As has been pretty liberally reported here over the past couple of weeks, every bike company selling at least $700 million in annual bike sales now has its own, modern, dynamic fit system that each of these companies sees as critical to its future success. Who are these bike companies? Shimano, Cannondale Sports Unlimited (The Guru fit system), Trek, Specialized (Body Geometry + Retul), Giant (the Ride Right program launched in the Far East and Europe, but not as of now in North America).
These companies didn’t simply wake up one day having gotten religion on fit. And, while they say a lot of nice things about how important it is that you fit well aboard your bike, that’s not the primary motivation. What has happened over the past half-dozen years is that Specialized has taken a big chunk out of the hides of its competitors through engaging in prescriptive selling: “Let me measure you and I’ll tell you what saddles, shoes, helmets, bikes are tailor made just for you.”
This kind of process-driven, instead of product-driven, approach to retail is transformative. The first wave of prescriptive processes is always “parochial,” that is, a process circumscribes the offerings of its specific brand. But this becomes cumbersome when an independent retailer carries multiple brands. You can’t put a customer through 4, 5 or 6 brand-specific prescriptive processes.
The second wave of processes are “ecumenical,” that is, a process that outputs the entire list, across all brands, of products that would work for him or her. We are in stage-1 right now in saddles, helmets, shoes and so forth. If you want to know what Specialized, Fizik, Selle Italia, saddles work for you out of the entire range that they sell, you must go through each company’s parochial process. But, in bikes, parochial processes are out, ecumenical is in.
Which brings us to Trek. I hosted a gaggle of Trek folks at a F.I.S.T. Bike Workshop in 2008. I told them then, “You guys really ought to launch an ecumenical system.” The response I got then was pretty similar to what I was getting from every other company, which was, with incredulity, “You’re asking that our fit system export solutions that include bikes made by our competitors?”
Exactly! And why? Because we already had that at Slowtwitch – our F.I.S.T. System was already doing it – and it was only a matter of time before a bike brand offered this to independent bike shops who, almost to a shop, carry multiple brands. My pitch to all the bike companies back then: You’re going to have to offer an ecumenical system eventually, not because you want to, but because you’ll have to. Why be second, third, fourth, fifth to market, when you could be first?
Which was the first large bike brand to bring this to market? Cannondale, that is, what is now Cannondale Sports Unlimited, aka Dorel, Cycling Sports Group, Guru Cycling. Its purchase of the Guru fit bike and its patents and technology was married to the F.I.S.T. Protocol to produce the system sold and used by shops over the past year. Who was second? You could argue it was Specialized, by adoption, when it purchased Retul exactly a year ago. I’ll be writing about Retul later this week and it’s a compelling study because Specialized must now face the same question I asked Trek and other companies 5 years ago: Going forward do we champion, for bike fit, the system that got us to where we are (Body Geometry) or do we morph toward the system that represents the future of bike fitting, which is Retul?
Who’s next to market? Tie between Shimano and Trek. Each of these companies are launching systems now, and I wrote about Shimano last week. What is Trek bringing to market?
Snowflake versus Cattle
Trek made a tactical mistake. At least, in my opinion. This mistake was made 6 years ago. Trek hired a brilliant fitter, Michael Sylvester, one of the architects of the Serotta fit protocol, to devise and run Trek's fit school. Michael’s protocol was really perfect for Serotta. Everybody’s a snowflake. Everybody has his own special geometry that custom fits his own specific morphology. Snowflake theology is perfect for custom bike makers. Snowflake theology sucks for production bike makers.
And this underscores a theme I’m trying to drive home in this series on bike fit protocols. Snowflake theology is no different than what Guru offered back when the Guru fit bike was owned by the Guru custom bike making factory. Guru’s fit bike – that tool – was used with a protocol that emphasized differences between people, rather than emphasizing the “sameness” that occurs between people. Nothing wrong with the Guru tool, and nothing wrong with the then-Guru protocol. Unless you sell production bikes.
