Isolation for revelation :: Part II.

Continued from Part I...

Obviously, road racing changed as WWII approached. Road events became less of a kilometre-laden slog and more intense. There had always been team tactics and freewheels allowed for riders to derive greater benefit from echelon formations, etc. to get shelter from the wind. Rules in major events became less draconian and vehicular support improved as motorcycles and automobiles did. Since effort increases exponentially with speed due to air resistance, it's natural that that things took the tack they did.

Bars became narrower and the height they were set at came down (slowly over time). Brakes slowly improved too, as did the comfort of brake hoods...allowing the hoods to become a more dominant position. Frames became smaller while maintaining similar cockpit lengths, wheelbases became shorter, and trail increased. All this is indicative of bikes that are meant to be ridden in close proximity to other riders on better surfaces, and the application and subsequent improvement of multi-speed drivetrains accelerated this even further. Efficiency improved, elbows were brought in (you see recommendations in the 50s and 60s for riders to bend their hooks slightly in and up to allow the elbows to sit closer to the body). Road racing was still immensely hard physically, but it became much more of a team sport and chess match. Gone were the days of 400+km at one stretch, mostly on dirt. Queensbury Rules had supplanted 50+ round bareknuckle savagery in the context of cycling and the sport as a spectacle improved greatly for it.

So the flared drop was left behind for "real" racing, save for the few oddballs piecing together cyclocross bikes from ancient parts jumbles. Of course there were still adherents amongst the tourists, audax riders, and general dirt road free agents.

Flared drops didn't reappear on many peoples' radar until mountain biking began to pick up steam in the 1980s, where the idea of exploring the dirt in more remote areas on rougher terrain entered the general cycling consciousness again. There were great enthusiasts in this burgeoning period who were both great innovators and very interested in cycling history at the same time. Charlie Cunningham (WTB/Cunningham/Indian), Steve Potts (WTB/Steve Potts), Grant Petersen (Bridgestone), Wes Williams (Ibis/Willits - who drew inspiration from riding a Bruce Gordon Rock'n'Road off-road with larger 700c wheels, which put things in motion for bringing about the 29" mountain bike tire), and many others I'm remiss in not mentioning were instrumental in sowing the seeds for a flared, "multi-position" drop bar for dirt usage again on a wider scale. The initial result of the enthusiasm was a really high quality, sleeved, heat-treated bar designed by Cunningham and made by Nitto...branded as a WTB and/or Specialized product with a few different designations (e.g. RM-2).

The WTB Dirt Drop was/is the bomb. I was lucky enough to start my own flared drop experimentation when you could still order new (NOS) WTB Dirt Drops from a few bicycle part distributors. This was around 1999-2000.

I had ridden mountain bikes for a number of years and built a few at that point. Like most new framebuilders, the way to get further practice and to showcase improving skills was to build new bikes for yourself at a regular rate. I had been riding an old Torelli road frame all over Colorado and other places in the west (as documented in 700see #1), fueled by the nostalgia of doing the same all over the great fireroads of North Georgia on old steel road bikes before I moved to the Rockies.

The Torelli didn't really fit that great (way too small) and it was a bit of a bone by the time I had it. It was time to build a 'cross-ish bike that I would ride everywhere like a mountain bike. I was going to build it around WTB Dirt Drops sourced from QBP, a Nitto Technomic stem (as it seemed bomber), and a 1" threaded Kinesis Crosslight fork.

The bike came out well from a fit perspective, though it was a bit wambly for its size since I used seat tube(!) material for the top and down tubes. A real flexiflyer. I had chosen to build for flared drops as riding a road frame with traditional drops down washed out mining roads was less than ideal for braking and general confidence with the more hoods-dominant hand position. The hand position possible with the WTBs seemed much better for standing climbing as well as descending. It was also inspired some confidence having a sleeved, heat-treated bar in front of me when jumping off or running into stuff.

The drawing of this bike was the linchpin for design modalities that I use to this day. I knew that the dominant hand position was much lower on the bar, so that required a higher bar position. I took measurements from both the 44cm Nitto road bars I had on the Torelli and from the WTBs and I liberally lengthened my cockpit from what was on the ill-fitting 58cm Torelli (56cm TT!). With this information I placed my contact points (specifically hands and butt) where I thought they needed to be and designed the bike underneath using a 12cm Nitto Technomic stem, a titanium Litespeed post, and 170mm Mavic cranks.

The resulting bike was pretty nuts compared to something off-the-peg. I'm not crazily tall (6'2") though I do have a Larry Holmes-like wingspan and long legs to match. The bike had a 63cm effective top tube, a longer headtube than you'd see on a 60 or 62cm stock cross bike, and the tops of the bars slightly below saddle height at my preferred stem quill insertion (arrived at after some mileage and fitness gain).

This design gave me some insight into why the pre-war bikes were the way they were, as I alluded to before, with their higher bar positions allowing full use of flared hooks. Raising the bars meant they were brought closer to you as head tube angles are slacker than 90°. To have a proper cockpit with a higher bar position meant a much longer effective top tube, and therefore longer front-centre, not necessarily a bad thing for riding longer mileage on bad surfaces. 

