CSK Test: Little Bike, Big Attitude
From the land of the Giants (er Giant… etc), a small manufacturer is making a dent in what might seem as David versus Goliath form. Taiwan is basically the center of cycle production for the world now, but there’s a bit of a rebel in the mix. PEZ gets a crack at CSK.
Another trip back in time to Interbike, and one man stood out while walking through the show. Long hair pulled back in a pony tail is easy to notice, but the choice of frames for his glasses stood out a bit more. Bold Briko frames (a la Marco Pantani), but with the large shaded lenses popped out, leaving just the prescription inserts are definitely a trademark. CSK founder Chang Sheng-Kai (thus the CSK) surely stands out from a crowd and in no way passes as a twin for his US Distribution partner Wes Seigler (Seigler imports).
The CSK U2: more bike than you’d expect for the buck. (Click the Thumbnail at top for teh BIG picture.)
But while they may not exactly look alike, they see things pretty eye to eye when it comes to cycles… Both former racers (Chang is an Asian Champion and Wes raced overseas for years), both work with and support teams, and both are bike geeks at heart with a love of the equipment as well as the sport itself.
Probably the strongest statement about Chang is that he loves and understands the sport of competitive cycling. On the surface you might think “so what, doesn’t everyone?”. The short answer is no.
We Seigler and CSK himself – Chang Sheng-Kai.
The glasses and hair are a start, but a couple of minutes talking to him pretty much completely separate him from the Mega-producers that have made Asia, and Taiwan in particular, the world center of bike manufacturing. But the David and Goliath story here would simply have David saying “Whatever big guy” and walking right past Goliath completely disinterested…
Chang doesn’t talk about “production capacity” or Gross Margin Return on Investment. You won’t hear talk of mass expansion or product line development or “taking market share”. In fact, I don’t think he gives a damn about what most other executives are happy to speak of and instead would rather just talk about bike designs and the ride… I know a lot of very small builders like that and so do you, but they’re all Italian, American, French… anything but Asian.
That being said, labor is still WAAAY cheaper in the far east. With that in mind, Pez got a leg over CSK’s U2 Metal racer.
The paint detail is unusual AND beautiful.
At $1750 (frame fork and headset) it’s about half the cost of most bikes we test here, which we would expect from a Taiwanese manufacturer that isn’t slapping an Italian/ French/ British label on something. But with foreign branding, comes the benefit of European Design, so would the CSK stand up without a Euro Designer?
[Tech ed Note: I have no problem anymore with some of the better manufacturers taking quality designs to the far east for production. As long as they control the raw material used and the manufacturing tolerances, it simply means that long standing French, Italian, American, Belgian, etc. bike brands can come to you for less money.]
So To The Bike
The first thing that catches your eye on this bike is the finish. I know that paint is the last thing you should worry about, but the finish on the CSK is an extremely expensive colored Chrome effect paint that would cost you almost as much as the frame and fork cost if you were to try and source it yourself here in the US. The design, colors and graphics are unmistakably and unapologetically Asian in feel. I love that too, as most manufacturers today try ridiculously hard to keep the public from associating their bikes with the far east. Chang embraces it. HUGE applause for that… (Note the Italian stripes on the head badge are a thank you knod to their supplier Deda)
The head tube is gets a tapered waistline I guess we should talk about what’s underneath the paint too, so that would be Deda’s U2 Alloy. That’s heat treated, Triple butted (three different wall thicknesses) 7xxx series aluminum that, along with the standard Al-Zn and Magnesium they toss in to what they refer to as “rare earths”. Nobody was answering the phone at 11pm in Italy (damn it Fulvio, where’s the commitment!/ jk) so I have no Idea how rare, but as this stuff has the same stiffness at less weight than most other aluminum mixes, I am pretty sure they don’t just walk out the back door and grab a hand full of dirt from the parking lot.
Something to stress with CSK is that they use a complete Tube set made from the U2 material. A dirty little (sometimes not well kept) secret is that SEVERAL other countrymen will use the high end metal prominently displayed with a sticker on their frame only in the down tube or a couple of tubes of the bike. It can be 2 – 3 times as expensive to use a complete tube set of the higher end alloys, but the difference shows in ride quality and weight. Our test frame was just a touch over the two pound mark and you can’t get there cutting corners…
The top and down tubes were pretty plain Jane (or as plain as a bike can that looks like it’s been covered in napalm and ignited…) with a little oval kick to the pipes toward the head tub. CSK’s newer model is actually a sexy Hydroformed unit, and you also have to remember that triple butting will allow for a better ride quality and a more forgiving frame (relative to other aluminum) when done properly.
