Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Now I've decided to share them with you. Time passes, but the memories live on.
During the summer of 1984 I had the good fortune of being invited to France by Jonathan Boyer and Bruno Gormand to work at Mavic and the Tour de France for two months. I ended up staying with the company for eight years (thru 1992). I started the Mavic Neutral Assistance program in the US and eventually became co-manager of the US operations.
Mavic was one of the only "old school" French companies that would survive the St. Etienne curse. In the seventies, the French cycling industry owned a sizable chunk of the commodity 10-speed market. Peugeot, Motobécane and other French brands dominated. Mafac, Simplex, Huret, Stronglight, Nervar et al provided the hardware to hang on these bicycles. Then the Japanese came to the game and we all know how that story ended. The following are a few profiles of some of the people I came to know (and still know) during my tenure at Mavic. My only regret is that I didn't buy a house in France during my years with the company.
First and foremost, the Mavic I know from the 80’s and 90’s was as much a family as a company. As such, when the company moved its headquarters from St. Trivier sur Moignans to Annecy after the Salomon acquisition, many of the employees stayed behind, even though the move was only about 130 kilometers. Such are the French.
Bruno Gormand (president) was a typically French entrepreneur. He smoked, drank, loved good food and lived the life of a French playboy. He knew absolutely everyone in the European world of cycling. He took the reigns of the company in 1964 and put in place the team that would be with the company until the end of the century. His visions were neutral race support, components and hard anodized rims (SSC Gris). Although Mavic components had limited success in the market, many of their innovations are now omnipresent in the world of cycling components. I was present for his funeral at the church in St. Trivier sur Moignans in December 1985. It was a who's who of the cycling world. Thousands of flowers arrived from nearly every cycling related company in the world. The outpouring of homage so crowded the small cemetery where he was laid to rest that most of the other gravestones in the cemetery were also covered by the bouquets from his peers in the industry and sport.
Jean-Pierre Lacombe... The effervescent head of product development and R&D. You could see the gleam in his eye when he was showing off one of his team's new creations. Whether it was electronic shifting or soldered rims with machined sidewalls, Jean-Pierre's enthusiasm for R&D and cycling was infectious. He was the spark that kept innovation alive at Mavic and kept the firm interesting through its constant innovation.
The late Josette Paccard... Josette was born and raised in the French department L'Ain where Mavic settled in 1967. The reality was that Josette could have been provincially French. As the sales manager and right hand of Bruno, she was anything but provincial. All clients were equally important to her. She made a big effort to learn English and was always accessible and pleasant. She had a very "American" straightforward way of going about her business and the business of Mavic. I feel she had a huge effect on the success of Mavic during her tenure at the company.
Laurent Michelon ran the neutral service and team supply department (Service des Courses). Laurent was a very provincial young Frenchman who seemed to have it out for the two Americans whom had invaded his service des courses atelier in 1984. When I returned to France 11 years after leaving Mavic, I stopped by his house to say hello. He was outwardly happy to see his first American student. In the month preceding the Tour, it was our job (with Laurent) to learn the intricacies of Mavic components and to build the 40 bicycles destined for the Cafe de Columbia team, the first Columbian team to compete in the Tour de France. I see him every year when I return to France.
For an impressionable bicycle geek in the ‘70’s, the high end bicycle World was simple. Italy had sleek frames and awesome gruppo’s. France dominated wheels, chains, and grand touring bicycles. The rest of the planet had a few standouts: Hetchins and Brooks in England, Mondia and Assos in Switzerland, Zeus in Spain. But, in the main, it was all about Italy and France.
Early in my career, I became fascinated with wheels. The invisible tension, weightlessness, constant rotation, the mysteries of construction, and the way they transform a bicycle (much more than a frame transforms a groupset)…nothing else compared. And France dominated the wheel scene. So France was the center of my world.
Super Champion rims; Wolber, Hutchinson, Michelin, and Dugast tires; Robergel and Bayard spokes; Maillard, Atom, and Maxicar hubs; Roval wheels; and, of course, Mavic. What a huge effect these must have had on each other. Together, they were light years ahead of the rest of the World. All the subsequent wheel trends were begun here: aluminum rims, disk and carbon spoke wheels, cartridge bearing hubs, aerodynamic spokes, low spoke count wheels, high pressure clinchers, aero rims, the list goes on. For a kid in Palo Alto, reading French was mandatory and Le Cycle was a monthly inspiration.
As years went by, Mavic emerged as the only one of that group to forge a deep culture and elude the general demise of the French bicycle industry. They had both technical cleverness and a great sense of showmanship and style. This translated into the ability to read and lead the market with the obvious outcome today.