What Cannondale did was buy the Guru bike and marry it to the F.I.S.T. Protocol, which does not treat people like snowflakes. Rather it treats you all like cattle. You all belong in pens. If it’s Trek we’re talking about, there are 30 pens: H1, H2 and H3 geometry x 10 sizes = 30 pens. My job, as a fitter, is to tell you which pen you belong inside.
It just so happens that one of those Trek pens is shared by Cannondale, BMC, Cervelo and Litespeed. Another is shared by Pinarello, Giant, Specialized and Orbea. Another by Felt and, well, you get the point I hope. The “output” of a bike fit session, for Trek, and for most of you, and for most bike shops, needs to be: “You’re a Specialized Venge size 56, or a Cannondale Supersix size 56, or [fill in the blank].
This is what you need. And it’s what shops need. And it’s one reason Trek got no traction with its fit school over the past half dozen years. I’ve said this same thing to Trek every year since 2008. Trek is a slow ship to turn. But it’s finally turned.
Tools and a Protocol
There are certain companies sitting out there waiting to be exploited and I mean that in the best sense. These are the toolmakers. Exit Cycling. Bikefit Systems. And Purely Custom. It has been a surprise to me that more companies haven’t more ardently taken a run at these companies. Trek did. In a way. It didn’t buy Purely Custom, but it licensed its fit bike and its other fit tools.
Why did it do this? At least partly, I think, because of Trek’s relationship with Paraic McGlynn, ex of Serotta and Serotta’s SICI fit initiative. Paraic is a smart guy, has his own firm, Cyclologic, is one of the leaders in bike fit worldwide, and was brought in by Trek to consult on its fit system. Paraic must’ve said to Trek, “Walk don’t run to Purely Custom and make those fit tools your fit tools,” because 3 years ago Paraic, then with SICI, showed this very fit bike at the Interbike Trade Show, logo’d as a Serotta fit bike.
Trek’s fit tools are in the main Purely Custom’s tools which are largely the expert, precision tools inspired by the Serotta fit system. But, these are not tools that are bound to a system. A fit session, nowadays, exports a set of X/Y coordinates (see my explanation of this), and you can use these coordinates either to generate custom geometry (if we’re going to treat you like a snowflake) or we’ll herd you into a pen (if we choose to behave as if you’re a cow, and in most cases we’re serving you better if this is the approach we take).
What Trek offers is a really nice fit bike (I’ve got one of these, and it’s a cool). It also offers Purely Custom’s X/Y tool and an adjustable stem and a couple of other doodads. While this isn’t exactly, precisely true, in general this is an either/or. If you’re a shop and you invest in a Purely Custom fit bike, you really don’t need the adjustable stem or the X/Y tool. If you want to half-ass your fit process you use the X/Y tool and the stem. If you want to execute a true dynamic fit, you forget all that and you move to true dynamic fitting aboard a tool fit for the purpose, one example of which is that excellent Purely Custom fit bike.
However, Trek, Giant, Specialized, Shimano, they all have a problem. They all have dealers that have, in their names along with “bicycles,” words like “mower,” or “skateboard.” These shops need a fit system, but they aren’t going to buy an $11,000 or $12,000 fit bike, nor would they have room for it if they did. Cannondale? It doesn’t offer fit-lite. But these other companies do. I can understand both arguments.
This output looks just about exactly like the output a fitter sees when using the Guru fit system. What you see is what any good fit system must output these days: a list of complete bike solutions. But it also suffers from what the Guru system suffered from early on, and I think is just now getting sorted out: too many options, along with bad options. This output here, pictured below, is what I think all the automated complete bike solutions (Retul’s Frame Finder, Guru’s and Trek’s system) will struggle with. To wit, here’s one of the pictured solutions: Trek Madone, Size 52cm, H1 geometry, +17° stem 120mm in length, 26mm spacers.
