Saturday, January 1, 2011

BikeNüt, my local bike shop

Over the past two and half years, since I’ve bought my first and only road bike, I’ve come to rely on BikeNüt not only for fixes minor and major, but also for moral support. I’ve stopped at the store pretty much every week, asking silly questions, reporting my progress, and occasionally buying a few things, such as tyres, bar tape, a bottle of degreaser, a jersey, or even a new cassette. During this time, my bike has changed quite radically; few parts have remained the same, perhaps just the frame. Even that was stripped of all paint and graphics as soon as I bought it. Everything else has evolved, keeping pace with my understanding of bikes and cycling in general.

This is my bike, shortly after I picked it up. It is a Giant TCR Composite, vintage 2007. It is stiff
and light, with a compact geometry that pleases my eye. It came equipped with a Shimano
Ultegra gruppo. We changed just about everything, except for the frame.

I quickly realized that the lighter the bike is the faster it is, and there began the search for parts that would reduce my bike’s weight: wheels, handlebar, crankset, derailleurs, shifters, saddle, seat post, brakes, and pedals. By the end of the process, the weight of the complete bike had dropped to 13.8 lbs, competing with much more expensive bikes, such as the Stork Fascenario 7.0, that were the standard features on the showroom floor. Could I have made it even lighter? Of course I could, by buying a Lightweight wheelset for example. But the increasingly light and expensive—very expensive—carbon parts convinced me to put a stop to all this nonsense. I began to understand that, rather than focusing on the bike alone, I should instead ride more and more often, develop a better cycling technique, lose weight, and go faster.

This is still my bike, as it looked a few weeks ago. Bar, saddle, gruppo
(SRAM red, wheels, pedals, and seat post are different,

During the whole time, the BikeNüt gang have educated me about bikes and cycling. Huseyin Guler and Sam Kroyer, the wonderfully soft-spoken mechanical magician, have encouraged me with free advice: keep your knees warm, this is a better product, you need to adjust your seat, or, don’t be discouraged. They did so in a gentle manner—neither intimidating nor pushy but always enthusiastic. They could have easily steered me towards more expensive items but cared enough about my quest to recommend only what was appropriate for my bike or me.
I’ve always felt at home at BikeNüt. There were times when I would have easily spent even more time there than I did, and it seemed to me like that the atmosphere was a bit that of a local coffee shop, with its regular customers and lots of goodies on the walls. In the summer, at the end of a busy day or a long ride, a beer would appear like magic, and the discussions would continue behind the closed doors. I enjoyed the talks and the camaraderie.
What else does set BikeNüt apart from other bike shops? During the past few months, in a series of entries in this blog, I have tried to define its attributes, but I have come to the conclusion that it all boils down to the bicycles they sell: no one who buys a bicycle from BikeNüt walks out of the shop with something off the shelves. Every bicycle is a special build. For some customers, this is just plain nonsense; they would rather get something, pay for it, and then never think about it again. For others, and I belong to this second group, a bike is never complete, there is always something to add, it changes as we change as riders. A store that sells complete bikes can do set up easily an online catalogue. Perhaps this is the way to make money by selling bikes.
BikeNüt is different: the selection of a bike is an individual process, and, as we are all different from one another in weight, height, body shape, and all the other biometrics, the bike must mirror those differences. As soon as the customer selects the bike, Huseyin schedules a fitting. The original saddle does not fit the anatomy. Out it goes. The length of the cranks is wrong. We must order a new set. You get the idea. The shops gives credit for the original parts, and new components are sometimes cheaper. In the end, there is little difference in price but a tremendous difference in the pleasure derived from riding our new bike.

