Archive for category Frame design

A frame project

I decided I needed a sporty bike with wider tires than will fit on the Early, so I built a new one.  I equipped it with a few new parts, but mostly items scrounged from the Early and the brown bike.

It is pretty much full Heine Kool-Aid.  Toptube is .7/.4/.7, downtube is .8/.5/.8 (True Temper Oxplatinum), and it uses the Kaisei fork blades and Grand Bois fork crown (and braze-on centerpull brakes) sold by Compass.  I couldn’t find a True Temper chainstay with a curve I liked, so I went for Columbus Life cyclocross units.  The frame design is conventional sport/touring 73° parallel with 17 inch chainstays.  But the wide fork crown and curved chainstays, along with appropriate blade length and bridge locations, means that it will fit 42 mm 650b tires and fenders.  It has a low bottom bracket and low trail.

The best analogy for its ride is a like a candy that is soft on the outside with a firm caramel center.  The initial ride impression is cushiness, but it feels fast, handles very well, inspires confidence on descents, and there is no feeling of excessive  flex, even under as much power as I can muster.

I will continue tweaking the components.  The Turbo saddle in the picture is already gone, since it causes significant pain after 40 miles or so, and I borrowed the Early’s B17, which is much more comfortable on an extended ride.  It now has a front rack and a new Berthoud bag.

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More thoughts on tubing specifications and ride qualities

In a previous post, I noted that some highly respected people in the bike world assert that the frame tubing specifications make little or no difference to the ride.  However, in my experience, there are some circumstances in which tube choices make a huge difference.

For example, there was a Monark Siver King at Stu’s for repair.  It was an American balloon-tire kid’s bike, the frame of which was made from 1” round aluminum tubing.  If I remember correctly, the bottom bracket deflection could be measured in inches as you pedaled, yet it had a surprisingly lively ride.  My time with it was short, and I did not try it with a load, nor did I dive into any tricky corners; I suspect that with that much flex the handling could have been challenging.

Close to the same time (early 1980’s), I was at a Portland cyclocross race.  Jim Merz, then a Portland frame builder, brought a bike to the race that appeared to be nearly as flexy as the Monark.  The frame was steel (I think), and I don’t know anything about the specifications, but it must have had very thin walls.  He was using the flexibility as a substitute for suspension and he was riding over some of the obstacles that made the rest of us dismount.  He said something at the time about a good competition bike being “on the hairy edge of breakdown”.  I did not ride the bike, and I don’t know how long that frame survived.

I have ridden two tandems that had frames that were clearly too flexible.  Tandems are an extreme example because of the long tubes, double power input, and double human payload compared to a single bike.

One tandem was an American coaster-brake balloon-tire bike with 1” steel tubing, which usually means low strength steel and thick walls.  While riding placidly it was pleasant enough, but anything other than a gentle change in direction would cause the frame to twist, bend, and buck and generally become a challenge to keep under control.  Another tandem, a Gitane of traditional-diameter (unknown wall thickness but possibly tandem gauge) Reynolds 531 was better, but still could be a handful at low speeds and when cornered hard, and there was a lot of flex when accelerating or climbing.  On the other hand, I have ridden tandems built with oversize and presumably heavier gauge tubing that handle just like single bikes.

In this vein, Mr. Weiss, over at  Bike Snob NYC posted a  link  to a magazine article published in 1996 (back when steel was still taken seriously). The article is an account of a blind test of seven bikes with different frame tube specifications but otherwise identical design. It is remarkable that they assembled this group of bikes, but they could have made more of the opportunity.

In fact, they blew it.  This group of bikes could have been ridden by a group of testers whose pooled observations might have yielded some real insights.  And they could have performed some objective testing, like keeping track of lap times and measuring frame deflection.  Instead, one rider/writer recorded his hurried impressions.

The writer, Alan Cote, had a great deal of trouble telling the tube sets apart by their riding properties. With only one observer (contrary to the impression given by the graphics accompanying the article), this could either mean that differences were truly too subtle to distinguish, or there were too many bikes and too little time to sort out all the sensory information, or maybe that Mr. Cote was not a good observer.

Cote reaches some preliminary conclusions, then appears to second guess himself when he is informed of the construction material of each bike. “I think my ride impressions were essentially random”, he says after he discovers that the tubing specifications do not necessarily correlate with his initial ride impressions.

All of these tube sets are steel, so the specific steel alloy (or associated tensile strength) makes essentially no difference in tube rigidity, and the alloy, by itself, should make no difference in ride qualities.  Ride characteristics are determined by a combination of tube diameter and wall thickness.  Of course a higher-strength alloy does allow thinner walls and lighter weight without reducing the total strength, so the alloy characteristics can influence the long-term usefulness of a frame.

