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.
Saturday morning on Rapha’s Gentleman’s ride in Santa Monica rider Robert Hyndman died. Robert was descending Las Flores Canyon Road when he crashed. There’s been a fair amount of hand-wringing and Monday-morning quarterbacking about this tragedy and as a result, I’ve decided to weigh in, if for no other reason than my years of experience with those canyon roads.
Let me begin by saying that I consider Slate, Jeremy, Derrick and Gerben at Rapha all friends. Double for Alison and Steven at Bike Effect, the studio at which the ride originated. What I’m about to write is as much for them as it is for anyone who has never ridden the canyon roads of the Santa Monicas.
Of the many mountain ranges around the world graced with roads suitable to cycling, the Santa Monicas are unusual in that no other range of mountains has more magazine editors within 50 miles and had less written about them. I penned the only survey of those mountains I know to have been published by a bike magazine. A few years ago I wrote “Malibu: Heaven has mountains” for Road Bike Action. And yes, I declared that the Santa Monicas were my idea of heaven. I also declared that riding the canyon roads above Malibu is far more challenging than riding in the Alps or even the Pyrenees. I believe if you can descend those canyons, you can ride anywhere, even the roads of the Chartreuse and Vercors, which are themselves more difficult than the actual Alps.
Every year the event promoter Planet Ultra puts on a ride called the Mulholland Challenge. At roughly 110 miles and 12,000 feet of climbing it is one of the hardest rides I’ve ever completed. Say what you want about La Marmotte or The Tour of the California Alps (Death Ride), hitting a kilometer-long pitch of 17 percent at the base of a 7km climb once you’ve got 75 miles in your legs can humble almost anyone. Each year more than 700 riders enter the Mulholland Challenge. The event (it sits somewhere between a gran fondo and a century) has had its share of crashes, particularly on the descent of Deer Creek Road, but no one has ever died.
My sense of empathy suggests that Steven, Alison, Slate and co. may feel some guilt over Robert’s death. It’s hard to have a heart and not feel some burden of responsibility. However, the Gentleman’s Ride was not a bad route. It was not a dangerous route, though it contained some risk.
If we conclude that the day’s route was dangerous, the logical outcome of that is all future Rapha rides in Los Angeles will head north on Pacific Coast Highway and then turn around at some pre-arranged spot for the trip south. Believe me, it can be good riding, but it’s not the same as being in the canyons.
To be a cyclist is to live the balance between risk and danger. I define danger as something likely to end in a bad outcome. Mount Washington averages 12 percent; as a result, no one is allowed to descend it. Were you to try, the odds are that you’d crash from too much speed or blow a tire off the rim from too much braking; there’s no real room for a middle ground on that road. Risk, on the other hand, is what we face every time we go out for a ride. There’s always a chance that we could be hit by a car, wash out in a corner or encounter some other bad event. The difference is that with reasonable care we can avoid a rotten outcome most of the time.
Think of every road you’ve heard a cyclist has died on. It would be ridiculous to conclude that in each instance in which a rider encountered a mishap—nothing involving a car—that the road was too dangerous to ride on. It’s true that Las Flores is a challenging descent. It’s also true that Robert had considerable skill; the point at which he crashed he could not have reached without having previously exercised both skill and judgment. Corollary: Last year’s Gentleman’s Ride descended Tuna Canyon, easily the most difficult descent in the Santa Monicas, the most difficult descent I’ve ever encountered, the only paved descent that has ever scared me. We got down that without an inch of lost skin last year.
In criticizing the course of the Rapha Gentleman’s Ride as too difficult, as dangerous, two injustices are committed. First, we dishonor the memory of a strong and skilled cyclist. Accidents happen. I can’t say exactly what took place that day as I wasn’t there, but I’ve dropped down that road dozens of times and I can attest that there were days when I couldn’t have gone wrong and other days when I just didn’t have it and wished I was taking another route down.
The second injustice is the denigration of a spectacular land formation. If I were to define my idea of heaven with the terrain of one spot on earth, there’s no doubt that I’d choose Malibu. The views from atop its vistas rival anything I’ve seen. Better yet, I can ride there year-round. I’d hate to think that people would avoid the roads above Malibu because of one cyclist’s misfortune.
What I’ve learned of Robert’s family and friends is that they are taking solace knowing that he was engaged in the world, riding with family and friends that day, that he died doing one of his favorite things in the world. Though I never met him, the simple fact that he drove up from Orange County to do a Rapha Gentleman’s Ride means he was on the lookout for new adventures. This guy was certainly one of my peeps.
