Competitive Cyclist Saddle Demo Program

CClogo

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.

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17 comments

  1. Stephen

    Oh, I hope you don’t continue on this particular path — promoting businesses (beyond one’s own, I suppose) so often weakens a journalist’s or essayist’s credibility.

    Not to mention that a) Competitive Cyclist’s program is a joke — expensive and almost impossible to take true advantage of (personally, I need about 150 miles on a saddle over at least 2 rides to have a real sense of whether it will work for me or not), and b) more and more local bike shops are willing to demo saddles or accept returns, lessening or eliminating the traditional challenge of finding a good one.

    Your writing is so fine — please don’t lower yourself to polishing other people’s proverbial shoes.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Stephen, thanks for writing and expressing your dissent. I’m genuinely excited by the program. You bring up a valid point about how it can be tough to know which saddle will work in a week, but at least they present the opportunity. Expense? Well that’s relative, really.

      I suppose you didn’t care for me mentioning Jet Blue’s bike program either. In each instance, I posted because I thought the readership might benefit from these programs. And while it’s true that I do dig CC, I’ve no such affection for Jet Blue. The urge to write was simply reader service.

      The critical view is great to hear; I’m sure you aren’t the only reader to feel this way. I’ll bear it in mind, but I’ll also shine a spotlight on companies that I think are doing good/interesting work.

  2. Jim Morehouse

    I agree with you about Competitive Cyclist. I’ve been a rider for over 36 years and as a “shop” that knows it’s products intimately, they fit the bill. It’s hard to find a real bike shop that knows all the convoluted ins and outs of cycling, but their writing really shines as authentic, and it shines just as good writing. I buy from them. And even when I don’t, I will rely on them when I’m researching something new that no one else I know has an opinion on yet. Back “in the day”, it was pretty easy: Campagnolo Record, Regina Oro, Super Champion, DT, Selle Italia… you get the picture. Now it’s a jungle. They offer a way through it. Thanks for the write up!

  3. Chris

    Another option for trying out gear is REI. REI has hands down the best return policy in the industry – you can take back ANY item at ANY time. I don’t know of any other retailer that will let you return a saddle or shorts or anything else weeks or even months after you bought it. Their store and web selection is pretty limited – especially for the racer/poser crowd – but they can special order anything from QBP and other distributors just like any other shop and the return policy still applies to special orders. I special ordered some Sidi winter shoes and when they didn’t fit quite right they took them back without hesitation.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Nick: More companies ought to take WTB’s lead and offer a similar program; their line isn’t as popular with roadies, but they do good work and if the real priority is finding a saddle that works, they offer a real option.

      Chris: Thanks for the reminder on REI. They sell both Fi’zi:k and Selle Italia saddles, so a great many options are out there.

      Stephen: Yes, you’re right, there’s a big difference between what I wrote about CC and Jet Blue, but in as much as you saw a trend, I wanted to respond to that part of your comment.

      This is a good opportunity to acknowledge how what I write has been shaped to some degree by comments previous and anticipated. While my opinions haven’t changed, how I present them has obviously evolved. I make a greater effort to address other views, even those I disagree with, as I write. Should what I write change based on my audience? Miles Davis would shoot me, but I think blogging requires the blogger to acknowledge the audience more openly. Gone, thank heaven, are the ivory tower days; media today is a dialog and your comments are key.

  4. Nick

    WTB (Wilderness Trail Bikes) has a demo program also. The main difference is their dealers (physical local to you shops) have a rack of test drive saddles. You can mount and test ride a particular saddle for as much time as you need to decide. Obviously within reason.

  5. Stephen

    Padraig,

    You offer a good explanation and I appreciate you responding. I had forgotten about the Jet Blue post, but for me, there is a difference. In the case of JB, you just passed on information without commenting on the company, per se (I didn’t know that your brevity arose from ambivalence, but that’s neither here nor there). In this post, on the other hand, you went far beyond your title: your first 5 paras covered the saddle program, while the following nine (which begin with the sentence, “Which brings me to a larger point: the preeminence of Competitive Cyclist.”) just discuss the business (I do appreciate the point towards Quirk’s blog, though, which I had not previously noticed).

    A closer comparison for me would be your paean to the Aliante, which I didn’t find so much troubling, as just kind of weird. On the other hand, I know the deep satisfaction of finding a business or product in which you truly believe, whose values and practices make you need to cry out, “of thee I sing!,” and I appreciate that, too.

  6. mark

    Competitive Cyclist certainly doesn’t fit the norm of online bike retailing. Whereas the temptation in most cases is to go to a local shop to check the fit of a clothing item or to feel and heft a particular part before purchasing it at a discount online, I use Competitive Cyclist to learn about a part/bike/accessory through their great copy and fine photos before having my LBS (which likely doesn’t have it in stock) order it for me.