Huseyin Guler, standing in front of BikeNüt

There is no question that BikeNüt has also made a difference in the local culture. Their bikes are recognizable for being understated, no flashy graphics on most of them, very serious pieces of machinery, updated constantly with the latest and most sought after equipment. I see riders wearing their jerseys, and even when I don’t know them personally, a nod is sufficient to establish a common bond. These riders are serious cyclists and are very discriminating about their bikes. Not all of them ride the most expensive bikes available to the public, but are sure to get the most of what they have. BikeNüt has spawned at least one other shop. Kevin Bailey, the bike fitter until a few months ago, has opened his own bike-fitting studio in Sausalito. There will be others.
Huseyin has announced that he wants to close the shop down by the middle of this month. This is sad news indeed, especially for those of us who thought of BikeNüt as our local bike store. This could be the last entry in this blog. Perhaps he can be convinced to change his mind. If not, perhaps he will return with BikeNüt 2.0 in a few months. We’ll be waiting.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Why cycling?

Every few months, car manufacturers announce new models, with new features and more powerful engines. What’s not to like about a 400 hp power plant? It is a stunning piece of engineering, makes the most satisfying rumble, leaves the competition in the dust, recalls a time of empty roads and wind-swept hair, and says something about what you are—right?
Well, not so fast. For years advertisers have been behind these clichés, the public has fallen for them, a whole environment has been built around them, together with politics, the economy, and a way of living. It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s time to get away from it. What’s so special about squeezing the pedal to the floor, leaving tyre marks on the road, and glaring at other drivers through tinted windows? What’s the use of driving in spasmodic leaps between red signals? Why waste so much energy?

It's a cool street, Elm Street by Mikael. Photo: © Copenhagen CycleChic 

Why cycling? Many good reasons, that’s why. At the risk of wagging a figurative finger, let’s point out the health benefits that go with cycling, such as cardio-vascular fitness, muscular flexibility, and mental acuity. Needless to say, bicycles are cheaper than cars, emit no pollution, and require less energy to build.
You’ll like riding a bicycle, because cyclists are a friendly group. There are no barriers between us and the world, and we cannot retract hostility, anger, or disappointment into a steel shell. We are still a minority, and we acknowledge with a nod every fellow cyclist we happen upon the road. Any business with a bike rack on the sidewalk looks welcoming. Any time we want, we stop on the side of the road and appreciate the view, admire the sunset, or smell the roses. If you do so in your car, a line of fellow drivers behind you will make you aware of their gratitude.

Fall fell into Fell Street by Meligrosa. Photo: ©Bikes and the City

Personally, I like bikes also as objects and appreciate their essential qualities—everything is visible, nothing is superfluous, and where the shape of components is a consequence of the function they are destined to perform.

We live in exciting times, when people in communities of every scale are beginning to admit that something must be done about sedentary lives, traffic congestion, and pollution. Politicians, quick to listen to polls but timid when it comes to exploring unfamiliar territory, are taking notice of the shifting winds.
We have a high regard for cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, with their unhurried pace and orderly traffic, where bicycles are the norm rather than the exception. They seem friendlier and even more livable places than our own, its spectacular setting and architecture notwithstanding. That they’ve become so is no simple fluke of history; they’ve been engineered to facilitate ease of traffic and social harmony, giving preference to cycling and pedestrian pathways rather than the usual car and truck multi-lane highways. They weren’t always so but have changed their ways during the past four o five decades, adding 1 or 2 percent every year to their bicycle use.
Planners such as Jan Gehl have visited San Francisco from Denmark, met with public officials, and illustrated the advantages of policies that do not rely exclusively on motor vehicles for transportation. They’ve left us wanting for more. Even some of the members of the San Francisco Board of the Supervisors, such as David Chiu, its chair, are in favor of increasing bicycle use. We certainly own a debt of gratitude to non-profit organizations such as the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition or on-line publications, such as Streetsblog, for their vigorous campaigning in favor of  bicycle culture, road safety, and number of bike paths and lanes in our streets. It is thanks to their efforts that our longed-for San Francisco bicycle plan is being carried out—chapeau!

