Rare Surprise

It’s actually quite difficult to buy a ‘bad bike’ these days (crack-prone Chinese carbon fakes aside of course). Most of the bikes we buy are considered, planned purchases based on what we know about the bike in question – be that from reviews, reputation or test ride. On that basis, rarely do bikes offer anything “unexpected”.

You might get the occasional remarkably good, or bad, component. There’s always a level of ‘new bike elation’ when you first ride something new, and a custom bike might be a very happy surprise in being much better / much more comfortable / much prettier than hoped, but there’s not really anything that’s a true surprise. In fact even the custom bike being better than hoped shouldn’t be all that surprising. After all, you would have chosen the builder based on what you know of their work and their capability to meet your needs; spec’d the bike a particular way; used components you like or want; chosen the colour scheme; spent a small fortune on it, etc. It’s really just that the ‘new bike elation’ steps up a few degrees and lasts a bit longer with custom bikes (I’m not knocking custom bikes or the custom process at all, by the way – I speak from experience here).

Here’s two surprises for you: Firstly, I’ve been riding a wooden bike lately. Secondly, it’s a rocketship, stiff as hell and has blown my mind how much fun it is to ride. I shit you not. And it was a pretty big surprise to me too.

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I expected this bike to be ‘soft’ and heavy. I expected it to waggle about under power. I thought the BB would sway from side-to-side in a seated hard effort. I believed it would click, crack and creak. I thought my sweat would soak into the wood and ruin it. It is, and does, none of these things. What it does instead is make me shake my head in disbelief, corner like nothing else I’ve ever ridden, and make me push it harder and faster to see what I can get out of it and what it is capable of. It’s a HOOT!

This bike was put together as a test for the guy who builds them to help him refine his designs and processes. He built me the bike in exchange for constructive and continued feedback. Fine details aside, so far the only feedback I’ve been able to offer is that, firstly, at times it’s almost too stiff and, secondly, if I were blindfolded there is no way I could tell that I was riding anything other than the most focused of race bikes, albeit probably a steel one because of the weight (the chain stays are actually steel). In fact that last point is almost a shame in that it’s difficult to identify the nuances of the wood in the ride quality, but I’ll take that for a ride that’s this much fun.

This wooden bike experience has made me realise that I haven’t been genuinely wow’d or truly surprised by anything bike-related in a long time, and this begs a few questions: Why aren’t there more surprises in the bike world? Have we reached the limit of capability? Is innovation (and I mean true innovation – not just a vaguely different headset or bottom bracket format) becoming impossible? Where do we go from here, or do we just accept that we’ve reached and optimum and be happy with that?

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It seems to me that ‘innovation’ is a term that is used loosely in the bike industry to describe a marketing opportunity to drive sales, rather than to identify a truly ‘new’ product or idea. You only need to look at all the latest ‘aero’ stuff (because weekend warriors really need those marginal gains) and the road bike disc brake revolution (which just mimics what happened with MTBs) to see what I mean. I want to be proven wrong, but I’m not sure I will be.

Is this wooden bike innovative? Perhaps, in as much as its material use and construction (which would take a whole new article in itself), but it’s still “only a bike” in terms of its overall design. Regardless, it truly is a surprise – and on that basis I’m just going to keep riding it and giggling at how much fun a bike made from trees can actually be…

Rich