The word sometimes used to describe a rider’s style but more often it is used to describe the way a bike feels or handles.
Typically a bicycle that is “squirrelly” has a steep head angle and will deviate from a straight line at the slightest movement. Some people like the lively feel of a bike like this and I often hear quotes like, “People who call a bike squirrelly don’t know how to ride a bike.”
Agreed if you put a novice on such a bike he is a danger to himself and others; put an expert on the same bike and he can ride it safely. However take the same novice and put him in a bike that handles well and is easy to ride and he rides safely, and the expert on the same bike becomes a brilliant bike handler.
Why build a bike with a steep head angle anyway? Track bikes designed to be ridden on a banked velodrome have steeper head angles, because it is necessary to be able to change direction quickly to dart around an opponent, but the banked track has the effect of the rider traveling in a continuous straight line. At speed the rider is still theoretically 90 degrees to the track surface, and actually centrifugal force is pushing him down on the surface making it harder to deviate from a straight line. Hence the steep head angle to compensate.
Steep head angles on road bikes were in vogue in the mid 1970s and some builders carried it on into the 1980s. I never followed this trend and for a while was I was out of step with most other builders. Let me take you back to look at the history of bicycle design and to explain why this happened. In the 1940s an 1950s when I started riding the standard road geometry was a 71 seat angle, with a 73 head angle. The shallow 71 seat angle can be traced all the way back fifty years earlier to the Ordinary or Penny Farthing.
Early “Safety” or conventional design bikes as we think of them today also had shallow head angles, but by the 1940s it had been established that 73 degrees was the ideal head angle. I happen to believe that is still true today; however bikes of the 40s and 50s had 3 inches or more of fork rake. There was a theory back then that the steering axis, a line drawn through the head tube, reached the ground at the point where the wheel contacted the ground.
In other words there was zero trail; the theory was if you had trail the steering would be sluggish and heavy. The 71/73 angle design made it convenient for framebuilders to make frames in various sizes. With the head and seat angle going away from each other as the frame got bigger (Taller) so did the top tube become longer. The heavy steel cast lugs used back then gave little scope to build frames with different angles.
Moving on to the 1960s there was a huge slump in bicycle sales world-wide as economies boomed and in many places working class people were buying cars for the first time. The cost of a frame hardly rose from the late 1950s to the early 1970s even though earnings and the price of everything else had.
Framebuilders had to look for ways to cut corners and build frames in less time. No braze-ons was one cut back; and another was the parallel angle frame. First 72 degrees parallel because riders were not ready to jump from 71 to 73, but in a short time 73 seat and 73 head became the norm.
Framebuilders were using jigs for the first time for speedy assembly and the parallel design made it possible to make a simple fixed jig. Tubes were pre-mitered all the same length and to build various sizes of frames they simply raised or lowered the top tube. You could have any length top tube as long as it was 22 1/2 inches. Rather like Henry Ford; any color as long as it’s black.
By this time the fork rake had become a little shorter, and to have trail was considered okay, overall wheelbases had also shortened and everyone realized that these bikes were a lot livelier than the bikes of the 1950s. By the 1970s the framebuilder’s lot had improved with frame prices starting to catch up with the rest of the economy; helped along by a bike boom starting in America.
Remember back in the 1950s with the seat angle 2 degrees shallower than the head angle and how it made it convenient to build various size frames with varying top tube lengths. Nobody wanted to go back to 71 seat angles so frames began to appear with 73 seat and 75 head angle. Riders also discovered that these steeper head bikes felt livelier, especially when you got out of the saddle to sprint or climb.
About this time I was doing my own experimenting with frame design and I realized that it was not the steeper head angle that gave the bike its lively feel, but in making the head steeper they had moved the front wheel back directly under the handlebars. When a rider gets out of the saddle to sprint or, climb the bike is going to sway from side to side whether intentionally or unintentionally.
With the handlebars directly over the point where the front wheel contacts the road the bike can swing from side to side keeping in the front wheel in the same straight ahead plane. I had remembered back in the 1950s with those long fork rakes and short handlebar stems; the bars were way back behind the wheel’s point of contact. When you got out of the saddle the bike felt sluggish and heavy. I named it “The wheelbarrow effect.”
As the bike swayed from side to side the front wheel was turning to the left and right, but the gyroscopic action of the spinning wheel was trying to keep the bike straight; you had two forces fighting each other. To demonstrate this to yourself place the end of a straight edge on the ground and hold it 90 degrees to the ground. Swing the top of the straight edge side to side and you will see it moves in the same plane. Now hold the straight edge at an angle to the ground and move from side to side; you will see the top end where your hand is swings in an arch. If this were your bike you would be turning the front wheel as you swayed.
