- Trading Post
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
The Bike That Ruined My Blog... a Review of the Seven Axiom S
"That bike is going to ruin your blog," was the ominous first line of an email from a longtime reader. I had just announced my loaner arrangement with Seven Cycles and the Ride Studio Cafe, and this - in addition to the breathless account of my first paceline ride - proved simply too much for those who saw me as incompatible with such things. Would I soon be selling my loop frames and renaming the blog to "ugly bicycle?" Well, I will neither try to convince you that the Seven is "lovely in its own way," nor assure you that while the Seven was nice I still prefer lugs. I will simply describe my experience with this bike from the beginning and you can draw your own conclusions.
Some time in May, I test rode a Seven Axiom S at the Ride Studio Cafe in Lexington, MA - a bike and coffee shop that is also a Seven dealer. This was meant to be a one-time test ride: I wanted to try a bike that was different from what I normally ride, write about it, and that would be that. There were no demo models in exactly my size, and when given a choice between too small and too big I chose the latter - mainly because that bike had no toe overlap. This bicycle was almost identical in size to the 80s Bianchi on which I'd arrived, so the very helpful Rob Vandermark (who owns both the Ride Studio Cafe and Seven Cycles) measured it and set up the Seven so that my position would be the same. Another reason I chose the particular bike I did, was that it had a Campagnolo group installed. I told Rob that I had difficulty using Shimano brifters on all the modern roadbikes I'd attempted to ride in the past. He looked at the Tektro short reach brake levers on my own bike and said that if I liked how those felt then I should try Campagnolo - the design was very similar. He was right and I was able to brake comfortably.
This first test ride made three distinct impressions on me: First, that the bike was unexpectedly "easy to handle." I had assumed it would display the same characteristics I'd come to anticipate from other aggressive roadbikes, such as twitchiness at slow speeds, but there was none of it. I also remember being absolutely stunned by the lack of road shock. One thing I dislike about racing bikes with narrow tires is that they tend to be harsh - even in nice vintage steel bikes there is usually some harshness. On the Seven Axiom I could feel nothing. When I'd go over a bump, the bike was stiff and bouncy, but the expected pain that comes with that did not follow. Finally, I could really feel the lightness of the bike (or rather, the lack of heaviness) while pedaling - which surprised me, as I was previously under the impression that you don't really feel a bicycle's weight unless going uphill. Though I did not particularly care for the looks of a modern, welded frame and all the high-tech looking components, I liked the ride quality of the Seven much more than I expected to. It was a fun bike, a comfortable bike, an "approachable" bike even - though, of course, unnecessary for someone like me. I mean, what would I do with a racing bike?
Fast forward a couple of weeks, and spontaneously - although some might argue otherwise - I went on my first paceline ride. Not the social kind, but the kind offered by a cycling team. I did the ride on my Rivendell touring bike and, while I managed to keep up, it was clear that a different type of bicycle was needed if I wanted to keep taking part in these rides - which for some reason, I did. I considered my options. I could not afford to buy a new roadbike on the spot of the quality I wanted, and trying a couple of lower-end bikes made me feel that I'd be throwing money away if I went that route. Plus I wasn't sure that I would even be into that kind of cycling once I tried it a few times. So an idea occurred to me: Maybe the Ride Studio Cafe could rent me the Seven demo bike I'd tried earlier. We discussed it and decided to exchange the bike loan for ad placement on Lovely Bicycle. Mutual non-liability forms were signed and soon I was reunited with the Seven Axiom I'd ridden earlier. To insert a side note here, anyone can walk into the Ride Studio Cafe and test ride a Seven to their heart's content for free. What made ours a sponsored arrangement was that I would have this bike for much longer than typical.
I personalised the bike with my own saddle (a red Selle An-Atomica) and matching Fizik handlebar tape, installed a bottle cage, a computer, and MKS Stream pedals with Power Grips, and put a puncture-resistant set of tires on it (Michelin Krylion Carbon), just in case. Otherwise, the bike pictured is as it was given to me. The weight - with everything shown here (note the tool pouch) plus clip-on lights and empty water bottle - felt to be around 17lb.
