Analyzing the Build of Today’s Bicycle

9.2 Blog

This year’s Tour De France (TDF) was filed with many crashes. Some were weather-aided, some caused by road conditions, and some, no doubt, by rider fatigue.

I have a theory about the crashes, or at least a contributing cause. When I first started racing, most of the pros in the TDF had bikes built specifically for them. Basically, everyone had a custom frame or two or three or four. Bicycles were built for specific tasks: some for hill climbs, some for long road stages, and others for time trials. They were built out of steel and later titanium. Teams had special workshops just to provide the pros they sponsored with special bikes. Today’s bicycles are carbon fiber- basically the same bikes as in the shops. They have the same geometry as the pros rode in the tour. This means the pro bike racer may not be getting the ideal fit but the marketing department is getting the ideal bike.

There’s a phrase that is popular in NASCAR: Win on Sunday, sell on Monday. This is becoming the business model in modern cycling.

We don’t have the ability vary seat angles or top tube lengths to compensate for different torsos, length, and flexibility. Chain stays are fixed and so are head tube angles. The only fit tools you have making the rider comfortable and efficient on the bike are by changing stem length, stack height, handlebar width, drop seat post offset and saddles or change pedals. Gone are the days when we built the bike around the bod and riding style of the cyclist. A steel bike and a carbon bike of the same dimensions do not feel the same. I think the characteristics of steel are different enough, making for a more compliant ride. Carbon is often formed into shapes that are more aerodynamic. The aerodyne monocoque A shapes often work as a buttress, stiffing the frame.

The focus on current race frames is lightness and rigidness. Sprinters love that snap you feel when you stomp down on the pedals on a smooth road in a sprint. The energy transmission can be exhilarating. This may also cause a bicycle wheel to lose traction on occasion. This occurs when a frame or wheel does not absorb the impact or resonance on the road. You tend to break traction if you are in a turn as the wheels can slide out from under you. Same holds true if your weight is too far forward or backward. The goal is to initially have your weight forward until you hit the apex of a turn, and then shift it back to the rear wheel. Many of today’s frames are monocoque molded processes that would be even more expensive if you made a new mold for each bike. By not being able to alter the geometry, you may have a hard time adjusting the center of gravity.

Today’s pros are highly skilled. The technical skills and the power that is generated exceed that of my generation of cyclists. I think we should provide them with the best possible equipment to conduct races safely. Unfortunately, the emphasis seems to be focused on the hardware, not the cyclist. In other words, the emphasis is on fitting the cyclist to the bicycle as opposed to fitting the bike to the rider. A poorly fitting bike does not help the handling skills of the cyclist riding it. A cyclist needs to be balanced, stable, efficient, and comfortable to safely spend a long day in the saddle regardless of what the bike is made of. This applies to recreational cyclists as well as pros.

Happy Freedman Happy Freedman is a bike fitting specialist and cycling coach with over 30 years experience, including working with the Columbia University D1 Cycling Team. He has been on staff at Hospital for Special Surgery for over 10 years, currently in the Prosthetics and Orthotics Service, where he works in close cooperation with physical therapists and investigators in the Leon Root, M.D. Motion Analysis Laboratory. In addition, he has been a key driver and leader in the development of the HSS Bike Fitting service at the Tisch Sports Performance Center. He has presented on bike fitting at the International CycleFit Symposium in London, and numerous events throughout the US.
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  1. Just being a rider, I think a lot of the tours crashes are caused by more agressive riding and fatigue. Lots of wheel lapping in the peleton can be attributed to fatigue and nerves. The teams need to be seen, so pressure is there to be in front. All the hype and the difference in pro and continental teams also contributes. The current trend in which teams pound out a relentless pace to protect a rider seems counter productive considering all the teams are trying the same tactic. Just my observations.

  2. Mr. Freedman,
    I couldn’t help but note that your comments assume the reader rides a traditional, diamond frame bicycle.

    I do not!

    For the past 6 or more years, after neck, back and knee surgery, I’ve been riding a recumbent, most recently a recumbent trike… a tadpole, with the two parallel wheels in the front. I commute in city traffic (Washington, DC), and do not feel myself in any greater danger than I was with a diamond frame. I am a serious user of lights and horns!

    Fitting a recumbent and being comfortable is, in my experience, much easier with a diamond. As with any bike, there are quirks, but that is par for the course.

    In the end, I have been able to continue riding as I would not have otherwise. I do get a workout, although it is exclusively legs and abdomen. My arms are used only to steer! And contrary to what others may say, I can go as fast or faster and maneuver in and through traffic or on the trail as well as anyone else!
    Thanks for your piece, Eric Rosenberg

  3. Dear Mr. Freedman,
    I confirm with your considerations, but in one assumption I am different. I dont believe that the neuromuscular characteristics are better today than in the past?! No matter which bike you fit, whether you fall or not depends largely on your motor skills. And there, cyclists are not necessarily in the first place! Thats what I watched since 19 years road racing with amateurs and pros.
    Best Regards, Bernhard

    P.S. if you will mail back I would have some scientific questions to the “feet fitting” !

    1. Hi Bernhard, thank you for reaching out. Happy Freedman, Orthotic Consultant and Bike Fitting Specialist, says: “Most falls occur when there is a lack of traction. Tires on the ground not only propel the bicycle, they also provide friction with the ground. If the friction is reduced or removed, you are as stable as riding on a hockey rink. If too much weight goes to the front end, the backend will break loose. The same holds true for the back end. A 17 or 18 stem puts your weight out in front of the fork. It will then take very little to end traction on the rear tire, some water, a patch of oil, slippery lines painted on the road, etc. As to your comment about neuromuscular characteristics, I don’t feel it is a level playing field. The pool of racers has grown In the last 2 decades, allowing the cream to rise to the top. With more people in the pool it is much harder for a moderately talented rider to become a category 2 racer than it used to be. In the past, there just weren’t a lot of very talented bike racers to fill all the levels. Our pool has gotten deeper and more talented. It’s a numbers game. Are the neuromuscular characteristics better at the top? Probably not. In the rest of the fields, I think you can see more distinct gradations.”