A couple of years ago Shimano bought Bikefitting.com, the Dutch-based static fit system that was at least vaguely like that espoused by cycling great Bernard Hinault. The fit system also included a dynamic component, featuring a fit bike that offered some benefit for road bike fitting, was totally useless for triathlon, had some intriguing aspects to it, but was unfit for the newer protocols based on X/Y axes. Why Shimano made this purchase remains a mystery, but it did signal an interest Shimano had in bike fitting, and a further effort forthcoming by this formidable company.
Last year Shimano showed up at the Eurobike trade show with a complete shocker: a modern, obviously well-engineered, ready-for-prime-time fit bike, replacing the bike it inherited from Bikefitting.com. But, just the bike. No protocol. No system. Just the bike.
This year Shimano is showing up with more than just a bike. But let’s talk about the bike, because it’s got some special attributes.
Shimano’s bike fit system is still called Bikefitting.com and my guess, based on nothing other than instinct, is because it’s too hard to explain to shareholders why they bought a fit company that only one year later they abandoned. So, Shimano kept the name of the company, but little else beyond a very simple adjustable “chair” with metrics, the one legacy of the Bikefitting.com system.
That chair is the basis of Bikefitting.com’s static fit system and they’re keeping the static system – the system you’d use if the name of your shop was Springfield Bike, Mower and Skateboard. You can also use the static system as a guesstimator of fit coordinates prior to mounting the fit bike for an actual proper dynamic process. Okay, I’ll buy that. A yardstick would’ve been cheaper, but, I’ll concede the point.
Back to Shimano’s new, interesting fit bike. It looks space age, but it isn’t. It’s just a good, solid fit bike. It’s got 4 handwheels that move both the saddle and the handlebars in both X and Y axes. You mount the handlebar on a fixed, unchangeable stem. I have not seen the saddle being changed, but I understand that the saddle does change quickly and that’s a plus. I’ll be writing about saddle quick-changes more in future installments of this series, but this functionality is part of what makes the (ongoing, as of this writing) Slowtwitch Saddle Tour work, and Shimano’s embedding of a saddle quick-change system in its fit bike is of critical importance to bike dealers with fit bikes in their shops.
There are no metrics printed on this fit bike. Maybe there needs to be. I haven't decided yet. Why aren't there? I suspect it may have something to do with the fact that Retul has no metrics on its bike, but there’s a reason for that. At least I think I know the reason. Ves Mandaric, my former master builder at Quintana Roo, and the owner of Exit Cycling, a competing fit bike maker, cleverly filed a patent on metrics printed on fit bikes that output stack and reach. Stack and Reach are what the Retul Muve fit bike outputs. Retul has rulers that you hold up to the fit bike to give you stack and reach. And, of course, if you Zin the bike with Retul’s Zin Wand you will get stack and reach because the Zin Wand notes every point in space, which makes this technology very handy for documenting all fit coordinates. We'll talk more about Shimano and Retul below (it's an interesting story).
One other reason why the bike has no metrics is that Shimano promises that this bike will be "smart," in that it will digitally capture and measure X/Y outputs. That would be a defensible reason not to print metrics on the bike.
This bike has no stem. Like the Guru fit unit and the Purely Custom fit bike this Shimano fit bike does not and would not output stack and reach, rather it would output X and Y from the bottom bracket to the handlebar clamp.
Shimano and motion capture. Interesting story, as noted above. Retul is no longer getting its motion capture product from Boulder Innovation Group (BIG), the infrared 3D technology company. It now makes its own Vantage product. BIG found a new home at Shimano. So, what used to be Retul is now a Shimano motion capture system and, one presumes, the way that Retul “Zinned” bikes is now one way Shimano can locate points in space (beyond the X/Y digital "smartness" built into the bike.)
As everyone now knows, or should know, Retul is owned by Specialized. That's a lot of horsepower that could and might be available to push Retul's progress as a tool maker forward. Obviously BIG is not standing still, and it has a personal motivation to prove that it can out 3D motion capture whatever it is Retul is doing. In fact, the president of BIG is at Eurobike as I write this, at Shimano's fit system launch. BIG promises its next generation tracker is far superior to what it supplied during its partner tenure with Retul.
Now let’s get to the heart of this system: what happens at the crank. Really, if it was just this fit bike I’d say, great, but, it sits right in the middle of the other 4 good available fit bikes. No major step forward. But what it’s got in the crank, that’s very interesting. This crank has a power meter in it, for lack of a better explanation, and it purports to track the force expressed on the system in several ways. These force values are displayed on a computer screen, during the fit session.
