Isolation for revelation :: Part III.

Continued from Part I and Part II...

I first built a threadless specific flared drop mountain bike for Rudi Nadler in 2001. Rudi had experimented with Nitto Randonneur bars on his Landshark and Schwinn mountain bikes, so he had some inkling to the benefits of a flared drop setup. Being smaller (~5'6") and really flexible, it was easier for him to get a decent position on a regular mountain bike (the narrower Nitto bars helped too). Rudi decided he was ready for a bike specifically designed for flared drops (WTB Dirt Drops).

Since we were both in new-ish territory, we worked together on the design through a series of phone calls and letters mostly, becoming great friends in the process. The result was pretty out there. A 57cm effective TT (remember, Rudi ain't tall) coupled with a 90mm x 15° stem and a really long headtube. The tops of the bars ended up an inch or two above his saddle height. It fit him like a glove and bar none my favourite photo I've ever seen of my bikes has Rudi rallying a corner during a Tucson cross race in a tutu costume (in all his Jamie Farr look-a-like glory) in front of a group of three or four other riders. Rudi looked loose and relaxed, smiling as he looked "right" in jet fighter style while everyone around him showed signs of tension and effort in their faces and positions. Shoulders hunched, arms rigid, grimaced, white knuckled, and locked to narrow ill-placed traditional drops and narrow flat bars. A lot of this was Rudi of course, being fit and flexible, but to me and a lot of others (disturbing costume not withstanding), it was the best commercial for flared drop usage possible.

There was another wrinkle as I had become interested in riding fixed wheel off-road everywhere after years of singlespeed mountain biking, borne both from my riding fixed as a messenger in Atlanta and with the stories of Team Hugh Jass in Harrisonburg, VA riding 24 hour and 100 mile mountain bike races on completely clapped out bikes set up fixed with the most random jumble of parts possible. They were effing strong too. Rudi was intrigued and got into it too. Over the phone we compared notes and revelations as far as tweaking one's position as well as the bike. This too was nothing new, as the training bible of road cyclists through the 1970s, the CONI manual, alluded to the use of fixed wheels geared as low as what we were riding now on mountain biking terrain as a means not only to build pre-season fitness and souplesse but to help dial in position as well.

There's nowhere to hide as far as fit when you're riding a fixed wheel geared in the low 50s as far as gear inches. No standing and coasting. No stretching. No getting behind the saddle on sketchy descents. No rear brake. This sort of riding was pretty far away from anything we'd experienced. Even riding a singlespeed was pretty far removed despite the aesthetic similarities. You just didn't have the mobility on the bike that you had when you rode with a freewheel, multi-speed mechanisms or not. It proved to be a great thing for dialing in the nuances of threadless flared drop setups (as well as saddle position) for riding long distances, especially off-road. Again, we weren't really breaking new ground. This was all stuff learned by folks 80-90 years before us, who didn't have decent gloves, forgiving footwear, or a comfortable interface in their shorts. We were learning it independently through doing it ourselves.

I designed and built more bikes for flared drops, ranging from cross-ish bikes with larger clearances (which my friend Wade Beauchamp of Vulture Cycles later termed as "monstercross" - a name which stuck) to full-on 29" wheel mountain bikes. The resulting bikes worked well and I got good feedback, including plenty from people that had ridden flared drops since the 80s as well as people that owned bikes from Cunningham and Steve Potts. That meant a lot to me.

As time went on, more and more people became interested in flared drop specific bikes for the dirt (as well as for longer mixed surface riders and randonneurs) thanks to the internet. The rub though was that a custom frame wasn't necessarily possible for a lot of riders and there was no way that a lot of folks were going to shell out a large amount of money on such unknown, off-beat design parameters.

So, people wanted to start converting existing frames to flared drop usage with threadless stems, mostly mountain bikes that were made for using flats and risers. Most people were/are not successful in coming up with a setup that they stick with long term when trying to convert an existing frame, and there are reasons for that.

