VYNL Road frame review: Aluminum, better than ever?
In a cycling industry rife with carbon fiber everything, the idea of launching a premium bike company centered solely around TIG-welded aluminum frames is unconventional, to say the least. Nevertheless, that’s what the folks at VYNL have done with their collection of “honest race bikes, made in the USA.” VYNL’s road model is as straightforward as can be on paper, but evaluating a bicycle is like evaluating a relationship: more than the sum total of its parts, and often what works best long-term in the real world doesn’t initially seem to be the most logical choice.
Carbon fiber surpassed aluminum years ago as the bicycle industry’s material of choice for high-end road frames. After all, it’s roughly half the weight for a given volume, far more rigid, and when correctly engineered, boasts superior long-term fatigue characteristics. Moreover, carbon fiber’s stiffness is highly tunable, and as an anisotropic material, that stiffness can also be isolated to specific directions based on design goals — in other words, an engineer’s dream come true.
Nevertheless, aluminum is in the midst of a comeback, even among some major bike brands. Recent advances in metallurgy and processing has made modern aluminum more reliable than ever, and it’s still a more economical high-performance option than carbon fiber or titanium. Numerous studies have demonstrated that aluminum’s modest weight penalty over a composite frame doesn’t have as significant a negative impact as once thought, either.
Perhaps most importantly, though, many riders are simply looking for something a little different.
“We came together and started VYNL simply because we felt like the bike we all wanted to ride was no longer offered by the industry, and we felt that was something worth addressing,” said VYNL co-founder Sean Coffey, an industry veteran who has worked in different roles at several component and bike brands. “A good aluminum bike has a certain feel. To us, it’s a ride that’s stiffer than steel but less numb than most carbon bikes. And while there are great custom aluminum builders out there, and plenty of nice carbon and steel bikes available, the availability of quality U.S.-made, minimal-hype aluminum bikes that were affordable and in stock without a six-month wait was slim.”
A simple formula, well executed
The result is an unapologetic distillation of what VYNL’s founders believe is most important in a traditional racing-style road bike: high-quality butted aluminum tubing joined with neatly laid TIG welds, reasonable tubing diameters throughout, and a refreshing absence of tech-laden buzzwords.
There’s also very minimal tube manipulation on the VYNL. The chainstays are narrowed up near the bottom bracket for drivetrain and tire clearance, and have just a couple of subtle bends as they make their way back to the machined aluminum hooded dropouts. Up front, the top tube and down tube feature just the slightest bit of ovalizing at the ends for some directional stiffness. Every other tube on the VYNL is dead straight and perfectly round.
To further hammer the point home, the routing is unabashedly external with split stops throughout for easy servicing; there are no provisions for electronic drivetrains. There are also no nods whatsoever to aerodynamics. The front and rear rim brakes use a traditional center-mount interface, and the bottom bracket is graced with wonderful, glorious threads. (What a concept!)
In fact, save for the oversized 44mm head tube, this frame won’t seem all that different to the casual observer from high-end aluminum bikes from a decade ago, which perhaps says more about the types of bikes VYNL’s founders prefer for themselves than anything else.
“With our bikes, we really focused on a balance: stiff but not too stiff, light but not fragile, and no gimmicks that compromise the ride,” Coffey said. “While we have access to hydroforming for wildly shaped tubes, we felt it would add cost and not provide enough, if any, improvement. And we love our external cables and threaded bottom brackets. So perhaps what’s exceptional about our bikes is that they’re zero-hype machines that make the best use of an undervalued material.”
Early VYNL frames were made by Zen Fabrications, a now-defunct contract manufacturer based in Portland, Oregon. VYNL has since shifted production to Frank “The Welder” Wadelton, a seasoned industry veteran in Vermont with a long and storied history with companies such as Yeti, Spooky, and Turner.
VYNL dresses up its frames in a choice of six single-color paint schemes, each visually striking in terms of hue, but otherwise largely unadorned and austere. Custom finishes are available as well. I gave VYNL carte blanche for this review sample, which arrived with a bold matte yellow-to-pink fade (with matching decals). According to Coffey, a similar scheme would cost an extra US$250, but most custom jobs would range between US$100-400 – and some single-color requests can even be done at no additional charge.
VYNL is similarly unapologetic for the frame’s classically quick race-bike geometry. The stubby 405mm chainstays and compact top tubes yield short wheelbases across the board, and make the chassis eager to change directions. The angles are comparatively steep, too, with the head tube ranging from 72-74 degrees, depending on size, and upright 73-74.5-degree seat tube angles that help keep the rear wheel tucked in without resorting to any goofy tube shaping.
Actual frame weight for my 51cm sample was 1,350g, including the Paragon Machine Works rear derailleur hanger, DKG machined aluminum seatpost clamp, and water bottle bolts. Total weight for the complete bike, sans pedals, was 7.34kg (16.18lb), built with a Campagnolo Chorus mechanical group, Enve 2.0 carbon road fork, 25mm-wide Clement LCV tires on Ritchey WCS Apex Carbon 38 carbon clinchers, and a complete fi’zi:k cockpit (including matching pink handlebar tape and pink-accented Aliante saddle).
