Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Time machine: Yesterday's bike of the future

No hot tub with this time machine. A 1989 Titan 1/2 Trac
I was reminded yesterday, by my wife no less, that it has been a while since I posted anything on my blog. She is quite correct. However, in my defense, I've had a few other things going on that have added up to a little absence on my part. I've got a kid on the way, a varmint hunting new dog with the energy intensity of a million suns, and I'm in the home stretch of reaching the terminus of my formal education. All good things, but let's just say their interaction saps my energy for blog time at the end of the day. So, in an attempt to temporarily rectify the situation, I present an entry that originated about this time last year, but I never finalized. It's a little homage/extremely long-term review of one of my workhorse bikes. Take caution, as this is a beast of a post and a bike nerd-fest to boot. If those things appeal to you, you're in luck. Enjoy!

Among my favorite bikes I've ever owned is my 1989 Titan 1/2 Trac, built in Eugene, Oregon, U.S. of A. When it was new, it was the bike of the future in many design respects. The Titan incorporated a number of features of the perceived future of mountain biking in one package, at a time when the term Rock Shox had yet to blossom in the two-wheeled vernacular, setting in motion radical change.

As were many contemporary bikes, the Titan is built like a tank, originating from the days when bike manufacturers took pride in strength and durability as much as many now do in lightness of weight and exotic materials. The Titan is from what I consider to be the pinnacle of the steel age of mountain biking, in the short epoch marked by the advent of perfected indexed top-mount thumbshifters, and when bikes with steep 71/73 degree head and seat angles and sub 17-inch chainstays proliferated. The epoch faded out with the emergence of consumer accessible, semi-affordable suspended bikes equipped with under-bar shifters and an increasing incidence of aluminum as a frame material. I think of this time as defined by the dominance of the Shimano Deore XTII and Suntour XC Pro groups, before XTR and GripShift hit the scene and Suntour sadly wandered into the sunset.

Now defunct, Titan was a creative manufacturer of high-caliber BMX bikes, who only produced mountain bike frames for a couple of years. While some of their BMX frames were elvish little creations made of spindly titanium tubes, the builders at Titan took no chances with their one model of mountain frame, which was apparently built to withstand bomb blasts.
A rear view of the Titan
Titan sold the 1/2 Trac only as a frameset, and incorporated many of the most cutting edge features of the pre-suspension era. However, the one element that was not experimental was the no-nonsense, straight gauge True Temper 4130 Chro-Mo tubing throughout. It's not light, but with a little care, it will probably outlast Western civilization. Titan's tubing choice sets the stage for strength as a recurring theme. After all, the mountain bikers of the future would want their frame to be durable above all else, right?

The defining futuristic feature of the Titan is its elevated chainstays, which, at the time, was intended to combat chain suck, chain slap and to shorten the effective chainstay length to make the bike climb like a goat. Besides, elevated stays look cool. In a nod to several successful BMX designs of the '70s and '80s, the rear triangle has looped chain/seatstays. The whole rear end of the bike is a tour de force of bike design. I'll have to say, it's worked for me for the intended purposes.

The Titan's rear end also has a futuristic wishbone design at the upper junction of where the seatstays meet an extended and curved section of the top tube, meaning that one piece of tubing snakes around to neatly form both seat and chainstays on both sides of the frame. The working ends of the tube enter reinforcing sleeves where they connect to the seat tube above the bottom bracket. The frame also features a short reinforcing tube near the bottom bracket junction between the seat and down tubes, which functions as a convenient handle for portaging the bike. Curiously, the fluid design of the Titan's rear end is reminiscent of the smoothness of some current carbon frames I've seen.
That's one piece of tubing to form the chain and seat stays.
Astute (or older) readers may recall the that the steel-framed Yeti FRO (For Racing Only) mountain bikes of the same time had similar looped stays, but without a wishbone. Yeti also produced what they modestly called "The Ultimate" for a short time, which, like the Titan, featured elevated chainstays, but again no wishbone. It looked like a nice bike and I even remember seeing one or two in the wild, but never rode one for comparison.

It's unfortunate that, here in the future, elevated chainstays are not abundant. It's kind of like the same sad realization that the 2015 of Back to the Future II is only three years away, but neither Mr. Fusion nor hoverboards are anywhere to be seen.

I'd like to see looped and elevated chainstays on hardtails make a comeback, and, as I gaze in the general direction of Minnesota, I think there is a market leader who just may champion such an unusual idea. Take for example, the Surly Troll's rear dropouts, which almost look like a looped stay. Just move the chainstay junction up the seat tube a little and call the resulting formation a Troll Bridge, and a new trend has arrived. (Surly, you have my permission to use that idea. Seriously.) Another advantage for a modern elevated chainstay bike would be for use with belt drive systems; no split seatstay/dropout/etc. necessary as long as there is a horizontal dropout. I've thought about a Gates Carbon Drive upgrade for the Titan, but in 1989 the trajectory of dropout design was headed away from horizontal in favor of vertical, as such making a belt drive on the Titan a challenge I'm not yet prepared to meet.

