Book Review: The Bike Deconstructed

Friday, 31 October 2014

The Bike Deconstructed

The Bike Deconstructed: A Grand Tour of the Modern Bicycle by Richard Hallet

How many parts does your bike have? You can start counting the wheels, frame, bars, pedals and so on but it’s all the small pieces you forget about. Take the seatpost, it’s got clamping bits, bolts, fasteners and washers. Even a headset can have ten more component pieces when if you include any spacers and the compression nut and that’s before you count the individual ball bearings. The point is that even the lightest race bike is made up of a very large number of parts. Too much? That’s for later but first the book review.

Piece by piece, page by page. This book isn’t so much a grand tour of a modern bicycle but an anatomy chart with every moving part listed and explored. As you’d expect it proceeds through the parts by theme, for example the wheel sees the rims, spokes, nipples, hubs, freehubs, skewers, tires and tubes. There’s a look at wheel science from rim shapes to spoke patterns and tension. It won’t tell you how to build a wheel but it does explain how the wheel works as a unit.

Each page is clearly set out with large photos as well as illustrations. It’s not a book you’d sit down to read from start to finish like a novel but it’s not a manual either, you’d browse it just for fun rather than having to open a page because you’ve got a broken part, it is not a troubleshooting guide. There’s history, for example on tires or the evolution of braking systems but it’s modern with the latest on disc brakes, electronic shifting and power meters.

Superficially it’s a coffee table book for a bike shop but many new converts to the sport would do well to read this. It’s one thing to look at an advisory video on Youtube that explains how to change a cable but this book gives a comprehensive book that will help you understand the bike as the sum of its parts.

Does a bike have too many parts?
I posed this question above and let’s return to it. One case where the answer is yes is when it comes to the fit on the bike. Most bikes are adjustable for position in several ways. You rotate the bars up and down, the saddle can be titled and moved forwards or backwards. But if you have a settled position then all these adjustments are redundant.

Of course some of this has happened already and it stopped. Frames with integrated seatposts where the owner cuts the height haven’t been a big success as they’re hard to pick for travel and can make a crash even more expensive. But it’s still a surprise that the premium end of a market you find custom carbon frames where everything can be adjusted. It’s like getting fitted for an expensive suit with a tailor… and ordering a belt to hold the trousers up.

There’s also the chance to go beyond the existing design confines. We’re starting to see this with Shimano’s Direct Mount brakes but it could be extended much further. Why clamp brake levers onto a bar with all fastenings when a set of carbon bars could include structural brake hoods into which you just slot the brake lever mechanism? There’s a compromise to reach but it still feels like a bike is an assembly of hundreds of parts that could be streamlined. Until then this book will guide you though the moving parts and all those that silently sit there.

Note: a copy of this book was sent free for review

The book is published by Princeton Architectural Press. More book reviews at

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Larry T. October 31, 2014 at 12:37 pm

Regardless of the merits of this book, I think one of the most interesting things about bicycles is the ability to create your own by careful selection of each and every part vs buying a “Brand X” where, like modern automobiles (for the most part anyway)most of would be made in the factories of the brand. Except at the super high-end, your Peugeot or Ford is going to have suspension, brakes, etc. all manufactured specifically by the maker and not interchangeable with many other models or brands. At the low, or even mid-range, where the bike is as much an appliance as your average Peugeot or Ford, I have no problem with this….but I hope the high-end makers will always provide just the frame/fork and let the owner build (or have it built) the way he or she desires.

cthulhu October 31, 2014 at 1:34 pm

Actually, this is not true. The automobile industry, too, cuts cost where it can to boost it’s revenue. And that actually means using standard parts as much as possible. For example, the new beetle is just a golf with a different chassis. For their products in all three average person’s labels, VW, Seat and Skoda they try to use as many as possible identical parts. Actually if you buy a high-end car, there you will find more custom parts which if in case you need a replacement part, they will charge you premium.
Because the bike market is not as heavily contested as the automobile market, there, imo, recently you see the tendency to non interchangeable parts much more often. All those different bottom bracket designs, different diameters for handlebars, different seat clamping systems…
A bike is still much less complex as a car and has a much more open design, so it is still seems fairly little, but relatively I’m not so sure about it…

Garuda November 1, 2014 at 6:09 am

I’d add that AC Delco is used as parts manufacturer of nearly all brands. Honda would design a car and based on its needs, ask the parts manufacturer to submit a design for an alternator that would fit in the area, meet the specs required and costs associated. In most cases, it is just changing the number of copper strings and making a different casing for the mounting bolts. There are hardly any proprietary parts in regular people cars as warrantying them when they break would kill the auto manufacturers if they were costly.

Alex TC November 2, 2014 at 12:06 am

Actually the chassis is the same for the Beetle and the Golf (and many others throughout the VW/Audi group line), which is the new MBQ “adjustable” platform. The body is different, as are other parts such as suspension, engine, etc.

