Like many enthusiasts back in the day, I rode the titanium bike wave of the late-90’s into the early-2000’s, looking for an alternative to the stolid European brands, which in those days seemed to be resting on their laurels, while they proceeded to turn-out steel frames of questionable quality that were plagued with everything from paint defects to being completely out of alignment, not to mention threading issues galore. And, thanks to all of the gaudy chroming, they were needlessly heavy as well.
I remember my first titanium frame, it was made by a small company that was based just outside of Boston. I recall marveling at its oversized tubes, raw welds and the carbon fork it came equipped with. It was a real departure from the ornately lugged or fillet-brazed steel frames that I was accustom to riding.
My second frame was very similar, which oddly enough, was made just miles away by a small, rival company that was comprised of workers from the former.
Back then, these two companies purported to represent the pinnacle of artisan titanium frames, which over time evolved into a kind of sub-culture of their own, engendering a sense of vogue that I’ve never quite seen again in the domestic bike market. It was almost like owning an austere piece of art that possessed no real beauty or pedigree of its own, just a hefty price tag that implied exclusivity.
In any event, the bikes unfortunately performed horribly. Whether it was a case of poor manipulation of the material, which was still in its infancy back then, poorly devised geometry, or a combination of both, their poor ride quality and handling woes were manifold.
To the credit of the Europeans, despite their failure to recognized quality control issues, they certainly knew how to design a frame, particularly when it came to geometry. Especially, the old masters who had developed almost a black art to frame sizing, knowing what each angle should be and for what reason, while the patrons of the peloton regaled their frame-making skills by winning cycling’s most prestigious races upon their bikes.
Sadly, none of this translated over to the American made titanium frames at the time, which clearly lacked the knowledge intrinsic to the European framebuilders.
In the case of my bikes, they were extremely unwieldy and ill-mannered in every way imaginable. And the worst occurred while descending at high spreads, wherein the bikes would develop a terrifying high frequency harmonic that would cause the bike to shake violently beneath me. I literally had to pinch the toptube with my knees in order to get the bike back under control.
For this reason and more, it wasn’t long before I was back on a European bike, selling off what I unaffectionately called my metallic noodles, vowing to never again ride a titanium bike.
Despite my misgivings about the material, I would continue to see a prevalence of titanium frames on the market over the years, mostly from independent framebuilders. Certain that it was, there were some beautifully made specimens to behold. But, how did the bikes perform, and had the material improved, I wondered? After all, I never once doubted titanium as being a viable material for frame-making. Rather, I always felt that it had simply been placed in the wrong hands back then, never allowing its potential to be fully realized on these shores.
Nowadays, virtually every independent framebuilder is working in titanium, offering frames across all categories of cycling. Yet, while most of these bikes appear to be extremely well-made, there doesn’t seem to be much that distinguishes them from one another. No doubt, they all seem to posses immaculate welds, beautiful finishes and excellent attention to detail. Still, most appear to have essentially the same tubing and lay-out, save for the framebuilder’s rendition on a theme.
This makes sense since most framebuilders source his or her tubing from pre-made available stock. I’m not casting aspersions on this, it simply makes me wonder how a frame can be “tuned” toward a desired ride or handling aspect when all of the tube shapes and profiles are mostly predetermined. And, if that’s case, what has really changed between the titanium that I rode on 20 plus years ago and the material of today?
Perhaps, there’s been an improvement in the quality and grade(s) of the material, better design techniques have been employed, framebuilders now posses a better understanding of geometry, or all of the above, that makes today’s titanium bikes better. Nevertheless, this segment still seems a bit too restricted compared to composites, where the material can be constructed and manipulated in ways due to an array of different fabrication processes that makes for almost unlimited design possibilities.
Alas, up until recent, titanium continued to remain suspect in my mind.
While attending this year’s North American Handmade Bicycle Show, I had occasion to come across what appeared to be a new brand of titanium frames being offered under the name of T-Lab. What immediately caught my eye were the unique shapes and profiles of their tubing, something that up until then I had never before encountered.
Indeed, the frames possessed these very distinct elongated, flattened tubes that made up the toptube and seattube of the main triangle, which were further punctuated by a beautifully shaped, tapered headtube, sculpted wishbone chainstays and a downtube that began with a traditional conical shape before culminating into the same flattened profile at the juncture of the bottom bracket. Again, tubing like this was something that I had never before seen on a titanium frame.
I had to know more.
Upon speaking with T-Lab’s marketing director, Rob Rossi, who’s also the cofounder of the brand’s parent company, Visceral Performance, I quickly learned that the Montreal-based company was the reincarnation of the former GURU Cycles, which became renown for their extensive range of beautifully made steel, aluminum, titanium and carbon frames, along with a series of sophisticated “fit” bikes that became the central tool for many leading fit studios across the world.
