Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Choose Your Fork Adventure


It began with a meandering phone conversation - of the kind I have grown accustomed to having with one of the gentlemen behind Italian-German mystery brand Bella Ciao, whose Frascona curved bicycles I am rather partial to. A rear rack I designed for them is finally about to become available (made by Tubus), and they are sending me a finished sample, which will be nice to see. But really we were chatting about this and that and the other thing, when somehow we got on the topic of low trail bicycles. Actually I think I know how. Bella Ciao has been working with Giles Berthoud, and so perhaps we were discussing his handlebar bags - whereupon the whole low trail and front load issue came up. What do I think of it? I gave my usual song and dance.

For carrying a modest front load on an upright city bike, frankly I find that trail doesn't matter. But issues of portage aside, I simply enjoy low trail handling in its own right. I just love it. In fact.... (and I blurted this next part out without thinking) I wish Bella Ciao made low trail bikes!

"You do?"

Realising this could be interpreted as an insult to their product, I promptly corrected myself.

"What I mean is, I am curious how a bicycle like Bella Ciao - whose handling I am familiar with and like already - would feel with a low trail front end. It would be easy enough to try: all else can remain the same, just make the fork more raked out. "

On the other end there is silence. Then: "How much more raked out?"

I visualise the original fork and say roughly how much.

Can't be sure, but I think I hear scribbling. "Okay. I will ask the framebuilder what he thinks. Maybe we can talk."

Imagining the scene bound to ensue, I wince and shudder a little. Framebuilder screaming, gesticulating wildly, instruments thrown. Rake? She want more rake?!

Two weeks later I receive an email with the above photo. "Framebuilder likes the idea. You want to try them both and see?"

"Try them both how? are you going to send me a bike with two forks?!"

"Ja, klar!"

So. That is how it happened. I am getting a bike to test with two forks, to compare low vs mid trail handling on what is otherwise the same machine.

Am I in heaven? Yes! Will they actually offer this choice to customers? For a small-batch manufacturer, that is apparently a realistic possibility. And why not? Choose your fork/ choose your adventure!

What? It could be a trend that catches on, and before you know it everyone will be offering bikes with multiple forks. No, really. It could happen!...

40 comments:

  1. Well, not often do we get a glimpse behind the curtain of cycling, and its evolution of design and graceful beauty and honestly, clueless though I was, did not suspect that you were indeed kind of like a cycling sylph, a quiet ambassador conjuring things that happen seemingly inexplicably in bicycle design. Thanks! Jim Duncan

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  2. This is a very interesting topic. You have a rare chance to compare same bike with two different fork rakes. I will expect a thorough study and a report pointing out which rake works better in what situations :)

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    1. Thankfully the rakes will arrive just in time for the leaf season : )

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  3. How I would love the low trail fork on my Bella Ciao! I'm looking forward to your review of the new fork.

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    1. Why is that - because you're curious, or because you've tried low trail handling on other bicycles and prefer it?

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    2. I have a Raleigh DL1 Tourist with its legendary fork. I find the Cadillac ride on the Raleigh preferable to the stiffer Bella Ciao, all other things being equal, which they aren't, of course. The BC is the newer, 7-gear "sports car" and I am very fond of her, so, yes, I am curious to find out how she would handle with a low trail fork.

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    3. Oh, a question: Can one swap out one fork for another, or does one have to buy a whole new bicycle?

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    4. I have no idea whether they'll decide to make the low trail fork commercially available, and if so in what way (meaning, as standard on all future bikes or as an alternative to their regular forks). But if they do, I am sure it will be possible to buy just the fork - as long as the colour of your bike is still available (some of the shimmery powdercoats are limited batches).

      The DL-1s (and some other bikes of the same ilk I've since come to know in the UK & Ireland) are incomparable as far as ride quality. Even keeping the geometry of the bike the same, framebuilders have tried to reproduce the feel using currently available steel tubing and have not been able to.

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  4. Interesting. Any idea of the head tube angle or is that a classified state secret?

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    1. It's indeed a classified state secret.
      But my unofficial guess is 72.5°

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  5. Interesting. I plan to buy a Bella Ciao Ingegnere by December. I look forward to learning about the results of this experiment. Their company has a good feel about them, and I find the joint German-Italian nature of the venture intriguing.

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  6. Hm. This merits further study. (looks at wife's '79 Raleigh Cameo up on the living room bike rack)

    I bet it will be a little less nimble at very low speeds, but otherwise fairly delightful.

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  7. All this talk about trail made me compare my two most used commuter bikes - a Trek 620 and a 1965 Raleigh 3-speed. Sure enough it's exactly as I suspected; the Raleigh has much lower trail. As a pure city bike the Raleigh's handling is hard to beat. It turns on a dime with no effort at all. You steer your handle bar much more with it. It's incredibly nimble at low speeds. On the other hand, the Trek comes into it's own at speed where turning is best done by leaning. It's much easier to ride no handed as well.

