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Monday
Feb272017

Crank Length

A reader recently asked me a question about crank length and suggested I might write an article on the subject. 

There is a reason I haven’t touched on this subject before in over eleven years writing here. It is one of those subjects like "Knee over Pedal." I feel it is unimportant and irrelevant.

However, when I started to think about it, I realized I could maybe throw some logic on the fire, rather than adding to the huge pile of horse shit that is already out there. The whole reason to mess with anything like crank length is to improve performance. Go faster for the same amount of effort.

Were it that simple someone would have figured it out long before now and we would all be using something different than we have been using for the last 100 years. And if ever there was a case for the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” this is it.

The part that most fail to grasp is that increasing crank length increases leverage, meaning (In theory.) you can push a bigger gear, but unless you can pedal this higher gear at the same RPM for the same amount of effort, you are not going any faster.

Because you have increased crank length you have also increased the diameter of the pedaling circle. Any advantage in leverage is canceled out by the disadvantage of the greater turning circle.

Your feet, and the leg muscles that drive the feet, are having to move a greater distance (Therefore greater speed.) per revolution of the crank. You may as well stick with the standard length crank and pedal the lower gear. You are traveling at the same road speed, relative to the speed your feet and legs are moving.

Also if you are switching from a 170 to a 175mm. crank, that is one centimeter greater pedaling circle. Your saddle needs to stay in the same place. (Let’s assume for this argument that your saddle height was right to start with.) If you lower the saddle by 5mm. your knees will be coming up a full centimeter higher at the top of the stroke.

Better to leave the saddle where it is. Your crank and pedals will still be at the center of the turning circle you are used to. The extra length of the crank will be equally spread 5mm. extra reach at the bottom of the stroke, and 5mm. higher at the top of the stroke.

I notice longer cranks are being touted as a cure for various leg pains. Often leg and other pains are because the rider is not in the peak of physical condition. Start any exercise regimen, not just cycling, and the participant will often feel discomfort. All one can do is slowly and carefully work through it, until the body becomes accustomed to the extra stress being placed on it.

I fail to see where pedaling in a larger circle can help. It is placing more stress on the body, not less. It is akin to telling your doctor that walking is painful, and he suggests you walk faster and take longer strides. Just because long legs can accommodate longer cranks, doesn’t mean they should, or that there is necessarily an advantage in doing so. Try adjusting your saddle height first. It costs nothing and it is less of a shock on your system.

Here is another analogy. A person with long legs could climb stairs two steps at a time. He may get to the top of the building quicker, but one thing for sure, he has expended a lot more energy in doing so. Just because he can climb stairs two at a time, doesn’t mean he should.

Of course there is nothing stopping him climbing stairs two at a time, and there is nothing stopping him from fitting different length cranks, I am just pointing out that anyone saying there is some big advantage in doing so, is simply blowing smoke.

So how did we arrive at the crank lengths we use today? Let’s first look back in history to the forerunner of the chain driven bike, the high wheeler.

The big wheel was around 60 inches or five feet diameter, cranks had to be short in order to keep the wheel diameter as large as possible.

When the chain driven bike came on the scene in 1885, there were no restrictions on crank length. However, its invention was soon followed by mass production of bicycles and standards had to be set. It was England that started the bike industry and so set the early standards. Even today the world uses half inch pitch bicycle chain as standard when the most of the world uses metric measure for almost everything else.

The standard crank length was soon established at 6 1/2 inches for most bicycles. Because twice 6 1/2 is 13 inches, which is an average stride length for a leisurely walk. However, later it was found for racing bikes 6 3/4 worked better. 7 inches was too long for all but the tallest riders. That 1/4 inch either way made a big difference.

Do you ever wonder why Campagnolo offer a 172.5 mm. crank? Up until WWII Britain led the world in bicycles and components, including the high end racing equipment.  6 3/4 inch cranks were the standard for racing worldwide.

