Friday, October 21, 2005

A Challenge for a Cyclist with Lots of Money and an Open Mind

When it comes to bicycle riding I am what is known as a Retro Grouch. A Retro Grouch is someone who doesn't believe that many of the "New, Improved" generation of cycling parts that have introduced over the past 20 or so years have made the sport or hobby better.

There are actually different levels of Retro riders from those who will only ride 1975 or older Rene Hearse customs to those like me who simply think much of the new equipment to be more trouble than it is worth. Some of it in fact is, I believe, as I shall explain later, merely expensive marketing.

I also have moral problem with some of the new parts. Not that they are inherently immoral or anything but the riders' motivation for using them is. The object of a race is to determine who is the faster rider, not who has the fastest bicycle. If someone beats me because they have a bike that is 20% more efficient but did not beat my time at least 20% I think I have a legitimate question as to whether they actually beat me.

However, I am not writing an excuse for my lack of speed. And, notice I am not doubting the benefits of some aero-dynamic parts assuming you can reach a high enough speed to gain the advantages they provide. I am going to challenge some things however quite vigorously.

One of the recent "Innovations" in cycling concerns the bottom bracket and "Crank" or "Chainset" for those of you from the UK. To be fair, crank design has been evolving for a long time. In the '60's and early '70's most moderately good cycles used what was known as a "cottered" crank. These used a cotter pin though the arm to secure the crank to the spindle. These were replaced by a "Cotterless" or "One-piece " crank that was lighter and held on by a combination of friction on the tapered spindle taper and a bolt through the end of the spindle. However, until recently the rational for the change in design was always improving the design. Cotterless cranks are better than cottered. They are much lighter, easier to remove and install less expensive to produce and more reliable than the old cottered cranks.

The newest version of cranks is an improvement in design in some ways however, they are not marketed in this way. They are held on simply by the bolt because rather than a tapered spindle. This means the crank can be removed without any special tools and that might or might not be an advantage.

A definite disadvantage is that it is now much easier for a company to have a proprietary design on the spindle splines that forces you to purchase their brand of Bottom Bracket and makes you have to replace the crank when (if) they stop producing that design.

There are other pro's and con's to this new arrangement but the real selling point has been that because the new bottom bracket have hollow, oversized spindle which is supposed to impart a stiffer, more efficient pedal stroke you transmit more power to the rear wheel. Thus, the new parts make you faster!


I've ridden both of these and it simply isn't true. Furthermore, unlike aero-bars and some of fancy pants spoking patterns on expensive new wheels I've seen absolutely NO evidence that these new bottom brackets make anyone faster or that the extra stiffness translates into extra power, or at least enough extra power to be meaningful.

The Challenge.
Take two bicycles that are EXACTLY alike except for the Crank and bottom bracket. Disguise the cranks so that the difference in Bottom Bracket cannot be seen and have a group of cyclist ride both bicycles. Have them guess which bottom bracket was the "new splined extra stiff" model and which was the old taper type.

My prediction:
The riders would not choose the new model more than could be accounted for by blind chance.

The new cranks, introduced by the hated Shimano, would be found to be simply expensive marketing ploys to induce bikers to part with their father's money for a more expensive piece of bike candy that doesn't work any better than the old design.

Shimano has basically taken cyclist for a ride

Come on prove me wrong. Bet you can't

Fai Mao
The Retro-Grouch Blogger

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