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Trek, you tease.
The Wisconsin-based bike company sent out a cryptic message last week. It read: “Cycling’s most important change in 30 years. On 20 March, we’re unveiling something that will change cycling forever.”
So what could cycling’s most important change in 30 years be? Well, we have a couple clues. We did some digging, and we thought we had it. Then we thought we didn’t. Now we’re just not sure.
It’s probably materials-related, of that much we’re relatively confident. Carbon fibre has been cycling’s buzz material for a long time. That “in 30 years bit” is a clue, too. Trek’s first full carbon fibre road bike, the Model 5000, was introduced in 1989 – 30 years ago.
The speculation begins with precisely what the material, or composite of many materials, is. Below are a few theories.
3D something or other
In mid-2017, a new Melbourne-based company, Titomic, launched with the claim they were on a path to revolutionise manufacturing industries through additive technology (aka, 3D printing). Shortly after, the publicly-listed company announced that Peter Teschner, the brains behind the Australian bike brand Teschner, was managing Titomic’s bicycle division. And that news arrived with the announcement that the Australian company had inked a design contract with a leading global bike brand – Trek.
In a separate company press release, Titomic revealed its purpose in the contract. “The Agreement establishes a strategic alliance with the intention to incorporate Titomic Kinetic Fusion additive manufacturing into a global bicycle brand that will provide the bicycle company with a state of the art product. This first phase of the agreement will utilise Titomic’s advanced manufacturing process to design a new concept that will achieve the bike company’s target performance characteristics. Once the first phase is complete, Titomic will begin the fabrication phase, which will be conducted at Titomic’s Melbourne manufacturing facility.”
Now almost 15 months on from when Titomic first boasted of its contract to potential investors, we have Trek claiming to have something that will change cycling forever. Coincidence? At first, I thought I’d cracked it. But I’m now far less sure. Trek’s own promotional teaser video shows some form of composite material awaiting lay-up, which is not obviously related to the 3D printing Titomic is known for.
If the 3D titanium printing element is real, then Trek won’t be the first in the bicycle industry to do it – a bit of a stretch for Trek then to claim it’ll change cycling. For example, the also Melbourne-based Bastion, who first appeared with a high-end road bike in 2015, use 3D titanium printed lugs and in-house woven carbon tubes. That company has recently invested in its own small 3D printer, with which it now manufactures small parts for other Australian custom builders including Prova, Mooro Cycles and quietly, even Baum.
In the US, frame builder Métier Vélo offers a similar concept to what Bastion is doing, while the likes of Moots and Reynolds (tubing and frame parts supplier) have moved to using 3D printed titanium for tricky flat-mount dropouts. Meanwhile, in the UK, Robot Bike Co mountain bikes very recently joined forces with the winningest family in downhill mountain bike racing, the Athertons, to launch Atherton Bikes which extensively uses 3D print technology.
However, with Titomic on board, Trek could be looking to do something we can’t yet conceptualize. This would make the “change cycling forever” stuff a bit less hyperbolic. Titomic’s enormous 9m x 3m x 1.5m printing table is not limited to small lugs or dropouts, but is capable of printing an entire frame in one go. And that’s assuming Trek will even use this specific part of Titomic’s technology.
To quote what CyclingTips previously reported, “the new printer employs a particle spraying method developed by the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) that will allow a seamless titanium frame to be created in just 25min.
“The key to the new technology, which was originally developed for delivering metallic coatings, is a mechanical fusion process driven by a cold gas. There is no need to melt the titanium particles to create a structure, which simplifies and speeds up the manufacturing process. It also promises to be cheaper, and other materials can be introduced into the structure to improve specific properties.”
An automated production time of 25 minutes is indeed a revelation. Perhaps enough to change cycling forever when you consider the 12–24 hour creation time often mentioned in production carbon fibre frame manufacturing.
However, it may be Trek’s ability to combine that technology with some new material, or the use of Titomic’s (previously the CSIRO’s) structural particle spraying technology that’s even more groundbreaking.
The implications of such 3D-printed technology would mean Trek isn’t overstating the importance of its impending announcement. Production costs of premium bikes could fall steeply, while freedom to do small production runs to cover less popular sizes, niche geometries, and specialist features could become a reality for a company the size of Trek. Mountain bike full suspension frames could feature unbelievably intricate shapes, while the current generation of carbon fibre e-bikes could quickly become old news.
What if it’s not printed?
The above sounds all very plausible if it weren’t for that darn video, which seems to clearly show some type of composite. I reached out to carbon fibre wizard Raoul Luescher for his thoughts, and it seems Trek’s mysterious video is vague enough to even stump a composites expert. Luescher wasn’t sure of what the video shows, but did say it doesn’t look like carbon fibre.
Onto another aeronautical engineer. This source doesn’t typically deal with materials, but speculated that it could be something along the lines of Nanocellulose – a relatively new wonder material derived from wood pulp. Such a product has the potential to be stronger than carbon fibre, and extremely environmentally friendly. A plant-based performance product? It would certainly make sense for an industry that’s currently struggling with the environmental impact of carbon frame manufacturing. It’s something in which Trek has been an early mover..
Another environmentally-friendly idea is Flax Fibre. From a visual point of view, it loosely matches what Trek shows in its promotional video. However, it’s not quite the revolution that Trek promises, especially given Schwinn briefly used this material some eight years ago (and with internal glowing lights fitted, too!).
As James Huang covered at the end of December 2016, there are a number of new hybrid composites fighting to become the next iteration of carbon fibre composite as we know it. Materials such as Innegra and DSM Dyneema, when woven with carbon fibre, can provide superior strength and impact resistance. And while they themselves may not be as environmentally sustainable as something like Nanocellulose or Flax, the improved safety benefits and frame longevity of such composites could be seen as good for the environment.
However, the use of Innegra doesn’t really fit with Trek’s claim. Allied Cycle Works and PRO both have dabbled in using the material. Dyneema seems a little more plausible, especially given Dyneema’s makers keep teasing to be in talks with leading bike manufacturers. To date, Dyneema has been seen in cycling shoes, clothing and bags, but not frames.
One crazy concept is the use of Boeing’s MicroLattice, a material that’s arguably still in the concept phase. It’s quite likely we’ll see this reinforcing material in the future, which could produce extremely strong and impact-resistant structures, but 2019 feels a little too soon.
Where things get really interesting though are emerging hybrid composites involving metals, such as those from Belgium engineering house Rein4ced. Could it be that Trek and Titomic have realised their own way of combining great materials into a super one?
One more coincidence
Now, clearly Trek’s marketing has worked on me; I’m intrigued and equally stumped. I don’t know what this bike will be made of or what it will look like. However, there’s one more somewhat coincidental event happening here. Trek, and their direct competitors, typically launch updated models like clock-work every three years. And the current iteration of the Domane SLR was launched in early April, 2016.
And so, I can’t help but feel we’re about to see a new Trek Domane, featuring some fairly wild materials advancements. And certainly, that Domane will be just the beginning of things to come from the American company.
Think I got it wrong? Then watch me eat crow in twelve days time. Until then, speculate away!