After WWII, Italy really moved into the component market. 172.5 mm. is pretty close to 6 3/4 inches. So this became the new standard. It did in the UK anyway. Everyone I knew, myself included, used 172.5, a few taller guys used 175. It is interesting that Campagnolo is the oldest established out of the big three companies. Campagnolo, Shimano, and Scram, and they still only offer 170. 172.5, and 175mm. crank lengths. Maybe it is all we need.

There may be a case for 180 cranks for someone with exceptionally long legs, say 36 inch or longer. Conversely, 165 cranks for a person with 29 or less inseam. But this whole range of crank lengths throughout the complete range of body sizes I feel is just hype put out there by the bike fitting industry.

Many of the best bike riders in the world range in height roughly between 5’ 7” and 5’ 11.” They ride small to mid-size bikes, and use standard length cranks. It has always been that way for years. Of course there are exceptions, but he day tall, long legged guys using long cranks, start dominating professional racing, is the day I will change my views on crank length.

Certain things in bicycle design were established many years ago, and remain the same because it happens to be right. Half inch pitch chain, already mentioned. 27 in. wheel diameter. (Measure your 700c tire.) 73 degrees is the best head angle for a road bike. The same with crank lengths.

The original crank lengths set over 100 years ago were: 6 1/2 inches (Almost exactly 165mm.) 6 3/4 inches, which is right in between 170 and 175mm. And 7 inches (Slightly less than 180mm.) That is all the range you need. It works, why fuck with it?

To sum up, yes there is a case for different crank lengths, but only over the relatively small range of a centimeter and a half. 165mm. to 180mm. This should accommodate the extreme range of leg lengths well beyond normal averages. Campagnolo's range, 170, 172.5, and 175 is fine for most of us.

Remember too, I don't have a pig in this market, I’m not trying to sell you anything. My final advice, just enjoy the bike, and stop trying to over-think it.

 

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Monday
Feb202017

Prices then and now

Above is a retail price list for my bikes in 1990. The most expensive is the Fuso Lux which was custom built to order, with chrome plating, and retailed at $3,150 equipped with Campagnolo C Record components. This was probably the most you would pay for any top of the line racing bicycle.

I say this because my competition back then were the Italian imports like Colnago and Pinerello. You would pay a something over $3,000 for one of these lugged steel Italian bikes equipped with the same Campagnolo C Record group.

My production was only a fraction of these much larger companies, they probably each produced far more frames in a month than I did in a year. But I was able to compete because I had a much lower overhead, and I did not need a distributor to sell my frames in the US. It was the shipping and middle man cost that the Italian companies had to deal with that allowed me to compete.

I attended the big bicycle trade shows each year, and gradually built up a network of bicycle dealers all over the US. I could then sell and ship direct to them. My competition, the Italian bike builders, could not do this. The shipping costs alone on individual bikes or frames would have been prohibitive.

They had to ship frames over by the container load to a distributor, who would then market and sell to the individual American bike dealers just as I did. The Italian import frames were mostly built on a system made by a company called “Marchetti and Lange.” This was a conveyer track system, where the frames were completely assembled, front and rear triangle, and “Pinned” together, then placed on the conveyer.

Gas jets pre-heated first the bottom bracket area, the conveyer then moved on, with the bottom bracket and tubes glowing red hot from the pre-heating, and an operator quickly hand brazed the bottom bracket. While this was happening, gas jets were pre-heating the head lugs. Then the conveyor moved on to a second operator who would then braze the already pre-heated head lugs, and so on until a completed frame came off the other end.

By comparison I brazed together batches of 5 frames at a time, using a hand held oxy-acetylene torch with no pre-heating. This meant less heat went into the tubes, so the Columbus tubing retained more of its inherent strength. I don’t mean that the Italian frames were over-heated, but just a larger area of the tube beyond the lugs was heated, due to the use of pre-heaters.

The Italian frames came off the Marchetti and Lange track, were cleaned up and went to be chromed and painted. They mostly left the factory, with the bottom bracket threads not cleaned out, the BB and head tube were un-faced, and the frames were unchecked for alignment.

This work was done after the frames arrived in the US, either by the distributor, but most often by the bicycle shop. Any top of the line bike shop in the 1980s or 1990s had a full Campagnolo tool kit in a wooden case.

