Thursday, December 10, 2015

Will Bottom Bracket Woes Continue?

It was just over a month ago that I wrote about the T47, a new threaded bottom bracket standard designed to solve the problems associated with press-fit BB systems. I actually went so far as to express optimism (rare for me, as I haven't been honestly optimistic about anything since 1992) that the bike industry could get behind T47 and settle the issue for good.

"It's nice to point out that the T47 is an 'open standard' - which means that anyone can use it freely." I had written. "That speaks well to the possibility that it could be adopted widely around the industry, and restore some meaning to that currently meaningless word 'standard'."

BWAAAA-HAAAA-HAAAAA!!! (diabolical laughter)

Yep - just over a month after the introduction of T47, some are already on the verge of declaring it DOA.

Retrogrouch throws hands in the air and stomps out of the room . . .
BikeRadar's Angry Asian, James Huang, says of T47, "Sorry to be the killjoy, but I wouldn't go celebrating just yet."

After pointing out how "the proliferation of multiple bottom bracket 'standards' is one of the biggest headaches for riders, shops, distributors," etc., he explains that "as with any illness, these are only symptoms of the core issue: in this case, the lack of cooperation within the industry for the sake of the buying public and the never-ending need to one-up the competition, at whatever cost."

It's probably true. Admitting you have a problem is the first step to seeking a cure. But the problem, as Huang sees it, apparently isn't something many manufacturers are willing to admit.

Huang then cites a number of people in the industry who give various reasons why they may not be considering adopting the new system.

From Giant: "While the T47 'standard' might have its benefits (on paper), in reality, on a mass production scale, it's highly unlikely that we would ever consider incorporating it into our future designs. . . With over 25 road bike series (most with six sizes) you can imagine the amount of engineering work it would take to redesign each and every individual frame to accommodate T47."

Seriously? Does Giant have no plans on ever redesigning their various models again? Have they reached a state of bicycle design nirvana? Must be awesome.

From Specialized: "We're always looking to provide the rider with a better ride experience. We need to test it to verify how well it works, then look into the cost it would push to the rider, serviceability, and manufacturing. If it's good, we'll go for it but if it raises the cost and creates longer lead times it might not ultimately be the end-all solution."

That's not exactly "no" but it's pretty wishy-washy. Also, notice the caveat about manufacturing cost. Why did manufacturers switch to press-fit in the first place? Because it's cheaper than having to cut properly-aligned threads into each and every frame.

Then there's Trek: After admitting the benefits for manufacturers using alloy bottom bracket shells (or pressed-in alloy sleeves, as the case may be), they say, "Threads in a carbon frame come with a huge amount of compromise from a design and manufacturing point of view: redundant material, post-molding bonding and machining, etc." In other words, we cut those costs by switching to press-fit - so why would we go back?

Once again, it's apparent - adopting press-fit in the first place was about ease of manufacturing and cutting costs. The benefits were always intended for the manufacturer - not the consumer. Building a carbon-fiber frame that can accept a threaded bottom bracket adds a cost they'd rather just avoid.

Another article, which was published just days after the T47 release, also looked at the reasons why the industry might not support the standard:

In this article, you'll find several press-fit backers claiming that there's no problem. That their bikes or components adhere to the proper specs and have received no complaints. It's the other companies that are creating the problem.

Proponents of press-fit bottom brackets still cling to the idea that press fit cups have been used in headsets almost since the beginning, and nobody complains about them. Such proponents claim that the industry adheres to the tolerances for headset cups and frame head tubes better than they do for bottom brackets. That's Bullspit, if you ask me. The manufacturers of frames and components can adhere to proper tolerances for headsets/headtubes, but not bottom brackets? Give me a break. I don't believe the tolerances are any better - I just don't think that it matters as much with headsets because they aren't subjected to the same kinds of forces that bottom brackets are.

I haven't built or repaired as many bikes as a professional mechanic - but I've done a lot. And in my experience, I've found lots of variation with the fit of headset cups and frames. Some fit so snugly you'd think the press would break trying to get them installed. I've had others that could literally be pressed in without tools, with only the lightest hand pressure. Once, on a bike I was rebuilding, the headset cups were loose enough that the lower one almost fell out on its own when I removed the fork -- yet when rebuilt and properly adjusted, it was impossible to tell there was anything unusual. But no doubt a bottom bracket fitting like that would chirp like a cricket.

Other critics cited in that article point to weight worries. Putting a metal sleeve into a carbon frame adds weight, they say. Nearly 100 grams, says the article. Please. That kind of argument perfectly encapsulates the difference between "light" and "stupid light." When someone chooses to shed 100 grams (and I think that's overestimated) over better reliability, then that's stupid light.

That article also recommends that if someone has a bike with a bottom bracket that creaks because of bad tolerances between the frame and the press-fit BB, they should demand a replacement. Sure, I agree with that - but good luck all the same. If manufacturers who've embraced the press-fit "revolution" don't think there's any problem - or if they're going to keep saying the problem is with "them" not "us" then it seems unlikely that an unhappy customer is going to get satisfaction.

OK - is it time to give up? Probably not. Sure, some manufacturers will continue down the non-cooperation path. They may remain successful -- maybe because of their size, or maybe because there are still plenty of people willing to tolerate less reliability in the name of a few grams - or even a few bucks.

Ultimately though, success of T47 depends on something that the industry has a real problem with - the ability to cooperate with one another instead of trying to outdo each other. Maybe they'll get the message and finally settle on something that will benefit the consumers.

Yeah . . . and maybe I'll trade in a couple of my lugged steel Mercians for this thing:


  1. Betcha most of the people buying carbon bikes don't even know what a press fit bottom bracket is. Their thinking probably goes no further than it's high tech. light, and expensive therefore it must be good.

  2. Took me a minute there to realize which fingers he was holding up. I mean with the whole incompatibility thing and all...

    1. I had an article on that ridiculous-looking bike a month or two ago - called the Specialized fUCI. And yeah - the double bird salute is really classy.

    2. That picture of the fUCI is one of many reasons I will never buy anything from Specialized again.

  3. As Sheldon Brown used to say, "The best thing about standards is that there are so many of them."