Larry T. November 3, 2014 at 12:27 pm

OK, so swap those suspension pieces from your VW Golf onto your Honda Civic. I don’t think you’d have much luck. No surprise the VW group (Seat, Skoda, etc.) is going to use the same parts. Same with Citroen/Peugeot. But those are about as different as a Giant vs Liv or Specialized vs S-Works. What I’m trying to say is I don’t care if Trek wants to make a medium-priced bike with all the parts branded or made by Trek/Bontrager, but at the high-end I hope they never stop offering a frame/fork that one can install his or her choice of parts onto rather than being forced into taking the bike all-of-a-piece, the way you do most automobiles. Few would go into the VW dealership and ask for the Golf body and engine and complete the automobile with parts they source elsewhere. But plenty of folks (like me) prefer to select my own components whenever possible when it comes to bicycles.

Anonymous October 31, 2014 at 12:47 pm

Thank goodness that bikes are so adjustable; while two riders may be the same height, the length of their torsos, arms, inseams are probably different. Even with the exact same inseam length, the measurements of femurs, tibias and feet are most likely different. Add to that the difference in our flexibility and skill level and there is little chance we could each ride identical bikes 100k with the same level of comfort.

I haven’t studied or collected data, but I think that growing popularity of more generically sized molded carbon frames has created a larger market for components that affect fit. And I believe that how your bike(s) fit your body and riding style is more important than anything else.

Larry T. November 3, 2014 at 12:29 pm

+1 How many would purchase an automobile with the driver’s seat welded in place? And then expect to sell it to someone else at a later date?

SK October 31, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Not to mention the higher resale value of “confection” bikes.

Anonymous October 31, 2014 at 1:45 pm

“It’s like getting fitted for an expensive suit with a tailor… and ordering a belt to hold the trousers up.”

Trousers would not be made no so tight as to not require a belt or they’d become uncomfortable after a large meal or if one gain a pound or two.

Similarly, even perfectly fitted custom bikes will need the occasional adjustment. One might have the bars a little higher in the early season if one has lost a little flexibility over the winter. The position might be tweaked slightly for a day’s flat riding as opposed to a week in the alps.

Tom November 2, 2014 at 7:53 am

A better analogy might have been getting fitted for an expensive suit by a tailor, and having her build in a velcro waist adjuster.

But either way, you get INRNG’s point.

TheDude November 3, 2014 at 6:50 am

How about suspenders (braces) and a belt? 🙂

Matt A October 31, 2014 at 3:05 pm

The Trek Emonda is a step in the direction of integrated construction. I presume that’s how they got it so incredibly light.

Francisco October 31, 2014 at 3:23 pm

I think inrng is onto something here. Integration is the holy grail of modern industrial design. Sometimes this integration is apparent as in the fenders, headlamps and bumpers of a car that were once individual items sticking out into the wind and today are seamlessly integrated into the bodywork. Most often integration is hidden from view and takes the form of reduced parts count and fasteners made redundant and eliminated.
This type of integration is suited to consumer products with massive production scales, where the design and tooling costs can be spread over many copies and the simplified assembly provides labour savings too. The irony of course is that this design integration tends to kill individual variation.
The fact that there is so little integration in high end bikes shows that this is still not a mass market in spite of two decades of globalization. Integration exercises at this level do not aim to save money, they are more expensive and complex (e.g. the Look stems and crankset, the Factor cockpit, the Tune one-piece saddle/seatpost, Lightweight’s monolitic rim/spoke construction).
There has been integration of the cost-cutting kind (e.g. prepackaged bottom brackets, drop-in bearings and elimination of frame threads) and in factory-built ‘system’ wheels that have all but displaced custom wheelbuilding.
I have a feeling that parts compatibility is more useful than über-integration in spite of the potential weight, strength and cost advantages of the latter. Long live the ability to choose and swap parts according to taste, need and fit!

Anonymous October 31, 2014 at 5:16 pm

There have been countless integration attempts in bicycling equipment. It turns out that most of the time consumers don’t like it because the integrator usually abandons the system after only a matter of months.

thesteve4761 November 2, 2014 at 5:28 am

Like Specialized with 142+
Like Cannondale with Lefty
Like Look with the E-post
Like Trek with their seatmast
Like Cannondale with BB30
Like Trek with BB90
Like Specialized with OSBB
Like Shimano with their cassette interface
Like Campy with their different cassette interface
Like ____ with 31.8 bars (who started that one?)
Like Shimano with their crank mounting system (03 Dura Ace and 15 Dura Ace still mount the same way)

All were started as “integration” attempts.

Try harder, and be less anonymous!

Anonymous October 31, 2014 at 5:12 pm

Why clamp brake levers onto a bar with all fastenings when a set of carbon bars could include structural brake hoods

Because it wouldn’t substantially lower assembly/manufacturing costs. Meanwhile, most of the current bottom bracket standards do exactly that vs the old threaded styles.

If Shimano has their way, they will patent a moulded brake lever and use it to become the sole source of handlebar for Shimano shifters. That’s a nice way to boost revenue. They sue to prevent competition when it matters like they did to SRAM a long while ago.

But, the reality is, they are more pragmatic and dominate most segments of bicycle equipment on a worldwide basis anyway.

