Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Cyclist's Plea


spec78 said...

So long yet no review of your bling-bling
I am curious to know whether the law of diminishing returns apply to bicycles.

Btw, u shld move bk to U.S. perhaps new york. U'll be in good company

EDIT : link corrected

-ben said...

Hey spec78,

Well, the law of diminishing returns definitely applies. 95% of what I can ride over with the custom Merlin XLM I can do the same with my 10-year-old Specialized Stumpjumper M2. Beyond that, it is apples and oranges as:

1.) The 2 bikes have differently sized frames (one is 18.5" and the other 20.5").

2.) Both bike frames are made from different materials (metal-matrix aluminum versus titanium).

3.) Different front suspension travel (63mm versus 80mm).

4.) Different front suspension technology (1996 elastomer versus 2007 air spring & hydraulic damping).

5.) Different gearing configuration (8-speed rear versus 9-speed rear).

6.) Different saddle-to-handlebar drop distance (5 inches versus 3.5 inches).

General impressions:
The Specialized Stumpjumper is more finicky, demands more attention to a good line, and owing to less suspension travel, less forgiving of mistakes. The Merlin XLM feels like a grand tourer, soaking up bumps and dips, but with the agility of a go-cart. I don't know if it has to do with the properties of a titanium frame, but for a hardtail, it seems to float over stuff that would normally rattle my teeth out.

I suspect some of the agility comes from the frame designer's attention to detail. If you flip a bike frame over, most frame makers render the chainstays symmetrical. This reduces cost and complexity in manufacturing but it also means that the rear wheel is not in line with the front wheel. Due to the spacing for the rear gear cassette, the rear wheel is offset towards the non-drive side. Merlin took the extra trouble to create asymmetrical chainstays to correct this design flaw. In other words, they offset the chainstay to correct for the offset in the rear hub. The result? Despite its 20.5" size, the bike handles like a dream.

The aluminum Thompson Elite seatpost on the Specialized Stumpjumper M2 has been replaced by a Moots Laidback titanium seatpost (using a shim). The difference was appreciable. The "give" (i.e. flex) in the seatpost takes the edge off unexpected hard bumps on the trail. As a bonus, it is equally adept at soaking up high frequency bumps when I slap on slicks and go on the road. If just a length of titanium seatpost can do this, one can imagine what an entire frame does :-)

spec78 said...

U r comparing it to ur old bike .

Wad abt versus an cheaper updated mass-produced model ?

I guess the main advantage is the customized frame. I guess its kinda like going to a tailor for a suit.

Did you go for a fitting ?

The NY Times article I posted describes the high level of service US bikeshops give to their customers. Some of the SG bikeshops def need to pull up their socks !

-ben said...

Hi spec78,

Well, versus a cheaper mass-produced model, I would say it would be the custom nature of it. That, and that it's titanium (but there are cheap mass produced titanium frame as well. E.g. Titanium Sport Technologies or Airbone Bicycles).

So, the material is a factor, but as I recall, the early titanium frames were were plagued with too much flex and rode like wet noodles. So design too, is a crucial factor. That is where the customization comes in. You can specify how stiff, how agile, how robust, the frame will be; you can make the bike excel in climbing, sprinting, descending, etc. So, yes, it is like a tailor made suit compared to an off-the-rack suit.

Yes, I went for a fitting. It took 2 hours and they told me to show up with my riding outfit and shoes, and to bring a towel. They had this stationary bike contraption with adjustable, head and seat tube angles, top, bottom and seat tube lengths. Then, while asking me to go ride, they tweak the angles and lengths while monitoring the power output I was cranking out (hence the towel). The figures are then sent to the manufacturer.

My only criticism of the fitting is that it is static. That means they can only tweak the power output on a level plane in a stationary setting. Hence, figuring the chainstay length (for climbing efficiency versus stability) and stem angle (ease of climbing versus ease of descending) can only be determined theoretically and not in an actual course setting.

The NY Times article I posted describes the high level of service US bikeshops give to their customers.

Well, there are bad bike shops just like there are good bike shops. The difference is that there are more bike shops in US, so that could account for the impression. Some bike shops are truly bad. When I was using Shimano SPDs and needed replacement cleats, this cheesy fellow tried to convince me that a multi-release (silver) cleat is exactly the same as a single-release (black) cleat, only that it has a silver "rust-resistant" coating. Yeah, right. Another tied to sell my housemate rim tape meant for a road wheel for his wide MTB rims. Just use 2 rolls and double it, side-by-side, for each rim, he said. Um hm.

Good bike shops are excellent. Some would not sell you a bike if it does not fit you. Others have a policy where they charge $75 for an hour-long fitting. That amount is credited to your bike purchase if you choose to buy it from them. If you decide to purchase the bike elsewhere, they hand you the sheet with your theoretical ideal specifications and wish you well. Either way, no one loses. Everyone gains. IMHO, everyone loses when a customer ends up with an ill-fitting bike.

Here is a good write up by someone who chose to go the custom route (he even opted for the S & S couplers):

Custom Seven Sola Ti review

-ben said...

Here's a news article on custom versus production bikes:

Becher, Bill. "A bicycle built for you." Los Angeles Times 8 Jan. 2007.