    Just passing on what I know to this awesome blog...
    D'nardo

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  8. Exciting.

    I really like Bella Ciao's niche and aesthetic. Wish they could raise their reach in the U.S. market. Imagine they get plenty of business in Europe though.

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    1. To raise volume significantly for regular export to the US, they'd need to change their manufacturing method - which is basically a small family shop with I think 2 builders (the "Maestro" and his nephew). Still, I think they have plans to at least make the process a bit smoother in future, so stay tuned. One thing I wish they'd do is make their handlebars and other components available online; they are great and reasonably priced products that most don't even know exist.

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    2. Their handlebars are, AFAIK, simply polished versions of the bars made by Humpert, a German company. Bella Ciao keep it a bit vague on their site, stating that the handlebars are 'finished' ("gefertigt") in Germany, which can mean anything. But nothing wrong with that!
      Humpert bars are made in Germany & Asia, have many great non-drop bar shapes, cost very little, are made to a high quality, and can be bought anywhere in Europe.

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    3. Well I assume someone makes the handlebars for them. But where is this "anywhere," where, say, the lightweight porteur bars, can be bought? Cause ironically some of the Euro bikes shops I know are importing theirs from Velo Orange!

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    4. V, I meant, cheeky fellow that i am, that Bella Ciao might not design the bars; they just buy them and polish them. But i don't know that for sure.
      http://www.humpert.com/en/bikeparts/ . Site is a bit of all over the place, but there's an online catalog on the right of this page (see pages 23-29), and there's a dealer search function. No dealers in IRE, north or south, i see . . . they tend to be focused on OEM, but i was buying these bars for 10EUR each a few years ago. Humpert is a huge company in Germany and almost any German bike store can order them.
      When Velo Orange started making their 'upright' bars, Humpert was the only company I knew of that was still making a selection of classic shapes.

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    5. No I get what you're saying and it may very well be. I will request, nay demand a direct answer from BC next time I talk to them. Who-ever designs, manufactures and finishes these bars, it would be well worth making them easily obtainable IMO (to those without access to German brick and mortar shops I mean).

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    6. Okay. Had a long chat with Bella Ciao on the subject of handlebars. I am satisfied that they do indeed design their own bars from scratch, whereupon a certain reputable German manufacturer produces them to Bella Ciao's specs in small batches. Then the finishing touches are added to make them even more special and shiny. The "who" aspect of this equation is not something they wish to make public, which is their prerogative. But there you have it.

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    7. "Still, I think they have plans to at least make the process a bit smoother in future, so stay tuned."
      Do you mean Bella Ciao team are planing to grow in building process, leaving the family builder model ? I hope's not the case - it might seems a bit selfish, i allready own one of their frame, but very few "artisanal" frame-builder lefts in Europe, at least at accessible prices ; and maestro, luiggi and the nephew seems to be nice - and obviously very good at work

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    8. No no, I mean the opposite of that (i.e. that they do not plan to leave that model, therefore production is bound to remain small). The process I am referring to is distribution (pertaining to ordering bikes from abroad).

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  9. As someone who shudders at the modern ugly straight forks just the look does it for me but the more relaxed style suits me better the older and wiser I become... look forward to your report.

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  10. I find it pretty amusing that the fork rake will be based on your visualization in a phone call like that. No precise measurement, just a quick mental calculation on your part.
    Also, how far you've gone from when I started reading the blog back in your Mary Poppins days. It's a little hard to believe, actually, that one person could have played all these different roles in cycling, and have evolved so much. Your April Fool's prank about multiple women having played the role on this website has a certain credibility to it?
    BTW, PBP?

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    1. No PBP alas. Not even a trip to Paris to photograph the PBPers.

      But it will no doubt relieve you to know there is no danger of my specifying fork rake on Bella Ciao bikes. The framebuilder decided on the measurements. He's been around the block a few times and low trail is not a new concept to him.

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  11. Does your preference for low trail stem (no pun intended) from your aversion to toe overlap? Or is it purely the handling that is appealing to you? Either way, there's a Bella Ciao dealer nearby in Köln I will have to visit. Natürlich.

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    1. Oh not at all. None of the bikes I own have toe overlap regardless of trail (and the standard-forked Bella Ciao bikes I've ridden don't either).

      I just really like the handling. The feel of how the bicycle balances, steers, and "picks its path." On an upright/city/utility bike one area where I find this really noticeable is in tight corners. I can ride a low trail bike through, say, a narrow crazily winding alleyway or pick my way through tight traffic, or along an MUP path, more confidently at any speed. I also find it easier to move around on the bike and multitask: remove a jacket, take things out of my pocket, eat an apple while I ride, text (just kidding), even while going around sharp bends.

