The Bell Curve

Some years back I was in an editorial meeting for a bike magazine when two of my colleagues suggested the publication for which we toiled needed to embrace bicycle commuters and the double-century crowd. It could have been a disastrous move for the struggling media property. Imagine Bobcat Goldthwait abandoning stand-up comedy to devote his time and energy to finger puppetry and you get the idea.

Somehow (I’m still now sure quite how I managed), I was able to dodge the editorial suicide by arguing: Commuters weren’t clamoring for bike magazines filled with tips on how to get to work faster/in better style/with greater training benefit/at less expense. The double-century set, no matter how dedicated they were as cyclists, were a population fractional to the size of the century riding set. The primary expression of the roadie lifestyle were the thousands of people doing group rides week-in and week-out and those were the people our advertisers were trying to reach, whether they knew it or not.

For the entirety of my life I’ve been at the shallow end of some bell curve. Hell, just being a cyclist confirms that. The irony here is that as a roadie who lives for his local group rides, I am, for once, the middle of the bell curve. For reasons I can’t explain, I can look at a marketing plan or advertising campaign meant to reach roadies and I can tell you instantly if it will resonate or not. I can’t do that with anything else. I’m not in the middle of the curve for anything else.

A strange offshoot of that savant-like talent is that I can also look at geometry charts and tell you how a bike will handle. My recent post on the Roubaix-edition Felt F1 brought up some interesting questions both in comments and email. The most obvious and direct question is why Felt won’t be marketing that bike to the cycling public. Well, there are two reasons why not. The first is a simple one, at least, seemingly. The Roubaix F1 has a bottom bracket lower than 27cm and that violates a fundamental CPSC rule. In broad (very broad) strokes, that regulation says that a bike must be able to lean a certain amount with its inside pedal down without striking the pedal on the ground. The math ordinarily works out to a cheap rat trap pedal plus 170mm cranks equals 7cm of BB drop. A few sizes (56cm and smaller) of the Specialized Roubaix feature a BB drop of 7.2cm. I believe they manage this because of the 25mm tires spec’d with the Roubaix. Now Felt could get around the rule either by spec’ing a 25mm tire (like Specialized) or by marketing it just as a frameset; BB height rules don’t apply to framesets, which is why Serotta and Richard Sachs can build frames with a 8cm of BB drop.

I need to interject an interesting aside here: Trek’s new Domane has a surprisingly low bottom bracket. In most sizes the BB drop is 8cm. On larger frames, bikes with presumably longer cranks, the BB height decreases to 7.8cm. How they are getting this past the CPSC I don’t know, but I intend to ask. They also spec the bike with 25mm tires. Will it accept 28s? Likewise, I intend to find out.

But back to the larger point, the bell curve. When you’re a custom builder you don’t have to worry about the middle of the bell curve. If you’re going to NAHBS, you’re going to build a randonnee bike to show because it gives you a great chance to build tons of bike bling into the frameset. From trick routing of generator hub wires and Di2 cables to well-integrated racks, lights and fenders, they are a great way to show off a builder’s chops. But if you actually show up at a randonnee event here or overseas (especially overseas) the riders who want to make it into that top 20 percent of finishing times are on lightweight carbon machines.

 Big bike companies are all driven by making bikes that appeal to the broadest spectrum of riders. This drive to appeal to customers has a curious effect on conformity (another word for the bell curve). Step too far outside what your competitors offer and they’ll pick you apart for offering a product inferior to theirs. They do that anyway, but suppose for an instant you own the one bike company selling a road bike spec’d perfectly for riding D2R2, right down to some sweet 28mm tires. And suppose for a wild instant that you started selling them by the shipping container. I can guarantee you that Trek, Specialized and Giant would sell their bike with 25mm tires against yours by saying they didn’t use “energy robbing” 28mm tires, that the most any roadie really needs are 25s. They’d shred you on that detail and any other outliers they could find. Just as you were shredded for nonconformity in high school you get shredded in the market once you’re big enough to be a blip on the radar.

