I’ve been fit by more alleged “masters” of the bicycle fitting process than I care to remember. What I’m even less interested in recalling are the specifics of some of those fits. I’d prefer not to have had the journey, but along the way, I’ve seen—and learned—a lot.
One Italian frame builder took three measurements of me while I was in a cotton shirt and chinos as I stood in his booth at a trade show. Net result: The bike was gorgeous, handled like water flowing through a pipe and was at least one centimeter too big, and that left me too stretched out. The measurements of my “custom” frame also coincided with his stock 60cm size. I’d committed to buying that frame set; the day I admitted to myself that I needed to sell it, that it would never really fit me, was a sad one.
Another fit master, one who is known as an LA fit guru wanted to put me on the smallest frame anyone had ever suggested for me, a 53. That was perhaps the biggest (smallest?) bullet I ever dodged. I tried riding the bike around his parking lot. All the while he was beaming, commenting on how flat my back was. He had the largest supply of 14cm stems I’d ever seen. Little wonder.
I’ve had other fits that looked more or less right to most folks. One recent one resulted in a saddle height that was more than a centimeter too high; it looks ridiculous to me to write that, so I respect it must look even more ridiculous to read that. I got into that pickle because of a decision I’d made years before, that I would fully commit to whatever fit I was placed in and not begin monkeying with it a week later.
It would be easy to look in from the outside and pronounce these machinations silly, for someone to conclude that they’d never get caught in such a trap. There were times when I’d look at a change and think, “Okay, that last fit was definitely off; this one is what I need.” But the fits I had were never so far off as to be glaring errors—a fish in a Coke bottle.
What was interesting to me was that over the years. almost all the fits I gave myself over to were never far from that first fit my boss at The Peddler Bike Shop gave me with the Fit Kit in 1989. Later, I attended the New England Cycling Academy, where I was certified in the Fit Kit. In 1992, that was the most thorough course going in fit. Later, I went through Serotta’s early program, and even had the first generation of the Serotta Fit Cycle in my garage for the better part of a year. I’ve been around a number of different fit methodologies for a long time. There have been times when I was bombarded with so many different fit ideologies that it felt like rush week at a big university.
Despite the variances in my own fit and the conclusion I drew, which was that none of the fits I’d received over the previous 10 years were quite right, I do think the state of bicycle fit is vastly better than it once was. The worst fits I see on the road (and on mountain bikes) are invariably riders on bikes that were sold more than 10 years ago, often closer to 20 years ago.
I’m preparing to write about at least two custom bikes in the next year. As a result, I decided I wanted to get my fit reviewed and for that I decided to go to Steven Carre of Bike Effect in Santa Monica. There are a bunch of very talented fitters in the LA metropolis, so making the choice wasn’t easy. I selected Steve in part because I respect the fits I’ve seen coming out of there and in part because of the number of custom bikes they are selling.
Steven’s approach intrigued me in part because he’s spent time learning most of the major approaches to fit. He is certified by the Serotta International Cycling Institute, Retül and Specialized’s SBCU. Of course, you can have all the fancy gadgetry that drug money can buy, but still not know what you’re seeing. That’s what made my experience with Steven different.
I’m not as fast as I was in 2003, but my flexibility hasn’t changed significantly in that time, which is what makes his results so significant. In many regards, I’m the same cyclist, but not all. I’ve lost height because my spine has shrunk. Those details are easy enough to diagnose. It’s the other details he caught that everyone else had missed: a slight leg-length discrepancy, but one that is not skeletal in nature; a pelvis twist that causes me to sit on the saddle not quite perfectly straight; and unusual back flexibility that allows me to ride fairly low even though my hamstrings aren’t all that flexible.
Steven diagnosed the changes to my fit he thought would be most helpful in short order, but he took me through a couple of extra steps in an effort to be super-thorough. He set up the latest generation of the Serotta size cycle with my current fit. This latest version of the size cycle, if you haven’t seen it, looks some ultra-advanced spin bike, like BMW had entered the exercise-equipment market.
Honestly, when I first saw it, it looked over-thought, the proverbial better mousetrap. And then Steven did something simple, something amazing, something simply amazing. He took an electric driver and began moving the handlebar away from me. With the original Serotta size cycle, you could set it up in nearly any fit you could imagine, but to do so, the rider had to dismount the bike and then remount it. With the new version, you’re able to make adjustments as the rider is pedaling and the electric driver gives the fitter the ability to make smooth, gradual changes.
With that electric driver Steven was able to move the bar forward and backward, from Obree Superman to kid’s bike. He did the same thing with bar height, taking the bar from English 3-speed to pursuit bike. We took a couple of passes in each direction and I’d tell him how I felt periodically, doing my best to indicate when the bar’s reach and height felt most comfortable. In an effort not to influence the process with any opinions of my own I looked forward as he made changes.
