Low-Trailing and Didn't Even Know It

Jacqueline, Augarten
From the first time I rode a vintage Steyr Waffenrad in Vienna two years ago, its handling impressed me as unusual; categorically different from other classic city bikes I've tried, vintage or modern. Despite being large and heavy, the bicycle is extremely maneuverable. The cycling paths in Vienna are narrow and twisty, often requiring cyclists to make tight turns. I can do so on this bike at speed, without much effort. I cannot make the same turns on my Gazelle at home, or even on my roadbikes, in the same easy manner. Additionally, the bike feels easy to control and "place" when going downhill. In the summer of 2010 I rode it up an then down a small mountain on the outskirts of town via a winding road. I thought I'd be riding the brake the entire way down, but the bike was able to follow the curve of the road with extreme precision.

Jacqueline, Augarten
On the downside, I have already mentioned that the front end handling at slow speeds takes getting used to, requiring a very light touch. When I first start riding this bike after a long absence, it shakes so much that I always wonder whether the front wheel is loose. Then my body adapts to the handling and the shaking stops. Weird how that happens, and I even tell myself "Don't worry, remember that if felt the same way last time and then you got used to it." An hour later, I am invariably convinced that it is the best-handling bicycle in the world.

Jacqueline, Augarten
While I've felt these things on Jacqueline from the beginning, it was only later that I made the connection between these characteristics and low-trail geometry. I asked Wolfgang, the bike's owner about it, and while he does not recall the exact figure, he does believe it is a low trail bike. He also agrees that the Steyr Waffenrad bicycles have unique handling compared to other seemingly-similar city bikes. As someone whose cycling experience ranges from the velodrome to climbing the Grossglockner, he prefers this model as his own city bike and owns at least half dozen of them from different decades.

Jacqueline's being low trail would certainly explain why I was not surprised by the handling of the Randonneur we made: having already gotten used to some of the same characteristics, I now considered them within the range of "normal."

Unlocking Jacqueline
I will be leaving Vienna soon, and Jacqueline has already been returned to her owner. Wolfgang has an extra Steyr Waffenrad frame that can be mine if I want it, and I've been toying with the idea of building one up to see how it rides in Boston. I don't know though, it almost seems "wrong" somehow, as if Jacqueline belongs in Vienna. Of course the Boston version would be Jacqueline II... Funny how every now and again I think that I'm "done" with experimenting! But I do need to learn how to measure a bike properly - including angles, rake and trail.

On a side note: For anyone interested in pictures of Vienna's city center, I've posted some here - to give you an idea of what I meant earlier by the white Historicist buildings.


  1. I wonder what values put a bike in the "low trail" category vs the "high trail" category. I understand the concepts of head angle, rake and trail, but I don't know what is typically categorized "high" or "low".

  2. When I saw the picture you took outside the Secession Building I was very envious of you. Now that I see the pic of the Post Office Savings Bank in your Ringstrasse album, I'm downright jealous. I did a study of that building while in architecture school; it was amazing to see how the design changed from a much more typical Ringstrasse style to the pre-modern secessionist building it became.

  3. I think my old Raleigh Sports must be low-trail. The front end is wobbly on occasion at low speeds, but mostly the bike is just more maneuverable, somehow. Even with a front basket all loaded to heck and back, I can corner it more tightly and confidently than I can any of the other bikes I've owned, even the touring bikes. It also has no toe overlap (all my other bikes do 'cause I'm short and I always put fenders on) and I know that contributes.

    But I can't ride the Raleigh no-handed, even without a front basket on it. I don't know if that's related to trail at all. I can ride other bikes no-handed for short spells (on flat straight roads--my balance isn't very good). But the front end of the Raleigh just won't cooperate with those kinds of shenanigans.

  4. Mark - If it makes you feel any better, Vienna is not for everyone. I would even go so far as to say that many visitors dislike it.

    Architecturally, it is a real mix - from medieval, to baroque to neoclassical to historicist to biedermayer to jugendstil to contemporary. Sometimes you'll find an entire neigbourhood that's all one style and it will be a sharp contrast to the next neighbourhood. Other times the different style buildings will all be lined up together. I have thousands of architectural pictures over the years I've been here.

