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2004 Interbike Confidential

Over-bosomed and over-Pradaed. Over-biceped and over-moussed. The throbbing excess that defines Las Vegas and the people who willingly go there isn’t a dull pain for me. It’s a sharp and totalizing isolation made real with every perfumed waft of a would-be runway model with whom I’d never have the courage to speak, and with each obnoxious decibel emitted from a cabana shirt-draped cafone with whom I’d never have interest to speak. Putting the requisite smile on my face and conjuring up sufficient focus to do deals is a daily challenge when the mere task of walking through the hotel lobby is an act of utter alienation.

Note to Interbike, Inc.: Please move the show to Denver or San Francisco or any of the other locales rumored for the future. Something about real city streets and the presence of a more dignified cross-section of humanity better resembles what I know from everyday life. Everyday life is where I do my best decision making. Interbike can be a bit of a pressure cooker when it comes to plotting our future, and I can use all the help I can get.

This concern aside, what was my single most profound memory of the Interbike 2004? It’s an easy answer, the ease of which is eclipsed only by the how surreal it was: Tyler Hamilton’s presence everywhere. He spent endless hours signing autographs in God knows how many booths in an act of hard labor befitting an undeniably imprisoned soul. We don’t dare imagine what his thoughts were as he made small talk with literally miles of people who patiently awaited their allotted six seconds of one-on-one with him as he personalized a poster. It was a small act of faith by each of them, the power of which was magnified by virtue of just how many of them there were. A similar sort of solidarity was shown on the corporate level — Speedplay, Zipp, BMC, and Bell Sports all welcomed Tyler to their booths for autograph-signing purposes, and Bell Sports even went so far as to be quoted in the press as saying (in the same breath!) that they are vehemently anti-doping but that they completely support and believe in Tyler.

Tyler’s supporters were legion at the show, and they were very vocal. It was a show of force that most certainly doesn’t mirror my ambivalence about the situation. The better part of me believes in the dispassionate reality of hard science. I generally subscribe to the principle of Occam’s Razor: The most logical explanation of a phenomenon it its most likely explanation. A positive dope test, it would posit, is the byproduct of a rider’s choice to dope. Using the cold methodology of Occam’s Razor, defending Tyler at this point makes all the sense of insisting on OJ Simpson’s innocence despite the buckets of blood he left behind.

I don’t tell anyone I feel this way, though, because I don’t feel this way all of the time. I’ve pulled for Tyler in the past and it feels natural to want to do so now. Even if I’d been inclined to utter a few words of encouragement, approaching him would have been something quite awkward due to the fact that he had none of the magnetism for me possessed by even the most fringe ‘celebrities’ our industry has to offer — the Levi Leipheimers, the Magnus Backstedts, the countless mountain bike and X-game noteables who radiate something appealing if for no other reason than that people were lined up to meet them. Despite Tyler’s fame and despite the fact that he was in such awesome demand, there was an obvious existential pall over him. You could feel it from 50 feet away. We’ll admit our weakness — we felt for him in his sadness. How does one argue against one’s own blood? It was as though he was transfixed by the same thought as the BMC engineer who replied with perfect Swiss precision to my question about how their company was handling the crisis : ‘Tyler is fighting for his life.’

Given the success we had with BMC bicycles in 2004, their thoughts on Tyler, Team Phonak, and the continuing development of their frame designs was of great interest to me. From a marketing standpoint they’ve hedged their bets for the US market by signing Floyd Landis to Phonak. And from a bike perspective they are showing no need in 2005 to revamp the technology behind their signature Team Replica SLT 01 frame. It’s a frame whose ride quality quickly became legendary here. They seem content — at least for now — to leave well enough alone. They’ve altered the paint scheme of the Phonak version to show off a bit more carbon, and they’ve added a third color option — a US flag version similar in concept to the gorgeous Swiss Edition frame of 2004. We’ve seen plenty of Stars and Stripes frames in the past, but BMC’s is easily the best of the lot thanks to the fact that they seem just as determined to highlight the carbon itself as they are to carry out the red, white, and blue theme.

Beyond this, the only other significant changes are in the color of the Road Racer SL 01 — a muted grey, white, and silver scheme — and the upgrade on the entry-level Streetfire SSX to a Crosslock Skeleton seat lug in order to stiffen and lighten the frame.

