Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Stuck In Customs: Bespoke Rationale

In yesterday's post, I mentioned a review of a $15,000 road bike. As anybody well-versed in cycling literature knows, high-end road bikes elicit prose of surreally comical exuberance. This is because bike reviewers will say nearly anything while under the intoxicating spell of fresh, new crabon. They're like adulterers in mid-coitus, blithely promising to leave their spouses and buy their paramours a house.

However, there's another subject that produces articles which make high-end crabon reviews seem as dry as actuarial tables in comparison. This subject is custom bikes.

Now, I admire, respect, and covet custom bicycles as much as any cyclist. I mean, who wouldn't like to have one? What's not to like? If you're an experienced cyclist who knows what you want and why, at a certain point you're probably going to want somebody to make it for you.

However, the current handmade bike boom, coupled with the Internet, has given birth to an absurd new form of cycling literature I call "Custom Bike Proselytizing." This literature is authored by people who started riding yesterday, got a custom bike today, think this means they "graduated" somehow, and are now going to tell you why you're an idiot if you don't do the same thing.

Recently, a fellow Tweeterer alerted me to this article, and it may very well stand as the high water mark of the genre:

(Because you need a bike that looks like it was designed by Dr. Seuss.)

See, you need a custom road bike. Why? Because Lance Armstrong bought one:

In fact, I was just in Mellow Johnny’s, the Texas bike shop owned by the most famous cyclist in history, 7-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong, and they had a hand-built custom frame on display with a placard saying that it was the first bike Lance EVER bought with his own money – and that was a recent purchase.

You're probably familiar with the bike he's talking about. It was built by Sam Whittingham of Naked, it won a bunch of awards at the NAHBS in 2008, and it does indeed hang in Mellow Johnny's:

Apparently though, during his visit to Mellow Johnny's this guy somehow managed to miss all the other bikes on display in the shop that Lance Armstrong actually used to win races. He also seems to have overlooked the fact that his article is about custom road bikes, and this is not a road bike. Nevertheless, let's look at the motivation behind Armstrong's decision to buy a custom bike. Which do you think is the more likely scenario?

1) Armstrong was unhappy on his Trek Madone, which he helped design and upon which he won multiple Tours de France, so he got rid of it and ordered a custom singlespeed with wooden wheels;


2) Armstrong saw the bike at the NAHBS, thought it was cool, and decided it would look awesome hanging in the bike shop he was opening.

Not to diminish either Whittingham's talent or Armstrong's appreciation for it, but I'm going to go with #2.

But this isn't the only reason you should buy a custom bike. You also need one because it is crucial to your emotional well-being:

FYI, a new study written up in The Atlantic showed that in places where more people ride bikes to work, the citizens are happier, healthier, and more successful. I bet this is even truer for those who go custom over stock.

Oh, yeah, I bet that as well. Clearly someone who spends thousands of dollars on a custom bike to ride to work will be a "happier, healthier, and more successful" human being than someone who commutes on a stock bike--especially when that expensive custom bike gets stolen. I mean, what kind of loser commutes on a stock bike anyway?

At this point, you may be doubting the author's credentials, but it soon becomes clear that he's a cycling expert--and by "expert" I mean a guy who admits he really doesn't ride all that much:

I spend a lot of time in the saddle as a recreational rider, doing charity Centuries (100 mile rides) and weekly fun group rides, but nowhere near as much as many enthusiasts, and going custom has emancipated my back and neck from pain, eliminated numb hands on longer rides, and basically crushed all discomfort except that which comes for being out of shape.

Please note that this sub-enthusiast says he needed a custom bike to free him from numbness and pain on those grueling charity rides. I will come back to this one later. Anyway, while he'll clearly spare no expense to free himself from discomfort, he's a bit more miserly when it comes to his wife:

My wife, on the other hand, has a high-quality stock frame, and has made repeat visits to bike fitters over the years for new stems, handlebar adjustments, etc., in an attempt to eliminate her neck and shoulder issues. It has helped, but not enough (she’ll go custom when it’s time to buy a new bike, meaning when the piggy bank gets bigger).

