Low Bicycles MK Disc Road frameset review: On the razor’s edge
It's a party on two wheels.
It's a party on two wheels.
When it comes to modern road racing bikes, the “cutting edge” invariably involves some combination of carbon fiber and aerodynamic efficiency, likely tossed together with a generous helping of CFD, CdA, CAD, and FEA for good measure. In that context, the Low MK Disc Road is a distinct outlier.
It’s made of aluminum, not carbon fiber composite. It’s welded, not molded. The tubes are round and straight. There are visible cables. The seatpost is round and secured with a conventional external aluminum clamp.
By all conventional mainstream marketing trends, this bike is a dinosaur.
But what a glorious dinosaur it is.
Low Bicycles is a one-person outfit based in San Francisco, California, and was founded by builder Andrew Low with a singular purpose (and apparently an affection for the royal “we”).
“We are not trying to reinvent the wheel. We build race bikes. Our frames are built to go fast and be tough. Our geometries remain true to, and are intended for competitive racing; with aggressive profiles, responsive handling, and overall strength and stiffness. Our aesthetic is brash and bold, emphasizes clean lines, smooth welds, supple contours, proportion, power and simplicity.”
Low works solely with 7005 aluminum, and while there are technically 13 different Low models to choose from across two product families, they all share several key characteristics.
The down tubes are massive, the tubing is refreshingly devoid of any wacky shapes, the multi-pass welds are impeccably smooth, and every model eschews any semblance of gimmickry. Finishes are limited to either single-color powder coats or raw brushed surfaces, all with enormous block-letter logos that are unabashedly in-your-face, yet somehow manage not to offend.
The MK Disc Road is one of Low’s flagship models, and features his full bag of tricks.
The down tube measures a whopping 65 mm in diameter (just 10 mm shy of a typical beer can) and is very mildly ovalized vertically at the 1 1/8-to-1 1/4″ tapered IS-style head tube. The top tube is straight and nearly level, starting out round up front before flattening slightly at the round seat tube.
The seatstays are set wide at the seat tube, joined to the seat cluster in a manner that recalls a pre-aero Cannondale SuperSix Evo, and flattened through the upper two-thirds in another nod to ride comfort.
Down below, the chainstays are nominally round where they’re welded to the English-threaded bottom bracket shell, subtly scalloped on the inner side at the rim and tire for clearance, and then dramatically flattened through the midsection before turning round again and meeting with socket-style dropouts made by former fellow builder Mike Ahrens (who is now a lead product design engineer for Apple and makes headset spacer bottle openers on the side under the Wisecracker label).
Although the dropouts are made by Ahrens, the burly machined aluminum replaceable derailleur hanger is made by Paragon Machine Works, which also provides the machined aluminum thru-axle built with both a 5 mm hex socket and 15 mm flats for redundancy. And like all Low frames, this one is signed by its creator as the finishing touch and as a subtle reminder of its handmade nature.
“I’ve spent a lot of time on tube design,” Low explained. “All the tubing on the MK frames is custom extruded to my specifications (butting profiles, diameters, tapers, etc). The great thing about aluminum is that, compared to steel, it is soft and light. This allows a really wide range of stiffness and compliance to be tuned into all the tubes. Because the material is light, I can use large diameter tubing for stiffness where I want it, and because the material is soft I can use small diameters and flattened profiles for give and flex where I want it.
“I try to go as thin as possible on tubing wall thickness without turning the frame into a soda can. I’m not an engineer, but in terms of butting profiles, I’ve sort of intuited that long transitions from thick to thin portions of tubes are best and will give the most organic movement under stress.
“I like to visualize a tree branch that gradually tapers and how that would bend and sway and how the movement is gradually distributed, versus a tree branch that suddenly went from thick to thin and how all the movement would be limited, jerky and uneven, concentrated in one place along the branch. I also put a lot of attention into shaping the seatstays and chainstays to make them flex more easily up and down and as stiff as possible from side to side.
“Overall, I try to build as stiff a bike as humanly possible by using very large-diameter tubing. I don’t think you will find an aluminum bike out there with as big a down tube as mine. My thinking is, make the frame as stiff as possible while letting the tube butting profiles and shaping smooth out the ride.”
As for the frame geometry, let’s just say the handling is designed to be … quick. Bucking the trend of longer and slacker front ends, do-anything versatility, and forgiving body positioning, the MK Disc Road is short, low, and steep. Got back problems or hoping for lazier steering? Look elsewhere.
Value isn’t one of the attributes of the higher-end MK series, though, and indeed, the MK Disc Road doesn’t exactly come across as a screaming deal at US$2,699 for a painted frame, black Enve carbon fork, Thomson seatpost clamp, and Chris King or Cane Creek headset. Custom geometry is available for an additional US$200. And if one of the 14 stock powdercoat paint choices doesn’t float your boat, you can choose your own for an extra US$100.