By comparison, I would braze 5 bottom brackets, check for alignment. Braze 5 head tubes, check the alignment, and so on. Every frame had the BB thread tapped and faced, and the head tube was reamed and faced ready to accept the head bearings. The seat tube was reamed, so the seat post would slide right in. All this was done before painting, along with a final check for alignment. When a dealer got the frame it was ready for assembly.

What I find interesting is the price comparison from 1990 to now. The most you would pay for a top of the line race bike was a little over $3,000. You might go to $4,000 for something special like Columbus Max tubing. (Picture above.) However, this would be an exception. Today a top of the line carbon fiber Colnago or Pinarello can set you back $12,000.

The average income in 1990 was $29,000, today it is more than 2 1/2 times that at around $73,300. A Ford Mustang convertible cost $14,250 in 1990, today it would be less than twice as much at $25,500. So the cost of a CF bicycle today would almost buy you a Ford Mustang in 1990. Whereas the cost of a Ford Mustang is less today when compared against income.

Back when I built frames, as a small individual builder, I could compete with the larger import companies and still make a fair profit. Today, top of the line bikes are made by large corporations, and prices are not based on what it costs to produce, but rather by what the market will stand. With a consumer, it seems, who would rather pay more, if only for the bragging rights.

 

Previously posted in Feb. 2014. The price comparisons have been updated to reflect today's figures. It seems CF prices have dropped since 2014. Could it be consumers are balking at these over inflated prices. What do you think?

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Monday
Feb132017

It is the 30th. Anniversary of my 30th. Anniversary

 

I introduced the Fuso frame in 1984. Sales went pretty well right from the start, and I was able to quickly establish the Fuso name amongst all the many import brands from Italy and Japan. I built 18 different sizes in one centimeter increments. My aim was to have every size in stock (Unpainted.) at all time.

With top tube lengths and frame angles varying throughout this range of sizes, it meant one could get a custom fit from a frame that was in stock, and could be delivered, painted in your choice of color, in two or three weeks rather than having to wait several months to have one custom built individually. Plus the price was reasonable.

In 1987 I realized it had been 30 years since I built my first frame in 1957, under the tutelage of Albert “Pop” Hodge. (Picture right.)

I was 21 years old at the time, and had worked part time for Pop since I was 17. Pop Hodge was born in 1877, so was 80 years old at the time. Roughly the age I am now.

In 1987 I realized it was probably a good marketing strategy to label frames sold that year with a special 30th. Anniversary decal on the left chainstay.

As I already mentioned I tried to keep all sizes in stock, so I had between 60 and 100 unpainted frames hanging on the wall at any given time.

Many of the frames sold in the early part of 1987 were actually built in 1986, but were painted and sold in 1987, so therefore got the special decal. It was the only practical way to do it. Likewise many frames built in the last months of 1987 were unsold and unpainted on December 31st. that year. Those frames did not get the Anniversary decal.

I recently realized it is now another 30 years since 1987, so it is the 30th. Anniversary of my 30th. Anniversary. I other words 60 years ago I built my first frame. A point I would like to make is this, the chain driven bicycle was invented in 1885. Pop Hodge was born 8 years before that date, and started building frames around 1907.

Those early framebuilders were blacksmiths, and Pop brazed his frames in a hearth of hot coals. I not only learned framebuilding from this man, but learned the history of bicycle building and design.

I have lost count over recent years of the number of times I have written to bike manufacturers offering my knowledge for the price of my expenses in getting to their facility. Not once have I even got the courtesy of a reply.

The last one was just a few weeks ago, my attitude now is fuck it, I’m done. Please don’t suggest that I write a book, I am also through with writing books that no one buys. It is what I should expect really. The top bike makers are now large corporations, and my emails are probably getting deleted by some junior clerk who doesn’t even ride a bike.

Excuse the little rant there at the end, but I get frustrated at times. 

 

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Tuesday
Feb072017

How a movie changed the course of my framebuilding career

This is not an exact transcript of the video, but it does lay out the same story.