Really? You’re going to ride that bike? No, you’re not. Let me do a little math here for you. That H1 52cm frame has a stack/reach of 518/388 (I know this from our stack/reach tables). That stem/spacer config has its own X/Y, from the head tube top, of 111/86, which I know from our stem calculator. Add the two together, this gives X/Y to the handlebar clamp of 629/474.
Now, let’s go back to that stem calculator and put in a saner front end for someone riding something like a 54cm bike. Maybe a 110mm, -7 stem, 25mm spacers. That yields a front-end X/Y of 62/95 and if we subtract that from 629/474 we’re looking for a stack/reach of 567/379. Back to the stack/reach tables. Whoa, here’s a 54cm H2 Madone, stack/reach of 555/381. Pretty close.
Let’s go to our Bar to Head Tube calculator, plunk in 629/474 and the front end just noted above, except with 35mm of total spacers (including headset top cap). What do we get? 557/382. Just about dead on. There’s your bike. It’s a 54cm H2 Madone. Have the mechanic pull that bike out of the box, build it up with that stem length and pitch, etc., and now you can cut the cables to their proper length, don’t have to worry about the bike not fitting, customer comes back tomorrow picks up his bike.
That’s the process. That’s how you do it. That’s the “cattle” method done right. The problem with the all-inclusive methods of complete bike solutions is that they cast too wide a net or, alternatively, they miss obvious solutions. God bless these all-inclusive methods. The problem is, if you’re a Trek dealer and you see the output pictured here, there are too many options and most of them are just plain wrong. It’s going to take Trek awhile to wrestle this system to the ground, and I recommend that at the very least they establish parameters for the front end. For somebody riding a bike around 54cm, maybe a stem no longer than 110mm, no shorter than 90mm, pitch no steeper than 0°, spacers no less than 10mm no greater than 45mm. Or whatever. Let the dealer establish search parameters. That'll grant a much narrower list of possible bikes, and all of them good options.
I have not had an actual demo of the Trek system, but what I have been told is that the system does do what I recommend above; it does allow the fitter to set min and max parameters for stem length and pitch, and for spacer total.
But, wait! What if the system outputs no bikes?! Yeah, that happens. Why? Because the fitter didn't learn, at his fit school, how to fit properly. Back to my old saw: Separate fit schools and protocols from fit tools. Learn fitting right. Then invest in appropriate tools, the most important of which is his fit bike.
All that said, the very fact that Trek is outputting this tells me that it’s on absolutely the right track. It understands the process. It understands, in broad strokes, how to properly arrive at a complete bike solution.
Trek is also providing a motion capture system. Fine. The question is how hoity toity do you need that motion capture system to be? On the very high end you have Retul and Shimano, each with a 3D system. With Trek, you have a 2D system. Do you need 3D? If you’re establishing and archiving fit coordinates, yes, I think you do. If you’re also using the system for pedal/shoe interface, knee tracking, and so forth, yes, you do. If you’re simply trying to establish whether a rider’s position fits inside a set of angular norms and ranges no, you don’t. But you do need a camera that has a pretty high rate of frames per second, or else you keep catching the foot right in front, or right behind, bottom dead center, which messes up your knee angle.
Here again, If you're Trek or Retul or Shimano or Cannondale you need to understand how fitting works and make sure your system is built accordingly. Most of these fit system architects do get it. But I've heard some system builders say, “No problem, we’ll have the rider pedal 6, or 8, or 15 circles, and we’ll take the average.” No. That’s wrong. The system has to lean toward the greatest number – the largest angle, if it's the included angle you're measuring – achieved during the trial. By definition a camera shot at BDC gives you the greatest angle, and every other camera shot gives you something less than that. There’s nothing wrong with 2D motion capture, and there’s nothing wrong with a less than huge number of frames per second, if you account for this in the algorithms you build.