Various ways to pass the time on a city square by Mikael. Photo: © Copenhagen CycleChic

Even bloggers are in this mix. Daily postings by Mikael in and Cycle Chic or Meligrosa in Bike and the City in San Francisco (bike equal sex, get it?) illustrate cycling in an urban context as safe, energetic, and fun. The message is, anybody can do it, anytime. These are ordinary people on ordinary bikes, not athletes. Retailers, such as Public Bikes, are not far behind this populist drive.

With all this good will, how united are we, as a society, in our appreciation of cycling? Not very, judging from sketchy evidence. Cars, trucks, and tourist buses—completely sealed from the outside with dark, tinted windows—still dominate the roads. Public parks such as the Golden Gate Park and the Presidio are intersected by so many roads—so tempting for motorists to use as a speedy short cut—that it is difficult to find in them a place where we can feel secluded by nature. For some drivers, a bike lane is simply an parking space.
Some object to the presence of cyclists and express their resentment with occasional acts of insanity, as when, a few days ago, the woman at the wheel of an SUV tried to push me off the road. Drivers still think of cycling as exercise, something people do in their spare time, less significant than the serious work they perform at the wheel of their vehicle. Some see cyclists as an effete minority, out of touch with the main stream of American society. In the minds of such people, anything with an engine takes precedence over a bicycle.
One also questions how far cycling has penetrated the awareness of the administrators of public projects, who routinely place signs on bike lanes. In any infrastructure project, they still assign priority to—you guessed it—cars, trucks, and buses. Such is the case, for example, of The Marin Headlands and Fort Baker Transportation Infrastructure and Management Plan, a project of modest scope, despite the grandeur of its name, aiming at making the road wider and placing a parking lot at the top of Conzelman Road at the Marin Headlands. Cars can drive through roads in construction, but bikes are not permitted.

The view from the top of Conzelman Road, before its closure.

There you have it, there are roadblocks ahead of us. They shouldn’t deter us from indulging in our favorite mode of transportation.

Why cycling, indeed? Because it accomplishes so many things for us, it takes wherever we want, at the pace we like. While riding a bicycle, we are entirely responsible for our own actions, we must be constantly aware of our direction as well as of the other cyclists, pedestrians, other traffic, the condition of road in front of us, the sudden obstacles, and the puffs of wind that can easily push us to the side. Cycling is a lot more demanding than driving but, on the whole, requires little effort, in exchange for which it bestows a great deal of benefits. At the end of each ride, we enjoy a minute of contentment, not quite nirvana, yet, but a sensible alternate to the rush of time.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Light bikes: cranksets

A bicycle could be described as an economical means of transportation and sport, not because it’s cheap—it isn’t—but because it’s condensed to its basic components. It would be impossible to take one of them out without changing the nature of the entire machine. Without wheels, a bicycle wouldn’t be a bicycle. Handlebar? No, without the handlebar, we might as well lock the front wheel and go straight to…where? What about pedals? Crankset? Same thing. Saddle? In theory, we could do without a saddle, but it’d be inefficient and kind of uncomfortable, at least to my way of thinking.
Only a few years old, the SRAM Red group of components is one of the
most reliable and problem free. Its crankset, shown above, is not one of the lightest.
The latest, 2010 version for a BB30, however, is. Very much worth considering, 
if your frame can accommodate a BB30.
Of all these components, cranksets are especially susceptible to experimentation and upgrading, to take advantage of new materials and methods of construction. There are many choices available, responding to different sets of priorities. What are the criteria of choice? They are mainly two, one is stiffness, perhaps the more important, and the other is lightness.
It’s obvious that the crankset should be stiff; all of its smaller parts, from the bottom bracket to the cranks, should be working as one. When they don’t, because there is some slack, or because one of them bends just a little under the thrust of acceleration or the push of a climb, some of the energy conveyed by the legs gets lost on its way to the chain. It is also important that the crankset be as light as possible, as it contributes to the overall lightness of the bike; we all know how important it is for a bike to be light, don’t we? But, stiff and light at the same time? 
A couple of years ago, Shimano produced a version of their DuraAce crankset made of a
combination of aluminum and carbon. In a typical Shimano fashion, it received a very
uninspired name, FC-7800C. The cranks consisted of an aluminum core wrapped by a layer
of carbon. The chainrings are also made of aluminum and are milled exquisetely. Compared to
their production model, the weight saving was minimal. Overall the sculptural quality
of this crankset is undeniable: this is a beautiful component.
No compromise is needed. In recent years, the tendency of bicycle components has been to employ the lightest possible materials, accompanied by construction techniques that maintain the desired stiffness, without falling apart at the least suitable moment.

