In the last six months I’ve ridden four different saddles and am about to start riding a fifth. It’s four more saddles than I’d generally recommend for all but those looking for a new place to rest the glutes. The problem of finding a workable saddle is unlike any other fit issue. A two- to three-hour fitting can determine exactly the way your bike should be set up, down to the millimeter. Five minutes with a new bar will tell you if it’s going to work or not.
But saddles are a tougher challenge. Often you won’t know that a new saddle isn’t working until you’re more than 40 miles into a ride and the realization carries a penalty of discomfort that plays out over the rest of the day.
Trek and Specialized have created nifty little devices that can reveal how wide your sit bones are so you’ll know how broad a saddle you need. And yet, the shape of the saddle remains unfathomable until you’re actually on it.
There are retailers out there who will allow you to try a saddle and return it if it doesn’t work, but those retailers aren’t as common as feathers on a duck, which is why I’m so gaga over the new demo program that Competitive Cyclist just announced.
Competitive Cyclist will send you their 11 most popular saddles for a week. You’ll have some work ahead of you and will need a weekend with few honey-do items on it, but 11 saddles that are known to work for others is an opportunity with a solution waiting to be found. It is cycling’s answer to the differential equation: The answer is there; you just have to knuckle down and do the work to find it.
Which brings me to a larger point: the preeminence of Competitive Cyclist. When it comes to Internet retailing of bicycles and parts, no one else comes close.
But Competitive Cyclist is the anti-christ, isn’t it? It’s an Internet retailer, embodying all that is unholy and antithetical to the traditional cycling experience. Internet bike shops aren’t shops at all; they discount parts to within pennies of their worth, making their dollars on volume and caring as much about your cycling experience as the person in the drive-through window cares about your food.
Say what you want about other sites, Competitive Cyclist will make you rethink the intersection point between Internet retailing and quality. They aren’t the low-price leader. The operation is PRO, the way Columbia-HTC’s train is PRO. I’ve seen a bike they’ve packed come out of the box and I think most manufacturers could pick up pointers on how to reduce damage in shipping if they looked to their packing.
Then there’s the site itself. There are manufacturers with sites lacking the professional polish of Competitive Cyclist. The design is cleaner than ammonia and prettier than veined marble. It’s the online response to today’s top-end bike studios. The photos are original and so well executed, you don’t really need to hold the product to get excited about it. Frankly, their site is better lit than most shops I walk in.
If it seems that I’m bagging on brick-and-mortar retailers, I’m not. I love great shops. I can wander around a well-appointed shop for hours, but when I think back on the shops I first visited, there was a level of knowledge that I don’t often see today. By contrast, the staff at Competitive Cyclist seem to know their product line so well, you wonder if maybe they have more miles on the stuff than the manufacturer does.
Clear-eyed, witty and sporting a breadth of experience that our club elders always had, their copy should be studied by most of the cycling journalists out there. Brendan Quirk is an excellent writer and those who work for him are held to exceptional standards.
But a detailed product write-up does not necessarily make for information you can trust. What makes me trust their copy is that the opinions and insights echo my own experience. I adore the Capo Forma and Assos clothing lines. So do they. What happens when you’ve got a buddy who, like you, loves the same film directors you do? You listen to his recommendations and if he tells you, “There is a new guy you’ve got to check out,” you add it to your Netflix queue.
Competitive Cyclist’s product line hasn’t been easy to amass. Internet retailing doesn’t have a great reputation in the bike industry and most manufacturers are working harder to prevent their products from being sold on the net than they are to open new accounts. The discount mentality has made many manufacturers run screaming from Internet retailing out of a fear they’ll lose the brick and mortar shops. Adding lines to Competitive Cyclist’s offerings is a real challenge, but you don’t hear Quirk complaining; he has built solid relationships with lines he believes in, lines that seem to be standing by him, lines you still see in the brick and mortar shops.
Quirk’s “What’s New” section is one of the best blogs in the industry. It’s a window into the operation, Quirk’s personal interests and riding, his take on industry trends and crises and a bit of humor and criticism as well. To be needled by Quirk is to have your closest friend give you a breath mint and say, “Dude, you have got to take care of that.” If you’re in his sights, it’s because he’s interested and if you get a critique, it means he’s watching, closely.
For me, Competitive Cyclist is a virtual bike studio. All it lacks, aside from the bricks and mortar, is the ability to fit you and given the incredible execution of the rest of the site, if they thought they could fit me via web cam, I’d give it a shot. As it is, their online fit guide is a good start, good enough to get you the right size bike and headed to someone to do an in-person fitting. And if you doubt that they know what they are talking about when it comes to fitting, just read their differentiation of sizing and fit between Cervelo’s RS and R3 models. It’s better than anything I’ve seen in any of the bike magazines.
Frankly, the danger that Competitive Cyclist represents is in vacuuming dollars from geeked-out cyclists’ wallets until households can’t afford basics like toilet paper and wine. If these guys get offed, the first person of interest I’d look for would be the spouse of their best customer.