  5. IPhone has a built-in ap for angle finding. Only gives whole numbers though.
    The accurate way to measure fork rake is to lay the bike down on a piece of cardboard and trace the outline of the fork. Then put a straightedge over centerline of the tracing for upper blade and measure to center of drop. This does not work when the fork crown has angle.
    If someone has a good angle finder please do tell. I've got one used by model railroaders that's great for making 1 and % grades, wildly inaccurate at 70 degrees.

  6. I can see you bringing home another bike...it seems to suit you. And, of course, how can you resist the temptation?

  7. Hmmm, I don't think of city bikes as being low-trail generally, but anything's possible.

    Here's my very un-scientific method of measuring trail. You'll need a helper, piece of paper, pen, long straight object such as a yardstick, measuring tape, a length of string, and the bike in question.

    Take the bike off its stand and have your helper hold it upright on a hard level surface, applying the front brake. Place the sheet of paper under the front tire.

    Kneeling beside the front wheel, align the yardstick edge along the center of the headtube. Mark where this edge will strike the sheet of paper. Do not move the paper or bike.

    Hold the string at the center of the front axle and mark where the end brushes the paper.

    Measure between your marks in mm. This is approximately your bike's trail.

  8. I think there is a lot more to bike handling that high or low trail -- witness the recent scientific work on what makes a bike self-stable, which constructed a self-stable bicycle with zero trail and no gyroscopic effect, for how complex the subject really is. In this case, you have a lot of mass in the frame of the bicycle, and that has to influence your perception of how twitchy the bike is. I would imagine when you first get on the bike you're getting used to a lot of things, including the spread of the handlebars, the weight of the frame and fork, the seat position, etc. Whether it's truly low trail or not is just a part of the whole thing.

  9. Jan Heine recently described his method for measuring frame geometry in Bicycle Quarterly. I believe is was the summer issue.

  10. It's a beautiful city! I've just been reading the Hare with Amber Eyes and much of it is based in Vienna. Your photos have been a wonderful accompaniment.

  11. Hare with Amber Eyes is one I haven't read, thanks for the suggestion.

  12. So did you end up bringing the frame with you to Boston?

  13. A high trail value is one in which the trail is very pleasurable, usually including a lot of trees or a beautiful vista.

    A low trail value is one in which a fire road through redneck country must be traversed to get to the high trail value parts.

  14. It would be interesting to actually measure the trail and see if it's in fact 'low'. Very hard to tell accurately from photos or by using iPhone angle finders (I have a bunch of 'em, and they're all have an error range of about 1 degree, making them practically useless in context).

    I have several bikes that have mid- to high-trail, yet feel exactly as Velouria describes. What these bikes have in common is that they all have a rider weight distribution heavily biased toward the rear wheel, lessening the load on the front wheel. In particular, bikes which place the rider in an upright position and/or which have relaxed seat tube angles will push this weight bias to an extreme. My wife's Soma mixte has high trail yet the front end feels so light, it's pretty much exactly as Velouria describes for Jacqueline. In fact, when Velouria reviewed my wife's Soma, this is what she said:

    "Given that I had the saddle lower than Mrs. Somervillain, the handlebars were too high for my taste and the front end felt lighter than I like. Still, I felt safe and confident riding this bicycle in traffic right away."

    Judging from pictures of the Soma from that review, the handlebar to saddle height appears very similar to Jacqueline's.

  15. Velouria,
    I took the tiny pic of the Steyr Waffenrad and worked out an estimate of the trail: 30mm, which is at the low end of the range of "low trail." There is probably some error in that figure, since the front wheel is turned a little, etc. But clearly the bike qualifies as low trail, in addition to beautiful.

  16. "I've been toying with the idea of building one up to see how it rides in Boston."

    This made me smile, this makes me want too look around the room as if to share a conspiratorial look with fellow readers who are probably thinking, "we know how this will turn out."


  17. I say go for it (the new frame to build J II)! Bike projects are inherently fun,and this one sounds uber cool! :)


  18. iphone apps! My mobile phone is circa 2006.

    Brad - No, it does not fit into my suitcase. It would have to be mailed to me, which will be a hassle in itself. My intuition tells me that riding this bike in Boston won't work as well as riding it in Vienna, though I can't put my finger on why exactly I think that. Well, I guess I have time to decide.