The eeCrank, by eeCycleWorks. This is an early prototype of their upcoming crankset.
It is very light and exceptionally strong. One can see the designer's mind at work,
extracting all material that is not strictly necessary to its performance.
Photo: ©

One of the most recent products, the eeCrank, by the same designer who makes the eeBrakes, about which I wrote so enthusiastically a couple of weeks ago, is on the verge of unveiling his latest prototype. According to one reviewer, it provides the best balance of lightness and stiffness. Craig Edwards, the designer and mastermind at eecycle Works, its manufacturer, challenges the general trend, that of using carbon everywhere, in favor of aluminum alloy. When in production and available to customers, sometime in 2011, that’s the crankset I would be seriously interested in setting up on my own bike.

The major manufacturers of bicycle components, Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo, all offer excellent products of this kind.  They perform flawlessly, shift smoothly, are designed to last longer than the bicycle frame, look good, and are stiffer than a telephone pole, but they have a fatal flaw in common, in my opinion: they are not the lightest of their species.
The Zipp VumaQuad crankset: very well made and good looking. To save weight, its
designers have reduced the spider's legs to four, rather than the traditional five.
I am looking for that magic balance between weight, performance, and looks that makes my heart sing. I think I’ve found it for my bike: the Zipp VumaQuad crankset is light and stiff. I like the way it shifts. It’s not perfect, I know that, but with time and miles, I’ve learned to live with its quirks. For example, to save weight, its designers have made it impossible to use anything but their own chainrings—they are not the cheapest available. I’m not crazy about the graphics, either. 

The Clavicula crankset: I'm not sure how far the designer has pushed the analogy
with the human bones. One can, however, easily visualize the distribution of forces
from its design. Photo: ©THM Carbones.
Of course, there are lighter cranksets available. Some of them are made by German companies, which have a talent for taking carbon-fiber manufacture to the extreme. Perhaps one of the lightest available is the Clavicula, made by THM Carbones. Another one, also made in Germany, is the Morpheus, made by Ax Lightness. Naturally, Storck bicycles also belongs in this group, with their own PowerArms. 

The chainrings themselves contribute to the crankset overall weight. It’s probably a good idea to read the fine print in the manufacturers’ descriptions to see if the chainrings are included in their measurements or not. There isn’t a great deal of variation in the weight of chainrings. There are, however some that are entirely made of carbon fiber. They are very light. Are they road worthy? Honestly, I’ve never tested them, but I have received conflicting reports about their reliability.
I am sure it’s possible to find cranksets that are even lighter than the ones mentioned above—by a few grams. These grams come with a large price tag. It’s all a question of priorities.   

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Great deals and nano particles

This is the BikeNüt Umlaut. I’ve talked about it, described its attributes, and discussed its exceptional value a few times. It comes fully equipped with a Shimano Ultegra gruppo and Easton Circuit wheels. It has white tape wrapped around the handlebar and a white saddle. This assembly, of course, is the standard. If you wanted, or needed, different components on the same frame, no problem—it could be done.

The Shimano Ultegra components have long established a standard for reliability. There are few things that go wrong with it. Shimano, the company, is a bit like Porsche; they make gradual improvements on their products, preferring to work on what they have rather than rely on sudden innovation. As a result, things work a little better than they did in their previous manifestation. 

Shifting is smooth with Ultegra, and it is for a reason that Shimano had named its cassette Hyperglide. Shifting under load, when for example we are beginning to climb and realize that we are on the wrong gear, can be a tricky operation at best, but Ultegra increases the chances of its  success. 