Steven told me that with each pass I was consistent in where I indicated the bar was most comfortable. Not only that, Steven noted how my upper body was less tense in the new position than it had been in the old position. More relaxed means more miles without discomfort while riding in the drops.
Before I went into the fit my fear was that he would move the bar up. Part of my concern was that I would need to add spacers on forks that had already been cut to length, and on top of that was the challenge of making sure my fit didn’t conflict with manufacturers’ guidelines for the maximum length of spacers between the headset and the stem. As it turns out, Steven moved the bar back 1cm and down 2cm. That was a surprise.
Because my saddle came down a centimeter as well, on a great many production bikes I’ll be moving from something in the 58cm top tube range to options in the 56.5 to 57cm range. That will prevent me from having to run 10cm stems, which make the bike a bit more twitchy than I’d like.
We made the changes in stages, moving the stem by a centimeter every two weeks and the saddle by a half centimeter. I’ve been riding with this new fit on two road bikes (I changed my mountain bike fit as well) for four months now. I can say that I’ve got more power in the saddle now and have enjoyed greater comfort in my shoulders on long rides.
I’ve had several different offers to be fit with various systems lately. While I’m curious to know more about the processes, I’m reluctant to let anyone else work on my fit. Reluctant the way I’d feel were I to face a firing squad. I played along for a long time, but as I age my body has become fussy. I may not be the old cat laying in the sun just yet, but experimenting with my fit has the potential to reduce how fun riding is, and in that I just don’t see the point.
In my experience, more than any other component found on a bicycle, pedals elicit a near-religious loyalty among users. It may be that because cleat design will remain static to a degree that even the number of cogs on a cassette will not, people have more years of use on a system and are more likely to develop less a preference than an accustom. We tend to like those things we’ve used for long periods of time. After all, if we didn’t like them, we would have switched, so the longer we use them, the more we tend to think what we’re using is the best thing going.
Generally speaking, there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, if you like what you use, and it poses no problems for you, why not continue to use it?
It is into this particular world of settled opinion and calcified satisfaction that I thrust the Ritchey Echelon WCS pedals. The challenge is that pedals accepting the Look cleat have been around since shoulder pads were the hot look in women’s fashions. Good thing they have a greater functional benefit.
In addition to Look, we’ve had Shimano, Wellgo, Campagnolo, Sampson and a score of other manufacturers make pedals designed to accept the Look cleat. Had it not been for Time, and Shimano’s ill-advised decision to take the SPD platform to the road, Look might have become the industry standard. But not only is that three-bolt fixing standard still in play, the cleat itself remains mostly unchanged.
It begs the question: What has changed in all that time? Okay, so the cleat went from black to red, meaning from fixed to floating. The Keo cleat also reduced the stack height between the center of the pedal spindle and the foot. Most manufacturers have increased both the number and the quality of the bearings used. Spring release tension is adjustable (has been for, oh … at least 20 years). The pedal body shape has been refined to increase lean-angle clearance. And let’s not forget weight. Some early examples (Mavic, anyone?) might as well have been constructed from depleted plutonium so heavy were they.
For six months I’ve been riding a range of pedals: the Ritchey Echelons as well as a couple of others, including the new Shimano Dura-Ace 9000s. While the Shimano cleat is slightly different than the Look Keo, I consider them of a piece; they’re not fundamentally different, the way Time and Speedplay are.
By any critical measure, these pedals are reasonably light, weighing in at 250 grams. Unfortunately, Ritchey claims they weigh only 233g, which makes this the first Ritchey product I’ve encountered that strayed from the advertised weight by more than five percent. Still, 250g for the pedals, combined with 77g for the cleats one of the lightest pedal systems on the market for less than $200. This is where the Echelons show best—value. At just $159 for the set with cleats and hardware, they are more than $100 less than the corresponding Shimanos (not to mention a few other competitors.
The Echelons use a two bearings: an outer, sealed-cartridge bearing, and a needle bearing in the middle. Inboard duties are handled by a lightweight bushing. Spring tension is adjustable, and while I didn’t check torque values, I can say anecdotally, it goes from light enough for a panicked escape to grab-a-stop-sign-cuz-I’m-falling-over tight.
Having ridden in so many different pedals of late, I came to only one firm conclusion on the subject of pedals using Look-style cleats. Because of where I live, which is to say a place where there are stop lights and stop signs for 30 miles in every direction except west, I stop like a sitcom has ads. It’s annoying, but it’s a fact of my life. What surprised me about the Echelon pedals was that I eventually noticed I was able to catch the tongue of the cleat more reliably with them than with any similar pedal. There are lights that are just too long to track stand through at the end of a long ride, so I want a pedal that allows me to roll away from a light with something approaching haste. If I have to stop pedaling and look down for a moment, that’s a fail.
