Monday, June 2, 2014

Transparency In Cycling

Most people would agree that there needs to be more transparency in cycling – whether it’s the long history of doping shrouded in the secrecy of professional cycling’s omertà, corruption within the UCI or clarification on whether or not Giro d’Italia descents are neutralised or not.

Since most mass-produced bicycle manufacturing was moved offshore from Europe and North America to Asia in recent years, there is a lot of rumour, speculation and myth about where bikes from the biggest and most reputable brands actually come from. Apparently there’s two or three massive factories in Taiwan that pump out most of the high-end carbon fibre bicycles.

The fact that these bikes are coming out of factories in Taiwan in no way reflects a lack of quality or craftsmanship – in fact, this is probably where most of the manufacturing expertise now lies in composite bike frames these days – and each brand still designs their own frames and carbon fibre layups. Rather, it’s that the bicycle companies themselves seem to be fairly secretive about which 3rd party manufacturer is actually building their bikes.

But what about transparency of the actual bikes themselves?

There has been virtually no transparency in bicycle design, apart from Specialized’s famous Zertz™ viscoelastic vibration-damping inserts – small, translucent pieces of rubbery plastic that are integrated in to their frames and components.
“Add Zertz to the frame, fork, and selected components, and the advantage is huge” claim Specialized.
First released in 2004, Zertz™ inserts have added just a hint of transparency to bike frames.

The actual performance benefits of Zertz™ inserts is arguable, and there are plenty of Zertz™ skeptics out there who claim that Zertz™ are more buzz-marketing than buzz-dampening. But you cannot argue with the results. Since Zertz™ inserts first appeared on the popular range of Specialized Roubaix bikes – the name, a tribute to the popular Café Roubaix bike shop in Calgary, Canada – Zertz™-equipped bikes have been ridden to an incredible four Paris-Roubaix victories, including this year’s win by Omega Pharma-Quickstep rider Niki Terpstra.

Admittedly, three of those victories were by Belgium’s favourite son, "Tornado" Tom Boonen, who also managed a non-Zertz™-assisted victory in the 2005 Paris-Roubaix aboard a Time VXR* before his Quickstep team switched bike sponsors to Specialized in 2007.

*If anybody can confirm this, I would be extremely grateful. To the best of my knowledge, and as quoted on and forums, Boonen rode a modified version (stiffened with extra carbon in the seat tube) of the Time VXR to victory in the 2005 Paris-Roubaix. The following year, Time released the VXS, a new model aimed specifically at the cobbled classics.

But whatever your personal feelings are about the performance benefits of Zertz™ inserts, one thing is for certain - they have provided at least a tiny hint of transparency in the world of bicycle design. But the fact remains, Zertz™ offer nowhere near full transparency. In fact, since 2004, Zertz™ have evolved to become less and less transparent to the point where they are now fully opaque. 

The much more highly transparent Zertz™ of 2004 vs Zertz™ today.

The other minor glimpse of greater transparency in bicycle design has been in the saddle market. Cutout saddles, designed to relieve pressure from important blood vessels and reproductive bits, have offered another small glimpse of transparency, but in reality only to the (hopefully clothed) crotch region of the cyclist on board.

Some contemporary saddle designs offer greater transparency – but may not be suitable for nude rides.

Thankfully though, one bicycle manufacturer has recognised the importance of transparency in bicycle design. This one-of-a-kind “designer” Perspex bicycle, recently up for auction on eBay (before the online auction site gave out all their user’s passwords to some pesky hackers), is described as being perfect for cyclists who want “…a bike that is different…” and apparently “…it will stand out like dogs balls.”

The complicated frame member layout, consisting of thick Perspex layers, means that the transparency of this frame will depend on your viewpoint, but it is certainly much more transparent than every other existing bicycle, whether steel, aluminium, carbon fibre, bamboo or wood – which all exhibit zero transparency.

This might not be the first Perspex bike ever made - I did also come across this one, however it looks like it might be more of an ornament than a rideable machine.

This laser cut Perspex MTB includes knobby tyres and a (non-removable) bidon.

The designer Perspex bike is certainly distinctive and is definitely a huge step forward in terms of bicycle frame transparency. As you can see, included with the frame are headset cups, a rusty square-taper bottom bracket, seatpost and Selle Italia Nitrox saddle.

The frame has horizontal dropouts and no brake mounts and unfortunately the main triangle is far too full of stiffening members to fit a bidon cage. This means that its uses are probably limited to a fixed-wheel track or hipster commuter bike. There’s nothing to prevent you putting a front brake on whatever fork you choose to build it up with – although this might be the only fork that properly matches to the frame.

So, besides incredible transparency, does the Perspex bicycle frame have any other benefits?

Considering the thickness of the frame members, it would certainly be heavy, so that’s a plus – if you like weighty bikes. There’s also no way that anybody could make the type of accusations levelled against Fabian Cancellara a few years back – that the bike included some kind of hidden motor – because it would be impossible to hide anything inside the frame.

The downside of this being that you'd be unable to assist Jews fleeing the Nazi occupation of Europe by bravely smuggling fake immigration documents hidden inside the frame tubes in the same way as Gino Bartali during World War II.

You can read an excerpt from Road to Valor, the book that details Bartali's brave and humble story on the Sports Illustrated website.

The eBay auction for this frame ended on May 20th 2014, and I don’t have any information about who the lucky new owner of this designer Perspex frame is or where they are located – the item was in Sydney when up for auction. It would be great to find out though, so if anybody has any info that might help track down the new owner of this frame, please get in contact.

I’m secretly hoping that it might be Jared Graves’ new secret weapon for the 2014 Enduro World Series. We know he’s no stranger to innovative technology.

Jared Graves has always been an innovator. Shown here (L-R): At the 2014 XC Nationals; With a prototype aero DH bike; Will Perspex be his next weapon?

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