The Chainlink

When Pro-Level Bike Tech is a Bad Thing

By Brett Ratner (photo by Scott Wilson)

The perfect race car crosses the finish line in first place and then falls to pieces.
~ Ferdinand Porsche

Any race car which holds together for a whole race is too heavy.
~ Colin Chapman:

As with cars, snowboards and basketball shoes, much of the bike gear we use and enjoy was developed and perfected in elite-level racing.

Oftentimes referred to as "trickle down" technology, it's a process that allows the cutting edge materials, aerodynamic properties and component designs the pros use to eventually find their way onto the bikes we ride.

Unlike the ill-fated economic philosophy of the same name, this trickle down is very much a good thing. In some respects, it enables today's mid-level, reasonably-priced performance-oriented bikes to be as light, stiff, smooth and responsive as an International pro's bike from - say - five-to-seven years ago.

That may not sound like a big deal, but consider how much you'd have to spend to purchase a production automobile that even remotely approaches the performance of a LeMans or Formula 1 car from the 1980s, let alone the late 2000s.

Whether you agree or not, it's hard to argue the notion that thanks to racing-related testing, research and development, today's bikes offer mind-blowing performance. Mid-level bikes can do a lot of stuff yesterday's bikes can only dream of (especially in the mountain bike realm) and pro-level steeds are on another planet entirely.

I experienced this firsthand a few weekends ago. Taking part in the factory demo day put on as part of the Palos Meltdown mountain bike race, I had the pleasure of testing (on my favorite trails, no less) a full-on, zero-compromise cross country race machine. The bike - a Niner One 9 RDO - had top-of-the-line carbon everything...frame, bars, stem, seat post, crank set, rims...even the brake levers were carbon. The drivetrain, fork and brakes were the same the pros use too, and set up perfectly by a factory-trained mechanic.

While I've ridden some sweet bikes around the parking lot on occasion, this was only the second time I've had the opportunity to put actual hard miles on a pro-level bike like this. The other time was also a factory demo (which took place during RAGBRAI) where I got to take a Specialized S-Works Tarmac out for an entire day.

Granted, one demo was a mountain bike and one was a road bike - but my takeaway was the same. When I mashed down on the pedal, the bike felt like it wanted to shoot out from under me. Its steering was razor sharp, and with the slightest pull from my index fingers, it stopped with authority. These bikes simply did everything with more precision and a greater sense of urgency than any bike I've owned.

To put it another way, if you ever have the chance to ride a pro-level race bike, you owe it to yourself. It's an amazing experience. But should you OWN a bike with all the same technology? Well, that's a different question entirely.

For sure, I applaud the bike industry for always pushing the envelope in an effort to make pro bikes faster and better...and then using that knowledge to make our bikes faster and better too. But I question the decision to put some of that tech on mid-level (and and even occasionally entry-level) bikes. And I question our judgement as consumers for buying it up.

Why? The answer is simple. Top-level pro racers have team mechanics who meticulously clean and adjust the race bikes after every event. Consumable parts (drive train components, bottom brackets, brake pads, etc.) are regularly replaced whether they're worn out or not. The team has a truck full of spare wheels, ready to be thrown on a bike if one gets damaged. And depending on the level of the pro rider and/or team, there may be sponsors providing replacement parts for free or at a deep discount.

Race bikes are meant to be light, fast and - when possible - easy to work on. In the quest for lightness/fastness, it's possible that certain aspects of the bike (consumable parts in particular) aren't intended to last more than a season, if that. Some things, I'd argue, aren't really meant to last more than a few races.

This is totally fine for elite racers and enthusiasts with deep pockets. But most everyday riders and weekend racers, in my opinion, would be better served with gear that sacrifices a teeny bit of weight and stiffness for a bit more practicality, durability, and finally compatibility with other stuff that's out there.

So, the point of this article is to discuss some recent technological advancements and whether, in my opinion, they should be featured on bikes clearly not designed for elite-level competition.