I never liked the twitchiness of the steeper head so I stuck with the 73 degree head angle and to get the handlebars over the front wheel I did two things. I shortened the fork rake; this actually gave my bikes a little more trail than average and made the bike very stable and gave it certain self steering qualities. The other thing I did was shorten the top tube and use a longer stem. The result was a bike that felt just as lively but without the inherent twitchiness. A rider’s weight is mostly in his shoulders and upper body so by pushing the rider forward as I did I moved the mass forward greatly improving the bike’s handling especially when cornering and descending at speed.
Most frames built today have a head angles around 73 degrees; a degree either way is no big deal. It is when a head angle gets to be 75, 76 or steeper would I consider it steep. So to sum up; what makes a bike squirrelly? A steeper head angle has less resistance to turning, so any slight movement of the bike will cause it to deviate from a straight line. Also steeper head angle means less trail which is the castor action that helps to keep a bike tracking straight.
The word sometimes used to describe a rider’s style but more often it is used to describe the way a bike feels or handles.
This was a question asked of me recently. When I left the bike business in 1993 I also scaled down my lifestyle and got rid of most of my possessions, even my bike. I moved into a small studio apartment and there was no room for a bike.
I took up running to stay in shape; I found if I ran for 30 or 45 minutes I could get a good work out. On a bike my ride would take much longer than this, so running gave me more time for other things.
I am no stranger to running; in the 1970s when I lived in England my chosen sport was cyclo-cross. For those non biking readers of this blog; cyclo-cross is the winter sport of cycling and basically you find a course that is un-ridable on a bicycle and you hold a bike race on it. Riding cross country on grass and mud, and when the terrain gets too hard to ride you dismount and run with the bike on your shoulder.
(Above) See what I mean about un-ridable!
Cyclo-cross suited me for several reasons. During the summer I was busy building frames and had no time to train and race. The cyclo-cross season ran from October to February and as training I could get by running five miles each evening, and riding cyclo-cross at weekends.
In 1970 while on a training ride at night I was hit head on by a motorcycle taking a corner on the wrong side of the road. My right fore-arm was shattered in three pieces and I still have a stainless steel plate in my arm to this day. My arm was in a cast for five months; after that I was a little wary of riding in the dark.
Cyclo-cross events are usually held on a circular course about a mile in length. You race for one hour plus a lap. The slower riders will be lapped by the faster riders several times during the race, but each rider has the number of laps counted, and at the end of an hour a bell is sounded and everyone does one more lap.
One hour cyclo-cross is the equivalent of eighty miles on the road in terms of effort and energy expended. Pros and amateurs rode in the same event and some of the bigger events would have riders from France, Belgium, and Switzerland competing. I did alright in cyclo-cross; became skilled in the many techniques required of the sport like dismounting and mounting the bike without stopping, and because of this I could beat riders who were younger and fitter than me.
So this is why I have no problem with running or rather I didn’t until about three years ago when my hip started to give me trouble. I had to give up running and take up walking. Now walking doesn’t do it for me anymore; I walk as far as twelve miles taking three hours which is too much time out of my day. So time to get back on the bike again.
I bought a Fuso frame recently that I built in 1986; figured I better get one before they got too expensive. A good friend of mine sent me enough components to build it up; all Campagnolo SR from the 1980s; I’m just short a bottom bracket, but one is on its way to me now so watch this space for updates and pictures.
Wow I'm half a legend; how cool is that? The smiley face at the end did not go un-noticed but the word "Tardy" cut a little.
Tardy implies laziness; I may be a lot of things but not that. For a so called retired person I have a hell of a lot going on in my life. On the weekend of June 9, 10, and 11 I attended “ Le Cirque du Cyclisme.” In Greensboro, NC. A wonderful event, I had a great time. I spent most of the week before preparing my presentation. So when I got back I had to play catch up on all the stuff I didn’t do the week before.
Last Sunday; my wife’s birthday no less, I spent the whole morning replying to emails that had stacked up. Get the picture; it’s not easy being half a legend. Thank God I’m not a whole legend.
Tonight I’m off to The Ocean Song Café on The Isle of Palms to attend a songwriter’s night. I haven’t played my guitar in two weeks; I probably won’t play worth shit. I’ve been recording a CD for a year now and it’s still not finished.