  19. Jon Webb - I agree, but the rest of this bike is very similar to a typical roadster, so it's likely the effects I feel on it are indeed due to trail.

    somervillain - Interestingly, the feel of the front end wobble on the Steyr is not the same as on your wife's Soma, or on my Gazelle (which has the same issue, since I can't lower the bars any further). Also, the main reason it occurred to me that the bike could be low trail was not the wobble but the very specific type of responsiveness that I have otherwise only experienced on the randonneur we built up over the summer. It's hard to explain, other than the bike goes exactly where you put it and does not try to straighten itself out. On an upright city bike, this is unexpectedly useful on narrow, winding city bike paths, allowing the seemingly clunky old bicycle to make tight turns without much effort.

  20. Do you have any close up photos of the lugwork on this bike?

  21. Anon - The lugwork on it is difficult to capture, because the bike is in bad shape cosmetically and all the gold has faded. This is the best I have, from 2010. But you may want to have a look at this website for some restored versions.

  22. As a designer of custom bicycles, I deal with trail all the time. Basically trail is one component of handling characteristics but it is not the only one.

    1) Trail. The axis of the steerer is projected to the ground. A vertical line is projected down from the centerline of the hub. That distance is called trail. Most performance road bikes I design have about 60 to 64 mm of trail. The lower the number, less movement in the handlebars will initiate a turn. Being a former track sprinter, my track bikes have 53mm of trail and my road bikes have 56mm, but most clients would not like this setup.

    2) Stem length and handlebar reach. A shorter reach bar and a shorter stem will produce results similar to smaller trail numbers, making the bike twitchier.

    3) If the head angle is shallower, a shorter stem/reach number will speed up the feeling of the handling, and with steeper angles, the opposite is the case. This is why one sees long stems on racing bikes with steep head angles, as the bike is more controllable.

    These are multi variable equations and this helps to explain why some bikes behave differently even though they have the same trail.

    One final variable that is important is the balance over the cranks and the weight distribution over the wheels. If one is too far forward, too much weight is on the hands and too much weight can be on the front wheel, causing handling problems independent of geometry.

    This is a great topic, though the lack of inclusion of all the variables makes it a tough one.

  23. Coincidentally, I was just working on a Bicycle Quarterly article on how to measure a bike's geometry from a (good) photo.

    I did a quick overlay over your photo of Jacqueline. It's not ideal, because the fork is turned slightly, but overall, the photo doesn't have much distortion. I get a head angle of 68°, a whopping 100 mm fork offset, resulting in a trail figure of 35 mm.

    For a bike with an upright position (and little weight on the front wheel), this is a very low trail figure. Based on the geometry, I would expect the bike to handle as you describe.

  24. Oh boy, I see the low trail theme continues ;) Was really hoping it would come to an end after the randonneur experiment.

    Your bemused reader,

  25. TomA and Jan - Thank you, and sorry for not having a better photo to work from. Good to have a confirmation. 30-35mm trail is what I expected based on conversations with the owner.

    Garry - Honestly, I don't know why it pushes some people's buttons when trail is mentioned. It's a fairly important aspect of frame geometry and I am interested in it just as I am interested in the other aspects. The randonneur project was certainly not meant to be the end of it.

  26. To add to my comment to Garry above: Among other things, I would be interested to know why these bikes were built this way, whereas English roadsters and Dutch bikes, the way I understand it, tend to have high trail. Was it something about the terrain or road structure in Austria that made Steyr decide this was better? Or were they copying the French? To me, that kind of stuff is fascinating to research.

  27. A couple of questions: what do you think it is about Vienna some visitors don't like and how did you adjust your position or tension to stabilize the bike initially?

  28. Well, some find Vienna "unfriendly" and "closed." Which is true in a way; it's not a gregarious city and you have to work to peel back layers. Then there is the fact that for some, the neoclassical architecture in the center holds scary associations with the nazi regime. In general, despite being a contemporary and ethnically diverse city, Vienna sometimes has the feel of being frozen in time and historically oblivious, which some visitors notice and find disturbing, even threatening. Of course, you can visit here and not notice any of it - focusing instead on the Opera and the pastries and the gilded facades and the fine shopping. Or, you can notice it all and find it philosophically fascinating rather than threatening. It really depends on the person, and I guess I am of the 3rd category.