Seven Cycles was established in 1997 in Watertown, Massachusetts, where they continue to operate today - building custom frames in titanium, steel and carbon fiber. The titanium models what they are best known for, and their frames have a world-wide reputation for being comfortable and fast. The Axiom S is Seven's "value" straight gauge titanium model, with the frameset priced in the mid $2,000s and complete bikes starting at just over $4,000. While that may seem costly, consider that the Seven is handmade locally and includes custom geometry and paint, and that mass-produced off the shelf roadbikes can fetch similar figures. Puts things into a different perspective is all.
The frame is unpainted titanium, polished to a matte finish. My impression of titanium is that it has a cleaner, but also a more "clinical" look to it than, say, stainless steel. However, it is also more scratch/ dent resistant. I rode the bike in all sorts of weather and you can see in the close-up pictures that the frame ended up perpetually covered in sand and grit. This resulted in no surface wear after 800+ miles. As for the feel of titanium, I don't think I can really say, given that my experience of it is limited to this specific bike. Supposedly, titanium offers a cushier ride quality than steel, all other factors remaining equal - and I did experience that here. Still, I'm not ready to attribute this to the titanium per se until I have a bit more experience under my belt.
This is difficult to photograph, but Seven frames have these beautiful curvy chainstays
as well as seat stays, which really make the frames recognisable. It's a visual extravagance that, combined with the somber nature of titanium, creates an interesting juxtaposition.
My favourite part of the frame construction is the way the stays transition to the dropouts. Don't know whether anybody else notices this, but it is such a graceful, crisp change in surfaces - there is something I find very satisfying about the design.
Here it is again - see what I mean?
I also like the headbadge - especially since my birthday happens to be on the 7th.
This bike was fitted with the Campagnolo Chorus group, which I believe is mid/upper tier. It included crazy things like a carbon fiber crankset and a hollow bottom bracket. Of course, nothing goes better with a carbon crankset than touring pedals and Power Grips - but we'll leave that issue aside for now!
My favourite aspect of the Chorus group were the combination levers. I like these so much, that I will have to write a separate post about this. But suffice to say I found them easier and more intuitive to use than any other brake lever and shifter system I've tried - and at this point I've tried many, from a variety of Shimano groups to SRAM to all sorts of vintage stuff. By far not everyone feels this way about Campagnolo levers, but they seem to work for me and I was very happy with the effortless braking, fine modulation and precise shifting they afforded.
The Chorus drivetrain is an 11-speed double, which some believe is excessive. I don't really get how it's any more excessive than a 10-speed in comparison to a 9-speed or a 9-speed in comparison to an 8-speed, if you see what I mean. But what do I know. All I can say is that I liked it, and that I preferred using the 11x2 double to the 8x3 triple on my own bike.
The wheelset is a Mavic Ksyrium SL, with the crazy flat spokes (yes, that is their official name). And the fork is a Seven 5E - which is supped to be a really good, extremely durable carbon fiber fork - but was still scary for me to use at first. In fact, this is the one part of the bike I was afraid to trust, half-convinced the fork would snap and kill me during my first ride.
While initially the bike was set up for me so that the saddle was even with the handlebars, I was soon ready for a more aggressive position and we moved the spacers to lower the bars, flipped the stem upside down, raised the saddle a tad, and also pushed the saddle forward. Still, there is no getting around the fact that this bike was too big for me and it was difficult to take flattering pictures of it, given how I had it set up. Not very good promotion for Seven, I'm afraid!
