Sunday, January 3, 2010

My experience with a maestro

When I moved back to the States from overseas, I became aware of two things about my road bikes: (1) they were truly retro and would “need” replacing and (2) my once-proficient knowledge of bicycle technology was painfully out-of-date. So I researched the pros and cons of aluminum, steel, carbon, titanium and combinations thereof. I learned about threadless and integrated headsets, the latest wheel technology, integrated shifters and cassettes…… mostly new developments since I last bought a bike in the mid-eighties.

Bike fit is unquestionably the single most important criteria when buying a bike; more so than frame material, component group-set, wheels or anything else (and don’t believe anybody who tells you otherwise). After having sorely tested the patience of my various sources of advice by my endless questions, procrastination and deliberations, I gradually edged closer to a decision. I chose titanium as frame material, Tom Kellogg of Spectrum Cycles near Philadelphia to carry out the bike fit and supply the frame and Matt Hamlin at Bicycle Heaven in San Antonio (where I lived at the time) to build the complete bike. That way, I got the best of all worlds; access to both a world-class frame design expert and also to local skill and buy-in to the final product.

As a U.S. phenomenon, quality frame building has been a fairly recent development. Prior to the bike boom of the early 1970s, most high-end framesets purchased by Americans were made in Italy, France, or England. Since then, however several icons of US master frame builders evolved, including such names as Jim Redcay, Richard Sachs, Bill Boston and others. Tom Kellogg is also one such expert. After signing on as an apprentice with the legendary Bill Boston, Kellogg first set up on his own in 1976 and subsequently founded Spectrum Cycles in 1982. His frames have been ridden to several world professional championships, amateur world medals and many national championships. Lance Armstrong, Steve Hegg, Harvey Nitz, Ken Carpenter, Nelson Vales, Inga Thompson and Rebecca Twigg have all raced on his bikes.

I eventually headed to a 170-year-old stone barn located in the heart of the Lehigh Valley of eastern Pennsylvania where Spectrum is based. Even as one of the top frame designers in the country, Kellogg is known as being a gracious man who has not an ounce of ego about him and this I found to be true. It says a lot for the man that the frame design process could not start until I had admired his butterfly observation window and made a good friend of his pet lab.

The fit process and component selection took nearly four hours from beginning to end and started with Tom and I sitting down and exploring the type of rider I am and wanted to be, the characteristics of my existing bikes and any idiosyncrasies of my anatomy (from my toes to my head) and my riding style. Then we discussed the details of frame geometry as the design of my frame began to take form in his mind.

Tom and I then looked at paint options (it is totally “unnecessary” to paint a Ti frame but …… think of the “cool” factor) and I took color information with me back to San Antonio where I would visit paint suppliers and further deliberate on my choices. A few weeks later, Tom emailed me a CAD drawing of the frame, which we discussed at length by phone. Then my order went in the queue and finally the frame arrived. It looked superb with a discrete blue fade and all the scalloping of the TIG welds painstakingly filed down to total smoothness. Over to Bicycle Heaven where Matt did a wonderful job of building the bike.

I rode the bike for a few weeks, took some more photos and sent them to Tom for final analysis, as a result of which we tweaked the brake lever position. My riding position ended up being significantly different from my old bikes and I must admit that for the first few rides, it did feel odd. Nevertheless, confirmation of the superiority of the fit of the new bike came when I rode my old bikes in crummy wet weather. The Spectrum ride is superior to them but for several reasons: better fit, lighter bike (by four pounds), wider tires, carbon seat post. Its tough to assign credit to each particular improvement.

Did I “need” to go through all of this? Absolutely not ……. I could have been fitted by one of the proficient shop owners locally and bought one of their fine “stock” high-end bikes. My body dimensions aren’t that odd. However, as a total happening, going the route I did was a pretty neat experience. I paid about 20% more than a quality, off-the-shelf bike but assuming I keep this bike as long as my old ones, I do not have to worry about another till 2022 or so. That certainly brings my per mile cost way down!

No comments:

Post a Comment