First, there is the force applied during the downstroke. There are reports that display this in a graphical manner. On that same report is what I’ve heard Dr. Jim Martin, at University of Utah, refer to as “negative force,” and this occurs when the rider does not sufficiently (for lack of a more precise term) get his muscles out of the way after the power phase of the pedal stroke. If the leg producing power must overcome the “negative force” of the leg during its recovery, that’s extra work the force producing leg must exert.
Not to get into the tall weeds, but, if the recovering leg did “unweight” the pedal properly, that is, if the downward force of the recovering leg stopped producing downward force prior to the recovery phase, there would still be negative force applied to the pedal just through the passive act of moving the weight of that leg back to top dead center – unless that leg was “actively” recovering through the affirmative act of hip flexion. This gets us into the thorny discussion of tools like the Powercrank, and the coaching of the rider to “flatten” his “torque profile” while riding his Computrainer.
The purpose of this segue was to give an example of what this fit bike can do, yet also outline what Shimano has in front of itself. If you’re going to give this output, you have to determine what to do with it. You ought (it seems to me) go further, and generate algorithms that express what the expected “dead weight” of the recovering leg is, so that you could express true negative force – the active muscular tension caused by a recovering leg not relaxed – as a value. Shimano has also, unwitting or not, created a tool of use to coaches rather than fitters. Indeed, if I’m a fitter I don’t know that I want this screen. What if a fit tool also allowed me to track blood sugar, or state of mind? Great, but, I don’t know that these values help in the fit – unless what Shimano is aiming at through this screen is trying to determine a rider's correct crank length. Shimano has made both a fit tool and also a coaching tool, but I can’t imagine that a coaching tool is what Shimano had in mind.
The other force value measured is medial/lateral, that is, where the pressure is applied to the shoe during the pedal stroke. This is not coaching. This is fit. This is all about fit, and in my opinion this is the killer app for Shimano. This is the sizzle in this fit bike. This is what allows Shimano to develop protocols for pedal-shoe interface and, really, what did you think Shimano had in mind for a fit system? What is the purpose of a Shimano fit system? Why does it exist? Why should it exist? Well, what does Shimano make? Other than derailleurs and shifters and things like that? It makes pedals and shoes, which have to attach to each other, and if this system Shimano made does not stand apart from other systems via its attention to pedal-shoe interface I’ll be disappointed and surprised.
These screens, these outputs, these measuring devices open the door for Shimano to express what “good” looks like in these outputs, and the remedial acts one takes that cause a “bad” output to turn good. For example, if there is a desired profile for these horizontal blue bars (see the image below) that appear across the foot, medial-to-lateral, during the pedal stroke, what do you do to achieve the “blue bar profile” that you want? Change stance width? Varus or valgus wedging? Custom footbed?
In my mind, this is what Shimano lacks. I saw no prescriptive guidebook. What I saw when I looked at this program was a set of outputs. What we don’t yet know is what to do with the output, like a doctor who says, “You’re biphasic with restless eye syndrome.” “Whoa, doctor, that sounds serious, what do I do?” “I don’t know, I haven’t gotten that far yet.”
Shimano hasn’t gotten that far yet. Keep in mind that this system will not go to market until Q1 or Q2, and I am sure beyond sure that between now and then Shimano will have prescriptive remedies baked into its system that address crank length, stance width, cleat canting, and maybe custom footbeds.
This is a fit bike bike retailers will own (not borrow or lease), however there is expected to be some sort of monthly or annual charge to keep up with software enhancements and the like. There is a software login, which to me says the software is server side, which causes me to wonder whether the system will function at all if you don’t pay monthly charges, that is, if I pay charges for a year, and then stop, does my smart bike become dumb? Or do I have software functionality only up to the point I stopped paying? I don’t know the answer to that yet.
About that crank functionality, you might argue that any bike that is powered by a Computrainer load generator has that functionality. The SpinScan screen on a Computrainer outputs a torque profile, just as does the Shimano screen. Shimano argues that the Computrainer is not a direct measurer of torque and power, rather an estimator. I don’t see how that matters, if the estimation is good. Except in this sense: If you do truly want to know the components of positive and negative power during the pedal stroke, it seems intuitive to me that you have to see the actual torque applied around the pedal circle.
Furthermore, I don’t really care that much about what happens around the pedal circle, at least for the purposes of fitting. I care how much power you produce, but not how you produce it. They don’t give away podium spots based on how pretty your torque profile. What I do care about is that medial/lateral force applied to the shoe. That’s killer.
