The Ancestor of Your Bike

It might look inelegant but the photo above from a seller on ebay reveals the ancestor of almost every modern road bike.

This is the tale of a radical designer and a scrap mountain bike frame meeting mass production and global trade to eventually reshape racing bikes.

You’ve probably seen the pictures used to illustrate the theory of evolution where via a series of diagrams we go from the ape on all fours to an upright human. We can do the same for cycling, starting with the early hobby horse or vélocipède and then via a series of leaps we get the chain, the freewheel, pneumatic tyres and then derailleur gears and more. In more recent times there’s been an evolutionary leap that has defined most of the bikes you can see, whether at a pro race or in your local shop. The ancestor with the engineering DNA is the Giant Total Compact Road from 1997, pictured above.

The Who Made Your Bike piece on here has been one of the most popular reads and it tells the tale of mass production in Asia. Following this I’d been meaning to look at the rise of Giant, the world’s largest bike manufacturer and a recent episode of The Bike Show via podcast has prompted me to get on with it.

For decades cyclists would buy a frame by the seat tube length and then check the top tube length, the head tube and then review the geometry, namely the angle of intersection between the tubes. This can still hold true today but for most buyers there’s no need to revive the trigonometry. Today more familiar sizes are often used, for example frames come in Small, Medium and Large. Just like a t-shirt.

Mike Burrows, bike designer extraordinaire

This consumer-friendly shift took place in the mid-1990s. Here Jack Thurston interviewed Mike Burrows who told the tale of his involvement with Giant in designing the first “compact” road frame. The genesis of the frame says plenty about the cycle industry. It wasn’t the result of CAD design, it wasn’t demanded by management or accountants. It came from the mountain bike world and Burrows explains his initial venture with Giant:

To go to the road you needed ten sets of tooling because of the ten sizes of road bike needed. So the manufacturing company in Taiwan was saying to the sales company in Europe “no we’re not going to tool up, it’ll cost us tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of pounds and you won’t sell enough bicycles to justify it”.

I was sitting in on these conversations… I’d made this little sixteen inch time trial bike and I’d ended up with a Fisher Mountain sixteen inch mountain bike and I thought could I have a sixteen inch road bike? I got them to send me one of their scrap mountain bike frames, 16 inch one and built that up as a road bike. A long aero seatpost, a pair of road forks.

The relentless sales of the mountain bike were built upon mass market production and frames came in regular sizes. The obvious thing was to extend this to the road frames. Suddenly “compact” frames took over with their sloping top tubes, allowing weight savings and, in the frame at least, some extra stiffness but it wasn’t easy to enter the more conservative world of road cycling.

At the top the UCI was uncertain about these new machines. But a meeting between two Dutchmen, the UCI President Hein Verbruggen and the boss of Giant in Europe, Jan Derksen. The UCI was worried about sweeping technology changes and wanted to ban the design but Giant was able to convince that this was cheaper and more affordable.

For the mass market the next step was to sponsor a pro team. Giant was not selling much in Spain and their local agent approached ONCE, then the top team in the world and thanks to money and design the team was sponsored by Giant in 1999. Note the image above of Abraham Olano on the compact frame with sloping top tube whilst Lance Armstrong’s Trek OCLV looks retro. Validation at the highest level was crucial to high end sales and the company has never looked back since, even if the Spanish team imploded after doping scandal.

Evolutionary leap
Students of evolution and genetics know that evolutionary changes are not always gradual. Sudden environmental changes can prompt some species into extinction whilst others might thrive. In the 1990s the change was one of trade and development. Asia became increasingly linked with the “western” economies of the US and Europe and low cost manufacturing in Asia was able to deliver cheap bicycles on an unprecedented change. This went from ordinary street bikes right up to the machines used in the biggest races.

