Bike fit systems: marketing or advocacy?

During the mid 1990s we formed what we called the Quintana Roo Traveling Road Show. Steve Hed, John Cobb, I and a few others would go from town to town and give a series of seminars to the triathletes around the country. What struck me about this exercise was the number of folks desperately wanting to be fit aboard their tri bikes. We'd cater lunch—a nice lunch—free of charge, with a compelling speaker, yet folks would not avail themselves if it meant giving up their places in the bike fit line.

I did not have the wherewithal at the time to do what Serotta did, or what Specialized and Trek are doing now: develop a bike fit school for our retailers. Nevertheless, it was clearly needed, then and now.

I unburdened myself of corporate duties in 1999, passing the baton of tri bike manufacturer to those better equipped for that battle than was I. This meant that I had time to do what I should have done earlier, but didn't: the F.I.S.T. Tri Bike Fit System debuted shortly thereafter.

In recent years, Specialized and now Trek have taken up the cause. Each has a bike fit school training and certifying fit specialists. To this I say bravo with an asterisk. Let's talk about the asterisk.

And this is where I think we ought to stand back and ask ourselves a pair of big picture questions. I'll start with the first.

Advocacy or marketing?

I feel like I'm picking on Specialized lately. It's not personal, and if I'm nagging it's because this company is a robust force doing so many things right; but I'm concerned that it's seeking tactical leverage in ways that are out of step with how I think our industry runs or ought to run. I'll refer to this fine company in the paragraphs below, in the spirit of friendship and in the hope that what appears a very fine fit school (BG Fit) might remain on its righteous course.

Bike companies are correctly discerning a truism: When a consumer walks into the door of his LBS, he's not there to buy a bike, but to enter a process. Somewhere early on in that process is a bike fit session. So far so good. My concern for all the company-developed schools and processes—by Specialized, Serotta, Trek, Guru, and whomever may come after—is that some companies see this process as ecumenical and as advocacy, while others see it as a way to gain a tactical advantage. I believe strongly that bike fit is advocacy, no less than Rails to Trails and Bikes Belong and Share the Road.

If you believe as I do, then here are some hallmarks of a program that believes a bike fit school is advocacy, and not just a way to lasso more of your buying dollars:

1. Does a bike manufacturer's fit process identify for that customer what is his best bike, saddle, cycling shoe, footbed product, or frame geometry? Or that company's bike, saddle, cycling shoe, footbed product, or frame geometry?

2. Does the company's fit school accept all interested and eager-to-learn bike retailers, as well as coaches and fitters? Or is the school only open to the retailers selling that company's products?

3. Are the protocols transparent? Is the information a company has developed on how to properly fit and service customers broadcast to the industry, or hidden from all those in the industry other than a select few with whom the bike company does business?

In my 22 years of working in the triathlon industry, I've identified two areas of advocacy that help grow our sport, and keep those in our sport from leaving our sport.

First, leverage your time and treasure toward helping race promoters: When there are more triathlons, there are (or soon will be) more triathletes.

Second, identify and solve the biggest problems triathletes have interfacing with their equipment. Specifically, make swim, bike and run less mysterious and less alchemic; rather, more comfortable and more fun. Bike fit schools fit into this category of advocacy (or if they don't, they should), and your best bet as a consumer is to sidle up to those companies that treat their fit process as advocacy, rather than simply as strategy.

Yes, a part of solving triathletes' problems is through making better products. But try as I may, as a manufacturer my products could not solve all problems for all athletes. Sometimes I had to send a customer down the road, because an Ironman wetsuit might fit that customer better than did the one I made. This means I had to both know when another product was more appropriate than my own; and be willing to help this customer by sharing this information.

This is what I mean when I say the best processes are ecumenical. The thing is to determine—brand independent—what a customer needs. If, as a manufacturer, you did your homework right, then your product fits the need better and more often than those in your competitive set.

If your proprietary system, your process, your school, your certification, is not open to scrutiny, is not open platform, is not ecumenical, it not only falls short of advocacy, you'll miss helpful peer review that will push your process forward.

Whomever among the flagship bike brands will have the chutzpah and the vision to build the first ecumenical, industry-leading, all-comers, fit school, that brand will be the first billion dollar complete bike company.