Of course, if you want unerring precision, you should go with the Shimano DuraAce Di2 electronic group, and you should be prepared to pay for it.
The Umlaut is light and stiff, with its monocoque frame design, handles beautifully, accelerates quickly, and its slender seat stays make it comfortable to ride over long distances. It could be yours for $2,650 USD.
There are bikes that are heavier than this and lighter than this. Weight is a relative measure, and what is considered lightweight today will be thought of as positively burdensome tomorrow. Already there are road-racing machines that are attempting to break the 6 lbs. barrier. Soon, with new technology, even this boundary will be a thing of the past. All we need is a quantum leap--literally.
We hear the term nanotechnology used in combination with bicycles with increasing frequency. In part, this name calling is the result of marketing tactics. Since the current technology (monocoque design carbon frames) has leveled the field, companies look for marginal advantages. The promising field of nanotechnology may offer such advantages. We are told that it makes bikes lighter and stronger, but we don’t know exactly why or how should be so. One Italian manufacturer claims that nano-alloys, tiny amounts of metal integrated into the fibers of carbon, help absorbing impact more efficiently and prevent the sudden failure of its frames. I’m sure that there is an advantage in their use, but we are not quite at the point in the development of nanotechnology, that we are able to employ structures such as nanotubes and buckyballs. Still, there is progress.

On October 5, 2010, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the team of Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov the prize for physics for their work on graphene, a relatively new material that promises a revolutionary—not just evolutionary—range of new applications. Why am I bringing this up? Because, when this material is produced industrially together with appropriately light bonding agents, it’s going to make carbon fiber disappear as a choice material for bicycle frames and accessories very quickly.

Graphene consists of a sheet of  atoms of carbon, arranged in a lattice-like fashion, the thickness of a single atom—as two dimensional as you can get. To repeat an example that has already been reiterated innumerable times, a sheet of graphene, resting on a support no larger than a pencil point, could support an entire truck. This is no hyperbole: graphene is 200 times stronger than steel, stronger than Kevlar, stronger even than the nanotubes, also made of carbon atoms, that haven’t yet made it to the market. It’s also the lightest: a sheet as large as a football field would weigh about 1 gram.
Applications will vary from new, faster, cheaper, and lighter semiconductors, extremely efficient batteries than last a long time and require little time to be recharged (bye, gasoline), solar cells that can be part of the surface of buildings, rather than “things” on the roofs, and of course the stuff of which cars and, yes, bikes are made. How about a bike, made of graphene, that weighs less than a pound? How about a new kind of bearings, consisting of two graphene tubes, one inside the other, and producing no friction at all? Can you imagine the potential? A pair of sneakers would be heavier than that, your bicycle gloves, your sunglasses, or whatever. It would be just like cycling on a cloud.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

eeBrakes. Wow!

When, some time ago, I wrote down a few notes about the eeBrakes in this blog, I was captivated by their design. But I wrote about them relying only on hearsay, talking to the people in the shop and getting their impressions about them. Once or twice, Huseyin, the BikeNüt Master, attempted to make me try them, but I hesitated, saying that the brakes that I had purchased a couple of years earlier, a set of KCNC cB1, although not big on stopping power, were far too expensive to be disposed of lightly and were more than good enough for me.
I had bought the KCNCs for two reasons, their craftsmanship and their weight. Because of background and long habit of mind, I can appreciate design; because of my self-inflicted grammomania, I insist in making my bike as light as possible. The brakes were beautifully milled out of light-weight alloy, the kind used on high-tech fighter jets, and weighted just about 146 grams. At the time, there was no lighter set on the market.

