The cycling industry is forever releasing new products and systems, each one marketed as the future. So it’s easy to become deafened to the true revolutionary designs when you’re constantly bombarded by products which are purely innovation for the sake of it, rather than a genuine improvement. Late 2011 saw the release of another system touted to be revolutionary, this time for the bottom bracket (or BB). However, the Bottom Bracket 386 EVO (BB386) is one of those systems that is actually an improvement on current versions. It could potentially reduce the headache for shops and cyclists, whilst at the same time open up frame designs to make for stiffer and lighter bikes.
Conceived by Wilier Triestina bikes and developed in unison with Full Speed Ahead (FSA) we try to explain where BB386 came from and how its simple design can actually make you ride faster.
Words & Photos: Phillip Gale
If you have ever replaced a bottom bracket or researched the different systems on new bikes you will know that it is an area full of over-complicated information, making it a potential minefield. Thread types, bearing placement, axle diameter and enough acronyms to make the military jealous, all make for a very confusing time. The worst situation being that you are never sure if you have the right product until it is fitted correctly into your bike (or not, if you’re unlucky!). The new BB386 sounds like another one in this long list, but you actually do not need a degree in Engineering to understand it – stick with this explanation and you will find out that it actually makes sense.
Currently the majority of bikes run what is known as the Bottom Bracket 69 BSC (BB69) system. This is where the bearings of the bottom bracket are screwed into a thread in the bottom bracket shell of the frame, a system which has been around for many years, having seen very little development. Once in place the bearings sit outside the frame with the crank attached through them (using various systems depending on the manufacturer). The “69” in the name refers to the width in millimetres of the bottom bracket shell on the bicycle frame.
Many manufacturers, both frame and component (crank), have seen the limitations of BB69. From the component manufacturer side, they see that the smaller diameter of the axle of the cranks (24 millimetres) as heavier because it has to be made out of steel, which allows more flex than a larger diameter one. For the frame manufacturer the 69 millimetre width of the bottom bracket shell limits the size of the tubes which they can use in the frame construction. With larger frame tubing comes greater stiffness and better performance. This has led to various attempts to solve both of these short comings, each one either developed by a frame or component manufacturer on their own, essentially adding to an already over-complicated market.
One, Bottom Bracket 30 (BB30), has gained the most following and has been a great step forward in bottom bracket design. Conceived and developed by Chris Dodman of Cannondale the system give great performance gains. Chris saw that by increasing the diameter of the axle to 30mm he could reduce the weight by making it out of aluminium, whilst increasing the rigidity. Launched during the 2000 Tour de France it was years ahead of all of the competition and people saw the advantages of it. To aid frame design he placed the bearings 73mm apart allowing for larger tubes. Since its launch this “open” system (not patented and open to all manufacturers to use freely) has been picked up by many different frame and crank manufacturers. As Chris intended, the BB30 has been the driving force behind the move away from the current threaded bottom bracket.
Chris explains. “Cannondale has always been driven to offer the ultimate performance from their bikes. When I joined them I was already working on some ideas of my own, they wanted to improve on their current crank design and we can up with BB30. It was much lighter and stiffer than anything else on the market. Even though it is 11 years since we launched it BB30 is still at the cutting edge and we have seen all the top companies who are driven to get the best performance use our design.” There are some other companies who have tried to evolve Cannondale’s BB30 design, Cervelo’s BB Right and even Looks new ZED one piece carbon cranks, but none have yet out-sold the popular BB30.
2009, and Italian bike company Wilier Triestina decided, after getting a lot of demand from their customers to make a BB30 specific bike, to work on their own system. Claudio Salomoni explains “We had already started to work on improving the traditional BB69 on our bikes. By taking the bearings into the frame we could make the bottom bracket shell wider to increase the tube sizes and rigidity of the frame. We liked the performance gains of a BB30 crank but wanted to run our wider tubes with it, which BB30 would not allow us to do.” BB386 was then born. Claudio continued. “We took the 30 millimetre diameter of the crank axle but made the bearings 86.5 millimetres apart, as opposed to the 73 millimetres of a normal BB30. This gave us two advantages, firstly to run our larger tubes, but also to reduce to stress on the bearings The BB386 cranks run straight arms to achieve their Q-Factor and thus put less side to side force on the bearing.”
