Monday, 17 March 2014

Armchair Critics -- or, What Does Custom Mean and What Does It Get You?

My journey to custom was so personal and need-driven, I have been caught off-guard by the reactions of others.

I may write a properly structured article in future, but meanwhile, copies of online exchanges I’ve had (with friends and strangers alike) may give some food for thought. 

RANT ALERT: Some of the extracts reproduced below were originally "written in anger". I hope I was still civil. However, the initial criticisms -- made as they were from a position of ignorance and assumption -- both bewildered and angered me and I know that comes through. I am still baffled and annoyed that some people seem to browse the Internet ready and willing to throw their opinions at complete strangers without first asking a few basic fact-finding type questions!  

Nonetheless, feeling driven to respond to Armchair Critics served to clarify my own views and to gain a better understanding of the benefits and advantages of having a custom bicycle frame built. In the end, I believe this route is remarkable value for money, given that it has enabled me to continue long-distance cycling for pleasure.

Armchair Critic No. 1

Enigma posted this photo of my nearly-completed bike up on its Facebook page the day before I travelled to their factory to collect it. 

And the very first comment?  A back-handed criticism of the design. From someone with no bike fitting or frame designing experience. A stranger to boot. 

(Yes, I am going to name and shame. Facebook is a public space.)

Dave Farmer Custom, with that many headset spacers :) surely a longer headtube would be better

Paul Smith Rebecca asked if we could not tape the bars or cut the steerer until the bike fit on collection; we actually cut down it to 30mm.

Rebecca Olds Couldn't have the standover any higher, Dave. Each tweak has knock-on effects. Believe me, Mark knew what he was doing when he had to balance out all the at-times-conflicting aims of this frame! Another one of which, unless you've seen me on the bike, you have no idea what my saddle height is. Bike shop after bike shop after bike shop have put their considerable 'expertise' into predicting that, only to fail. Mark and Paul did the fit - they knew what they were dealing with.

Rebecca Olds Frankly, any bike that comes close to fitting me looks really strange to other people's eyes. I am dealing with a lot of people who think the headtube is TOO tall. But... give that a try in your head, look at the consequences elsewhere in the frame size/proportions. A teensy bit shorter COULD work, but more spacers would be needed - one way or the other, the total stack height is what it is. Likewise, taller wouldn't work - it would impact standover, exposed seat post height, possibly seat tube angle and/or downtube angles and/or toeoverlap. Everything about this bike involves compromise but the sum total WORKS. I believe in "fit for purpose" and "form follows function". We focused on function, which anyone other than me can't appreciate. Form - as you can see - took care of itself! 

Ulrich Büchsenschütz I had similar thoughts like Dave when I first saw the bike, but then I thought what a custom frame for myself would look like. It would certainly look odd to other people as well, with a very long headtube and a short top tube...

Productive Interchanges (or, how to ask questions without being judgmental)

My real-life cycling friends were more open with their questions and less prone to jumping to conclusions. Here’s a sampling of queries from those who had been following my journey via Facebook and my blog, but who hadn’t seen the bike ‘in the flesh' yet.

- Does it fit like a glove?

Not quite fit like a glove, just the right basics to allow for various adjustments as needed over the coming years. Previously I had to push the fit of a stock geometry to the extreme and then was locked into that. With the right proportioned/sized frame under me, I've got latitude to play around a bit. I've not quite settled on the right handlebar height and/or angle.

- Just a little surprised that you have to tinker/fettle with the bike after made-to-measure and fitting.

Contact points are a lifelong fettling exercise. I wasn't to know when collating the build that 105 lever hoods would be such a different shape from Tiagra - I just thought it'd be a nice upgrade! But I hate the feel, hence tinkering with bar height/angle to take a bit of weight off my hands. May end up swapping out for Tiagra. Meanwhile [regarding my unusual saddle and seatpost set-back combination] a custom frame should never be designed around a particular saddle. 

I believe most custom builders tell their clients it'll take 2-3 months to get everything settled.

- Ah, I understand about the contact points. I must have been incredibly lucky… my off-the-peg Bianchi… feels like it was made individually for me…. So I thought that a custom-made bike would be spot on from Day 1.

