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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Seven Axiom SL Review: Long Term Test Results

Introduction: Seven on SEVEN 
Around 7 years ago I was busy fretting over which bike I should buy to replace my old ride. There were many directions I could have gone and in the end I took the bold and surprising step into the world of custom titanium. On February 26, 2011 I took receipt of a fully custom Axiom SL from Seven Cycles, a producer and innovator of custom and non-custom bicycles in Watertown Massachusetts, USA.
I would not say this is the only direction to go nor would I say this is the path that is best for everyone. There are tons of great bikes out there made from all kinds of materials and ridden by every type of rider, so I don’t want to get on my holy soapbox and tell anyone that they need to do exactly what I have done.

What I would like to do is offer a detailed review of the bike I built up and hopefully add my experience to the pool of knowledge currently available for people who are considering a custom bicycle frame and especially for those considering a bike from Seven Cycles.
There are two things I have noticed about product reviews, and that is that (a) they are written by people who make their living writing good things about bikes to keep the advertising revenue flowing, and (b) they are usually written within the first weeks of use and they are almost always positive.

Much of this phenomenon comes from our overall excitement over something new. I love new stuff as much as anyone else. Be it bikes, cars, gadgets, T-shirts or lovers… new stuff is always great to have because it is…well… not old. New stuff gives us a reason to get excited and run circles around the living room.
The other part of the equation is that whatever it is… is ours. We make what we feel to be rational decisions in forking over our dough for a doohickey and in doing so we want to defend our sense of making a sound judgment. We take on a certain degree of ownership that extends beyond the product and into the brand. The brand’s identity often speaks to our own identity. These euphoric vapors of newness need time to abate before a good review can be written and sadly, the best reviews are written about your “last bike” when you have a little more clarity. So, sadly, or not, I am still tainted.

What I have done is to put my bike through months of testing and I feel I can now offer a more useful and insightful review of the product.
Needless to say, I am not immune to my own romantic bias, and I shouldn’t be expected to enjoy any sort of immunity. I made the choices and spent the cash on building this bike up. I did my homework and feel like I made informed choices.
A bicycle is only as good as the sum of its parts, so I thought I would offer a complete breakdown of the build and an overall performance summary. Too often we read reviews of a frame, when so much of the ride is being manipulated by components and fit.

Seven Axiom SL Frame:
The Search:
Ordering a custom frame is a frightening and intimidating experience. There is always the thought in the back of your mind that you might screw up and provide the builder with the wrong information and end up with a very expensive bike that you really don’t want to ride. It happens.
I was looking for a titanium race bike to be agile enough for Taiwan’s roads, stiff enough in the drivetrain and stiff enough in the front and rear triangles to transfer over a fair amount of road feel to better assess my tack on the surface. I also wanted the bike to be just, and only just, comfortable enough to handle my notoriously long rides over Taiwanese roads. I also needed a bike aggressive enough for Taiwan’s yearlong bicycle event season. I wanted something that would be comparable to the carbon performance bikes, but still hold that solid metallic feel that I love with the durability of titanium. I have been known to be a bit careless or a klutz.
I guess I’m kinda’ fussy and I really don’t like cosmetic damage like paint chips or nicks in the clearcoat.

I have secretly been mulling this bicycle for a few years now and was already pretty familiar with the primaries. Moots, Independent Fabrications, Seven, LITESPEED, Lynskey, Speedvagen, Spectrum, DeSalvo, Kish, Baum, Eriksen, Rikulau and a whole host of others.

What really made me keep coming back to Seven was the amount of control the company holds over the customization process.

All the companies listed above are excellent frame builders. They all have their strengths and maybe even a little more hipster cachet, as Seven has become so highly regarded it is often the first choice of the executive who has a wallet and ego greater than their commitment to cycling. Who really cares who else is riding which brand, really? 
Most of the higher end American titanium manufacturers rely on the same mills to source their tubing. They are limited to the tube diameters offered by the mill and then tune the ride through an external butting process or through tube shaping. Many don’t even do their own butting.
Seven uses proprietary tubing developed jointly with the mill explicitly for Seven. Seven then custom tunes the tubing through a process of external butting. This cooperation and customization allows a greater degree of tube diameter and thickness to meet the specific needs of each customer.

