Civil enginner searches for the soul of a bicycle

Credit: Adam Pretty/Allsport
Most folks think that engineering is a dry science consumed by analytical number crunching. While the analytical skills are the entry fee, the real job of engineers is something more creative, at least when they are doing their job really well.

Being the gearhead that I am, it brought to my mind the philosophy of engineering, which is something I think about a lot.

Last year a friend recommended I read Robert Pirsigs Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Id always avoided this book because I thought it was the sort of pop philosophy that I detest, and I didnt identify with the religious heritage.

My mistake. I discovered instead a comprehensive theory, explained in the form of an autobiographical novel of quality. The book defined and defended the role of quality in technology. Indeed, it built an entire philosophy around the concept of quality, considering it to be in many ways a religious expression.

What, you ask, does any of this have to do with bicycles?

The person who turned me on to the book did so because of the assessment of how I related to bicycles. The trained eye gleans much from a close inspection of a bicycle, and much of what is gleaned reflects on the philosophy of the designer.

Given my desire for everyone to be a trained observer, I thought Id devote this article to a few of my own bicycles and why I was drawn to them.

Conventional wisdom says that bike fit is first and foremost. It is. But most people select a frame because of intangible qualities: Its the right color and has the right look, or its the same bike that someone we look up to rides.

We try to ignore intangibles, but even the most committed analyst feels the pull of candy-coated attractions that defy analysis.

For example, Italian bikes are no better than any other mass-produced fine bicycle, but they have an aura that appeals to many folks who are routinely skeptical about other things.

In my own case, I want a bicycle that was designed by someone who genuinely likes bicycles. My favorite road bike is an Eddy Merckx MX-Leader. Merckx builds these bikes in limited quantities, and when purchased new they are not cheap.

In looking at the bike, though, it has a purity of design concept that clicks with me. The tubes are massively (for steel) oversized, and shaped to maximize vertical strength at the head tube and lateral stiffness at the bottom bracket.

The chain stays are fully 1.5 inches tall at the bottom-bracket shell twice as big as most bikes which is one of the real secrets of stiffness against a swaying bottom bracket.

The steel fork is almost aero-bladed, with a beautiful externally lugged crown. The relatively slack geometry turns all this stiffness into a smooth ride. Despite being one of the most expensive production frames on the market, it is also one of the heaviest.

Why would a company, knowing the market attractiveness of building lighter frames, offer their heaviest bike as their top-of-the-line? Because the designer had a philosophy that weight was less important than other things and he had the courage to defy market trends to carry out his philosophy.

Heres the sad news: The MX-Leader disappears off the U.S. market this year. This commitment is not always commercially rewarded. But I appreciate it.

Last year, I decided that I no longer wanted to ride a converted road bike in triathlons. It was time for a real tri-bike.

I wanted a forward-position bike to add to my fleet with large wheels and a comfortable geometry without giving up stiffness. And I wanted titanium. Why titanium? Well, its one of those intangible lusts I just mentioned. I wanted a titanium bike for no other reason than I didnt already have a titanium bike.

Often the mind of the designer and the hand of the artisan belong to the same person. But it need not be so. My respect for the Merckx has little to do with the competent construction.

Many bikes are more beautifully crafted, and I admire that, but its not a driving force with me. Likewise, the craftsmanship of a Merlin or a Seven impresses me each time I see one, but I dont long for one because of that.

Part two: Attention to detail shows

Rick Denney is a civil engineer with extensive experience as a bike mechanic and a prolific contributor to various internet forums on bicycle technology. He is also, by his own words, a dedicated but utterly untalented and uncompetitive triathlete who can be found training on one of his eight bikes in the hills of Northern Virginia.

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