For each of us there came a point when cycling ceased to be just a way to have fun and became an expression of challenge, a way to embrace new difficulties and to elevate both skill and fitness.
A good friend of mine wrote that while people have lionized Robert for dying while doing what he loved, he thought dying on his bike was “a shit way to die.” I can’t disagree. I’m sure his parents ache for not having a chance to say goodbye. When I go, I don’t want to be on my bike; I want to be surrounded by my family. Ultimately, I think what resonates with people is that in dying while doing what he loved, his death illustrates that he tried to live his life on his terms, that he wasn’t some couch potato. The danger is that romanticizing this accident is no better than letting a fear of that road prevent us from riding it.
I’ve made mistakes before and crashed. I’ll make mistakes again. The last thing in the world I’d want my error to do is cause people to avoid exciting roads. I can’t speak for Robert or his family, but the example of his life suggests that he would endorse getting on with the business of living by putting ourselves out there and we achieve that electric thrill no one will ever get from the TV.
The greatest service we can do our fellow riders is to remember them accurately, to ride with the care that will keep us out there, to remain clear on the difference between danger and risk, and to keep that sense of adventure alive.
One of my favorite studios is Velosmith in Wilmette, Illinois.
I’ve always been a nut for great retail operations. In junior high it was hobby shops. High school and college was music stores and record shops. Next came book stores and bike shops. My love for them is the love of potential. Inside each of those places are models to build, books to read, records to hear, drums to hit, bikes to ride—good times waiting to happen.
I’ve gotten harder to please, though. Most record stores don’t carry much that I want to listen to, unless I’m in the mood to fill my back catalog of Led Zepplin or Deep Purple. Book stores? Seems all the titles I go looking for I can only locate on Amazon. As I don’t play the drums anymore (God, how I hear their siren call) and haven’t the slightest interest in building models, that leaves bike shops. And the bike shops that most excite me are the studio operations. Small in scale, precise in product lines, manned by consummate technicians and providing the ultimate in service. They are the purest example of what I was taught the best in bike retailing should offer. Pick your lines and go narrow and deep.
I’ve visited fewer than a dozen studios, though not for lack of trying. I simply haven’t made it to some of the markets where they exist. However, the studios I’ve visited, as different as they are in expression, they all sing the same song, and if you’ve ever heard Miles Davis’ version of Cindy Lauper’s “Time After Time,” then you know just how diverse interpretations can get.
First and foremost, I like studios because they’ve taken a stand. That is, they’ve drawn the proverbial line in the sand to say, “This is what we’re about.” Their product lines are few, their stock, light. Further, they usually don’t have the capital to deal with one of the big bike companies. They are retail insurgents.
Most studios I’ve visited have three, maybe four different bike lines, max. They have one or two clothing lines—three if they offer a shop kit. Same goes for shoe lines. The fitting area is always integrated into the overall layout of the space, rather than a corner of the shop where a rack of clothing can be rolled out of the way while one of the wrenches sets up a trainer. That’s one of the biggest signifiers of a studio—they celebrate optimal fit.
This weekend Bike Effect in Santa Monica celebrated its one-year anniversary. Derrick Lewis from Rapha came out to show two new films from Rapha, one “The Rapha Continental” which showcases the far-flung exploits of the Rapha Continental team, and the other on Dario Pegoretti, called “D’Acciaio” (of steel).
As part of the celebration surrounding the studio’s one-year anniversary and expansion into a neighboring suite, Bike Effect hosted a Rapha Gentleman’s ride. Unfortunately, on the descent of Las Flores Canyon Road, one of the riders, Robert Hyndman lost control of his bike and crashed. He lost consciousness in the crash and died a short time later at the hospital. His brother, who was on the ride, told Bike Effect co-owner Steve Carre that Robert died doing exactly what he wanted. He was an avid rider and loved riding the steep roads around his home in Orange County
Mentioning the death of a rider in a piece ostensibly about studios and not meant to be an obituary or other tribute to a fallen cyclist might seem a bit odd, but to me it helps to confirm one of the best features of studio operations. They don’t so much have customers or even clients as extended family. To succeed, they are required to help build community, however they define it. News of Robert’s death shifted the mood to a much more somber tone for the Saturday evening reception, but it got people talking about what they valued, how much cycling mattered in their lives and how many of them hoped they could be so lucky as to go doing their favorite activity.