My video talks about how a movie had an indirect but definite effect on my career in the bike business, and how it later led to my building some special frames for a good friend.

1979 was the year I came to the US. A movie was released that same year named “Breaking Away.”

It was a coming of age story about a young boy with a passion for bike racing.

Also featured in the movie was a red Masi bicycle. The success of this movie lead to a mini bike boom for the Masi brand.

This in turn led me to a job opening the following year in Southern California as a bicycle framebuilder for Masi.

The frame shop I working in was run as a co-op with space rented out to various framebuilders and frame painters.

It was there I met American builder Brian Bayliss. That’s Brian on the left in this picture wearing the blue shirt.  With Brian in the white shirt is photographer David Ball. I met David Ball in 1982 when he came to visit his friend Brian Bayliss and as it happened I needed the services of a photographer to promote my own framebuilding business.

The image on the tee shirt I’m wearing is from a David Ball photo. This photo was one of several used in a Bicycling Magazine article in 1983.

I agreed to build David a frame in exchange for his work. He became a longtime friend and over the years I built other frames.

The first one I built in 1982 was a touring frame built in Reynolds 531 tubing. I wanted to do something different and experimental with the paint, and I came up with an intricate masked two tone green paint scheme.

It was a very labor intensive job but as it was for a friend and there was no actual dollar amount discussed, it didn’t matter. It was as much for my own satisfaction of bringing something I had in mind to fruition.

This frame and one other where I repeated the idea in two tone grey, was the inspiration for the paint scheme on my line of limited production frames named FUSO. I simplified the masking with a decal panel covering the transition between the two colors.

When I launched the FUSO brand in 1984, I again needed David Ball for promotional photos. This time I gave David the first Fuso bike built. Here is a magazine add I ran at the time with a Davis Ball picture this same bike.

The third bike I built for David Ball was a special one of a kind Fuso. It was really a custom frame that usually bears my own name, but we decided to make it a FUSO. Once again there was no discussion of price.

I always set a very high standard on all my work. But there is a limit on what you can charge for a product, and therefore a limit to how much labor you can put into that product.

When those restrictions are lifted something special results, like this. This frame was built in Columbus SLX tubing but with the stiffer SPX down tube, and rear triangle. The seat stays are oversize 5/8 inch diameter as opposed the usual 9/16 diameter.

The seat stay top eyes are given the same treatment as my custom frame with a piece of tubing inlayed to form a concave affect. It has my signature on the top tube.

It was built close to my Criterium geometry, but without the high BB. (Didn’t need it I knew it would never be raced.) This coupled with the stiffer mix of tubing makes for a bike that demands that you ride it fast. It is very responsive and climbs hills like you wouldn’t believe.

David Ball has a touring bike I built, which he tells me is still his favorite bike, this one is the type of bike that is for short fast rides and will kick your ass every time you take it out.

What I mean by that statement is, a bike like this by the way it looks and the way it rides will push you to your limits of fitness. Whatever those limits might be

 

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Monday
Jan302017

Two from the Seventies

Just this last week I was contacted by two owners of bikes I built in the 1970s. Leyland Vail contacted me and sent pictures of his 1979 Paris Sport. Repainted and the original decals gone, but I definitely recognize my own work. I don’t mind the road grit on the bike, it is proof that it is still being ridden.

Leyland was 18 years old when I built this one for him using the French Super Vitus 971 tubing, and French Prignat lugs. Leyland also speculates that he is probably the youngest original owner of one of my oldest US built frames. He could well be.

The other contact was made by Ian Jackman from Newcastle upon Tyne, in England. He had recently bought a custom bike from the original owner. Built in 1977, Ian asked me what I could tell him about the frame, but my UK frame number record book lists only a customer name and a frame number. It doesn’t even have the frame size. (21.5 inches.)

The reason? Back in 1977 I was simply building frames and writing the frame numbers in a book just the keep track of how many frames I was building. Furthest from my mind was the thought that I would be corresponding with owners 40 years later. Even further from my mind were visions of the Internet and email.

 

Footnote: Here is a link to my new YouTube video.  1/29/17

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