The down tube also kicks out slightly at the bottom bracket area, where it joins a simple round seat tube. The finishing of the welds is nicely done and the bike has a VERY clean look (as clean as the massive welds typical of this high end alloy can be) compared to some manufacturers that leave these big welds untouched.
The box section chain stays have a tall (almost the same height as the bb) section and are also pretty thick. And they don’t start to taper till most of the way back to the rear wheel…
The seat stays are “Ultra”, but we’re not sure what made them that way. They are pretty standard looking and straight as arrows and kick up into a wishbone mono insert point.
On this test we didn’t swap to the house handlebars as we usually do, and the group set was a standard Chorus rather than the typical Record or D-Ace. The bars were a fairly skinny cross section set from Selcof.
The fork choice was also a thin profile (by today’s standards) both side to side and front to back. It was Deda stuff too, like the tube set used, and I suspect that it was a relatively affordable choice that matched up cost wise with where CSK want to sell this frame model.
We ran three other sets of wheels on the bike along with the Neuvation set shown. Not because Neuvation doesn’t make a great wheel for the money but because, as always, wheels will dramatically effect a bike’s handling, acceleration and comfort. Every bike I get uses the same house wheels and house saddle, because they are so damn critical.
We swapped to the new wheel sets quicker than normal though, because this bike was a better combination of stiffness and comfort than I thought I would get. Honestly, I thought something was wrong from the first few minutes of the test and I thought that my stiff set of wheels or different tires at a different pressure would change things around.
And they did.
I tossed on a set of Zipp 202 wheels and pumped in 150 psi. The bike stayed comfortable (relative to other Aluminum bikes with these wheels at high pressure) but just got quicker… I added the American Classic’s magnesium’s with Vredestein’s pumped to 120 and the ride got smoother still (Vredesteins are EXTREMELY SMOOTH ROLLING TIRES) and the bike was still quick (a bit less so than the 202’s due to their weight, but not much, as the American Classic’s Magnesiums are insanely light too at 1200 grams and change). Last and least favorite, I tossed on a set of Ksyriums (not anyone’s most comfortable wheel or the lightest, but incredibly stiff and exceptionally stable). The ride was very similar to the Neuvations using the Ksyriums.
The boil down here is that CSK’s choice of using the entire Deda U2 tube set made for both a nicer ride and a lighter bike than would be the case if they would have tried to short you on materials. The frame itself is maybe a tenth or two over two pounds and the center of gravity is in the down tube and seat stays where it should be.
The additive in the boil down is that Chang’s geometry choice complements the materials used. The bike is pretty neutral all in all (handling and comfort) but seems a little more peppy on the gas than some metal bikes made this light. It does have a little bit of flex, but not in a bad way that robs power or makes for shakes.
The one component I would change is an easy fix for CSK. I would have run a bit better fork with this bike. I would have chosen a fork that would track better and flex more consistently under heavy handling and braking forces (and yeah, it would cost more). Another swap proved this out as I took the pain in the ass time to switch over to a Reynolds Ouzo Pro with a better matched rake and far more consistent feel.
The sad bottom line here is that CSK will not be the bike for everyone, but Chang doesn’t even try to build a bike for everyone. The readers at Pez tend to have a steady diet of Colnago, Seven, Serotta, Kuota, Scott and the like, and for many great reasons as they’re all great bikes. Some folks around here just won’t look twice at a bike that costs this little, has graphics like these or doesn’t make an attempt to better sugar coat the fact that this is simply Asian. Damn shame, as I have a bigger-than-average stable of bikes and one of these would fit really well. In fact, I would bet some of you would rush out and buy one if they charged $3k plus because it would make you feel better. Shame too, as this is a fairly exclusive brand that just happens to be inexpensive.
That said, CSK are knocking out bikes to the US on a fairly regular basis (just in the hundreds though, as they make no attempt to be a “MEGA” company) and the brand is growing. This year will bring the new Hydroformed bike to replace the model we tested and CSK’s US distributor Seigler Imports is offering a Carbon bike and also offering a domestic custom painting service so that CSK frames can come in any color.
In both the new Carbon and in the Custom painting capability, you are sure to find a great value for a very good product. Teams would be especially pleased, as this company and its US distributor really understand the small team needs. You should give em a call.
For more information you can contact Seigler Imports. The guys do more than just sell bikes, they live em and breath em.
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