Even though master builder Tom Kellogg of Spectrum Cycles has his frames welded by Seven, he sources and machines entirely different titanium tubes than used in Seven bikes.
One common critique of titanium bike frames is that they are too soft. This is especially true of many of the earlier frames modeled after steel framed bikes and the tubes were too small or thin. In the age of carbon fiber, where marketers have been busily stoking the consumer’s blind faith in the religion of “stiffness”, the stock titanium frame has gone from the top of the pro peloton to a market niche as a “sportive” road bike.
While I don’t believe ever increasing stiffness is going to make a better and faster bike, I do believe in having a bike with some snap to it. Some of the off the shelf titanium bikes I looked at just lacked that… snap. They also felt like aluminum cans. Coming off a stiff, but ultra-light scandium alloyed frame I was through with the super thin walled tubes.
Lastly, I combed customer reviews of the Seven Axiom SL and was encouraged that the bike held an aggregate 5/5 star rating over 37 reviews. You expect a certain level of inflation with an expensive bike, but as cyclists move on to newer rides they often write negative reviews of their old bikes. The number one complaint was a rider wishing he had made his ride feel either softer or harder.

The Seven Process:
Once I had decided on Seven, I needed to choose a model. Seven has been an innovator in custom material integration since its inception in 1997, and was a pioneer in combining carbon and metal tubing that resulted in a period a few years back where aluminum bikes were being outfitted with carbon stays and carbon rear triangles.
Seven offers several of these mixed material bikes in titanium and carbon fiber as well as some amazing full carbon fiber bikes. But for my needs, I wanted the simplicity of a full titanium frame. As the most customizable frame, the Seven Axiom SL fit the bill. At 1300g. (about 1/2lb) heavier than Colnago’s top of the line frame, a little more weight for a durable and sure feeling bike was worth it.
Compared Geometries
I found my Seven dealer and toted my hobbled bike out to the shop to do all my sizing.
The problem was that I was moving from a cyclocross race frame to a road race frame and that left little allegorical information for Seven to use from my old bike to optimize the new one.
I really wanted to start over from scratch based purely on my purpose and my body measurements.
Seven provides a paper survey in which your old bike is measured in detail and you are asked to critique its various qualities. They also have your body measurements taken along with an assessment of your range of flexibility. It is a pretty standard customization sheet. From what I understand it is a distilled version of the prior customization sheet, which contained something like a hundred questions.

The last part of the order form asks for your desired ride quality in terms of agility, drivetrain stiffness, vertical compliance and weight to performance. With only a 1 to 10 scale available, it is a dauntingly stressful task to have an uncomfortable look in the mirror and admit to what you really want and what you really need. This is the part that comes back to you in the middle of the night and keeps you awake…“Should I have chosen a seven instead of an eight?”
Luckily Seven also offers a telephone interview with a master fit specialist to help make more sense of your choices. I dealt with fit tech Neil Doshi, who made me feel I made the right choices. I explained my weekly routine, routes, road conditions, local topography, riding style, and riding goals. It did a little for the anxiety, but not much. If I were a fat executive with an ego and wallet greater than my commitment to ride, I may not have been as concerned, but as a poor, but passionate cyclist, with an interest in quality bikes, I was still very concerned.

A few days later I received a CAD drawing of my new bike. I poured over the geometry chart and those of other bikes I really dig… and there were some similarities… and some big differences. I really had to clear my head and think things through logically and it all made sense.
Actually, except for the longer chainstays, the geometry looked something like a few other thoroughbreds, which have a slightly longer wheelbase, but smaller rear triangle. Interesting! The front end was lifted a little for better climbing through central Taiwan and my weight was shifted a tad rearward.
I signed off on the CAD design and waited about 4 weeks before the frame arrived at 7 Park Cycles in Taipei.

