steerer to allow the handlebars to be raised well beyond a 'normal' touring bike. The downside is that getting quality touring stems is almost impossible now so we have been forced to use an adaptor that takes various aheadset quills. Though hardly elegant it does allow us flexibility in changing quills for different riders.

2 - Aluminium frames.

These are a problem... quality Aluminium is about 1/3 the weight of steel but it's also only 1/3 as stiff and 1/3 as strong – in effect you need three times as much to make a frame. But it is relatively cheap and easy to build into a frame and so you'd think that good quality frames in Aluminium would be ideal. However there's a snag. Aluminium fatigues – that is it 'remembers' ever time it is bent, no matter how slightly, and eventually will crack and fail. In a racing bike with a short life span that isn't so vital (though thought provoking for anyone thinking of buying a second-hand bike) so these frames tend to be thin walled and very light. But on most bikes the designer of an Aluminium frame must design it to flex as little as possible – that means fat tubes and therefore a very stiff and uncomfortable ride. Steel on the other hand can be kept thin walled and thin diameter and be allowed to flex in safety (springs are steel after all) so giving a nice shock absorbing ride.

The solution for an Aluminium frame is to add a suspension fork to give some insulation from the road. This also looks terribly fashionable and cool – and even cheap bikes are fitted with hideous heavy, wobbly and unreliable cheap suspension forks.

So BB Specials are made from high quality Chromo steel – it's more expensive, it doesn't look so cool but it is so much more comfortable.

3 - Suspension forks.

From the above you can see that in order to be bearable an Aluminium frame must have suspension. Though off-road this might be an advantage, on the road it means a lot of weight, complication and of course instability in the case of a loaded touring bike. But it's almost impossible to avoid the damn things – even many steel framed bikes now have them, and spending a lot of money on them will still get a fork that will need to be adjusted for weight and conditions. The alternative is a steel frame (see above) and a quality steel fork. Cycling downhill with brakes you you can watch a quality steel fork 'buzz' back and forth as it absorbs the vibrations from the road surface. Of course this is what BB Specials have. I'll add that anyone setting off round the world on a bike would be foolish indeed (or badly advised) to go on a bike with suspension, or an Aluminium frame.

4 - Gears.

I'll be brief... A pro cyclist in the Olympics, or a fit gearfreak might appreciate the ability to change one tooth at a time from an 11 to 21 block on a timetrial, but for the rest of us 10 speed is bonkers. Most tourists will use a triple giving 30 gear positions. The catch is that these aren't 30 ratios as many will simply duplicate – for example 3rd cog of the middle chainring will be the same as the 5th cog on the small chainring. In fact carefully choosing cogs and chainrings will eliminate some overlaps, but a 30 'speed' set up will give you maybe 14 ratios. Change to a 9-speed rear block and you'll have 27 'speeds' but 13 ratios, an 8 speed 24/12 and so on. As I said being careful with cog sizes can greatly reduce the overlaps and increase the number of actual ratios so that even a 15 speed (5 sprocket + triple chainring) can end up with 12 actual ratios.

It's the old numbers game – people think automatically that '30' is better than '24' and so on, and bikes are valued by how many 'gears' they have. It's a very common question from potential customers “how many gears do the bikes have” as they try to find how good our bikes are. It's a snare and an illusion – as shown above the number of 'speeds' a triple equipped bike has bears little resemblance to the ratios available to the rider and whether you'll need to push up hill!

The downside of all those gears is that they weigh more; require a thinner chain and cogs to fit and so wear faster; are more finicky in alignment; require a stiffer frame (uncomfortable) to avoid ghost changes and perhaps most important require the rear wheel to be more 'dished' to allow for the huge 10-speed cassette – which both weakens and destabilizes the wheel – both critical for loaded touring.

On the BB Specials I've fought a rearguard action and managed to keep a quality 24 speed set-up which avoids the worse consequences of the numbers game, but if I could I'd be using 7 or even 6-speed rear cassettes...

5 - Combined gear/brake levers

On a racing bike these are lovely, but when your loaded touring bike topples over outside a bar there's a fair chance that the brake levers will take a hit and you'll eb left with no gears and end up replacing expensive levers – they also are perfectly placed to be hammered by rain with cables almost impossible to grease.

On BB Specials I've tried to keep with bar-end or better still, downtube levers for the drop-handlebarred bikes, but they are getting difficult to get.

I know this is all an opinionated polemic, but what bugs me is not that all this racy kit is available for the racing fraternity – off or on-road, it's that as it's introduced, the good stuff for tourists like quality steel frames, 7-speed cassettes, separate brake and gear levers etc disappearing from view.

An individual might be happy scanning Ebay or old boxes in the local bike shop to express their Luddite tendencies, but for a company like ours it's not an option. If I had access to the best components of the last 30 years the BB Specials would be even better than they are now, sadly I don't have that option – just like I didn't have the gears for Cornish hills when I was 12...

*Granted – given enough money there are any number of high-class specialists who would build a bike to your requirements, but that's not really what I'm on about.

A Small Favour

We hope you've enjoyed reading this short article and will go on to read many more. This website exists both as an information hub for cyclists – (and we offer free advice by email) - but also as a commercial site to sell our cycling holidays. For 27 years we've been the only company in the world offering fully equipped cycle camping holidays and now also offer hotel based holiday and even run our local campsite which is uniquely well geared up for passing cycletourists.

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