I recently bought one of my frames, a Fuso built in 1986. I haven’t owned a bike since I left the business in 1993; figured I’d better get one before they get too expensive. I’m building it up with old Campagnolo SR from the 1980s. When it’s finished I’ll have to find time to ride it.
Help me out here bike people, send me ideas for blogs. Ask me a question; I’ll do my best to answer it. And it would be nice to see the odd comment just so I know someone’s reading them.
I recently saw a comment posted on Classic Rendezvous Bike List saying something like, “Picked up a Fuso recently with weird purple and yellow paint.”
When I introduced the Fuso frame in 1984 I offered it in four very tasteful (I thought.) color schemes. There was my favorite Charcoal Grey Metallic and Red (Pictured below.) Red and Silver Metallic, Dark Blue Metalic and Light Blue Metallic, and Dark Plum with Lilac Metallic.
I was trying to keep costs down and by limiting color choice to four meant I could paint batches of frames all the same and keep them in stock for immediate delivery. Almost from the beginning I started getting requests for this color and that color. I refused at first but after fighting it for two years, I gave in, simplified the decal design, dropped the metal head badge (I had to cut costs somewhere.) and offered the Fuso painted to order in 1, 2, or 3 colors and offered at least a dozen colors to choose from.
Through the latter half of the 1980s I painted some pretty garish color combinations at my customer's request. As well as the Purple/Yellow afore mentioned there were a lot of Powder Blue and Pink, Turquoise and Pink, Green and Purple and every other stomach turning combination you can think of. I hated it, but I was running a business and like all successful businesses I was giving the customer what they wanted.
You have to remember people ordering these frames were from a generation who grew up in the 1960s psychedelic era and maybe partook of a little too much pot or LSD in their youth. After that came the 1970s when kitchens throughout America were equipped with Avocado Green refrigerators. Red and green plaid pants worn with a striped or polka-dot shirt was the height of fashion.
The 1980s were no better, this was the era when bicycle shorts and fanny-packs became fashion items. People who grew up in this era did so in a cultural and artistic wilderness where every speck of good taste had evaporated like water from the desert. It is interesting that now everyone has come out of the drug induced haze of those former years, peoples taste in just about everything has improved immensely.
The people who ordered these frames cannot be blamed, they knew no better and it looked cool at the time. Now they look as outdated as a pair of yellow polyester pants, and like the polyester pants they will last forever so they are going to be around for a long time.
I make no apologies for these God awful paint schemes. I’m not particularly proud of them but like Oliver North, I was just following orders. If you want a nice looking Fuso, look for what I call the first generation in the original four color schemes offered. And not all frames that came later were garish; there were a few people around with good taste.
The person, who commented on his purple and yellow Fuso that prompted this piece, also said “I would have preferred red and yellow, but then someone else may have snapped it up.” So there you have it; because people balk at these wild and crazy color combos, there are bargains to be had out there, and if you maybe wear some really dark glasses you will find that under the gaudy paint there is a bike that is built to be ridden.
Maybe in time you will grow to like the bike enough that you will spring for a repaint. In which case you will be doing me a huge favor, and making the world a better place by removing one more piece of visual pollution.
If I am having a conversation with someone who knows nothing about bikes; on learning that I once built racing bicycles they invariably ask. “Isn’t it uncomfortable to ride bent over like that?”
You may as well ask. “Isn’t uncomfortable for a jockey to sit on a horse like this?”
If you had little or no experience in riding a horse then of course it would be extremely uncomfortable to ride in this position and you wouldn’t even attempt it. And yet with bicycles people see Lance Armstrong on a bike and think “Anyone can ride a bike.” And off they go to their local bike store and buy a top of the line road bike.
Before long they realize they are uncomfortable and this is not as easy as it looks. Next they are raising the handlebars defeating the whole object of dropped bars. They may as well start out with a bike with flat handlebars.
The truth is the road bike is an elitist machine and you need a certain degree of fitness and suppleness just to even ride one. I used to work for a man who used to go skiing for a one week a year, play golf for one week every year, and go sailing for another week each year. Of course I imagine he was not very good at any of these sports, but he could at least participate. Road cycling is not that kind of sport, to enjoy it you have to make a regular and long term commitment.
You don’t necessarily have to race or even ride with another person. The road bike is the most efficient machine know to humankind; riding in that low tuck position is not just about aerodynamics, it is about getting maximum power to the pedals not only through the legs but from arms, shoulders, and back also.
There is nothing like the feeling you get when the rider and machine become one; the bike becomes an extension of the athlete. Just as I am sure the jockey must feel when in full flight and the man and horse become as one.