Craig Calfee: Rear suspension will revolutionize road-race cycling

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The Pro road version of the Calfee Manta bike, complete with rear susension(Credit: Loz Blain/Gizmag)

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Suspension has long been a dirty word among road-racing cyclists, but if carbon fiber wizard and cycling visionary Craig Calfee nails his latest prediction as cleanly as his previous ones, it won't be long before every rider in the Tour de France is enjoying the comfort, performance and traction benefits of a suspended rear end. Calfee's top-of-the-line Manta bikes now feature an incredibly simple, lightweight rear suspension spring with a tiny 12 mm of travel that he believes will revolutionize the sport. Gizmag visited the Calfee workshop in Santa Cruz to find out more.

Craig Calfee has built a successful business on his ability to see ahead of the game. He's one of the original carbon fiber wizards of the bicycle world and he started Calfee Design in the late 1980s specifically to explore how this exotic new material could work in the cycling world. Notably, the bike he built for Greg LeMond in 1991 was the first all-carbon frame to race the Tour de France.

At the time, Calfee predicted it wouldn't be long before carbon dominated the racing world, and within 10 years, that was borne out.

"The best material always wins," Calfee tells us at his Santa Cruz workshop, "and now I'm saying the same thing about suspension. The faster bikes will win, and all the faster bikes will have suspension. It's coming."

Road bikes have typically been bone-jarring torture racks for racing cyclists, who have been happy to give up comfort and tire adherence in favor of weight savings and a super-stiff feel. Suspension has been all but a dirty word, but if Calfee's latest prediction is correct, suspended rear ends, such as that on his Manta bike, will soon be the norm.

"It not only gives you a more comfortable ride, and better traction coming down the mountain, it actually gives you more traction and better efficiency when you're climbing," says Calfee, adding that it doesn't rob power from the rider, either. "It's such a small amount of travel, and there's no damping. So when it comes back it gives you all of the energy back. You couldn't get away with this with more than about 2 cm (0.8 in) of travel – this is just 1 cm."

The tiny suspension unit, which consists just of a swappable steel spring, adds negligible weight to the frame. Since it bottoms out at just 12 mm of travel, no swingarm is needed, and the rear carbon triangle struts are designed to flex slightly as the suspension acts.

"We're one of the first to do road bike suspension in the rear end," Calfee tells us. "Pinarello is also a major sponsor of pro teams, and they've finally got one, and Trek has been doing it for about a year now. It's a trend that's just coming up and being recognized by pros."

As for when he expects suspended bikes to rise to dominance in road racing, Calfee smiles. "With the Internet, things are moving faster. I was predicting five years about two years ago, and it's already in the tour now. Not everyone, but between Pinarello and Trek, those are two major sponsors. And the riders are the ones that are driving it."

It'd be easy to miss the suspension unit on the back of the Manta, simply because of the other details. The entire 56-cm (22-in) frame with suspension weighs in at just 2.5 lbs (1.1 kg). The brake cabling is internally routed, as is the wiring and battery for the electronic gearshift system. And the complex shapes of the carbon frame lugs are both beautiful and mind-bending, particularly given that the geometry can be custom-designed for each rider.

The Calfee Manta frame retails for US$4,800, or $6,000 with a Chris King Inset 7, Enve/Easton fork, Look ZED2 crankset and Praxis Works chainrings. Each bike is handmade in Santa Cruz.

Jump into the gallery to see some of the other bits and pieces Calfee has been working on lately.

More information: Calfee Design

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