Monday, April 28, 2014

First Look: The Chopper Bar by TPC Components

Anybody familiar with the Gravity Enduro segment of the mountain bike world is probably aware of how the dropper seatpost changed mountain biking forever. In a similar vane, The Private Cyclist is proud to present this exclusive first look at another product set to revolutionise the sport – the Chopper Bar by innovative Melbourne manufacturer TPC Components.

The Private Cyclist sat down with TPC Components co-founders Florian Winkler and Rudi van Oosterhaus to talk about this incredible new product.

So, what exactly is the Chopper Bar?
RvO: Well, in the same way that a dropper post allows a rider to remotely drop their saddle height when heading downhill, the Chopper Bar provides a simple way of quickly reducing the width of your handlebars when tackling narrow singletrack sections lined with tightly spaced trees.
The trend towards wider handlebars in recent years, while providing the rider with more control in technical terrain, has certainly come at a cost – the ability to successfully navigate tight gaps between trees. Back in the early 1990s when the sport of mountain biking was still in its infancy, narrow handlebars were the norm, chosen for their enhanced manoeuvrability in tight trails. But as with many other components popular back in this era, such as 26-inch wheels, triple cranksets, and bottom-bracket bearings that worked, narrow bars are now deemed unsuitable for mountain biking and have been gradually phased-out.

The popular Bridgestone mountain bikes from the early 1990s came supplied with very svelte 540mm Ritchey Force handlebars. Compare these with the monster bars, often 700mm or more, found on modern mountain bikes and you can see just how much the handlebar market has elongated.

Despite the rather narrow handlebars (by today’s standards), the 1993 Bridgestone MB-3 was touted as “all the mountain bike anyone needs.”

While the 1994 version was “A very good choice for bumpy trails, racing and what-not.”

It’s also interesting to note that the component brand wars were alive and well even more than 20 years ago. In their 1993 catalogue, Bridgestone is quick to point out that “you can rest assured we don’t use any Specialized part unless, for the price, nothing else even comes close.”

Can you give the readers a little bit of history about handlebar width?
FW: Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, stock mountain bikes came with very narrow bars. That was how it was. But even 10 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to find cross-country racers chopping their bars down to 560mm. It provided a nice, lightweight and compact cockpit. But as the sport of mountain biking has gradually evolved, so too have the demands on the handlebar. These days, many professional XC racers are more likely to favour a handlebar around 700mm or more, on their 29er hardtails. 
Compare the handlebar width of riders at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics with modern day mountain bikes.
FW: While there’s no question that the wide bar adds stability to the handling of the bike, what happens when you get to a narrow tree-gap? There comes a point where the width of the handlebar actually prohibits you from riding cleanly through, regardless of your skill level.

Up until now, a too-narrow gap like this would need to navigated by coming to an almost complete stop, perhaps making a quick hand-dab on the tree, and then rotating the bars through one end at a time, much like this:

The TPC Components Chopper Bar aims to solve this problem once and for all.

Can you explain just how the Chopper Bar works?
RvO: The Chopper Bar is designed to fit any standard 31.8mm stem and comes in two versions: flat or 2-inch rise. The fully extended width is 760mm which we think is wide enough for anybody other than dedicated Downhillers, who aren’t usually exposed to narrow tree gaps in singletrack. On either side of the stem-clamping area, the bar contains a “Chopper” cartridge, which is actuated by a remote lever attached to the handlebar. Pushing the lever in, while applying gentle inwards-pressure with both hands causes each end of the bar to move inwards by up to 100mm, providing a total change of up to 200mm in handlebar width.
Once the narrow gap has been navigated, flick the release lever and the bars pop back out to the full width, which can be cut down just like any normal handlebar. 

