Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Fit > Material

I read a couple posts on Boonen's bike and got a bit frustrated with what the posters were saying. I think they both miss the main point. One was pummeling the supplier (Specialized) for building an aluminum bike for their star rider Tom Boonen. The other joins in on the fray to point out that Specialized put on a super long stem in the winter training camp to try and compensate for a too-short top tube.

According to some other Pro riders this second bit isn't unheard of - when Liberty Seguros first met for a winter training camp, BH provided only one size bike for everyone from the tiny Heras to the lanky Christian Van de Velde. Okay they had the same extended seat tube so they could be cut for a variety of leg lengths. But for upper body and arm lengths? You can imagine the variety of stems in that camp. At least the mechanics didn't have to worry about which frame got which name as all the frames were the same - they just had to cut one frame's seat tube and that became that rider's bike. And if they started from the longest legged rider down, they could screw up a seat tube cut and have a lot of other (un-cut) frames as backup. How cool is that?

In a related topic in the same article, Discovery received only one size carbon stem for an early season training camp - everyone who wanted carbon stems got a 14 cm. The head mechanic said the riders who didn't get carbons were afraid of changing their non-carbon stems to carbon after the camp. This was because they'd already done so many miles on whatever stem they had and were afraid of screwing up their position by going to a slightly different one. They said they'd change over to the carbon stems (and whatever minor position changes that entailed) the next year. This indicates that even pros have somewhat fluid positions.

Anyway, back to Tom. He got a frame that simply didn't fit him. The top tube was too short. Pretty straightforward.

I can relate. I'm no former world champion, I've never won a Classic, and I've never held anything better than a Cat 3 license (except when I'm registering someone at a race but that's not the same thing). But, apparently like Boonen, I also have a long torso for my height. I know I have short legs and a long torso because when I commuted on a train, I'd usually be the second or third tallest seated person in a car of about 100 people. But when they stood up, I was definitely in the bottom 40th percentile in height.

So I feel Boonen's pain. He gets a frame that is simply too short in length. In this age of super long posts and compact-type frames, length is the ONLY thing that truly affects fit now. Headtube height comes in a close second - Giant has two versions of their frames, the TCR and OCR. The main difference? The OCR has a taller head tube for a more upright position.

In Boonen's case the team did the only thing they could - they fit a long stem. Coincidentally it was a 14 cm stem - maybe they got a leftover from Discovery Channel? Whatever. It didn't make enough of a difference and Boonen complained about his somewhat touchy back.

Put yourself in Specialized's position. You have one of the top riders in the world and he has an unusually long position. So long that he falls in the "We figured guys like that would be few and far between" category. As a typical large scale manufacturer, you end up sacrificing the ability to satisfy the extremes in order to bring overall costs down for the middle part of the bell curve. You have to sacrifice the extremes because the return on investment is minimal or negative.

A good friend of mine is not abnormally tall (he's about 6'2") but when he shops for a car, the first thing he does is get in and slam the seat all the way back. If the seat is too close to the dash even when positioned all the way back, he simply gets out of the car and crosses that car off his list.

His pool of potential cars is pretty small. You'd think that car manufacturers would design cars to accommodate a lot of people that height right? The cars barely change for a model generation, there are hundreds of thousands sold, and the cost to put in slightly longer seat rails is probably minimal. But they don't. And he can't buy just any car he wants. He has to choose them after he's confirmed that they actually fit him.

If large car companies don't accommodate some of these sizing challenges, how would you expect a relatively tiny company like Specialized to do so?

They don't either.

Boonen needed a longer frame than the one Specialized offered. With the meat of the Classics season fast approaching there was only one option - a custom frame. Perhaps next year their XL frame will sport a slightly longer top tube. But this year it's a bit too late.

Most "generic" frame sellers could just call their supplier, ask them to glue together something a little longer (or shorter or whatever), and be done with it. Most carbon tubed bikes use one of a half dozen tubesets out there with a few details changed to make them a little different. To go back to the car analogy, the frame sellers are like the different divisions in GM - they all start with the same basic vehicle and the different brands slap on different noses, tails, and change some of the details.

However, for Specialized, a custom frame poses a unique challenge.

Specialized has spent a lot of money differentiating their frames from their competitors. They did this by using unique tube shapes and frame silhouettes. Recently they offered the curved top tube carbon Tarmac and the related Roubaix. And previously they'd introduced an aero seat tube aluminum frame they called the Allez. All three models exist in their line for 2007 - the Allez has gained some carbon but still retains its distinct visual profile with the aero seat tube.

Specialized can't just mold a new frame as this would be a costly and lengthy process. They can do it for later, and they seem to say they are doing so, but for "right now", something else had to be done. They also couldn't just get an "off the shelf custom" from one of many custom builders because such a frame would not look like a Specialized. I imagine at some level the guys at Specialized wouldn't want to do this regardless. They got into this mess, they'll want to work their way out of it.

If, as Specialized, you need to get a custom frame together quickly, you'll need to look at your own internal catalog to figure out with what you can build this frame. Carbon would be difficult to do quickly. You have to deal with potentially weird layups, perhaps some stress analysis (imagine Boonen breaks his custom carbon in his first race on it?), possibly a custom mold or two that cost as much as a nice house, etc etc. Carbon, at least in the Tarmac/Roubaix type frames, would require something like that.

Aluminum is easy. Cut the tubing. Miter. Weld. Finish and paint.

Presto, custom frame!

Specialized can pull that frame out of the paint booth and know it's strong enough and will handle respectably well. No weird oscillations in those "perfect storm" situations from one off carbon frame - like when you carve left on an off camber turn at 42.3 mph and run over some raised yellow lines while you shift down a cog in back and lightly brake with the front. Or some other weird and unusual situation which brings out the perfect harmonics for a one-off carbon bike to get weird on you. Aluminum is consistent, perhaps a bit overbuilt, but it's predictable.

And you already have a distinctive aluminum frame so one of your star riders doesn't have to ride a bike that is distinctly "Un-Specialized".

Comfort? I guess it's all relative. What's more comfortable, a bike that doesn't fit or one that does? Would you drive a car whose steering wheel is jammed up to your chest? Probably not.

So where's there a problem with Boonen's new aluminum frame? I don't see any. I do see one thing though. It always holds true. And it holds true in this situation.

Fit > Materials


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