The Minutiae

A friend said, “These are 32mm tires, but at the pressure I run them, they’re more like 33mm or even 34mm,” and I replied, “Are we talking about millimeters right now?” My buddy Karl used to field all sorts of service calls from people irate over millimeters. He would get off the phone and hold his fingers together as close as he could and say, “I can’t show you what 1mm is without my fingers touching by accident.”

In the aggregate, millimeters probably do matter, but they are not really the stuff of reasonable conversation and are seldom the source of real problems.

My friend Phil is one of the world’s top bike fitters. He introduced me to the concept of cyclists as micro adjusters or macro absorbers, although I think the original observation was not his, and anyway it’s worth saying this isn’t really a dichotomy but a continuum. You are somewhere on the scale.

A macro-absorber is someone who can more or less adapt to anything physically without much discomfort or loss in performance. Younger people tend to be macro-absorbers. A micro-adjuster is someone who is hypersensitive to minute changes, and more importantly has become preoccupied with these fine margins to an extent that negatively impacts their riding. Older riders tend to be micro-adjusters.

TCI is sponsored, in part, by Shimano North America.

I understand that, right now, you are trying to place yourself on this continuum. You’ll have a gut reaction, and then you’ll revise that first guess with something more accurate. I have watched myself slide toward the micro as I’ve aged and injuries have piled up, and the truth is, I think that’s right. So many cycling injuries are caused by the highly repetitive physical nature of cycling, and older bodies tolerate these things less well. Once you’ve settled on where you live on this curve now, maybe don’t judge it too hard. You are where you are, and there are reasons.

In Phil’s world, this paradigm pertains to bodies and how they interface with their bicycles, but I think there is an extension of the principle by which riders will focus on the minutiae of their bike’s lengths and angles to the point of sabotaging themselves. These folks have a sense that, if they could just get the bike dialed, all their rides would be so much better. Maybe they’re right. When I encounter a bike micro-adjuster, I try to take note of their physical condition before engaging in any discussion about the mechanical bits under them.

As I said a moment ago, you are where are you and there are probably good reasons for that. The only reason to question your mindset in this regard is if there is a wide gulf between your physical condition and your bike’s fit or function. In other words, I see a lot of people who become obsessed with chainstay length or headtube angle or seat height, who are not in good shape. This may be about their flexibility/mobility, or it may be cardiovascular. In some cases, to me, it looks like displacement, which is to say, “The problem can’t be me. It must be the bike.”

Maybe, actually, there’s no problem at all. We get slower over time. Things hurt more, and more often. As we age, a certain amount of micro-adjusting can help, but when we get too deep in the weeds on this stuff, it might be a sign that we are failing to accept reality. The possible harm in that is that we enjoy riding less, that we stop looking at the scenery as it blurs past and spend all our time staring at the fine margins between our tire’s bulge and the narrow, fragile bow of our seat stays.

Millimeters matter, but not that often. Usually, in my experience, the solution to bike problems is just to keep going, to find an acceptance that riding doesn’t always feel great, that we get slower over time, but riding is pretty much always better than the alternative.

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  1. mattdwyerva says

    Agreed. When particularly slow, instead of just my USUAL slow, I mumble aphorisms… It’s the motor that counts… Ride up grades, don’t upgrade rides…. Miles are the cure. (The last one I made up, or so I think.)

  2. Jeff vdD says

    I’m 57 but still closer to macro-absorber than micro-adjuster. I think that’s good. I notice the differences (+/- 5mm or more, I’m betting) between my gravel and CX bikes, but don’t mind them. And my singlespeed and fat bike are quite different. Maybe riding different bikes helps one adjust to differences?

  3. alanm9 says

    Macro here, and always have been, even after 3+ decades. I keep a level saddle, longish stem on an extra large frame, cleats all the way back and outboard, and saddle just high enough not to lock the knees. That’s pretty much it. My only concession to micro has been to evolve from 21C and 120psi to 28C and 80psi. Beyond that, any challenges I have aren’t due to the equipment.

  4. Dan Murphy says

    “We get slower over time. Things hurt more, and more often.”

    No shit? 😉

    At 68, I’m actually OK. Sure, I could give you a lengthy list of various pains, but none are bike-related. Like the doc has said – many times – “You’re at that age…”. And man, every ride starts off in a hurtful way, but eventually the engine warms up.

    I bought my last new custom bike 6+ years ago and haven’t changed the fit at all, yet. Not one millimeter. Oh, I’m definitely slower, but still comfy.

  5. schlem says

    I can feel a few millimeters difference in seat height, but my bikes otherwise have different geometries, bar heights, q factoer, reach, etc. But saddle height is my one specification.

  6. jcs2317 says

    I don’t worry about the minutiae. Nowadays I just go out and ride. I have embraced the concept of slow cycling. Now it is more about the quality of the ride time and less about getting there quickly. Enjoying the scenery is more important than going fast. I think that I am still a macro guy despite my 67 years.


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