Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Going Custom: Part 4: Choosing a fork

Going Custom Part 4: Fork Selection

This is part 4 of the Going Custom series

Choosing a fork.

I am a little surprised how much of a big deal choosing a fork has become. It’s been an up/down back/forth adventure between many issues. Including: aesthetics, cost, weight, performance, etc.

There are many opinions on forks. Many steel purists scoff at carbon forks on a steel bike, especially a custom steel bike. Lots of people on the forums talk about the feel of a custom steel fork compared to carbon. A lot of pseudo science fueled with passion. Just like anything on the forums, most of it is crap. Though I am very impressionable to what I read.

I asked the builder about fork selection. Who better than the person who is building the bike to decide what goes on the front end? Of any component, the fork probably has to have the most impact on the performance of the bike after the frame. In actuality I was a little disappointed that he didn’t come out and say, This fork, or that fork. Steel for sure, etc…

He’s definitely a modern builder in terms of his philosophies of forks. From a feel or performance perspective, he questions a lot of the “Princess and the Pea” phenomena that you read about on the forums. Sure there will be some difference but in the end not big enough for that to be the deciding factor. But he does need to know the exact fork in order to build the frame properly around the rake and the axle-to-crown height.

The biggest issues are weight and looks.

It used to be that a big carbon fork just didn’t look right, but now that they are in use so much he doesn’t give them a second look. Over the years he has started to build many more Ti frames than anything else. 99% of the time a carbon fork goes on a Ti bike. Aesthetically, a lugged steel bike needs a lugged steel fork. That is just that. There is also that hand-made just for my bike thingy about getting a fork made just for the custom bike. In this case a custom steel fork would be outsourced from Soulcraft. Which is the fork in this pic which is my favorite. They too are a small custom shop and were on my short list so that la-la support the small guy, handmade cool factor is still there.

But a TIG welded simple, clean road bike looks really close to a TIG welded simple Ti bike. So a carbon fork doesn’t look wrong. Though a thin bladed straight steel fork DOES look the best in my opinion.

It is funny that the Woundup Fork is a Frankenstein of a lugged straight bladed look but with carbon legs. Yet a lot of people consider them ugly. Painted they look a heck of a lot like a steel fork.
But they are expensive new and on the heavier side.

But weight is where the biggest issue is. In general a carbon fork will be between 350-450grams. With the really superlights being sub 300. A steel fork is in the range of 750-800grams. 2/3 to 1lb. A lot? Or a little? Depends on your point of view.

It just seems silly to be obsessed with weight enough to go for a lighter steel tubeset such as Columbus Life, and then blow it all into a steel fork. If, say it is true, that performance and function are close enough to be discounted, weight is the biggest factor. Especially when my emphasis is on climbing. Yes I know that weight isn’t truly a big deal, I’ve seen the numbers at analytic cycling. But I just can’t help it. Sorry.

There is also a cost factor. A custom steel fork goes for $300 including matching paint. Carbon forks have such a huge range. There are so many made especially by no-name Taiwan and many are available used or closeout that you can get them from under $100-$300. But there is an upcharge on paint because they have to be wet painted separately from the powdercoated frame. And the carbon fork really needs to be painted with the frame IMHO.

I am pretty sure I’m going with a carbon fork. I’m enough of a weight weenie that I’d be thinking about it too much if I went steel. Especially hearing from a builder who has built hundreds and hundreds of frames say that performance between the two is mute.

But now the issue is which fork?

The design has been optimized around a 45mm rake fork. But can easily be tweaked to work with 44mm or even 43 if necessary. I’m also using a traditional headset so have to make sure to get one that isn’t too bulbous and specifically for integrated headsets. But most of them don’t look bad on a traditional headset. 45mm OD still works fine on a traditional headset.

Cost? I’m not going to get a top model 2006 brand name fork. Maybe closeout or mid level model. How are the Taiwanese no name forks? Considering that many big names buy frames and forks from Taiwan manufacturers and rebrand them. I am guessing that they are just fine. The Taiwanese carbon merchants are probably some of the most sophisticated fabricators in the world. But there might always be a question of how the compare to more name brands.

There are straight bladed carbon forks that give a look I like. Wound up of course. Alpha Q’s being the most popular.
They utilize an aluminum sleeve that is glued into the steerer tube and a traditional aheadset star nut. I really like this design as I am always spooked about the carbon steerers when on a descent, and a starnut is SO much easier to work with than the expander wedges. Yet there are thousands of carbon steerer forks with expander wedges in use everyday. But it is really hard to get these used because the steerer length has already been defined and I won’t know till later what my final length will be. The aluminum sleeve also blows the advertised weights out of the water. And the light ones cost too much

Other ones considered are the Ouzo pro, long considered a standard. Though it is really hard to find in 45mm used. And I don’t like the look as much.

Look HSC 3. 360 grams but available at good prices. It is part str8 leg part curved. An ugly one actually came on the Ti bike when I first got it. I like the look.

There is this Trigon Taiwanese straight blade. Light at 380g uncut. Looks really close to the Alpha Q.

Real Designs HP 380g available cheap. But a funky look that might not go with the frame.

I just go back and forth between cost, looks, no-name vs top brand, etc. I’m so cheap and all about getting the best deal/value it is tough.

EDIT: I am going with a 2004 model Alpha Q. Not sure which model yet but 44 rake. I like the glue in insert and they have a good reputation. It is funny. What really made me get off the fence about steel vs carbon was reading a post from the guy that owns the Soulcraft pictured above. He switched from that fork to a Carbon Ouzo pro and liked it better. Totally lame on my part to be swayed by one persons post on a forum, isn't it.


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