By Vernon Felton
Race Face cranks out a hell of a lot of product—everything from kneepads and hoodies to handlebars and bottom brackets. Perhaps no product line, however, personifies the company's vibe like Atlas—a line of no-nonsense components born and bred on the North Shore.
Race Face recently released their second generation Atlas cranks and a set (in their new "raw" finish) made its way here. Before I bolted them on, I thought it worthwhile to get the lowdown on the re-design. What was RaceFace trying to achieve? Why mess with the original formula in the first place?
Chris Heynen, has a good bead on those kinds of questions. As Race Face's Senior Design Engineer and Testing Manager, he plays a lead role in bringing new products into being—from raw idea, to prototyping, testing, marketing and final production. If you've ridden an aluminum Raceface product in the past eight years, chances are you've touched something Heynen has had a hand in making.
Heynen joined the Vancouver-based company eight years ago. Heynen's resume is broad and includes stints working on everything from rescue submarines to fuel cells. Bikes, however, have always been Heynen's passion. As Heynen puts it, "I pretty much have the job I always dreamed of."
How long did it take to do the re-design of the crank?
From start to finish, it was just over a year. We originally started in December of 2010 and we pretty much had in customers' hands beginning in February of this year.
What were your design goals with the re-design?
The first and major design goal was to change the interface—the way the two arms go together and how you install it. We had the older X-Type spline on Atlas still, but since then we've come up with our EXI system, which is easier to install and remove…that was a major thrust, but at the same time there were a few lingering things that I wanted to freshen up as things have changed since we first brought out Atlas.
There are subtle things, like the edges of the crank have been rounded a bit. They were a bit sharper and sometimes people would complain that they were mashing their ankles on them, so we just rounded those over. We were also able to improve the heel clearance, so that's nice because it keeps your cranks looking fresher. We also changed the granny spider from aluminum to a composite, which lightened things up considerably, because really, it's just a spacer, it's a non-structural component, so it didn't need to be as strong as we'd originally made it. And then from a marketing perspective, we wanted to freshen up the graphics a bit, so we cleaned up the topographical treatment and chose a different scene—Whistler—that's a bit more in-line with how riders see these cranks fitting in to things.
Atlas cranks used to be split between two versions: an all mountain crank and a freeride crank. Now there's just one Atlas model. What kind of rider is the best fit for Atlas now?
When we made these modifications to the Atlas crank, it came out lighter than we expected. In fact, we were able to take out enough weight (Editor's Note: the new Atlas crank is about 100 grams lighter than its predecessor) that the new Atlas kind of crossed over into that all mountain area. Yet we achieved that weight loss by playing with a lot of non-structural parts, so there's no difference in strength or stiffness between the old Atlas Freeride crank arms and this new Atlas EXI version.
Given all that, we didn't see the need to put out an "all mountain" branded crank anymore. Who's Atlas best suited for? I see it fitting anything from aggressive all mountain to downhill. We try and place Atlas at a Saint-level when it comes to strength, but we pride ourselves on the fact that it weighs less.
I noticed that the chainring tabs are wider now. Were you seeing failures on the old tabs?
Our chainring tabs used to be 3.3-millimeters wide and now they are 4.5 millimeters. We saw just a few Atlas cranks come back with some chainring tabs bent. It was a very low percentage. It was maybe four cranks out of 15,000, so it wasn't a chronic problem, but we still take it seriously because we know consumers pay a lot of money for a product and expect it to work flawlessly.
There's also the question of compatibility. We saw other crank makers going to 4.5-millimeter tabs, so bringing ours in line with theirs gives our cranks an extra bit of compatibility with other company's bashguards. That never hurts.
What are the new Atlas' strong points?
One of the things that I love is that we use a really high-strength aluminum—it's American-made alloy from Alcoa; you can't get it in Taiwan—and because of that, we don't need to put in a pedal insert to keep people from ripping out their pedal threads. That's definitely something we pride ourselves on.
I also love that the Atlas crank is just so versatile crank. You can run a double and a bash. You can run a single ring. We offer it in 68 and 73-millimeter shell. There's also compatibility with 83 and 100-millimeter systems…so Atlas is really the do-it-all workhorse for us. And the fact that it comes in a wide range of colors is great because people like to have that option to choose and bling out their bikes. It's just a kickass crank that's super strong and super light.