Vintage, yesteryear and retro biking
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Notes on the Allsop Softride bike, and thoughts on riding it.
But first, the all important picture...
Allsop Softride (1990)
I’ve always wanted to ride a ‘beam’ bike, the early application of carbon fibre into what was seen to be a ‘problem area’ with conventional bike frames. The beam, some 660mm long on this model, is affixed to a braised lug just behind the head tube, and there is a second mount point braised to the frame through which a swivel adjustment is bolted. On this frame there’s probably enough adjustment to suit riders from 5’8 to 6’2.
Having got my hands on one, I stripped it down and rebuilt as a race bike, replacing the commuter iteration with drop bars, 12 speed gears etc
Marketed as innovative technology which gave a nice smooth ride, and allowed a more powerful transfer of input from the rider to the bike, the Softride frame was built around the carbon fibre beam, which appears to be bilaminate. They’re still moderately popular amongst triathletes, to whom they were heavily marketed.
The beam itself has a weight limit of 200lb and there are occasional tales of them breaking. More commonly the pivot bolts need replacing; I have no idea whether spares are still available.
The bike frame proper is of lugless welded steel, Tange Infinity tubing throughout. This is pretty good stuff, but it still ain’t light. I didn’t weigh it but assume the built up bike to weigh near to 11 kg.
First, set your saddle. I’m a relatively svelte 80kg at the moment and needed to anticipate at least 60mm of vertical flex, so the saddle is set high. This causes issues when it comes to throwing the leg over, standover height, and catching your knicks when remounting. I guess you get used to it.
The beam creaks. I’ve greased the bolts etc and maybe it’s the beam itself. I could never entirely escape the disquiet which comes with having creaky carbon fibre underneath me. Once I’d sorted a lumpy back tyre things were smooth at the back end, and the Softride does more or less what it says. It bounces up and down underneath you as you pedal, forcing a moderate change in style, but the front end acts exactly like any other steel road bike.
And that’s the issue. If you really want a soft ride then front end damping is the only way to go (eg shock absorber front fork). Most shocks come from the front end and are transmitted to the handlebar, into the arms. Most competent cyclists use their legs as the primary shock absorbers, anyway, and I found that’s exactly what I did when riding the Softride. As the bike dipped into a pothole or rut and the beam flexed I was unweighting my body just as I would on a conventional framed bike.
I expected the beam to sway slightly sideways, or give unwanted flex during hard cornering, but found that not to be an issue. The rear of the frame under the beam was as solid as any other bike and you could feel the track and chatter on tougher road surfaces, even though the beam made any shock a non-issue.
The Softride design seems to promote a lower cadence riding; lower cadence means less bounce, and riding in higher gears was not to my liking. I found my cadence dropped from ~90 to about 75. More importantly, because I was compensating for the beam flex I found I was getting tired in the muscles at the back of the thighs, trying to unweight myself from the seated position.
I rode this bike over 150km in 4 rides, over all terrain and road surfaces, giving it a pretty good workout, I feel. I think the claimed benefits are unrealized and that the design is an evolutionary backwater. Essentially, the frame damping is at the wrong end, and I could feel no benefit in style or strength in riding. Of course, for those with recurrent or previous back injuries there might be an advantage, but not without a specialized need.
Thanks for the report RC.
You may remember they also made a suspension stem if you wanted the whole deal. Their site used to have their history of bikes but I can't find it anymore. It now appears to be a past they want to forget.
These days you could probably achieve a similar (or better) ride with a Thudbuster LT. I suppose the recent interest in the Trek Damone shows that people are still interested in comfort, just smaller measures of it on the road.
Since I'm not racing, I'll stay with reduced tyre pressure, steel, thick bar tape and a Brooks.
In the early 90's, Team Ritchey MTB (Djernis, Frischneckt - ex-CXers) were winning World
Championships on rigid steel MTBs with SoftRide suspension stems at a time when aluminum
and front suspension was becoming de rigueur. I put my own lack of success in XC
racing down to the use of the far-inferior Girvin FlexStem
I remember someone local racing a National MTB season in the mid-90's on a Softride MTB
- I think he must have been sponsored.....