BMC seems similar to Shimano in that once they’re satisfied with a product design they stick with it for awhile before reinventing it. In contrast, our friends at Colnago are more like Campagnolo in their insistence on continuous refinement. We were fortunate enough to be invited to a private Colnago technical seminar in which Ernesto Colnago himself gave us an overview to the changes in the Colnago line for 2005. Even at age 72, Mr. Colnago’s passion for his bicycles came through loud and clear. In what was a rather unexpected opening statement, he provided us with the reasons why he refuses to cave in to the trend of farming out his production to China. Reason #1, he told us, is the quality of the carbon available in Asia. His exclusive source of carbon fiber is ATR, a legendary Italian company that earns its keep by providing composite materials and expertise to automotive luminaries such as Ferrari and Porsche, as well as a variety of aerospace concerns. Given Colnago’s proximity and superb long-standing collaboration with ATR, they’d lose their ability to innovate at the highest levels of technology by attempting to replicate a similar arrangement in Asia. Reason #2 is a pure bottom line consideration: According to Colnago none of the players in carbon production in China carry liability insurance.

You’ll see two noteworthy changes in Colnago for 2005. First is in the composition of the carbon fiber itself. ATR is now supplying Colnago with its highest-ever modulus carbon. Its strength characteristics are so advanced over the carbon of the past that Colnago can now manufacture tubing with less material than ever before while maintaining the same standards of durability and stiffness. Less material per tube means lighter tubing without any sacrifice in ride quality. And the strength of this new high modulus carbon is so great, in fact, that the tubes require less overlap with their lugs. This allows Colnago to use shorter lugs, which further decreases the weight of the frame. The net effect of these factors — less material to the tubes, shorter lugs — is that the 2005 C50 HP will weigh in at roughly 200g lighter than the 2004 version. The C50 you’ll be buying in 2005 is the ‘superlight’ C50 field-tested by Team Rabobank in the 2004 Tour de France, and ridden by Oscar Friere to his World Championship Road Race victory in Verona the weekend before Interbike.

The second innovation from Colnago for 2005 is their use of a ‘Twill Weave’ finish on their carbon bikes. Rather than making use of black paint to hide the cosmetic imperfections that naturally occur in virtually all grades of carbon fiber, the ‘latticework’ of ATR’s new high-modulus carbon is all but flawless, and Colnago’s plan for 2005 is to use less paint and more clearcoat instead to show off this beautiful weave.

Two new models are in the works for 2005 from Colnago. One is a frame known as the ‘President’. In essence it’s the 2004 Anniversary bike made 200g lighter thanks to use of ATR’s new carbon. It will be available as a complete bike in two graphic options — a screened Leonardo da Vinci model, or in the Jackson Pollock-tinged BrerArt version. It will also be available as a frameset in a nude carbon with silver decals, and in a red-to-nude fade reminiscent of the CF1-Ferrari bike from the mid-90′s.

The second new model from Colnago is the E1, a brilliantly executed design slotted to come in at roughly $800-$1000 less expensive than the C50. It makes use of a monocoque front triangle mated to a B-Stay seatstay and non-HP carbon chainstays. The beauty of monocoque is well-known by now: It adds substantial resistance to torsional flex and it gives a bike that nice ‘snap’ when you give it serious gas in a sprint or on a climb. Historically Colnago has reserved the use of monocoque construction for their very, very highest end models — the CF1, CF2, Carbonissimo, Anniversary, and President models. By lending this technology to the E1 Colnago is at last providing an option for someone who wants a Colnago, who considers stiffness a top priority, and who wants a bike that doesn’t have the feel of a museum piece. Definitely one of the highlights of the show.

Alongside Colnago, the other titan of the Euro peloton is Pinarello. We reported in an earlier ‘What’s New’ entry about the impending introduction of their MOST bottom bracket system on select models. As of now, you’ll only see it on the Dogma FP, the new-for-2005 Paris, and the Opera Bike Leonardo FP. We had a fantastic conversation with Luciano Fusar Poli, the global General Manager of the Pinarello and Opera Bike brands, and an all-around really nice and articulate guy. He explained that over the last 20 years in frame manufacturing you’ve seen to gradual process of oversizing nearly every tube on the racing bicycle in order to increase stiffness and lightness. The bottom bracket shell is the one exception to the trend — its diameter has been the same for time immemorial, this despite the fact that the holy grail for most manufacturers is to provide abundant drivetrain stiffness.

Pinarello’s MOST bottom bracket system is built on fresh thinking about the size and function of the bottom bracket. The shell itself is oversized, and inside each side of the shell is a shallow ridge against which you place an oversized BB bearing. Pinarello supplies a proprietary spindle — your choice of Octalink, ISIS, or a titanium Campy tapered version — or a threaded insert to accommodate the use of a Dura-Ace 10-speed crankset. The end result is a serious step up in drivetrain stiffness. Given that the Dogma FP will also be equipped with a redesigned headset — 1-1/8′ on top, 1-1/4′ at the bottom — you’ll get gobs of front end stiffness as a bonus. Luciano mentioned that the Dogma FP is what Alessandro Pettachi rode to his umpteen field sprint stage victories in the Giro, so we don’t doubt it’ll be a crit racer’s delight.