It's definitely not the setup for modern road racing, with its importance on aerodynamics and cornering speeds. It isn't the setup for modern cyclocross racing either, with the same needs for cornering speeds and the required intensities on relatively non-technical well as shouldering and carrying the bike. To a modern road or cross racer, a flared-specific design doesn't initially inspire as much confidence during hard, tight cornering on pavement or hardpack with the position of the hands being higher and farther back in relation to the front kind of feels like steering on teflon initially. With practice though, you can still ride it plenty quick and it feels great when riding on more varied surfaces like you'd see on a long mixed bag ride incorporating road, dirt road, and mountain bike trails. You know, bike riding.

It was an eye opening experience. Now remember, this was before the internet was rife with framebuilding information. I didn't participate in the one ongoing discussion board that I knew of at the time since it seemed sort of obnoxious, I pretty much did my own thing and I urge others to give things a go without doing reams of research. Again: Sequestering yourself away from the masses can be a positive thing as far as engendering real learning and experience.

Using contact points (adjusting those as necessary first) and knowing a few general variables beforehand (e.g. frame drop, necessary clearances, brake reach if applicable, frame angles to fit the body and application, etc...), the bike would pretty much design itself and often it would turn out a hell of a lot different than if you had thought about using a certain top tube length and head tube length beforehand. The latter pretty much seemed like throwing darts to me from the word go. Doing things the former way seemed logical and, you know, custom.

I rode the hell out of that initial bike, more than I have on any other bike I've owned. Lots of 5+ hour rides on the tracks all over the east side of Leadville. Also, commuting in season 1-2 times a week 80 miles round trip over Tennessee Pass to my part-time weekend radio gig in the Vail Valley. I raced a few 100-mile mountain bike races with it too, including a nice ride at the Brian Head 100...missing a sub-9 ride by stupidly missing a turn in the singletrack and having to backtrack.

I then went to Cascade Cream Puff and didn't have as nice a time, from a racing perspective anyway. When pre-riding some of the Alpine Trail, I hit a chuckhole at high speed and managed to crack my Nitto stem on the quill shaft, cocking my bars to the left about 5°. I had a disconcerting ride back down to my campsite and, with the help of friendly Oregon locals, put out the APB for a decent 1" quill mountain stem to ride the race with. Paul's Bicycle Way of Life in Eugene saved me with a UNO MTB stem from the parts bin, only for me to end up balling up big time in the bunch grass during the race and folding up my front wheel. Doh. Later in the summer, I went through similar when I was taken out in a crash by other riders in the soon-to-be-even-bigger-zoo that is the Leadville Trail 100.
I had problems with the threaded headset/quill stem on a few other occasions. I didn't complain as I was obviously riding things above and beyond their intended purpose. It was time to start thinking about a flared drop specific design utilizing a threadless front end.

This was nothing new of course, as the flared drop mountain bike pioneers mentioned before had dealt with this. Charlie Cunningham came up with his own proprietary system circumventing the threaded designs of the time. Charlie and Steve Potts also fabricated LD stems that did the same. With Cunningham and later Wes Williams (Willits), the bar positions were maybe a bit more aggressive than some folks might like for technical descending. Both Charlie and Wes were/are tall, fit, and skilled guys where having a longer, lower cockpit in that context would be a little more acceptable. The LD stems (straight up with a gentle curve forward...hence Limp D*ck) allowed for good drop bar placement on bikes with effective top tubes meant for flat mountain bike bars with a bit of backsweep. I felt that I'd rather have the option of using stems that were readily available off-the-shelf and could be replaced easily. LD stems were custom jobs and really not much fun to make, from what I understood anyway. 

An added complexity was the fact that I wanted the ability to use off-the-shelf forks as well, mainly for ease of replacement in case the custom fork made for the frame was ruined in an accident. This was no big deal for mountain bike frames, with their longer axle-to-crown lengths. It was a big deal though once you got to road and cyclocross forks on bikes that were meant for taller riders with high saddle heights. For the most part (and still today) the longest steerers available were ~300mm. With a tall rider, that often meant using a rather high rise stem (+30-40°) or having a custom stem fabricated, often with pretty out there dimensions. For example, when I built myself a new flared drop specific bike in 2003(?) for use with a threadless headset, I had Rick Hunter make me a 165mm x 35° stem (imitating the design that Wes Williams used for Ibis Scorchers and their Crescent Moon bars) so I could get the bar position I needed while using every bit of a 300mm steerer with a standard cyclocross fork design (400mm a-c with 45mm rake). Good quality super long steerers really weren't known to me at the time. I was torn about "standover" too with my dirt riding background. Now, it's easy to get a threadless 1 1/8" 400mm steel steerer for larger, taller riders and standover concerns are overstated (IMO) for all but real, techy mountain biking. The longer steerers allow me to spec more "normal" stems (e.g. 120mm x 15°) for taller riders with requisite longer headtubes. I still worry about a fork with a 300+mm steerer being ruined after a collision (like one with a vehicle or a log) and the rider being stuck waiting for a new custom fork or having limited choices off-the-shelf to get rolling again.

To be continued in Part III...

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