Monday, February 27, 2006

Fit For A King

Cronometro is a relatively smaller bike shop near Lake Monona in Madison. As you drive there, you'll pass a larger bike shop with bright neon lights and glossy bikes and frames hanging in the windows. There's a large Trek shop in Madison with a ton of floor space, and sections for apparel, mountain bikes, road bikes, and TT/tri bikes, and huge video screens with footage of Lance, and rows and rows of gadgets and gizmos underneath dramatic lighting and cool colors and huge logos. Walking into Cronometro, you'll see nothing like that. In fact, even parking at Cronometro - which sits on a busy, narrow street with many old houses, niche businesses and tiny bistros - requires driving around to the back, where a small lot of 5 or 6 spots are dedicated (otherwise, you're relegated to finding a spot on the busy street), leading to a small doorway into the back of the building.

Upon walking in, it's immediately clear that Cronometro is a bona-fide bike shop. That it's old school like how Corner Drugstore doesn't look or feel like Walgreen's. Old school like how Merv's Hardware sits behind the main drag in town, small but useful, while 2 miles away the Orange Juggernaut that is Home Depot sits off the interstate, serving to be all things to all people. The floors in Cronometro have that old-building hollow thunk to them when you walk. Immediately to your right is a large repair station - probably a quarter or more of the square footage of the entire shop is taken up by the shop, and there are 2 guys busy working in there. Opposite the repair station, in the entrance corridor, is a wall rowed with tubes, chains, lube, handlebar tape, computers, and all the other stuff you expect. On one end of the store is a small selection of apparel. In the middle are gloves and accessories, on the far side are some shoes, wheels, and miscellaneous, and on the opposite end are the bikes - a Cervelo dealer, so a small selection of P3's stand by. Also a Seven dealer, so a few Seven cycles stand proudly displayed, as well as lots of materials for customizing your own Seven. Hanging in various, random places are antique or old school bike frames sprinkled in with some new, and some posters of Tour riders - some with notes of thanks - none newer than one of George Hincapie in Postal blues. The whole vibe of Cronometro is immediately comfortable, and serious about cycling, and disinterested in impressing you with shine and gloss. It's clean and tidy and well presented and uncluttered, and right away you feel surrounded by bike knowledge.

One of the guys in the repair station looks up to say hello, and with bike and shoes in hand, it's obvious I'm here for a fitting. He takes my bike and directs me to a small changing room over there, or the bathroom is behind the corner, over there. He asks if I'm having any issues with the bike, and when I tell him the rear wheel is out of true, he promises to have a look at it after my fitting. I go change while he takes Ol' Blue to one of two fitting studios.

When I return, he's just finishing getting my bike perfectly adjusted on a trainer and measuring if it's level, using a digital device on the top tube. As he finishes up, Colin - Cronometro's owner and my bike fitter today - walks in. The repair tech exchanges a bit of information with Colin about my bike, and Colin takes over. I'm struck by the similarity of a nurse "handing over" a patient to a doctor, and I like the metaphor.

Colin is an immediately likeable guy. His salt and pepper hair and youthful face make his age a mystery - he could be late 30's, he could be late 50's. He has a cyclists frame, and is perhaps a few inches shorter than I am. His demeanor is comfortable and friendly, is soft spoken without being shy, and he looks you in the eye when talking. He starts by asking me several questions about me and my bike - how long have I been cycling? How long have I been doing triathlon? What kind of training do I do? Distances? Any medical issues? Etceteras. After that he starts taking multiple measurements of my bike. Like an experienced tailor, he slides his tape measure all over my bike, writing down his figures as he goes. He uses a level to help measure the setback of my seat, and the relationship of my seat to the handlebars. A digital level gives him the decrees of pitch for my saddle and aerobars. He shares some tidbits of information as he goes, and as I ask him to explain further, apologizing for my ignorance, he amiably rephrases, saying that bike fitting shouldn't be the voodoo it's known to be, and he's happy to explain everything he's doing and what information he's gathering.

