Tuesday, September 19, 2023

A Search For "Gravel" Geometry: Part 1 - Sifting Through The Scans Of Time

 Throughout the years that this blog has existed I have done periodic forays into what geometry for certain bikes is, should be, what it was, and where it all may have come from to begin with. (Example here) This has always been one of my minor "nerd" passions and well.....here we go again! 

Recently a proposal for a certain niche build from an up-and-coming builder in California by a certain individual who stands to have an interest in writing up the story was put forth to me. In return for my participation, ($$$) I would end up, at the least, with a frame set. Okay, so that is where this all is generating from.

That propelled me into digging, once again, into the sands - or scans - of time. Internet information is not stagnant. What was available to look up in 2005, when I started this blog, is a pittance to what is available to all of us today. So, I was a bit surprised to find a LOT more information than I had a decade or more ago. 

Purpose: The idea is to see what, or even if, any past efforts in bicycle design have any bearings on where we are at with geometry regarding"gravel bikes" today. This has bearings on what this proposed project is, and eventually I'll bring that up which should bring this series full circle. But before we get there....

History: First of all, it is paramount to this discussion to understand a few things. One - Almost every technical and design attribute for modern day bicycles was conceived of in the late 1890's/early 1900's. The technology developed for bicycling spawned a think-tank that would rival anything assembled today in terms of talent and firepower in intelligence terms. All the science and math behind bicycle technology was so potent that it spawned the air industry, automobile industry, and the motorcycle industry, to name a few things. 

This resulted in ideas that, theoretically would work, but that couldn't be fully realized due to limitations in materials technology. That said, our dive isn't about soft-tail design, gear changers, or about tires, but it will concern, mainly, what the angles were for the tubes which were brazed up to make those earlier bicycles. 

Fashion & Marketing: Yes, even back then there was marketing and due to what was popular, influences infiltrated design and what came out for the public to ride. So, a lot of what we may think of as "the purity of the sport" from antiquity may actually just be marketing what was then popular. For instance, just as we had "The Lance Effect" in the 2000's, from the turn of the 19th Century to the 20th Century riders had "The Track Effect". Madison Square Garden exists because of track racing. Track racing was as big as the NFL is now in the early 1900's. There was betting, spectators galore, and lots of money to be made. So, all the young bicycle riders wanted to be track racers. Guess what kinds of bikes were sold to them? 

But that wasn't all. Even old traditions carried over affected design, and in particular, it was the old "high-wheelers", or penny farthings, that had a big effect upon design of the newer "safety bikes" well into the 20th Century. This most affected seat tube angles as the slacker angles put riders into similar positions for pedaling as they would have had on high wheeled bikes. 

And the aforementioned materials technology deficits also dictated some of what we see in terms of geometry and components. For instance, geometry had to account for the fact that steel and aluminum forming wasn't as well understood as it is today, so things like handlebars were limited in shape and therefore that affected geometry. That's just one facet. There were many others.

Next: Myths & Traditions


Kevin said...

Looking forward to the rest of this series.

Guitar Ted said...

@Kevin - Thank you for checking in!

scottg said...

Lance may have gotten the riders, but Jan got the builders,
the 2000s were when Herse & Singer were the inspiration for
many builders. Who'd a thought racks, bags and 42mm road tires
would be a thing, when Lemond was putting out bikes that could
barely fit a 23mm ?

Guitar Ted said...

@scottg - Maybe so, but I think if you look at retail sales of bicycles from the 2000's you'll see that the average cyclist was most influenced by Lance and what he brought to the table.

There will always be custom builders which have small influential careers. (Tom Ritchey, Bruce Gordon [who did wide 42mm tires in the 1980's with racks, fenders] , Richard Sachs, etc) but culturally they are not as influential as my examples from the early 20th Century or early 21st Century.

scottg said...

The small builders influence the people working at the big companies.
The people working at the big companies look at the fringes to find
the new, new thing, they've been called 'Cool Hunters' in other industries.

Silly example, remember when a Specialized would have 40 Specialized logos
all over the bike, an early NAHBS bike would have maybe 2 logos.
Then look at an Atheos, minimal branding, looks like a 2004 NAHBS bike.
Rivendell selling the Atlantis as an All Rounder, 50mm tires in 2001,
Saluki with 650b tires, and years later big companies are promoting large
tire bikes.