The Web Monkey Speaks: Parachute Pants and Press Fit Bottom Brackets
By Vernon Felton
There is a world of difference between 49ers fans and Raiders devotees. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area (which is home to both football teams), you probably already know this. Back in the 1980s, the distinction was crystal clear. The Niner fans tended toward affluence—they looked down their noses at the rowdy, criminally-inclined element that made up a core segment of the Raider Nation. The Raider faithful, on the other hand, mocked the pretensions of the upwardly mobile 49er contingent, who they saw as merely fair-weather fans of a team that no one liked until it suddenly stole the secret recipe for walking away with Superbowl wins in the mid `80s.
But to me, it was a case of po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe. The fans may have driven to our sports bar in different vehicles (Niner fans in their Mercedes, Raider fans in their El Caminos), but they all wound up hunched over a toilet puking their brains out during our weekly Monday Night Football All You Can Eat Pizza for Just $5.99 specials. The Niners fans tended to apologize for plastering the wall with regurgitated pepperoni pizza. The Raiders fans might take a bleary swipe at you as you entered the fray to clean up after them. At the end of the day, however, serving this diverse clientele at our sports bar still required the same thing: a mop, a strong stomach and some serious motivation to get the job done.
My motivation came in the form of a banana-yellow Trek 850. I spent the first half of 1988 in a state of perpetual torment over this bike—the model that would prove my first mountain bike. I daydreamed constantly about the Trek, which was a monumentally expensive purchase for me. I was earning a staggering $2.80 per hour at the time so a $650 bike was nothing to sneeze at. It took months of pushing puke around, but one magical day I found I’d earned enough cash and I brought it home: 30 pounds of unsuspended steel equipped with the latest in technology–Shimano Deore shifters, Araya RM20 wheels, BioPace chainrings and the coup de grace, a U-brake.
Truth be told, I was a little leery of the U-brake.
Until that time, all mountain bikes had been equipped with cantilevers. Cantis weren’t particularly strong, but they were simple—a couple of cables, some wimpy brake arms—they weren’t impressive, but they were easy to understand and they were what you had to work with.
The U-brake was like some kind of Terminator-esque, canti-cyborg. It had cables that operated on the same premise as a normal cantilever brake, but the arms had grown massive and they now scissored back and forth, and it weighed a ton and suddenly there were more parts to contend with and, for some weird reason, it was often mounted below the chainstays in a location that immediately ensured that the brake would be covered in muck. It….kind of made sense….maybe….
Actually, it didn’t make sense at all. At all. But, then, the whole bike industry was suddenly doing it, so it had to be alright, right? That’s what I and a hundred thousand other optimistic consumers were telling ourselves as we lined up to buy a bike straddled with the device. Both Shimano and Dia-Compe were making these brakes: U-brakes had to be awesome in a way that just wasn’t immediately obvious. If that sounds a little naïve, remember that there were no Internet chat forums in which people ranted about the obvious shortcomings of the latest components. There weren’t a ton of magazines full of product reviews to help you get a sense of what was what. Back in the mid-80s, you bought a mountain bike and you kind of made this crazy leap of faith.
I think I got in about halfway down a steep descent in the rain before my U-brake clogged up with red adobe clay and then promptly decided to roll over and die. I coaxed the depressed brake back to life a dozen times over the next two years, but it never really worked, which is kind of a big thing when you’re talking about your rear brake.
To add insult to many Oh-Dear-Jesus-My-Bike-Won’t-Stop crash-related injuries, the U-brake had exactly one year in the limelight before it shuffled off to retirement in BMX land. I purchased my first mountain bike during the summer of 1988. By the Christmas of that same year, the 1989 models rolled off the line and the U-brakes were nowhere to be seen. Cantis were back. Everyone who found themselves saddled with a bike that had a U-brake bolted to it suddenly felt like the biggest dipshit in the universe.
I eventually dropped that Trek off in Paul Sadoff’s kitchen in Santa Cruz, where he committed an act of mercy; he bailed on an afternoon off of welding Rock Lobsters in order to hacksaw off my shitty U-brake and weld on a set of proper canti studs. Thank you, Paul.
So, I guess, you can say it all worked out for me and my Trek 850, but the experience left me with a grave distrust of products that tout themselves as technological leaps, but which really seem to be experiments in making things that look cool, but offer no real benefits.
I feel that way about Press Fit bottom brackets. Now, before you get upset and start typing angry messages about how awesome Press Fit bottom brackets are, let me say that I understand that the things have their potential merits.
Press Fit bottom brackets allow bike manufacturers to design bikes with larger downtube/ bottom bracket junctions. This is said to increase stiffness and, yeah, that makes sense. I’m not going to argue with the physics there. But, really, how many of us were riding bikes four years ago (that halcyon period before Press Fit BBs completely dominated the market) and found ourselves saying, “God, I love everything about my bike except for the way my bottom bracket shell flexes out of plane an inch or two every time I put down the hammer!”
No one was saying that because no one was feeling such a thing. I don’t care how studly and Thor-like you are, most of us can’t force a traditional threaded bottom-bracket shell to bob and weave in all kinds of distracting ways. There are other places on a bike that needed to be stiffened up and the bike industry has done an excellent job of chasing the wiggle from one component to the next. Tapered headtubes? Check. Oversized cockpit components? Check. Front thru axles? Rear thru axles? Check. Check.
These are all good things and I have no doubt that making a wider downtube also helps shore up things in a high stress area. The question is this: Does the benefit outweigh the cost?
I never had a flexing bottom bracket shell, but I sure have experienced creaking Press Fit bottom brackets, Press Fit bottom brackets that wouldn’t behave unless coerced with a dose of Loctite, Press Fit bottom brackets that had to be tossed in the trash—not because they were worn out, but because I had to remove them in order to re-route a dropper-post line in my frame and, oh crap, now the plastic bearing houses are deformed and can’t be reinstalled.
Press Fit bottom brackets are a pain in the ass.
They are also the dominant paradigm. Most of my favorite bikes are straddled with the sons of bitches. This bothers me immensely because it means that almost every bike I love will one day also be a bike that gives me a raging headache.
Remember when bottom brackets just sat there and did their job without complaining, slipping or making you want to go on a killing spree? God, those were good days. I will trade a puny-looking downtube/bottom bracket junction any day of the week for a technological leap forward that requires Loctite and a prayer to Saint Jude (he of the lost causes).
If you love your Press Fit bottom bracket because it looks cool (and they do) or because yours isn’t currently creaking up a storm, I wish you well and many…uh…months of bliss-free pedaling. I, on the other hand, am spending a lot of days thinking about U-brakes and the occasional product that manages to make its way onto almost every mountain bike despite the fact that it doesn’t make the act of riding bikes any better.
I hate you, Press Fit bottom bracket. You are the U-brake, the parachute pants, the Macarena dance of bicycle technology. And you are the future. Dammit.