In other words, are they appropriate for people who ride their bikes for transportation, participate in stuff like centuries and gravel rides, and maybe occasionally compete in their local crit/mountain/'cross series. Are they a good choice for people (like me!) who don't have time to clean and maintain bikes as often as we should.

This is strictly my opinion. So if you disagree with something, or want to point out an aspect of a technology I'm getting wrong, we welcome your comments below!

Tech: New Bottom Bracket Standards
My Opinion: Run away!!!

For years and years, your crank set likely spun in your bike's frame via an "English Threaded" bottom bracket. Regardless of manufacturer and intended use, practically all bike frames adhered to this standard ("standard" meaning the diameter and width of the frame's bottom bracket tube and the size of the threads at the ends of the tube). This standard made it quite easy to upgrade or replace crank-related parts.

A square taper bottom bracket bearing was the actual mechanism threaded into the frame's bottom bracket tube that kept your cranks on and made them spin. These work awesome, but are somewhat heavy, and place the bearings somewhat close together, which many say can sacrifice stiffness when you're pedaling hard.

Eventually, component makers invented the external cup bottom bracket bearing. These screw right into the English threaded bottom brackets we know and love, move the bearings outward for more stiffness at the crank, save a bit of weight, are very easy to install and - as far as I've seen - are durable as can be. I've personally put tens of thousands of trouble-free, four-season miles on both the SRAM GXP and Shimano types.

But then all hell broke loose. We are now in the midst of a bottom bracket standard war, and every major manufacturer is forging ahead with a different design. While I can't argue the improvement in lightness and stiffness, beyond that I think it sucks for regular cyclists. I could go into detail about all the craziness and try to differentiate a BB86 from a PressFit 30 from a 386EVO, but instead I'll point you to this well-written article on BikeRadar by the AngryAsian.

An English threaded external cup bottom bracket bearing (left) and a BB30 bottom bracket bearing (right). While lighter and (it's claimed) stiffer, the BB30 bottom bracket standard is, in my opinion, not durable and reliable enough for everyday cycling.

I personally own a bike with a BB30 and another with a PressFit 30. Both perform well when new bearings are installed (I'd actually give the nod to the BB30 in the performance department). In terms of durability, the PF30 is merely OK. The BB30? It seems I can look at it wrong and it starts clicking, grinding, creaking and otherwise going bad.

I once walked up to component company's booth at a bike event and asked about bottom bracket durability. Their response was that "...it only costs $45. It's not really designed to last more than a season. Just put in a new bottom bracket every time you replace your chain."

I can kinda live with this sentiment with regard to the PF30, being that it's on my mountain bike, which I only ride for fun on weekends. But on a bike I ride every day, 12 months per year? I don't think that's acceptable. It's certainly not acceptable in terms of the BB30 on my 'cross bike, which goes bad after two gravel races.

I must not be alone in this way of thinking because a company called Praxis Works has carved out a tidy little niche selling a conversion bottom bracket that lets you retrofit your BB30 or PF30 frame with tried and true Shimano Hollowtech or SRAM GXP cranks.

I mean, if a tech is so bad that companies are profiting through the manufacture of retrofit kits, I think that's pretty telling.

I actually installed one of these on my BB30 'cross bike, raced a full season of 'cross and completed five long-distance spring gravel events. Thus far, it's proven to be rock solid and I couldn't be happier.

This Praxis Works BB30-to-Shimano Hollowtech retrofit kit has stood up to all the abuse I've thrown at it. Excellent product.

My advice? Seek out frames with English threaded bottoms brackets when/if you can. But unfortunately, with all the major manufacturers trying to push their version of the new BB standard, English threaded frames will be harder and harder to find.

Tech: Wheel Systems
My Opinion: No.

This is more of an aftermarket thing than an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) thing, but I still think it's worth discussion.