Despite this component allowing riders to reduce the width of their handlebar on the fly, it also requires an extra lever to be mounted on that same handlebar. How have you handled this?
FW: It is true that there’s a bit of a Catch-22 with the Chopper Bar because you need to have extra handlebar width available to mount the lever that allows you to reduce your handlebar width. But we firmly believe that this small negative is vastly outweighed by consumers’ overwhelming desire to make their bikes look complicated. 
It helps give the impression that it takes a lot of skill to successfully operate a mountain bike – and in the end, it’s things like this that are the ultimate goal for many riders. When you consider that some mountain bikers are already running left and right shift levers, left and right brake levers, a fork lockout lever, a rear shock lockout lever and a remote dropper seatpost lever, it makes sense to add another lever – if only to balance things out. Now you can have four levers and four cables on each side of your handlebar.
This is the kind of busy cockpit that many mountain bikers aspire to.

Based out of Melbourne, Australia, TPC Components is a boutique component manufacturer who aims to find “innovative solutions to bicycle-related problems…that the market has either recognised or is close to recognising.” Their cleverly acronymized name even gives an indication about how forward thinking and cutting-edge this company’s ideology really is.

Can you tell us a little about the history of TPC Components, and how you came up with the name?
RvO: It goes back to late 2012 when [co-founder] Florian Winkler and I were de-briefing at Mountain Goat brewery after a ride along Melbourne’s Yarra Trails. We were about three pints in and had the idea to start a company manufacturing mountain bike parts. Almost immediately, we came up with a name – Total Performance Components
Florian had just completed his marketing degree that year and was adamant that we needed to use an acronym. Apparently the cycling consumer market is almost completely impenetrable to brands or models that do not include acronyms.
Indeed, it’s very rare to find any bicycle frame or component that doesn’t have one or multiple acronyms emblazoned on it.

FW: Unfortunately, when we did a quick business name search, it turned out that TPC was already taken by Total Printer Cartridges so we decided to add ‘Components’ back in but keep the acronym. We think it’s kind of cool, similar to how some other companies intentionally include spelling mistakes in their brand names to build recognition. But we’ve used a tautology instead, which we think consumers are going to really appreciate. The intentional grammar fault really sets us apart and shows how truly innovative our company is.
Bad spelling can make for good marketing.

When is the Chopper Bar likely to be available to consumers?
FW: We actually completed our first full production run months ago, but Rudi forgot to book our stand at Sea Otter this year, despite me reminding him multiple times. So, we’re going to have to wait until April 2015 to debut the Chopper Bar, because it would be crazy to try and get a new product out there on to the market without debuting at Sea Otter.
The Sea Otter Classic is famous for its bicycle expo.
FW: You’d miss out on so much good marketing visibility. All the major mountain bike magazines and websites are there – Pinkbike, Cyclingnews, MarathonMTB. It would be crazy! So we’re just going to hold tight until then, release a few more sneak-peeks like this and really try and build the momentum. Similar to what Garmin did with their Vector power-meter pedals – they showed that it doesn’t hurt to really keep people waiting.
Who is this product aimed at?
RvO: We think the Chopper Bar will be a big hit with many different segments of the mountain biking market. Chiefly, it is aimed at riders who understand how much better a nice, wide bar is aesthetically, but who also appreciate that there is a downside when tackling narrow singletrack. And then there’s the cashed-up weekend warriors who just love expensive, new gadgets – we think they are going to love it!
Does TPC Components have any other new products in the pipeline?
FW: Well, I actually can’t say too much at this stage but we do have a new type of on-the-fly adjustable stem in development. But you’ll hear more about that in the next six to twelve months. All I’ll say for now is that those riders who love a cluttered cockpit are in for a treat as this product is likely to have remote adjustability in up to three different aspects – And you know what that means? Three more levers on the handlebar!

The Final Word

The Chopper Bar from TPC Components is certainly a ground-breaking piece of equipment. It remains to be seen if consumers are prepared to wait another year until its scheduled release date in April 2015, but if they are then it is likely to gain some good traction in the cross-country, trail and gravity segments of the mountain biking market. Sure, it could easily be dismissed as just another complicated moving component that requires maintenance, needlessly clutters up the cockpit of the bike and adds unnecessary weight, but we think that its practicality more than makes up for any of these minor shortcomings. And really, why wouldn’t you want an extra lever and some more cable in your cockpit?

The TPC Components Chopper Bar, coming soon…in about a year or so.

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