So what was it like to ride a titanium Seven roadbike for 800+ miles? Well, for one thing the bike rode "fast" - big surprise there. I was faster on it than the Co-Habitant, which otherwise never happens. When I rejoined the paceline rides, I not only was able to keep up, but moved up two group levels fairly quickly. The Seven and the paceline rides combined changed my riding style. I started to ride more frequently, more aggressively, more confidently, and in a more determined and less meandering manner. I lost fat and gained thigh and arm muscle. I got generally stronger and more cardiovascularly fit. I started to think of riding as "training." Training for what? Well, for continuing to move up in the paceline groups and then maybe joining a cycling club and... possibly racing. Did this change me or this blog's content for the worse? I can't tell. Maybe, maybe not. But I enjoyed this type of cycling as I never thought possible to enjoy an athletic activity, and my own perception of myself has shifted as a result.
Of course none of that really describes what's special about the Seven per se, and as you're reading this, you are probably thinking "Well, she would have had the same experience with any light, fast modern roadbike." Except I don't necessarily agree. In order for a person to have an experience like that, a bike has to make them want to ride that way. It has to feel pain-free, safe and comfortable - while going at speeds faster than what they are used to. With other light, modern roadbikes I'd tried, I did not feel comfortable riding them beyond the bike shop parking lot. The carbon fiber felt scary-flimsy, the aluminum felt painful over bumps, the fit felt awkward. Whenever I'd get on a modern racing bike, all I'd feel was "Oh no, that's not for me," whereas on my very first test ride of the Seven I felt the opposite: "Hey wait, I can ride this one!" Maybe it was the titanium, maybe it was the feel of the components, maybe it was the way the bike was set up for me, or maybe it was all of those things. Bottom line is, the Seven turned me into a "roadie" whereas other modern roadbikes I'd tried only made me want to dismount them as soon as possible. To me that seems worth noting.
Also worth noting is that I was able to ride the Seven - and quite enjoyably - across a wider range of conditions than I imagined advisable for a bicycle of its type. I rode it in pouring rain, over horrible pothole-ridden roads (it bounced off the potholes at speed, but quickly regained stability), and on 50+ mile trips. Over time, I began to trust the bike's handling more and more and riding it in all sorts of conditions began to feel natural. In fact, I never felt the desire to ride a roadbike with wider tires or fenders or racks or less aggressive geometry unless I needed to transport stuff or was going to ride off road. While the Seven handled very differently than my other bikes, that difference did not feel any less comfortable - at least not over a 50 mile stretch. Nothing hurt, and there was certainly less fatigue than after riding a heavier steel bike over that distance. Make of that what you will.
Basically, my understanding had been that there was a trade-off between "racy but uncomfortable" on the one hand, and "comfortable but not racy" on the other. My experience with the Seven has challenged that dichotomy. It was difficult not to choose it over my other roadbikes (a Rivendell Sam Hillborne and a vintage Bianchi Nuovo Racing) nearly every time, given that it was not only faster but also perfectly comfortable.
And as far as looks are concerned... This may be a cliché, but they grew on me. Part of it was just a matter of coming to appreciate a different aesthetic, but another part of it was coming to associate the look with the feel: I liked how the bicycle rode and the way it looked reminded me of how it rode. Therefore, I began to like the way it looked. Personalising it with some of my own accessories helped as well, and in general I think the titanium frames are very versatile in that sense.
So that is my story of the Seven Axiom S. This is far from a perfect review, given the limited nature of my experience with other roadbikes in its class. But it's telling in the sense that, as a relative beginner, I was able to ride this bicycle comfortably and to advance fairly quickly with its help. Are there other bikes out there that I could have had the same relationship with? Probably, but at this point I will never know, simply because I can't go through this experience twice. The Seven is now back at the Ride Studio Cafe, and I won't lie - I am having major withdrawal. I need a light, modern, road/racing bike of my own, that much is clear. Does it have to be a Seven? Probably not, other bikes exist. But frankly, the idea of doing more lengthy test rides and research - when I already know that the Seven Axiom S does everything I want and need - seems tedious. So... well, I can't say for sure yet; time will tell. In the meantime, my sincere thanks to the Ride Studio Cafe and Seven Cycles for this opportunity... even if they did help ruin my blog!