Want to go nuts with a fully polished finish? Or maybe a wet paint job? Those are available upcharge options, too, but what you can’t get from Low is a complete build – only bare framesets are offered. Pricing for international customers is based on current exchange rates, plus shipping and applicable import duties.
“Building frames by hand in small batches is expensive, no matter what the material,” Low said. “Unfortunately (for me), aluminum has somewhat of a reputation for being a material for cheap bikes. I think a lot of it is that steel has a heritage in handmade frame building, so people associate steel with quality, while aluminum doesn’t have that heritage and is associated with cheap, mass-produced factory frames. This makes people think aluminum frames are lower-quality, but other than subjective opinions on how a steel bike feels, there is nothing inherently better about steel.
“I see handmade steel and titanium frames being sold for US$3,500-5,000, so I don’t feel too bad charging US$2,600 for a frame that, with proper care, will last 20+ years and will perform better than steel in terms of speed, stiffness, and weight. In addition, aluminum tubing is more expensive than steel, and I can build two steel frames in the time it takes me to make one MK frame. My process requires extensive tube shaping, multiple-pass welding, and weld polishing.”
Regardless of your own views on what aluminum frames should cost, part of the appeal of a Low frame is the exclusivity. Total production is just 70 frames per year or so, and the current wait time for a Low MK-series frame is about to climb to 15 months. Thankfully, Low was able to produce a one-off on a shorter timeline specifically for Shimano’s latest Dura-Ace 12-speed wiredless electronic groupset.
Claimed weight for a MK Disc Road is 1,400 g for a 54 cm sample. Built up with that Dura-Ace groupset, matching 36 mm-deep Dura-Ace carbon clinchers wrapped with 28 mm-wide Vittoria Corsa Control clinchers (with butyl inner tubes), and a smattering of carbon fiber finishing kit from Pro, the total weight came out to 7.57 kg (16.69 lb) without pedals or accessories.
There is no shortage of versatile all-road bikes these days with heaps of tire clearance, do-anything handling, and forgiving manners.
This is not one of those bikes.
Well, sort of. Technically speaking, the Low MK Disc Road will accept a 700c tire up to 32 mm-wide, although I’m not entirely sure why anyone buying a bike like this would want to do that. This is a hard-edge road racing bike, pure and simple.
The bike’s defining characteristic is its insanely quick handling.
The steep 73° head tube angle, 43 mm fork rake, and 28 mm-wide tires yield a short 60 mm trail dimension that, by itself, would already suggest an incredibly responsive front end. But Low then takes it to the next level by pairing that with an ultra-short 562 mm front-center, stubby 408 mm-long chainstays, and a super compact 966 mm wheelbase that, all together, makes for otherworldly cornering capabilities.
The Low MK Disc Road doesn’t so much arc through turns; it’s almost like it rotates about a point in space that feels like it’s directly below you. Initial turn-in is remarkably immediate, and if you even think about changing your line mid-corner, it’s done.
But for all its immediacy, it’s still surprisingly approachable. That initial turn-in may be ludicrously quick, but the bike faithfully holds the line you choose without feeling nervous. And at high speeds, it’s somehow still planted and composed, already ready to change direction when asked, but also waiting patiently until you ask it to — and not a moment before.
With so much weight on the front wheel, there’s also an unusually generous amount of information coming up through the bars on what’s going on down there. Especially when attacking a descent in the drops, there’s plenty of body weight driving that contact patch into the tarmac, with a commensurate increase in grip to go with it. Corners on the MK Disc Road aren’t so much afterthoughts in the middle of a ride, but what you intentionally set out to find when you plan your route.
Going along with that hard-edged handling personality is fantastic chassis stiffness, which is to be expected given those oversized tubing dimensions. The Low MK Disc responds instantly when you rise out of the saddle for a sprint or steep uphill pitch. It’s gloriously adept in translating your efforts into forward motion at the rear wheel, and there’s little indication of any twist happening in the front triangle, either.
That the MK Disc Road is stiff in terms of efficiency is hardly a shock; however, the ride quality most certainly is. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the MK Disc Road is an especially cushy machine, although it is definitely much more comfortable than appearances (and preconceptions) would suggest.
It doesn’t damp high-frequency vibrations like better carbon frames do, but there’s indeed a subtle flex pattern to it, particularly on harsher impacts that you’d otherwise expect to rattle your eyeballs. But on the upside of that damping equation, there’s also that entertaining level of communication and road feedback you get from better aluminum frames that manages to be informative without yelling.
