It’s All Too Subjective!

I just read an internet forum post from a fanboy of a particular bike brand.  In fact I’ll quote it here:

"…with the [insert bike name here] you will get a more compliant ride, it’s lighter, and when you climb your first hill on it you will never want to stop climbing.”

I’m sorry, what?…

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen similar such euphoria.  Exclaimed excitement about how much faster someone has ridden their usual loop or how much easier hills were on their shiny new machine (I’ll refrain from including the same raft of excited exclamation marks those folk used).  I hate to say it, but (*hangs head in shame*) I’ve even been guilty of it myself in the past - until I realised the "easily one or two gears faster uphill" was probably the difference between the standard chainset on the old bike and the semi-compact on the new one, and was actually only increased leg speed rather than me covering the terrain any quicker…

The thing is the ‘chalk & cheese’ differences in bikes these days just don’t exist.  It’s actually very difficult to buy a ‘bad’ bike now (questionable quality carbon off of eBay aside).  Differences between production bikes essentially consist of subtle differences in geometry, subtle differences in handling and the occasional super-stiff frame amongst a market of not-quite-so-stiff ones (whether or not ‘stiff’ is a good or bad thing in itself is too subjective to argue).

And then theres the build of a bike - by which I mean the kit a bike is put together with.  I lost interest in magazine reviews way back in my days as a mountain biker when I came across the realisation that unless they build their test bikes with exactly the same kit and test them in exactly the same way on exactly the same roads (or trails) you just cannot make an honest comparison.  Sure, an educated, theorised basis of a comparison can be arrived at, but an actual comparison?  No.

A friend of mine always used to ask why I never took bikes for a road test before buying.  The answer was a combination of the above:  unless I can build the bike up exactly how I would want it, with my saddle, using my wheels, to take it out for a few different rides on the roads I ride all of the time, what’s the point?  All a test ride would tell me is whether or not I hate the bike and, as already mentioned, with it being so tricky to buy a bad bike these days, that is unlikely.

As for these folk making wild claims about their new bikes - such differences exist only in the form of a few things:

  1. Marketing Bullshit
  2. New Bike Elation
  3. Post-purchase Self-convincing

Where the fanboys exist, these are backed up by brand snobbery and failure to believe that anything else out there could even come close to their cherished brand of choice.  Of course the hilarity here being the same excited exclamations when their own favoured brand launches a new model - the fan boy is suddenly definitely faster on the new model, which was also (clearly) definitely faster than his previous one.  Mysteriously, these are the self same people who flatly refuse to believe such claims about other brands.  Go figure…

After a few days off of either of my custom bikes my bog standard carbon bike doesn’t actually feel all that much different.  The general setup is very similar across all three and the fit is identical, so unless I come home from riding one of them and head straight out on another the nuances between them are mostly quite tricky to identify.  In a blindfold test on separate days (with the same wheels on all three) I could probably tell the Ti one from the steel or carbon, but telling the steel and carbon ones apart would be a harder challenge.  I’d get there, don’t get me wrong, it just wouldn’t be as easy as you might think.  

Ridden back-to-back I would work it out quite quickly as the nuances would come out immediately - but the only thing making me ride or climb faster on one versus another would be down to two things and two things alone:

  1. The engine (me)
  2. The gearing

…and even then the latter only really determines how quickly the former can ‘turn over’.

Ok so there are other factors at play - the weight differences between the three bikes will play a part; but even then when considering the ‘rider+bike’ package, these weight differences are actually quite small percentages - in fact with the same wheels on each bike those weight differences are probably small enough not to bother factoring in.

So can we quit the overexcited overexaggeration of supposed performance enhancing new purchases please?  Really, I do like your shiny new bike and I am very happy for you - but unless you can present me with data to back up your claims, and with every ounce of subjectivity eliminated through component, terrain and power output matching (which I probably won’t read because stuff like that bores me to tears), everything else you’re claiming is all just bollocks.

Returning to the bold, excitable statement I started with, the day I ride a bike that makes me feel like I never want to stop climbing is the day I will arrive in Alysium…

Full Circle

Some days I just can’t help myself.  One particular such day saw me visiting a local Colnago dealer, all excited and full of ‘new bike’ ideas after the sale of a big batch of bike spares of various formats, types and colours.  I had a head full of plans to use this post-sale budget to locate an original Colnago C50, and that developed into the realisation that other, newer Colnagos might also be an option.

After a discussion left me befuddled as to which size I should be looking for I went off in search of a method of resolving my confusion.  Of course when I had stumbled across a geometry spreadsheet (which allows you to plug in the geometries of two different bikes to see what is required to set them up the same) and tried some Colnago numbers on it I couldn’t help also punching in the geometries of other bikes - curiosity killed the cat and all that - which was ultimately the beginning of this happy accident.

The realisation that I would be able to comfortably fit on a production frame again (in truth I always could - it was just that I wasn’t prepared to run a massive stack of spacers and a short, up-turned stem) had my eyes wide.  With expensive Colnago ideas quickly washed aside, my object of desire changed in order that I would be able to afford to keep two bikes built and useable.  This decision neatly coincided with a timely arrival to my LBS of the exact frame I was now eyeing up, in my size, in “the colour you can only buy as a complete bike”, and with a shop customer who wanted the parts off of it. Win? I reckon so.

And that’s what completed the loop - almost exactly five years since I last had one, I’m back on a Cervélo R3.





So what?  Well, for ages I’d been uncomfortable on production bikes.  I’d ended up with a ridiculously expensive custom bike to resolve this, and I’d followed that up with other custom bikes thinking this was the only way I was able to ride without pain.  