Beyond the MOST bottom bracket, the Opera Bike Leonardo FP gets an upgrade to a monocoque carbon fiber front triangle, a nice upgrade in terms of lightness and stiffness in comparison to the aluminum-lugged carbon construction of the standard Leonardo. Amazingly, Opera Bike will offer the Leonardo FP in nine sizes, which means that they’ve invested in nine molds for manufacturing the frame — good luck finding any monocoque frame out there available in even six sizes. That’s an impressive financial commitment to ensure that you’ll easily find a Leonardo FP with the perfect fit.

Beyond MOST technology, 2005 is the first year in which you’ll see hydroformed tubing on Pinarello and Opera Bike frames. Luciano explained that the benefits of hydroforming have less to do with ride quality and more to do with structural integrity of a frame. A conventional butted aluminum tube, he said, can only be butted for strength at its ends. While tube junctions are undeniably high-stress zones on a frame, other unique points on a tube are subject to forces that butting can’t address due to their location. He gave us three examples — the area where a front derailleur clamps around the seat tube, the water bottle bosses, and the downtube cable stops. The compression and/or disruption of the natural form of the frame tubes at these spots have historically been headaches for framebuilders. Hydroforming essentially allows a builder to reinforce isolated areas of a tube by the manner in which the tubing mold is shaped.

How does hydroforming work? A normal butted aluminum tube is placed in a custom-made hydroform mold and ungodly amounts of hydraulic pressure cause the tube to take the shape of the mold. Not only does this add great strength to a frame where it’s needed the most, but if a builder is creative he can give the frame sculpture-like details unlike anything ever before possible, as best evidenced by the beauty of the new-for-2005 Pinarello Paris and Opera Bike Giorgione Hydroform.

For all fans of Eddy Merckx who have enough proficiency in Adobe Photoshop to suspect that the now-legendary photo of a super-slim Eddy from the EuroBike show taken at the end of the summer was just a visual urban legend — I saw him, and with maybe one exception, he was the skinniest guy in the Gita booth (and I assure you that I wasn’t the exception!) The highlight of the booth — beyond Eddy himself, of course — was the vintage 1974 Team Molteni Eddy Merckx frame (made by DeRosa, decaled by Eddy) in an ‘as is’ condition from the end of the ’74 season. Like watching La Course En Tete, it was an evocative reminder of what a brute he really was. On the occasion of his 25th anniversary of building bikes, it served as a fitting centerpoint for the booth and symbol of why Merckx brand bikes command a special sort of respect absent for any other brand.

On the heels of the evermore popular Merckx Carbon MXM frameset, Eddy unveiled two new carbon bikes for 2005. One is the vaunted 25th Anniversary AXM Carbon frameset. The version we saw was admittedly still a prototype. Some final production details had yet to be worked out. A few of the small touches were really well done: Internal cable routing for the rear brake to avoid the use of riveted-on cable stops, the skinny yet deep seatstay sculpted for aerodynamic sleekness, the flattened section of the downtube at the bottle bosses so a bottle cage can nestle in with perfect flushness. The bigger picture issues are still a mystery to us — how the bowed top tube might affect the classic Merckx stability, and the extent of the shock damping virtues of the ‘Titanium Mesh’ integrated into the carbon fiber lay up were two things on our mind. We can’t wait to ride one, and we’ll have our first opportunity in January when the initial batch makes it to the US.

The 3XM Carbon is Eddy’s effort to build a sub-$3000 carbon fiber frame that has the raceability of monocoque without monocoque’s monster price tag. His tactic was the same as Colnago uses with their E1 frameset, and Opera Bike with the Leonardo FP: The front triangle is monocoque, but the full-carbon rear triangle is bonded on. The headtube and top tube of the 3XM utilize extensive flaring, shaping, and oversizing clearly intended to increase its resistance to front-end flex. Given that the seatstay is nicely slim (we suspect it’s the same one used on the Race frame), you can expect a beautiful play of stiff-and-smooth on the 3XM. It should be a fantastic seller for next year.

A note for the curious — while Eddy will admit that he doesn’t make his carbon frames in Belgium, they’re most certainly not cranked out in China. They’re made in Italy by Oria, the same folks that supplied Pinarello with so much of their tubing back in the late 80′s. Oria had the forethought to aggressively pursue carbon manufacturing capacity before it became the rage, and they’ve since become enormously respected for their composites expertise in both the automotive and marine industries.