So, I obsessed over things Mavic for many years. Wheelsmith was proud to be Mavic’s largest North American customer for years. Mavic embraced us like family and we felt a confidence that the California bicycle scene, alone, couldn't have provided. So when Bruno Gormand died tragically, the ensuing company crisis was very real for us. How could the company survive when only his wife and daughters succeeded him? Bruno was larger than life. How could Ferrari have survived without Enzo, or Campagnolo without Tullio?
It was inspirational how resourceful the Gormand women proved to be. And the support they received from key Mavic staff and others enabled the beginning of an unprecedented run of product and market successes. It was convenient for us that a major US office was in nearby Monterey, we were never far from Mavic activities.
It’s funny how often I dreamt of working for Mavic. And yet, all these years, I never tried. Maybe I suspected the reality wouldn’t measure up. Or perhaps it’s better to appreciate a great organization from a safe distance.
Friday, January 4, 2008
Early sporting goods depended heavily on wood (bats, ski's, backpacks, etc.), as did boats, airplanes, furniture, and musical instruments. Today, amazing feats are being accomplished with advanced design and wood. High on my list are lightweight boats, like those made by Joe Greenley at Redfish Kayak in Port Townsend, WA (http://www.redfishkayak.com). His wood wonders are among the fastest and lightest boats available of any material.
As you can with Wheel Fanatyk, I'm quite fond of wood rims. It's more than nostalgia, the material makes a wonderful rim regardless of the vintage of bicycle you have in mind. I'm surprised wood rims are so little appreciated, given their virtues. However, many bicycle frame builders have discovered wood. Here are a few:
Bamboo frames by Craig Calfee (http://www.calfeedesign.com/bamboo.htm) have received lots of publicity, including the LA Times, Sundance Institute, and Outside Magazine.
hemp and bamboo seat cluster
The beautiful German frames of Waldmeister (http://www.waldmeister-bikes.de/) take full advantage of the springy, shock absorption potential of wood.
picture by Christian Rokosch
In Portland, OR, Daedalus Cycles (http://www.daedaluscycles.com) has just launched a bamboo frame business.
One of the most appealing wood bicycle concepts lately is the Jano by the Austrian design firm, GP (http://gp.co.at/works/jano/). Their Web site does a wonderful job of explaining the structural and aesthetic considerations involved in the use of wood for such a fundamental product as a bicycle frame.
a monocoque laminate
While there are certainly a dozen more wood bicycle makers at work, I'll just end with a glimpse at a fascinating new urban park design for NYC's Governor's Island. The Dutch design group, West8 (http://www.west8.nl) recently won the contract for this project. They envision wood bicycles for the use of visitors. What a delightful concept.
a fleet ready to go
art and utility
So, when are these "enlightened" designers going to wake up to wood rims? Soon, we hope!
Thursday, January 3, 2008
- carbon fiber = 1.7
- aluminum = 2.7
- wood (beech) = .7
Because wood is so light, its resistance to bending is necessarily less than metals. Compared to the other materials, wood needs more frequent spoke support. So, we use traditional spoke numbers like 32 and 36 per wheel. In fact, wood's long reign as premier high performance rim is a major reason for these particular spoke counts. Even three decades after switching to aluminum alloys wheel makers retained these numbers. In the face of aerodynamic evidence, spoke numbers have come down dramatically. However, research shows that the wind resistance of larger spoke numbers only becomes a liability at high speeds rare outside of competition.
So, given more spoke support, what kind of wheel does this solid but very light material make? First, the lower spoke tensions that wood prefers allow it to move around more. This additional degree of motion allows it to absorb shock, to attenuate the vibrations of the road; the same as a lower pressure tire. But the actual deflection of a wood rim during riding is tiny, so the bicycle's quickness is not impaired. What seems to disappear are the higher frequency vibrations of pavement that can tire the body over time and make joints ache. An aluminum rim, built to lower tension, would also move around. Unfortunately, aluminum does not absorb energy to the degree of other materials like steel, wood or composites. So the comfort benefit would be small.
In addition to shock absorption, wood is harder to dent. Its low density means that a pot hole will create only local damage: a nick rather than a generalized dent that might interfere with braking. So, wood rims are legendary for resisting dents; a valuable asset in a world of poorly paved roads. One further advantage is the heat resistance of wood. Rim braking dumps large amounts of heat into the brake caliper and rim, in order to slow the vehicle. Aluminum rims eagerly accept this heat which, when excessive, can melt the tire or tire cement, causing failures. Wood rims refuse to accept this heat preferring, instead, to burn superficially at their surface. A wood rim pushed to braking extremes will create a barely detectable burning odor, but its tires remain cool. The flip side of this tendency is higher heat that brake pads see. Unable to hand off the heat to the wood rim, traditional brake pads will melt on wood. This characteristic can be managed.
