Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Lovely Fork Crowns

In my post For the Love of Lugs I wrote about how, for me, a lugged frame just holds so much more appeal than one that is welded (or molded, as in the case of a lot of carbon bikes). I feel the same way about fork crowns. When mountain bikes swept the bicycle industry in the 1980s, the welded unicrown fork, with its blades curved inward at the top and welded directly to the steerer tube, became pretty much standard issue. By the end of the decade, they had made their way onto a lot of road bikes as well. Most of today's carbon fiber forks are molded in a style that seems to mimic the unicrown look.
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But a substantial, broad-shouldered, forged or cast fork crown is not only strong, but beautiful to look at, offering a point of visual interest, as well as being another area on a bike frame where a skilled builder can impart a unique and creative look. Not only that, but many traditional fork crowns offer much more tire and fender clearance than their modern counterparts -- especially when compared to most of the carbon forks available today.

Look at bikes from the classic era, from the mid-80s and earlier, and you'll see all kinds of interesting and beautiful fork crowns -- even on mass-produced models where the factories did little if anything to "pretty" them up. Cheap mass-market bikes in that time were usually built with inexpensive "stamped" steel fork crowns, and yet even many of those looked more interesting to my eye than the unicrown and carbon forks that are used on most bikes today.

Take a look at some of the fork crowns from the classic era -- most of them forged or made from castings. These first few are of the flat-top style which I find particularly attractive.
Flat-topped fork crown on my Mercian Superlight. I could be wrong, but I think this may be one of the crowns by Vagner. It doesn't exactly match any of the ones in the picture below, but the overall look and proportions are about right. It's a great look for a lugged steel frame.
A sampling of some of the forged crowns by Vagner. These were very popular on bikes throughout the 60s and 70s.
A sampling of crowns from Nervex. Also very popular in the classic era.
A Cinelli twin-plate crown - spotted on eBay for big bucks. These are gorgeous, but I've read that true twin-plate crowns like this are notoriously difficult to braze with.  When finished, though, it is a cool look.
A flat-topped "faux" twin-plate style crown. This was sand cast, given the grainy look of the surface in the crevices. It would take a lot of filing and sanding work on the part of the builder to make this into a really nice finished fork, but the results would be worth it. This one is made for round-section track fork blades.
The next few crowns are sloping or semi-sloping designs. Cinelli really popularized this style and made a number of versions that were available to builders all around the world. Most of their designs have been copied by (or were at least major inspirations for) other manufacturers.

These Cinelli-made semi-sloping designs were used on lots of Italian racing bikes in the 70s and 80s. I'm pretty certain they were the crown of choice on many 70s era Colnagos, for example. The MC and MR seem to look pretty much the same but for the dimensions of the fork blades they were designed for. 
Here's one of the above semi-sloping Cinelli crowns on an '81 Masi (California built). Earlier Masi's used Fischer flat-topped crowns, and some of the most highly-sought-after ones used true twin-plate crowns.
These fully-sloping designs were a Cinelli mainstay. The perceived benefit is shorter fork blades and a stiffer fork, so harder-edged racing bikes often used these. Note that each of these has tangs or sockets designed to be inserted into the fork blades, rather than the other way around. The result was to give a seamless-looking connection between the blades and crown. It also gives an aerodynamic look. The way I understand it, the one on the top (the original version) was forged and took more handwork and preparation for the builder, while the later models below it are investment cast which is a little easier to work with.
That looks like one of old Cinelli integral fully-sloping crowns on a 1970 Raleigh Professional. It was pretty common to see them done this way, with the chromed crown and painted fork blades. (a sharp-eyed reader informs me that the crown on the Raleigh Pro was actually made by Davis, not Cinelli.) 
These fully-sloping Cinelli crowns became all the rage as the classic era drew to a close. Unlike the integral crowns above, these have typical sockets for the fork blades to fit into, resulting in a more substantial crown with a slightly more traditional look. There are tons of variations on this style made by other manufacturers.


It's worth noting that even though the welded unicrown fork got its start on mountain bikes, it wasn't always so. Take a look at these two interesting examples:
Proof that mountain bike forks weren't always ugly. Early versions of the Specialized Stumpjumper came with this nice looking twin-plate style "bi-plane" crown. Note also the lugged frame -- I wouldn't get a mountain bike any other way.
This Tom Ritchey-designed fork crown was used on Brigestone MB-1 mountain bikes in the early 90s. According to the Bridgestone catalog that this illustration came from, getting this crown produced was such a hassle for Ritchey that he just bagged it and pioneered unicrowns instead. Shame.
The Classic Fork Crown is Not Dead.

That Ritchey/Bridgestone fork above provides a nice segue into the next section. Grant Petersen of Bridgestone and now Rivendell probably deserves as much credit as anybody for reviving interest in attractive fork crowns. There are a number of beautiful investment cast fork crowns available today -- many of which are inspired by designs from the past, yet in many ways are even more attractive. Not only that, but with the precision of investment casting, they are much easier for the builders to work with than vintage crowns from the classic era.

