Copied with permission from Adventure Cyclist
By John Schubert
Two men have changed my vision of my next dream vacation. The men are Steve Smilanick of S&S Machining and Steve Bilenky of Bilenky Cycleworks, and the vision now looks like this: Mrs. Schubert and I will fly to some exotic location. (Nominations are welcome; I was loosely thinking of the Rhine Valley or Nova Scotia). When we get off the plane, we'll collect our luggage: a lumpy duffel bag and a medium-size suitcase.
We'll find the best restaurant at the airport, relax over a nice lunch, and return to our luggage. We'll open the suitcase (it's 26 x 26 x 10, to be exact) and, to the amazement of all onlookers, start pulling out bike parts. In about 10 minutes, we'll mount all the panniers and ride off on our full-size 700C Bilenky Tinker tandem. And the tandem will perform identically to a top-quality non-collapsing tandem.
framebuilder Steve Bilenky with his personal touring bike in pieces. In about a minute, he can be riding a fully assembled bike. Or, in just a few minutes, he can pack the pieces in a medium-size suitcase.
Photo by Kreg D Ulery
This vision is possible, awaiting only an abuse of the Schubert Mastercard to become reality. And it's possible because Smilanick had a similar vision years ago, and Smilanick just happens to run a high-tech machine shop.
"I was going on a cruise to Europe and I couldn't stand the thought of being on tour busses and taxicabs the whole time. I wanted to ride," Smilanick said. "I looked into the smaller folding bikes, but I'm 6 feet 2 inches, 230 pounds. I wanted my regular bike."
So Smilanick made some high-tech torque couplings that made his bike frame separate into two pieces and reassemble in seconds. He figured out how to fit it all in that small suitcase. He took a hacksaw to his Bianchi. The rest is history in the making. Smilanick's Roseville, California-based S&S Machine now manufacturers and sells these couplings to an impressive list of framebuilders: my old friend Bilenky, Richard Sachs, Waterford Precision Cycle Works, Co-Motion, Salsa, J.P. Weigle and 17 others.
Each of these framebuilders, in turn, offers the coupling system in his own style of bikes. Bilenky does a big business retrofitting single bikes (The day I visited Bilenky's shop, a Nishiki and a Trek had been delivered to happy traveling customers). Bilenky sells lots of new coupling tandems, which he calls his Tinker Tandems, plus a few new custom singles. Co-Motion is big on road racing and mountain bikes. Salsa is working on a single-speed fixed-gear city bike. Smilanick's couplings are available in a far wider variety of bikes than they would be if Smilanick made the bikes himself.
The torque couplings are superbly well made, and they reflect the technical competence of S&S Machine. The torque couplings are an offshoot business for S&S. More typical of their core products are numerous mechanical parts, the exit cone and the aft closure for the last remaining "Star Wars" project, the Theater High Altitude Area Defense System (Thaads) missile. With that kind of aerospace background, S&S is more than capable of handling the manufacturing requirements of bicycles.
S&S was unable to think of a catchy name for the product and unwilling to pay an ad agency to do so for them, so they simply call it "The S and S Bicycle Torque Coupling System."
Here's how the couplings work, and why they're so impressive: After your tube is cut, a piece of the torque coupling is silver soldered to each of the cut ends.
The torque couplings have precisely machined intersecting teeth and a threaded ring that screws over the coupled joint. As you screw the threaded ring tight, you bring the intersecting teeth together, tightly. When you're done, there is absolutely no movement or creaking in the coupled joint. And because the wall thickness of the coupling is double or more the wall thickness of the tube, your bike is actually stiffer and stronger. (An S&S demonstration I once saw shows that the torque stiffness of the tube is approximately double that of a tube without a coupling.)
Clearly, an S&S coupling is a far cry from the other cut-tubing hardware you see in your daily life, like, say, plumbing. And yes! You don't have to hook or unhook any cables during assembly or disassembly.
The coupling hardware is hardly noticeable when the bike is assembled.
To the non-technical rider, that's all there is to know. Smilanick put a lot of thought into the couplings so you wouldn't have to. Of course, to those of us who wish we had a machine shop of our own, a product like these couplings is a celebration of a thousand little decisions, each well made.
