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Disc brakes, 1x and Irn Bru: Cyclist chats to Chris King

Joe Robinson
20 Apr 2018

Cyclist sat down with the master of components to talk about what's new in road cycling and whether it's here to stay

In a quiet sun-kissed corner of Bloomsbury, London, Cyclist sat down for a chat with one of the industy's most coveted names, Chris King.

The Portland-based component king is in the UK for the annual Bespoked bike show in Bristol this weekend, where a collection of the world's best hand-built cycling products from independent manufacturers will be on display.

What was initially set to be a five-minute chat turned into 45 minutes, as King gave his take on some of road cycling's hottest topics, including disc brakes and 1x, while also learning what Irn Bru is.

Cyclist: So you are in the UK for the Bespoked Show this weekend. Are you excited to see anything in particular? 

Chris King: Honestly, I have been to so many bike shows over the years and looked at so many people's work and lots of people's custom bikes and it's art. I am a technology man. 

I appreciate it but I don't find it super inspiring, although that's not taking anything away from the craftsmanship on display. 

What I like to do is keep an open mind and be surprised. Last year, I did a contest for the best bike with Chris King components. We found a few guys who made really nice stuff, not too ostentatious but just good quality stuff.

Cyc: So these shows throw up little surprises for you?

CK: Well for example, the one thing I remember from last year – I cannot remember the guy's name, but it was actually a small toolman who makes frame-building tools.

His bend was just simple, elegant design that's inexpensive but gave key accuracies. The idea of accuracy for low cost, that's clever. He was using his noggin and that impressed me.

He is a budding entrepreneur like I once was and I like that.

Cyc: Do you think big bike brands are killing off guys like that toolman and yourself?

CK: Cycling had always had a disproportionate amount of enthusiasm and passion. People like to be in the industry.

Some bigger brands have come into the industry for the business opportunities. It won't crush us but it definitely has had an impact, which is a little disappointing.

But we are still here, and we're not here for the money. Like, I just spent two hours with the guys at Cloud 9 (independent cycling shop in London). We all share the same passion whether we are retailers of producers, it's a common thread.

Cyc: You're based in Portland, Oregon which has a big gravel scene. What do you make of the rise of all-road?

CK: I remember in the mid-1970s when I first started in the back of a bike shop making my headsets. I hung out with all the guys from the shop and we all rode our road bikes.

We got to this point in Santa Barbara, California, in which we had ridden everything. So one day we were kicking the can and I said 'Why don't we ride to Paradise in the National Forest?'. 

That's an 11-mile climb on dirt roads, rocks and erosion ruts just looking for adventure. We got 2 miles from the top and then just came back down. We were looking for the next thing. That's the parallel now.

People don't want to jump straight into mountain biking and gravel roads call for similar skills to the road bike. Also, they want somewhere else to ride. They have ridden everything in the area and they just want something more.

Cyc: The rise of gravel has helped the rise of disc brakes, and that has now fed into the road scene in a big way. You buying into it?

CK: They have their place. In mountain biking, for sure, they perform better and the argument is compelling. 

But the argument is not as compelling on the road. The big concern is weight so the size of the brake is smaller, 140mm, which means it has to do more work than say a MTB disc that's 180mm. That means the thing is going to get way hot.

So then you have to work on material that disperses heat better and introduce cooling systems.

Then you say, well carbon rims don't brake as well as alloy, which is an argument for using discs, but the weight saved in the carbon rim is lost in the discs. It just seems like a less obvious improvement.

I think sometimes companies decide what they want to sell and what makes it easier and cheaper for them to provide. So I'm not jumping to the conclusion that this is the right thing to do.

Cyc: I'm guessing you are not sold on 1x either?

CK: Well, again, it solves one problem and just creates another doesn't it?

The first bikes ever made were 1x so ask yourself why did we go away from that? Do we still have the same limitations that led to the rise of a 2x system?

People love 1x because it means one less thing to worry about, but does it work from a tech point of view? Debatable.

I get why people love it. It's easy to maintain, reliable and pretty enjoyable but I think you can compare it to automatic transition on a car. We didn't see automatic transition on race cars immediately but once the technology improved, we did. I think it'll be the same with 1x.

Cyc: So 1x and disc brakes haven't quite taken your fancy. So what has particularly impressed you in the road bike scene recently?

CK: The road scene is stable and has been making steady improvements rather than leaps forward like mountain biking has, for example. The last time we saw a truly big shift (no pun intended) was with index shifting back in the 1980s.

All the real innovation was done back in the 1800s. So now we are left down to the minute stuff like the development of carbon on frames and wheels. 

There is nothing out there on the horizon in the world of aerospace heading cycling's way, we have levelled off. 

Cyc: So nothing's left you that impressed?

CK: Well actually, maybe the transition of carbon from this untouchable material to your commonplace, average Joe bike material. Bikes are lighter and stiffer and it's now affordable for the masses.

Oh, and I like how Di2 lets you programme your gear inches so it can work out the right gear when you shift. That's cool.

Cyc: So what are your plans after Bespoked?

CK: Well my daughter is travelling Europe currently and hasn't bought a ticket home. So I am going to meet her in Scotland and go to Edinburgh before we go back to Portland. I haven't been to Scotland so that should be fun.

Cyc: I think Scotland is the only country on Earth in which Coca Cola isn't the best selling soft drink. They have a thing called Irn Bru which is this sweet orange soft drink, you should try it. 

CK: That sounds interesting, I'll give it a go.

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