How chivalrous. "Sorry, honey. Not enough money to get a new bike for you too. You're just going to have to suffer." He should have called this article, "Why You Need A Custom Road Bike, But My Wife Should Just Deal With Her Jamis." At the very least, she probably finds reassurance in the fact that riding her stock bike is probably nowhere as painful as her marriage.

But don't take his word for how awesome custom bikes are; take the word of the dentist he met the other day:

The other day I was riding with a guy who had a Serotta, one of the top companies for custom bikes, and he told me how he went to a fancy bike shop and they told him that due to his size and shape, no off the rack bike would fit him well. He naturally assumed they were scamming him into buying a high-priced custom, so he spent the next two years going from shop to shop, unable to find anyone who could offer to sell him a bike that fit, riding a painful compromise the whole time, before biting the bullet and investing in the Serotta, which he now wishes he had bought two years earlier.

Ah yes, the quasi-mythical person who cannot be fit to a stock frame under any circumstances. Sure, there are a lot of people who have no alternative but to go custom due to sizing reasons. However, most of those people are called "Neanderthals" and went extinct about 1,300 centuries ago. (That's actual centuries, not the things the author says he needed a Seven to do.) They're not all Neanderthals though. In fact, here's Serotta guy before he "saw the light:"

The shop rat who fitted him to that bike should be ashamed of himself.

Anyway, despite the almost incalculably vast number of off-the-rack road bikes and frames out there, rest assured that there's almost no way any of them will ever fit you:

Unless you are 100% “average” no premade frame will ever fit you as well as one custom made to your measurements, from inseam to reach to how far you bend at the waist while riding. When I got my bike made by Seven Cycles, there were over 100 different questions and measurements involved.

First of all, Seven makes a fine bicycle, but anybody who regularly begins sentences with "When I got my bike made by Seven Cycles..." is probably a douchebag. Secondly, I think what he meant to say is that unless you're 100% "nonhuman" no premade frame will ever fit you. As it is, I know people (humans, all of them) in all sizes who ride stock frames comfortably, happily, and far more swiftly than I ever could. Then again, when someone asks you over 100 freaking questions about the product you're buying it's only natural to assume it will be 100 times better. Here's an excerpt from that Seven Cycles questionnaire he had to fill out:

46) How many miles a year do you ride?

--Less than 1,000
--Less than 100
--Less than 1

47) Which of the following describes your spending habits? (Check all that apply)

--I spend freely
--I spend exorbitantly
--I came, I saw, I squandered

48) Have you ever gotten a boner while watching a Range Rover commercial?

And so forth.

Sure, some of it seems gratuitous, but they need to be sure you're real "Seven Cycles" material.

Speaking of materials, Seven Cycles needed to use an oversized seat tube to suit his climbing style:

Then there is the performance issue. I like to climb, a lot, long grueling climbs and I like to stand and grind. So when I got my custom bike, I told Seven Cycles this and they built in an oversized seat tube to add rigidity for my standing pedal stroke, an efficiency increase. Even if a stock bike fit me perfectly, no stock bike can change the diameter of the tubes and flex of the frame to suit my whims, but Seven can.

In other words, Seven will build a bike around your poor climbing technique. Somehow a big guy with massive power like Thor Hushovd can finish in the top 10 for the entire first week of the Tour de France on a plastic Cervelo, yet this guy can't find a bike rigid enough to withstand his mighty climbing style. If he's "standing and grinding" all the time, my guess is he doesn't need a Seven; what he he needs is a triple.

This is why he didn't buy a bike from Richard Sachs:

In a recent interview with Men’s Journal Magazine, Sachs said, “My bikes aren’t going to make you a faster or better rider.” I don’t know if that is true or not, but I know my Seven, and my friends’ Sevens and Serottas and Penguins have made them faster, if not better, riders, because they are lighter and optimize efficiency while better comfort on longer rides reduces fatigue.