The fitting I came in with, and the fitting I used all of last season, was a sort of hybrid bike-shop fitting and one done on my own, using my own research and analysis. The bike-shop fitting was mostly useless, done by guys who aren't familiar with triathlon, and so approached everything from a road-bike perspective. The self-fitting was done with books and numbers in front of me, and no historical or experiential nuances involved - pretty much just me trying to learn and, as usual, using myself as the guinea pig. I got through last season without any major issues on the bike, though as I told Colin I'd get a fatigue in my mid-shoulders after about 50 miles or so, and sometimes my left foot especially would get numb. But as far as I knew, my fitting was at least sufficient. Like my grandpa said after the Cronometro fitting, "It's amazing how much you don't know when you think you know it all." Amen.

Colin measured, using a level, from a hypothetical vertical line from the center of my cranks area to the nose of my saddle. He wrote down a figure, then said, "Well, I can tell you one change we'll make without you even getting on the bike that will help you quite a bit." He pointed out that my saddle setback - the offset of where my saddle lives in vertical space in relationship to the "center" of the bike - was 6cm. As it was, my I had an offset seat post, and my saddle was all the way back on its rails - my saddle was literally as far back as it could possibly be on my bike. Colin pointed out that on a road bike that kind of setback might be preferred in some circumstances, and/or if I had really long legs. But in my case, having the saddle that far back takes me away from the aggressive position that is the whole purpose of a triathlon bike. I was excited to see what changes we'd make, and what differences I'd see.

With his initial measurements finally over, he asked me to get on the bike - as-is - and start peddling. As I did, he looked at me from a side and front perspective and made mental notes and pointed out some things he was seeing. With my saddle that far back, I looked like I was stretching my shoulders up to be comfortable on the aero-bars. While my right knee was pretty consistently symmetrical through my pedal stroke, my left knee tended to bounce outward at the top of my stroke. I looked uncomfortable lifting my head up to see the road in the aero position. As he spoke, I evaluated what I was hearing. The sensation of stretching my shoulders hadn't occurred to me, and without something to compare it to, I couldn't be sure what he was saying or what else I should be feeling. I looked down at my knees and could clearly see what he was talking about with my left knee bobbing out. And his comment on the aero position was true - I'd never been comfortable last season with my head appropriately up - on long rides I'd always find myself more looking between my aero-bars than straight ahead.

I got off the bike and he made an adjustment to the saddle, putting it further forward on the rails. He also made an adjustment to my aero-bars, bringing them back a bit towards the saddle. His changes were incremental in millimeters or centimeters - in body geometry, small changes go a long way. He tightened the bolts and I hopped back on the bike.

The difference was dramatic and immediate. My elbows were now more directly underneath me, carrying more of the load of my upper body weight. My entire position was more compact, and my peddle stroke felt easier, even more powerful as I had more room to work with from my hips, and so more torque on the pedals. Mostly, I just felt more comfortable. I completely understood now what he meant by stretching my shoulders - my previous position made it so I was essentially in a constant state of stretch through my back, shoulders, and neck. It's no wonder I started to fatigue, to say nothing of the energy I was wasting just stretching. And I had no idea I was even doing it in the first place. Colin was encouraged by what he saw, and felt like this was our true starting point - from here everything else would be refined.

As the fitting went on, he continued to fine tune what he saw, and I continued to immediately feel the effects of even his most subtle changes. It was like working under the hands of an experienced surgeon. We chatted a bit while he made his tweaks - about the patent he has on a wheel that he'd since sold to a large company, and about the ingenious computer mount that he came up with that is licensed to other companies, and was featured in a shot of Lance in the '05 Tour hanging on the wall. We talked about how he's been in business for 17 years, and about the difficulty of the Ironman course (he has great respect for the IM course and the race in general), about the evolution of cycling and bicyles, and of my frustration with the lack of quality bike shops in Minneapolis. The whole time I was struck by his quiet graciousness - he was never outspoken about himself or his own shop, never talked negatively about another shop or brand, and always had an enthusiastic and appreciative tone of cycling and cyclists in general, be they experienced pros or brand new riders. I truly enjoyed talking to him.