Now, back to the real(er) world. Imagine that a product manager, say one from Cannondale, did some dirt-road ride like D2R2. And let’s say he decided to get behind a dirt-road spec for a new edition of the Synapse. And let’s, for the sake of fantasy or argument (your choice), say he managed to lay his hands on enough long-reach calipers to outfit all those bikes with brakes that didn’t conflict with the 28mm tires he spec’d for it. What happens if the market for dirt-road road bikes favors Specialized for reasons of spec, price or market affinity? Heck, it doesn’t even have to be another big company; it could be that the market simply favors custom steel builders. Let’s suppose that Cannondale runs 1000 of those bikes, just to be conservative. What happens if they don’t sell? Well, they get discounted later in the season. Depending on just how many are sitting in the warehouse, they might have to discount them a bunch, in which case they could be looking at taking a loss on the bikes. You can guess where this leads: Take too much of a loss on a bike that was a gamble to begin with and you risk more than your employer’s capital; you risk your job. And if you want to find out just how fickle the market it, just ask a rep from one of the bigger bike companies about color choice and inventory. It’s not uncommon to find that one color (such as blue) sells like Ecstasy at a rave, while the other color choice (lime green, for instance) is sitting in the warehouse, gathering dust.

Okay, let’s give Debbie Downer a chance to take a bow. The reality is a good bit brighter than that. The bike market is a good bit larger than it used to be. This is the legacy of the Lance Effect. Bunches of people who bought bikes because of Lance had the good fortune to join clubs, get a decent introduction to the sport and stayed with it. That bigger market has had a curious effect on what’s offered. (Okay, Debbie, we’re not quite finished; could you come back out a sec?) Factories making high-end product struggle to produce all of the frames, forks and components necessary to deliver bikes to bike shops each spring. You may think that consumer choice is the primary driver behind Cannondale offering the SuperSix EVO in Di2, 7900 and Red is to give consumers choices at different price points. That would be only partly true. Even Cannondale can’t get enough 7900 to equip all of those bikes with Shimano’s top mechanical group. Of course, these choices create another layer of risk for both the bike companies and retailers. What if consumers just don’t want to spend $8k on a carbon bike with Dura-Ace, but they’re fine with spending $9k on one with Red?

Let’s hope that shop has a crystal ball.

So that’s the minefield. But consider that we have bikes like the Specialized Roubaix, the Volagi Liscio, the Synapse (Cannondale) and now the Trek Domane (which is a replacement for the failed Pilot, oops). Our choices are increasing and the quality of what we ride has leapt. That’s a lot to celebrate. And it’s easier than ever before to find a custom builder thanks to the Interwebs. Here’s the thing about the bell curve: If the population grows, it grows. As events like D2R2 gain in popularity, more products that make those events more enjoyable will hit the market.

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33 comments

  1. Picchio

    A few points in no particular order:

    *Jan Heine, an early early advocate of low bottom brackets now says that the one centimeter between 7cm and 8cm bb drop makes no appreciable difference in stability, handling, or other riding attributes.

    *Double century crowd may be a small subset of century crowd, but it spends money like nobody’s business and is devoted to the sport much more that century crowd. Moreover, double century riders sure as hell participate in local Thursday night world championships and other group rides, where they rip their friends’ legs off, and have their legs torn off by their friends, friends who do not ride double centuries.

    *Volagi Liscio, which is quickly gaining market share, thanks in no small part to Specialized’s lawsuit, has heaps of tire clearance beyond 25mm.

  2. grolby

    Picchio: I think that’s Jan Heine is likely right about BB height, and in general I have a lot of respect for his thoughts on bicycles and design, though my interests are quite different from his. One of the major effects of CPSC rules on BB height has been to make regular ol’ bicycles (upright handlebars, riding-down-the-street or bike path bikes) less pleasant for non-enthusiasts to ride. They now either have the seat too low, which makes riding more tiring, or they can’t put a foot down while keeping their butt planted firmly in the seat, which is too scary. But of course, larger changes in BB height must do something, and getting it as low as possible is a reasonable goal, especially on larger frame sizes.