  29. Oh, re adjusting my position: It's not conscious at all. It sort of happens automatically within the first hour of riding the bike. I can't figure it out beyond that, even when I try to pay attention to my positioning.

  30. I have the impression (perhaps mistaken) that high and low trail traditions evolved in relation to load carrying conventions. In England the load was typically carried in a saddle bag whereas in France there was a convention of front loading. I believe that high trail favors rear loading and low trail favors front loads. I'd curious in anyone has any perspective on this.

  31. Coincidentally, I was just working on a Bicycle Quarterly article on how to measure a bike's geometry from a (good) photo.

    Jan, I've been doing this for a while, using CAD software to calculate angles from lines superimposed over photos of bike frames. Still, I've found that even with minimal lens distortion, it's difficult to make frame angle determinations within about 0.5 degrees, and it's much harder to estimate rake offsets from photos. For that, I haven't found anything that beats a yardstick taped to the fork of a bike, unless the fork is already off the bike. Then it's easier.

  32. Somevillain,

    For the Bicycle Quarterly article, I looked at a number of bikes and compared the measurements from the photo to the actual measurements of the bikes. What I found is that you need a good photo, but then you can get within a few millimeters.

    The "yardstick" method for measuring offset is tough, because if your angle is only slightly off, you extrapolate that error down the fork and get erroneous results. Of course, it's best to take the fork out and put it on V blocks on the alignment table. We do that with bikes that don't have fenders, lighting wires and other parts that make it difficult to remove the fork and strip it bare.

  33. For me the problem is that I am just not a precise measurer, even though in theory I understand how to do it. So that is what I meant by needing to learn. Even when I measure something simple like c-c seat tube length or chainstay length, my figures always end up being a little off compared to what a framebuilder will tell me they are after measuring the same frame.

  34. Velouria @ 11:28

    Researching that kind of design work will usually not be possible. If you have something like Frank Schwinn's Boca notebooks it's all in front of you in black and white, anything less and you're guessing.

    I did a little work in the early 70s with the venerable Superia bicycle co., Belgium, attempting to induce them to build a bicycle the American market would accept as a "ten speed". The principal frame design factor was the fixed angles in the lugsets and bottom brackets they had on hand. Certainly they had workers who knew how to adjust a lug, they could see no reason to spend time on that operation. Buying new lugs when they already had huge stock on hand made no sense to them. Even digging through their trove of historic lugs, rusting in peace, to see what could be repurposed was a non-starter.

    Oh. We got some pretty nice bikes built by Superia. And some very odd ones.

    The big design factors in play on production bikes, and on most customs, are fashion, tradition, inadvertence, and shit happens. The conscious design imagined in spaces like this blog is not the norm.

    If you just gotta know angles go buy a Starrett angle finder. Good ones are $100 to $150. A true test of dedication. Unless you know someone whose day job requires a good angle finder. You could also test some of the thirty and fifty dollar finders and report to us if they're any good.


  35. "Wolfgang has an extra Steyr Waffenrad frame that can be mine if I want it, and I've been toying with the idea of building one up to see how it rides in Boston."

    Just do it!

    Re Vienna, never been myself, but a lot of people I know describe its feel as similar to being invited into a family, only to realise it is full of dirty secrets they do not want you to find, yet clues keep poking out from everywhere... Especially when your tour takes you to Germany before going into Austria...

  36. Anon 9:10 - Yes, I know I know. But a habit of academic curiosity is hard to kill. In Austria there was a total of over 30 independent bicycle manufacturers before the 70s, can you imagine? I see the weirdest bikes over there sometimes and there is no record at all of what they are and how they came about.

    Montrealize - That is spot on about Vienna.

  37. The fork offset seems to be key?

    This caught my attention since it gathered no comments:

    "Then there is the fact that for some, the neoclassical architecture in the center holds scary associations with the nazi regime."

