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Road bikes: is integration the future?

Stu Bowers
23 Dec 2016

Bike manufacturers used to just make frames. Now many are designing all the components too. Is this the end for the mix-and-match bicycle?

Page 1 of 2Road bikes: is integration the future?

It wasn’t long ago that a dream road bike started life as a frame in your hands.

You would then pick the parts – wheels, groupset, bars, seatpost, saddle – that best suited your preferences and wallet.

While this is still entirely possible today, at the top end of the market it’s a lot trickier, as brands design their own components to function with the frame. 

Take the latest Trek Madone – it will only work with the supplied cockpit, seatpost and brakes. All that’s really left to play with are the wheels and drivetrain.

Specialized’s Venge ViAS, Canyon’s Endurace and BMC’s Roadmachine are similar stories.

Walled garden

The result is that the consumer is required to stay within the manufacturer’s walled garden as the industry pursues its latest goal: system integration.

‘In the days before the Lugano charter [the UCI’s rulebook to curtail outlandish bike designs], crazy bikes were coming out. We started to realise there was such a lot to be gained, especially aerodynamically, from integration,’ says Mark Cote, head of integrated technologies at Specialized.

‘In 2005 we were just speccing Reynolds Ouzo Pro forks on a frame. You can’t imagine that now. Now practically every frame and fork is designed together. Now you ride a bike, not a frame.’

Ben Coates, global director for road at Trek, agrees: ‘If you look back 10 years, the most advanced bikes out there still used a whole bunch of products from the likes of Zipp or Hed or whoever.

‘It was all bolt-on accessories that were universally compatible,’ he says. ‘In that short period of time almost every major manufacturer has chipped away some of those gigantic restraints.

‘Whether it’s seatposts or brakes or cranks or having their own wheel brand, major manufacturers are chipping off the pieces one at a time.’

Integration, integration, integration…

It’s easy to assume the main reason for designing bikes with proprietary components is to ensure customers are obliged to spend all their money in one place, even when replacing parts, but the manufacturers assure us that this is not the case.

‘I see integration going in two clear directions,’ says Cote. ‘Where performance benefits are obvious, we will integrate.

‘Where there ends up being a rider detriment because of a lack of choices, we won’t. On an aerodynamic performance bike such as the Venge ViAS it makes perfect sense.

‘We couldn’t have achieved the result we did without using integrated components. But you still need bikes that can be completely personalisable, like the Tarmac.

‘We left it this way on purpose. A rider can customise everything from an anthropometric and geometry standpoint [bike fit] to the aesthetics.’ 

Compromises

According to Cote, if you want the best-performing bike there might be some compromises in terms of how much adjustment and personalisation is possible.

Coates agrees, saying, ‘For some, integration has a potentially negative connotation, but we’re looking at optimisation. Our goal is not to integrate for integration’s sake.

‘In fact we would rather not integrate. It’s harder for us, it’s harder for retailers, it’s harder for consumers. But the real gains that are coming in road bikes are coming from integration of the main parts.’ 

‘It’s not all about aerodynamics,’ adds Cote. ‘Aesthetics is also key, and system integration also makes a lot of sense for saving weight too.

‘Just switching out bolts from steel to titanium only saves so much weight, but if you can get rid of the need for that bolt or even the clamp entirely it saves so much more, so why not?

‘That said, from a system design standpoint, aero is the major benefit. If we saved 3% of a bike’s total weight but at a cost of losing all its adjustability, then OK, it might save you measurable time on a steep climb, but integrating for aero, as we did on the ViAS, showed that versus a standard road bike it will save you 116 seconds over 40km.

‘Aero is always on – you can’t turn that off unless you’re not moving.’

Drawing the line

‘Is there a limit to how far you can go with integration before consumers will feel negativity towards it? Yes,’ says Coates, ‘but the limit is not how much can you do, it’s how well can you do it.

‘Nobody is giving us a hard time for the Madone brakes because they work really well. If they sucked, there’s every reason for people to say, “Hey, I can only get this bike with these brakes, and I don’t want that.”

‘We’ve seen that happen where manufacturers have not executed integration to at least the level that standard parts operate on.

‘If our bar and stem work perfectly and it costs less money or makes the bike faster or looks cooler, or hopefully all of the above, then why is anybody going to say, “I don’t want that integrated bar and stem”?’

‘You can’t force anyone,’ says Cote. ‘Our hope is that the products we make lead to genuine benefits, not back people into a corner. If it feels like we’re holding riders hostage, we’ve failed.

‘Ultimately the rider decides. If a brand goes too far then a bike will simply not sell. So, although they don’t always know it, the consumer ultimately holds the power, not the manufacturer.’

Step by step 

It’s true that a bike will only sell if people like it, so for the moment the big brands are feeling their way forward, adding integrated elements and gauging the response before moving on to the next concept. But where is it all heading?

‘Fast forward five years from now and I’m fairly confident that we can see the road bike industry moving in a new direction,’ says Cote. ‘Integration is the start of that shift.

‘Bikes are crazily adjustable right now – we have 12cm of reach adjustment through seven sizes of bike and stems, plus around 16cm of vertical stack adjustment.

‘As we start to understand two-wheeled vehicle dynamics a bit better, I think we can go towards bikes more intensely focused on handling.

‘There could be a situation where we see brands starting to develop parts based on optimal cockpit geometry, which may lead to a decreased range of adjustment, or more specifically a tighter range of fit.’ 

And what of the final pieces of the jigsaw? Will the big brands such as Trek and Specialized start producing components such as groupsets?

‘We always have to ask ourselves, can we create something better than what is already available?’ says Cote. ‘Can we make groupsets better than Shimano or Sram or Campagnolo? That’s a big ask! But hey, not impossible.’

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Page 1 of 2Road bikes: is integration the future?