Not that it is my aim to defend a competitor, but the recent launch and subsequent dialogue around Cannondale’s new Lefty Ocho raises an interesting, if not common, debate. Some ask or challenge why it is better to do a single-sided fork, and if it is not better, then they suggest that it should not be done. After all, why should anything new not be superior to what’s currently available? If a new product is different but not necessarily superior, why do it? But here’s the thing: when it comes to function/performance, engineering is an application of science, math, and tests that ultimately lead to a solution. The key words here are “ultimately” and “solution” – note that the latter is singular. Given enough time and work, ONE best solution (i.e. design) will be discovered.
Let’s look at road racing motorcycles. In the 1980s superbike racing in the USA was very competitive and popular. And the bikes used transversely-mounted inline four cylinder motors. The four Japanese brands were winning on Sunday and selling on Monday (forget that most motorcycle shops are closed on Mondays!). As the 90s rolled in Ducati was trying to turn its business around and saw superbike racing as a way to make the brand relevant again to U.S. riders. However Ducati’s trademark engine design was an L-twin. However, for a given engine displacement, a twin makes less power than an inline four. So Ducati had a choice to give up their “unique” engine design or be uncompetitive. Fortunately for Ducati the superbike promoter saw the addition of the Italian brand as beneficial to the racing series and provided a handicap – twins could use a larger engine to offset their inherent design deficiency.
Why didn’t Ducati just create and race the superior inline four configuration? In professional racing winning is serious business, and engineers are always seeking the path to the “solution” to go faster. But racing is a marketing tool for brands, and while results are critical, there is a point wherein not compromising the brand’s DNA is even more critical. Ducati did not want to sellout their DNA to become an “Italian Honda” even if it meant fewer race victories.
So brand and product managers can get to points of serious conflict with their engineers: “If we remove this stupid hump in the top tube, the frame will be 1.7% lighter and 12% stiffer” says the engineer. To which the product manager says “but then we’ll lose our signature look and be more like the other frames out there.” This is a true example, and in this case 1.7% was 15g, or a big bite of a Snickers bar! Or possibly in the case of the Ocho, the engineer complains that a single-side fork raises hurdles that would not be there if the fork was of standard design, but the product manager responds with “but we own this look.”
Beyond the commercial marketing side of things, there is the reality that things that are different and veer off the path of the optimal engineering solution can offer other value. Going back to motorcycle engines, twins have a distinct sound, feel, and power delivery that result in a different riding experience that many riders find more satisfying. Furthermore, as I’ll bet is the case with the Lefty Ocho, going down the non-optimal path may result in new ideas in the attempt to address the constraints of an inferior design. I’m not saying the Ocho is an inferior fork, but the reality is a single sided fork is a less rigid structure. So Cannondale had to come up with innovative solutions to address the inherent lack of rigidity. It is possible, that such innovative solutions enable the Ocho to even outperform a standard fork when the standard fork’s engineers were not required to come up innovations.
And then there is “variety is the spice of life.” Regardless of brand DNA, winning, optimal design, etc. there is the reality that the world would be a boring place if only the optimal designs were available. In that world, all cars would look and drive exactly alike for maximized efficiency, we’d eat the same meals for maximized health benefit, our sunglasses would all look the same for maximum eye protection, and the houses we’d live in would be built the same for maximized use of space and energy efficiency. I don’t know about you, but I’d hate to give up Pinot Noir because it was not the optimal red wine varietal!