19 November 2014

Crankin' Up The Insanity

Back in the good ol' days--the '90's--it seemed as if every twenty-something dude in California whose father had a lathe in his garage was making bike parts. Most of them were intended for mountain bikes, but a few were made for road and fixed-gear bikes, which were just in the process of being discovered by the hipster-equivalents of that time.

A few, like Chris King and the makers of Paul components, still make superb, if pricey, stuff.  However, a number of would-be challengers to Shimano (and, later, SRAM) fell by the wayside--some deservedly so.  It seems that some of the more notable and spectacular casualties are those who tried to make the lightest cranksets they could.

One such misguided attempt was the original Kooka crank.  Back in my off-road riding days, I knew a number of riders who rode--and broke--them.  But, hey, they were the hippest and lightest things available.  And they were available in all sorts of color combinations, including some that were conceived by folks who smoked things not made by RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris:

and some of them weren't even Rastafarians:

(My dear Bob Marley, I mean no disrespect to you or any other Rasta!)

These cranks had an alarming habit of breaking on where the spider attached to it, or around the square axle mounts or the holes into which pedals are installed.  The latter makes sense, as those are the weaker areas of the cranks.  But the for a spider to separate from an arm means that--well, it wasn't attached very firmly in the first place.  In the case of those early Kooka cranks, only a set screw held them together.

I mean, it had been known for much of the history of cycling that a crankset is stiffer and stronger when the spider arms are integral with the drive-side crank arms.  On the best cranks, they are cold-forged; on less-expensive but still-serviceable cranks, they are melt-forged.  On still less expensive cranks the spider is swaged (pressed) to the arm.  Still, I know of many people who rode the latter kind of crank, as I did, for many miles without any problems.

But, oddly enough (Well, was anything really odd when it came to these cranks?), axle-mount failures usually came on the non-drive side, where there is supposed to be less stress.  The reason, it seems, is that the spider was actually designed to reinforce the drive-side arm, which was otherwise identical to the non-drive-side arm.

Even though I would have loved to get the "ultra violet" finish, I had my doubts about their strength even before some of my old riding buddies trashed theirs.  I'm glad I listened to those misgivings.

Kooka later redesigned their cranks in a more traditional way, but the damage to their reputation was done.

Another example of how, in spite of what Robert Browning wrote in Andrea del Sarto, less is not always more, can be found in the Topline cranks of that era.  To be fair, the few people I knew who rode them on the road had no problems with them.  But some off-roaders had failures similar to those on the Kooka cranks--though, again to be fair, they weren't just riding the local trails.  

Like Kookas, Toplines were redesigned after a few years and became part of the Cook (no, not Koch) Brothers' line of components. That is probably what kept them in the marketplace, as CB had by that time established a reputation for sound, reliable design.

 Oh, but I love that purple.  I really do.  But not enough to pay $350 on eBay.  Believe it or not, people are actually paying even more for the original Kookas!



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