In Defense of Custom Bikes for Triathlon

This is a slightly modified reply to a forum thread from November of 2004 on custom triathlon bikes.

Stock or custom, we carry each of the brands we carry because we believe in what they offer and feel they offer a valuable option to the athlete. Custom bikes are not discussed enough in the tri world and they deserve more time and understanding so that all riders can make educated decisions for their individual needs. For reference, I will often use Cervelo as most people int triathlon have a familiarity of what Cervelo offers and promotes.

Geometry and Custom Frame Design: One thing I have often heard is that custom bikes are a joke in triathlon because they are all designed poorly by dealers and companies that don’t understand triathlon. It is important to remember that Serotta dealers (just like all Cervelo dealers) are not all alike. Not all Serotta dealers (again, just like not all Cervelo dealers) are focused on understanding triathlon and not all Serotta dealers choose to use the “Serotta System” to the same degree or to the same ends. For example, while some Serotta dealers submit dimensions off their Size Cycle and have Serotta design the custom frame, there are others who submit Serotta a proposed geometry sheet and then work to polish out the details with Serotta. Why do some dealers do it this way and not just leave it up to the builder? Because we (not the builder) fit the rider and we know them better than the builder does. It allows us to address any individual needs that might otherwise not be addressed. If a builder sees anything potentially flawed in a design, they’ll let us know and we can address it together. Otherwise, they build what we request. My point is that optimal frame geometry and angles are dependent upon the rider’s position and their body type and riding style – it is as individual as the rider itself. This is what Serotta (and most other custom builders) try to represent to the market.

Does this mean that Serotta has the same understanding of triathlon cycling as a company like Cervelo ? No, it doesn’t mean that. It does mean that Serotta and Cervelo take different approaches and are focused on different aspects of the market and different customers. They do different things well. Cervelo ‘s experience in the triathlon market has helped them establish a consistent geometry that works well for many riders and has earned them a solid following. However, Cervelo ‘s geometry tends to work best for different riders than the most of the people who buy a Serotta or other custom frame. This is a good thing as it means that everyone has options.

Stock or custom, the important thing is that the bike is fit to the body and not the other way around. Realize that when you order a custom bike the design of the frame geometry is as important as the quality of the tubing and the manufacturer. This groundwork spent with the design and addressing individual needs determines how the bike handles as much or more than anything else.

Stock bike design and Pro Riders: It had been mentioned that Cervelo fit a large number of discriminating CSC riders on stock frames and they have done well on them and none required custom geometry. While professional athletes can lend R&D insight into how to design a consistent product, I’m not sure that it is best for the consumer (or the bike industry) to use professional athletes as the baseline for consumer bike designs. The reasoning is simple, not many consumers (even very athletic ones) have the time, lifestyle, focus or athletic ability as a professional athlete. How many of us make a living taking care of our bodies, ride 15,000+ miles a year, can ride a 40k TT at 30 mph, and have a staff of medical professionals and coaches making sure that we are healthy and well rested? How many of us ride and live like Armstrong, Hamilton, Bowden, Fuhr, Reid and Stadler? I only bring this up because there are a number of athletes that will fit on stock bikes and ride efficiently and comfortably on them, but there are also a number of people that stock geometry does not fit so well and who benefit from a custom bike.

Price: Price is relative to the rider, their long-term goals and a number of other variables. The people that tend to order Serotta’s from us are often looking for a frame that they can keep virtually forever. This is often quite different from the rider who buys a stock bike who plans on rotating their equipment more often. Both are fine approaches as long as the bike works for you as an individual. The $3500 that is kept for three years amortizes out to the same $1166.66 a year as the $7000 custom kept for six.

It is important to keep in mind that bikes are still a great value compared to many other activities. How many people on this forum are driving cars worth over $30k? over $50k? How many people on this forum spend as much time training a week as they do in their car? Many activities are price restrictive and do not allow consumers to own equipment that is as good or better than the pros, certainly not cars, boats, horses, or motorcycles. And, as posted earlier, while custom brands like Serotta don’t offer sub $2000 bikes, they do make frames that start around $1400, which is a little more than a P2K frameset and less than a P3 frameset. If you were to look at Cervelo ‘s line and judge them just on the price of the R2.5 Bayonne at $8500 you wouldn’t think them inexpensive either.

What seems far more price restrictive to me is $500 entry fees and a couple grand worth of required travel and lodging for an event that is over in a day.

Why not more custom bikes in tri? Most custom builders are dealer dependent companies who built their business in the road world and started out in road dealers. As the tri market grows, my guess is that more of these road dealers will make the jump. One of the most challenging tasks for any brand is finding the right dealers for your product and finding dealers that are willing and able to execute what your brand stands for. Serotta will not sell well in a product dependent store that is always looking for the “next big thing”. They are also demanding and selective about their dealers (requiring their dealers to go through a couple thousand dollars worth of training seminars, buy demo bikes, a size cycle and other things that cost real money). This automatically erases those dealers who who simply are not willing to do these things. Furthermore, many bike and triathlon shops seem to want little to do with custom bikes as properly sold/designed custom bikes are time intensive to fit, present, design and deliver. It is simply much easier for most high volume dealers to deliver what people ask for or something that is pre-packaged and quick.

Geometry: Serotta has never professed to me any type of geometry or riding position that they feels works best for all riders. They have stated that each rider needs a position that addresses their individual needs, capabilities and situation and this is why they build the bike to match the body. Anyone who has been through a Serotta course will tell you that their methodology does not prescribe a certain position or formula but instead tries to take as many of the influencing variables as possible into account when developing the rider’s position. The best custom brands don’t subscribe to a myopic view and will build anything (steep, shallow, long, short, low, tall…) that is requested. Meanwhile, all stock bikes are built around a certain positioning philosophy. Some brands offer a few models that address different types of rider needs and positions within their line.

The Future of Custom in Tri: Just by the fact that this topic has been a hot topic at times on a forum or two and has attracted so much interest, shows that companies like Serotta are executing a marketing through their dealers. While it is very unlikely that custom bikes will ever exceed stock bike sales, as custom bike awareness grows, custom bikes will become a more understood and considered option for many riders who have never found exactly what they were looking for off the rack. In the end, this will be good for all builders (stock or custom) as more riders will be happier with cycling and this is what expands the horizons of the sport.

Fit Werx

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