    As for the double century crowd’s place as spending and thought leaders among their cyclist friends, it doesn’t appear that the big bike companies are convinced that building a bike specifically to their needs is going to see those qualities offset what would still be low sales. There’s a certain loss of freedom in what you can offer if your playground is the mass market. That’s why your specialist double century or randonneur bike tends to be made by niche boutique builders. It’s not a sustainable business if you are selling to the mass market. And it doesn’t help that the mass market, in the bike industry, doesn’t have that much mass to it compared to other consumer product industries.

    And I would like to know what you mean when you say that the Volagi Liscio is “gaining market share.” I think you’re saying that it’s selling well. I’m not saying this just to be pedantic; bicycle market share could be measured in a lot of ways, but it’s unlikely that reliable data exists if you try to get more granular than “Road,” “Mountain,” “Comfort,” “Hybrid,” “Youth,” “Cruiser,” or “Recumbent/tandem,” (these are the categories used by the National Bicycle Dealers Association) – largely because the difference between an endurance road bike vs. a touring bike vs. a normal road bike isn’t hard and fast and manufacturers have different design philosophies around these categories. How Volagi’s single bicycle model’s market share compared to the competing models from Specialized, Trek and others would be hard to assess (if you want to get more precise than “minuscule.”).

    In any event, the extent to which the “Road” category (all categories, really) is owned by a small handful of companies makes the question of how the Liscio is doing with respect to market share completely abstract. Volagi has a list of every single dealer in the United States on their web page – all 52 of them. Trek has 1,700. Specialized is in the same ballpark. It doesn’t matter how many Liscios Volagi has sold this year, because they simply aren’t going to move the needle on market share. If they are selling lots of bikes and making a healthy profit, then perhaps they will grow and become a presence such that measuring market share means something, but I think that the concept of market share gets far more attention than it deserves when talking about the bike business.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Thanks for the considered comments.

      I’ll respond to a few points and then dive out of the way so others can share.

      Mr. Heine may have asserted that there’s no appreciable difference between 7cm and 8cm of BB drop; I simply don’t agree. Case in point: two of my all-time favorite descending bikes are the Serotta Ottrot (8cm of drop) and the Moser Leader AX (7.8cm of drop); it’s no accident that they are also the two bikes with the lowest BBs I ever reviewed. There are a great many frame builders out there who don’t agree with Heine either. One needn’t look far to find a half dozen who don’t agree. It would be easy to start with Grant Peterson and while he’s no frame builder, he has more experience with geometry than most people I know in the industry. I don’t agree with everything Grant says, but many moons ago he wrote that BB drop does more to determine a bike’s character than any other dimension.

      Regarding the double century crowd: While I can’t speak to other places, the riders I know in SoCal who are busy doing doubles, generally speaking aren’t on the fastest group rides, but that’s neither here no there; I just put that out there to demonstrate that it’s not a truism. When you look at entry numbers for the average double and compare those to the entry numbers for the typical century, the century population simply dwarfs the double population in buying power; we’re talking orders of magnitude here. They may spend a fraction of what the double century riders do on a per capita basis, but their numbers more than make up for that. Have you ever heard of a shop or studio that specializes in catering to the double century set? I sure haven’t. And considering that there are tandem-only shops out there, that should tell you something about their overall numbers.

      Finally, unless someone is in possession of Volagi’s sales numbers, it’s hard to assert they are gaining market share. Sure, awareness of the brand is way up, but awareness isn’t the same thing as market share. I’ve yet to see one on the road, though I look forward to seeing plenty of them out there. I’d love to review one and hopefully, that increased awareness of the brand will help drive sales.

  3. Ian

    I saw the curve last Saturday riding the Fleche Velocio randonneur event. We saw huge pelotons and probably a thousand roadies total throughout the Bay Area, some in groups of 50+ riders . Meanwhile our 360km+ ride had around 40 riders, total. Your point is well made that no matter how much those 40 randonneurs spend, it will not add up to much overall for a large bike company. Certain bike stores in San Francisco cater to randonneurs, but that is alongside a thriving business for commuters/city riders.

