Every year, some of the top attractions of the Philly Bike Expo are its seminars that cover all aspects of the sport. Many of the seminars address unique or overlooked aspects of the industry, and this year’s line-up was no exception. Seminars such as “Women of the Bicycle Industry” and “Diversity and Equity in the Sport of Triathlon” addressed the gender representation and diversity issues that PBE always seeks solutions for.
But it was a pair of seminars on bicycle design that offered a full perspective on the issue from two different angles. Peter Verdone, an engineer and bicycle designer with a background in motorsports, presented a seminar titled “Modern Bicycle Design and Engineering for the Framebuilder.” Verdone takes a distinctly “digital” view of bicycle design that he detailed in his well-considered and comprehensive lecture.
Verdone’s initial premise was that marketing and sales considerations dominate modern bicycle design, and that marketing and sales are distinct from engineering. According to Verdone, bike design has been centered around what is easiest to make, and not around the best engineered product possible. “The problem with the profit model of bicycle design is that there’s a mandate to sell more crap,” he said.
Engineering, Verdone said, should first and foremost ask the question “what’s the problem that needs to be solved?” The process of answering this question involves risk and failure. While bike designers should be prepared to “fail fast and fail often,” Verdone said this must be done in a controlled environment (such as a laboratory), because if a product fails on the road or trail and someone is injured or dies, “[the designer] goes to hell.”
Verdone then invoked a famous quote from the German-American rocket scientist Werner Von Braun that goes, “One good test is worth a thousand expert opinions.” Verdone went on to urge bike designers to set up a testing protocol and to employ dedicated test riders who have a background in engineering, because racers typically describe a bike’s characteristics in terms of subjective feel and not with measurable feedback.
Verdone advocated the use of BikeCAD design software, and urged designers to “do the math” on their designs to make sure the engineering is correct and exacting. From his background in motorcycle design, Verdone pointed out that bicycle designers often don’t place enough emphasis on stem and handlebar length, which are critical for stability and control.
In marked contrast to Verdone’s “digital” approach to bicycle design was Instagram celebrity and bicycle vagabond @ultraromance’s talk entitled “Post Gravel: Back to the Roots (and Rocks).” He explicitly referred to his approach to bicycles as “analog,” and it was reflected in the bicycle he brought and displayed near the podium, an amalgam of vintage late 1980s and early 1990s parts hung on a Specialized aluminum mountain bike frame, sans suspension and with non-indexed thumb shifters.
The title of the talk refers to the recent decision by the Union Cycliste International (UCI) to offer a gravel world championships, but much of it was a lament for the loss of romance in backwoods trail exploration and a desire to return to the swashbuckling days of mountain biking in its early days. Several video clips from the early mountain bike races in Marin County and Colorado with riders on what would now be described as “primitive” bikes putting them up on their shoulders and hiking up the steeper trail sections brought this home.
@ultraromance said that at its core the bicycle’s design has changed very little over the course of its history. The contrast between his views on bicycle design and those of Verdone’s was illustrated in an anecdote he offered about encountering mountain bike riders in knee and shoulder pads with full suspension bikes on a trail in California.
There’s nothing wrong with these riders enjoying the thrill of trails, he said, but there’s another side to the same coin, and that involves going uphill at 3 mph and hiking certain sections for much of the day to enjoy the views at the summit “in slow motion.”
Two opposite views of bicycle design that both share the same passion for moving on two wheels.