If you’re still on a frame from the 1980s or riding an bespoke frame from an artisan builder then maybe your ride doesn’t share the Giant and Burrows design DNA. But if you’re riding a recent team replica, a frame made in Asia or if your bike has a sloping top tube then the ungainly bike pictured above is its ancestor. The reduction in frame sizes simplified production, no longer did a craftsman need a jig to carefully angle the tubing in various sizes but TIG welding allowed a worker, still skilled, to make a frame a lot faster. In short frames went into mass production and in a limited number of sizes. Giant got here first for pro racing bikes but almost everyone else followed.

Over the years we’ve seen refinery and improvement rather than evolutionary leaps in bike technology. In some ways a machine from the 1930s with derailleur gears, pneumatic tyres, quick release skewers and lugged steel isn’t too far from a bike today. Each component has been improved rather than replaced.

But the radical design of Mike Burrows was crossed with Giant’s ability to mass produce frames and the Giant TCR Compact Road was born. Today’s bikes – whether mass produced composite frames from China or even handmade frames with sloping top tubes – can trace some of their history to this single bike.

53 thoughts on “The Ancestor of Your Bike”

  1. I’ll never forget when Giant/ONCE came out with their monocoque carbon frame with 10-sp Campag Record and Bora wheels in 2002-2003. They looked DECADES ahead of others. Looking back in retrospect, they really did revolutionize frame and bicycle design as we know it today.

    Credit is also due the Taiwan government. They really invested in carbon manufacturing for years and years and years, and are reaping the benefits of that R&D investment today.

    Lastly, it has been posted here before, but CyclingIQ’s analysis of this is really excellent.

    • Not to get too political….but this is exactly why I cringe when I hear the anti-government zealots here in the States rail against government intervention in the economy. Many industries and industry clusters are because of government industrial policy.

  2. the bike mike burrows is holding seems to have a number of similarities to Obrees “old fatihfull”, a bike Mike copied to ensure that Obree has a back-up to satisfy the reg’s during hour record

    • Why “SO PRO”? Is it the angle of the lever?
      Many team mechanics (and riders) prefer this upright position as it is easier to open the cam quickly and reduces the chance of your QR lever getting snapped off in a wheel-tangle.

  3. The amazing part of this story (to me) is how the manufacturers, starting with Giant, turned an in-house benefit to them (less tooling, lower manufacturing costs, & fewer SKUs) into a marketing initiative that professed the benefits of compact frames to the consumer.

    Stiffer & lower weight were easy sells, but getting the market to buy into the “better fit” aspect of compact frames is something that still perplexes me. Basically they sold the world on something that already existed (to achieve proper fit, just change stems or put on a longer seatpost), which were options that were largely rejected with traditional frame design.

    I suppose they might not have succeeded, if it hadn’t been for the adoption of threadless headsets, and stems of widely varying lengths and angles with removable face plates, which greatly facilitated the tuning of rider position, without making it a chore (as with quill road stems, which largely didn’t offer removable face plates). Again, the influence of MTBs on the road market…

    • A small frame is lighter for the headline weight but you can of course get the seatpost flexing. Also if you listen to the podcast interview with Burrows he talks about the stem and road cycling’s conservatism at ditching the quill.

      • As a small correction I think you are meant to say it makes the ride more vertically compliant rather than seatpost flexing which I think is another example of a feature invented as a result of campact frame geometry.

    • Even if you take inflation into account? Here in the UK if you account for inflation then 1000 pounds in 1992 is now just shy of 1700 so you’d expect them to cost a chunk more. However, I’m really not sure it’s the case that they do if you consider what you get.

      If you shop around in the UK you can get a carbon frames bike with OK kit for not much more than that 1000 pounds, something that was well into the exotica range in 1992. And yes, the high end stuff is almost certainly much more but again if you look what counts as high end these days compared to 1992: back then no carbon, no integrated shifters let alone electronic ones, no aero tubing or deep section rims.

      So no, I don’t think they’re 3x as expensive. If anything you get more for less money than you did 20 years ago. You might not want all the innovation but I know I’d take almost any 1000 pound bike from today over a top end bike of 20 years ago.

