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Forks, Steak, and selling the Sizzle.

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I made a comment on the Framebuilder’s facebook page in response to a comment that David Kirk made regarding “Why you should buy custom forks to match your custom frame” that has since magically disappeared.  Regardless, I think I made a valuable point which I’d like to expand upon in the hope that there’ll be less ‘parroting of the old wisdom’ as it were and more of an embracing a new methodology.  Here’s Dave’s initial rant-lite:

A bit long for this setting but here you go nonetheless –

Forks? Why build forks?

I occasionally get asked by riders and other builders why I build my own forks and honestly this strikes me as an odd question. I suppose this a result of the way the fork is looked at in terms of bike design at this point…forks are all too often looked at like any other component on a bike like a headset or a hub and not as what it truly is – an integral part of a frame and fork set that is designed to fit the rider and the end use of the bike and to compliment each other giving proper handling and road feel.

Going back a few decades, before the advent of the one-size-fits-all carbon road fork, most everyone that made a frame also made a fork that specifically matched that frame. At that time the forks were typically steel and they were built to compliment the ride and handling of the steel frame they were matched to. At some point titanium became a popular frame material it was at about this time that the aftermarket carbon fork came into being. The carbon fork was light and matched the space-age look and feel of a Ti frame and it was a perfect marriage…or not. Some still preferred having a steel fork that was matched in stiffness and geometry to their Ti frame but most were counting grams and wanted a super light fork to match their light frame. This was the era where, for the first time, mainstream builders bought a fork from a third party to sell with the frame they designed and built instead of building the fork themselves. From a production standpoint this was more than understandable as it freed up the time and craftsman to build more frames and better add to the bottom line. This of course is not a bad thing and there is nothing evil about profit but like anything it came at a cost.

The cost in this case was the loss of the “frameset” – customers no longer bought a frameset but instead bought an unmatched frame and a fork and used them together. If you are in the middle of the size/weight bell curve this could work out fine – however if you occupied either end of the bell curve, or wanted something other than a straight up road race bike, then you often got the short end of the stick. The problem is that most aftermarket forks come in only one rake and in only one stiffness – and the reason for this is simple – money. Designing and cutting a mold for a mass produced fork is very expensive and most of the forks sold will be in the middle of the bell curve so most makers don’t bother to make molds for the ends of the curve. This means that every bike gets the same fork rake and that every fork is built to be stiff and strong enough for the largest and heaviest rider that might every ride that fork. This is hardly optimum if you are 5’3” and 105 pounds but with rare exceptions this is what riders have to deal with.

Smaller and lighter riders really get the shit end of the stick on this one for a few reasons and tall and light guys also lose out on this one too. It all makes sense when you look at how frames are designed for riders at the ends of the bell curve. Small riders get shallow head angles to keep their toes away from the front tire and to give proper handling they really need a fork with much more than the standard 43 mm of rake to give a trail number that will allow the bike to handle as it should. Generally we are looking for the trail to be in the 56 – 60 mm range to give good handling yet all too many bikes that use a one-size-fits-all fork with its 43ish mm of rake end up with a trail number pushing 70 mm or more. Bikes like this can be awful to ride with low speed wheel flop when climbing and the feeling like the rider needs to move their weight forward during turns to get the bike to go in the direction they want. Combine this with the fact that this fork used by the small and light rider is designed to deal with someone who weighs upward of 275 lbs and you get a pretty lousy combination of handling and ride quality. Yet most riders who suffer through using a bike like this have never ridden a bike that has a “frameset” designed to work as a whole. When they finally get on a bike that uses a fork designed for their weight and to work with the frame’s head angle it’s a revelation.

Aside from rake and stiffness there are other reasons to build the frame and fork together and to buy them as a frameset – proper tire clearance for fatter tires and long reach brakes, proper alignment (when a fork comes out of the mold it is what it is and it’s way too common to have a fork that is off to one side), proper length or span to keep the frame angles what they should be, braze-ons for racks or bags or lights….etc.

The above is a long way of saying why every frame I build has a fork built specifically to match that frame and to the size and weight of the rider, as well as how and where the complete bike will be used. This is the only was to assure that the bike will handle and ride as it should. Unfortunately it is no longer the case that a handbuilt frame will come with a made-to-match fork as even some renown builders have gone to making one-size-fits-all forks en masse to make life easier – it saves time and money and in the end profit is important. But there is always a cost.

I’ll end with this – if you are shopping for a new frame be sure to look not just for a frame and fork but instead look for a “frameset” that was designed to work for you. This no doubt will come with a fork that was designed to work as it should with the frame and for you.