Distribution matched to expertise?

Trek, Specialized, Giant, Scott and Cannondale all make great tri bikes, and all are going to sell fewer tri bikes than they should. The problem is as follows. Each of these companies has spent up the wazoo on the development of their timed race bikes. They've not done this because of the triathlon market, rather because they've spent quadruple squared the wazoo sponsoring their Pro Tour cycling teams, each of which needs a first class TT machine.

So, now we have these machines, all very nice ones. Fortunately, there is a market to which to sell them, and it's a pretty big market, recession resistant, and still growing: triathlon. But these companies are all full service. They sell BMX bikes, MTB bikes, upright, comfort, commuter, leisure, kids, women's, touring, entry road, pro road, and categories I don't even know exist. Each company's largest dealers are full service shops who cater to all these markets, and order size runs of all the models in all the categories.

Except, there is one category that these full service retailers frequently ignore. They rightly understand what they don't understand: triathlon. They know they're out of the league. These full service retailers would be glad to order in your Equinox TTX, Transition, Plasma, Slice, but how many of these bikes do these retailers actually floor? How many do they sell in a year?

Meanwhile, there are plenty of triathlon specialty retailers that would buy gobs of these bikes, and agree not to take the rest of the line (they don't want the rest of the line). But the rule, not the exception, is for the full service retailer to deny the manufacturer the right to sell (tri bikes only) to the triathlon specialty store down the street. Some or most of these manufacturers I list above are waiting—like airlines waiting to see who's going to be the first to start charging for in-flight pretzels—to see who'll set up a second line of distribution; a parallel set of dealers who sell tri bikes (no $100-million-plus company wants to be the first to try this experiment).

What does this have to do with bike fit systems? Specialized is the leader, I think all would agree, among full service bike companies that offer a robust fit system. Let's consider how this might work, today, in practice.

As I search (using Specialized' website) a 50-mile radius around that company's corporate headquarters (which would incorporate the entire San Francisco Bay Area), I note 20 Body Geometry Fit Specialists (regular and advanced). Each is tied to a Specialized shop, and these 20 certified fitters work at a total of 10 shops. I called each of these 10 shops, and the only shop that had any Transitions on the floor was the Specialized concept store (Concept Cyclery) two miles away from Specialized' headquarters.

I don't offer this narrative to cast aspersions on Specialized' attempts to upscale its dealers through educating them. Rather, to point out that what matters, in the end, is execution. If you want to go into a store and see the bike you want, and ride the bike you want, and get fit by an expert in that store, that doesn't seem to me possible anywhere in Specialized' own immediate region, unless you go to the Specialized concept store in Morgan Hill.

How, in execution, is this program any different from Elite Bicycles, where in metro Philly if you want both that company's tri bikes, and that company's fit expertise, you have to make your way to the company headquarters? Certainly Specialized is better equipped than Elite Bicycle to situate its tri bikes, and trained bike fitters, inside the same door? Isn't it?

Without putting too fine a point on it, listen: I'm a triathlete. If you want me to buy your bike, sell it in a shop that wants to sell to me; has the knowledge to fit and service me; and has the confidence in your tri bike to stock a couple of size runs. If you decide to do this for me, you're going to have to break the paradigm of a dealer network that is self-selected against triathlon. Face it: the big, full service shops that are your backbone dealers aren't going to sell your tri bikes. So, open tri-specific dealers to your bikes, and to your fit school. Then, you'll deliver to triathletes what you advertise: an executable process.

My final exhortation is to Specialized, and Trek, and Serotta, and all the other companies that may embark on the very good work of fit-specific dealer education: Don't champion your fit school. Champion every fit school worth championing. Empower and enable your retailers carrying your tri bikes to learn about tri bike fit, whether you teach them, or I teach them, or Paul Levine or Paul Swift or Chris Kautz teaches them.

Above all (as the Good Book says) don't hide your light under a bushel. If you've got a good fit system, show it to the world, and invite the world to avail themselves of it. It's your good work, it's your reasonable service to our industry, it's your proper advocacy. As you do this I'll know you're about growing triathlon and helping triathletes, not just growing your revenues and selling to triathletes.