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.
Here’s the part of this bike’s geometry that is surprising: The combination of a 72.5-degree head tube angle and 4cm fork rake results in an astonishing amount of trail—6.53cm. That’s more than some of the most sluggish bikes I’ve ever ridden. It may be that what kept this bike handling with the crisp precision of a Swiss timepiece was that long head tube and relatively high bar position. The retailer from whom I picked up this demo thought that at my height (5-feet 11-inches) I ought to be on a 53cm frame. Aside from the fact that I’d never be able to sit up enough to get up a hill, there was that tiny problem of the pinched nerve and the unavoidable problem of having so much weight on the front wheel that the bike would only turn under duress. Yes, I tried it in the parking lot and the suggestion that a guy my height would ride a bike that small was, well, laughable.
Speaking of sizes, the Race and Team Machine are both available in six sizes. Top tube lengths are 52, 53.5, 55, 56, 57.5 and 59cm. Every one of the bikes features a 73.5-degree seat tube angle and 40.2cm-long chainstays. The bike with the 52cm top tube has a 70.5-degree head tube angle and the 53.5cm top tube has a 72-degree head tube angle. All other frames share an identical 72.5-degree head tube angle.
That the same head tube angle, seat tube angle and chainstay length runs through most, if not all, frames tells you a couple of things. First, it tells you that BMC saved money in tooling by not cutting as many molds. But because (to the best of my knowledge) every frame uses an identical 40mm-rake fork, four of the sizes enjoy identical steering geometry. The 53.5cm top-tube bike is close. Only the 52cm-frame falls significantly outside that geometry; it’s got so much trail that unless it’s spec’d with a 50mm-rake fork it’ll need a tugboat to turn.
While these similarities help unify the handling across most of the sizes, there is a liability to this approach. In the smallest frame a 73.5-degree seat tube angle may not be steep enough for some riders and in the biggest size that seat tube angle may be way too steep for some riders. The challenge here is that with a proprietary seatpost, you don’t have the flexibility to order an aftermarket seatpost with either no or 4cm of setback. I can envision some very disappointing fitting sessions if someone didn’t do their homework ahead of time. Details like this make the new Retül Frame Finder an indispensable fitting tool.
BMC touts several technologies in the Race and Team Machine models. First is the TCC or Tuned Compliance Concept. With the TCC the fork, seatstays and seatpost feature specific layup and material selection to allow for a certain amount of vertical compliance. I really need more miles on the Team Machine to see how much they vary between the two models, but having been on bikes that excessively stiff vertically, I can say that it is possible to make a bike that is less comfortable than the Race Machine—it really could be stiffer vertically, and I’m glad it’s not.
The ISC or Integrated Skeleton Concept is the design element that leads to the little strut that runs from the top tube to the seat tube just below the seat tube junction. It’s meant to spread impact forces, but honestly, I’m not sure what impact forces the marketing copy refers to and given that no other bike company has gone this route, I’m suspicious of the benefits it confers.
Two other design details contribute to the bike’s performance-oriented stiffness. First, the bottom bracket uses a BB30 design to all but eliminate twisting forces at the BB. Second, the fork features a tapered steerer to increase stiffness at the head tube and crown. The tapered fork is one of those innovations that came from a single company (Time) that nearly everyone has adopted. That’s how you know an idea is good. When I go back and ride my old Seven Cycles Axiom I immediately register the difference in torsional stiffness; that bike uses a 1-inch fork, and while it doesn’t feel like a noodle, the increase in stiffness when I move to another bike is unmistakable. I might not be able to quantify the difference, but that doesn’t make the perception subjective. Similarly, I can recognize features of my wife’s face in my son’s face, but I’ll never mix the two up.
With its particular constellation of features—consummate stiffness, relaxed handling and low, but not excessively low, weight—this bike is a great choice for a huge number of riders. Its handling is more aggressive than grand touring bikes like the Specialized Roubaix, but isn’t as sharp as more race-specific rides such as the Giant TCR Advanced. It’s going to serve well for someone doing group rides and gran fondos and if you want to jump in a crit from time to time, it’ll corner effectively. With two bikes so similar in design, I’m inclined to recommend the Team Machine to lighter riders while encouraging guys 165 lbs. and up to go with the Race Machine.
I’d love to get some more time on the Team Machine in order to help differentiate the two bikes further. I’ve never encountered a web site that did less to identify the differences between two similar bikes than BMC has done. I went as far as watching some videos produced of the bikes, one theoretically meant to tout the bikes’ stiffness and another that fancied itself a report on the bikes’ low weight. The two videos were identical between the two models and nearly identical to each other. Making matters worse was the fact that the only sound was a bit of sound effect; there was no voice-over.
There’s no doubt the Race Machine is a terrific bike. Honestly, my greatest criticism is their marketing copy. They’ve done so little to differentiate it from the Team Machine, the only way I can recommend one over the other is by rider weight, and I doubt that’s what they had in mind.