I want to preface my response to this with a quick rundown of the Six Part Function Complex, which is what is generally accepted amongst design anthropologists and futurists and their ilk that constitutes the general areas of a design that must be considered for it to be successful –

1. METHOD – Honesty of materials, methods and manufacturing

2. USE – As a tool, the way it communicates, semantics

3. NEED – Economic, psychological, technological, intellectual, etc..

4. TELESIS – ‘The deliberate utilisation of nature and society’

5. ASSOCIATION – Application of the past and the future to the present

6. AESTHETICS – The search for beauty, elegance and the human condition.

You’ll notice straight away that there is no parochial ‘form vs function’ malarkey here. Form IS a function (One of six, see above). However, my response to Dave’s post that was deleted, argued that a completely legitimate reason to buy a custom fork with a custom frame was because ‘it looks good’.

Controversial enough to delete it like it never happened? Apparently so.

So if you think about the custom steel bicycle fork, you’d say it has most of the Function Complex covered. There’s honesty in materials, the way it’s made….it communicates what it is, it functions well as a tool….pretty much covered. It’s easy to argue these points.  But why shy away from ‘Aesthetics’?

The custom bike industry has an uneasy relationship with aesthetics. I think if you surveyed most custom framebuilders, aside from actually speaking to people, I’d argue it’s the thing they struggle most with. Darren Baum even said to me once “In a perfect world, looks wouldn’t matter – it would just be all about how something is made”.  This would be great if we were all robots, but somehow the argument seems to lack a certain humanity. At the very least, the product you’re talking about fails the Function Complex miserably which means that your chances of creating a successful design or product is essentially zero.

The points Dave Kirk makes about the historical context of fork production are essentially correct.  As is his his description of the way that custom steel forks can be designed for a myriad of different uses. If you want a disc touring fork with 50mm of rake and bottle mounts on the side, you might be waiting a long time for someone to make a carbon one.  Both of these points are completely valid.

However, one aspect of functionality that I debate is that of ‘ride quality’ or ‘matching the ride of the fork with the ride of the frame’.  Whilst it’s true that different materials ‘feel’ different, in my experience with the correct design, you can get two materials to essentially feel the same.  Where they don’t feel in the same is in ‘resonance’, and this resonance is mostly countered or muted through the contact points – the tyres, saddle/post, pedals/shoes. handlebars/grips.  By changing these things, you can change the feel of a bike with far greater magnitude than you can simply changing it’s material. You can’t in one breath say “There are no bad materials, only bad applications’ and then say ‘all carbon forks are crap’, as if the people that have been designing and building carbon forks haven’t been doing their job properly.

The second aspect of functionality up for debate is the lack of options.  Whilst it’s true that a custom fork is infinitely customisable, for the vast majority of road bike users, clearance for a 28c tyre and a good spread of rakes is all these customers need. Even the workhorse Enve fork comes in 40, 43, 45 and 50mm rakes. This covers all the common head tube angles used on the average road bike.  Where the custom fork biz has shot itself in the foot, is through cost and weight. From an OEM perspective, a good carbon fork costs around USD200 and weighs 350g.  The same fork in steel is double both of these figures.

So what is missing from the equation here?  Simple. LOOKS! If you just went out and bought a David Kirk custom bicycle, if you can afford it, you’d be insane not to get a matching fork.  If you have some special ‘Use’ or ‘Need’ that dictates you must use a custom specified steel fork, then go forth, more power to you.  However, if you don’t, as far as I’m concerned, the only argument you need is that if you stick a carbon fork on a Kirk frame, it will look ugly and stupid and your peers will laugh at you.

From very early on in my custom bicycle career, I came to the conclusion that people come to custom bikes for the user experience. They come for the sizzle. I’ve always thought pure functionality and ergonomics as a tool were under-selling the custom bicycle experience and I was really uneasy about the way that myths were constantly repeated and concepts barely passing as science believed in with fervor.  Why as an industry do we continue to shy away from the user experience and instead, attempt to pad the experience with pseudo science and very shaky historical associations – parroting long standing myths instead of creating new ones?

Some of the current generation of framebuilders are breaking ground by embracing the aesthetic and also embracing the experience aspect. I think this is the way forward for the industry. Sooner rather than later, customers will become less and less impressed by the fact that you, as a framebuilder, can melt brass with a flame.  What else have you got?

Now that I have officially built a frame with my own two hands, I’m not so enraptured by the process from a creative standpoint. In fact, I see it more as a series of ‘procedural’ challenges in terms of how you set up shop, your materials and processes, how you build in efficiencies etc.. The act of physically making a custom bicycle frame? Not that difficult.  I was told by a colleague recently that a well known TIG builder builds a frame in 4 hours, and I can see how that would be possible sheerly through process, not ‘ability’.

So the big ‘thing’ for me at this juncture, is all harking back to my stint back at University studying design anthropology. As a tool, your ‘custom bicycle’ is no better than a Giant, so what else have you got?  You melting brass by holding a flame in your hands might work for some customers who find that sort of thing miraculous, but I think the way forward for the custom bicycle industry is rooted in creating an experience for the customer that is involving, rich and rewarding – and yes, that involves not being afraid to say to a customer that the reason they should do something is because ‘it looks awesome’.

That is, afterall, why they came to you in the first place.

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