Ultimately, we tried a new zero offset seat post, giving me another mm or two forward. We turned the handlebar stem upside down - as my bike comes stock, the stem is at a more aggressive downward angle, and flipping it upside down raises the handlebars incrementally. We raised the saddle height a bit, then, to accommodate, and suddenly I could see! Now in the aero position it was comfortable to have my head up, looking at the road. True, raising the handlebars increases the whole I punch through the air a bit, but hardly enough to matter. My knee issue decreased - I assume because I had a bit more room to move with that leg - and the angle from my torso to my hips was more appropriate for the IM distance. Finally, he adjusted my cleats so my feet were more appropriately centered over my pedals, and added two shims and adjusted my left cleat horizontally as well to address my bouncing knee issue. We checked it again, then added some special insoles, adding a bit of arch support and more stiffness to my feet. When I was back on the bike, the knee issue was significantly reduced. Colin pointed out that my body's physiology probably wouldn't allow us to totally remove the issue, but that the symmetry we were looking for was much improved. I sat on the bike and pedaled awhile, trying to get used to the new sensations from the new position. He pointed out that if I feel some discomfort here or there at first, my body was just adjusting to the new muscles being worked, and that I could make some small, incremental changes at first to accommodate those muscles until they strengthened, then go back to these new measurements.

In the end, the changes were dramatic. The saddle setback went forward 3.5 cm, and the distance from the saddle nose to the handlebars decreased 5 cm. We raised the handlebars and saddle - and so my whole position - almost 4cm. We changed the aerobar angle .5 degrees, and even adjusted the angle so I'd have less stress on my wrists. In general, the new fitting is much more aero, much more compact, and a great deal more comfortable than the old. It won't be until I can get on the road to really assess the differences practically, and how they physically affect me. Colin thought he'd saved me "significant time" on the bike, and probably on the run as well, since run-specific muscles would be better prepared with the new geometry. We'll see what, if any, time savings there come to be - it follows that there would be some, but truthfully I was never really displeased with last year's efforts. I'm mostly looking forward to being comfortable on the bike, and feeling more powerful and less fatigued in the long ride.

As we finished up, Colin sat and chatted with me for 10 or 15 minutes about "stuff" in general. I asked him some opinions on wheels, and was surprised and informed by his responses. We talked about the importance of training on, respecting, and managing the hilly course of IM. We then wrapped up our business together. He said that he could write me a prescription for the zero-offset seat post that he'd put on - that I didn't need to feel like I needed to buy it here. Same with the soles. I told him he'd earned my business, and that I'd be happy to purchase them here. Several times throughout the fitting and afterwards, much through my own initiation, he had the opportunity to sell me something, or sell me something more expensive, or even unnecessary. Never once did he do something like that - he seemed more concerned with my fitting than with his bottom line, and I can't say I've always felt like that in a bike shop. When I asked his advice - the $40 seat post or the $140 carbon fiber seat post, he discussed what he thought the differences might be, but that he didn't think there was a $100 difference. We agreed that if I felt significant road rumble, I'd look into carbon fiber, but that this was great for now. I could go with the $35 insoles, or the $85 insoles that, when heated, mold to my foot. He thought for my needs the $35 would work just fine. He demonstrated expertise during the fitting had satisfied me entirely, and had he thought I should spend more money on something, I would have listened. I respect that his motivation was never about gouging me or taking advantage of my admittedly limited knowledge about some of the finer points of gear. He had the opportunity, and I respect his integrity.

Finally, I told him I'd look around a bit as he gathered everything to take to the check out counter. I was surprised when a different tech came to get my bike and asked if I'd like my wheel trued - apparently the initial tech had discussed my bike with him, and I appreciated that now 3 different people were offering to attend to me and my bike - it made me feel like the whole staff was really interested in helping me out. It was approaching closing time, and I told him that would be great if he had the time. So while I looked around he worked on my wheel, and Colin threw in a couple of Cronometro water bottles on the house for my empty cages, "to remember us by." Several minutes later, long after the doors were officially closed, the tech was lubing my chain and cleaning out some gunk in my brake housings - he even had another tech (a fourth guy!) helping him out so I wouldn't be waiting. They were cheerful and helpful to the end, casually talking with me and each other, nobody in a rush to get this loser out the door so they can start their Saturday nights. He offered a few more tips when he handed off my bike - it's time for a new chain and the cables look okay but I might consider new ones for the new season (both of which were already on my list before the season starts), and that if I was going to be back in town again soon they'd be happy to look at it for me.