      • ironically the peloton could possibly become even more dangerous with disk brakes. The jittery weekend warrior peloton that is. Current braking systems allow for an ABS effect that you need on the road more so than on the trails.

        • Funny story from my high end shop days.
          Customer extolling the virtues of the ABS brake effect his new $3k carbon wheels produced compared to the regular smooth braking of his alloy race wheels.

          His carbon pads were grabby but he equated the experience to driving his high performance sports car equipped with a form of ABS. He didn’t even understand what performance advantage he paid for or what the downsides were or could of been depending on circumstance.
          What could I say?

          Perception is a funny thing when it’s tied directly to price tags.
          The weekend warriors are way better off with carbon wheels that will dependably stop in any condition and if that means disc wheels ok by me.

        • I think your perceptions of disc brakes are slightly skewed. ABS? My Record dual pivots on aluminum rims could pitch me if I grabbed a handful of brake without thinking. Road discs won’t behave like mtb discs which are designed for operating at relatively low speeds. For-road disc brakes will have modulation similar (or better) to that already experienced on current rim brakes, but with the added bonus better braking in wet and cold weather.

          • anyway, more powerful brakes whether disk or not will still have their limits as to how effective they can or seemingly ‘will’ be in wet weather. True carbon is hard to rein in, so we need a pad that works better but what we need more is rubber that sticks better to the tarmac. Unlike on a trail where a skid can be used for control, on the road a skid means you are on your way out of control. So yeah if ABS works for a car then why not for a bike?

  4. Compact road frames look awful, they should be banned for bad style. As far as I know, the only mass market bike company making good looking bikes is Cannondale with their “slightly sloping” top tubes. I think Armstrong’s Trek looks great in that photo above (apart from the front skewer) but I can only LOL at Olano’s ghastly Giant.

  5. The evolution of mass-produced bikes is quite interesting and historical, thanks INRNG.
    Mike Burrow’s part in it shows us how adaptation and highly functional designs paved the way for Giant’s #1 status in the mass-production market.

    But I’m partial to those like the quirky Scot (Graeme Obree) who truly had signs of genius and innovation, never gave up and succeeded in so many ways:) He made the “little guy” stand out in a big, big way, regardless of all the politics and bans he endured.

    “An old washing machine and a mad Scotsman: brilliant!” – You vote Old Faithful greatest bike of all time, Wednesday, 25 April 2012, Cycling Weekly, Chris Sidwells and Hugh Gladstone.

    [Different spokes for different folks, but Mr. Obree, who suffered both personally and professionally persevered, perhaps like no one else before or since, IMO)

    How you voted:

    Rating points
    1 Graeme Obree’s Old Faithful (1994) 864
    2 Chris Boardman’s Lotus Sport (1992) 763
    3 Giuseppe Saronni’s Colnago Mexico (1982) 697
    4 Eddy Merckx’s Molteni team bike (1974) 613
    5 Andrew Ritchie’s Brompton (1979) 588
    6 Mark Cavendish’s Specialized Venge (2011) 588
    7 Seventies kids’ Raleigh Chopper (1970s) 551
    8 Tom Simpson’s Peugeot PX10 (1965) 549
    9 Fabian Cancellara’s Cervélo P3 time trial bike (2007) 545
    10 Eddy Merckx’s Hour record bike (1972) 531
    11 Miguel Indurain’s Pinarello Espada (1994) 527
    12 Lance Armstrong’s Trek OCLV (1999-2010) 525
    13 Roger De Vlaeminck’s Gios Torino (1974) 515
    14 Team GB’s track bike (2003-present) 515
    15 Joop Zoetemelk’s TI-Raleigh pro team bike (1980) 473
    16 Fausto Coppi’s Bianchi (1952) 463
    17 Gewiss Ballan’s De Rosa Titanio (1994) 463
    18 Cadel Evans’ BMC Teammachine SLR01 (2012) 463
    19 Sean Kelly’s Vitus 979 (1987) 450
    20 Alex Moulton’s Moulton (1962) 448
    21 Clubman’s Hetchins (1940) 446
    22 Francesco Moser’s Hour record bike (1984) 444
    23 Laurent Jalabert’s Giant TCR (1999) 430
    24 Ray Booty’s Raleigh Record Ace (1956) 427
    25 Greg LeMond’s Bottecchia time trial bike (1989) 425
    26 La Vie Claire’s Look KG86 Tour de France (1986) 419
    27 Mario Cipollini’s Cannondale CAAD3 (1997) 412

    Below, photos of Obree’s innovations, unconventional indeed, but his success spoke for itself:)
    A fascinating man in such turmoil who never lost sight of his goals, to be the fastest, his way.