On first glance, the thermal characteristics of wood seem similar to carbon fiber: neither readily accepting heat. However, the similarity is superficial. A carbon rim accepts heat slowly, a wood rim nearly not at all. During a demanding descent, brake pads can feel overheated with either material, but slowly and relentlessly the carbon rim becomes hotter and hotter. It dissipates the heat too slowly, so can reach melting temperatures. Wood, on the other hand, might burn a bit on the surface but as a bicycle rim will not reach elevated temperatures. Bottom line, no rim material is ideal for braking. Aluminum or carbon, wood or magnesium, dealing with thousands of watts and trying to protect an inflated tire is a tough and hazardous job.
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
A deep riding position reached its extreme in the early ‘80’s with new aerodynamic ideas. Even leisure riders had little option than to follow the trend to uncomfortable but efficient postures. Recently, more attention has been paid to the needs of some overlooked niches (women, older riders, etc.) and alternatives entered the market. As the industry ran out of customers who swallow fashion unquestioningly, it's been noticed that women outnumber men and mature riders are buying more bikes than youth.
An overreaction is typical of herd behavior and many very upright positions have become available on high performance bikes. From the competition point of view, this trend seems to have gone too far. Competitors are not changing the way the market does.
So, it's a good time to review the costs and benefits of back angle:
(1) The most natural posture is upright. An ergonomic office chair or standing provides this. Any departure needs some explanation.
(2) For pedaling in circles, upright posture favors quadriceps and disadvantages glutes/hamstrings. This is fine for low intensity, long duration because quads have the most bulk and best circulation. However, for peak efforts, the more muscle groups engaged, the more power. Leaning forward enables glutes/hamstrings to contribute, so riders feel stronger. So, leaning forward permits more power for bursts.
(3) Upright back puts more weight on the rear wheel; unless the wheelbase is stretched, which makes a long, slow, awkward bike. A minimal wheelbase is preferable. For handling, 2 wheel vehicles want fairly equal weight distribution. Sit upright (90°, measured from hips to shoulders, ignoring back arc) and it’s about 30:70 (front:rear). Lean forward to a comfortable 45° and it’s 40:60. Lean further forward to a sporty 30° and it will approach 47:53, thought by some to be a golden ratio. Here you have few speed wobbles and a front wheel that resists washing out in corners. Yet, there’s not so much weight forward to limit deceleration (lifting the rear wheel). You can easily determine your weight distribution by placing a scale under your front wheel with the rear at the same height. Divide this weight by the vehicle total and you have the front percentage. Play with back angle and watch the number change.
(4) Leaning forward reduces frontal area which makes cooling more of a challenge but lowers wind resistance, a serious factor at the high speeds of competition.
(5) Most healthy adults report few chronic pains with leaning angles of 35° - 45°. So, a posture with a good balance of benefits is available to most. This helps explain why leisure riding on racing bikes is popular.
I’ve raised my stem substantially over the past 10 years as I adjust to lower back stiffness. I have several disk herniations from accidents in the past. At this point, my bars (top surface) are only 2-3cm below saddle (top surface). If I were undamaged, that would be 5-8cm.
Higher stems favor folks like me and, conveniently, neophytes with more office chair than bike racing experience. Unfortunately, too many women’s specific bikes are offering these upright postures. Yet, women are generally more capable than men of low riding postures, even as novices. That's a trend that has gone much too far.
As far as the science behind all this, physics hasn’t changed. A 30°ish posture was typical for competition for the first 100 years; look closely at Coppi or Anquetil. Aerodynamic awareness has driven us to sacrifice comfort and muscle health a bit in favor of lower wind resistance. However, the speeds at which those postures really deliver are higher than most any training, endurance, or triathlon session. So, weekend warriors with such position are really following fashion and marketing.
Lower position has a tiny effect on handling, just as lower BB height, by lowering your center of gravity. A rider may notice such a trade off but, ultimately, races aren’t won with handling and good riders can out corner everyone with the worst handling bike. Handling, within the range found among most road bikes, is not the performance factor (as in the automotive world) that most suppose. It’s more a matter of preference, like clothing fabrics and fit.
Among pro team mechanics, the consensus is that this upright trend has gone too far especially with bikes whose super tall head tubes prevent low positions.
Every rider needs to be aware that his/her back angle is an option. Absent an orthopedic consideration, that angle matches a riding objective. For leisure riders, 60° may prove ideal. For athletic oriented training, 45° is probably enough. A competition minded rider will likely want 30°. And an actual competitor with high level aspirations will be in the 10° range. In the best of all worlds, fitting begins with this angle. Then, a bicycle is built below this posture, proportioned to support the contact points and deliver handling appropriate to the ride.