Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

01 September 2015

Carbon Fiber? Would John Boultbee Approve?

Some of us learned the meaning of the word "oxymoron" through examples like "dietetic candy", "military intelligence" and "business ethics".  Not so long ago, "Brooklyn Republican" would have made the list.

Some would say that "carbon fiber Brooks saddle" would also serve the purpose.  In fact, some cyclists believe that "carbon fiber" and "Brooks saddle" should not be on the same page, let alone the same bicycle.

In one way, I would agree with such a sentiment.  Brooks saddles and anything made from carbon fiber seem to represent the absolute poles of the cycling world.  The latter connotes high technology, light weight, advanced manufacturing techniques and Darth Vader graphics.  Brooks saddles, on the other hand, represent tradition, practicality and hand craftsmanship.  And until recently, they had a restrained, classical aesthetic.

Plus, if you buy and like a Professional or B17, there's a good chance you'll be riding it for the rest of your life (especially if you're around my age!).  On the other hand, very few cyclists are riding carbon-fiber bikes or parts that are more than a few years old.  Nobody really knows how long the latest carbon fiber bikes will last:  They don't deteriorate unless exposed to UV rays--and, according to Steve A, you don't have to worry about them breaking as long as you don't crash them-- but there is no "real world" data as to how many miles and how much punishment carbon fiber frame members and components can endure.  Professional racing teams give their riders new bikes every year as a matter of course; I don't know whether that's done as a precaution (airlines replace parts of their jets after a certain number of kilometers or a certain amount of air time, whether or not they seem to need replacing) or whether the bikes are ready for the scrap heap at the end of a season.

Now, I'm sure there are carbon fiber bikes adorned with Brooks leather saddles.  As "The Retrogrouch" points out, they may be attempts at irony. (To which I say:  If you're trying to achieve it, it isn't irony!) Then again, there probably are people riding that combination because they like the ride qualities of the bike and saddle, or because they figure that they have such a light bike that they won't be weighed down by a Brooks "brick".  

Such people remind me of the woman I used to know who made floats with Diet Coke and Haagen-Dazs ice cream. 

But I digress.  Apparently, there is an attempt to marry, if you will, two of the most disparate elements of the cycling world.  Again, from Retrogrouch, I've learned that Brooks is developing the C13:  a C15 saddle with carbon fiber rails.

A prototype of the brooks C 13. From Bikeboard
 

Now, you might say that the C15 isn't really a Brooks saddle.  I'd agree with you, at least partway:  Its top is not made of leather, and--shocker!--it's made in Italy, where the plastic-based racing saddle as we know it was first developed.

Then again, purists would say that the "real" Brooks hasn't existed in about fifteen years, when Selle Royal purchased the saddle-maker after Sturmey Archer, the company that owned it, went bankrupt.  (Around the same time, Taiwan-based Sun Race bought SA's hub and gear businesses.  So, if you've bought an SA hub since the early part of this century, it was made in Taiwan.)  Thus, while the Professionals, B17s, Swallows, B72s and other favorites of the leather-saddle line are still made in England, more and more of the company's saddle production has shifted to Italy.  And some Brooks accessories, such as the leather bar wrap, are being made in China.

As much as I love my Pros and B17s, I think the name "Brooks" conjures up a legend, even a romance, of bikes past as it does actual saddles and bags.  The fact is that even before the Selle Royal buyout, not all Brooks saddles were made of leather.  During the 1970s, Brooks made--in England--some plastic-based saddles with padding and vinyl or leather parts that seemed to be attempts to mimic their Italian counterparts.  A few bikes came with them as original equipment; however, almost nobody bought them as replacements because the sort of person who wanted that kind of saddle was going to buy Italian anyway. 

Also, Brooks made vinyl-topped sprung "mattress" saddles that were sometimes found on women's versions of English three-speeds during the 1950's and 1960's.  Before that, Brooks offered similar saddles topped with rubberized  canvas (similar, at least in concept, to today's C15 and C17) and padded with horsehair. 