Frame Appearance:
The frame is beautifully finished with intricate drop welds that show both an attention to detail and a very human touch. The first thing that popped out at me was the solid looking rear triangle. The chainstays were like a baby’s arm (ok maybe not that thick, but thick) and the seatstays were also not noodles. The S bend stays reminded me of Sacha White’s gorgeous Speedvagens that I also really dig. From the shape and detail it is evident that several of Seven's welders are also experienced metal sculptors. My bike was machined by Jon Henig, welded by Stef Adams and finished by Lauren Trout. I am happy to know the names of the people who did the work.
I flicked my fingernail along the tubes to listen for the changing tones of the TINK TINK sounds along the butting.
A lot of manufacturers will use larger diameter tubes to save weight and make for a stiffer tube. Seven used smaller diameters, but thicker tubing. I was so pleased to hear the sound of substance. The quality of titanium and butting was instantly recognizable, especially when compared to the off the shelf Van Nicholas and other frames I saw. Even the LITESPEED Archon didn’t feel right.
The bottom bracket looked solid as well with plenty of material left after milling. Even the massive dropouts were inspiring as they provide so much stability for the ride. A stable ride can really help bring the speeds up… especially on Taiwan’s technical dives off haystack peaks into hidden valleys and betel nut roads.
The frame looked like a precision instrument.

Drivetrain: 2011 Campagnolo Chorus 11
My change in the drivetrain is one of the most exciting things about this new bike. After using Shimano Ultegra for 3 years I wish I had switched sooner.
The Campagnolo system reminds me of a sports car with a good manual transmission…shift BANG! It goes.
KaThunk! Each shift is precise and sure.
Shimano was too soft I was always searching for the shift threshold. I missed shifts often. Now, one bad shift doesn't rot the whole barrel... er... rather Ultegra would become unreliable if I tried shifting out of the saddle on a hill. That thing always needed to be tuned. One klunker and I would have to reach for the barrel adjuster. It would be fine on the stand then go nuts again under load. With all the climbing I do, I really don’t need to be constantly battling to stay on the larger cogs in the middle of an ascent.
Before really spending any time on Campy I thought I wouldn’t like the thumb shifter. On the contrary, I absolutely love it.
The thumb shifter allows me to shift faster from the all positions on my bars. I can even reach a pinky over from the tops and shift when I am feeling lazy or on a climb. I can't believe the difference. You want to shift and it is there. Done! Chorus comes with Campagnolo’s “ultrashift” capability; the ability to shift 5 gears with the push of a button. Just reach your thumb over and squeeze----Bang!
The grips are also more ergonomic and a little elegant than the chunky Shimano style.
What I like even more is how the solid Campy shifting compliments the solid feeling of the frame. They fit together perfectly--The right feel for the right bike.
The only time it really acts up is when I need to add a little lube to the chain.

Update 8/22/2017: Rebuilt the right shifter for wear from regular use. The nice thing is that Campagnolo means waiting for a new part rather than a new shifter. The downside is the wait time. 

Racing on Wuling
Wheels: Fulcrum Racing 1:
The wheels really round out the ride (no pun intended). My first couple months of riding were tainted by bad wheels. They were just really soft. I would hammer on the pedals and get bounce from the wheels. At first I was really concerned that titanium was too springy and all the negative reviews of titanium came flooding back. I also started to wonder if I should have chosen a different number for my stiffness rating. I was worried. Moreover, my ass was getting bruised something awful over the course of longer rides from all the bounce.
Finally, my Fulcrum Racing 1 wheelset arrived and the difference was huge. Despite being stiffer wheels they rolled so much better over bumps and really smoothed everything out. That was the feeling I had been looking for. They are very firm, very precise and despite being a bit on the heavy side… they climb amazingly well. The thick bladed spokes offer plenty of support and absorb a lot of the unpleasant vibration from traffic control strips and other road noise. Update: I have switched to Fulcrum Racing Zero after running over my wheel before a race. Still no issues.  
I also was looking for an alloy braking surface for better stops in all weather.

The interface points I went with all metal to stick with the overall look of the bike. I really don’t mind a few grams here or there. Building a bike involves a selection process that encompasses both the aesthetics of form and function. I really wanted to achieve a certain look that also made functional sense.
I really like the Deda Newton anatomic bars as they allow me to get deep in the drops despite having a 134mm HT. The longer head tube makes the long rides a bit more comfortable and I need to admit to myself that the back isn’t as flexy as it once was. I can still pound it out in the drops on my Wednesday time-trial in absolute comfort. The stem is also Deda, but in a slightly different alloy hue. I really wanted to “paint with metals.”