    One of the Fleche teams were all riding Volagis that had been lent to them by the company for the ride to test out, so I’m guessing that they’d be interested in providing one to you for review were you to reach out. I see a lot of them on the road but I ride near their HQ frequently with the randonneur crowd, so I would expect to see more than the average rider.

    One group of riders who have gone from the shallow end to become more central are cyclocross riders. Most large bike companies now offer CX bikes, and CX components are widely available. Perhaps with time the same will be true of ultra-endurance/rando/double century specific bicycle designs and components.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Ian: We’ll have to hook up for a ride once I’m relocated to your neck of the woods. The Fleche Velocio sounds like a killer event.

      Great point on ‘cross. It’s a terrific example of how as that population has grown the options for the way you can spend your dollars have evolved.

  4. thom barry

    P – ‘relocated’? Did I miss a post or a comment somewhere along the way? There’s been a lot of talk about G.P. lately – are you ditching the kit for a plaid shirt and beard and zip-tying a basket to the ti travel bike and heading out into the wilds of marin for an s24O?

    Am I reading too much into all this?


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Thom Barry: I didn’t catch all your references, but just to be clear, I plan to relocate my family from SoCal to Santa Rosa ASAP. We’re just looking for the right job for my wife. There’s a certain irony to this as she’s a recruiter.

  5. Curtis Corlew

    Interesting! Thanks. I think you just explained to me why the big companies (and Shimano) insist on gearing specs for young racers when it’s older folks that have money to spend and a need for more reasonable (read lower) gearing.
    I know I never need 52×11, but that’s what my bike came with.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Curtis: Gearing is a two-fold problem for bike companies. The number of Cat. 1 product managers at big bike companies is staggering. Their disconnect with the gearing that the average mortal needs is stunning. Shimano hasn’t helped the problem; they’ve never made 12-27 cassettes by the bushel. A separate problem is that the gearing that makes sense of Topeka won’t fly in Oakland. I seem to recall an effort to create a cassette exchange at the dealer level, so all those dealers in places like Topeka could trade triples and 12-27 cassettes for 53/39 chainrings (and 52/42 would make more sense in a flat place) and 12-23 cassettes. I don’t think anything ever came of it, though.

  6. Jack Bulkley

    I find one of the points about Rando events unconvincing, If the riders expecting to be in the top 20% of finishers are on carbon bikes, what about the other 80%. It seems to me they are either riding bikes more suitable for their effort or they could be sold one that is.

  7. grolby

    Grant Petersen comes in for a lot of abuse, but he’s a smart and thoughtful guy, and most importantly, incredibly knowledgeable about bicycles. The merits or demerits of lycra vs. seersucker cotton or flat pedals and regular shoes vs. clipless aside, when he talks about geometry and designing a bike to ride a certain way, it’s smart to listen. And he has certainly found the part of the curve that he wants to sell to, and by virtue of being his perhaps offbeat and opinionated self, almost single-handedly started what has turned out to be a major expansion of options for enthusiast cyclists who aren’t into the whole roadie thing. So, thank goodness for Grant.

    I think the fact that two guys as smart and experienced as Grant Peterson and Jan Heine have such different views on the importance of BB height and what amount of trail is best really highlights the degree to which bicycle geometry remains somewhat of a dark art and a matter of subjective feel.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Jack Bulkley: I have to admit you bring up an interesting point, doubly so given the title of this post. I’m of the opinion that the bikes being selected by those riders in the top 20% are still very well suited to the efforts of most of that other 80%. Further to that point, IF we’re going to conclude (and I don’t think this necessarily) that many riders—let’s say 40% of this population for the sake of argument—would be better served by something other than a Tarmac or Madone, I’d still recommend a carbon bike such as the Roubaix, the new Domane or the Volagi Liscio with 25s ahead of most other options.

