Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Form before function

I recently built a new mountain bike. I’ve been wanting this frame for some time and was planning to order one from Revolution until I came across a used one. I bought the used one for a handful of reasons:

  1. I’m a dirtbag, and it was cheaper than buying new.
  2. It came in a sexy black color.
  3. Since it already had some dings, I knew I wouldn’t baby it.
  4. It had bottle cage mounts on the seat tube.

Of those four reasons, the first and last were most important. Niner is currently making all their size small frames without a bottle cage mount on the seat tube. They say it’s so that you can drop your saddle for descending.

I used to drop my saddle for descending. But that was back when I rode a six inch travel bike and actually jumped off of things. I’ve become a ninny in recent years and don’t jump off anything bigger than a curb anymore. I don’t need to drop my saddle to do that.

Most of the guys I ride with are also on 29er hardtails. None of them drop their saddles either. I really can’t figure out why Niner product managers decided that dropping your saddle was so important on a XC frame. Yet they got rid of bottle cage mounts on the seat tube for precisely that reason. Have you ever seen anyone drop their saddle on a XC bike? Didn’t think so.

Another excellent XC bike that used to have bottle cage mounts on the down and seat tubes was the Specialized Epic. I thought it was great how they figured out how to put all the suspension linkage behind the seat tube so that the front triangle was open like a hardtail. It looked like a race bike, and it had the practical benefit of two bottle cages. Sadly, they’ve scratched that design and on current models put the shock in the main triangle—no more room for a seat tube cage.

Niner put a bottle cage on the underside of the down tube as if that would make up for taking it off the seat tube. But really, that’s a long reach, and it’s also in direct line of fire for any mud or horse poop splatter. Sticking a bottle that’s spent the last several minutes getting coated with dirt and fecal matter in my mouth is not exactly appealing.

But here’s the thing: as much as it sucks not having a bottle cage on the seat tube, it’s nowhere near as bad as not having a bottle cage at all. Check out the Ibis Mojo:

Beautiful bike. Frame only retails for north of two grand. Yet if you had one, every time you rode it, you’d have to strap on a backpack. Or go thirsty and not bring any tools or spare tubes. Sure, there’s a mount underneath the downtube, but check the location—it’s right where the big ring would make hamburger of your hand. Even if I weren’t worried about the chainring, I don’t think I can reach that far.

I’m almost willing to give Ibis a pass here. Even though the lack of a bottle cage is a dealbreaker for me, the Mojo is positioned as an all-mountain trail bike. And it’s not the only trail bike with nowhere to put a bottle. Moreover, the designer, Roxy Lo, isn’t a cyclist. She was hired to make it look pretty. Scott Nicol should have said something about bottle cages, but how was Roxy to know? Roxy gets a B for making it pretty, if impractical. Scott still gets an F for failing to think like a cyclist when reviewing the drawings.

Giant, on the other hand, deserves no leniency. They’re the biggest bike maker in the world. So why on earth did they design the Anthem, they’re flagship XC race bike, with a shock that extends from the seat tube to the downtube, right in the prime real estate for bottle cages?

You can see some bosses right above the shock, but they’re useless on anything but the largest frames. You couldn’t actually fit a bottle in there.

To their credit, Giant has changed their shock placement on current models (Anthem X series), but I wonder what that little design gaffe cost them? Giant and Trek used to be the two dominant players in the US bike industry. Specialized has supplanted Giant in recent years and relegated them to a second tier status. I imagine losing market share due to bad design choices was not among Giant’s objectives when they released their 2009 lineup.

In all of these instances, though, the designers had what they thought was a logical reason not to put bottle cage mounts in a given location, be it dropping a saddle, needing the space for a shock, whatever. Leave it to the French, however, to leave off bottle cage mounts strictly for the je ne sais quoi factor.

LaPierre cyclocross bikes have no mounts for bottle cages.

I get that ‘cross races are short, racers don’t usually carry water, and cages get in the way if you’re carrying your bike up a run up. So take the cage off on race day.

But to assume the bike will never be used in training, never be used on a commute, or never be ridden when it’s raining and you don’t want to get out the road bike puts form before function in a way that’s absolutely ridiculous. And characteristically French.