Most wheels consist of a standard, universally-compatible hub, spokes and a rim. These components can come from as many as three different manufacturers and are assembled, usually by hand, into a wheel. If any of these components break or wear out, it can easily be replaced.

A "wheel system" is a wheel designed as a unit, comprised of non-standard, non-universal components. It will have proprietary spokes that connect in some special way to proprietary hubs and rims. One high-end company even offers wheel systems that come with specially-designed tires.

From a performance standpoint, no argument here. I actually rode the heck out of a wheel system. It was when I wore out the rims that I ran into trouble.

The Shimano wheel system (background) served me well until Shimano stopped stocking replacement parts. The handbuilt wheel (foreground) may add a bit of weight but it's way easier to fix when stuff wears out or breaks.

This particular wheel set (Shimano Dura Ace) had this special design that placed the spoke nipples at the hub. It makes perfect sense from an engineering standpoint in that it lowers the rotational weight at the rim (think of an ice skater bringing her arms tight to her body to increase the speed of her spin). But a few years later, Shimano ditched the design and no longer supported the product with replacement parts. So when it came time for new rims, they simply weren't available. And thanks to the proprietary design, I couldn't just slap a set of aftermarket rims on there. So, despite having a beautiful set of high-end hubs with years of use left in them, I ended up with a couple of paperweights.

So my advice? If you don't mind having a wheel you'll eventually have to throw away, go for it. Otherwise, take a pass on the wheel system and have your local bike shop lace you up a set of wheels custom. In addition to durability and the ability to easily replace stuff that wears out, a good wheel builder can fine tune the wheel set for your weight and riding style.

 

Tech: Stuff Made Light at the Expense of Strength
My Opinion: Save weight by laying off the pizza and beer

Again, this may be more of an aftermarket issue, but a couple of examples come to mind here.

The first example is the Thomson Elite X2 stem. I have one installed on my road bike and another on my track bike. They've provided me years and years of reliable service, but to save weight, Thomson designed the stem with two bolts at the handlebar clamp (instead of the standard four). Because of this, even when the bolts are properly tightened with a torque wrench and liquid torque is applied, the handlebar is still prone to slipping if I hit a bad bump or something along those lines. This has never been a problem with any four-bolt stem design I've ever used. Not only is it annoying, it's potentially dangerous. Moving forward, I'll sacrifice a few grams and opt for Thomson's four-bolt mountain bike stem, or go with another brand.

This stem has performed great but the two-bolt design has allowed some slippage from time to time. A four-bolt pattern may add weight but should offer a more solid connection with the handlebar.

The second example is the time I thought I'd be all fancy and get a Dura Ace cassette for my road bike. Unbeknownst to me, the larger cogs in the cassette are made from titanium. While this saved weight and sounded cool, it ultimately gave me a cassette that cost twice as much and lasted half as long. Since then I've stuck with Shimano 105, Ultegra or mid-level SRAM and been quite happy.

So, my advice? Light is awesome, but if you ride the bike a lot, make sure you have strength and durability where it counts.

Tech: Disc Brakes
My Opinion: Hellz yeah! (provided it's on a frame with through axles)

Disc brakes are a bit of a hot topic right now, and quite a polarizing one too. Much to my surprise, they've brought out the "retro-grouch" in even the most tech happy cyclists I know.

They've been the standard on mountain bikes for years and years. And despite dogged resistance from some journalists and consumers, discs have pretty much taken over 'cross bikes and are starting to find their way onto road bikes. It may not happen right away, but it seems a foregone conclusion that the TDF peloton will be on discs one day.

Personally I'm all for it. Having ridden a small handful of long, steep descents (such as during our recent trip to Solvang, California), I can say that getting down a narrow, twisty mountain road with 14-20% grades is clearly possible with caliper brakes, but would be a lot more fun with more stopping power. The owner of the Solvang rental shop echoed this sentiment, admitting to me that his disc brake-equipped Specialized Roubaix is now his bike of choice for the mountains.