      Grolby. Word. Now, that said, I think it’s worth noting that both riders ride bikes set up at either end of the bell curve. Heine has a stated preference for big rando bags, something that really isn’t necessary given how well gran fondos, sportifs and centuries are supported; those big handlebar bags change the handling of a bike significantly. What you’ll like without a bag will change once you add a bag; most people want more trail and a longer stem to lessen the effect of the weight of that bag swinging around. Petersen rides with a pretty high handlebar and with his knee behind the pedal spindle

  8. Peter Lin

    This discussion on geometry has been fascinating, especially since I know zilch about it. From my own experience shopping for bikes last year, here’s my observation as a comfort (ie non-race) oriented rider. When I tried specialized roubaix and giant defy/avail, it was gentler on my butt, arms and hands. When I took a Madone 3 out for a ride up to mount wachusett in central MA, I found that I couldn’t generate enough power in or out of the saddle compared to my specialized dolce. I have short arms and legs, which didn’t really fit a stock Madone 3 without paying more $$ to swap out the seat, handlebar, stem and crank. In contrast, giant avail fit my body better with narrower handlebar and shorter stem.
    Honestly, I didn’t think geometry would make such a huge different in comfort and speed. If I hadn’t tried several bikes, I might have gone with Madone due to TDF sales event.
    My question is this. Given the proportions of a person make a significant difference in the “feel” of a bike, has anyone categorized body type and written a set of guidelines? Clearly, two people that are both 5’10″ and 170lbs could fit well on the same bike, but often that might not be the case. When I was shopping for bikes, several sales people told me their experience, but I left feeling overwhelmed.
    I’ve tried to read up on bike geometry, but it reads like greek to me. A related question is this, “how do custom bike builders address the issue of geometry?” Do they take detailed measurements of a person’s arms, torso, etc to calculate the optimal geometry? Or do they handle that by swapping out stem, handlebar, seat post, seat and crank?
    Luckily, I’ve found a setup that is comfortable for century rides with no fatigue. Do body fit systems like specialized really make that big of a difference?

  9. thom barry

    Grolby-

    No abuse intended! (I have that very basket zip-tyed on my commuter). I’ve really appreciated the nods he’s received here at rkp lately. The two people I’ve learned the most about this black box called ‘bike geometry’ have been Padraig and Grant.

    In fact, I think it’s apropos to this conversation to point out that the very fact that rivendell (and VO, for that matter) are around and thriving point to the fact that that graph at the top of the post is lifted way higher in the y direction than it was in the 90′s. In other words: the market has hugely expanded. Market share for double-century riders may always be constant and vanishingly small, but the real number of bikes sold to these people will continue to go up- and that’s what matters to those dealers with bikes on the floor. Add to that the fact that many cyclists are like me: I lust for a carbon Parlee, and I also lust for a Homer Hilson for camping with the kids, and you’ve got a customer base that slots in at different locations under that bell curve. Things look good for the bike industry because it’s based on a good, strong market fundamental: riding bikes is a blast.

    Plenty of things to be pessimistic about these days, but I’m excited about the future of bikes.

  10. Wayne

    I believe the important point in the article is that out right fear of anything different drives bicycle design. Even if we could prove mathematically that a new design were slightly superior to existing designs that already provide acceptable performance, the fear of being a marketing target would inhibit its adoption. This is why we see almost all large makers making similar bikes. Nobody was ever fired for making the same bike as the other large makers. Don’t research or innovate, copy somebody’s design and market put the real money in marketing! Any new designs must be vetted by the marketing department first. So we end up with “stiffer” head tubes that no felt were flexing before and “aero” seat posts that sit sheltered between the rider’s moving thighs.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Peter Lin: No one has undertaken an objective study of how (if I understand you correctly) one’s weight should influence bicycle and component choices. It’s a bit more right-brained than that. During my retail days, If someone who was 5’8″ and weighed 200 lbs. wanted a bike, we put them on our stiffest option. Conversely, if a woman at that height, but weighing only 120 lbs. came in, we ordered a light (and rather soft) Vitus frame.