Now I’ve finally broken down and have installed a pair of eeBrakes. I can admit that I’ve been riding my bike practically without brakes for the past couple of years. Well, I’m exaggerating of course, to make a point. My old brakes were light, and their stopping power wasn’t their strongest attribute. I used to scan the horizon, anticipate sudden moves ahead of me, and plan ahead. I was tempted to use my foot more than once and try braking with the heel, when a car would stop suddenly in front of me for no apparent reason. I would squeeze the brakes all the way against the drops with white knuckles, the pads would hiccup along the rims, and the bike would come slowly to a halt—just.
By comparison, the modulation of the new eeBrakes is exceptional—no hyperbole here. How many times, during the past few days, have I waited until the last possible minute to use the brakes and feel the bike stopping under me. Actually this became almost literally true last Monday, when I left BikeNüt after the installation. I touched the brakes at a crossroad for the first time, applying the same pressure as I did with my old set, and almost flew over the handlebar. I learned very quickly to do better. A little pressure, feathering the brake lever with my finger tips, is sufficient to slow down, just enough to restore confidence but not to lose any speed. And the brakes are smooth, without the rough grabbing that I felt before.

Photo: © eeCycleworks

A word about the design: as the images show, these are caliper brakes. Front and rear brakes are identical. They have a dual-pivot system, which ensures that the brake pads exert the same amount of pressure on both sides of the wheel rims. There is almost a third pivot on top of the first two, that also supports the release lever, that accentuates the smoothness of the operation. It also sports an adjustment barrel that is easy to operate, albeit not while riding, as one reviewer pointed out. The release lever is the best there is, easy to grasp and quick to operate.
Perhaps their most important feature is the shape of the two brake arms. They are designed like two small struts, the kind you might see in a large scale crane or on top of a battleship, employing the least amount of material to resist any bending while braking. Bending would reduce the braking power unpredictably. This is exactly what plagued my old brakes.
Every part of this complex mechanism is milled to perfection. All the levers are connected to one another by means of liners and require no additional lubrication. The designer, Craig Edwards, has even given a second look at the pad holders, adding a small indentation to retain the brake pads.
They may look like a piece of Swiss watch-making, but they’re small and very compact and weigh—listen to this—about 190 grams. This makes them 40 grams heavier than my old set. Believe me, I’ve tried to feel the difference, and I couldn’t. On the positive side, now I can stop whenever I want.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Lighter bikes: the basics

It is all right to wish for a bike much lighter than what we have. It is a never ending quest, occasionally verging on the futile, but an entirely rational and justified one: we want to make our daily source of pleasure and transportation as efficient as possible. A light bike is more agile than a heavy one and makes it easier to negotiate the hills—an undeniable fact of life in San Francisco—without heavy breathing. What is wrong with that?

The new Storck Fascenario 0.6 frame is rumored to weigh
less than 600 grams. To save weight, the brakes are 

integrated into the frame. Photo © VeloNews.
But can we go too far in our pursuit? How far is too far? I was pondering these questions this morning, when I was looking at the photos of a sub-6 lbs. complete road bike, shown at Interbike, the North-American trade show that was held in Las Vegas this past week. It was a special build by a renowned Arizona retailer. It is made of carbon fiber with the sole exception of the pedals. Many of its components are one of a kind, custom made for this project by German carbon wizards. The wheels alone are so light and expensive that they will not make into production. Its price tag? Let’s say it competes for attention with the sports cars made by a well known German company. Would I ride this bike or just look at it behind glass?
Professional cyclists would probably scoff at the very idea of making a racing bike lighter than it is, and they would have a point. If they worried about a few miles uphill, when a race usually includes heart-stopping climbs over far more than one hundred miles, they’d probably deduce they should quit their day job. Besides, a race bike should weigh no less than 15 lbs, according to the international race regulations. We common mortals, on the other hand, can use some technological assistance, provided that we don’t weaken the structural integrity of either the bicycle or our wallets in our quest.
If we are considering buying a bike, a light bike, that is, but set a limit to our buying spree, we should think carefully about what our needs are. First, we must consider the bike frame. Most frames, these days, are made of carbon fiber that has been first impregnated with resin and then baked in an oven under vacuum. This combination makes it the lightest material so far available for bikes. It’s a good starting point.
A monocoque frame, such as this BikeNüt Umlaut, is inherently stiffer, lighter,
and less prone to failure than a frame made of several tubes bonded together,
no matter how skillfully.