    Moreover their weight calculator is a tremendous resource, and the online fit system is also good enough to help narrow frame choices down to those with a geometry that will fit before beginning shopping and test riding in earnest locally.

    I’m sure Brendan will read this, as these things have a way of coming full circle. And I’m sure he knows there are people like me out there. Regardless, I like having Competitive Cyclist as a resource and a means to window shop, but I haven’t spent a dollar there. Yet.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Thanks for joining the conversation Mark. Your example is particularly interesting as your behavior is exactly the opposite of what anyone would expect to find in relation to the online shopping experience. You might just be the first example of a previously unknown species of consumer: precisely not the worst-case scenario envisioned by most brick-and-mortar shops, a yang to the feared yin.

  7. Lachlan

    Its all good.
    Having lived and riden and bought more than I care to remember in the UK, US and mainland Europe, all I can say is thank your lucky stars you have a site like competitive cyclist in the US. They are truly a god send as a resource for then-buying-local and as the resource for when local can’t deliver. And at least there are some other OK online stores… in France for example you can’t find ANYTHING in stock locally when you need it, they can’t order it in less than a month, and no one has decent online services, even to check availability. It ends up being way easier to order from the UK (which has OK but not great online sites) and wait for delivery.

  8. Alex

    I´m quite pleased to read this post about CC, as I´m also their customer. Give credit where it´s due, and in the case of CC it´s well worth it: those guys are indeed as PRO as it gets about everything they do! And their passion for cycling transpires, that counts too. IMHO they´re raising the bar when it comes to internet service, perhaps bridging the gap between LBS and WWW shopping or something – it´s as close to a “hybrid” as it gets, and they´re far superior to many – if not most – brick and mortar shops, service wise. Shopping from CC didn´t mean (to me) quitting the mandatory LBS weekly (daily? LOL) visit, I still take my business to my prefered bike shops around here, as I have been for the past 20 years, and will keep doing so!

  9. Jason

    I definitely agree. CC has upped the retailer’s game no matter which battlefront you prefer to support. The fact that everyday customers can demo bikes and saddles – who knows what CC will think of next – is a pretty rare thing in many parts of the country. If you’re willing to make the investment, it could definitely benefit your purchasing decision for years.

  10. Tinpot

    It’s funny, I think I can agree with every sentiment expressed so far to one degree or another.
    I’ve been on CC’s site I don’t know how many times, similar to Mark, learning about the product before finding a bricks and mortar shop closer to home, which is not easy. Similar to the comment about shopping in France, the 3 LBS in my city of 70K carry little of real use to a serious cyclist, take forever to get anything you order if they ever remember to order it. To drive to Toronto, the closest metropolis, costs me 20-30$ in gas, so having a resource like CC available really becomes an attractive possibility. That said I have not spent a dime with them, though I believe that will change.

    As for Padraig’s account, while I understand that some may seek for his account to be neutral so as to not lower his excellent standards of reporting, this account came at a very useful time for me, if not for his report, but for the dialogue afterwards Padraig referred to, from people who use the resource and can vouch for what I’ve seen on the web, wondering if it really is that good. So thanks all…
    I’m off to CC for a while.
    TD

  11. Kris

    I can appreciate Stephen’s comments as it is next to impossible to find objective reviews that truly are independent of the support that publications on and off line receive from advertisers. It bears remembering though, that Padraig indicated at the outset that this would form cover some of this type of reporting.

    Personally, while Padraig’s report is encouraging, it’s the subsequent dialogue that he referred to that I’ve found really helpful. I’ve always been an advocate of buy local, and recognize the importance of supporting my LBS, but only so long as my 3 LBS can effectively support me. I’m at the point where that is not the case (it’s much like France, apparently), a drive to Toronto would equal shipping costs from CC or other distant vendors in Canada, if I could get any response from them (it’s much like France, apparently). Like Mark, I’ve used it as a resource, and have really been impressed by what I’ve seen. I’d surprise myself, if my next acquisition was not through them.

    Thanks all for the dialogue on the subject.
    TD

  12. Clint

    Great post as always. I happen to be from Little Rock, Arkansas where Competitive Cyclist is located and know some of the guys there. One of the best things about traveling home for me is the chance to ride with those guys. Being from the Northeast I sometime think that I will be able to handle these guys who live in this far removed local. Excluded from all the goings on in the bike world, and therefore never riding their bikes. I am always wrong about that. Never has there been a time when I haven’t suffered on a ride with them. If there is one thing I know from experience about the comp cyclist guys, its they know bikes. Not from a facts, or figures standpoint. Rather they know bikes from the saddle. They ride and make riding their lives.
    Just wanted to share my point of view.

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