The first reason involves the nature of internet discourse. The internet is an amazing tool, but unfortunately it doesn't really engender patient investigation or problem solving. What I've witnessed via the screen is another glorified game of dart throwing that generally consists of buying a cheap 25-40° rise stem bolted to an already cut fork steerer and a crappy ripoff flared drop bar. This is understandable again because people don't want to invest money in something that they are unsure of. The problem is that there's no real plan or modicum of conundrum rectification introduced into the the result is a bar that is too far away and too low, or too high and close, both of which suck. So, via internet logic, drop bars must suck as well and on to the next distraction. A textual game of egoism ensues with the vociferous blind leading the inquisitive blind and the snowball grows. I'm not saying this to be snarky or smug. I'm saying this because I see it play out over and over again...and not just with flared drop conversions.

Second reason involves the specific needs of flared drop bars and how most modern "normal" frames (especially mountain bikes) are often ill-suited to this sort of conversion without a pretty wacky custom stem being fabricated for it. This is thinking about things purely from a "fit" perspective, without even thinking about handling or traction at each end of the bike - we aren't starting from scratch. Design always depends on the rider, but flared drop bars really throw a wrench in the works due to their necessary placement and due to modern opinions about what a bike should look like.

Everything comes down to contact points...set specifically by saddle height, handlebar height, and cockpit length (I measure this from the center of the saddle to the center of the handlebar clamp, others do it differently). 

Saddle height is pretty easy for most people to get dialed in, and it's really the most important piece of the puzzle when setting up flared drops as bar height in relation to the saddle is so important. If you take two 5'11" riders: one with a long torso + a 740mm saddle height and another with long legs + a 790mm saddle height, the resulting setups (stem choice + spacer stack, or frame design if building something custom) will be very different. As a rule, riders with longer legs for their height present more challenges as far as getting situated with flared drops (and many off-the-peg bikes for that matter). Riders with shorter legs for their height can be much easier.

Handlebar height when dealing with flared drops usually means getting the tops of the bars around saddle height, maybe a little higher for shorter riders and at saddle height or a little lower for riders 6' and taller. Everyone is different and we're just talking in ballpark terms right now. You're going to be setting the bars higher than the flats or risers on your mountain bike, much higher than the tops on your cyclocross bike, and way higher than the tops on your road bike.

So here's the important part, and why flared drops throw a wrench in the works: The trick is to get a reasonable cockpit length that allows you to ride properly while having that higher bar height. I know I've said this before in other articles/postings and it sounds simple...but sometimes getting everything to line up when you have too many set variables (e.g. a stock frame)is like trying to hit a moving target going away from you with a water balloon as you hang out the window of your buddy's rolling pickup truck. Let's look at the long legged 5'11" rider mentioned before...we'll call him Mr. X.

All of Mr. X's bikes have 175mm cranks and his saddle height on all his bikes is around 790mm, give or take a few millimetres. Mr. X has a 29" wheeled mountain bike with flat bars (11° sweep) and a cockpit length of 750mm. Next to that bike in the shed is a "gran fondo" sort of road bike for doing longer rides with a cockpit of 725mm and the bars set for riding primarily on the hoods. Mr. X also has a cyclocross race bike with a cockpit length of 720mm with traditional drops set a little higher than he has on the road bike. All in all, pretty normal. Everything is comfortable and fits him pretty well.

For those coming from mountain biking and wanting to ride flared drops off-road, I generally look at their mountain bike cockpit and get feedback on how things are fitting with their flat or riser bars, thinking of what adjustments might need to be made. Then, based on what I've learned over the years, I take that adjusted cockpit length number and subtract anywhere from 20-40mm from it, again depending on the situation and said feedback. I understand that this is all rather general, but we're again only dealing in ballpark figures to illustrate differences. So, for Mr. X:

750mm - 30mm = 720mm

You can see that the resulting number is the same as what Mr. X already has for his cyclocross bike, but don't forget that we are trying to replicate this cockpit number with a much higher bar position and a drops-centric hand position. Remember, again, that as bar height is raised, cockpit length decreases as head angles are slacker than 90°. Sometimes it's not easy to get all the dots to connect because:

- With mountain bikes, effective top tube lengths and head tube lengths are set for using shorter stems with flats/risers, as well as providing adequate front-centre for clearing obstacles and descending rougher terrain. This means that top tubes are generally too long coupled with head tubes being too short (29" wheel bikes can be easier with their necessary higher head tube bottoms) to make flared drop set up easy with most off-the-shelf stems. This isn't always the case though, as riders with a low saddle height for their physical height have some hope in dialing things in with readily available stems and careful stock frame choice.