How does a bike frame work? A bicycle frame consists of a truss, a type of simple but effective structure with which engineers and architects are very familiar. Trusses are made of triangular modules assembled in various configurations. In the case of a bicycle, two modules, or triangles, share a common element, the seat tube. In all trusses the linear elements, the tubes, work either in compression or in tension and exert tremendous strain on the vertices of the triangles, also called nodes. This is the reason why, if the nodes are stiff and the elements don’t move, the rider can communicate all of the leg power to the pedals.
The bottom-bracket area, where several tubes are attached. This node is put to
the test whenever we pedal. It's important that it is stiff, that it doesn't move or twist.
Through this tunnel we insert the axle connecting the two sides of a crankset.
A fast rider will generate a lot of torque in particular on the front and the bottom nodes. Carbon  makes it possible  to strengthen them not by adding material but by enlarging the diameter of the connecting tubes and orientating appropriately the fibers of the carbon layers. Newly designed frames show just how thick these areas can be.
A sealed cartridge component ready to be installed. The cups containing the
roller bearings stick out from the frame, adding to the overall weight.
In the case of the bottom bracket, this trend has given origin to the so-called BB 30, a standard than is taking an increasingly enthusiastic foothold on the industry.  Of course, BB is an acronym for Bottom Bracket, and 30 indicates the size of the axle connecting the two sides of the crankset through the frame—30 mm. in diameter.
These are the few components required for the assembly of a BB 30.
The bearings are contained in the sealed cartridges in the foreground.
They are contained within the frame.

There is a weight advantage associated with a BB 30, a simpler mechanism, consisting of fewer parts than a more conventional bottom bracket. For example SRAM, a manufacturer that offers cranksets in several configurations, indicates that the newer BB 30 Red crankset is 20 percent lighter than their previous models. That’s a savings of 130 grams. We’ll have a more thorough discussion about cranksets in one of the future entries in this on-going series about light bikes.
The length of the connecting tubes is critical in determining the riding quality of a bicycle. It all gets swept under the general category of frame geometry. I have leaned a few rules of thumb about frame geometry: a shorter wheelbase makes a bicycle more responsive, quicker in descents and in cornering, and the feeling of riding one is that, well, it is quick. A longer wheelbase is good for a leisurely ride, comfortable and a bit sluggish, while chatting with friends and enjoying the views.
The fork is a crucial element in the geometry of a bicycle. There are many after-market forks out there that are much lighter than those provided by manufacturers with their bicycles, but we should be cautious in considering an alternative to them.
The Scapula fork, by THM Carbones. Simple and elegant in shape, this is one
of the lightest after-market forks available today. Photo © THM Carbones.

One of the lightest available is made by THM Carbones, the supplier of forks to Marcus Storck, who produces some of the lightest and stiffest frames available to consumers. Their fork is called Scapula—it weighs a mere 235 grams. All of their components take their names from human bones. To adopt a new fork, such as the Scapula, however lighter, than the one that comes with the bike, is to change the geometry and the riding characteristics of the bike. The weight savings would be a little more than 100 grams, but the bike will behave like a strange animal. Is it worth it?
What if you don’t want to buy a new carbon frame and are emotionally attached to your old steel frame? Is it possible to change a few components here and there and make it lighter and even more enjoyable? Of course. I’ll discuss some options in the next installment in this series.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

BikeNüt: the brand

Any marketing expert will tell you that a brand consists of much more than a logo or a website. A company’s brand has a lot more to do with its fundamental nature—the beliefs, habits, and goals of its people—than its surface. But the success, or not, of a company depends in large part on the emotions it evokes from its customers. Are its customers loyal to it? Is their experience with their product memorable?
What are the BikeNüt values, what is it that makes it a valuable and unique service provider for cyclists? What is it that resonates with its customers and makes them return over and over for bikes, bike components, maintenance, or simply for a chat?