The thing about custom is, there is no one single perfect position. You'll know this from years of riding loads of different bikes. What a custom frame does for you though is give you the right foundation - everything else can then be fitted using the fullest possible range. Whereas if the frame isn't right, your options for adjustment are limited.
I found the whole fitting & design process seemed to be about identifying your limitations and designing those OUT, leaving you with greatest range of flexibility in how you build up the bike, with very much reduced danger you'll build it in a way that will injure you if you ride it like that for a long time.
Custom means very specific but also quite liberating. For instance, the little tweaks I'm making are very slight indeed. But I don't have to worry about too long of reach, or not enough headset spacers, or even whether I need a shorter stem. The proportions are all correct - I just need to get myself comfortable. My experimenting over the summer had led me to much better pedals and saddle, now it's just the hands/wrists I need to make happy. It may just be that I don't like the shape of the 105 shifters!

- Interesting to know that it has the ability to change and adapt with you.

Yes, I think that concept (or, more precisely, lack of awareness of it) is perhaps a misconception people may have about going custom. There is often an assumption r expectation that there is "just one right size/fit/position" for you.
But when you think about it, the increased flexibility of a made-to-measure frame is what makes sense. So many things on a bike can be moved/adjusted, but you've got to have the right frame under you to maximum how much adjustment is possible. If the fit/geometry isn't right, your options are severely limited. My steel roadbike fits well and is a blast to ride, but the current settings are at the outer limits of what can be achieved and they only work because I'm quite flexible. As I age and get less flexible, that bike will gradually become uncomfortable, then painful/unrideable.
But the right frame means I can make tweaks as the years go by and still have a bike that is comfortable and handles well.

Armchair Critic No. 2

Meanwhile, over on the CycleChat forum "Show us your titanium" thread, several of my real-life cycling buddies were eagerly pressing me for photos and impressions about titanium bicycles. 

After a few preliminary photos, I posted this:

Okay, let's call her finished now. And I've finally got a photo I'm pleased with. 

The first response was from a stranger who had just recently started commenting on the thread. He opened well enough: "looking real good... some nice touches with the speedplays and the saddle" but then said "[you're] running a short stem and saddle forward... how is that on a long ride?"

Now on the face of it, "how is [your bike] on a long ride?" is a great question. Cue enthusiastic conversation between two titanium-bike converts!

But unfortunately, the word "that" in "How is that...?" was predicated by:
(1) I think your stem is too short, and moreover,
(2) I think you're positioned your saddle incorrectly.

What??! I mean.... what??!

And so I responded, initially in an attempt to treat the question at face value:

Saddle "forward" is partly due to my short femurs and partly due to the way Selle SMP's are designed.

Short stem? It's 80mm, 4 degree rise (or 6, can't remember off hand). Pretty standard these days for a lot of shops and designers. This is in fact Enigma's standard in-house stem, which gets factored into the design and fit of their custom frame builds. It's possible to get a longer stem, but with the entire bike being designed as a whole to fit me, I didn't need to.

You wanna see saddle forward and short stem, havea look at the non-custom road bike I was riding before!

Then my irritation got the better of me:

         Must admit to still puzzling over this question. It's a custom bike. It fits. So how would you expect it to feel on a long ride??

His response:

Just because it's custom doesn't mean it's going to be a great long distance runner .....all i meant was it looked like a short stem and saddle forward making it a small cockpit when looking the frame size or me being old skool the tall head tube

Is this guy a bike fitter?  A bike designer?  He's got no history on the thread. I have no idea if he rides long distances. I wouldn’t want to assume yes or no on that about him, so why is he assuming one way or the other about me?

So I lay my cards on the table:

How do you know I didn't specify I wanted a long distance bike?? I'd really rather answer questions than counter assumptions, you know. (I don't bite, but this is beginning to make me growl!!!

And then I attempted a little fence building – after all, it’s perfectly true this guy does NOT know me.

          Yes, the head tube does look tall compared to a stock geometry bike. Amazon [sic] how our eyes and aesthetic sense get trained by what we see most often. (Mine too!)

And then in typical Armchair Critic fashion (Motto: Pass judgement first, then maybe ask questions), he came back with:

I agree some people are touchy about their bikes and what they do on them's sometimes nice to find out more and with the sport being so wide spread and diverse now the norm isn't the norm anymore ...i'll restrain from making passing comments in the future if your in the thread ,as i see your not really wanting to respond to friendly comments

I didn't assume anything and just making visual comments ,as alot of members do when people post photo's ,as well as i was commenting how i like your bike .... [sic]

I just… I don’t even know where to go with that. I just don’t.