I had a FlexStem. Bought it after I fell and injured my hand and wanted something to get back on the bike faster in the early '90s. As you would know, it really only took the edge off. Big tyres with the right pressure do a better job IMO. Still have a rigid MTB.
One of the enduring memories I have of these Allsops was at the World Police & Fire Games on the Sandown circuit where the RR was held some years back. The guy "riding" the Allsop was left far behind but was determined to finish the race and every lap there he was bouncing along the straight with every pedal revolution. One of those moments where you politely looked elsewhere and the deficiency of the design was plainly obvious to everyone but the rider.
I have one of these in my collection, built to take 650 wheels so I think we can assume it was originally built for a triathlete
What I have found when riding it is that it contradicts a lot of 'normal' cycling instincts. Also as I come in around 90kilos I am at the advertised upper weight limit so I was very chary about letting my full weight fall on the beam initially. However, the engineer in me won out reckoning they must have allowed a safety factor and after a couple of 50k rides I relaxed and the feel of the bike improved a lot. Getting the height right on the beam is difficult but when it is set right and the 'bounce' is set to your weight (in my case wound right up) AND you relax and let the beam do the suspending I found it little different to a 'normal' bike. The beam took the sting out the crappy country roads around here and once you had the optimum cadence sorted out you pedaled smoothly with no bouncing. A bit like my Birdy full suspension folder, it does not reward an aggressive stomping style, overspin and you bounce. You have to try and keep in the sweet spot. I've done a few long rides on it and it was good but I did seem to have tense shoulders at the end.
However... it very rarely leaves the shed. Partly because of the embarrassing forks and partly because... well I don't know, it just doesn't feel as nice to ride as all the other bikes...
Like Mr Nobody says, a decent suspension seat post would probably do the same job with less complexity.
There were a few tandems produced with softride beams for the stoker which is probably one of their best applications IMO since stokers can't see the impending bumps and their hands are in the middle of the bike so receive the least movement. The stoker position on a tandem is much rougher than a single bike and suspension is common, even on racing bikes.
Telescoping suspension posts have a habit of seizing through neglect. Thudbuster style posts work much better but I wouldn't like the thought of getting pinched when they are in operation. Sprung saddles do the job simply and well but lack street cred.
I also have one of the Allsop Softrides (the early ones with the steel frame). I put a bit of work into putting it together and will post it here later.
But I was watching a Burley tandem with the Softride stoker beam earlier this year on US ebay. It went for only about $1000 after being for sale about 2-3 months, and would have been about $600 to get back here the cheapest way I could work out. I was interested for exactly the reasons above - knowing that I would get most of the work but I'll do a lot to make things nice enough for the wife to come along on a ride.
2014 goal 52000m
My race stoker uses a Brooks Flyer on my recommendation and loves it, my commuting stoker is only 3 so he just has a generic kids saddle. I have a Flyer ready on the off chance my wife can ever be convinced to ride again.
If the technology was sufficient for numerous winners of the Kona Ironman, then perchance that rider would have finished in that same position, regardless of the technology under his butt. The "deficiency of the design" assessment should only be cited if supported by valid engineering analysis. Check out the wind tunnel test reports, and Softride is at the top.
Yeah, I'm a fan of Softride; I've got two; a Powercurve and a Roadwing. I ride in a crew in Werribee, and I don't care that my bikes are over a decade old. I can keep up with crew on most days; but that's an engine issue, not a bike technology issue. I'm not into competition of any form; they're my toys and I use them exclusively for fun and commuting. They're COMFORTABLE and more than fast enough for me.
Yeah, there can be some bounce; heck, I've even seen a dude on double diamond get the bounce thing happening, and he was a veteran competition rider; but its dependent upon the terrain and your own style. But who really cares when your cadence is easy, your technique is sound, your speed is up, AND your butt is not complaining. That would seem to be the right recipe for ANY bike.
Thanks for comments all, but no, to answer this aspect, I am not a valid engineering model. I am a human being. That's how I assess the bicycle.
Amen. My favourite bike is a 1960s Reynolds 531 race bike. It just sings on the road.... arias.
Hey Dave, what foraminifera have you been bottom feeding on lately? (heh heh)
Sure you can, pop round sometime. I was going to strip it down the weekend, but that'll wait.
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