- With modern all-road and cyclocross bikes, effective top tubes and head tubes are designed for drops being primarily ridden on the hoods and for weighting the front wheel more aggressively for cornering purposes. This means that top tubes are generally too short coupled, again, with head tubes being too short as well. It's a little easier to retrofit a cross frame for flared drops, but it requires a much longer/higher rise stem (possibly needing to go custom), especially on a more aggressively designed "real" race bike. The aesthetic result certainly isn't for everyone either, especially when the bike has a level top tube.

So you can see that a flared-specific design for a certain size person kind of falls in a no man's land versus more traditional stock offerings: top tube length falling between that of a MTB and cross bike + a taller head tube top than both. It is possible (and I do this for anyone that's not a full-on flared drop adherent) to design from scratch to allow for both flared drop usage and an alternate bar setup, be it an allowance for using flats/risers (or even Jones bars/backswept bars for taller riders) or more traditional hoods-centric drop bars, by specifying different stems and spacer stacks...all the time being mindful of handling concerns, etc. but making fit/comfort the main priority.

The resulting bikes are certainly not traditional in any way, shape, or form. Here the spectre of internet discussion rares its head again. The brain-to-keyboard wiring diagram in regards to anonymous electro-"interaction" is far more elementary than the brain-to-mouth one involved with talking to someone face-to-face. I've seen a fair amount of quick-draw skepticism regarding head tube length, stem selection, etc. about bikes set up for flared drops. In all fairness, some of this is justified as a number of people have taken things that I've said over the years and run with the ball Heisman-style, ending up in places that result in a mystifying bike setup that seems only good for quick test spins on the street and rapid documentation on the internet...or nothing, actually. Fair play. Translation: They look terrible and won't provide long term riding satisfaction for the rider. I see it over and over for people trying to retrofit many kinds of "alt-bars."

But, for a thought out design with contact points pondered and usage accounted for, there can be some criticism that lacks foundation beyond: "That ain't right" when it comes to aesthetics, especially for tall riders who always have to ride bikes outside the realm of a 56cm x 56cm road bike or a size M mountain bike. The fact of the matter is that some lucid pragmatism went into the design work and things are the way they are for a reason. Not to be rude, but there's a lot of intellectual laziness amongst those who are bored at work with a quick connection courtesy of the boss, spending massive amounts of time ejaculating pontification like an unmanned firehose. Hey, I might do similar in a parallel situation. But nothing, nothing is more representative of the lowest common denominator than an internet counterpuncher. Especially a passive aggressive one. Why choose that tack?

So, check it out for yourself and you'll get some inkling of what's up. I've basically given you the formula to get in the strike zone as far as flared drop setup. Take your cockpit and adjust accordingly, set your bar height, take your saddle height, and draw it up for yourself. There is about 1000% more information available to aspiring bike designers than there was for anyone (including me) starting up 10+ years ago. Take your contact points and either get a big-ass piece of butcher paper and some basic drafting tools from the art store, or check out a basic bike design program and see what you come up with as well as what pitfalls you encounter. You'll see.

The devil is in the details of course, as this is a very rough guide - I can't really articulate everything nor would I want to. I'm still learning myself, even after a decade of fooling around with it.

Through the mid-2000s, especially with the On-One Midge bar coming on the scene and taking up the torch from the venerable WTB Dirt Drop, more and more people became interested in flared drops. It became my niche and soon some smaller companies began coming up with some nice off-the-peg designs that would be easier to dial in fit-wise. Not custom of course, but a hell of a lot easier than starting with a "normal" mountain bike.

Then Salsa came along with the Fargo, which was a big deal for sure. Definitely a pivotal moment for flared drops on frames with threadless headsets. Now there was someone that had taken on producing a large number of unusual framesets. Personally, as an advocate of such designs, I was pretty stoked.

Time for another aside...

Around a year(?) ago, I had a call from another framebuilder asking me what I thought about the Salsa Fargo. I said I thought it was great and I was glad to see this sort of design get wider acceptance. The reason for the call was that apparently someone had called one of the product team at Salsa and started freaking out about Salsa stealing his design or stealing his ideas or something. My shouting at a stranger on the phone (or really anyone) is about as likely as me building full suspension bikes (which are great tools for their particular job, by the way). Nope, not me and I have no idea who it could have been...even with my paltry output I don't know of anyone who has dealt with this sort of design more than me.