The one piece of guaranteed joy Interbike brings is the time we spend with Dario Pegoretti. On the one hand he’s a master framebuilder on par with Sachs or Nagasawa on the scale of global reputation. On the other hand he has a joie de vivre so intense that he has a wonderful effect on almost everyone he encounters: Not only will he take your simmering love for truly handmade bikes and make it boil, but he’ll set alight your passion for life and all of its possibilities since he’s living proof that following your muse brings a heightened fulfillment unobtained by life’s other accomplishments. His warmth and lack of pretension define him — this, even though the artistry he had on display screamed for your complete attention.

For 2005 Pegoretti’s aluminum bikes go unchanged. The Fina Estampa is identical down to the paint. The 8:30am gets a facelift with its gorgeous abstractionist red paint scheme. The Marcelo and Palosanto will look identical, and the Big Leg Emma should finally become a consistently in-stock item soon. The Luigino gets considerably more ornate lugwork, and for 2005 it gets a color change to pearl white and baby blue.

A new model is coming to the US, the Duende — available in a road version Dario described to me as a ‘not quite Legnano yellow’, and in a cross version in brown in the Numeri graphic scheme. What’s a Duende? It’s easy: A Marcelo front triangle welded to a Palosanto rear. It will ride a bit more smoothly than the Marcelo, but with a bit more snap than a Palosanto. Dario explained that due to the socketed nature of the dropouts, he only needs to miter the stays at the ends opposite the dropouts. The resulting savings in framebuilding time (it’s quite considerable) equals a nice savings in cost, making the Duende come in at about $300 less expensive than the Marcelo.

When I noted that the Duende was stickered with a Columbus tubing decal, a good bit of confusion registered in my head. I’d long had the understanding that the Marcelo was made from Dedacciai EOM steel. If the Duende was Columbus, how could its front triangle be identical to the Marcelo? Dario’s explanation was a complete surprise to us: Not only do the Marcelo and Duende share the identical Columbus tubeset, but all of his steel frames for 2005 will be built from this tubeset — Columbus Niobium Spirit steel. The prices of his frames across the board are purely a function of the time required to make them. The Big Leg Emma, for example, is the most labor-intensive of his frames. Beyond the work required to insert the stiffening plates in the downtube is the laborious mitering required of its massive stays, and the constant alignment checks he has to perform during the welding process due to the fact that its burly chainstays limit him to cold-setting the Big Leg Emma to a maximum variance of 0.5mm. The same principle holds true for the Luigino — its cast lugs are hand-filed one-by-one and the frame is painstakingly brazed in a process that takes a whole darn lot longer than tigging a Palosanto.

By choosing one tubeset to the exclusion of all others for use in his steel frames, Dario was clearly making a statement about the virtues of Niobium Spirit. When I asked him to elaborate on why he was so excited about it, he made it clear to me that all of the Niobium tubing he uses is in fact one-off. He insists that Columbus takes the extra step to heat treat the tubes for him. He said that while the stock version of the tubes has very good elongation qualities and thereby provides a nice bit of shock damping, heat treating them gives them a considerable increase in responsiveness under a load. He presented me with a simple analogy that made the difference clear: While a spring is springy by nature, a heat treated spring rebounds from compression far more quickly. In other words, a heat treated Niobium Spirit frameset will provide superior elasticity, making a Pegoretti feel like it’s gliding on a lousy road surface to an extent unmatched by other tubesets.

Dario was kind enough to invite me along to a seminar conducted by Columbus to officially unveil Niobium Spirit to the US. While the meat of the presentation was technical far beyond the scope of my understanding of metallurgy, one message came across loud and clear: In the 54cm range a 1300g frame weight is easily achieved with Niobium Spirit, and you’ll still end up with a frame that has durability qualities that outshine Foco, UltraFoco, Genius, and the rest of the legends of Columbus family tree.

The most brilliant bike in the Pegoretti booth might well have been the Phileas, a city bike that featured Campy’s new flat-bar shifters, wooden rims, and wooden fenders. It was a one-off bike for the show, and unless top-dollar beer-fetching bikes become the rage, I’m afraid it won’t be an in-stock option anytime soon. But in typical Pegoretti fashion it was completely unique and totally mouthwatering.

Another brand we’ve come to love in the last few years is Look. While their involvement with high-visibility French pro teams and their consistently superb ad campaigns in the US have long solidified their position in the top echelon of race bikes, our sense is that 2005 will be a breakthrough year for them thanks to their introduction of the 585 frameset — a 1000g frame with no weight limit and a 5-year warranty. In what’s become a commonplace practice for Look, the technical attributes of the 585 are matched bit-by-bit with outstanding cosmetic detail. Given its sub-$3000 price, the 585 is likely the most anticipated frame by any manufacturer going into the 2005 season.