Seat and Seatpost:
I switched from a Selle Italia Gel Flo to a Fizik Arione. I really could go either way. The Fitzik is just a little simpler for the overall look I was going for. No issues at all.
The seatpost is one of the few refugees from my old bike. It is a titanium Selcof post that shined right up with a little brush from some fine sandpaper. I don’t think the adjustment is very easy, and it might not be my first choice next to a new titanium post, but it was a place to save some money after spending so much.
A lot of people think carbon fiber is the answer to a harsh ride, but I really have no issues at all with a titanium seat post.

Climbing at 10,000ft

Another refugee from my old bike were the Crank Brothers Eggbeater pedals. Yes, I am sure it is bad form to ride mountain bike pedals with a fancy road bike like I have, but for all intents and purposes it makes a lot of sense in Taiwan. I often find myself walking somewhere for something. A couple weeks ago there were several riders who removed their expensive Speedplay equipped shoes to hike the last couple kilometers to Wuling. Sometimes I think they give be too much float and I sometimes feel I slide too much with them. They easily engage, and they look great, they’re light, but I have been unexpectedly popping out lately. Update: I have given up on Crank Brothers. Too unreliable. I have since switched to the Look S-Track pedalwhich has superior grip, more like a road pedal. They do not get sloppy over time as the CB pedals do. After a couple years of use, they are still in excellent shape and still lock snugly to the cleat. Update (3/26/2018): I am still very much in love with my indestructible S-Track pedals. I haven't had to think much about them unless I am updating this post.    
For the fork I opted for the Seven 5E carbon fork for the simple reason that I didn't want to leave anything to chance. I figured Seven's ability to match a fork to my other specification would result in the best of the customization process. The uncut fork weighs 400g. Mine came with a 45mm rake, which fit my specifications perfectly.
At first I was concerned that the fork was too squishy and I know there are some stiffer forks out there for people who want their shoulders to soak up the impact. After trying a few more standing climbs and shortly afterward testing a couple other high-end bikes, I realized I was getting more flex from the bars and wheels than the fork. The fork actually does its job better than I had originally assumed. It reads the road like braile and transfers feedback to the rider without the jarring bite adding to a really responsive ride. I have felt some flex over hard bumps, but that is a good thing. I tend not to be the kind of rider who swerves around ever sewer cap and patch in the asphalt.