Alex TC November 2, 2014 at 12:14 am

Not to mention the repair/replacement costs, in case of a crash or other accident.

IMHO the modern bicycle is the result of a slow, incremental but quite intelligent and elegant evolution, which results in a quite perfect balance of cost, scale and functionality. Even more so when we consider how simple and basic it is by nature. I ride for more than 25 years and never cease do be armazed and admire it.

TomH October 31, 2014 at 5:31 pm

“Why clamp brake levers onto a bar with all fastenings when a set of carbon bars could include structural brake hoods into which you just slot the brake lever mechanism? ”

Position of the hoods on bar is a highly personal, fit-related adjustment.
I also don’t much like the integrated stems+bars, for this same reason.

Andy W November 3, 2014 at 11:45 am

And how many different sizes/fitments would they have to provide in order to satisfy every customer ?

– they would have to provide lots of different sizes (which is very much the opposite direction to which they’ve been going : go back to Mike Burrows’ Giant TCR range which was made in just 3 or 4 different sizes, with corresponding lower manufacturing and stock-holding costs, rather than the multiple different frame sizes that manufacturers had made previously)
– or they’d make just a very few different ‘standard’ sizes and we’d all just have to put up with it and adjust ourselves to the bike rather than the other way round

Larry T. November 3, 2014 at 12:34 pm

Good point about the Giant TCR idea. Wonderful for reducing the SKU’s the manufacturer had to produce but the shortcomings of t-shirt sizes were quickly revealed when the team they sponsored insisted on some custom sizes being created rather than choosing from “too big, too small or close enough.”

Othersteve October 31, 2014 at 9:11 pm

Bike weight is so light now, integration gains little, yet as has been brought up so eloquently in the last few posts. Most all of the past instances of component “exclusivity” have not benefited the consumer.

Some of us remember the days! Do you want that frame-set with Campy or Shimano and Cinelli or 3T.

Right knider November 1, 2014 at 11:32 am

fascinating theme. a book as if made for me. must have it

Igam Ogam November 3, 2014 at 11:21 am

@ Othersteve “Some of us remember the days! Do you want that frame-set with Campy or Shimano and Cinelli or 3T.”

What about Stronglight, Huret, Mavic, Modolo, Suntour, ITM Back in the days of the Campag hegemony, after a couple of years using their stuff I realised that there were much better components out there you just had to mix-n-match a little. Campagnolo has always appealed to the image-conscious cyclist, I think it would have gone bust years ago if it were not for this fact.

My bikes got distainful looks but as soon as the inspecting rider picked up the machine I usually got a puzzled “hmm, that’s light”. The Eureka moment was the first time I saw a DuraAce 7200 EX groupset and realising that from an engineering point of view the writing was on the wall for Campag, sure it was a copy but it was better made and more reliable than the “original”. When the 7300 AX arrived it was so groundbreaking, it was a matter of time before “Campy” lost it’s relevance.

Agree about the integration though, no real advantage to having larger modular components for bikes, especially as damage & failures are regular event for every cyclist. Besides it would take away all that tinkering pleasure for half of us.

Larry T. November 3, 2014 at 12:37 pm

I’m admitting to bias here but can you explain when “Campy” lost its relevance? Or did you mean relevance to just YOU personally?

Anonymous November 3, 2014 at 7:54 pm

Campy lost its relevance when I cannot find a stock bike with said gruppo on display at any bike shop within 50 miles of my house. I do find them beautiful and interesting in the same way I view a McLaren or Pagani.

Igam Ogam November 4, 2014 at 3:24 pm

“Campy lost it’s relevance when nobody I knew used their gear any more – most folk sticking to Campagnolo seem to be wealthy masters/vets or sponsored teams. To see someone on the roads using Campag is that rare it’s noted (I can only vouch for parts of Europe). In Italy, I study the local cyclists, as we all tend to do – at most %30 of riders I see use Italian group-sets – that’s shockingly low for the home nation.

It’s not a perfect analogy but a little like comparing Honda and Ferrari, one has a long history as a marque and constructor, to this day producing attractive, fragile high performance vehicles with a niche/rich target market and no longer seen as the dominating force in motorsport. The other is newer, bigger, recognised for reliability and industry changing innovation yet manages to be the largest engine manufacturer globally and tends to be a winning ticket in motorsport (when it competes).

Personally I’d buy a Honda if I had to choose (and before you ask, no I don’t own one) and continue to not choose Campagnolo for value, reliability and usability reasons.

PT November 6, 2014 at 12:30 am

All three groupset mfrs make good stuff but I still have preferences based on a variety of things – and at the moment my bike has Campagnolo group & wheels. Its in the minority but it works so well that I hope to continue with it for some time. Less shops understand it and parts are more expensive but nevertheless, its worth it to me. Two points I’d add though:
1) If I were being paid to race, I’d ride with whatever paid best and made sense commercially. Different mindset to being a paying punter
2) The Giro and the Tour were won on Campy this year. Not quite the definition of irrelevance.

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