Sunday, February 10, 2013

Coupler Thoughts

For the last two decades, S&S Couplings have gained popularity as a way to allow travelers to pack their bicycles into the smallest space possible.  Steve Smilanick invented these couplers for himself, but many others soon found out about them.  As more and more riders asked framebuilders to install S&S Couplings on their frames, more and more framebuilders started to take notice and offer framesets with the couplers already installed.  Now, the popularity of S&S Couplings can legitimately be called a phenomenon.  I wanted to find out more about them, so I contacted Smilanick.  He was kind enough to answer my questions.  Enjoy!

Steve and Shirley Smilanick, ready to ride

 Q:  Who originally designed the S&S Couplings?  How did he/she come up with the idea?

A:  I designed, built and installed the first set of couplings myself. I came up with the idea in the summer of 1992.  I was about to go on a Mediterranean cruise and was disappointed that I wouldn't have a chance to ride my bike for two weeks. I called my travel agent and had him check with the cruise line regarding bringing a bicycle aboard. He learned that there wouldn't be a problem with the bike but they do limit the size of the luggage that they will accept. The largest case they would allow is 62" combined length + width + thickness which is the same maximum standard used by airlines. I began looking at the folding travel bikes that were on the market and found either small wheel bikes or full size bikes that were heavy and not very suitable for high mileage riding. What I really wanted to do was to take my own Bianchi road bike with me.

S&S Couplings

I took some quick measurements and determined that I could fit my wheels in a case as small as 26"x26" and that would leave me with a case that was 10" deep to be within the legal 62" combined L+W+T measurement. To fit the frame in the 26x26" case, I would need a connector to be able to separate the frame into two smaller pieces. Since I own an industrial machine shop, I decided to make my own coupling to do the job. I proceeded to design and build the first BTCs which I installed on my Bianchi road bike by cutting the bike in half and silver brazing the coupling in place. I test rode it for about one week or about 200 miles over rough roads and it worked perfectly. I packed the bike in a 26x26x10" duffel bag surrounded with clothes and then I was off to the airport bound for Spain.

 When  I boarded our Princess Cruises ship, the "Star Princess," in Barcelona, Spain, my bike was in the cabin with the rest of my luggage. I assembled it and went for a ride that very afternoon. I rode 50 to 90 miles per day over the two week period which also included rides in Italy and Greece.

 Q:  What is the most interesting bicycle coupling project you have heard about?
Rodriguez 8-Ball, singular.  Photo Courtesy of Rodriguez Bicycles

A:  My favorite is The Rodriquez "Eight-Ball" tandem/single convertible bicycle. It was built for Willie Weir and his wife Kate. Willie tours all over the world, often by himself, however with this bike, when his wife joins him for a portion of the tour, she brings along a seat, pedals, handlebars, chain and a small frame section allowing Willie to convert his single bike into a tandem. Willie said, “The first time I tried, I was able to convert it from a single bike to a tandem in less than twenty minutes!”

Rodriguez 8-Ball, as a tandem.  Photo Courtesy of Rodriguez Bicycles

Q:  Do you have ideas for new bicycle products?  If so, please give my readers some hints.

A:  We don’t have any new products on the horizon.

Q:  Do your couplings only work on steel bikes?

A:  We inventory couplings that work in steel, stainless steel, and titanium. We also do custom runs of couplings for carbon fiber and aluminum.

Q:  Does your machine shop do any other bicycle-related work?
A:  Not right now.

Q:  What is the smallest package you have ever seen a full-sized bicycle frame packed into?  I am imagining a frame with multiple couplers on the main frame tubes, although I don't know if such a creature exists.

A:  26” x 26” x 10”

Co-Motion Americano Co-Pilot Touring Bike

Q:  Do you have specific recommendations for framebuilders who install S&S Couplings or build new frames with couplers installed?

A:  Other than the normal techniques used by framebuilders for joining frame elements like lugs and tubes by welding or brazing, we have very specific recommendations regarding coupling placement. If a coupling is placed too low in the down tube, it makes access to the nut difficult and too high interferes with the water bottle. In the top tube, if the coupling is located outside the "sweet spot", it can make packing the bike more difficult.

Bilenky Deluxe Travel Nor'easter, packed and ready to travel

Q:  Do you know which framebuilder has built or modified the most frames with S&S Couplings?

A:  For new builds, I think it would be Co-Motion Cycles in Eugene Oregon. They were one of the first builders to embrace S and S Couplings for both single and tandem bicycles and they build incredible bikes. They were also the ones that encouraged us to build couplings large enough for a tandem boom tube.  I have owned three of their tandems myself and they have all been great.

For modified frames, I think Bilenky Cycle Works in Philadelphia, PA is the leader. They retrofit steel and titanium frames and in some situations, they even reshape oval tubes to round in order to install couplings.  They were also one of the first framebuilders to use couplings and they can retrofit just about any single or tandem bike. They also build new bikes.  Bilenky Cycle Works has more overall experience with S and S Couplings and packing methods than any other bicycle framebuilder I know of.
Bilenky Eco Travel Nor’Easter, ready to roll.  Photo courtesy of Bilenky Cycle Works, Ltd.
 Q:  What else would you like to say?

A:  Most people buy a coupled bike to avoid airline fees. Once they have traveled with a coupled bike, that benefit becomes secondary to how easy it is to travel with a bike in a small case instead a huge case required for an uncoupled bike. Our cases are easily transported by car, bus, train or taxi, so travel with a bike becomes hassle- free.

A composite frame from Calfee Design with S&S Couplings
 Q:  What do you like for breakfast?

A:  I eat one cup of old fashion raw oats seasoned with cinnamon that has soaked overnight in the refrigerator in ½ cup of apple juice and ½ cup of unsweetened almond milk. I eat them cold but my wife warms hers in the microwave.