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by Matt Wikstrom
September 28, 2017
Photography by Matt Wikstrom
Tsubasa is a small UK-based bespoke framebuilder that works exclusively with carbon fibre. Every part of the frame is fashioned in Tsubasa’s London workshop, allowing for a high level of customisation. The result is exactly what anyone would expect for an exotic composite frame: lightweight, exceptionally responsive, and very expensive. Here is Australian tech editor Matt Wikstrom’s review of Tsubasa’s Crow.
Edvinas Vavilovas, the man behind Tsubasa, has travelled a circuitous route to become a framebuilder. After growing up in Lithuania during the final years of its struggle for independence from the Soviet Union, he earned two degrees, one in design and another in architecture. He also spent some time working with composites in the aerospace industry before he started thinking about building bikes.
Establishing Tsubasa in 2011 was in some ways a selfish exercise as he sought to indulge his passion for cycling while finding an enterprise that would not dilute his personal expression. After so many years of collaborating on architectural projects, he was desperate to find autonomy.
With this in mind, it’s not really surprising that Edvinas was intent on taking responsibility for every aspect of frame production. “No third parties” is his mantra as he crafts every part of Tsubasa’s frames with meticulous care. It’s an approach that adds time and effort but he believes the end result justifies the means.
“It definitely adds more responsibility,” said Edvinas, “however, I believe that generally more responsibility gives you more freedom, which does apply to any aspect of life. And designing a bicycle is not an exclusion. Yes, there are more risks simply because you do more, but at the same time you have more control over materials, layup patterns, design, geometry, which gives you a possibility to produce a lean and mean racing machine.”
Tsubasa is a Japanese word for “wing”, a nod perhaps to Edvinas’s background in aerospace. Or maybe it’s simply a reflection of his search for freedom. Whatever the reason, it’s clear he’s enamoured with flight because the two frames in his current catalogue are named the Crow and the Bee.
Both are fully customisable with a long list of options. Tsubasa is so devoted to personalising the final product that it does not prescribe a fork, choosing instead to work with each buyer to decide the final specifications for the frameset. According to Edvinas, the Bee is a little heavier than the Crow, more compliant, and features Kevlar honeycomb in the lower-half of the frame for greater impact resistance.
For this review, I was given an opportunity to ride the Crow thanks to Tsubasa’s Australian retailers, Skunkworks Bikes and SC Cyclery.
Every Tsubasa frame starts life in the same way, with a chat between the customer and Edvinas. The design of the frame is largely a blank canvas at this point, but as Edvinas learns more about the buyer’s needs and expectations, he can start selecting his materials and deciding the layup.
“First, we will have a chat about what frame the customer has at the moment and what he thinks of it,” explained Edvinas. “That gives a pretty good point to start from. After that we will discuss customer’s expectations in terms of what he would like to improve in the ride. Each frame will have a unique layup pattern and unique blend of materials in order to perform the way that is expected.”
Edvinas uses fibre from a variety of sources: much of it is high modulus and some of it is military grade. He is very discerning about his materials and will refine his choices based on the final specifications for the frame. To this end, he offers a choice of three tapered head tube designs, press fit or threaded bottom brackets, and a standard or integrated seatpost. In addition, he has developed a 10-point scale for the final stiffness of the frame.
The geometry of the frame is dictated by the customer’s fit data. This is something that Edvinas leaves in the hands of professional fitters, so there is no need to travel to Tsubasa’s workshop to decide this aspect of the frame’s design. Once he has that data, Edvinas can devise the final geometry of the frame.
While Edvinas is clearly devoted to composites, the Crow does have some metallic parts. The dropouts are made from titanium, as is the brake bridge for the rear calliper. The seats for the headset bearings are made from aluminium alloy, and for those opting for a threaded bottom bracket, a titanium sleeve is used.
As for cable routing, Edvinas prefers internal routing and dedicated fittings for the groupset, but the final choice is left in the hands of the buyer. Interchangeable ports can be provided to suit both mechanical and electronic groupsets, if desired.
Every Tsubasa is finished with a raw blend of textures. The front triangle appears to be wrapped in cloth, however the texture is actually an imprint in the resin, created by the peel layer that is used to wrap the frame prior to vacuum bagging and curing. As such, it’s harder wearing and more protective than any painted finish, plus it keeps the final weight of the frame down.
Elsewhere, there is a mix of gloss and matte surfaces that combine to yield a frame that satisfies the modern stealth aesthetic while offering the onlooker an intriguing range of textures. I couldn’t resist the draw of these tiny details but I can imagine some will be put off by the raw features of the Crow. I see it as a distinctive touch that won’t be confused with any other brand.
There is plenty of scope for using paint to customise the frame but it will add to the final cost of the frame. For example, the coloured head badge and down tube logo painted on the sample sent for review adds £350 (~AUD$600). Otherwise, buyers can expect simple black-on-black logos.
The Crow is a lightweight frame. A 54cm version, like the one provided for this review, weighs ~740g, depending on the final stiffness. With a starting weight like that, it won’t be hard to defy the UCI’s weight limit of 6.8kg for the final build.