One day I inadvertently setup one of my custom bikes wrong after doing some work on it - a simple mis-measure of one of the usual ‘critical’ bike setup dimensions.  It felt different (obviously), but being absolutely certain of having measured correctly I just put it down to my imagination and continued to ride.  It was only a couple of weeks later when I hopped back on my other bike and felt like I was riding a ladies Pashley that I finally did a re-measure and realised what was going on; which was also the point that I realised how much better I felt and how much stronger I’d been riding in this new position…

And then I realised what this change meant.  Sure, I’d still need to run spacers in most cases (there’s a good 25mm on my Cervélo for example), but there were now a number of production bikes that would work for me.  This is about the point in the story where the spreadsheet mentioned above came into play.

That "So what?" runs deeper though.  During my ‘custom bike love affair’ I had lead myself to believe that I could only ever run a bike with a certain amount of BB drop, and that it would need to have certain angles, fork rake, top tube length and so on for it to work.  56.4cm top tube?  No chance!  68mm BB drop? Waaaaaay too high!  17.3cm head tube?  Don’t be ridiculous!!

This Cervélo says one thing to all of that:  Bollocks.

Yes, it has a 68mm BB drop.  Does that make it unstable, or ‘top-heavy’?  Not a jot.  Yes, it has a (fairly normal) 73º seat angle, and a 56.4cm top tube - does that leave me with an "it’d be faster backwards" saddle slammed forward on its rails?  Nope.  The 43mm fork rake and 73.5º head angle is also quite a change from what I’m used to so it obviously has crazy handling, right?  Wrong.  In fact I’m noticing things I actually prefer about the handling.  And then there’s that compact geometry which means the frame can stay nice and stiff leaving the lengthy 27.2mm seatpost to provide the comfort – which it does to very good effect.

I took the gamble on the Cervélo because I figured if it worked out it’d be a good bike to have, and if it didn’t I could probably sell it quite easily - even if at a loss.  It has quickly become the only bike I now ride.  Being completely honest, it makes me feel stupid for spending so much on custom frames over recent years.  It probably makes me look a bit stupid too…

What am I getting at?  The answer is three-fold.

Firstly, if you do go custom make sure you go in armed with all the information, and all the answers, you need.  To do that you need to ask questions - so go for fittings (yes, that is plural for a reason), listen to the advice you’re given, spend time adapting to what you’re told, but also listen to your body.  Test it, rebel against the fitting advice.  Try something that you don’t think will work.  Spend a few weeks stretching and see what changes.  Test again and again.  Discover what really works for you.  Get those answers.  Importantly, if you need treatment for ailments or injuries, or if you have plans to make genuine improvements to your life (diet, weight loss, strengthen your core, improve your posture, etc.) then the custom frame can wait - and it should, as those answers might turn out to be very different with a little bit of effort.  On the basis of the tests I didn’t do, and the answers I didn’t get (and yes, to a degree, because I rushed into ‘the custom game’) I now need to run a -17 degree, 120mm stem to make my previous ‘ultimate dream bike’ fit the same as my Cervélo now does - and my Cervélo position is hardly extreme.

Secondly, don’t believe that a custom frame will always be perfect.  You hear of warranty issues with production bikes all of the time - and often you’ll see brand new, boxed, warranty replacement frames for sale on the classifieds.  You don’t hear of faulty custom frames though, and I suspect that is because of possible embarrassment, a “gentleman’s agreement” or  the old “beauty of hand made” excuse making it partially ‘acceptable’.  I was too embarrassed to mention my first faulty custom frame, until the second one turned out to be faulty too.  When the third was also faulty I got angry - although bizarrely I mostly kept that to myself as well…  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying "it’s custom so there will be faults", just that all that glitters is not always the perfect shiny [insert frame material of choice here] dream bike it may appear to be.

Lastly, whilst it’s ok to covet a beautiful, personalised custom frame, it’s also good to be happy with what you’ve got.  Careful choice, your own little bits of personalisation and a solid setup and you’ll have yourself a decent bike to be proud of.  Custom frames can - and do - cost a small fortune after all, and that extra money could arguably be better spent elsewhere. 

For me custom bikes have had their edge somewhat blunted by this Cervélo experiment.  Six months ago my bike dreams would have been filled with lustings of a custom Pegoretti, a Carbon-Ti Firefly or a steel Jaegher.  Now my head is filled with the intrigue of how that 52 sloping Colnago M10 would handle with a 120mm stem, and how I can find the funds for an ‘ML Tall’ Parlee Z5…

I’m not here to spoil the custom bike party.  Buying and building a custom bike is a real dream, and if it all goes as it should it is a wonderful experience which should literally yield a bike for life.  Custom bike builders are master craftsmen who probably rightfully command their hero-like status among their customers.  

For me, I’ve come full circle.  I’m glad for the journey, and I consider myself very lucky to have been able to take it - even if it was an expensive and occasionally painful one.

What now?  Well, it’s nice to be excited about production bikes again…



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Water taxi from Ettalong to Palm Beach - bumpy ride!

Water taxi from Ettalong to Palm Beach - bumpy ride!


Chris Froome rides alone up the slopes of Mont Ventoux in today’s Tour de France stage after distancing Nairo Quintana. The photo comes from a gallery of images hosted by CyclingTips.

How awesome is this pic?…


Chris Froome rides alone up the slopes of Mont Ventoux in today’s Tour de France stage after distancing Nairo Quintana. The photo comes from a gallery of images hosted by CyclingTips.

How awesome is this pic?…

Reblogged from Pedalare!Pedalare!