      As to how builders decide on geometry for a new bike, they don’t think about how they can achieve fit by varying component choices. Most do it the other way ’round. They have a bar, stem, seatpost and saddle in mind and they design the frame to give those components the maximum usability. So, for instance, once the bike is finished, the saddle will be centered on its rails, giving the user the option to move either forward or back, depending on how his fit evolves.

      Wayne: I’ve got to disagree with you on this. Your charge that fear drives bicycle design is flat-out wrong. The entire century bike movement (Roubaix, Domane, Defy, Z-series, Synapse, etc.) wouldn’t be happening had Specialized CEO Mike Sinyard not told his design team to make that bike. It was a bold step. Nevermind the fact that it was based on someone else’s design; that bike was custom. The point was that Sinyard had the vision to see in that bike an echo of the past and it cemented a new category for bike enthusiasts.

      Regarding your charge that we have stiffer head tubes that we didn’t feel were flexing before, again, I disagree with you. The improvement in handling because of reduced flex in frames and forks over the last 15 years has changed how I descend. Some of the early carbon fiber forks flexed a lot. I couldn’t tell you exactly how they flexed, but I could tell you that the bike didn’t feel stable at 45 mph, so I slowed down. Fast forward 15 years and I’m riding bikes with substantially stiffer forks and frames that are so stiff, I no longer have to worry about the chain rubbing the front derailleur. How that has changed handling is to give me confidence that I can go into a corner hot and wait until exactly the moment when I want to flick the bar. And while I really don’t mean to be disrespectful, I need to be clear: this isn’t just a difference of opinion. The bikes being produced today by the big companies are much, much better than what I was reviewing in the mid-90s. They deserve full credit for that.

  11. thom barry

    P –

    Sorry to be unclear; that was exactly what I was wondering. Congrats! (I assume this is a good thing). I had the good fortune to do a ride out of Healdsburg on a spring break so long ago – beautiful beautiful roads. Endless country.

    May your move go smoothly. Sending good vibes from the UMass bike racing club.

  12. grolby

    thom -well said, couldn’t agree more. I think there’s sort of this false tension on the internet between roadies and utility cyclists, randonneur types, Rivendell fans, and so on. In reality, I think most of us probably slot into several different market categories depending upon the time of day. When people start riding bikes to work or to get around campus or go on a weekend camping trip, some of those people find themselves getting on road bikes and going fast. I know from experience, because that’s how I found my way into riding and, eventually, racing. And it runs the other way: when people start riding road bikes, some of them begin to think about how riding can have a positive effect in other parts of their lives and on other people’s lives, and start riding to work. I’ve been meaning to write something about this for a while, maybe I will get it off my chest soon, but anyway, people buying and riding bikes is good for all of us, even if they aren’t buying and riding the specific bikes that we are interested in the most.

    And- you were in UMBRC too!? I think the question is becoming more and more, who HASN’T come through the UMass Bike Racing Club?

    Padraig – good luck with the move!

  13. Adam

    Padraig, I’m going to agree and back you up here on the significance on Sinyard’s and Cervelo’s boldness in going forward with century bikes. I remember exactly when the Cervelo R3 came out to replace the 2.5. The 2.5 was a great bike, Basso had just ridden it in the Tour, but it looked for all intents and purposes like many other carbon rigs. When the R3 came out I distinctly remember riding with a friend and both agreeing it was the dumbest idea ever; clearly those seat stays were going to snap, down tubes had to be round etc.
    Around the same time a friend bought one of the first Roubaixs. That’s the ugliest bike I’ve ever seen and the Zerts are a gimmick summed up my opinion.
    Fast forward six years, and the R5 is one of the best bikes I’ve ever ridden and I think an SL4 Roubaix may be my next bike.
    Those two companies branched out so far from the norm and now they are market leaders. In fact, I don’t think that anyone 10 years ago would have predicted that two of the most coveted bikes in the peloton would be coming out of Canada and America.
    Fast forward six years, and the R5 is one of the best bikes I’ve ever ridden and I think an SL4 Roubaix may be my next bike.
    Those two companies branched out so far from the norm and now they are market leaders. In fact, I don’t think that anyone 10 years ago would have predicted that two of the most covetted bikes in teh peloton would be coming out of Canada and America.