Bridgestone RB-1 fork crown -- illustration from the '93 Bridgestone catalog. Like the MB-1 crown above, this crown was designed by Tom Ritchey (there's definitely a family resemblance between the two!). A modern interpretation of a vintage look.
Here's a Rivendell Roadeo with a creative-looking flat-topped fork crown. Very pretty.
Kirk Pacenti produces several classic-inspired fork crowns, including this nice investment cast twin-plate style crown (above) and their "Artisan" crown (below).

Richard Sachs also produces several traditional fork crowns, including the "Newvex" model, which is styled after the vintage Nervex crown. This crown complements Sachs's Newvex lug set. 
Even a number of welded bikes are now available with traditional-styled fork crowns. The Pass Hunter frame from Velo Orange comes with this gorgeous twin-plate styled crown to add a touch of vintage class to its welded frame. The reinforcing rings on the head-tube improve the look, too. Soma Fabrications and Surly also produce welded frames with traditional crowned forks.
One of the things I love about traditional fork crowns is that they go way beyond pure functionality. Certainly, a welded unicrown fork works fine. It's reasonably strong and fairly light for what it is, too. But as I've pointed out again and again, my belief, my mantra, is that bicycles should be both functional and beautiful. Having the aesthetic element of a traditional fork crown -- even if fitted to an inexpensive welded frame -- is a sign that somebody took that extra effort to appeal to the visual senses -- that someone has an appreciation that a bicycle is more than a basic "tool." I'm really glad to see that interest in traditional crowns has revived and that there are so many great-looking choices available today.

12 comments:

  1. Thanks for the great collection of images!

    My VO Pass Hunter frame arrives today. While the attractive fork crown was appealing, the aesthetics of the level top tube were even more important to me. If the subject interests you, I'd enjoy hearing your views on the history of the level top tube and the transition to what I think are called "compact" geometries.

    There is a tension between the aesthetics of real minimalism (I'm thinking Mies Van Der Rohe) and to use a really ugly word, the decorative arts. Some fork crowns have so much filigree that I feel like they have not only abandoned function, but have exaggerated even the historical role of lugs.

    I constantly fear that my nostalgia will obscure the beauty of an innovative bike frame. That said, I cannot reconcile myself aesthetically with the Trek Madone that I park next to in my work garage.

    Thanks again for the post

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  2. Very interesting post, Kyle. Thanks for a great presentation.

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  3. Nice, thanks. Here's a couple more for your collection:

    Some Zeus crowns, the road crowns are internally lugged:

    http://www.os2.dhs.org/~john/zeus-crowns.jpg

    Takahashi internally lugged crown:

    http://www.os2.dhs.org/~john/takahashi-crown.jpg

    A modified Ishiwata SCM crown. This started out similar to the Cinelli MR, but was modified by milling away some of the shoulder between the steer tube and the blade sockets, and filed to follow the contour of the blade:

    http://www.os2.dhs.org/~john/ishiwata-1.jpg

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    1. Thanks John -- I've been getting emails from a few people suggesting that I should do a "part II" on this because I left out so many of their favorites. It's awesome to see how many others have an appreciation that there are so many favorites out there!

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  4. Nice article—thanks. There is a young builder John Fritzgerald doing some really nice work with fork crowns and lugs: http://www.fitzcyclez.com/ My bike is the the "Juice"
    Tom

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  5. Great article, thanks!

    FYI, that integral fully-sloping crown on the Raleigh Pro was made by Davis. It's often referred to as a Cinelli or "Cinelli style" but they're easy to tell apart if you have 'em side by side. Pretty much any British-made fork with a crown like that (e.g. Holdsworth, Bob Jackson et al.), it's a Davis. I made a bunch of forks with Davis crowns and still have a few. I have some real Cinelli ones too, old rough ones, look sand-cast.

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  6. And the flat-top crown on the Mercian Superlight is made by Ekla, they made quite a variety of patterns. I have one of these on my 1960 Mercian Vincitore. Great article, thanks, keep it up!

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    1. I've been searching but haven't seen an exact match for that crown on the Mercian. I did search some of the styles from Ekla, but to my eye the ones from Vagner seemed to come the closest in the shapes and proportions overall. But I admit you could be right about that. Mercian tended to use frame parts from lots of different manufacturers.

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    2. I think the Mercian crown is a standard late 50s or early 60s Vagner with the long point cut down and split into the small fishtail end.

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  7. I like your blog. I have a 84 stumpjumper that I'm restoring and will be selling to a friend. You're right, the biplane forks are beautiful, and the lugged frame looks classic. I also have a 90 Bridgestone MB3, welded, unicrown fork, which I use as my commuter. It's not quite as elegant looking as the Stumpy, but it weighs a couple pounds less. Its steeper angles make for more nimble steering. I powder coated the Stumpy pearl black and will put on Schwalbe cream Fat Franks. With inverted Northroad bars and a honey Brooks, it will make for a great pathracer.

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  8. Quisiera saber si esta horquilla de esta zeus es original Zeus o no. Muchas gracias por la ayuda.

    Dejo el link con las fotos:
    http://serjforius.blogspot.com.es/2013/03/zeus-pista-terminada-pinon-fijo-fixed_2048.html

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    1. No puedo decir por las fotos lo corona, esto es exactamente. Lo siento.
      I can't tell from the photos what crown this is exactly. Sorry.

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