Using my  previous analysis  and a subjective analysis of the other frame specifications, most of these frames should have similar characteristics, but there is enough of a range that differences should have been perceptible, at least in the frames at the extremes.

The most flexible frame should have been the one constructed from SLX tubing.  It has the most flexible main triangle and the lightest chain stays, seat stays, and fork blades.  Cote identified this bike as the “softest”, apparently only for power transmission.  I don’t see any reason it would not also be the softest in its over-the-bumps ride.

I am surprised that he could not distinguish the straight-gauge (Aelle) frame.  Unless we have been defrauded about the value of butted tubing over the last 120 years (a possibility I cannot entirely eliminate) there should be a noticeable difference between this and the other bikes.  I found my Schwinn Sports Tourer, with similar tubing, harsher and less lively than comparable butted frames (though I recognize that that perception could have been because I knew it was straight gauge).

The stiffest frame should have been the Thron, with stout oversize tubing and heavier chain stays and seat stays.  This frame should be 30% or more stiffer than the SLX, a difference I would expect a rider to feel both in lateral flex during pedaling and over the bumps.  Cote called this the best at shock absorption, an impression that is surprising.

Cote’s favorite (which he called the “stiffest”) was the Neuron frame, made from tubing that used a complicated elliptical butting pattern.  Based on its specs, I would expect that it should be only incrementally stiffer than the SLX.  It is possible that the unique butting patterns provide a noticeably better ride, but if so, that fact did not save Neuron tubing from being eliminated from the Columbus catalog.

For a wine drinker who is happy with generic white wine, the difference between chardonnay and pinot gris is too subtle to bother with.  But a wine journalist worthy of the name would easily identify the two, wax poetic about the contributing tastes and mouth feel, and maybe tell you what vineyard the grapes came from.  A bike journalist should have a similarly well-calibrated sense of the contribution of frame construction to ride characteristics.  Maybe the differences between these frames were subtle, and maybe any differences really don’t matter when it comes down to the overall riding experience, but I have a hard time believing that the differences were indiscernible.  Bike journalism is driven too much by manufacturers’ (advertisers’) claims rather than educated, calibrated experience.  This was a unique opportunity to improve the writer’s ability to judge ride characteristics (maybe bike magazines should have a stable of test bikes with known and validated characteristics for training aspiring writers).

Or, if a panel reached consensus, this test would have reached a defensible conclusion that frame material really doesn’t matter (at least within this range).

Instead, it was a lost opportunity.

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Bike Frame Design – the influence of tubing diameter and wall thickness

The usual assumption is that significant part of the ride characteristics of a frame is determined by its rigidity. An excessively flexible frame feels inefficient for power transmission and can be more difficult to control on rough surfaces or with a load. On the other hand, an excessively rigid frame rides harshly, transmits shock and vibration to the rider, and feels less lively.

Custom builders talk about the importance of using the appropriate combinations of wall thickness and diameters for a particular rider and the use to which the bike will be put (but they usually keep their design procedures proprietary). Jan Heine advocates for the improved ride quality and desirable flex in a frame constructed of extra-thin-walled traditional-diameter tubing (Jan’s blog). On the other hand, some influential figures in the business of building steel bikes downplay the importance of tube diameter and/or wall thickness to the ride of a bike (Sachs in forum discussion, Gordon link).

It is difficult to make an objective judgment about the influence of bike tubing. There are design fashions and fads, the power of suggestion, and the placebo effect. There are also confounding effects of frame angles, chain stay length, fork design, individual fit, and tire characteristics. And it is difficult to get a statistically significant sample size, both in the number of human subjects and the availability of bikes that are identical except for the factor being compared.

Without objective experiment, all we have is experience. For decades, the standard high-quality bike frame was made of Reynolds 531 tubing. The usual combination was a 1” diameter top tube with 0.8 mm wall thickness on the ends and 0.5 mm wall thickness in the thinner (butted) section in the middle of the tube (.8/.5/.8) along with a 1 1/8” diameter down tube with .9/.6/.9 wall thickness and a single-butted 1 1/8” .9/.6 seat tube. There might have been millions (I am completely making up a number here) of frames built with these specifications by Peugeot, Raleigh, Schwinn, and a host of competitors. A bike built using this tubing was responsive and reliable, and could win races, tour the world, or get the rider to work in the morning. The comparable Columbus tubing was a little heavier. The Columbus SL sticker designated tubing with .9/.6/.9 top and down tubes, and Columbus SP was 1/.7/1.