Getting reconnected to the road
Many of us tend to apply blanket ride characteristics based solely on frame material, but the reality is that how any particular frame is designed and constructed has much more of an impact on how it feels than what it’s made of. All carbon fiber frames aren’t dead, steel isn’t necessarily lively, titanium isn’t always a magical unicorn of perfection, and aluminum frames don’t have to be unduly harsh and punishing.
In the case of the VYNL, the ride quality fits in well with the ethos suggested by the brand name, and the “honest race bike” description is surprisingly, well, honest.
Apart from the Enve carbon fork, the VYNL makes little effort to filter feedback from the road, with a chassis that communicates road conditions with striking clarity. As compared to many modern composite frames that intentionally try to isolate the rider as much as possible, riding the VYNL feels like someone has suddenly reconnected the transmission lines on a few vibration frequencies that were previously cut.
If there’s a fresh section of chip seal that was recently laid down, you’ll definitely know it — there’s minimal muting when it comes to nasty potholes, and even if the road is comparatively smooth, you still have a sense that you’re riding on an aggregate of rocks and bitumen instead of a pane of glass. A magic carpet ride, the VYNL is not.
That said, much of the unforgiving harshness once associated with earlier oversized aluminum frames has been subtly whittled away. Whether by the more modest main triangle tube diameters, the extra extension of the seatpost from the semi-compact frame design, or the pencil-thin seatstays, the VYNL manages to round off the edges just enough so that you still know the details about what you’re rolling across, but without your hands and butt cheeks going numb from the incessant buzzing. And if you really want more isolation from the road, both ends have room for tires up to 28mm wide.
VYNL likely could have made things a bit cushier, but doing so probably would have tempered the bike’s eagerness under power. This certainly isn’t the stiffest frame I’ve ever ridden, but the front triangle is nevertheless plenty stout when you rise out of the saddle for a sprint or steep uphill pitch. Riders who are especially strong might be troubled by the slight wag out back from the skinny seatstays and medium-sized chainstays, but I doubt it’d be much of an issue for those with more reasonable power outputs.
For this decidedly average-ability rider, I found it plenty sufficient, and hardly a limiting factor.
While the VYNL may not satisfy everyone in terms of overall frame stiffness, there’s little fault in the handling characteristics. As promised, the short wheelbase and relatively upright angles make for wickedly quick changes in direction — perfect for weekend criteriums but also just plain fun to flick through fast downhill corners. Whereas many high-end bikes today are tending more toward the stable and confident end of the handling spectrum, the VYNL’s borderline-twitchiness demands more attention, but is more rewarding as a result.
That longer stem demanded by the frame’s shorter reach dimension plays right into the bike’s personality, too, with a more forward-biased rider weight, and more grip on the front wheel as a result — something I found especially nice on twisty high-speed descents, where the short-and-steep geometry easily snaked through corners but with the confident stability afforded by the 70mm bottom bracket drop.
A few skips and scratches
Neal Blatt is a pediatric nephrologist in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and an old friend from my college bike-racing days who also happens to be an enthusiastic audiophile. Interspersed between the memories I have of him riding his old Univega are his effusive arguments for how music sounded so much better on his turntable and Marantz vacuum-tube amplifier than digital downloads did on my computer.
“In general, I find that when playing a musical recording on vinyl and a CD, vinyl does a better job at creating the illusion that the performers are in the room with you,” he recently told me. “In contrast, a recording on CD sounds like a nice stereo, but less lifelike. In particular, the upper frequencies can sound flat. In audiophile jargon, people will use the term ‘palpable presence,’ and will talk about feeling a more emotional connection to the music played back on vinyl.”
And that sounds — pun intended — a bit like VYNL’s bikes. Riding the VYNL is a more visceral experience than what many modern carbon composite frames offer: a little more raw, a little less filtering, a little more true-to-life than the arguably synthetic and manufactured experience sometimes delivered from a frame that comes out of a mold.
That said, there are reasons the world has gone digital: vinyl isn’t particularly convenient or portable, it requires more care in handling, and its nuances aren’t necessarily appreciated or recognized by all. And whereas digital recordings are technically perfect, vinyl has that characteristic background noise.
Similarly, the VYNL – or any frame like it – won’t be to everyone’s liking. As good as aluminum materials have gotten, it will never be on equal numerical footing with carbon fiber. Even a mid-range Giant TCR, for example, rides more smoothly, is easily as stiff (perhaps more so), and is substantially lighter – and it’s less expensive, too.
Nevertheless, there’s merit in what the VYNL offers. It’s undeniably sporting-feeling, the custom paint looks fantastic — no other bike I’ve ridden in the past year has elicited so many positive comments from random onlookers — and it’s a refreshing reminder that cycling is an experience filled with sensations both good and bad. With a VYNL, you get all of them.
And for some, that may just be enough.