I'm on my third generation of hydraulic mountain bike disc brakes. I used to find discs to be a huge PITA. But this latest set (Avid Elixir 9 Trails) are awesome. I think the component manufacturers are really starting to dial discs in. They feel great, they're crazy powerful...and (finally) reliable and low maintenance.

My only caveat is that I think disc brakes need to be paired with a through axle. I'm done futzing around with quick release skewers trying to get the disc rotor to line up in the caliper so it doesn't rub (and finally giving up and re-adjusting the caliper so it lines up with the disc). A through axle ensures the rotor lines up perfectly every time. It's also crazy stiff and IMO not less convenient than a quick release skewer to remove. It takes three more seconds, tops.

Disc brakes at the way to go, provided your frame and fork uses a through axle like this one.

So, my advice? Stop hating on discs. You should strongly consider them for your next bike purchase.

Tech: Tubeless Tires
My Opinion: Yep for mountain, not yet for road and 'cross

Like disc brakes, tubeless tires are another technology that's pretty much the standard in mountain bikes, and slowly working its way over to 'cross and road.

While they feel ah-may-zing on a mountain bike AND offer increased puncture resistance (the sealant can plug up small punctures while you ride), the technology seems not quite ready for prime time in other disciplines. As this video from the Global Cycling Network suggests, tubeless tires on road bikes add weight and complexity while sacrificing ride quality. On 'cross bikes, many riders who try tubeless suffer "burps" where the tire loses air during situations like hard cornering.

Tubeless tires are proven in elite-level mountain bike competition, as well as gravel events, but have a ways to go before they could be the norm for cyclocross and road.

My impression is that the the technology isn't quite there yet, but will be in a year or two. A lot of R&D is going into sealants, rim design and tire construction. I feel confident that at some point, tubeless will be the way to go across the board. And when that happens, we'll also have a lot more tubeless tire options than we have now.

1x11 Drivetrains
My Opinion: Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!

Again, from mountain bikes comes a technology that transitioned to 'cross and is just starting to crop up on pavement bikes.

Is this because mountain biking lends itself to developing new tech? Or is it because mountain bikers by nature are more open to new tech?

Regardless, creating SRAM's 1x11 drive train wasn't as simple as slapping a single front chain ring on a bike. The system was developed from the ground up for this purpose and features a special cassette, a rear derailleur with a roller bearing clutch to eliminate chain slap, and finally a "narrow/wide/narrow/wide" front chain ring to help prevent the chain from falling off.

Admittedly, the HUGE cassette looks a little odd, but I really can't ever see myself using a front derailleur on a mountain bike ever again. Only having to worry about shifting "up" and "down" lets me redirect a lot of mental bandwidth toward tackling the trail. And even though I only have 11 widely-spaced gears (10t-42t), I never find myself in a situation where if I shift up, it's too hard and if I shift down it's too easy. I always seem to be able to find the right gear.

If you're OK aesthetically with a pie plate-sized cassette, a 1x11 drivetrain (as seen on this Niner One 9 RDO) is a really cool option.

Other advantages include weight savings, it's quiet, the chain line stays straight and there's fewer breakable parts on the bike.

This system has already been proven in elite-level racing in mountain bike and 'cross. Multi-time mountain bike world champion Nino Schurter is rocking a 1x11, as is multi-time national cyclocross national champion Jeremy Powers. Not surprisingly, it's starting to crop up in purpose-built criterium bikes too.

My opinion? I'm guessing road racers will still need dual chain rings mated to cassettes with more closely-spaced gears. But for commuter bikes and touring bikes, I'd have to think this could be an ideal setup.

In Conclusion
I think new tech developed in elite racing is generally a good thing and should be embraced. But cycling has a long, rich history of failed ideas. So just because something is the hot thing right now doesn't mean it will be the hot thing in two years. My advice is to take new tech with a grain of salt. And before you plunk down your hard-earned cash, make sure it's right for you and the way you ride.