Describing the fabrication process for T-Lab’s flagship R3 road frame, Rossi explained how each seamless-grade 9, 3-2.5 titanium tube is cold-worked into their respective shapes thanks to a new forming technology they developed. In the end, he said they were able to achieve an increase in stiffness by 30% without any weight penalty, while just as importantly, were able to optimize the profile of each tube in order to achieve a desired ride characteristic.
Additionally, Rossi was keen to point out T-Lab’s proprietary, one-piece, T-ONE dropout system, which in his words not only offers “improved stiffness, perfect alignment and more precise shifting than previous designs”, but was also developed with “adaptability” in mind.
Given the ever-changing industry standards as it relates to shifting, braking and wheel and tire fitment, Rossi explained how the T-One dropout system is designed in such a way that it can easily be converted from quick release to 142mm thru-axles, as well as being compatible with both disc and rim brake options, while frame clearance was boosted in order to accommodated tires up to 30mm wide.
The full-carbon fork was also the result of a new proprietary design that was developed in partnership with a leading composites firm.
Equally impressive to its structural properties, was the bead-blasted finish of the R3, which gave the frame as elegant an appearance as it did an industrial one, while aesthetics can be further enhanced via a unique paint/graphics process that allows customers to personalize their frame from an almost limitless choice of color and accenting options.
Now that my cycling palate had been more than satiated by the tech details provided by Rossi, my inner bike monologue started to take over, positing the inevitable question, how does the R3 perform?
Rossi responded by saying, “I have no doubt that you’ll be amazed, and any misconceptions that you may have had about titanium will be quickly diminished once we get you on one.” Upon hearing this, I wasn’t sure if he was being smug, or this was a portend for things to come. But, certain that it was, I was eager to ride one.
Well, it proved to be the later.
After a couple of subsequent phone calls with Rossi over the summer, a large box containing a complete, made-to-measure T-Lab R3 road bike equipped with the latest Shimano Dura Ace groupset, Boyd tubeless-ready carbon wheels and some nice cockpit bits and pieces ultimately arrived at my door for review. Had it not been for the fact that is was almost 90 degrees outside and the middle of August, I would have sworn it was Christmas day!
Noël, how did the bike perform?
As the saying goes, first impressions are everything. But, given the fact that my opinion of titanium was already skewed, the R3 had some hurdles unfairly placed in front of it. Nevertheless, within the first few miles, moi and this precious metal that had eluded me for more than twenty years were finally in accord. Another 25 miles further, and a love affair was unfolding.
Indeed, there was an immediate sense of poise and balance to the R3 that I had never before experienced with a titanium bike, exhibiting an impressive blend of lateral stiffness and vertical compliance that put it on par with many of the best carbon bikes that I had ridden. But, it would take more than just a short jaunt for me to thoroughly assess the bike for all of its virtues.
To say that I flogged the R3 across the hills and dales of western Massachusetts, while purposely throwing every challenge that I could at it, is a gross understatement. Gone were the days of skittish descents, sluggishness handling, a lack of composure over diverse terrain and an overall feeling of “hollowness” that came to define my previous titanium bikes.
Instead, the R3 tackled plummeting descents with impunity, while handling remained balanced and focussed during all riding conditions.
In sum, I would describe the R3 as being a very pragmatic bike, meaning it’s a dauntless, all-around performer that does a lot of things well, conferring a sense of refinement and predictability that remains linear throughout its handling curve. Moreover, the R3 proved to be an ideal platform that responded well to performance upgrades such as a set of lightweight carbon wheels (think a set of Corima MCC S+’s), which served to further enliven its playful nature.
Lastly, I have not commented on weight, because the R3 is a clear example of how we all too often get caught-up in the numbers game, looking for the scale to validate a bike’s mettle.
The bike that I was provided hovered around 16 pounds, courtesy of a full carbon saddle that I opted to swap-out. Clearly, the bike wouldn’t win any contests amongst the weight weenies crowd. But, that’s not to say that it couldn’t be lightened up considerably provided the right components were selected for the proper reasons.
In any case, the performance of the R3 never felt penalized by its weight. In fact, had I not known that it weighed nigh on to three and a half pounds more than the lightest carbon bike in my stable, over time I would have been none the wiser.
Weight can truly be just a number.
So where do I and the R3 go from here?
Well, it will be a sad moment indeed should the day come anytime soon that I have to say bon voyage to the R3. But, if that’s the case, T-Lab better send a troop of Mounties each armed with a brace of pistols to try and reclaim it!
Pricing for the R3 frameset starts at $4000, which is available in a range of standard sizes from XXS to XXL, along with a choice between Race or Endurance geometry.
Custom geometry, internal cable routing, a third bottle mount, rack mounts and S&S coupling are also available options, while T-Lab also offers the R3 as a complete bike in a number of different builds starting at $4,900.
You can learn more about the R3 and T-Lab’s other models by visiting their website here.
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