In celebration of the introduction of the 585 and the new Keo pedal system, Veltec Imports (the US Look importer) invited their top dealers to dinner with Look president Dominique Bergin, along with Look’s COO and their marketing chief. We had a beautiful time, and despite the fact that the food was amazing (the duck confit salad, oh my goodness….), the highlight of the evening was our dialogue about the way in which they could grow in the US market. Our get-together wasn’t mere lip service, it was clear from the beginning that they valued our input. The issues that came up were the classic ones with which all high-end manufacturers wrestle, but to hear Look’s perspective on them and to listen as they reconsidered certain decisions based on our comments was a true privilege.

One issue we discussed was the length of Look’s frame warranty. From their Euro-centric vantage point they offer a generously lengthy warranty at 5 years. Most of their competition limits themselves to 2 years. The typical American warranty, of course, is lifetime, and since the high-visibility outfits like Trek, Cannondale, and Specialized tout this so loudly, we discussed the possibility that Look’s 5 years was a competitive disadvantage in the US market. Their analysis was superb, and in conclusion it confirmed a long held suspicion of ours: The vast majority of frame breakages occur in the first month a frame is ridden. Frames don’t break due to fundamental design flaws, rather they break due to one-time manufacturing errors. This being the case, the cost to Look of extending the warranty shouldn’t be punitive, especially if sales increase slightly due to the perceived benefit of an extended warranty. But you could tell that the gents from Look nevertheless had a hard time swallowing the idea of a customer carting in a worn-out 12-year old frame to their dealer claiming that it didn’t live up to its end of the deal. They made no promises on this, but you could tell the gears in their heads were cranking awfully hard. We’ll be curious to see if this is a policy that changes for 2006.

Another issue that came up was Look’s insistence on manufacturing their frames in-house in France. Not unlike Colnago, Look is certain that their ability to innovate and keep tight tabs on quality control is a direct byproduct of the fact that all of their operations are under one roof. It underscored a defining phenomenon of Interbike 2004, one that was made more and more clear as we considered the enormous menu of frame brands we’d never before pursued. Two archetypal companies seemed to be present at the show, and an iron curtain was apparent between them: There were companies that are true manufacturers, and there were those that are marketing outfits at heart with all production farmed out to Taiwan or China. The essential uniqueness of a Look or a Colnago is something evidenced in all aspects of the frame — materials, aesthetics, and ride quality. Take a Look KG 486 or a Colnago C50, strip the paint and decals off it, then cut it into 3 or 4 pieces and throw them into a box with similarly butchered remains of a handful of Chinese frames. You’d recognize the Look or the Colnago in an instant. Why? Innovative and unique manufacturing processes result in tangibly unique framesets — whether it’s the way a seat cluster looks, or the way the frame as a whole rides. In contrast, nothing is more bemusing than reading arguments on internet forums about whether David Rebellin slayed all in the 2004 Ardennes classics not on a Gerolsteiner team-issue Wilier, but rather a Scott rebadged with Wilier decals. Not to be overly inquisitive, but is there a tangible difference between the two? Aren’t they made from the same carbon in the same Taiwanese dungeon by the same $1.50/hr laborers? What distinguishes them isn’t manufacturing process or structural appearance or ride quality, rather it’s their respective marketing efforts. Not to pick specifically on Wilier or Scott, as the same truths apply to the bulk of the brands you see. I don’t want to sound too soap-boxy here, so I’ll make an admission: Aren’t they perfectly fine bikes? Well sure they are. But the frameset is the backbone of your bicycle. When you’re willing to spend thousands of dollars on it, perfectly fine isn’t the goal. Let’s face it: 98% of the frames you see are outsourced due to a company’s cost considerations and lack of willingness to acquire first-hand manufacturing know-how. This being the case, how couldn’t the appeal of the other 2% become significantly more luminous?

Our position on this is a slippery slope, we recognize that. Some of the finest components in the world — ones we proudly sell on a daily basis — are unabashedly Taiwanese-made. FSA and Easton are two hugely respected companies and we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend their products to anyone. But compare the cost of an FSA carbon crankset to that of a Campy. Compare the cost of an Easton carbon handlebar to that of a Deda. The savings these companies bring to market is enormous. One could even argue that FSA and Easton offer componentry of superior technological sophistication in comparison to their pricier rivals. The problem, though, is that same principles don’t hold true in the frameset side of the market. Taiwanese-made frames