    “Graeme Obree: building bikes, writing books and beating depression
    The record-breaking cyclist, author and bike-design genius discusses knee injuries, his follow-up memoir and why he’d like ‘to build bikes which say hand-crafted in Britain” – the Guardian, 2011

    Mass-produced bikes make oodles of money, but they don’t have the deeply personal story behind it.

    I think for most of us, we have a budget for a bike, we buy the best we can afford and we try to hone the fit so that we can still walk upright at the end of a long ride. What the bike looks like takes on diversity almost as diverse as our cultures.

  6. Interestingly the Lotus bike was based on a composite stub axled machine with integrated drum brakes that Burrows was using 1990.
    There’s very little reference made to the aero and strange positioning of the Walker brothers or their strange fairings on TT bikes.
    It was certainly interesting watching the evoloution of the Obree position from the late 80’s with the back to front drop bars and then to mtb bars and bar ends on a road frame.
    Burrows worked on stub axled town bikes as well that pretty much made fixing punctures the easiest thing in the world, but they didn’t really seem to happen.
    if folks are interested in cycle design it’s worth trying to get hold of old copies of New Cyclist magazine which Burrows used to write for lots of very interesting machines and concepts.

  7. I am being honest…can someone explain to me why compact frames are easier to manufacture and sell? You still need as a rider a specific seat height to handlebar reach ratio depending on your geometry. wouldn’t the same affect be obtained through overall shorter top tubes and longer stems?

    • Fewer sizes incur less setup costs for the factory. Fewer sizes for the shop means less unsellable inventory at the year end. Less inventory fewer SKUs.

      “wouldn’t the same affect be obtained through overall shorter top tubes and longer stems?”
      Sizing is proportional. The one dimension that is easily alterable is the seattube length after all the other points are sorted out. Reducing the standover allows the frame to be sized down by shortening the stem and lowering the saddle height. This works out for most people especially the ones in the middle of the size range for a given size. The folks on the overlap may not be as well served in some cases. So getting a fit is important because the reference points on a modern frame are not as obvious as they once were.

      Hope that helps.

      • The flaw in the design & longer seat post argument is that it perpetuates a consistent seat tube angle across riders of different height who require the same size frame due to top tube length/reach factors. Traditionally frames of different sizes varied seat tube angle, typically with larger frames having shallower angles to accommodate longer femur lengths.

        Now with fewer size choices, we are seeing narrower availability of seat tube angles (that tend to be steeper now than they were 15 – 20 years ago). Couple this with the predominance of zero set back seatposts, and it makes me wonder how most people actually achieve a position in normally accepted ranges.

        Also note that several major manufacturers now offer fit certification programs to their dealers. Is this a matter of true value add (capitalizing on a void in the market to improve customer satisfaction) or a matter of needing to teach their dealers how to fit consumers on their brand of bikes because traditional methods don’t work on modern frames?

      • JimW:
        Well – what this essentially does then is result in people with shorter legs riding bike with handlebars that are then way to high, especially if they desire a race position. If there is an advantage to this design, then there must be some cost for some riders as well.

        Again – it seems to me this could all have been done using standard geometry frames, except overall shorter-top tubes, and then selling everyone smaller sized frame in general, with bigger stems if need be.

