Monday, February 11, 2019

LOL! Biopace is back!

It starts with a spot of good news for a change: a driver in Oregon, who killed a bicyclist in a drug-fueled road rage incident, has been sentenced to 15 years in prison. What a refreshing far cry from the usual slap on the wrist, or even complete acquittal, that usually follows the killing of a cyclist by a motorist.

As I was reading the article, I noticed the ads on the road.cc site announcing Shitno's latest marvel: Oval chainrings! Proven effective, once again, after a nice long sleep of decades since the last time they were discredited and discarded. If anything indicates the health of the road cycling market and the corresponding gullibility of the well-heeled but casual participants who will believe anything, it is the reintroduction of this tired old concept yet again.

Oval chainrings have been cropping up for about as long as there have been chainrings. They appear, they kill the cadence of an entire generation, and they submerge again. No less a luminary than the great Sheldon Brown thought that they were the cat's ass, thus proving that even the wisest have their susceptibilities. You can read his articles, conduct your own experiments, and decide for yourself. Thanks to Shimano's fundamental philosophy that no bad idea should ever die out, you will now get a new issue of parts to work with before the tide turns again. And maybe it never will, seeing that every activity has broken into smaller and smaller fragments of specialization, and manufacturers can apparently produce surgically small production runs to exploit ignorant enthusiasm generated by the marketing department.

You can tell I'm excited, can't you? Just turning friggin' cartwheels of joy that we're going to trundle out another raft of bullshit to dump on the bike market. Elliptical chainrings might actually be an excellent asset when trying to pedal your electric behemoth with a dead battery. So there's that. And now that we've killed the front derailleur you don't have to worry about the documented tendency of oval chainrings to cut chains during a hard front shift. Mountain bikes with Biopace rings were the original chain choppers in the early 1990s. The temperamental connecting pins of Shimano Hyperglide chains helped significantly with the spread of this problem.

Sheldon Brown's article on Biopace documents Shimano's wooing of the triathlon, mountain, and recreational road market segments with high-cam Biopace, followed by their carefully choreographed walkback through Biopace HP (low cam), and the triumphant announcement in the early 1990s of Superglide!!! Not only did this boast "new" chain tooth profiles -- reminiscent of their "W-Cut" chainrings circa 1980 for those who had been paying attention -- but they also utilized the latest computer-designed engineering breakthrough: Constant Radius. In other words, ROUND. The entire process took roughly a decade and contributed to Shimano's market dominance during the twilight of the road bike boom, the rise of triathlon, and the first surge of production mountain bikes. If you ever wanted proof that marketing trumps genuine product quality and support, Shimano provides a textbook example. It is but one among many from the tumultuous 1980s down to the present day, because their tactics have become the norm. Make something work well enough, hype the crap out of it, and abandon it as quickly as possible so that no one really gets a fix on it. Always claim that product changes are "for improvement."

With a modicum of engineering, ample capital, and a complete dearth of conscience, wealth can be yours.

As Sheldon pointed out, the concept works for riders who don't need a high cadence, or smooth, fast acceleration. He even claimed that they worked well for him on his fixed-gears, but John Allen, who now tends Sheldon's sites, reports the opposite. I side with Mr. Allen. My fixed gears have always exhibited enough change in chain tension just from irregularities in the round rings and cogs I already use. I never wanted to risk throwing a chain at high revs because I was using a non-round ring.

No doubt these turkeys will make their way onto new mountain bikes, since mountain bikers are one of the few market segments throwing down serious coin these days. But how much longer can that last anyway? The fundamentals of the entire industrialized economy are going to have to be overhauled pronto if we're not going to bake the atmosphere right off of this little muddy rock we call home. Disposable income might become an unsupportable luxury. If your pedal-powered machine isn't practical transportation at that point, you'd better be one of the few, the filthy rich, to keep playing at all.

Oval chainrings would serve on a cargo bike or other transportational machine, especially among riders who are adamantly opposed to looking the slightest bit racy. Nothing says "not a racer" quite like a good 60 rpm cadence. Then again, decades ago a top-caliber rider I had the good fortune to ride with said that top time trialists of the day (early 1980s) were running about 75 rpm in monster gears, because that netted out faster than spinning higher rpms in a gear low enough to spin at higher rpms. Hence the success of marketing original Biopace to triathletes, time trialists, and early mountain bikers, all of whom had more reasons to spin slowly than to rev up in the round.

Back when I first got lured back into the bike game, in 1989, Biopace was already fading. I did my best to help it on its way, recommending conversion to round chainrings for any rider willing to listen. I'm ready to do that again, but riders are all less willing to listen to real people in shops, now that they have YouTube and forums full of experienced misinformation. So I can also just clean things off, patch them together, and let riders find their own way through the welter of marketing blather. I know what I like, and what I will keep looking for, as long as I can find it.

7 comments:

anniebikes said...

Well that's a pretty funny announcement - Biopace? Who would've guessed oval chain rings would make a comeback! My husband acquired an 80's Bridgestone with original Biopace and hasn't worn out the ring yet (it's his back up bike so doesn't see many miles per year). I'll have to tell him his bike is back in style...

Rob Evans said...

My road bike, circa 1990, is equipped with the original Ultegra components, except that I've changed the 7-speed rear cassette a couple times. The Biopace HP 53/42 chainrings are original with about 40k miles on them, and function perfectly. I don't care for high-cam (early) Biopace rings, but I can honestly say that the milder HP work fine for me. I prefer to spin around 50-60 when climbing, and don't like to spin more than about 75 rpm on the level, so that's probably why the Biopace HP seem ok. I've thought about converting to round rings (and maybe will, if I wear these out before I die), but it's not a priority.

Another thing I'm in no hurry to abandon is the 2x7 arrangement. It's durable, reliable, and I don't need more granularity. As I listen to my companions' bikes emit unpleasant sounds from their not-quite-perfectly-adjusted 10 or 11 speed rear gearing, I just click crisply and almost silently from one gear to the next, while having to adapt my cadence to a slightly wider range than theirs.

Rob Evans said...

Really enjoy your blog, BTW. Well written, and based on extensive real-world practical experience!

mike w. said...

The Biopace rings i quickly took off my bike made excellent wind chimes.

Morlamweb said...

I had 1987-vintage Biopace rings on my bike when I found it abandoned in a basement. I rode on those rings for years before they were finally worn out. I took it to my local shop for a drivetrain overhaul and they of course replaced them with round rings. Also made a few comments expressing surprise at seeing Biopace rings in circa 2012. I was quite naive about rings and bicycle components at the time so I didn't know that the biopace rings were supposed to be different or be optimised for a particular style of riding. I've been riding on round rings for ever since, including another drivetrain overhaul, and I honestly could not feel a difference between round and biopace rings.

Justine Valinotti said...

When I first got into cycling, in the mid-1970s, Durham was making elliptical chainrings. As there were no mountain bikers or triathloners (at least as we know them now), the market for oval sprockets was, to say the least, limited, which is why they died pretty quickly.

I remember reading--possibly in one of Fred De Long's Bicycling! articles--that it was the second or third time such 'rings reared their teeth since he became a devoted cyclist in the 1930s or thereabouts.

So, Biopace will go away in a couple of years, but the idea won't die. As I always say, there's no idea so bad that somebody won't revive it.

Steve A said...

My TA chainring became oval. First I found I couldn't buy replacement bolts to reattach the ring to the crank properly. Later, I wound up throwing the thing away. The TA crank removal tool, however, is still with me and is an excellent piece of French engineering.