This is another way of saying, "My friends and I only buy bikes from people who will lie to us." And that's not the only problem with Richard Sachs, either:

The other “problem” with the small custom shops is that for the most part they only work in metal, and many only in steel, because titanium (better than steel) requires more specialized equipment (especially for welding) and carbon fiber (better for some applications, like time trial and aero triathlon bikes) even more so, while the bigger companies offer the full choice of materials.

Yes, the other "problem" with small shops--apart from the obvious fact that they won't lie to you--is that they also won't let you buy more expensive frame materials. Remember: titanium is better than steel. Got it?

Most importantly though:

Wherever you get your custom bike you are going to be very happy with the fit, and anyone who knows anything about bikes will tell you that the fit is the single most important thing.

Yes, anybody who knows anything about bikes will tell you that the fit is the most important thing. I know this is true because he doesn't know anything about bikes, and he just spent like half the article saying the advantage of custom bikes is stuff like variable seat tube thickness for mashing your way through a charity ride, as well as the availability of titanium--which, of course, is the greatest metal known to humankind.

Then the same Tweeterer sent me this article, in which the author totally reverses himself:

Remember that Seven he needed for those century rides? Well, it turns out all he needed was a cheap singlespeed:

By the end of my first summer I took what was meant to be an occasional training tool and rode a charity century on it, 100-miles in Vermont and New Hampshire, where there is no ride without hills. I’d done the ride for years on my normal bike, and had to work harder, but finished in the same time.

In fact, he actually rides his cheap singlespeed instead of his Seven a lot of the time:

Usually I ride my single speed every third or fourth ride... I feel it has definitely helped my riding and fitness, and it’s fun. It is also cheap, easy and one less thing to worry about getting tuned at the shop.

So his singlespeed is cheap, easy, and fun, and he rides it at least 25% of the time. Meanwhile, the Seven is apparently a source of anxiety. But don't confuse his singlespeed with a track bike, because track bikes are for "obscure bike racing:"

The other traditional user of the single speed has been the track racer, a relatively obscure bike racing niche you probably never have seen outside the Olympics, sort for like speed skating with bikes, and these racers use single speed track bikes.

Somebody really needs to put that on a t-shirt:

And here's why you don't want a track bike:

Track bikes are “fixies” meaning they have a fixed gear... These bikes also have foot acitvated braking, like your childhood bike, which frankly is better suited for 5-year olds, except when going downhill at 40MPH.

Yes, track racing bikes have "foot activated braking," so while they're a bad choice for you, they're great for your 5-year old kid. And the difference between a fixed-gear and a coaster brake is not the only distinction that vexes him:

Also for some reason, manufacturers don’t think you will ride it like a road bike and tend to give them fatter crossover tires. I started by ordering a bare bones Motobecane model similar to this one from bikesdirect.com, for around $400 (note how almost every other single speed model for sale is a track bike. Where are all these track racers?).

The manufacturer may have given your Motobecane its "fatter crossover tires" because it's actually a cyclocross bike. As for the whereabouts of all those track racers, you may not be seeing them on your charity rides because they're at the freaking track. In any case, I'm still trying to figure out why he needed that Seven, and apparently so is he, since his mail-order Motobecane seems to be serving him just as well:

This is the bike that started my love affair with single speeds and I did the first century on it, rather than my custom titanium road bike that cost roughly 12 times as much.

To that end, he's come up with some stupid car analogy:

And while I still firmly believe you should have one great bike, custom fit to you, this is an occasional fling, like the 60s muscle car next to your Mercedes sedan in the garage, so don’t worry too much about it (See my post on why you should get a custom road bike).

A bike that you ride a quarter or a third of the time is not an "occasional fling." Try spending 25% of your time with another woman and then telling your wife you're having an "occasional fling." You remember your wife--she's the one who's in all that pain while you brag about your Seven and build stupid singlespeeds:

Nice bike. Looks like it fits pretty well, too. Just put the derailleurs back on that thing and maybe you can finally get rid of that Seven.


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