Of course, that relatively slender 27.2 mm-diameter seatpost and the 28 mm-wide Vittoria Corsa Control tires I was running most of the time obviously don’t hurt in terms of smoothing out the ride. But even those can’t entirely make up for a chassis that’s inherently punishing, which the MK Disc Road most certainly is not. And if anything, because of how the frame’s semi-sloping format doesn’t leave as much seatpost sticking out as a more compact frame design, it only further highlights how unexpectedly refined this thing is.
Low nailed the detail work on this frameset, too. The disc tabs are perfectly aligned for easy caliper setup, the seat tube is cleanly bored and honed so that even carbon seatposts slide out with nary a mark, and the bottom bracket cups thread in by hand without feeling remotely sloppy or loose.
“I chase the bottom bracket threads, face the bottom bracket shell, ream and face the head tube bearing seat, and ream the seat tube,” Low explained. “I test fit everything before sending it out, so in theory everything should fit properly by the time the frame is shipped out. I don’t face the caliper mount, but I haven’t noticed or heard of any issues with getting the rear caliper properly aligned.”
And visually, it’s hard to find any fault here. The finish? Those welds? The paint color? I’m not normally a fan of monstrous down tube logos, but even I wouldn’t have it any other way here. It’s perfect just the way it is.
Lest you start thinking the Low MK Disc Road is some sort of unicorn, let me reassure you by saying there are also a handful of caveats to consider.
For one, that remarkable agility may be an absolute joy at medium-to-high speeds, but it’s borderline dangerous at low ones (no pun intended). I’m of average height (1.73 m / 5’ 8″) but have larger-than-typical feet (size 43), so I’m used to having toe overlap on high-performance road bikes. But whereas most tires perhaps only lightly brush the front of my shoes on occasion, the Low is so short that it puts the front wheel almost into the knuckle of my big toe. As compared to a similarly sized Specialized Tarmac, the Low’s front-center is a full 15 mm shorter.
There should almost be a warning label on the top tube informing riders not to wear white shoes (or perhaps Low could consider including a pack of branded baby wipes to help riders keep their shoes clean).
Low said that shouldn’t be as big an issue moving forward, though.
“I come from track bikes so whether I’m doing it on purpose or not, I trend toward a tighter geometry; I was never bothered by a little toe overlap,” he said. “That said, I’ve been thinking about the tight front end recently (especially on the smaller sizes) and decided for 2022, I will be slackening the head tube angle by half to one degree depending on the size (the frame you tested does not have this modification).
“I don’t think there will be much noticeable effect on handling, but it will make the bike a tiny bit more user friendly. This will get the front-center to about 575 mm.”
Versatility is clearly also very low on the priority list for the MK Disc Road. Although maxing out the official tire clearance obviously pays dividends in terms of ride comfort (and be warned, I’d say Low’s 32 mm claim is very much pushing things here), the bike’s ultra-quick handling isn’t exactly conducive to slippery surfaces — and a bigger front tire would only exacerbate the toe overlap issue.
I’m not going to suggest that a couple hundred grams is going to make one iota of difference in terms of performance, but even mildly mass-conscious buyers might be hard-pressed to ignore the MK Disc Road’s middling weight. It’s more than a couple hundred grams heavier than a Specialized Allez Sprint or Trek Emonda ALR, and that’s with a considerable price premium to boot.
And if you’re really concerned about going fast, I also can’t help but mention that big round tubes like what’s found on the MK Disc Road are about the worst you can get in terms of aerodynamic efficiency.
Even if you’re specifically looking for something with lightning-quick handling, the MK Disc Road still may not make the most sense on paper. But I’d argue that Low is playing more to the senses here than straight logic.
I liken the Low MK Disc Road to the used Ford Fiesta ST hatchback I recently purchased. Its bones are inexpensive, the design is inherently basic, there are few frills, the ride is only somewhat tolerable, and it’s such a niche machine that it’ll never appeal to the masses (at least not here in the United States, where it was sadly discontinued after MY2019).
But as a simple formula taken to the extremes, it’s also an extraordinarily capable-handling vehicle that lives for corners, it’s sufficiently rare that it feels somewhat special, and it’s supremely rich in terms of sensory stimulation. I love it so, and it’s a similar story with this Low. It’s far more of a sporting machine than the mainstream marketing bigwigs might have you believe something like this should be, and I struggle to think of another pure road bike I’ve ridden that’s similarly entertaining.
You don’t buy one of these because it’s faster in a wind tunnel, posts a lower number on a scale, or does better in some bench test. You buy it because it makes you want to take the longer and more sinuous way home, because it makes you turn and look at it as you walk away after a ride, because of the way it makes you giggle like a little kid when you’re riding it.
Maybe that 15-month wait isn’t so unreasonable after all.
More information can be found at www.lowbicycles.com.