Take the heat-treated high-strength stainless steel alloy. The threaded ring is heat treated to a higher surface hardness than the teeth are. Why? Because having dissimilar hardness makes the surfaces less susceptible to galling.
Take the shape of the mating teeth. There is clearance at the root of the tooth, and angled mating surfaces, so that if the teeth were to wear slightly, the coupled joint would be just as tight.
Take the future. Work is well under way for aluminum and titanium couplings.
Take the weight. A pair of couplings, with silver solder, adds about nine ounces (less than a water bottle) to the bike's weight.
Take the consistency. The couplings are manufactured in a completely automated process without human intervention. S&S personnel feed four-foot lengths of bar stock in one end of the process and pick up a basket full of finished fittings at the other end.
"The beauty of that is that you end up with everything perfectly concentric. The dimensions are all just there, dead nuts," said Jay Molander, S&S's production manager.
Bevel-cut mating teeth are designed to continue to link tightly;, without noise or movement, even after the wear that comes with years of use.
And from the framebuilder's point of view, S&S couplings are a big plus. For one thing, they're now about a quarter of Bilenky's business. (Bilenky gets three times as many inquires about couplers as he does about his top-of-the-line 32-pound tandem.) For another, they're easy to work with.
"The couplings come from S&S in great shape," Bilenky said. "We just have to polish the flux off after we braze them."
I can promise you that you won't notice any difference riding a bike with S&S Couplers. The couplers add a trivial few ounces of weight. Because they're beefier than the tubing around them, they add slight stiffness. They don't creak or groan because the coupling hardware is far too well made for that. When they are properly tightened (with a wrench that looks like a bottom bracket lock ring spanner) the tube now behaves like it's a solid tube.
I rode Steve Bilenky's personal bike/show bike, a gorgeous touring machine that just happened to fit me. It was a gas. I immediately forgot all about the couplers and concentrated on how nimble and easy to control the bike feels. Riding a custom Bilenky is a treat I've enjoyed on rare-but-happy occasions, and his was just like all the others--until I wanted to take it somewhere in a small suitcase.
Just how fast is the collapsing? On Co-Motion's video-tape, a single bike turns into a packed suitcase in 7 minutes, 20 seconds. And, aside from the couplings themselves, all the bicycle components are completely standard. That would be a plus if you needed replacement parts in a strange land.
The coupler's future possibilities are intriguing.
"We have Tinker Triple on order," Bilenky said. "We're thinking about trying to make it so it can be assembled as either a triple or a tandem."
Coupling bikes are also mass-transit friendly, particularly after they're tucked into the suitcase.
Bilenky charges $400 to retrofit your existing single bike into a coupling bike, and the coupling charges for tandems go up from there. (Tandem retrofits? Find a tandem that has no oval tubing and we'll talk.) The coupling hardware and precision work can't be skimped upon, or your bike won't ride like a Bilenky anymore. The suitcases--your choice of soft-side or hardshell--are between $200 and $300.
So who buys these things?
"Mostly people over 45," Bilenky said. "They're people who were traveling anyway, and now they can take their bikes. What we have now is the case of the first people adopting this. As their bikes are seen by other people, I think there will be more of a groundswell, that this is a cool thing to get."
If you were squeamish about getting that dream bike sawed in half, let me assure you: it's a giant improvement with no technical drawbacks. The only minus is the dent in your Mastercard, and I'll have forgotten about that long before I forget that lovely trip through Nova Scotia. Or is it the Rhine Valley?
Technical Editor John Schubert says his Ballantine book Cycling for Fitness contains more than 200 precision tear-out fish wrappers. Buy several today!
S&S will happily help you pick the framebuilder and/or retailer that will put a coupling bike in your hands. They're at 9334 Viking Place, Roseville,, CA 95747, phone 916/771-0235 or 800/763-5564; fax 916/771-0397
If you need look no father than Bilenky's Northeast Philadelphia shop to find your dream bike, he can be found at 5319 N. 2nd St., Philadelphia, PA 19120, phone 215/329-4744, fax 215/329-5380.
This article appears along with other Adventure Cycling articles in Bike Net on America On Line.
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