A reader writes: "I'm curious -- any thoughts on the downsides of MAX tubing that Dave Kirk talks about in his blog? ("New Stuff," October 25, 2010). You're both thoughtful and insightful when it comes to this kind of discussion, and I'm interested in what you think."
I think Dave raises some interesting points about how MAX frames were constructed in the past and, perhaps peripherally, about the limitations of lugged frame building. Now we’ve never been one here to tout a particular material over another or felt that one method of joining tubes is inherently superior to another. Like a mother with her children we love them all - maybe not screwed-and-glued like the Alan frames of old - but modern joining methods all seem to work pretty well.
If we look at the MAX frames from the 1980s we see some limitations: stout - the less forgiving among us might even say heavy; a stiff ride; maybe a lug shape that few could love. But for a subset of strong, heavy riders on crappy roads the original MAX frame works just fine, particularly back in the day.
Now if we move a little further away from the original MAX design and look at what modern builders such as Mike Zanconato and Don Walker are doing with MAX we see use of lighter tubes along with carved lugs and bottom brackets which remove much of the excess material associated with the weight of these frames.
By going even further from the original and using lighter seat and head tubes along with lighter seatstays, coupled with use of TIG-welding, and using the latest/lightest iteration of MAX tubes - the Columbus Life-based top and down tubes - we find ourselves with a suddenly-competitive 3.5 pound steel frame. By choosing TIG-welding over lugs we can orient the tubes any way we like to lessen the stiffness of the frame on a given plane.
Let’s look at that ovalization real quick, shall we? If we ovalize on the vertical axis we stiffen the frame vertically but we reduce the torsional stiffness - torsion being a fancy word for twisting. So a round tube of a given size will have more torsional rigidity than a ovalized tube of an equivalent size - but the ovalized tube can be either stiffer or more compliant in a given direction if that is important to the builder. Here at HampCo we orient our top tube and down tube on opposing axes at the head tube to soften up the ride, because the top tube will mate better with the tubes at each end, and because we find it attractive.
Here’s what I like about MAX frames in no particular order:
They look cool and I love the organic quality of the shaped tubes. I’m not a huge fan of all shaped tubing but I do like MAX. Looking down at that top tube flaring out into the head tube as you ride; well, it may not be the greatest sensation in the world but it aint bad.
The history involved: MAX was big in the mid-80s to mid-90s when my brother was racing pro and while he was too light for one of these frames I always felt MAX was THE it frame. Phil Anderson, Steve Bauer, and MAX Sciandri all rode MAX frames in the Classics - ‘nuff said.
The guy who makes almost all of our welded frames these days - MAX Kullaway - loves if for machining and welding; it’s the good stuff. Columbus uses smart alloys and the tubes are always drawn straight and smooth.
A MAX frame with a good fork and comfy 28mm tires on 3x wheels and a crappy road - then you shall know true happiness. The stuff rides great, simply put. There is little or no flex under pressure on the pedals but just enough cush over cobbles and potholes to keep the ride comfortable; the front end is delightfully rigid.
Lugged or welded - you choose. Welded can be made lighter, lugs can be carved and thinned for greater beauty.
The tubes are big and bigger is better, right? Well, maybe not for everyone but if we’re looking for a stiffer frame for a heavier rider then bigger IS generally better. And again, it can look attractive and more “modern” - if you like that sort of thing.
So is there a compelling reason to buy a MAX frame over a frame with traditional cylindrical tubes, or vice versa? A person looking for a new steel frame can choose from traditional round tubing, modern round tubing (also called “OS”, or “oversized”), the newer OOS tubing such as Dave references above, or a wide variety of shaped tubes including MAX. So we can go big or small, welded or lugged, shaped or not - what to do? Which is best? Stiffest? Lightest? Most comfortable? Help!
Here’s what I do: choose with your heart. Get what moves you. The differences are subtle and not worth agonizing over. Want a welded MAX frame? Get one. Lugged MAX frame? Ditto. Think you’d prefer a lugged frame with 1” top tube and 1.125” down tube? Get that instead - no wrong answer. Titanium/aluminum/carbon? Same answer.
But I’ll be riding my MAX bike with a big grin on my face knowing that my bike is no more (or less) outmoded and heavy than the guy riding it. It's still my favorite bike.