As my bike education continues I’m learning that something I’ve always loved about many of my bikes – their versatility – is at odds with something I’ve come to appreciate of late – optimized design. This is logical of course. If you build a bike to do a number of things and to be built up a variety of ways you must make the design flexible enough to work adequately for all the tasks owners will use it for. On the other hand if I give you a very narrow specification to design a bike around and a single focus that all owners will use the bike for it’s possible to make a bike that works much better in its area of speciality.
Recently I disassembled my Boulder Bicycle All Road’s front end to correct a mistake I made assembling the headset. It was a bit of a chore because the front rack, bag, fender, lighting and brakes are all tied together. Then when I reassembled it I put two 2mm spacers in the wrong spot when putting the front rack on. Nothing would line up. The fender line was totally wrecked. I was shocked as the bikes I’m used to, such as my LHT, are not built to such tight tolerances. A difference of 2mm would make no difference on that bike. In fact my LHT’s fork brake posts are not symmetrically welded to the fork and are both angled incorrectly. A flaw that I’ve been able to pretty much ignore because nothing really depends on them as long as the brakes have enough adjustment room. On my Boulder Bicycle everything from the fender to the rack to the bag would be out of alignment due to such a fabrication mistake.
Working on my Boulder Bicycle several reasons that few bikes are optimized and integrated becomes clear – it’s hard to do, it’s expensive because fabrication tolerances are tight and you can only sell each design for one purpose. When every part is supposed to fit perfectly into place a mistake becomes glaringly obvious. As you can imagine welding and assembling these types of bikes is very challenging.
This begs the question is the cost and hassle of optimized design and integrated components worth it? I think the answer is yes for two different reasons:
- an optimized integrated design is beautiful. Each part working with the next in harmony.
- a focused design works noticeably better for its mission than a bike that has been made to do many different things
Looking at it from the opposite point of view it’s very hard to make a bicycle that doesn’t work at all. My LHT is a bike I love and it’s optimized moderately well and not integrated at all. It works with a variety of parts for many missions. It does many things well and isn’t bad for a bunch more missions. It will never be perfect. I love it anyways. When I go to mount the VO hammered fenders I bought for it I know they’ll go on well enough. They won’t fit the wheel perfectly and I’ll have to cobble together some DIY spacers and brackets to get the best fit I can. The front fender won’t tie into the front rack elegantly for proper support. The result will be nice and work fine, but there will be many areas that are not ideal.
On the bright side, while a bike that’s not designed to be integrated will never be one, even a versatile bike design has a mission and build spec that makes the most of its capabilities. I think that’s why I love the LHT so much. She’s got a bit of a frankenstein vibe and she is not wonderfully harmonious to look at, but in the saddle she works very well for what I use her for. The tubeset and geometry Surly used works well for my size, weight and cargo. If I was 60lbs more or 60lbs less or +/- 8″ taller/shorter than I am than it would likely not be a bike I loved so much. I also have to give credit to the custom parts build I used. It all has come together better than the sum of its parts would suggest.
What interests me is now that I have an appreciation for optimized bikes and integrated designs will I build up any more versatile bikes? I really don’t know. I can tell you that looking at the Rawland Cycles Drakkar the first thing that comes to mind is that if I built it up that the fenders, wheels/tires and front rack would have to be hacked together around the specific build I chose. It would all work. It would likely be a lovely bike, but it would never be as elegant or purposeful as my Boulder Bicycle All Road.
Perhaps I’ve been ruined??!!
The trouble with a taste for optimized/integrated designs is that there are very few production frames/forks available. Boulder Bicycle’s 700c/650B offerings are a couple of the only ones that come to mind along with a couple from Velo Orange and the Box Dog Pelican. And keep in mind none of these bikes is fully optimized or integrated. They go part way down that path, but leave some flexibility to the owner which results in some compromises. At the far end of spectrum are the Rene Herse bikes offered by Mike Kone which are only available as completely integrated bikes that must meet certain standards of aesthetics and performance with a price tag that matches. I have neither the budget nor the refined tastes for such a fine machine so my VISA card is somewhat safe!