Wait! I do know where to start!

YES, it’s nice to find out things! And YES, it’s great to share information. 

So how about, for starters:  “Nice looking bike…. How did that very compact geometry come about?

Especially as he should have known -- if he’d been reading any of the posts in the preceding couple of pages -- that The Bike Is Custom. And perhaps had the courtesy to look around at the other people engaged with me in conversation about the bike – all very experienced long-distance riders who ride with me.

Exchanges that this chap has since had with other Forum posters on the same thread suggest to me that he (a) is very young, and (b) very possibly, just possibly, has a bit more money than sense.

But I wouldn’t want to judge.

I mean, I don’t even know the guy.

Armchair Critic No. 3

I had just about “let this all go” when this week included an Enigma Etape is its Tech Roundup. And I let another Armchair Critic push my button again.

Enigma Cycles disc-equipped titanium Etape

(That is just so gorgeous, it makes my heart ache! That honey leather bar tape and Swallow saddle... my own ideal aesthetic preferences, which sadly just has not worked out for me.)

The writer said: 

Enigma Cycles just posted this photo of a very nice Etape build on their Facebook page, and we thought we had to share it with you. As you know, we think disc brakes are well suited to all-rounder everyday road bikes, and this Etape is a perfect example. The model is their touring bike but it’s been built with Hope’s V-Twin hydraulic disc brakes with their floating rotors and a Shimano 105 mechanical groupset. There’s mudguards and rack, naturally, and a Brooks saddle with matching leather bar tape. A tasty build that, someone is a lucky chap.

Then, the very first reader said:

Why do they make these retro bikes with sloping downtubes? It's like bringing back the Morris MInor and sticking an aerofoil on the roof. [sic]

My response [sarcasm added]:

As already pointed out [by another reader], the Etape is not a "retro bike".

More to the point -- Enigma is a custom frame builder. Their expertise attracts a lot of people with fit issues. For some of these customers, a sloping top tube is a godsend. (I'm assuming you mean "top tube" not "downtube", since all down tubes slope?!)

[mild rant mode]

I am getting a bit tired of comments about the steep top tube slope and/or tall headtube on many custom road bikes. Oddly enough, in my experience to date, all these comments come from people who never seen the bike's rider in person. What's that about?!

So for all you armchair critics out there -- and by that, I mean those who are NOT trained and qualified bike fitters and/or frame designers -- I'd like to pose a little puzzle you can try solving at home:

Your customer wants a light touring bike. He/she is long-legged and short bodied. You start with a stock geometry frame but the reach is too long (and that's just the glaringly obvious problem).

Have you got access to special Bike CAD software that lets you key in all of your customer's physical measurements and strength and flexibility parameters, plus desired ride characteristics? And then lets you experiment with all the tube lengths, diameters and angles?

Oh, you don't have Bike CAD? No matter... try reverse engineering from the experts. If you like, take the Etape shown in this article (or my own link below) and try making it more "normal". Level out the top tube... shorten the head tube... obsess about rake and trail, or standover and toe overlap...

How many problems emerge, not just in terms of fit but frame strength and handling?

Yes, the result may look odd to the eyes. It may offend a certain aesthetic. But a great deal of consideration and thought has gone into the design. Every decision has a good reason behind it.

And the result is a bike that enables someone who wants to cycle to do so without pain.

[/mild rant mode]

Funny, I never get questions or comments from people who've actually seen me riding my bike. Just sayin'.

Maybe I'm losing perspective. Too sensitive, over-reacting. But I have been THIS CLOSE to letting the idea enter my head that I may be forced to give up any kind of cycling other than short commutes. All due to poor fitting bicycles.

This is way beyond aesthetics, and performance doesn't come into it.

It's about PAIN. And eradicating it. 

It's MY body riding MY bike. Suggesting that the designer "got it wrong"... that, somehow... what? I've been duped?? That I'm not the one who knows, better than anybody else, what the hell HURTS me? 

But these days, I guess everybody's an expert. 

Entitled to "put their oar in". 

Even seated in an armchair... one's face lit by a computer monitor... tapping away on a keyboard to someone one knows nothing about, has never met and likely never well. 

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