Seeing Bikes More Clearly

The bicycle is both a simple machine, a seat, handlebars and two wheels, and also a complex system, with angles and millimeters that can be shifted to alter the way it rides. Look too closely at all the details, and you might forget how much fun is on offer. You might convince yourself that some abstract fact about the bike (e.g., the frame material) makes it less fun to ride. But fail to pay any attention at all to the details and you might end up with a bike that rides poorly, doesn’t fit, or won’t do the things you want it to do (e.g., shred the gnar).

The vast majority of riders are bike design illiterate. They don’t know what they’re looking at when they’re looking at a bike. Oh sure, they see a machine that seems fast or fun or cool, but they’re not able to explain those perceptions. Why is it fast? Or why is it comfortable? They don’t know.

Take for example, something as simple as a seat stay. If you’re bike design literate, you look at a bike’s seat stays and you glean things about how that bike will feel under its rider. Straight, aluminum stays are going to transmit a LOT of road noise into the saddle. The same is true with older carbon fiber seatstays, some which incorporated elastomers and other workarounds to try to dissipate the force reaching the rider’s rear. Steel or titanium s-bend stays will give a cushier ride. None of these assessments by the way are universal, because seat stays don’t do what they do in isolation.

I never imagined a day when Shimano 105 groups would be wireless electronic, hydraulic and 12spd. There’s not much nuance to that story. It’s just good. Great actually.

So obviously the answer is for everyone to get a little nerdier, right? Well, no. Probably not.

I’m against gate keeping. A lack of expertise, no matter who defines it, shouldn’t at all be a barrier to enjoying a bike ride. People like me should be better at communicating what’s important about a bike, and I suspect, on some level, even we wonder whether all these little nuances make much difference, because even a bad bike is a pretty great bike.

Too much of the marketing in our industry focuses on things that are factually true or objectively measurable, but that have almost no perceivable effect on the experience of riding. I have been as guilty of this as anyone. So much of my energy has been expended on sales and marketing communications that focus on new products, new technologies, new stuff, that I too often forget that most people ride old stuff and like it just fine.

Because it’s fine. Likely better than fine.

Because bike design is so highly evolved at this point, many companies are trying to do really nuanced things with their new bike designs. Meanwhile, their customers lack the bike literacy to see them, and so you get marketing copy that is overly technical or resorts to commonly accepted buzz words. I’ve probably written a lot of that myself, and it undoubtedly makes the problem worse.

Every new bike should probably just carry the tagline, “Funner than that last one.”

Likely, all a bike rider needs to know about a bike is how it feels while they’re pedaling it. Read none of the words (I’ve painstakingly crafted), and just ride the thing. A note here also for the true nerds, the highly-bike-design-literate: A bike does not always produce the riding experience you read in the geometry chart or in a careful inspection of side-on photos. Even the complex sum of all those parts can sometimes be greater (or less) than you imagine.

The answer, as ever, is to ride.

All the marketing in the world is meaningless when you’ve ridden a bike yourself. Understand that the color of the bike might be nice but is not dispositive as to its quality. Understand that the geometry chart might make little sense but is discreet from the feel of tires on ground. Understand that what you see is actually not that important, but what you feel while pedaling is most likely true.

Join the conversation
  1. alanm9 says

    So true. I’ve owned over 30 bikes (not a brag, most bought used). I didn’t necessarily love all of them, but I loved riding every one.

  2. trabri says

    Being a “macro absorber” my perception of ride characteristics is in hindsight. When I ride my newest bike I realize what I didn’t like about the last one.

  3. Balky says

    Great article. Strengthens the case to support your LBS. Even after about a quarter of a century of riding I still fall into the category of design illiterate. I’ve seen enough bikes to get a gut feel about what will likely feel good and what won’t but even then I can be proven wrong once I jump on the beast in question so it’s good to try before you buy and get some advice.

    Then there’s the ability to navigate through the plethora of gewgaws and thingamajigs to end up with a bike that fits the body rather than just current trends.

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