Most people in attendance that night hadn’t been on the ride. I’d missed it because I’m still recovering from that damned flu. I’m well enough to be out, but the cough tells me I need to keep my feet off of pedals. And even though we hadn’t known Robert, if he was on a Rapha Gentleman’s Ride, then we had a certain measure of the man. He was one of us. Our hearts could wrap around his family’s loss and envy his brother for all the rides they’d shared. Somehow, we struck a balance, celebrating both a business and a life we believed in. Somehow, the intimate space allowed us to discuss how the possibility of death is a risk we accept every time we throw a leg over the top tube, but the tone was neither callous nor resigned. It was simple acceptance. As we often say: There but for the grace of God go I.
Because the ingredients that go into a studio are as varied as the books on a shelf, it’s impossible to say what is necessary to make such an operation a success. Is it the service? Certainly in part. Is it the knowledge base? It helps. Is it the coffee? Can’t hurt. I think the real key is what I just mentioned—community. In creating a space that caters to the lifers, we’re more likely to bond with it. Such a small operation is all-in. It’s a position most of us took years ago.
Any time a shop breaks the routine of business as usual, I get curious. It’s easy to put your head down and spend your days concerned with inventory turn, how many bikes were built and how fast those repairs get picked up. So when someone takes the time to bring in a representative from one of the brands they carry, I like to check those events out.
Bike Effect, the studio in Santa Monica, brought in Eric Sakalowsky, one of the owners of the French bike manufacturer Cyfac. I’ve been hearing about Cyfac and reading about them for years, but have never written about them, mostly because until I’ve had a chance to talk with someone at the company, I don’t feel like I have a proper feel for what they do. There’s nothing like getting the story from the horse’s mouth.
Bike Effect has invested in Cyfac in a big way, making them one of their marquee lines, along with Serotta. I spent some time with Eric, learning about how his involvement came about (he had been their North American distributor and dumped his other lines to buy into the company), just how intimate an operation it is (they have 15 production staff) and how they manage to produce custom carbon fiber frames (more on that later).
To woo prospective clients Bike Effect owners Steve and Allison served up fruit, cheese, cracks and wine. It made for a relaxed atmosphere and it wasn’t long before I heard people talking specifics about sizing and colors.
Eric (left) and Steve discuss what makes Cyfac, well, Cyfac. Eric and I are working on an interview that will run as part of the Artisans series at peloton. Though the company offers a number of different models (I lost count as I studied their web site), the ones I’m most interested in are the top-of-the-line carbon models, the Absolu in particular. Though the tubes are produced in Taiwan, every other aspect of fabrication occurs at Cyfac’s Loire Valley headquarters. The only reason the tubes are produced overseas is because they haven’t been able to source a French producer capable of meeting their needs and they aren’t yet in a position to do it in-house, though from my conversation with Eric, it sounds like they may be headed that direction.
Each customer who purchases an Absolu gets a book documenting the creation of their frame, from the mitering of the tubes, to the masking for the paint job—Cyfac uses no decals. Honestly, I was stunned to learn that they often have more hours invested in a paint job than many manufacturers put into the building of a frame. And while you’d think such devotion would make such a bike unaffordable, they are competitive with other top shelf brands.
Cyfac’s custom work offers incredible flexibility to the client. Not only can they vary the sizing, they can vary the geometry, so that if you want something that fits like your beloved Seven, but descends like your old Moser, you can have that in custom carbon. And say you want it as stiff as your old Merckx built from Columbus Max tubes, you can have that as well as they can vary just how stiff the tubes are. It’s a level of customization some companies said we would never see.
I look forward to learning more and reporting more. I’ll try to present some reviews as well.
Bike Effect is a new bike studio in Los Angeles (Santa Monica, technically), one of only two in the city and the only one on the west side. Owners Steven and Alison are also the place to find Rapha clothing in Southern California. On Saturday, they hosted Slate Olson and the Rapha Team for the first-ever Rapha Gentlemen’s Ride in L.A.
It was the perfect opportunity to see the full Rapha line in person. Pieces I’d only dreamed about were on display in every color available. With plenty of coffee and pastries (they had the best croissants I’ve had in L.A.), roughly 50 riders fueled up for the coming ride through the Santa Monica Mountains.
The big climbs of the day were Topanga, Fernwood and Saddle Peak, followed by the descent of Stunt and the climb up Piuma and Schueren and back over Saddle Peak before the final drop down Tuna Canyon.
Naturally, there was a bit of curiosity concerning just whether or not a ride on a gorgeous day in SoCal could constitute a Rapha ride. Those concerns were alleviated when it began raining on the descent of Stunt. Based on appearances, there were plenty of people used to wet, but not used to wet and downhill at the same time.