February 3, 2008

The 953 Project – first impressions

For those who haven’t followed the long and convoluted saga of my frustrating experiences with Reynolds’ new 953 stainless steel bike tubing, the story goes something like this:
-Walt orders some tubes.
-Tubes come, Walt starts making a bike out of them.
-Reynolds changes their mind about how to join the tubes, Walt cannot be sure what he built won’t suddenly fall apart. Walt is not pleased.
-A year passes. During this time, Walt sells off the remaining tubes at a fraction of what they cost him.
-Reynolds offers Walt some more tubes for really, really cheap to try out.

So here we are – I just received (yesterday) enough tubes for a front triangle, plus some chainstays. The plan, tentatively, is to make a frame using a few non-stainless parts mixed with the 953.

I have mixed feelings about these tubes. They’re shiny, and (at least in theory) stainless, but examining them reveals a few obvious shortcomings. We’ll start with the chainstays:
-They are not particularly light. As a matter of fact, they’re the same weight as a standard True Temper HOX5CS 29er chainstay, which is not at all a lightweight stay. In fact, for their length, they’re actually heavier, given that they’re 20mm shorter.
-Reynolds specs claim that these are .7mm/.5mm wall butted tubes (the thinner end is swaged down to a smaller diameter to join to the dropouts). Given that the HOX5CS stay is 0.8/0.6, I’d expect the 953 chainstay to be about 15% lighter, especially given that it’s shorter. Apparently the specs are wrong, or else the manufacturing process is not producing the tubes to spec. More on this in my next post about the main triangle tubes.
-They are ugly as sin. I’m not chaiming that I could do a better job bending and dimpling these stays, nor do I care much about looks, but given the cost of the product, you’d expect something nicer. They’re also blackish in color, as if they have mill scale on them (?) unlike the shiny main tubes. So I imagine if you wanted to do a paint-free setup, you’d need to spend a lot of time polishing them.
-They’re expensive. About triple the price of their non-stainless brothers. If you think that’s bad, though, just read on…

Next up, the head tube:
-The only head tube that will actually fit a 1 1/8″ headset, out of the box, is 1mm thick (same as a very strong OX platinum head tube, and exactly the same weight) and costs an astounding _TEN TIMES_ as much as a comparable OX Plat head tube. Ten freakin’ times! There are plenty of COMPLETE TUBESETS available for retail prices from Nova and elsewhere that cost less than JUST THE HEAD TUBE.
-If you don’t want to pay those kinds of prices, Reynolds also sells a 38.1mm x 0.7mm wall version, which requires shims brazed or welded into the ends. I’m assuming they did this because people were having problems with the head tube distorting (use heat sinks and backpurge, guys!) but it really does suck for a couple of reasons:
-It’s a pain, and it’s expensive. The head tube and shims cost about 5 times what a comparable OX Platinum head tube would cost (hey, we’re making progress, though!). And making sure the shims fit, welding/brazing them in, and cleaning up the joint to join the toptube and downtube is a lot of extra work that won’t come cheap.
-The other problem, of course, is that the shims have to be so thick (1.35mm where they slip-fit inside, a little over 2mm above and below) that the weight savings over a conventional 1 or even 1.25mm wall OX platinum head tube evaporates. For a 100mm long head tube, if we assume that the sleeves have to extend 5mm past the top and bottom of the head tube stock, and that they have to be 15mm (5mm outside, 10mm inside) long at both the top and bottom of the head tube, the total weight will be approximately 98 grams. Whoa! Not bad! However, a conventional 100x36x1mm OX Platinum head tube, which, generally speaking, is strong enough for medium sized riders on mountain bikes, is 86 grams, and a 1.25mm wall thickness head tube (ultra beefy – that’s what I used on my DH bike) is only 106 grams. If we increase the length to 150mm (more typical for a road bike) the weight difference between the 1mm OXplat tube and the shimmed 953 comes down to just 1 gram, but the 953 still loses. I guess if you needed a 200+mm long head tube, there would be a weight advantage, but I just don’t see that being a common thing.

I’ll try to talk about the seat, top, and downtubes tomorrow or Monday, and then I’ll try to do some summing-up type blogging before I actually get started building anything. For those who can’t wait: thus far my impression is that the 953 is a huge waste of money. That could change, though. Stay tuned.