And that’s exactly what Zak Smiley at Skunkworks Bikes was able to do when building up the Crow for this review, which weighed in at 6.33kg without pedals. At the heart of the bike is SRAM’s Red eTap groupset combined with eebrakes, Quarq’s DZero powermeter for the crankset, and custom-built Curve 35mm G4 clinchers with Wheels Manufacturing hubs and Vittoria Corsa clinchers (23C).
The asking price for the Crow starts at £4,500 (~AUD$7,500) for the frame only while Skunkworks Bikes and SC Cyclery are offering framesets (frame, fork, headset, seatpost clamp) for AUD$8,500. In all instances, a 50% deposit is required when placing an order. Production time is one month, so buyers can expect a wait of 6-8 weeks, depending on how much time is required to finalise the design of the frame.
Every Tsubasa frame is backed by a five-year warranty and there is a crash replacement program. For more information, visit Tsubasa, Skunkworks Bikes and SC Cyclery.
As the lightest bike I’ve ever reviewed, the Crow was quick to make a strong impression. Aside from being obviously light, it was very agile and highly responsive, so riding the Crow was an energising experience.
Unsurprisingly, the bike was at its best on any slope. The bike was always willing to take off whenever I was prepared to get out of the saddle and press on the pedals. And while I felt lighter and more capable on the slopes, I still couldn’t close the gap to stronger, more gifted climbers. It doesn’t matter how light a bike is, it won’t stop the lungs from burning when attacking a climb.
According to Edvinas, the frame supplied for this review rated 6/10 on his stiffness scale, and that proved to be a perfect match for my weight and riding style. I was able to tackle everything from smooth bitumen to unpaved tracks without suffering any discomfort, yet I could still revel in a firm race-oriented chassis when making an effort out of the saddle.
It was also very easy to tune the ride quality of the bike by changing the wheels. Curve’s G4 rims offered a lot of radial stiffness and added a distinct edge to the performance of the Crow. On smooth roads, the bike felt faster, more responsive, and yes, more exciting to ride, but created an excess of feedback on rougher roads.
Swapping out the Curves for a set of my own low profile alloy wheels with tyres that were a little wider (25C versus 23C) smoothed out the ride quality considerably, and in this guise, the Crow was a versatile performer well suited to long outings and varying road conditions. I could achieve the same effect by fitting Roval’s CLX 50s, proving that there is little point in concentrating on rim materials and profiles when it comes to judging the ride quality of a wheelset.
After a week or so on the bike, I lost the sense of its weightlessness and the bike seemed less extraordinary. That’s not to say it was no longer enjoyable to ride, and in fact, as those first impressions faded, I discovered there was more to appreciate about the Crow.
What struck me most was how versatile the bike was. I found there was as much joy in riding the bike out to the hills as there was in attacking them. And there wasn’t much holding the bike back on the descents either. As a result, I found myself thinking of the Crow as a rider’s bike, the kind of bike that will always serve its owner with aplomb, regardless of the terrain and road conditions.
The Crow also proved to be the kind of bike that works so well that I stopped taking notice of it. Indeed, I started to take it for granted. I suspect part of this disappearing trick can be attributed to the damping behaviour of carbon fibre, but there was also the fact that there were no niggles in its performance to distract me.
It wasn’t too difficult to re-capture my first impressions of the bike, though. All I had to do was spend a couple of days on another bike then I was able to re-discover the excitement of riding the Crow all over again. With the amount of money involved, the Crow really demands to be ridden every day, but for those that like to train heavy and race light, I expect the Crow will always be a delight to come back to.
The geometry chosen for the demo frame produced a bike that was quite manoeuvrable. On flat roads, I found it easy to change direction through any corner, but the bike was prone to an amount of twitchiness at high speeds. In this regard, the 400mm bars that were fitted to the bike helped to quicken the steering response so I had to reach for the drops and lower my centre of mass to feel truly stable on the bike when travelling over 60km/hr.
With that said, it’s always a little futile dwelling upon the steering and handling of a bespoke frameset because the buyer is able to select both. However my experience with the narrow handlebars provides a good illustration of how the choice of components can have a tangible impact on the behaviour of the bike. The effect of handlebar width on the steering response of the bike is similar to stem length, so it deserves to be considered at the outset of any bespoke project.
This is the realm where custom bike-builders like Skunkworks Bikes and SC Cyclery excel because they understand how the choice of the parts can influence the final outcome. By adopting the same kind of tailored approach as Edvinas uses to construct the Crow, an experienced custom bike-builder is able to make sure the entire bike suits the needs of the rider. In this instance, Zak was shooting for an aggressive race bike, and all his component choices worked well to ensure this.
In the aftermath of my time on the Crow, I was left pondering the potential of the bike for my own needs, even going so far as imagining a conversation with Edvinas. The sample sent for review easily rivalled the best carbon bikes I’ve even been on, such as Canyon’s Ultimate CF SLX and Scott’s Addict, so the prospect of further refining the geometry and ride characteristics of the Crow was wonderfully compelling.
However, the price is an obstacle. This is not a bike many will ever consider but as a premium bespoke offering, the Crow sits well with frames from celebrated workshops such as Parlee, Crumpton, and Calfee. All that is lacking is the same kind of reputation but I don’t expect it will take long for that to change.