        • That doesn’t take wheelbase into account. You can make the back end of the bike the same(chainstay length) but the front has to get longer as the bikes get larger. If you just shorten the toptube then you need to progressively adjust the headtube angle to reduce overlap and keep a wheelbase measurement. Handling going out the window now with slack headtube angles.
          Compact frames get longer but are all very low unless you are looking at the more conservative geometry with taller headtubes. Roubaix or Synapse or a sportif/grand fondo bike. They extend the wheelbase, shorten the toptube and raise the headtube. These bikes address some of the short comings of compact but fall into the same trap.

          It is interesting that the companies are having to make the same amount of compact frames spread over two “market segments”. They could make race bikes with room for 25c or 28c tires and ditch an entire segment by making a full size run.

          • Please help me understand….by using a sloped top tube, you essentially shorten the top tube…which would still cause toe overlap for a rider, correct. At the end of the day, you still need the same reference points in tems of reach and height, and overlap. It just seems to me this could have been accomplished with standard geometry…or what compact geometry has done is forced many people to ride bikes whereby they are riding with a handlebar too high than they could….but likely for most riders, they both do not need a more race ready position nor would they go to this length to understand it.

            Without knowing more, I get the feeling that had they just offered fewer standard geometry sizes, it would have out put the early adapters at a disadvantage…but by offerings compact geometry, yu can now offer fewer sizes, and claim that the shape allows this….when in reality, the reference points between saddle, crankset/BB, and handlebar needs to be same regardless. The compact shortens the effective top tube length…whether the seat tube is mostly seat post or actually part of the frame should not matter.

        • I can’t reply below to your newest statement.

          You must abandon the belief that sloping a toptube shortens it. It is not so!
          Breath deeply and cleanse your mind of bicycle conversations past…now read on.

          A sloping toptube will NOT shorten the toptube. In reality(the piece of tubing) is longer than the traditional counterpart. You are intersecting the seattube at a lower point. All it does is LOWER the standover. The virtual toptube(which is the measurement of a level toptube from the top of the headtube intersecting the seatpost) is the same as the equivalent diamond frame. Compact does NOT make the handle bar position higher it only appears that way due to the sloping toptube. The starting point at the headtube is the same as on a diamond frame. We slope downwards not up.

          Think about it like this.
          We’re in photoshop.
          Take a 56cm diamond frame.
          Now cut three inches of seattube off below the seatpost clamp.
          Next we take the toptube and lower it to join it with the top of our new seattube.
          Now we take the seatstays and lower their connection to just behind the seatpost clamp.

          You now have a medium compact frameset.

          Stupid right.
          So take the five most common sizes repeat. Bam. Compact size run.
          Well there may be some messaging of numbers here and there but that’s the gist.
          Now five is HALF of a traditional road sizing run of ten. $$$$$aving$$$$$$$.

          Now it’s great for mountain bikes where moving around the bike constantly benefits from a lowered toptube and a shorter stem. For road bikes it is cost cutting and that’s it. Weight and stiffness are a holdover from the late 90’s. I can get you on a steel bike that rides like a dream at 17lbs with pedals. Weight is a non issue these days. We are stuck with compact now because of the manufacturing cost of carbon framesets. Fewer sizes, less molds, less cost.

          The caps were for emphasis not yelling in frustration. ; )
          I hope this helps as I’m done for the night!

  8. I don’t mind most of the innovations that us roadies have become accustomed to (integrated shift/brake levers, threadless stems, oversize head tubes, etc.) but I have never, ever liked the look of a sloping top tube road bike. It just looks wrong and I always had a feeling it was based solely on a way to build more bikes with fewer sizes, cheaper.

    Oh yeah, and when disc brakes hit the road market, I’ll continue to use my more than adequate rim brakes. Like Gillis says, a handful of modern rim brakes are plenty powerful.

    • This is a matter of perception. I now see non-compact frames and think they looks clunky, heavy, and dated. but I don’t think there’s too much doubt that a compact frame is generally a stiffer and lighter package.

      Sticking with rim brakes ‘because’ they’re fine is ok for now, but will eventually be like sticking with a carburettor motor in a car because it works fine, when in reality the new tech fuel injection is vastly superior.

