Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The Eye Of The Beholder

The old adage is undeniably true regarding beauty and the eye of the beholder.  The visual appearance of fellow humans, animals, inanimate objects and everything that we encounter can only be viewed with our own eyes and processed with our own brains.  For this reason it's hard not to laugh at the perpetually inane Pinkbike comment fights that go along the lines of *;

'Oh man that bike is ugly'
'Have you seen your face?!'
'Ugly and expensive... Who the H would pay $5500 canadian for a hardtail?'
'Looks like it'd be a laugh to ride which is what it's all about isn't it?'

*These are excerpts from an actual exchange http://www.pinkbike.com/news/2017-btr-ranger-amp-build-options.html

Now whilst this banter is a touch childish it's really just people spouting their personal opinions on what is essentially a subjective matter.  These aren't arguments that anyone has any possibility or even intention of winning, just bored people having verbal swings at eachother about something that is inherently pretty irrelevant and non-offensive.  And the thread continued in this vein until it strayed on to slightly different territory and at that point my laughter ceased...

The bike that sparked the lively debate.  To me it's ugly as sin, to others it's beautiful but until you look at the welds then don't comment on the quality!
'very Fast and capable bikes, UK hand made to custom spec. Not some Taiwanese off the self labeled up as high quality custom crap'
(misplaced capitals copied from original comment)

Now I'm sure that there were no connotations of racism in the comment and people do seem to enjoy vehemently defending the UK manufacturing industry.  For that I have to commend them but I do take issue with the insinuation that companies are duping customers with sub-standard Taiwanese frames being sold as custom items.  Why does an off-the-shelf  Taiwanese frame have to be viewed as inferior to an off-the-shelf UK produced frame?  For so many years there has been an unjustifiably elevated status afforded to anything manufactured in the UK or the USA within the bike industry.

Times have changed and 'made in Taiwan' is no longer as indicative of poor workmanship as it was undoubtedly considered twenty years ago.  Perceptions do advance, in the same way that I'm sure kids whose parents own a Skoda no longer see it as the badge of playground shame it was when I was growing up.  The fact is that some of the finest craftsmanship in bike frames is now coming out of Taiwan and the quality of the end product is all down to how much time and monetary investment companies are prepared to invest in finding the best factories to produce their wares.  If you want to have a simple comparative check of relative standards between companies then you have to look at the finer details closely.  And so that's what I decided to do.

I've currently got four steel hardtail frames in my garage, two decidedly retro and two very modern.  I thought I'd take a look at the same part of each frame and attempt to spot noticeable quality differences between them in terms of workmanship.  Specifically I was visually inspecting the welds and assessing the key factors that signify good welding.

1) No porosity, cracks or craters
2) Uniform bead ripples (or fishscales)
3) Even bead profile (same thickness, even toe lengths) 

Although in itself this is subjective I do have a fairly trained eye for equipment inspection (as it forms part of my job).

Frame 1

The cheapest frame at £250 in 1998 (inflation adjusted approx £425).  Welded in Taiwan for a US based bike company.  Clear lack of uniformity and excess material particularly around the top of the seatstay to seat tube joint.  Uneven bead ripples and bead profile.

Frame 2

Priced at £549 in 2017.  Produced in Taiwan for a UK based company.  Weld standard is fairly high, small and neat although some variation in bead size and also in profile on the top tube gusset.

Frame 3

Priced at £599 in 2017.  Produced in Taiwan for a UK based company.  Weld quality extremely high with near perfect uniformity of bead size and profile throughout.

Frame 4

Priced at £770 in 1997 (inflation adjusted approx £1310).  Welded in the US for a US based company. High standard of welding.  Small and neat with good bead uniformity and just small variations in bead profile.

So what did I learn?

As mentioned before, clearly this is subjective and although I can weld I'm not claiming to be an expert.  However here are four different frames and obviously differing degrees of visual quality.  Generally the standard of the welding improves with cost with the worst work evident on the £250 (£425) frame.  Next up is the £549 frame which is a clear step up in quality but still shows some variation in bead size and profile.  Second best with some very neat welds but some profile variation is the £770 (£1310) frame and the best is the £599 offering.

Now undoubtedly frame build is only one of several aspects that impact on overall cost and ride quality.  Tubing type, R&D, economies of scale and volumes produced, marketing, paint costs, labour costs, shipping and no doubt other factors come into play but then surely the point of having production in the East is to counteract some of these issues to hit a more palatable price point without compromising quality.

Two points have become apparent to me from this exercise;

1) Frames made in Taiwan can definitely be built to an extremely high standard and the right 'off-the-shelf' Taiwanese frame can display better qualities than a boutique US made one costing over twice as much.

2) That contrary to several moaning comments I've read lately, steel frames aren't exponentially increasing in price along with their recent resurgence in popularity.  The fact is that top quality steel frames have always been expensive, particularly from the really desirable brands.  The likes of Bontrager, Voodoo and Dekerf were happily banging out frames in the nineties that would cost way over a grand now with inflation adjustments.

Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder and whilst others would certainly disagree I personally always viewed the white frame as a workhorse and the black frame as a touch ugly.  The orange one is a work of art with some lovely touches and the green one looks incredible.

Quality however is in the trained eye of experts and there is a definite variation in standards on show.  Unsurprisingly the workmanship generally improves with increasing price but not necessarily and it's very clear that a mass produced Taiwanese frame in 2017 can easily hold its own against UK or US produced offerings.  I'm definitely all for buying local as long as it makes sense in terms of price and quality but I'm definitely not a believer in compromising my ride experience just to support our manufacturing industry or in slagging companies because of the origin of their equipment.

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