Isolation for revelation :: Part I.

NOTE :: I originally was going to post 'Isolation for revelation' as one big post, but it's just too long - especially in these days of internet attention spans, so here is Part I with more to come:

That's my bike above. My only bike at this juncture. It probably will be for a while. I built it 5+ years ago, I think, and it's a constant reminder that my work is much nicer now. If it had been built for a customer, I would have taken the hacksaw to it, thrown it in the bin, and started over. The tire clearance is tighter than it should be and it's about as well aligned as I am. I didn't like it at first, but it grew on me to the point where the setup changes with regards to stems, spacers, and saddle positions have varied only slightly over that five year period, mostly influenced by real time flexibility and fitness. I suppose that's some testament to design/fit. But overall, it's a mess...1.125" > 1" shimmed headtube, 1.125" > 1" shimmed steerer clamp, 31.8mm > 25.4mm shimmed bar clamp, 50+mm chainline on a bike that only fits 32mm tires with a 450mm+ rear end, crooked rear triangle, Powergrips, etc. The mechanic often drives the rattiest car. No different here. Not a good commercial but that's the way things ended up. It feels and works great. If I built something new, it would be about the same give or take a few millimetres here and there.

But, that's all after the obvious aesthetic questions, e.g. "WTF?"

I'm of the opinion that sequestering yourself away from the masses can be a positive thing as far as engendering real learning and experience, distancing yourself from the incessant theorizing and subsequent regurgitation masquerading as knowledge. That's not to dis social networking or internet forums, which can be positive, but more to point out that new discoveries are often borne from silence and self-exploration independent of "gain."

My own journey of riding and then specializing in bikes for flared drop bars came about in a pretty roundabout way - so I thought I'd talk about how I learned some things about using bars such as the WTB Dirt Drop, On One Midge, Salsa Woodchipper, and others.

As most of you know, flared drop bars were once the norm for sporting bikes that were meant to be ridden quickly. Pre-WWI up until the late 1930s or so saw road racers, cyclo crossers, and fast tourists using drop bars set quite high by today's standards with the hooks bent outward to allow for both a natural, supported hand position in the hooks and for wrist clearance when standing and climbing.

This choice was certainly not based on aerodynamics, but rather on drivetrain, brakes, and the nature of long road events at that time. The majority of go-fast riders before the late 1930s (and many for long after) were riding fixed wheel (especially in Commonwealth countries) or single freewheel (on the Continent). 

On the subject of drivetrain, allow me to digress for a moment...
With the popularity of fixed wheel bikes over the last five years or so, I've seen some pretty over-the-top statements from rather zealous + excitable (read: new) fixed riders attributing super-human feats to the hardmen of yore, knocking off multiple grand tours on direct drive drivetrains as well as leaping over alpine ranges and deflecting bullets with barrel chests in  incredible displays of wine-soaked machismo.

No doubt that you had to be resilient to be a good professional racer in the pre-war days. But, racing back then doesn't differ from today's racing in the fact that every available competitive advantage was studied and experimented with. The amount of fixed wheel riding that happened, for instance, in the Tour de France pre-WWI is grossly exaggerated. The ever changing rules of the Tour (especially in the early days) coupled with two terrible human conflicts destroying large swaths of Europe make nailing down equipment rule minutia from year to year well nigh impossible for even the most ardent cycling history writers like Woodland, Willcockson, Mullholland, the McGanns, etc. There were certain stages pre-WWI that riders were required to ride fixed. There were even Tours where the bulk of the route was ridden fixed (e.g. 1911). But, the fact of the matter is that the freewheel is far more prevalent in early Tour history and there was plenty of experimentation with multi-speed drivetrains (in the form of internally geared hubs like Sturmey-Archers) before 1937 and not in the second "tourist" class. This includes legendary riders like Lapize and Alavoine.

There's some queer sentimentalism regarding a time that none of us lived in. I'm guilty of it for sure...turning things black and white, grainy, and cinematic. Riding a fixed wheel off-road in the mountains is difficult, even now with all the technical advancements we take for granted like bearings that work and stuff that stays tight. Those guys back in the day wanted to do well and get paid. People in the Civil War wanted to go home. People living through food rationing wanted to consume more than they got.

Wanting to ride a fixed wheel or singlespeed is fine on its own. No justification necessary, especially if you want to do it well and are accepting of your mechanical limitations. No different than creating intricate skateboard tricks on a small patch of concrete (ala Rodney Mullen) or difficult rolling flatland maneuvers on a BMX bike at your local tennis court (ala Kevin Jones). Positive mental space can come from sequestering yourself and pursuing something that resonates with you.

Back to the topic at hand...

If you've spent time riding a single cog drivetrain, you know what it's like climbing any sort of grade. You have to get off your ass and lay down some power if you're going to maintain any sort of momentum. Having a good climbing position (seated or standing) on the bike as well as some modicum of fitness is one of the pure joys of cycling. Getting to the point where you look forward to climbing and steer clear of negativity when the track points upward is a big step and it's one that will come if you stick with riding a singlespeed or fixed gear. You don't have a choice if you want to really explore.

It was no different pre-war, and cycle racing back then leaned heavier towards the "battle of wills" end of the scale versus "tactical savviness," due to lesser vehicle support, lesser knowledge of the real-time race picture, longer events, rougher courses, cruder nutrition, less mechanical reliability, and greater general discomfort (meaning: contact points abraded).

With these realities, general comfort and climbing prowess held great importance. Also, brakes existed in name alone with wambly steel levers and flexy steel sidepulls. Not something you would actuate from the hoods for any sort of speed scrubbing. Mild steel forks (especially their steerers) didn't inspire a great deal of confidence either going down a goat track.

The result of all this gives us the flared drop bar. The bars were set high, with the tops of the bars at saddle height or perhaps a bit above. The flare of the hooks would closely mimic the angles your hands sat at naturally with your arms relaxed at your sides. The tips of the hooks would be angled downward to provide the broadest platform possible for your hand, also instilling some confidence in rougher terrain by allowing a rider to maintain a lighter grip on the bar without as much worry of a hand being knocked off. A skilled rider could ride lighter on his bike, allowing things to flow more naturally, safely attaining greater speed while being easier on his equipment. This hook position also provided a good platform for braking, allowing the rider to at least make some attempt at slowing down when necessary.

To see this in action, watch this short film of a French cyclocross race from 1925, paying special attention to 0:55-1:27 ► LE 2 EME CRITERIUM

Frame design was different then of course. The slack head tube and seat tube angles, large fork rake (and resulting low trail), and long chainstays are fodder for a whole other discussion. What is pertinent is general frame size. Frames for a given rider were much larger than they would be today...a longer effective top tube and a taller head tube specifically. This made things easier to set the bars in an advantageous way for flared drops while still maintaining a cockpit length that allowed the rider to breathe and relax while still having the ability to lay down some watts going uphill. Standover clearance was not on anybody's radar then, of course. I'll go into more detail about this later in the post, but suffice to say that these pre-war bikes laid the foundation for what would be necessary later on to design modern off-road flared drop specific bike using newer technology.

To be continued in Part II...

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Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
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