One factor that contributes to the success or failure of a pedal in this regard isn’t so much the weight of the pedal but the weight delta from the front of the pedal to the rear of the pedal. The greater that delta, the more likely a pedal is to hang, rather than spin due to bearing drag. A tiny amount of bearing drag will cause the pedal to sit motionless until the pedal reaches the top of the pedal stroke, the point at which most riders will attempt to clip the second foot in. That pause will cause the rear end of the pedal to overcome the bearing drag and spin forward. Practically speaking, it means often putting your foot down on the bottom of the pedal, rather than engaging it. Not good for quick getaways. I’ll hasten to add that I had to ride each pedal for more than 500 miles to make sure that I wasn’t just encountering drag from the bearing seal.
It’s this one, tiny little detail that caused me to love this pedal. If I lived 50 miles outside of Cedar Rapids, with corn fields surrounding my home, different story. Add in the fact that it costs less than a night in a nice hotel, and you’ve got one of my favorite pedals of the last few years.
Oh, man. When I brought up helmets last week, I had this sneaking suspicion it was a better conversation starter than the Giro d’Italia, though in years past I know we would have turned the Giro over and over like a favorite record. 50 comments later, I think we covered helmets pretty well.
In midweek, Padraig reviewed a new pair of gloves, and that got me thinking that gloves have that same sort of personal character that helmets do.
Truth be told, I prefer to ride without gloves, but years of doing so, while spending my days with my paws on a keyboard, have left the nerves that run from my arms into my mitts with less than optimal connectivity. Some days it doesn’t take very long for a familiar buzzing to creep from my palms up into my fingers.
So, I tend to keep a couple or three pairs of gel-palmed gloves in my steady rotation. The right glove can cradle my frayed nerves and dissipate enough vibration to keep me sensate all day long, over road and gravel, up singletrack and down powerline cut. The Giro Monaco long-fingered glove is a particular favorite, with just the right amount of pad.
Padding, breathability, seam-angle and height, materials, they all go into making a great glove, and of course durability is an issue, because we use our hands for everything.
This week’s Group Ride is about gloves. What do you wear and why? As it’s mostly warm most everywhere right now, let’s keep this to warmer weather gloves. The winter variety can be an entirely different beast with a whole other set of challenges.
Al Fritz, the Schwinn employee who invented the Stringray, has died. It was Fritz who noticed in the early 1960s the rise of the muscle-car culture and how that began to bleed into bicycling with kids customizing their bikes. The Stingray was less a bike than a hot rod with two wheels and pedals. And for kids like me who were born in the 1950s and ’60s, the Stringray was one of the first status symbols we ever encountered. It wasn’t just a toy. No, the Stingray was rolling style. It was Beach Boys-hip and as indestructible as a Chevy Bel Air, that is, until you took it off a five-brick-high ramp (in my neighborhood we measured ramp height by the number of bricks we stacked at the high end). Turns out, nothing could stand up to that.
To say that Fritz was the inventor of the Stringray isn’t overstating his achievement. Prior to the Stringray, kids’ bikes had all the flash and style of a turnip. With the Stingray, Fritz gave kids a chance to reflect their personality with a production product. Ask anyone involved in branding and marketing today and they’ll tell you that only the truly transcendent products do that.
How influential was Fritz? Here’s one way to measure it: Who didn’t want a Stingray? Hell, I still want one. The Orange Krate was the first product I can recall coveting, of seeing someone else with something that I actively, passionately wanted. My mom, being the closeted hippy that she was, bought me a Raleigh Chopper. Thought it was Union Jack cool, it was poison oak on an open wound. Yeah, it was orange, but still … so close and yet…. The Orange Krate taught me the value of the feature. It wasn’t just a Stingray. No, it had a five-speed gear shifter, hand brakes and the banana seat sat on shock absorbers—shock absorbers! Those gears, those brakes, that suspension—the machine was the very expression of aspiration. I’d look at one and dream of all the riding I could do, if only.
The effect Fritz had on me and so many other people—Schwinn sold more than a million Stingrays—was to plant the seed of making the bike itself cool. Here at RKP we like to say that cycling isn’t just one hobby, it’s at least four or five of them. That love of the thing itself, of the synergy that arises from our appreciation of both what the bicycle can do and our fascination with a machine made beautiful can keep cycling exciting even when we’re unable to ride. Fritz wasn’t the first to make the bike beautiful, not by a longshot. What made the Stringray different was that he captured so many of us when we were blank canvases to passion. There came a point for most of us when we gave up the bike for a while. Those of us who found our way back to the sport owe him a debt. Turns out, the Stingray was as durable as a dream.
Those childhood loves are rarely shaken. Thank God.