It's not the first time I've been asked this sort of thing. Standing in the bike shop in Salida, CO during the time period that the 29" wheel movement really started to spread its wings, a rep for Gary Fisher asked me sheepishly what I thought of the brand new Gary Fisher Rig and if I was offended, since I was already a singlespeed 29er specialist very early in the "movement." Hell no! More singlespeeds, especially 29" wheel ones = more better. The greater availability for such things means easier experimentation for those on a budget, further refining their preferences and maybe setting them up for getting something custom built later on down the road. It also opens up the possibilities for great components to be developed when there are enough applicable bikes around to bolt them to.

I felt this way as the singlespeed movement gained steam too. I started building in 1998. That year, I went to UBI where Mark from Paragon Machine Works brought me a brand new flanged track end design for me to use when building my frame there. It was round (maybe made from round bar stock) and about 1/2 the length of the Paragon ends I use now (which were originally designed for Moots in the early-2000s, the design was refined can see all three iterations through all the frames I've built). I was all about singlespeeding and thought I'd like to build only bikes with track ends. Two of my fellow classmates were from Japan and I said, "I don't think I can really specialize like that. I mean, can I really sell 50 frames like that a year?" The American ex-pat from Japan said, "I don't know, there are a lot of people in the world." Needless to say, that turned out to be prophetic. Not long after that I saw an ad for a new company called "1x1", of course later to become Surly, selling their "Rat Ride". Between me, those guys, Spot (the first), a few other small builders who were there even earlier (mostly in California - Rock Lobster, Blue Collar, Hunter, etc.), and some more cruiser-y offerings...that was singlespeeding then. I didn't get wound up about the whole thing blowing up, I was happy to see more offerings when the larger manufacturers started latching on. Without small guys to lay the groundwork, the big guys won't tool up to spread things to the masses.

Oh, and the fixed gear thing too. Granted, I'm not experienced with the streetwise trickster program, just the dirt riding end of the spectrum. I did messenger on a fixed gear road bike when no one else really did it much in Atlanta, but it was because I was sick of blowing up BMX freewheels in the rain and losing money (no work = no pay), justifying it as "training" for doing long mountain bike races. Anyway, from some weird collective of forces, or just general pretension, I seem to be an early adopter of things that become more popular down the line.

That's when you have to look at your own motives. Are you doing this stuff to be different for the sake of your own self-esteem, or are you doing it because you think it's rad and really think that other people would like it? The High Fidelity-esque contrarian is tired, I was around enough of those folks working in college radio. What has two thumbs and was/is guilty of it too? This guy [pointing at self with thumbs].

I really like the way flared drops feel and I think others would too if set up on them properly. I'll sum up about that shortly.

Back on topic...

With the Salsa Fargo on the market making things seem a little more normal, I have to say it's a good thing. The Fargo makes setting up a flared drop cockpit easier, and it's marketed as an adventure bike with a bit more fork rake (the original ones had 50-55mm fork rake, less now) that makes carrying weight up front feel nice, not to mention circumvents some toe clearance issues. My approach is a little different as I usually design a more spirited front end (usually 72° and 45mm rake), allowing for minimal weight up front (say, bedding for bikepacking lashed to the bars) and a little more aggressive handling and lighter load carrying. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. I'm glad for it just like I was for the Rat Ride, Fisher 29ers, Fisher Rig, Cannondale 1FG, Rivendell Quickbeam, Specialized Tricross Singlecross, etc. etc. etc. Why feel threatened that others are coming to similar conclusions - unless your motives are less than genuine? Exactly.

So why all this trouble and thought into an odd bicycle part? Simple. I tried it and I really liked it for the kind of riding that I enjoyed doing. Lots of seated and standing climbing and long distances to places (like cycling was originally) away from others, including other cyclists. For me, the properly set bars made climbing a pleasure and added some grip security for riding rigid in rougher terrain. I want to continue spreading that, because it is something that resonates within me and I think is very much an elixir for our over-stressed nervous systems.

The pace of life now is such that we spend lots of time flitting about, cortisol coursing through us, and we lose sight of the fact that we're all going to die eventually. When we do, we let go of matter how worried we were about it. 

Riding a comfortable, simple, reliable bike lets us let go of some of it now.

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