At an Interbike trade show some years ago, one whimsical and somewhat fed up manufacturer exhibited his “latest model.”  It was his “lowest-priced Shimano Ultegra bike,” featuring an entire Ultegra kit hanging from a metal coat hanger.

Four years out of every five, that’s how it is in the bike biz.  “What’s your cheapest Dura Ace bike?” ask retailers, who show little interest in the frame on which the parts hang.

But that’s changing, and nowhere is this more evident than in the tri market. Is anyone asking what hubs come on a popular bike?  What brake calipers?  Stem?  Headset?  In this market, the hot features are frame materials, geometry, and whether the bike and its tubes are truly aerodynamic.

All these are “frame features,” and this is why we think 2006 can fairly be called “The Year of the Frame.”  This is the first of three themes that set this model year apart from any in recent memory.

The second theme is a subset of the first, in that it speaks to a specific category of frame.  Perhaps the best example is Cervelo’s P2 Carbon, a sub-$4000 complete bike that can compete with any bike, at any price.  Starting with Kuota’s sub-$3000 K-factor, and up through to its $4400 Kalibur and beyond to Orbea’s value-spec’d Ordu, you find three Quintana Roos (Seduza, Caliente, Lucero), another Cervelo (P3 Carbon), a pair of Giant Trinity models, and two builds of Trek’s Equinox TTX.  Also in this general price point, let’s not forget, is the updated version of the original carbon tri bike, Kestrel’s Airfoil Pro.

Each of these bikes has this in common:  You can win any race on it, you have nothing to apologize for, and little to wish for underneath you that didn’t come as original equipment.  When one ponders BMC’s time trial bike, how much more, really, do you get for $12,500 that doesn’t come on a P2 Carbon or Kuota Kalibur, which have a combined cost that is less than half the BMC’s price?  The value at this mid price point is notable.

Finally, there is one other theme you’ll find in almost all these 2006 mid-and higher-priced bikes. Companies like Kuota, Cervelo, Litespeed, Quintana Roo, Felt, Orbea, Giant, Look, Time and many others solved a tricky engineering problem:  inserting an aero seat post into an aero seat tube.  In so doing, another issue formerly put to bed proved once again thorny.  It used to be easy to make a 75° bike ride with an apparent seat angle of 78°.  It was not a problem to make a 76° bike ride at 81°.  You just substituted a new seat post, or flipped the one you had backwards.  But not anymore, not with proprietary aero seat posts that could not be replaced.  Bike makers had to go back and figure out how to accommodate the wide range of customers to whom they wanted to sell.  Cervelo, Javelin and Kestrel have seat posts featuring multiple holes inside of which the post’s hardware clamps onto the saddle’s rails.  Simply move the hardware into the forward or rearward holes and you have an apparent seat angle that varies widely.

Orbea and Kuota offer multiple aero seat posts.  Guru and Specialized solved the problem by altering their aero post heads, so as to move their geometry two or so degrees steeper throughout their lines.  Litespeed and Quintana Roo come with an aftermarket attachment called a “Shuttle” that allows great fore/aft saddle adjustability.  Giant has a set of “ways” on its aero seat post clamp, like a lathe, and the clamp’s hardware moves fore and aft to suit the user.

This is the year of the frame.  More than that, it’s the year of the sophisticated triathlon customer.  In times past, when frames were touted it was their light weights that were advertised.  2.8 pounds.  2.4 pounds.  2.0 pounds.  Today’s savvy triathlete understands that the functional difference between a few ounces is nil.  You don’t hear bike companies talking about their frames’ weights to the exclusion of the important elements.

Simply put, tri bike companies are endeavoring to make bikes that work, and why not?  They’re finding that when they succeed at making a functional frame, they are rewarded at the cash register.