About the Author
Brett Ratner (brett@thechainlink.org) began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.

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Comment by Greg Valent on September 26, 2015 at 11:46am

Great article. Lots to cover and, you did it ! I just built up a new 'urban assault bicycle' as I call my all-around bike. I'm all for light weight, where it's practical, as I invested in a titanium frame, but, strength/reliability comes first. Drivetrain and wheels/tires are pretty bullet proof. Lastly, living in Chicago, how many gears do you really need ? My previous had a triple chainring 8 cog setup, 1999 vintage. Only used 2 or 3 in the city, but, the extras came in handy out of town. Since I still wanted triple chainrings, I'm older now, I had to go with  Campy. Ready for this, a 3 x 11 setup ! So many more gears to not use, but, it still gives me some bragging rights. Keep on Pedalin', Greg V.

Comment by Brett Ratner on August 27, 2015 at 2:23pm

That I do not know, Jim!

Comment by Jim Reho on August 25, 2015 at 6:52pm

Thanks for the time you obviously put into this very informative article.

I watched the Global Cycling Network video about tubeless tires.  I do have one question.  Was that guy's codpiece freestanding, or was it actually an integral feature of his outfit?

Comment by Brett Ratner on August 21, 2015 at 2:10pm

Frank!

Thank you for the detailed response!

You raise a lot of good points here. I haven't experienced any of the durability/reliability issues you describe with regard to the 1x11, but then again I've only used it on a mountain bike...which only gets ridden once per week or so, and never in the snow/salt or mud.

For use on a daily driver, perhaps a 1x11 may not, in fact, be the best choice. As it stands, my daily driver has a 3x9, which is unquestionably reliable, cheap to repair and gives me a huge range of gears.

Having ridden a 3x9 mountain bike, however, that setup leaves a lot to be desired...especially when riding technical trails that have lots of quick elevation changes. For those situations, I really think the performance gains you get with a 1x11 are worth it.

Anyway, thank you again!

Comment by Frank Brichetto on August 21, 2015 at 2:05am

Brett, I am in complete agreement with you on BBs, wheels vs "wheel systems", light components, etc.  I have no experience with tubeless tires and so cannot comment.  But I will take issue with your evaluation of the 1x11 drivetrains, and in fact with much of the drivetrain development over the last few years.

Going from 5 speed to 6,7, - and now 11 cog cassettes has forced manufacturers to build bikes from 120mm rear wheel spacing to 125, 128 and now (how wide are hubs now? 148mm? Really?).  The cogs are thinner, and so wear faster, chains are narrower, but chainstays have stayed the pretty much the same.  At the same time the smallest cogs have gone from 14t down to 10t, and in an 1x11 set up the single chainring takes all the load, all the time.

All of which wears a lot faster than need be.  The chain has to bow across a wider arc than ever before, and chains made to accommodate such bowing will, as a side effect, wear out faster, owing to the increased play that has to be built in to make it work.  It's all more expensive to replace, and it all, as with those (expletive deleted) bottom brackets, wears out much sooner.  This is a boon to the component supplier, perhaps, but a problem for most of the rest of us. 

I will stick with 2 x 10, if I can get it, and look for bikes, both mountain and road, with long chainstays, to minimize the bow and extend the life of every component.  Cross chaining is a bigger problem in a double set up than with a single, perhaps, but I can avoid it without much difficulty.  By doing it this way I can also start my cassettes at 12t, rather than 10, giving a 20% improvement in engagement, and the associated reduction in wear of the smaller cogs.  The extra support for the chain should help reduce stretch, too.  Yeah, it's heavier.  Please.  With today's components, it's less than 6 ounces, as the increased weight of shifter, cable, and inner ring are offset quite a bit by reducing the largest cassette cogs to achieve the same gear ratios.  But I'm a noted retro grouch, and I'm getting off my soapbox now.

Frank

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