During one of my early visits, when I was just falling in love with bikes but knew little about them, Kevin, without even knowing whether I would become a customer or not, gave me an hour of his time to begin my education about carbon frames. He explained to me the technological state of the art; he compared different manufacturers and their products; and he described what components were available and, perhaps more importantly, advisable. 
I left with lots of excitement about bikes. I did my research, discovered a few things about bikes on my own, and confirmed that what Kevin had told me was accurate. Kevin had established a connection based on trust with a potential customer. When I could contain myself no longer, I returned to BikeNüt to make my purchase. Where else would I go?
This openness and willingness to select what is right for customers rather than steering them to the most expensive products, is at the core of the BikeNüt brand. They only sell what they believe in. I can see it in their eyes: there is none of the usual detachment, the slightly glazed look that announces that they are just doing their job, the protective distance that establishes that they are employees and you are a civilian. I hear them enthusiastically describing a bike frame or a piece of equipment. I also listen to them talking to other customers, describing options available for their bikes, based on their connections with manufacturers, options that are usually not available to the public. They are eager to experiment, and finding like minded customers makes their day. These are emotions that cannot be faked, and certainly not day after day in the shop.

This is one of the first Umlauts. It comes in all kinds of configurations,
from the handlebar to the wheels, and, of course, the saddle.
BikeNüt has developed its brand in a new, exciting direction, by producing the Umlaut, their first bike. The name, of course, comes from the umlaut in the BikeNüt name. This is actually a carbon-fiber frame that can be completely customized. There is no set package of components to go with it. Pretty much everything, from the frame color to the wheels, can be decided by the customer. Every bike that comes out of BikeNüt is a special build.
We know that all top brands charge a premium because their name is on the bike frame or on the components. This is why their graphics are not very subtle, plastering the company’s logo all over the place. Perhaps I’m the only one thinking this, but I wish they did a better job.

Actually, not all frames are quite equal. Some, to remain nameless,
try to sell you a frame that has the appearance of a monocoque, when
in reality it is made of tubes glued together.
We can see the seat tube from the opening.

Do they have much reason for their premium price?
Ten years ago, a bicycle manufacturer could get a lot of mileage (pun intended) based on their superior carbon-fiber technology, how separate tubes could be lugged together to form a relatively rigid frame, how a carbon frame could be lighter than an aluminum frame. Monocoque frames, made of fewer parts, more durable and more efficient, eliminated all of these advantages. Technology advanced even more by orienting fiber to make bikes even stiffer in some areas and more forgiving and comfortable in other areas of the frame.
And now? Well, they’ve all caught on, offering more or less the same advantages.

This is the frame: simple, elegant, with a geometry that is almost traditional.
It is as light as a feather and stronger than steel.

The Umlaut is a monocoque frame, built in Asia with the latest technology. It is well made: try inserting your finger into the seat tube and feel the inner smoothness and the complete absence of loose fibers. The Umlaut is light and is extremely rigid in the right places. It has a fork made exactly of the same fibers as the frame, to maintain the same riding characteristics throughout the bike. 

This particular frame shows a threaded bottom bracket.

It comes with two types of bottom brackets, a threaded model and a BB 30. Thus, it can accommodate all of the gruppos available today, from a Shimano workhorse such as the 105 to the top of the line DuraAce, or SRAM Red, or whatever. The frame is worth of all the extras.
So, what makes the Umlaut different from the other top brands?
What about its value?
Based on the bottom line, there is virtually no competition: an Umlaut, equipped with a complete Shimano Ultegra package and Shimano wheels, can be purchased for $2,500 USD, about $1,000 USD less than the nearest competitor.
Based on the performance, BikeNüt has received terrific feedback: the bike is stiff, ready to accelerate, handles exceedingly well, and is comfortable to ride on long distances.
And based on the service? Well, the same customers keep coming back, to try new things, or to talk to the people at BikeNüt.