I am sitting here writing this on a cold December day, not because I am bored or have nothing else to do, but because my mind keeps drifting off thinking about getting on that bike and how great it feels. After a switch to the steel bike last weekend I had time to reflect.
Over the past several months I have put this rig through its paces. I have ridden century rides, climbs, descents, races my weekly Time Trial. I have ridden in rain, on hardpack and at altitude. I have sliced into corners and attacked 20% grades out of the saddle. I have gently rolled along for coffee and cake. I have burned my legs out at high speeds. The process has been an evolution of feelings.
My very first impression was that the bike is solid. There are no creaks, ticks or clicks. Combined with the rest of the componentry the bike behaves like a single tool.
It took a little time to adjust my senses to this new machine as I had grown used to a certain balance and feel from my old bike. I was used to a different set of sensory cues for speed and cornering that I needed to forget. At first I felt I might be slower, but as I checked my Garmin I found I was moving 2 to 3 mph (not kph) faster than I thought. It was really easier.
Seven had trimmed 20mm off my bike and dropped my BB 4mm for a better sensation in the corners.
After building back into form I was feeling more and more of the difference. The stronger I got the more I could appreciate the ride.
Even after 4 months off the bike with injuries and no bike, I was immediately climbing better than before, using less energy.
The increased agility was noticeable on the first descent and took me a bit by surprise. I had to adjust my senses to get used to the bike’s reactions to more subtle shifts in body position. It now feels extremely precise and I can pick and stick a line off my favorite descents on the Highway 21. I think 42mph is a good indication on those switchbacks.
On congested city streets I feel like the bike is an extension of my body and I can just dip, dive and shimmy my way through scooters and cars to the front of the cloud of traffic. On my Wednesday TT this quality is huge.
The bike is designed as a neutral ride (not too much rake or trail), so when I hit that surprise hole in the pavement and my hands bumped off the hoods for a split second, I did not crash.
The bike is stiff like a good aluminum frame without the bite or vibration. It feels a lot like my scandium alloy frame, but a little less sharp. A good bump feels like a good bump… which is what I wanted. The BB is totally solid as well. I really can’t detect any negative frame flex, even when doing a standing climb. Especially going into a climb. The rear wheel never loses contact with the road; a problem which plagued my last bike.
In one race the difference was really noticeable when I was tucked into a fast group near the front of the field. We were really going hard with a big, powerful bruiser doing most of the pulling. Everyone was trying to slip in and take advantage of the draft. As we rolled along at about 40kph near one of the bridges, we ran into a huge patch of rough concrete as if that is where the workmen had parked the truck and just left the slurry of cement all over the road where it dried into a mass of lumps and strips. Our group of riders smashed through the messy roadway. The speed plummeted as riders on light carbon frames balked at the clacking and popping sounds of their gear shuddering across uneven roadway. I was keenly aware that my speed remained stable as I slid to the front to plan my endgame. Stiff enough to feel... but the suspension of titanium was all there. Goldilocks would have been impressed.
The fit and proper use of the material resulted in a bike I can ride hard all day and feel like I’ve ridden all day, but not in the wrong way.
The most impressive thing about this bike is how I feel after a ride. After each ride, no matter the distance or amount of effort, I can get off the bike and feel fresh. I can still run around and walk normally. I might be tired, but not beat-up.
With the other bikes I have spent any time on, I would get home and collapse on the couch with throbbing legs. The next day might be one where I am temporarily crippled by sore muscles. I really can’t explain it. Even after climbing 9500ft to Wuling, I got down to base camp and my legs were tired, but not exhausted. I felt great. Every ride is like this. I don’t want to declare that this is the “magic” of titanium, but I do suspect it has a lot to do with having a bike designed and tailor made for me, using the materials properly…without compromises. You can make a lot of bikes fit by adjusting the stem and seat, but this is really different. I really would like to contact Seven and find out how they did that.
A couple weeks ago I completed the hardest ride I have ever tried. I thought 250km/155mi. with over 3700m/12,000ft of climbing would be the ultimate ride and a great way to assess this bike. As I passed the 190km/120 mile mark my thoughts uncharacteristically drifted to my legs. I couldn’t believe how fresh I was feeling as I cruised against the wind at 37kph/23mph. I knew I was going to make it home and complete my ride.
This bike has now been ridden hard, it has been in the mix of races, the frame has been punished over Taiwan’s ribbons of road, it has been stressed and it had been hammered. It still looks and rides as beautifully as the first ride in March.
Although the idea of spending for a custom titanium frame may be controversial, this is a lifetime bike and with a little bit of tough love, the cost fades into irrelevance.
For the same price at a top of the line carbon fiber bike pumped out of a Chinese mold, you can get a life-long titanium bike with the same characteristics and performance (maybe even better).
Overall: The bike handles like a scalpel: A finely crafted instrument of precision.
The only time I really think about the bike is when I am not riding it.
If you really love biking, it is really ok to put together a savings plan or make a deal with the significant other to go the extra mile, go custom, and have a bike that is all It is a commitment to a life.

5 Year Update (2/26/2016): Frankly, after getting on some other bikes of a variety of materials from a variety of brands, I can't imagine not going titanium. This bike has a certain...feeling. I can't explain it any other way. 

7 Year Update (2/26/2018): There must be a reason I always remember the day I got this bike. 

I bought this bike in 2011 and the titanium tubing is still as fresh as the day I brought it home. The first casualty was my name sticker followed by the Axiom SL stickers. The SEVEN on the down tube is still intact. It is really easy to maintain. Everything just wipes right off. The stickers are replaceable, so I may get some new ones in the future. 
One Bike... MINE!
Tataka Hill Climb 2014: Seven Axiom SL
2014 Tataka Hill Climb

19399282_10154831546122972_4429269981895258003_n *The beautiful 2013 Seven Brochure*