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    2. I was in Amsterdam last year being jealous of all those living in such a bike friendly city. low trail and texting whilst riding seemed to be almost universal as was style and confidence...

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  12. Wicked. What bike are they coming with?

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    1. "Neorealista" with Dedacciai tubing, shimmery dark green.

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  13. Velouria - just a comment on your previous post - I loved the photos, the landscape is just enchanting, also the photos of yourself and your special bike. Glad you are still enjoying cycling and that you are able to share your experiences with so many other bike enthusiasts. I no very little (nothing) about the subject of high trail/low trail but enjoy the variety of your posts immensely.

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  14. What is low trail, please?

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  15. nice post, and a great chance to test the same frame with two rake sizes, great, lucky your'e!
    I'm looking forward to read your test, i had the chance to build up these monthes an ingegnere from zero (thanks vito and B.C. team) and i've added a porteur front rack, works great, but i'm curious what about with anoher angle...and a look forward to get the exact words of luiggi when he heard about the idea of low trail...in italy it's not so common i guess

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  16. I had no idea you were in the business of designing elegant racks and such for manufacturers. Very nice; I looked at the pictures. This information causes to seem rather misdirected my comment a few days back about how you can do all sorts of riding perfectly well on a 1987 mountain bike and need never commission an Alex Singer. I still maintain you can, but you also can put any load you like on a utilitarian rack. This fact does not undermine the value of elegance.

    There is a deep division in this. You can love bicycles and want to commission an Alex Singer and you can love them and believe the highest techical achievement is to be able to build a bike for any conceivable purpose from an inventory of three old mass-produced Japanese frames and a pile of parts from the era before index shifting. Some people want it both ways. Grant Peterson may think you should Just Ride, but he would like to sell you a $4,000 bicycle to do it on, rather than seeing you spruce up something you got on ebay for a few hundred.

    One’s attitude may be determined by whether one is flush or broke, of course. The broke are sometimes dependent on the flush, in a remote way, at least. My Panasonic MC-7500 was the top of its line and would have been out of my reach when it was new. In 2043 maybe I’ll pick up someone’s unloved Rivendell, if I’m still ambulatory.

    For the broke with the pile of parts and old frames it is hard not to indulge the feeling that the imperative to buy equipment that is urged from everywhere—not just Bicycling Magaine, but from Bicycle Times and Bicycle Quarterly and blogs—is a betrayal of the spirit of cycling, said spirit being supposed to involve self-sufficiency and thrift and independence, and said imperative to buy involving by contrast indulgence and luxury and a kind of narcissistic fetishism and not Just Riding. But who doesn’t love an Alex Singer?

    This is a genuine moral and spiritual problem. No kidding.

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    1. Your point about being able to do all sorts of riding on a 1987 mountain bike is perfectly valid. And as you said yourself: At the same time, it doesn't mean there is no value to commissioning an Alex Singer. I would further add (pertaining to your last paragraph) that it doesn't mean there is no value in innovation and experimentation when it comes to cycling equipment (after all, how did that 1987 MTB come about in the first place?).

      IMO there is a tendency to focus too much on price. There are bicycles that cost $4,000, sure. But there is no such entity as a "$4,000 bicycle." There are racing bicycles. Utility bicycles. Steel bicycles. Carbon fiber bicycles. Vintage bicycles. Brand new high-tech bicycles. Handmade bicycles where the builder barely breaks even when he sells it. Mass produced bicycles with decals of storied brands which command huge markups. What I mean is: the $4,000 figure is used as an adjective of sorts, but it doesn't describe the bicycle in any meaningful way. I see price as a side-effect, not a feature of a bike, if that makes sense. This is why the bicycles I myself am interested in can vary in price wildly, and can veer between dumpster finds and exquisite handmade machines.

      On the subject of Just Riding... my thoughts are summarised here. Over 2 years old but still more or less current.

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  17. As the great philosopher, baseball Hall of Famer and bicycle enthusiast Yogi Berra once said: "When you come to a fork on a bike. Take it."

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  18. I would be very interesting in discovering if the bike with lower trail is easier to ride "free hand" or not. I am flummoxed regarding this subject since my classic Trek 520 terrifies me when take one hand off the bar, yet on my Litespeed Solano, I ride around corners without hands. Is it the trail or something else?

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    1. This seems to depend on whom you ask! I personally find it easier to ride low trail bicycles no hands (not that I do it a whole lot, but when I do..), and there are many who feel the same. Others however, claim the exact opposite - that a low trail bike is the worst/impossible to ride no hands. I don't think either group is "wrong." It's about the rider x bike interaction and not the bike alone.

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