Opinion: The Hot Chip Has Gone Cold – Flip Chips Don’t Deliver

by | May 20, 2021

Flip chips are a common sight but do they actually deliver on their promise?

Opinion: Henry Quinney

Has mountain biking outgrown flip chips? Well, I should be more specific. There will always be a place for geometry adjustment, particularly if it’s changing a downhill bike’s characteristics. I also quite like a frame that, much like a parent who enjoyed Lynyrd Skynyrd in their heyday, will welcome a mullet into the fold with open arms and greet it perhaps not with the suspicion it may often deserve. I believe those are noble causes and they do not stoke my ire.

Instead, I am of course talking about bikes that one pedals up-eth the hill and down-eth the hill. Your trail bikes, your enduro smashers, your all mountain bruisers… these are the types of bikes where I feel flip chips aren’t as useful as they’d seem.

How Did We Get Here?

The phrase phrase ‘flip chip’ is already making me somewhat nauseous and I’m only on the third paragraph… Geometry adjustment has of course been around for a very long time indeed. Predictably, Cannondale, never a brand afraid to do things differently, are one of the companies to have their fingerprints all over its genesis, but at least those bikes offered a very real adjustment. Another hat tip to the venerable (and lovably terrible) Rocky Mountain Pipeline, with a 69.5°–71° headtube angle adjustment.

The Headtube Bone is Connected to the Seattube Bone

The problem with geometry adjustment is that it’s very hard to adjust one part of the bike in isolation. Now this wasn’t so bad for a time when head angles were steep or steeper, wheelbases were short or shorter, and seat tube angles weren’t viewed with the same critical eye as today.

Most geometry adjustments today use a flip chip (often in the link), which allows riders to choose between one mode steeper headtube, steeper seattube, higher BB, longer reach, and another mode slacker headtube, slacker seattube, lower BB, and shorter reach. But what if you want a slacker headtube, a lower BB, a steeper seattube, and more reach? Too bad, bucko.

The fact is we do now have a highly critical eye when it comes to our geometry, and me casually knocking off half a degree from the seat tube angle to rake out the front of the bike is purely nonsensical. Frankly, I want my cake and I want to eat it too. I want my progressive geometry without Sophie’s Choice of deciding between an appropriate seat tube angle or a slacker headtube.

Much like a decrepit family labrador whose chewing is merely a toothless ploy that is more about soaking and gumming food into submission than it is about sharp teeth and impressive weaponry, these minor adjustments don’t deliver on the bite they promise.

It does what it says on the tin.

An Excuse for Playing it Safe

I believe many of the minor adjustments often offered to the consumer such as these are more about hedging bets than driving bike design forward. This is one of the elements that frustrate me the most – fli… geometry adjustment chips are often seen as progressive, but I would argue they’re a safe bet in lieu of actual radicalism. They’re definitely more Avril Lavigne than the Clash, and that’s because instead of having to do a job properly, it only has to be ‘within half a degree’. They’re not driving questions of ‘Should I stay or Should I go?’ but instead suggesting that they can just hang around the smoking area saying we’ll ‘forget they’re even there.’ I call BS.

I don’t hate adjustment. Nicolai’s ‘Mutator’ system offers real, useful adjustments. It does potentially add to the complication, cost, and weight of the bike though.

I would argue that fli… oh bloody hell, flip chips actually prohibit bold design by letting manufacturers play it safe. Funnily enough, I don’t really know what subsection of mountain bikers they’re appeasing. I believe people that decry progressive geometry will be recusing themself from a new purchase and half a degree won’t change that. I would also argue that people who have no interest in geometry won’t be put off by numbers that they don’t have any understanding of. What it is, in my mind, is something that will solely frustrate the person that does care. And what’s worse is that if you’re only just really getting into riding you’ll only appreciate crap geometry once you’re well down the line on a bike that suffers from it and, quite frankly, if you do have a bike that suffers from particularly dated geometry then half a degree will not butter the parsnips.

It seems to me as superficial as a tick on a spec sheet. Nothing more meaningful, nothing less. The idea of a new bike in 2021 offering 0.3 degrees of adjustment isn’t just taking the proverbial pee but rather holding the refuse to ransom.

You can never please everyone, but does a flip chip, pitting a slacker head angle and a steeper seat tube against one another, risk pleasing nobody?

A Bike at War With Itself

For me, the biggest frustration lies in that often when you change the orientation of a chip to achieve the desired slacker head angle it inversely affects the desired effect upon the seat tube angle. Can I not have the head angle I want without my saddle going into the nosebleed section? I just don’t understand why you can’t combine the best of both worlds. I don’t see why you should have to choose.

You can, of course, slide a saddle on its rails, but here is where I would chime in that often, even on bikes with ‘progressive geometry’, I exhaust this option. I don’t think that I’m alone in this and it’s my belief that on a modern bike any fitting option should not be at its limit just to keep it in line with the very thing it claims to be – progressive.

I would say that the only time I’ve been happy to have a bike with a f-f-f-flip chip (that’s it, I’ve actually thrown up) has been when I wanted to experiment with the stroke length of my rear shock and I’ve been happy for the clearance. I would go on to say that the stroke length adjustment coupled with a Works Components angle-adjust headset made for a very versatile bike indeed. But that’s it. That’s the only time.

Not All Flip Chips

A bike I would suggest is tackling this issue with real verve and gusto is a bike like the new Stumpjumper Evo. Not only does it offer real adjustment, it does so while trying to keep each adjustment in isolation of one another. Personally I would take the term “isolation” with a pinch of salt, but it will leave other dimensions largely unchanged. I think this kind of bike is very important for a few reasons.

Firstly, it’s a benefit for an increasingly educated consumer base. Secondly, it goes between two ends of the spectrum as opposed to offering two shades of beige that even Steve Jobs would find hard to distinguish. Thirdly, it offers a position that many would find too slack (hurrah). Finally, it’s got a pragmatic approach which is vital in changing the conversation. The extreme options, a la Pole et Geometron, have pulled the conversation of geometry kicking and screaming into a better place, but it’s the pragmatist who will actually offer an option that doesn’t intimidate the end-user and will, in turn, change the conversation for good. In my mind this is what geometry adjustment should be for, to help our bikes wield a greater element of versatility.

The 2021 Stumpjumper Evo uses something of a two pronged attack to take care of geometry adjustment, but it is the headset cup that really piques my interest.

I’ve ridden so many bikes that suffer from trying to be too many things to too many people, and it risks not giving anyone the exact thing that they want. It leaves you cherry-picking ideal traits from both settings. Even bikes endowed with very good geometry sometimes have got me asking why can’t I just have the head angle of the low setting with the seat tube angle of the high? Why must we jump through these hoops? It’s not as if the brand doesn’t have control over making the bike. They can literally make a bike how they see fit. Why does the end-user always spot these things in five minutes on a bike that most likely underwent several stages of prototyping? Am I missing something?

So what do I want? Parsnips? Mullets? A mulleted parsnip? Perhaps, but moreover I would urge bike designers to place good geometry above arbitrarily adjustable geometry. To nail their colours to the mast and take more risk with bike design without being safe in the knowledge they can offload half a degree to the good if needs be. If they feel they must go down the adjustable route then at least give real options and real alternatives.