By the way, before I start getting smart-alecky comments on our Facebook comment utility below, of course the rider pictured here (I think in the top pic it's Andy Schleck, further down it's Lindsey Corbin, don't know who's in this motion capture pic) is certainly not scribing a 36° knee angle. He's scribing a 144° angle most likely, which is the included knee angle. Yes, the image indicates it's the included knee angle measured. But I'm guessing (I didn't ask) that the output is the exterior knee angle, which is an angle commonly used in the medical community (180 - included angle). Trek probably either ought to change way it's describing knee angle or change the way the angle is drawn.
There are reasons why the “wrap” – basically a mini trade show booth – can be a problem in these fit studios. First, they take up space. Second, they are hard to remove. When you buy into a system like this – whether Guru, Trek or whomever – these companies are going to want to maximize their exposure, branding, effect. Why wouldn’t they? Remember, fit isn’t advocacy anymore. It’s strategy. These displays are very nice. But once they’re in they’re not coming out again for a good long while, because they’re heavy. You don’t date these new fit systems by these big companies; you marry them.
So, what is this we’re looking at below? Is this anything other than a stationary trainer? If so, get that thing outa there. This space is where my fit bike goes.
But there’s an additional problem and it’s this: Nowadays, for road fits, riding on an incline is part of my protocol. I want to see what the bike is like when riding up a 7 or 9 percent grade, both seated and, especially, out of the saddle, hands on the hoods. My Purely Custom fit bike doesn’t incline. So, I built a table that bike sits on and it inclines. About $200 of wood from Home Depot, a trailer jack from Harbor Freight, presto, an incliner. If there’s a platform underneath the fit bike that’s basically just for branding, I can’t put an incline table under the bike. Unless the branding table Trek (or whomever) provides has an incliner built into it. If so, value is being returned. It’s not just a big table that says Trek or Guru or Retul or whatever. An incline table performs a function.
Well, look, I just have a fundamental problem with shop rats – especially if they’re also selling mowers and skateboards – analyzing me for leg length discrepancies and calculating my range of motion. However, it’s hard to find a protocol nowadays that doesn’t try to limit riders based on their disabilities or inabilities and Trek's protocol follows suit. This keeps riders from fitting inside a “pen” to which they aspire. Yes, allowing riders to fit aboard the bikes that they want, versus fitting riders first and then telling what they need, is a push/pull. Yes, those imperatives sit in tension. Still, I find that riders often overcome supposed disabilities identified during the Yoga phase of the bike fit protocol once they hop aboard a bike and start pedaling. Nevertheless, I’m ambivalent, as long as the rider achieves a good position.
Fit these days is a 2-part process: identify fit coordinates; match those coordinates to complete bike solutions. Trek’s new system has all the protocol pieces in place to do this, and it’s also partnered with a first class tool maker, and is using these tools inside of a process that makes sense for consumers and the IBDs that must execute these fits.
Everything Trek is doing now has been available to Trek for some years. But at least it’s doing it now. Its current fitmeister, Matt Gehling, who’s in charge of this program, seems to have gotten the ear of the right folks at Trek and this fine company's fit program is firing on all cylinders. These expensive fit bikes are available to retailers with some financing attached. There will be fit schools in North America, Asia and in Europe. This is all good news.
I would not call this a flashy system. Certainly 2 years ago, yes, it would have been. But its lack of flash does not equate to a lack of utility. This system has everything it needs to have to grant a customer everything he needs to know.
At this point, it’s going to come down to training. Will a fitter out of the Trek fit school understand the math I did above, and will he be able to do it? Indeed, will all the Trek fit instructors understand the math above and how to do it? This is the sort of basic stuff fit instructors must understand, and guys like Todd Carver at Retul and Christopher Kautz at Guru Cycling can do this math and solve these problems in their sleep. The education provided Trek fitters must lead to an IBD’s ability to manage a fit with this detail. The problem I see with all these larger companies – all the companies I list above – is delivering an initial education and continuing education necessary to make a much larger number of dealers buying into these systems good fitters.