Let’s take a pause here and explain what Q-Factor is and how it affects bearings. Q-Factor simply is the distance in millimetres between both of the pedals. This is set at an industry standard of 147 millimetres and is achieved in each of the BB69, BB30 and BB386 by various crank angles. Claudio continued “The further the pedal is away from the bearing of the bottom bracket the more leverage it has on the bearing. Not only is the force on it in the line which you pedal but it is also pulled out towards the pedals and putting additional stress on it. With the BB386 the cranks arms are straight which increases the life of the bearings resulting in less need for maintenance. Another limitation which we found with BB30 was how it fitted into the frame” Claudio expressively added.
To save weight Cannondale, a precision engineering based company, got rid of the threads of the traditional BB69 and made their BB30 push fit. This means a fine tolerance aluminium sleeve is machined so that the smooth bearing is pushed into place. Though lightweight, if the measurement is not correct the bearing will move and damage the frame. Claudio honestly continued “We could not machine such a system here at Wilier, Cannondale have a great engineering department for which they are world renowned, making the close tolerances necessary for BB30 is not an issue for them. So as a solution we used a push fit plastic cup for our BB386 design.” Instead of a machined sleeve in the frame a plastic cup is pressed into the bottom bracket shell. The supple plastic forms to the shape of the bottom bracket shell. “It means we can use lower tolerances on our bottom bracket shell solving the engineering issues with had with BB30. Another gain is that when our customers need to change their bottom brackets there is less risk of it being incorrectly installed and damaging the frame.”
With all this in place Wilier needed to contact a company to produce the cranks for BB386. “We are not a component maker so needed to work with someone to complete our system” Claudio explains. “We originally contacted Campagnolo who liked the BB386 design very much but could not produce the cranks to meet our deadline. So we decided to work with Italian component manufacturer FSA (Full Speed Ahead). They make great products and we knew they would be prefect for us to work with. We now have the full system in place, with 2012 seeing the launch of our BB386 frame the Wilier ZERO 7. With its larger tubes it is stiffer and lighter (780 grams for the medium). The new tubing has also allowed us to add a layer of carbon to improve the ride quality. So not only light and rigid, our new Zero 7 rides like even the roughest roads are lined with velvet.”
This is not the end of the BB386 story. With FSA on board their engineers saw the potential that BB386 could simplify their work as a component manufacturer. Chief engineer Alfredo Sala explains “We already produce over 200 different types of headset. Each one designed by a different company to be the best, but the true gains are honestly negligible. With all of the bottom bracket systems we feared that it would end up the same. When Wilier approached us with BB386 six months ago it was a eureka moment.” With the 86.5 millimetre width of the design Wilier gave FSA a true gift. 86.5 millimetres is the same width as the full BB69 (from outside of the bearing to outside of the bearing). With the axles lengths the same for both BB386 and BB69, with adapters cranks they can be interchanged.
Alfredo Sala continues “By designing different bearing systems we could develop the BB386 system to fit all but Cervelo’s BB Right bottom bracket and cranks. We now have a bearing size which fits the BB386 frame to allow the user to run their existing BB69 cranks (like the FSA Mego Exo, all Shimano and Campagnolo). We also produce a BB69 threaded bottom bracket which allows the user to upgrade their standard non-BB386 frame to run the lighter and stiffer BB386 cranks. This is just like our standard bottom bracket but the diameter of the bearing allows the 30 millimetre diameter of the BB386 crank’s axle to fit.”
“Through some simple thinking of our own, plus thanks to Wilier’s great idea, there is now a system which is almost compatible with all frame and bottom bracket types. FSA has been working towards this for a long time. BB386 is a great step forward which makes us very happy. It offers the user a crank set with a higher performance, lower weight and when mixed with a BB386 compatible frameset, such as the ZERO 7 from Wilier, even greater performance gains. We are getting a lot of interest in BB386 from both the industry and our customers, so feel it could finally be something which might become an industry standard.”
Claudio of Wilier concluded. “We are a small bike company and have to fight for our position in the market. By being at the cutting edge of innovation we offer something different to our customers. We are normally very secretive about our designs, but with the BB386 system we have made it open to all, this means no restrictions or patents. In 2012 we have our ZERO 7 frame which has the BB386, but wanted to share this simple system with all. At the end of the day we are cyclists who produce bikes which we love to ride. We know that not everyone will buy a Wilier, but want to share the performance gains of BB386 with all.”
As the saying goes “the simplest things often are the most effective”. With the new BB386 this is true. As a result of frame and component manufacturers working together, there is now the potential for this to become the industry standard, simplifying a very complicated part of the bike. More importantly it means to you, the rider, a lighter, stiffer and simpler system, which is truly innovative.