Thinking strategically, if I project my base, venal power- and money-hungry motives onto Shimano, and assume that this specific attention to pedal-shoe interface is the sizzle for this company, because it allows Shimano to control the output, which allows Shimano to influence the prescribed products sold, why not export this crank technology, and the system, to other fit bike makers? Why not ask The Guru fit bike people to embed this technology into their bikes? Likewise Retul? Trek? Purely Custom? Exit Cycling? I think Shimano should consider this.
But there is another motive for Shimano apparent in devising and offering this fit system. They are way, way behind in establishing dealer relationships. Prior to a decade ago they had no relationships. They sold only to distributors and to OEs. They realize now that distributors – well, most distributors – are a margin suck, and they take price protection out of Shimano’s hands. Last month Shimano just announced it’s cutting off most of its U.S. distributors.
For the past several years Shimano has been fostering these direct dealer relationships, originally through the sale of its cycling shoes, and gradually through the sale of more and more of its other products. It sees these relationships as vital to its future, and a fit system like this not only allows Shimano to control or protect its product, its distribution, its price, but also to control the sales process. What the entire industry has learned from Specialized over the past decade is: He who controls the process controls the sale. The Body Geometry school and system has been a Harvard Business School example of process-informing-sale: “We measured your foot in all three axes, calculated the angle of the metahicular force vector, and the TriVent is your perfect shoe. Imagine that.” This is the paradigm that is driving all these large bike companies into the business of bike fit.
I’m being facetious, of course, but this is, or should be, precisely the mover pushing Shimano toward a fit system of its own. To control the output. The question is not why Shimano did this, but why Sidi – and the other footwear makers – didn’t, and how bad it’s going to get for all these other footwear makers before they understand that they’re at the mercy of competitors' pedal-shoe interface fit systems. Which, parenthetically, causes me to again wonder why nobody has purchased Paul Swift’s company, BikeFit (makers of, among other things, the wedges that we use to varus and valgus cant our shoes). It is silly that this company has not yet been acquired. But I digress.
The lack of prescription is what it seems to me Shimano has to work on with this otherwise very intriguing, potentially formidable system. It promises a protocol for bike fitting generated by Lloyd Thomas, considered by many – with defensible reason – among Europe’s premier bike fitters. I don’t yet know what that protocol is. I don’t know if it’s even finished yet. I’m certain it’ll be good. However, I don’t know that it must be used. I’m a big believer in splitting tools from protocols. You determine, as a fitter, your protocol. Then you choose a tool to fit the protocol. This Shimano bike is so close to the Purely Custom bike in how it functions and outputs that Trek – which champions and sells a rebadged Purely Custom fit bike as its tool for its fit program – could just as easily use the Shimano bike for its protocol. Likewise, F.I.S.T. (our protocol that we teach) works very well on the Purely Custom bike, and will work very well on the Shimano bike.
That said, Shimano has a lot riding on its protocol, because if you just make the tool and not the protocol you don’t control the output. Maybe Shimano should just have a protocol for pedal-shoe interface, and let fitters choose whatever protocol they want for the rest of the bike. Remember, though, Shimano makes its own line of stems and handlebars, so it does have some product skin in the game of overall bike fit.
What is it that this bike lacks? Elevation. You can’t incline this bike. “But wait, you can’t incline any fit bike!” Not so. As this series I'm writing progresses, you’ll see protocols that rely on the ability to incline the bike, to simulate riding on an incline, along with tools that enable these protocols. Indeed, the reason bikes do incline now is because the protocols (ahem, the F.I.S.T. Protocol in particular) demanded this functionality. Still, this Shimano bike will not ship until next year, so, considering this bike’s maker employs more of the best engineers in the world than any other cycling company, I don't think an incline feature on this bike, when it ships, is out of the question. (But, to be clear, it does not have that function now.)
Shimano will begin stateside with a pair of “learning centers,” at its North American headquarters in Irvine, and at the Boulder-area headquarters of Pearl Izumi, the apparel company Shimano owns. For all my warning and assuming about the commercial, strategic aspects of all these bike companies’ fit programs (I wrote about this yesterday, in my bike-fit-systems series intro), Shimano’s system, like Retul, like Trek’s new system (which I’ll be writing about this week), the Guru system, is “ecumenical” and by that I mean it purports to export industry-wide solutions. For bike fit – that is, for selecting bikes, rather than shoes, saddles, handlebars – why would it not? All these bike companies are Shimano customers. Why would Shimano not treat all these companies equally when generating an output for complete bike solutions? I can imagine a Shimano output saying that a rider could perfectly fit aboard a Cannondale, a Trek, a Specialized, an Orbea, a Cervelo. As long as it has Ultegra ;-)