So, while Brooks will probably always be identified, at least in the public mind, with the riveted leather saddles we've all seen--and many of us ride and love--offering technological updates to their products is nothing new for the company John Boultbee Brooks founded in 1866.  When he first offered a saddle that consisted of a piece of leather stretched and riveted to iron rails, it was considered a radical new technology.  (Velocipedes of the time usually had curved wooden seats, rather like the backs of  carousel horses.)  More than a century later, many of us are still riding variations of his leather saddle.  And, I suspect, there will be some cyclists in the generations to come who, once they try a B17, Professional, Swallow, B67 or other leather Brooks saddle, will not want to ride anything else.

Thus, I am confident that Brooks can make a saddle with carbon fiber rails--and still be Brooks.

24 comments:

  1. When last in the bike shop trying to buy some saddle preserver I was told of an elderly client who wished to try the new fangled carbon bike but insisted on using his old Brooks saddle which made p a significant part of the final weight!

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  3. Carbon has been used in critical aircraft parts for over 40 years now. Failures generally only occur after metal parts attached to the carbon wear out. I have a plastic Brooks saddle. It isn't worthy of the brand.

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  4. Steve--For what it's worth, I wouldn't buy a plastic Brooks saddle. Then again, there aren't many plastic saddles I would buy.

    I'm sure that aircraft parts endure a lot of stress. How are those stresses similar to, and different from, the ones a bike or bike part might endure? Also, are the parts more protected from UV rays than, say, bike frame tubes are?

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  5. My Brooks came as part of a free bicycle. Aircraft are much more limited by fatigue life than are bicycles, but you can keep either going almost forever with enough repair and replacement. There are not many original parts on the last flying American Airlines DC3.

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  6. Steve--There's still a DC3 flying? Interesting!

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  7. I entered my name to give the saddle a try -- but I probably won't get picked (again). But I'd be willing to keep an open mind if they sent me one to test.

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  8. Brooks--I also entered my name for the C13 test. They didn't pick me for the C15 test, so I suspect they won't pick me this time, either, though I'd be willing to give the saddle a try.

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  9. I rode my first triathlon on a Specialized Roubaix Expert with flat pedals and a Brooks Flyer on a Thomson Elite post. Wearing a sleeveless triathlon suit. Had I more time to practice with them, I would have had aerobars on the bike as well.

    It's probably no surprise that was also my last triathlon. I loved that Roubaix and put a ton of miles on it, though with slightly more "standard" accessories mounted.

    My thinking was: it's a sprint triathlon, so flat pedals won't cost me significant time and will spare me changing shoes during the bike/run transition. The Flyer was my most comfortable saddle at the time and the course was dead flat, so I picked it.

    The saddle was a great idea. Flat pedals plus running shoes was a horrible idea: my feet hurt for a week. I prefer Selle Italia Max SLR Flow Gel saddles on "road" bikes now, but I still use the Flyer and B-67 on my touring and city bikes.

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  10. Jon Paul--I'm sorry the pedal and shoe choice didn't work. But it's a great story!

    When it comes to saddles, pedals and handlebars, I care about three things: comfort, comfort and comfort--in that order.

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  11. I was actually picked to test out this saddle I do have the C15 carved saddle so it will be interesting to find out the difference in comfort between the two. I should revive the C13 in the next two weeks.

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  12. Carl--I (and, I'm sure, many readers) would be interested in hearing your thoughts about those saddles. Please keep me posted!

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  13. Sure will and will upload some pics of the saddle also.

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  14. Carl--Thanks. If you'd like, you can write to me at justineisadream@gmail.com

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  15. Update still haven't received saddle yet so could be another week or so with the holiday and I am also thinking with the recent terrorist attacks in Paris it could of slowed the mail down since it is coming from Europe. Stay tuned!

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  16. Carl--Thanks. Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

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  17. Will do and you have a great Thanksgiving also!

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  18. Good news was able to contact Brooks directly and they said I should receive the saddle by next Friday at the latest. So when I receive it I will upload some pics and also start giving my assesment on it's overall comfort. Happy gobble day!

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