With bike racing back on the roads the issue of crashes is once again to the fore. It’s the horrific and spectacular crashes that hit the headlines, along with the riders’ and teams’ complaints about the organisers making them race down hills and round corners, but as I’ve written before (links below), I think that some of it is down to fundamental issues with the bikes and setups (i.e. the bike fits) that are currently the norm in bike racing.
Zwift racing is about physiology and time trialling is about speed. They’re very predictable. Organisers and spectators, however, want interesting and unpredictable races, and road racing becomes increasingly interesting and unpredictable the less it has to do with physiology and speed only.
It’s not really fair to criticise the teams and the riders. Fundamentally they want to race, but they’re under pressure to win and they’re beholden to their sponsors.
And in many cases their sponsors are their bike suppliers. And this is where I think that the problem now lies. Bikes are designed by computers, engineers and marketeers. And bike fits are done by computers, engineers and marketeers too, And in many cases the fitters are from the same company as the manufacturers.
The bikes that the the manufacturers make are stiff, light and aerodynamic, and the fits that the fitting systems come up with are great for Zwift and they’re great for time trialling – because they’re all done with computers and wind tunnels. But riders can only win real races if they can get to the finish line in one piece. Furthermore they’re not much good for their sponsors if they can’t get to the start line because they’re injured and they’re not much use to their teams if they can’t train effectively because they’re in recovery. Risking crashes by compromising handling is proving to be a risky business. The number of crashes and the number of riders out of action seems to be rising exponentially.
I’m not surprised that there are so many crashes in bike races. In fact I’m surprised that there are so few. “A touch of wheels” © any cycling commentator might sound like a brushing of shoulders on a crowded, pre-Covid street, but it’s more like veering into another lane on a busy motorway while you’re looking in the glovebox. Today’s riders, perched on the tip of the saddle and resting heavily on the brake hoods, bob and weave like eels. They can’t overlap wheels safely because they can’t ride straight enough. They can’t hold the drops for more than a few minutes at a time because it’s too uncomfortable, so when they really need to be on the drops, for descents, technical sections and braking-without-going-over-the-handlebars, they’re not. They have to ride like this because their off-the-peg geometry aero bikes give them little scope for adjustment, and the thinking behind their set up seems to be based entirely on short term power and speed. Great for the wind tunnel, great for Zwift, and (most significantly) great for blasting up shallow inclines, but not great for narrow, twisty, bumpy roads, echelons, fast sweeping bends and big bunches. To add to the stress of controlling a nervous and twitchy rocket ship they have their DS (Directeur Sportif – aka team manager) in their ear telling them to fight for position at the front ahead of every potentially dodgy piece of road.
It’s at though they’re doing Formula One motor races in dragsters.
A bit like F1, professional bike racing is quite unlike any other form of cycling. Even the highest level of amateur racing doesn’t have the instant TV and radio feedback. But where the pros lead the amateurs follow. And the only reason that bike companies spend huge amounts sponsoring professional teams and giving bikes to top amateurs is so that true amateurs buy them. But, unlike F1, where the cars never go beyond the race track, what plenty of amateurs are more than willing (and able) to pay for are bikes identical to those that the pros ride.
So welcome to the world of perching on the nose of the saddle, resting heavily on the hoods, weaving around like an eel, feeling every bump in the road, and dodgy cornering. And if you have a VO2max in the high 70s, a 400w ftp and 25 hours a week to train you might even get to experience what the bike was actually designed to do. And if that jargon doesn’t mean much to you you probably don’t.
Unfortunately it’s not just the super-expensive marquee bikes that the pros ride that are now making life uncomfortable for bike buyers. Previously ‘top end’ features, such as aero bars and stems, profiled seat posts and concealed cables, are following oversized steerers and bottom brackets into everyday bikes. Why aerodynamic features that kick in at 45 or 50kph are necessary on such bikes is a question that the engineers and marketeers behind them must be able to answer more convincingly than I.
As a bike fitter I see people every day who simply don’t feel comfortable on their bikes (regardless of how stiff, light, aerodynamic and stunningly beautiful their bikes are). My job is to get them comfortable and relaxed: to customise their off-the-peg bikes so that they can really enjoy riding them. But the latest generation of bikes is making that increasingly difficult. Most of them (my clients) are bewildered when I explain that professional cyclists, far from having individually customised bikes, all ride the same off-the-peg bikes regardless of their shape, and simply put up with many of the same issues.
If anyone from Giant is reading perhaps you’d explain why Giant now thinks that nobody needs more than 15mm of seat post setback on a stock frame? My experience suggests otherwise. Or has Giant, given that it used to do 25mm set back seat posts, decided that it would rather people are uncomfortable on its bikes or looked elsewhere?
I keep a stock of ‘geometry busting’ 30mm setback seat posts but all Giant bikes now have proprietary non-round seat posts. It might be a complete co-incidence but since Giant decided that 15mm was enough for everyone its (previously successful) team riders (currently CCC) seem have won diddly squat. But it’s no co-incidence that I’ve had a constant stream of callers with Defys, Contends, TCRs and Propels (and their Liv equivalents) who simply can’t find a comfortable setup. Fortunately there are a few saddles on the market that solve the problem for most, but it’s no comfort for for some to realise that the set up that they’re enjoying on my jig simply isn’t possible on their new Giant bike.
It’s not just Giant, several of the big-name manufacturers are abandoning common standards like round seat posts and not providing a range of options.
Adjustability isn’t just about comfort and handling. For raw power the right saddle height might be enough, and for raw speed saddle height and good aerodynamics are enough. But for maximising sustained speed they’re not enough. Comfort and handling are critical because tension and stress are big enemies (even if you don’t crash). Those pros sitting on their noses of their saddles don’t have to sit there to generate power. Merckx, Hinault, Lemond, Indurain, Museeuw and Cancellara didn’t.
And nor do you.
Read more about…
- how set up affects handling
- why professionals sit on the front of the saddle
- why riding on the hoods is a bad idea
- why tension is such a problem (but why the first hour or so is not so bad)
- why my bike fits are different
and a whole load more…