The Heart of a Frame

by | Sep 1, 1998

I can remember the details as though this happened yesterday, but it was more like twenty-five years ago. I purchased my first ten speed bicycle—an Atala. Though the dealer had assembled it, the packing carton was still in evidence in the work area. On its side, the tag line read “The Most Beautiful Continental Bicycle.” I didn’t know what I had, but I wouldn’t question what I saw in print; this was a special moment. The details are still so clear from my earliest days in cycling. I immersed myself in a new world, a new interest, a new sport. I began to look at every bicycle I saw. I bought all the periodicals about bicycles and bicycle racing. My first bicycle. How much more beautiful than all the others was my new bicycle? I had to know.

As the years passed, it would be the sport of bicycle racing, rather than the bicycle itself, that would be my introduction to the trade. To be sure, the bicycle was the tool, but the arena of competition and its history would become a passion. Others may have had a technical interest to dabble in human powered vehicles or alternative forms of transportation. Some may have had inclinations to pursue a craftsman’s life and found their way as framebuilders. I just wanted to make bicycles like the revered European builders who were supplying the roadmen of the world, and whose names were on the downtubes next to me in my earliest days in the peloton. The details have stayed with me. Some of the equipment has changed—more gears, better tires, fewer spokes, etc. Even today, as I look at the racing bicycle, I still see those dream machines of my heroes of so many years ago.

I used to look at the decals, at who was using chrome plating and where. The equipment was always Campagnolo, but with Weinmann or Universal brakes. There were so many names—Magni. Liotto. Filotex. Molteni. Helyett. Faema. Peugeot. And on and on and on. I would soon learn that the sport was different then, and what it said and what is was were very rarely the same. The sponsors had to have their names visible, but it was a legion of only a few “artigliani” who could build light, serviceable bicycles for the roadmen to use, and their marques were frequently omitted from the frames. I would soon learn who these men were. They were my idols.

From a distance, the bicycles may as well have all looked the same. But upon inspection, it was the details and the workmanship that set the few apart from all others. Clean brazing. Strong looking seat-stay clusters. Wide section chainstays. The beautiful forks of the era. Not bent over minimalist, “banana-like” forms, as would one day become typical, but generous curves throughout their length, meant for the business at hand: to absorb shock, and to keep the rider comfortable for the duration. And atop those bladed monuments to steering sat what I believed was, and still is, the most beautiful detail on a bicycle—the fork crown.

So why all this fuss and focus on such a small area of the bicycle? For me it was, and still is, where my eyes fall first. To this day, the rake, the radius, the shape of the crown—after all this time I still believe it is what defines the look and feel of the bicycle. You ether have it, or you have a unicycle.

The fork crown. I don’t know the origin of the term, but what a beautiful term it is. In Italian—”testa forcella”—che bella! In its simplest description, it’s just an area of metal onto which the fork blades and steering column are joined during the assembly process to yield a complete fork—nothing more, nothing less. For such a basic task, the shapes and styles of the crown may vary widely, generally to coincide with the framebuilder’s idea for the intended purpose of the assembled bicycle.

Of all the available types of crowns, none is dearer to my heart, to my sense of aesthetics, to my notion of what’s mechanically correct, than the flat, square profile crown. I suppose it’s due to what I was inspired by when I came up. My initial impressions about bicycles were based on what the sixties heroes were using. Gimondi. Motta. Merckx. Adorni. Poulidor. Even the photos of Coppi, Anquetil, Rivière, and Simpson depicted only recently retired stars of years gone by, rather than looking like historical snapshots they now appear to be. Flat crowns were atop nearly all the forks used by the champions then, and their shape and function still make sense to me decades later.

Through the years, evidence of the flat crown can be seen in the earliest tubular types from the beginning of the century, to the B.S.A. twin plate, popular on so many English makes. From the forged steel Vagner models with their many side area ornamentations available from this old French firm, to the lovely Swiss Fisher sand-cast variety so popular on continental road bikes during the fifties and sixties. Then there are the many types produced by Microfusione Italiana for that company’s long client list of framebuilders. And, of course, there is the Nagasawa inspired, Hitachi cast crown, produced by the lost wax method so prevalent these days. This is the particular crown I have adapted, and have used exclusively for the past thirteen years.

While the flat shaped fork crown is the style which most appeals to me, I must admit to once having more than a casual interest in the full-sloping crowns of the integral type, generally given the “Cinelli-style” moniker, for the firm that introduced the style more than 40 years ago. Its most visible distinction is not that its shoulders slope at more than 45 degrees to the column, but that it has a one-piece look, which, for a few years in the middle seventies, was very curious to me.

Since the fork blades fit over the crown spigots, rather than into the steel pockets as is more typical, they would seem to disappear into the shape, and when executed well could genuinely show the framebuilder’s skill as a craftsman. Because the full sloping type of crown uses the shortest length blades, it yields a fork of remarkable strength. Through the years, however, I have concluded that this extra strength is not always desired, as the construction methods and the materials we now use produce a fork which is strong enough, rather than one whose strength is disproportionate to the rest of the frame.

I wonder, sometimes still, at the genesis of this type of crown, and what must have been on the mind of Mr. Cino Cinelli when he first blueprinted it. Perhaps the true story is lost to the lore of history. My guess is that with the poor road conditions of the first half of the century, coupled with the near blacksmith level of torchwork typical of the era, broken forks were a common sight at races. This shape, with its use of shorter blades, was a response to the problem. Thank goodness for pavement, and for better quality materials and brazing techniques.