I had such a great experience with this fitting and this shop that I feel a little like taking my bike anywhere else - even across the street here to my local bike shop - is kind of a disservice to Ol' Blue. These guys are clearly experts in fitting and maintenance, and they were fun, easy, and casual to work with. It's great, with all the other requirements of triathlon, to feel like there's a bike shop that's equipped and prepared to do great work, and go above and beyond. I always appreciate excellent customer service, and this experience was top notch.

So, Ol' Blue's ready to go. I can hear him now, stomping around in the stable, smelling springtime, ready to get out there and ride as fast as he can.


Patric said...

All I have to say is, if all else fails you have a great career ahead of you in writing. Honestly this story intregued me and kept my attention like no other. Great work....

xt4 said...

Ha! I am amused. I make the following observations: A) If you found yourself intrigued through all the boring analysis of geometry, then I'll consider mission accomplished. 2) If this kept your attention like no other, you're in need of a good book, Diddy. and D) That's nice, thanks.

Patric said...

Trust me if your days were filled with reading law books and legal cases written by boring judges and lawyers you would be amused and intrigued with the geometry of fitting a bike too!!!!

Michael A said...

Chris - glad the king has a two-wheeled blue throne perfectly adjusted to fit. It'll be cool to see the differences the changes make.

Patric, - sorry to get off the subject - but are you studying to be a lawyer? I don't remember knowing that about you, or if I did it was ages ago, or I've forgotten (sorry), but that sounds cool.

Also, where did Todd go? Todd how is your training going?

Patric said...

Mike, right now I am getting my criminal justice degree, I am done with that in May, then I plan on finding a job and maybe going to law school some time in the near future. But I want to first start paying off my debt before I take on more from going to law school

Todd said...

Chris-I too was completely in to this story of the bike fitting. The owner of the place and his employees sound like pretty dope people. Always nice to hear things like that.

Go Diddy! I never knew you were interested in Law School....

Mike-my training is going pretty good so far, thanks for asking! Don't be fooled. I'm only doing two sprint/short triathlons this summer which is basically a joke compared to Bintliff and his endeavor. It's keeping me busy and I'm ahead of schedule personally speaking. I still have lots of time to improve being the first one isn't until June 4th.

Michael Anderson said...

Patric - A law man! A law man is a good man to know. As soon as you can afford business cards, send one my way! (Just teasing you about the money thing since you said you're in debt! Hope you don't mind!) What type of job does a guy get between his criminal justice degree and law school? Can you be Sheriff?

Todd - I remember you saying something about the Buffalo Tri, what other one are you doing? Yeh, Chris is a little crazy to be doing the Ironman, but seriously I have a lot of respect for anyone doing any Triathlon and I think it's excellent you're doing two. If you can run a mile, stay afloat in a lake, and ride a bike without your legs going numb, you're way ahead of me! Have you competed in anything like that before?

Todd said...

The other triathlon I'm doing is the Lifetime one, July 15th. We short/sprint coursers start at the very end so we don't hold up the professionals and olympians. Highly doubtful I would make TV. I've done one official race in my life and it was the Lifetime Reindeer Run (meaningless 5K) back in December. The Buffalo one is on a much smaller scale than the Lifetime one so it should be a good tune up/test for me. I'm doing the Lifetime one with two of my good friends and would love to beat them. Any advantage I can get is great.

Patric said...

Between a criminal justice degree and a law degree I would love to work for a big insurance company or bank doing their fraud investigations. No police work for this man, my back would hate me for trying to make it through basic training to become a cop. Keep in mind that law school is just a thought at this point, if I get into a job I really love I may forget all about law school, but I think it would be fun to get my law degree, I'm a geek and like reading law cases and statutes and things of that nature.