  14. Mark

    Padraig,

    Thanks for writing this follow-up to the Felt review/article. Indeed, there were more than a few ideas to touch on here.

    I *do* appreciate Specialized (Roubaix), Cervelo, Gary Fisher, Jamis (Endura), Trek (Domane), and Volagi for their willingness to explore new ideas related to road bike design, even if some of those new aspects take us back to the sport-touring bikes of the 80′s, or to some of the ideas of Bridgestone’s RB-1, like the idea of a road bike with great handling that can still accomodate 28mm tires.

    It’s still troubling to me that the CPSC regulations may be keeping us from better bikes. If I ever stumble upon a bunch of spare money, I’d love to build up a custom Calfee or Parlee with a mix of new-school and old-school ideas. As a high school teacher, that’s incredibly unlikely to happen, so I’ll just have to hunt around the edges and look for some of those aforementioned bikes in a couple of years on the used market. For now, I managed to find a Lemond Poprad over the winter, which is a cyclocross bike that still manages to have a fairly low bottom bracket. I’ve got almost enough bits lying around to build it up as a full bike. It won’t be the lightest thing out there, but I’ve already confessed that I’m more into riding than racing, so we’ll see how it bears out.

    Thanks again for the discussion, and good luck with the move to the Santa Rosa area. It’s a beautiful area.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Everyone: Thanks for your continued comments. I know it’s a pretty geeky conversation, but I believe that finding the right bike can dramatically improve your enjoyment while riding. And if riding is more fun, you’ll do it more. And more riding is a better life.

      Adam: I feel a need to point out that from a geometry and fit standpoint, the R3 is a great example of the newer generation of race bikes. Its trail (depending on the size) is right in line with bikes like the Tarmac and Felt F-series. BB height is really close to those as well, as is wheelbase. Cervelo’s answer to the Roubaix, etc., is the RS. It has a longer head tube, a bit more front center and longer chainstays, giving the bike a longer wheelbase with a bit more trail. That said, I appreciate your point. They helped get us thinking about road bikes in a different way.

  15. Peter Lin

    Thanks for taking time to respond to my question Padraig. I was actually thinking about torso, arm length, leg length, weight, height and how they all related to bike geometry. Say we have 2 people of the same height and weight. One person has a longer reach by 3″ and narrow torso. The other has wider torso, shorter reach and shorter legs. A non-cyclist they might think the same exact bike would fit both of them equally well. The person with shorter legs might want difference size cranks and a narrower handlebar. The person with longer reach might want a longer stem.

    How do bike builders address these kinds of issues? The only analogy I can think of is a suit of armor. Two people of equal height and weight most likely will need completely different armor. How do other people figure out which parts fit them? Seems like someone should have done a thorough study of how all these factors affect the handlebar, stem, crank, seat post, seat size, and frame geometry. If something like that was available, it would make fitting a bike “more” scientific and less guess work.

    1. Robot

      @Peter – I think the level of detail you’re pondering suggests a custom bike. Production bikes try to get to averages, and many people think saddle position, stem length, headset spacers, etc. will fill in the gaps. The short, but usually more expensive route, is to go custom.

    2. Robot

      Addendum to my last comment: I should disclose that I sell custom bikes. It just struck me that your example of two riders of the same height with very different physiognomies gets at the heart of the question custom frames are meant to answer, to say nothing of the way a bike will feel to riders of the same height but much different weight.


    3. Author
      Padraig

      Peter: Robot is right, but that doesn’t really answer your question. In your scenario it’s like that one of those two people will fit a stock bike just fine. It is possible to swap out components for the other, but it’s likely that a custom bike is a better choice. But how to get to what the right fit seems to be your real question.