      Apart from the braking advantages, disk brakes will free up rim designs to be lighter and potentially stiffer because the braking surface is no longer needed.

      • I would be interested in seeing actual numbers regarding the stiffness and lightness of compact vs. standard frames. Assuming two frames of comparable size (let’s say a compact large and a standard 58cm) and identical materials are tested back-to-back, I bet the numbers would be very, very close. I would also assume you’re talking about stiffness at the bottom bracket since that’s what 99% of the marketing copy wants every new roadie to think is the most important quality of a road bike right after frame weight, of course.

        Disc brakes on a road bike being vastly superior…I’ll have to wait and ride one. But for now, my money and my past investments in wheels, frames, tools and components tells me it’s 99% not needed unless I happen to find myself riding down the side of a mountain in thunderstorm.

        Yes, the rim could be made lighter but you have to have a larger hub to bolt the disc to, plus the added weight of the disc and its mounting hardware, as well as the caliper. So it all becomes moot. Besides, a rim that is too stiff rides like a total pile of crap on anything other than a glass smooth road surface and in the states where I have lived and ridden, that is complete fantasy.

        I can’t believe we are still at the point where people will profess 10 grams of weight savings over ride quality. Want to lose 15 grams from a set of wheels and 10 more from your frame? How about we all just ride a few extra miles at a slightly higher heart rate?

  9. Sorry about the double post. I just had a look on ebay and there happens to be a frame for sale. It is called a Giant MCR and came out for one year in 1998.

  10. Those ghastly “t-shirt” sized bikes are not the ancestor of any of my personal machines – I’m stockpiling enough bikes to last the rest of my cycling life to avoid being forced to ride a “too small, too big or close enough” bicycle. I’m amazed at the same industry that cuts the sizes available down to 4 or 5 also puts such emphasis on proper fit (or pretends to). Witness the pros with 14+ cm, negative-rise stems and “flagpole” seatposts as they try to get a decent position on these contraptions – horrible. They look like guys wearing expensive suits but which come only in S-M-L-X sizes….it’s really a disaster..perhaps why custom, made-to-measure framebuilders seem to be making a small comeback?

    • Coincidentally, whether intended or not, but that look (tall, over-exposed seat post) and huge stems slammed down on the head-tube) are now considered the “Pro” look, while the look of Merckx and most-pre 90’s riders had much more conventional (dare I say Rivendell-esque) look.

  11. It’s been great to read through all these posts. It gives me a lot of perspective on all the trouble I’ve been having with getting a proper bike fit.

    • Everyone is well served with a professional fitting.
      Bicycle design on the ends of the sizing spectrum needs special consideration to maintain proper performance characteristics. It is more of a balancing act that bears less consideration in the face of commercial concerns. An acceptable average is reached that works for most folks. The remainder get to buy goofy stems and look silly.

      A fair amount of people gladly pay a premium to compromise. Frame material is less important than proper fit always. If you have to get a custom size and your choices are steel or alloy do not be deterred. When you can ride all day comfortably that extra pound or less won’t mean much.

  12. As a big 100 Kilo 190 cm guy all of these compact frames are very uncomfortable and ride funny to me and a bunch of my bigger friends. I don’t think much engineering or rather design has ever gone into frames for larger bodies and heavier ones. I do think the older frames are by accident better for bigger guys.

    I see a lot talked about but they are either disproportionately heavier or stiffer in weird, non-intuitive ways. I would guess the market is smaller and we don’t know better so there is no real incentive.

  13. I am new to cycling and have this exact bike in a size L, which I have realized is too big for me (bought it used). I was excited to learn of its history and the impression it has made on cycling and bicycle production. If I can get a good price for it i’ll let go of it so I can get a properly sized replacement. Shoot me an email jaxn90740 at hotmail dot com. Thank you, and ride safe, everyone!

  14. Sloping top tube aside, Giant TCR geometry is really quite traditional in the sense of relating rise to reach, or head tube to functional top tube.

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