Why are bikes made from the same materials so different?

It continues to amaze us that people want to lump bikes of similar material together. Why?

For instance, we know that Wolfgang Puck can prepare eggs better than the fry cook at Denny’s. And that Monet does a better landscape than the kiosk artist at the mall, though the materials are roughly the same. Perhaps you prefer Van Gogh’s landscapes, but again the use of similar materials produces an entirely different result. Have you ever compared the differences in the sound and interpretation Bernstein or Szell can produce from the same piece of music and symphonies composed of the same essential elements?

Why are these metaphors relevant? Because each producer must employ the best of his talents to produce a worthwhile product. The material used is less important than the application of its best attributes as interpreted by the design and execution of the producer or artist. A tandem frame looks simple, yes. But it is full of significant opportunities for a designer. The wonderful thing is that every designer has a different opinion about how to go about making the ideal tandem. There are also innumerable definitions as to what an ideal tandem might consist of. For example, if one needed to make as many tandems as possible for the smallest possible investment in labor and materials, the result will be entirely different from a cost-no-object design, which will never actually exist. And that’s just two possible definitions!

To make a worthwhile product, the producer must know the properties of the material used. But it is equally important to know the limits of its ability to be manufactured. If unskilled workers are to be used, the choice of material is by necessity more tolerant to errors. Usually in the bike industry that means heavier tubes are used. That’s why for example, a mass-produced Reynolds 853 frame is often a pound heavier than one made by a specialty builder.

That’s right- the tubing label doesn’t tell the whole story. Things have changed since the days when every Columbus SL frame was virtually identical no matter who the builder was. Today, with most respected bicycle tubing there’s a vast array of choices. For example, a 1 1/8” Reynolds 853 tube comes in eleven stock variations. Some of them are designed for a specific purpose, such as seat tubes, while others can be used for top tubes, down tubes or seat tubes. Considering that a frame builder ought to also think of other diameters of tubing, that’s a lot of choices. That’s just one variety of a steel tube- there are thousands of other steel tubes to choose from. With Aluminum or titanium there are fewer choices, but there still exists a virtually unlimited opportunity to create a design that exemplifies the character that the designer wants to achieve.

Why don’t frame builders just pick the lightest stuff and be done with it? Because the lightest stuff only works for the lightest and smallest people. Small, thin tubes don’t hold up well for big, strong people. They also won’t hold up if the builder doesn’t possess the skill to assemble the frame properly. Larger manufacturers choose materials with lots of marketing appeal but specify heavy-walled tubes to ensure that their least skilled factory worker won’t cost them a lot of warranty work or possible liability problems. Established specialty builders know their own or their employees’ capabilities and can more comfortably spec tubes that require more care. Unfortunately, sometimes new frame builders come along and build bikes with material that is beyond their ability, so be sure you research a builder’s reputation or at least know the risks before you invest your cash.

For every designer/producer’s tandem there are bound to be consumers who are of a similar bent who will enjoy some aspect of the result and buy one. And that’s a good thing, because it gives us all freedom to choose. The fact that there are now more tandem producers than there were last year is good for the industry as whole, because your choices will influence the tandem designs of the future. Choosing well is a vote cast for the direction you will see tandem developments in the years ahead as well as what to expect from your own tandem.

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