Friday, 20 May 2011

Tentatively Titanium

As many have figured out by now, I am being loaned a Seven roadbike as part of a sponsorship deal with the Ride Studio Cafe in Lexington, MA. I will have it for a few weeks, and it is the bike on which I will attempt future paceline training rides - if it ever stops raining long enough for them to resume!

My acquaintance with this bicycle goes back to last Autumn, when I first discovered the Ride Studio Cafe and the Seven demo models that dwelt within its space.

I half-joked with the owner then, that I would like to test ride one: Some of my friends in Europe are big fans and they were excited to learn that I lived in such close proximity to Seven Cycles. He was on board with the idea, and eventually the test ride took place. That was two weeks ago, and I intended to post a test ride report earlier. But now that I have the bike for longer, I will wait to write a proper review until after I return it - in the meantime offering some initial thoughts. 

Seven Cycles are built in Watertown, MA - which is 5 miles from where I live. And it seems like every local bicycle mechanic and framebuilder I know has either worked for them or has some sort of connection with them, and almost certainly owns at least one of their bikes. This creates a weird discrepancy: Knowing so many people who own them, I cannot help but think of Seven bikes as commonplace. But then I also keep hearing oohs and aahs from non-locals about how expensive and precious they are. 

The model I rode is the Axiom S: titanium frame with carbon fiber fork, fitted with the Campagnolo Chorus component group, Mavic racing wheels and 23mm tires. More than a little intimidated by the set-up, I expected the bicycle to ride like my idea of a racing bike: stiff, harsh, aggressive. In fact, I half expected not to be able to ride it at all, not to feel comfortable with the handling. But the handling was easy, and the ride quality was not what I expected.

I don't know how to describe the Seven without a reference point. Ideally, I would like to have something to compare it to other than lugged steel and a couple of very brief aluminum and carbon fiber experiences. But speaking from my current, limited viewpoint, I can only describe the sensation as "extreme road dampening" - to the point of not being able to feel the ground. This is a different feeling from the way fat tires roll over potholes, or a flexible steel frame dampens shock. This is something else, and it feels weird. It's like the ground isn't there. I see the bump. I see my 23mm front tire start going over the bump. But I don't feel it. Throughout this, the frame and fork are very stiff - there is hardy any flex at all. Having thought that flexible frames dampened shock and stiff frames translate into harsh rides, I am a little confused.

Furthermore - and this is even harder to put into words - it is as if I can't feel the bike while I am riding it. I feel the cranks being turned by my legs, I feel the handlebars at the points where I am holding them, and I feel my butt on the saddle... but the frame feels almost absent. 

The combination of these sensations leaves me with a disembodied feeling - as if I am floating above the road instead of making contact with it. Is that a good thing? 
With its sleek titanium surface, curved stays and ethereal ride quality, the Seven to me is like some alien machine rather than a bike. I've gone on four rides on it so far, and I feel comfortable with its precise, stable and distinctly non-twitchy handling. But the "floaty" feeling puzzles me.

It's been raining here non stop for over a week, yet I've been stubbornly cycling. Covered in a layer of crud after such rides, the Seven seems more down to earth and I find myself welcoming that. When clean, the titanium has an almost clinical quality that intimidates me, but the dirt makes it warmer and less machine-like. Maybe it is a bike after all.

Hopefully the rain will soon stop, so that I can practice some hills and see how the Seven really compares to my other bikes. I am sure it will be faster, but will it feel safe? The fact that I am comfortable riding it in the rain is a good sign, but I'd like to learn more about its handling, especially on descents. And I would love to know how a bicycle this stiff and aggressive can produce such an extreme road dampening effect. 

What are your thoughts on titanium frames? 


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