What about other styles? Other shapes? Are the shoulders of the fork limited to appearing erect, strong, and upright, like those of military men at attention, as they do when a flat crown is used? Is the only alternative, in contrast, to seem hunched over, drooping with a near lack of confidence and posture, as with the fork with the full-sloping crown atop?

Between the two extremes there is the middle of the road. For nearly two decades, no single shape can claim the title of “Everycrown” other than that of the semi-sloping type. More than 9 out of 10 forks, for as long as I can recall, and for as far as I can now see, have had this style.

For all my interest in the materials of my chosen vocation, none leave me as lukewarm as the fork crowns of this in-between shape. I am glad that over 20 years ago I found particular features on a bicycle frame to love and to appreciate with passion. Had there only been semi-sloping fork toppers all along, I’m sure I would have made more unicycles! It is a shape I have never fully understood. Does it not know what it wants to be? In my Fork Crown Dictionary, next to semi-sloping, it says “generic: the crown for the masses.” Do you want to play it safe? Is making a statement about the feel of the road, as transmitted through the forks and steering geometry, too much of a commitment? Choose this crown. Everyone else has. Yes, there are those who, with the stroke of a file, or perhaps with the embellishment of a logo, may be able to stylize these mediocre little crowns. But to me, the semi-sloping type of fork crown has a look of nonchalance. It performs its function well for the joining process—but when complete says, “Look elsewhere, I’m boring.”

So these are my thoughts on the bicycle’s most beautiful detail, thoughts that haven’t tempered over the years. When I first noticed, I saw straight crowns and curved blades. Now, I look around and see curved crowns and straight blades, and I see unicrowns; an onomatopoetic term first coined upon hearing the utterance of its first viewer, “Oh, no crown!” The un-crown!

When I first held a modern era fork crown in my hand, it was a seriously crude piece of work by today’s standards. Through the areas meant for business (the hole for the column, the pockets for the blades) were well-machined, the task of preparation, ornamentation and finish work were left for the framebuilder to carry out. You see, back then, framebuilders were also metalsmiths, artisans if you will, not simply joiners and assemblers as we have become these days. Though working with the torch was generally left to the most senior members of a framebuilding concern’s staff, the preparation and reworking of all the little fittings was carried out at the workbench of those being groomed to, one day, many years later, become competent framebuilders as well. This is how we cut our teeth in those days. The quality of even the finest components was so poor that, unless one developed the skills to reshape, file, fit, re-fit, and thin—unless one had the hands and eyes to discern the right clearance and proper aesthetics—no piece would get far enough along in the building process for the masters to be able to perform their magic.

Well, I miss those days. My sentiments regarding the state of the framebuilder’s craft are well known.

Gone are the heavy, ugly, forged pieces from B.S.A. Chater-Lea, Agrati, Davis Components, Bozzi, and Fisher, among others. Gone are the days of the 1950s when you could routinely see the lovely metal-lace scrollwork adorning the sides of a Hetchins’ twin-plate crown with its 22mm round blades. Gone is the level of skill, attention, and pride that was necessary to take a heavy, forged piece of steel from beginning through completion so it could look as beautiful, simple, and full of grace as the crowns that ornamented the Cinelli mod. Corsa B during the mid 1960s. And gone is the era when you would see the incredible carving, fitting, and filing evident on a fully sloping crown sized for the Imperial dimension blades, then popular, when Albert Eisentraut was introducing new levels of imaginative craftsmanship to American framebuilding in the early 1970s.

Ours is a plug-in, cookie cutter-like industry now. Save for the tubeset, every single component for the framebuilder is now available in the antiseptic-like, model room quality that comes from the wax molds of the foundries of a few different firms. It is a Rollerball society for framebuilding. We have the Big Three Corporations: Hitachi, Microfusione Italiana, and Everest. We have the dozen or so companies whose blueprints they will execute. The suits make most of the choices. Yes, the process includes a wide enough offering so that it seems selection is actually possible; so that your components don’t exactly look like his components; so your details don’t exactly look like his details. They make their pieces and they sell their pieces, each particular one exactly the same as the one before it. It is offered. It is bought. It is brazed. No labor necessary. Inhale crude; exhale cast.

Craftsmanship? What craftsmanship? What has changed? The details are made at the foundries now. No handwork needed. The details are for sale from a catalogue—and are we better off? I miss the old days.

So leave me be with a nice old set of Dubois lugs, a shell forging from Davis Components, and a rare Fisher sand cast, if possible. Give me some files, and a morning and I can still enjoy working some magic with my hands. It’s for my own pleasure now. The speed and efficiency I once possessed from years of developing my skills are not what they once were—the cuts and calluses on my fingertips have long since healed. My details come from the foundries now as well. There is no deadline, no rush. It’s the 1990s; it’s different now—but let me have a few moments for the details I haven’t yet forgotten.

The above article was originally written for the 1993 Bridgestone Bicycle Catalogue, and was edited down to nearly a quarter of its original length to fit the catalog format. The piece, originally titled “Fork Crowns and Art,” was one of the reasons that the Bridgestone catalogs were so intriguing then, and so collectible now. Gabe Konrad’s On The Wheel republished the article in full in its second issue in late 1998. Keep in mind that it’s now several years on, and add some years to each date reference accordingly.