One shortcoming in the design of the Titan was its bottom bracket. It had an innovative sealed mechanism sleeve-type bottom bracket held in place by pinch bolts. The design was, in theory, a futuristic and superior execution as compared to the unsealed cup and cone bottom brackets of the time. However, in practice, the pinch bolts required constant tightening, even with Loc-tite. Eventually a broken bolt inspired installation of a threaded insert, brazed in place to accept standard bottom brackets.
Bottom bracket, in need of some cleaning. Note part of the failed pinch bolt now forever brazed in place.
Up front, the Titan has a threaded 1.25" headset, otherwise known as "Evolution sized," a now abandoned standard originally championed by Gary Fisher. I think all of his bikes during the years leading up to the sale of his company to Trek had Evolution sized headsets. Many bike nerds of yesteryear may remember the battle waged between proponents of 1.25" Evolution versus 1.125" "Oversized" headsets for market dominance. Apparently bigger isn't always better, but it seems now some off-road bikes of the future are leapfrogging Evolution size for a 1.5" standard.

The Titan features a straight-blade, non suspension-corrected (the concept didn't even exist then) fork. I've often heard of complaints of the rigidity of straight-blade forks, but this one is smooth, precise and comfortable. Even though at the time, straight-blade forks were new and becoming in vogue, within a couple of years, suspension forks supplanted the favor of all others. Yet, in this future age, the Titan has weathered more than two decades of use never deviating from its original, dependable fork. Will that be the case for the futuristic bikes of the present? I have a stack of dead suspension forks in my shop that might suggest otherwise. Orphaned technology is a bummer.
Titan in front of the Colorado State Capitol building, in a temperature well below freezing.
The Titan has a few other notable features. Much appreciated are the rack eyelets on both frame and fork, items that greatly expand the possibilities of this bike, but which would not be present on an equivalent high-end, semi-custom, off-road frame of the present. It also features internal cable routing for the front derailleur, with the cable entering the top left of the down tube and exiting just aft of the bottom bracket. Although it's a bit of a hassle to replace, it keeps the cable protected and has a clean look. Perhaps this is why internal cable routing, at least in some cases, exists in the present.

The finish on the Titan broke new ground in perhaps a more far-reaching application than any other feature. Although powder coating is almost omnipresent on modern bikes, I've never seen any bike older than the Titan that originally came with a powder coat finish. Modern powder coat is almost indistinguishable from traditional paint, but the Titan's powder coat is quite different. It is a difficult to describe pewterish-blackish speckle with a hammered look, similar to what you might imagine on a big industrial lathe or other large manufacturing tool built during the space age. After traversing 22 years of time, through hard use and frequent weather exposure, the coating has cracked a bit in places, but is still protecting the steel.
Close-up showing the texture of the powder coated finish and the only remaining sticker.
The frame originally came with some very '80s-looking day-glo pink and white stickers, but most went by the wayside within a few months of purchase. Only "Titan Made in USA" has made the journey to the present. With our cultural tendency for nostalgia, who knows, maybe even obnoxious pink will appeal to the youth of today.
As a bike of the future, the Titan did predict some design trends, and fell short with others. The main divergence may be that of performance life. The window of usable life of many modern bikes is, by design, narrow. Some frame materials or construction techniques have an expiration date. Not so for the Titan. Yet, as sturdily built as the Titan 1/2 Trac frame was, without a Flux Capacitor, it is unlikely that even Titan's designers and builders could have envisioned how successfully this particular example would have survived after more than two decades of heavy use.

I intend for the journey through time with this bike to continue at its measured pace. The biggest testament to the Titan is its broad spectrum of prolonged regular use. I've used it for everything from riding in a triathlon (yes, with license-plate fenders and Nitto Albatross bars) to towing a kid trailer and everything in between. I've written another post detailing some of the Titan's exploits, and will likely check back in with future findings as the long-term review continues.

There you have it. It's not like you can go out and buy one of these bikes if this voluminous post has so inspired you, but it does provide a glimpse into how a futuristic mountain bike of a past generation has held up over time. If the Titan ever dies, it will be difficult for me to avoid sparing no expense in having a replacement specially built. Unless, that is, the bike world finally catches up to the Titan's design ambitions. After all, because time doesn't stand still, who is to say when the future has been reached?

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