Speedwell Art

by Roger St. Pierre

International Cycle Sport, November 1975

Recent American research has revealed that on flat roads a cyclist’s biggest problem by far is overcoming wind resistance, the rolling resistance presented by the weight of the bike being a relatively minor factor in comparison.

Nonetheless the fad for seeking a reduction in the weight which a cyclist has to keep rolling has reached such extremes that one almost expects to hear that some fanatic or other has just gone into hospital to have his legs drilled for lightness!

Till recently it has been the drilling of already accepted equipment, an idea pioneered by Eddy Merckx, which has commanded most attention but now the need for this resort, a most dangerous one unless carried out by an expert, has been removed by the introduction of lighter base materials with a bewildering array of plastics, alloys and light metals being introduced onto the market, there even being a plastic seat pin weighing in at less than an ounce due for imminent sale.

It is the hill climbers and the cyclo-cross men who best appreciate all these lightweight innovations for it is when the fight against gravity is added to other elements that the question of weight becomes almost as important as that of wind resistance.

The problem is, though, that saving in weight usually means a drastic, and most undesirable, loss of strength and rigidity. Enter titanium, not really a new wonder metal but in fact refined from rutile which happens to be the fourth or fifth most common base metal on earth.

Lighter than steel, stronger than alloy, corrosive resistant like stainless steel, it seems to offer all the advantages but its introduction into the cycle game hasn’t been without its teething troubles. The field has been led by Birmingham’s old-established Speedwell Gear Case Company and it is the firm’s strong base as major manufacturers of motorcycle accessories, pram parts, mudguards and machine tools which has given them the where with all to spend a massive £250,000 on development over the past nine years.

That time has been used not just in factory development and learning the necessary skills for utilizing the material but in the practical application of it to the racing cyclist’s needs. Research hasn’t simply been a matter of the laboratory, the drawing board and the workshop but more practical, on-the-road test, improvement and re-test.
That’s why International Cycle Sport contributor and round-the-world hero Peter Duker has been involved in the project since day one and that’s why he and Speedwell’s Sales Director, Hugh Kirton hot-footed it to Lyon back in 1973 with a frame specially built for Bic’s Louis Ocana to ride in the ‘Tour de France’.

“He had it built up by his mechanic overnight and rode it for most of the rest of the Dauphine Libere in which he was riding at the time. He won that race then went on to ride the Tour, using the titanium bike on the 10 most hilly stages and winning that too”.

Since then the clients have been legion: Raymond Poulidor, Leif Mortensen, Frans Verbeeck, Agostino and South African champion Van Heerden have all used Speedwell titanium frames and the company regards this as the most useful test-bed they could wish for.

Most recently, Ron Kitching professional Barry Davies used a titanium frame for his Pennine Way record attempt, beating the previous best of 3 days 4 hrs. 40 mins, set by runner Jos Naylor, by 1 hr. 7 min. in extremely adverse conditions.

Hugh Kirton is ready to admit that early examples of the titanium frame left a lot to be desired. I myself remember riding one, owned by Peter Duker, before the start of a Tour of the North finding it spongy in the extreme.

These problems are now overcome however, as I found when I visited Speedwell’s works and borrowed one of the latest models for an afternoon.

Despite being fitted with pretty much standard club type equipment, no super-light rims or drilled-out gears, the bike was amazingly light and, to my surprise, every bit as rigid and responsive as heavier steel-framed mounts.

I was able to try it out under a wide range of conditions, kicking off with a dozen laps or spell round the nearby Salford Park track, taking care to avoid the workmen busy painting new track markings.

Rapid acceleration was no problem and an out-of-the-saddle sprinting effort produced no sign of whip.

Leaving the track I faced a long but not over-steep uphill gradient. The Speedwell seemed to soar up it, and later a spell of cyclo-cross through Sutton Park showed just how much easier the going becomes when you are able to shed some weight (from either yourself or your bike!)

A quick run up a grassy bank with the bike on my shoulders produced few of the usual aches and pains and later, bowling down a broad, straight dual carriage way with the wind at my back, the bike invited full-out effort despite the position being all wrong for me.