By the late 70’s, Reynolds advertised variations on the basic set of tubes with options for touring and larger frames. Heat-treated Reynolds 753 appeared in 1978, which was offered in wall thicknesses down to a .7/.5/.7 top tube and .8/.5/.8 down tube on road bikes; other tube manufacturers soon followed with their own heat-treated offerings. The mountain bike revolution created a need for steel tubes durable enough for the abuse of off-road riding, and larger-diameter tubing became available to fill the demand. Fat-tubed aluminum frames began to compete with steel. As tubing for mountain bikes and aluminum frames grew in diameter and  this look began dominating the market, the traditional tube diameters started to look oddly skinny by comparison, and road-bike builders began to use oversize steel tubing partly to fit that new aesthetic.

We are currently in a golden age for the hobby frame builder. We can buy quality steel frame tubing for road use in three different diameter standards. Traditional construction, as noted above, uses a 1” diameter top tube and 1 1/8” diameter down tube and seat tube. Oversize (OS) employs 1 1/8” top tube and 1 ¼ down tube; double oversize (2OS) uses a 1 ¼” top tube and a 1 3/8” down tube. The default for all three standards is a 1 1/8” .9/.6 single-butted seat tube, but there are a number of variations available. Wall thicknesses of .7/.4/.7, .8/.5/.8, and.9/.6/.9 are available in all diameters and 1/.7/1 is available in some sizes, along with variations on seat tube, seat stay and chain stay diameter and wall thickness. Fork blades are available from light to stout.

In spite of all this variety, I have not found any analytical methods for helping choose tube diameter and wall thickness, or even any specific guidance on ride characteristics. Clearly, a heavier-wall tube is more rigid than a thinner-wall tube of the same diameter and same material, but how do tubes of different diameters and wall thicknesses compare?

In order to answer this question, I did some rough calculating. Deflection of a tube in bending is inversely proportional to the moment of inertia (MI) of a tube. The variable part of the MI is (D^4 – d^4) (where D is the outside diameter of the tube and d is the inside diameter). Using that as a basis, I created a stiffness ratio table (Table 1) for a range of readily available main tubes. It is common practice (and this shows in most Reynolds tube sets) to use a thinner-walled top tube than down tube, so there are nuances not shown in this table. However, this seemed like the clearest way to present the information.

Tube diameter is the most important determinant of rigidity, and there was only a little overlap in the rigidity of different diameters (less than I expected). Traditional 1/.7/1 is essentially the same rigidity as OS .7/.4/.7, and OS 1/.7/.1 is very similar to 2OS .7/.4/.7 (the butted section of the smaller diameter tubes are relatively more rigid, so calling these as ties is a judgment call). I might note that traditional 1/.7/1 is not readily available, probably because of that redundancy.

The heaviest 2OS tubing (1/.7/1) is about three times stiffer than traditional .7/.4/.7. In general, progressing from one rank to the next increases rigidity by 13% to 19%. The Bruce Gordon link above suggests that most of us would not notice a change in one rank level (although Jan Heine would disagree). I would speculate that it would be easier to detect a change in 3 ranks or more—traditional .7/.4/.7 should feel noticeably different than OS .7/.4/.7 with no other design changes.

Table 1. Rigidity index relative to traditional .9/.6/.9 tubes

Table 1. Rigidity index relative to traditional .9/.6/.9 tubes

A critical piece of information in choosing frame tubes is the frame size. Deflection is proportional to the cube of tube length (based on the equation for deflection where loading is applied to the free end of a cantilevered beam). This should be a conservative approach, since frame tubes are part of a truss and not really cantilevered and torsional deflection is proportional to tube length. However, we still are not including the effect of increased weight of the rider.

The following chart (Figure 1) shows the rank (from Table 1) of top and down tubes that would be used to match the ride of a frame made of traditional tubing of specified wall thickness (everything else being equal) using the cube of the ratio of tube lengths.

If the ride quality of a 58 cm traditional-diameter 7/.4/.7 frame is desired, it is easy to duplicate in larger frames, but smaller riders are out of luck. A lighter seat tube and perhaps  a 1”  down tube might get close. On the other hand, the ride of a traditional 1/.7/1 frame can be duplicated in the full range of frame sizes. Using oversize tubing means that there is no need for lateral tubes or double top tubes on large frames even for applications that require extra rigidity.

Figure 1. Relative rigidity rank (from Table 1) that would approximate ride characteristics of a 58 cm frame constructed of traditional diameter top and down tubes of specified wall thickness.

Figure 1. Relative rigidity rank (from Table 1) that would approximate ride characteristics of a 58 cm frame constructed of traditional diameter top and down tubes of specified wall thickness.

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