Bicycles

Craig Calfee: Rear suspension will revolutionize road-race cycling

The Pro road version of the Calfee Manta bike, complete with rear susension
The Pro road version of the Calfee Manta bike, complete with rear susension
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Craig Calfee, right, talks electric aviation with inventor and flying car proponent Dezso Molnar in the Calfee Design workshop
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Craig Calfee, right, talks electric aviation with inventor and flying car proponent Dezso Molnar in the Calfee Design workshop
Calfee's carbon fiber frame lugs are things of great beauty and precision
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Calfee's carbon fiber frame lugs are things of great beauty and precision
Craig Calfee shows Gizmag the jigs he uses to shape his complex carbon fiber frame lugs
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Craig Calfee shows Gizmag the jigs he uses to shape his complex carbon fiber frame lugs
Calfee has now made so many custom cycle frames that he's got pre-built jigs for just about any geometry. Where he doesn't have one already, he's able to rapidly build new ones on a 3D printer
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Calfee has now made so many custom cycle frames that he's got pre-built jigs for just about any geometry. Where he doesn't have one already, he's able to rapidly build new ones on a 3D printer
The Calfee Design workshop on the Santa Cruz coastline is a wonderland of extraordinary cycles, futuristic thinking and carbon fiber wizardry
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The Calfee Design workshop on the Santa Cruz coastline is a wonderland of extraordinary cycles, futuristic thinking and carbon fiber wizardry
Craig Calfee with a do-it-yourself frame made by a young associate using Calfee materials and instructions
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Craig Calfee with a do-it-yourself frame made by a young associate using Calfee materials and instructions
Craig Calfee with a do-it-yourself frame made by a young associate using Calfee materials and instructions
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Craig Calfee with a do-it-yourself frame made by a young associate using Calfee materials and instructions
The urethane-based wrap material in Calfee's DIY kits hardens in some 10 minutes to provide extremely strong lug joints
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The urethane-based wrap material in Calfee's DIY kits hardens in some 10 minutes to provide extremely strong lug joints
Pre-cut bamboo tubes ship with the Calfee DIY kits
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Pre-cut bamboo tubes ship with the Calfee DIY kits
This is an integrated front rack, which is carbon fiber and laminated to the fork
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This is an integrated front rack, which is carbon fiber and laminated to the fork
"This is probably the newest thing you’ll see in the bike world for a while. This is a special technique we recently developed [to make any shape in carbon]. We pull wet carbon fiber through a vinyl tube with a needle, then you can shape it as you like. We can do carbon bottle cages, too."
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"This is probably the newest thing you’ll see in the bike world for a while. This is a special technique we recently developed [to make any shape in carbon]. We pull wet carbon fiber through a vinyl tube with a needle, then you can shape it as you like. We can do carbon bottle cages, too."
Calfee's tandem bikes are known as being some of the world's best
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Calfee's tandem bikes are known as being some of the world's best
Tiny rear suspension unit on the Adventure version of the Clafee Manta
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Tiny rear suspension unit on the Adventure version of the Clafee Manta
Calfee cycle with a single-sided front fork and a Douglas Fir frame
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Calfee cycle with a single-sided front fork and a Douglas Fir frame
The Adventure version of the Calfee Manta
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The Adventure version of the Calfee Manta
Inventor and flying car proponent Dezso Molnar, with EV wizard and lithium battery specialist Luke Workman and Craig Calfee at the Calfee Design workshop in Santa Cruz
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Inventor and flying car proponent Dezso Molnar, with EV wizard and lithium battery specialist Luke Workman and Craig Calfee at the Calfee Design workshop in Santa Cruz
Just 12 mm of suspension travel is all that Calfee believes is necessary for a smoother, faster and more controlled racebike
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Just 12 mm of suspension travel is all that Calfee believes is necessary for a smoother, faster and more controlled racebike
The Pro road version of the Calfee Manta bike, complete with rear susension
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The Pro road version of the Calfee Manta bike, complete with rear susension
The entire frame of the Manta Pro weighs just 2.5 lb (1.1 kg)
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The entire frame of the Manta Pro weighs just 2.5 lb (1.1 kg)
Calfee Manta: tiny suspension unit can make a huge difference over the course of a long day.
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Calfee Manta: tiny suspension unit can make a huge difference over the course of a long day.
Craig Calfee with the Manta Pro road bike
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Craig Calfee with the Manta Pro road bike
Dezso Molnar with one of Calfee's famous tandem bikes
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Dezso Molnar with one of Calfee's famous tandem bikes
Craig Calfee and Luke Workman with a Calfee tandem bike
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Craig Calfee and Luke Workman with a Calfee tandem bike
Birds of a feather: out-there innovators Dezso Molnar, Craig Calfee and Luke Workman enjoy the huge crashing surf just 100 metres from the door of the Calfee workshop in Santa Cruz
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Birds of a feather: out-there innovators Dezso Molnar, Craig Calfee and Luke Workman enjoy the huge crashing surf just 100 metres from the door of the Calfee workshop in Santa Cruz
Calfee Manta: putting suspension back on the menu for road racers
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Calfee Manta: putting suspension back on the menu for road racers
Calfee Manta: handmade carbon excellence
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Calfee Manta: handmade carbon excellence
Calfee Manta: no swingarm is required to allow the 12mm maximum suspension deflection
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Calfee Manta: no swingarm is required to allow the 12mm maximum suspension deflection