One thing’s certain, no matter how light the bike is, it still has to be propelled but if you can reduce weight without giving too much away in other departments then surely it’s worthwhile a venture since the material presents such a saving in weight, it is possible to use special liners, thicker gauge tubing and so on and still tip the scales more gently than the opposition.

Of course there are other new-to-cycling materials offered in competition. A carbon-fibre frame is being advertised in America as weighing 1.29 kilos, an equivalent Speedwell in titanium would be 1.26 kilos and cost £70. as against £320. A frame made from at new type of molybdenum steel alloy is advertised at 3.75 lbs., the equivalent Speedwell (in terms of strength, rigidity and so on) would be 24 per cent lighter. Aluminium, experimented with before the war, has recently reappeared on a range of Italian made frames; the Speedwell is lighter and is all-welded rather than being bolted together.

“I used to be a bridge engineer”, said Hugh Kirten, “And any one in that game will tell you that an all-welded bridge is far superior to a bolted one, moving but inches in a cross-wind gale where the other moves feet out of line.”

Speedwell’s application of titanium to the cycle frame business came about in a round-about fashion. The material was being used in the manufacture of equipment for the chemical industry since it does not contaminate or corrode. It was then used for pumping corrosives and then Speedwell introduced it for moto-cross motorcycle frames before its use was banned by the International controlling body of that sport in a bid to protect the interests of the established European motorcycle industry (only for the Japanese to come along and sweep away their trade in any case!)

“It was then that we started toying with the idea of using the material for bicycles and we’ve been experimenting and improving ever since. We’re learning all the time but I’d claim we have already reached the stage where our product can be regarded as a Rolls Royce among bicycle frames, that’s the standard of quality we have been aiming for.

Hugh Kirtan says the company will be happy to sell one frame per year to each dealer in Europe;”That would represent £100,000 per year return on our investment,” and already they are doing pretty well with especially good sales in France thanks to the energetic Andre Bertin, their agent over there.

Till now, Ron Kitching has been handling UK distribution but with their own sales force already working nationwide on other products, Speedwell are starting to deal direct with the dealers, a factor which will help reduce the price of the frame to the customer (shop prices currently range between £l 40 – £160 per frame).

The frame can be polished to give a near chrome finish, or sprayed in normal fashion. “Since the average dealer covers 34% of the frame with his transfers in any case, it seems sensible to paint the whole thing, the extra weight involved being an insignificant fraction of an ounce,” said Kirton.

Still, even with new lower prices, the frames are very expensive so why, given that the raw material is so readily available?

The answer lies in one pitfall involved in using titanium. Though it doesn’t corrode under normal conditions, it does when subjected to heat of welding. So, in order to weld the frames, all the work has to be carried out in a special chamber. The process is first to evacuate the chamber of all its air, then to re-fill it with Argon, an inert gas, until the pressure is the same level as the outside air.

Port holes are then unscrewed and the operator slips his hands into already positioned and sealed rubber gloves, working much as scientists do with radioactive materials. It takes more than an hour to prepare the chamber and it’s a critical, even dangerous process. Much of the workers’ time is taken up not with actual manufacture but in eliminating sources of contamination. Moreover, in the entire frame-building process, the component parts have to be put into the chambers several times for the welding of the various frame joints to be carried out.

Some four hours more are spent on the arduous task of cleaning up the welds and polishing the joints smooth with emery cloth and, since the material is harder than steel, that entails an awful amount of elbow grease.

“As I said though, we are learning all the time and we’ve managed to streamline and improve much of the work involved.” They’ve also eliminated many of the faults on the early prototypes. For instance, there’s no fork crown, the whole fork being welded together. Previously, the blades were made in two parts, then welded up, now a one piece blade is used.

“We’re very pleased with the whole fork assembly. It certainly beats the idea of having a hollow tubes fitted into a fork-crown casting as on a standard bike frame – that just doesn’t make good engineering sense”, said Hugh.

Naturally, given the difficulties of working the material, Speedwell offer basic, standard frame specifications (following current cycle frame fashion trends) but they say they can build to any dimensions if you want and if you can stand vastly increased costs for one-off special.

Racing successes have already come their way and a ‘Tour de France’ victory can’t be a bad credential can it? -and now their costings are coming down and their production problems being Titaniumed out, Speedwell can optimistically look forward to more and more riders adopting their titanium product.