      The answer lies not in measurements of arm length and leg length. Fitting has come a long way since I was trained in the Fit Kit. Fit techs today look at flexibility and reach. It’s such a gestalt process that it’s hard to boil down in a few lines. But suffice it to say that what fitters look for is range of motion. They use a device called a goniometer and look at the angles of arm to torso, femur to lower back and that sort of thing. It’s very scientific because what it examines is how far someone can really move. So these days, much of this is dealt with by the fit tech. They deliver some numbers to the frame builder (who the customer may never actually see in person) and then the fitter selects components to optimize the fit for that person on that bike.

  16. Hautacam

    While reading the post I thought I would be the first one to mention Grant Peterson in this thread, but I’m not even close.

    I was going to point out that apparently Grant was right on — but about 20 years too early — when he started pitching handcrafted lugged steel frames and heritage-style all-rounder geometry back in the 1990s, at a time when aluminum and titanium and anodized CNC’d bits were the shiny new objects. (Though at least the RB-1 and the MB-0 caught on). These days I see Grant’s influence everywhere, from the NAHB to the hipsters with tweed knickers and waxed canvas saddlebags to the multiple riffs on the old Moustache bar (hello, Mary!).

    Too bad it all comes much too late for Bridgestone here in the US market. They were killed by the fashion of the time — and the lousy exchange rate, which is itself another bugaboo for product managers.

    I am glad Grant got to see his vision through with Rivendell, and I am glad the market has caught up, but in some ways it must be a bittersweet validation.

    What a great thread. Thanks, everyone.

  17. Peter Lin

    Padraig: Thanks for the explanation. A related question to how fitting is done. What if a person starts out rather stiff with little to no flexibility, but over time they loose weight and gain flexibilty? Speaking for myself, even when I was over 180lbs, I was had decent flexibility. As I lost weight and got under 150lbs, I gain a a bit more flexibility. Once I started riding every day, and getting stronger, I noticed I lost some flexibility. I also notice a big different in flexibility depending on the weather.

    When it’s under 30F in MA, flexibility is pretty limited. As I warm up (assuming it’s not so cold that I can), I “feel” more flexible. Since I track all of my rides with a bike computer and GPS, I noticed temps between 20-30F takes me about 6-8 miles to warm up. Under 20F, it’s just too cold to get the joins warmed up even with AmFib tights and a winter riding jacket.

    How does a bike fitting account for differences in flexibility depending on day/weather/conditioning? Is the recommended approach to swap out stem, handle bar, seat and seat post to account for changes in an individual’s flexibility? Since there are bike builders responding, I’d love to hear expert opinions.

  18. Adam

    Peter,
    I personally don’t know of anyone who changes their stem length due to the weather. But, I have heard from a Specialized fitter that Sinyard is really particular about his fit and has been known to me fitted numerous times a year as his fitness and flexibility changes.
    I think a lot of what you mention above can be mediated by stretching every day, ensuring that you’re dressed appropriately for the weather that day so you’re not cold and settling on a fit that’s conservative enough to allow for some aches and pains on off days.
    Going back to your original point and what Padraig has said, this is why a fitter may tell you that while you may have the exact same proportions as Gilbert, you’re bike should not be set up like his. The pros have a massage every day, and are paid to ride 30 hours a week. They can settle into positions that would have mere mortals in the fetal position if we tried to imitate for 100 miles.

  19. Peter Lin

    Thanks to Padraig and Adam for responding to my comments. I’m pretty happy with my current bike and setup, though it wasn’t through design. I kind of arrived at it by luck. I will definitely keep these things in my for my next bike.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Peter: Most fit techs will tell you that fit isn’t static. It changes. It changes as you gain/lose weight, as you become more/less fit and as Adam points out, especially as your flexibility changes. It’s true that many riders are stiffer in colder weather. As Adam mentioned, I don’t know anyone who changed their stem length based on weather, but I’ve known plenty of riders to raise their stem during the winter when they are less flexible. It’s a reason why I still miss the old quill stems—raising or lowering your stem was pretty simple.

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