    What you say is probably unfortunately true, but these 'associations' might be challenged. This blog touches on cycling, yes, but also art, photography, fashion and now architecture, so it might be pointed out that this architecture dates from post Austro-Prussian War in the 1860s, and predates the Nazi regime significantly. Any regime can seize upon the existence of any extant artwork to suit its own purposes, the artist can never know to what ends their work may be turned, and it is not the architecture's 'fault'.

    It has long been fashionable to bash historicist architecture but it is probably a fallacy to measure the aesthetic decisions of that tumultuous age with our own political or structuralist yardsticks and find that they come up short.

    This architecture also existed internationally in and after this period, not just in Vienna, and it is admired in many places (especially by non-architects!) ...where there are no 'scary' associations.

    In terms of fashion, one can prefer the later architecture for the Habsburg crown, such as the Osterreich Postparkasse which is closer to currently fashionable sensibilities to the earlier, but both are imperial and neither scary.

    Let's enjoy both the old and the new, and gently challenge the assumptions we all hold. This blog is a great example of how we can do this in cycling!

  38. "For me the problem is that I am just not a precise measurer, even though in theory I understand how to do it. So that is what I meant by needing to learn. Even when I measure something simple like c-c seat tube length or chainstay length, my figures always end up being a little off compared to what a framebuilder will tell me they are after measuring the same frame."

    Just a note here: there is probably some error in the way you measure but centering a tape measure on a round tube by eyeball is a bit impossible.

    And the spec sheet you are given doesn't necessarily match up to the bike precisely.

    It's hand made, after all.

  39. Anon 11:45 - Yes, of course neoclassical architecture predates the nazi regime. But a certain mustachiod person liked it and promoted it as "the best kind" of architecture. He liked Vienna in general for that matter, and got much of his aesthetic inspiration from it. But I think the crux of the association is that there is all this very memorable wartime footage of the Anschluss with the nazi entourage parading through Vienna - and the scenery looks much the same now as it did in those films. In German cities this familiarity of landscape is often missing, because they were much more heavily bombed, but Vienna has remained largely unchanged.

  40. But I guess it is up to us today to decide whether we should continue to tie up substance and form, intrinsic value and external usage or accept that they can be split, that anything can be recuperated by anyone and that even the most beautiful things can get perverted by (or worse be created by) the wackiest minds...

    And we have done it for the most part. Otherwise we would need to trash most of Western intellectual heritage: the US founding fathers we slave owners, Voltaire & co were slave traders, Carl Jung was antisemitic, what about Wagner's music, shunned for decades because same mustachioed man enjoyed his music, eugenist scientists ties to vaccines and psychiatry etc.

    So yeah, you could enjoy Vienna's architecture without getting entangled with its history. Personally, I would rather spend my energy in bitching about the fact that post-war purges never occured... rather that hating a certain building because those I hate loved it.

  41. I think there are two parts to your elaboration: firstly that it was inspiring to an evil man, and secondly that the historical associations are based in images - not architecture.

    Re: the first, there is nothing the architecture can do about the aesthetic preferences of a demented monster, even one who intends to manipulate through use of architecture. The mustachioed man liked the Garnier Opera as well. Evaluation of architecture itself by events after the fact is not fair and we can't dismiss what he liked just because he liked it. I am not giving up my upright bicycle if we later determine that Hitler rode one too.

    Re: the second, I believe the crux is indeed what you describe - the imagery. The scary associations belong to the imagery and not the architecture. It is too bad to confuse the two and miss out on some of the beauty of the art. There are some beautiful public spaces in the Hofburg, such as the courtyard between Looshaus and the Ring, or the passage between the two with its interconnected arcades. It would be a shame for people to dismiss these because of the pall cast by film of outrageous events.

  42. "centering a tape measure on a round tube by eyeball is a bit impossible"

    I think that's the issue for me. Plus my hands shake, which could contribute to it. I don't mean that my figures are wildly off, but sometimes like 0.5-1.5mm off - which is still significant.

    "Personally, I would rather spend my energy in bitching about the fact that post-war purges never occured"

    Yes, that's a big issue too. Only now are the last of the government officials and heads of hospital/university departments being "purged" through natural causes. But with stuff like architecture and music, the negative response is usually a gut reaction that happens despite logically understanding that it's not the music/architecture's fault. I can certainly understand it.


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