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.

The Calfee Design workshop on the Santa Cruz coastline is a wonderland of extraordinary cycles, futuristic thinking and carbon fiber wizardry
The Calfee Design workshop on the Santa Cruz coastline is a wonderland of extraordinary cycles, futuristic thinking and carbon fiber wizardry

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."

Just 12 mm of suspension travel is all that Calfee believes is necessary for a smoother, faster and more controlled racebike
Just 12 mm of suspension travel is all that Calfee believes is necessary for a smoother, faster and more controlled racebike

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."

Calfee has now made so many custom cycle frames that he's got pre-built jigs for just about any geometry. Where he doesn't have one already, he's able to rapidly build new ones on a 3D printer
Calfee has now made so many custom cycle frames that he's got pre-built jigs for just about any geometry. Where he doesn't have one already, he's able to rapidly build new ones on a 3D printer

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

9 comments
tacheonabike
nothing new in the world of cycling .. proof will be when it has won Paris Roubaix
MD
It all depends on WHY road bikes don't have suspension. IS it because there aren't enough talented engineers out there who can design a simple tuned spring/'damper' (hardly likely,I could "easily" design such a device and hide it inside the frame where it could be "undetectable" (until officials had a look) ).. OR is it because the rules haven't allowed separate suspension components to be used? Again with Carbon composites, it is fairly simple for one "versed in the art" to design a composite structure with -any- desired stiffness, spring rate and damping (within the limits of the materials of course). If it is due to RULES of the sport: Maybe all it takes is hype, breaking rules and lawyers to defend the breaking of the rules to get the rules changes a-la common law. OR it may take a champion of the "art" such as this guy, to convince the riders of the merits. To determine IF the suspended bike could win over rigid frames, just tell me, How many "springless" (rigid suspension) cars won a typical round of any (conventional automobile) racing event in the last 10 years. Well tuned suspension = Better control all round, from traction to braking and side forces.
Bob Stuart
I agree that suspension makes faster bikes - it allows a lighter tire, as well. However, we can do a lot better than just using a tiny travel to minimize the complications. First off is a geometry that minimizes pogoing by using chain force to counter acceleration squat. More travel requires more spring weight, but the frame itself can be pressed into service instead of being designed for rigidity only. Just keep the chainstay function really firm. The need for damping can be minimized by using rising rate springs, which have no resonant frequency, and by careful design to minimize engagement.
Michael Logue
It's been several decades since I raced, but in my days you wanted a stiff frame for better power transference. You lose power with a flexible frame that should be going directly to the wheel.
toolman65
Why compromise the rigidity of the bottom bracket at all? Why not move the suspension into the seat post? Something that the rider could adjust on the fly. Then again, if they did that, no one would need to buy their$4800 USD frameset.
Timelord
"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." He was actually a relative latecomer to the game. The Graftek preceded him by more than a decade. By the time Calfee Design was founded, I was already riding an Eclipse carbon fiber frame and a buddy had a Kestrel.
Keith Reeder
"It's been several decades since I raced, but in my days you wanted a stiff frame for better power transference. You lose power with a flexible frame that should be going directly to the wheel." An "advantage" which can be more than offset by the reduction in fatigue over a long time in the saddle which suspensions can deliver.
axio
The current difference between different pro team's bikes is already very large, where some frames have far more compliance than others without having "suspension". The Cervelo and Cannondale frames particularly are designed to flex at the chainstay and seatstays, and the dale's new '16 bikes are using even smaller diameter seat tubes, where the flex movement can easily equal or better 12mm.
Runklmstiltzskin
I really don't care if the racing bikes are aloud to have suspension or not, road racing is only s tiny % of people who would like a softer ride on their road bikes.....I don't use those narrow tired road bikes because of the rough ride...Yeah they roll a lot easier butt that is all they have going for them....I think they're too tall.. I just don't like them but I have friends who won't ride anything but those hard riding road bikes.....I like Trikes.....LOL :-)}
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