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Same Sheet
By Tom Demerly.


Bike manufacturers love photos of their bikes in wind tunnel tests and pounding their chests about aerodynamics. But what does it really mean?

Bicycle advertising is a little like a guerilla war: The rules are, there are no rules.

Ad agencies and bike companies play fast and loose with performance claims in a vacuum of oversight. The validity of an advertising claim seems commensurate with the size of an ad budget. Advertising budgets are like bullets in a war. And like a lawless nation, the guys with the guns make the rules. The consumer is the one left pillaged since, in this Somalia of Salesmanship it is difficult to tell what is really true.

As a result we bike buyers often can’t tell what we’re really buying or how it really compares. Which bike is the most aerodynamic? Which bike is second? How can we tell? What constitutes good bicycle aerodynamics and how much do frame aerodynamics really matter for the rank and file age group triathlete?

I was on the ground for 9 hours at this year’s Interbike Bicycle Trade Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. Part of the reason for my visit was to locate the second most aerodynamic bike available in the industry. I had given up on the most aerodynamic bike since no less than six manufacturers assured me it was the bike in their booth. Only one manufacturer conceded having the second most aerodynamic bike at Interbike, but only after telling me their highest end bike was the “most” aerodynamic.

If six bike companies were telling me they all had the most aerodynamic triathlon frame at Interbike then five of them are lying. How do we tell who?

Statistically that means, if a salesperson is telling you the frame they are selling is the most aerodynamic of those six brands there is an 83% chance they are wrong. Those are pretty bad odds.

You don’t have to be Geraldo at Interbike to figure out a lot of these bike guys are playing fast and loose with the facts. We need an impartial consensus separate from the profit motive of selling one brand over another before we’ll likely find the truth.

Even if we did get an oversight committee or board of consensus on bicycle aerodynamics, how important is bike aerodynamics to the rank-and-file age grouper anyway? (More on this toward the bottom). In a weird brand of fixation, and perhaps due to a lack of real facts in other areas, consumers seem scope-locked on aerodynamics as the single most important feature of a bike.

In any capitalist endeavor equality and standardization are profane words. Uniqueness and differentiation are the goal, the holy grail of achieving the competitive edge. As a result any attempt at standardization carries with it the feel of excessive regulation. There is a list of specifications for designing a competitive bicycle imposed on the sport by the U.C.I. and other governing bodies. If it weren’t for those rules we’d be pedaling on our backs or stomachs inside something that looked like a giant sex aid. We’d be faster, but it would be a different sport.

Standardization is an ugly word when there are competitive interests afoot, be they athletic or sales interests. Our sport is plagued by an amalgam of both of those agendas. Ultimately though, there would be advancement through a common understanding of bicycle aerodynamics separate from a sales/profit motive.

Right now there are a few ways to make money with a bike design. One way is to have the fastest design. In the empirical world of science this would prevail. But enter the hazy world of the sales motive and other agendas complicate the equation. If sales and profit are also the motive then having the least expensive, easiest to manufacture aero frame design may trump plain old aerodynamics as the profit leader. For you and I the finish line is marked by a clock that measures success in hours, minutes and seconds. For bike companies the finish line is a horizontal line across the bottom of the last page on a financial report. That is where the problem lies.

We need a way to make the finish line the bottom line for bike companies. Who will do it?

In the dark ages of triathlon bike design a White Knight emerged. After founding and ruling a kingdom, the first “Kingdom of Tri-bike-ia”, named for the land of Conquistadors on the Mexican coast (really!), he took to the wilds to wander the deserts while others pillaged and profaned the kingdom he built. These were dark times of ever slackening seat angles and dubious bike designs. But the White Knight wasn’t kept down long, and from his desert stronghold he reached out with the magic powers of the Internet and united the true believers with the Rosetta Stone of triathlon bike geometry: Stack and Reach.

For the uninitiated “Stack and Reach” are a simple and elegant method of standardizing triathlon bike geometry and fit. It is a language spoken around the world. It empowers the down trodden consumer to make an educated decision about what bike they are buying and how it will fit. If you buy into the idea that bike fit is the single most important factor in bike performance then this single document, the “Stack and Reach” charts for triathlon bike manufacturers, is the Rosetta Stone. It sorts through all the baloney, all the marketing, all the photos of lithe, well muscled men and women grimacing on shiny bikes in howling wind tunnels. Dan Empfield’s simple “Stack and Reach” empowers fitters and consumers to make meaningful comparisons of bike fit from brand to brand.

What we need is a “Stack and Reach” for the windtunnel: A standardized test protocol arrived at by consensus and agreed upon widely enough to be considered credible. If we had this tool for making aerodynamic comparisons we could make more informed choices about which bike to buy. Our decisions would be governed first by Stack and Reach and then by an amalgam of empirical data from the Independent Bicycle Windtunnel Consortium- or whatever it was called. Oh, those things and our favorite color…

A consensus on what makes a bike more aerodynamic likely strikes terror into the hearts of current bike brand product managers since it may mean they would be hurling expensive bike tooling and molds into the scrap heap and having to go back to the drawing board when they find out their “best” aerodynamic design has the drag coefficient of an upright mattress. All those fancy photo shoots in the wind tunnel would be exposed for what they are: Good theater.

The eventual outcome would be faster bikes for you and I and an easier shopping experience. We’d leave the bike shop knowing we got a reasonably aerodynamic bike that fit correctly. The rest would be decided by bike fit and position, training, mechanical issues and wheel selection.

For most people I think bike buying involves a process of trying to grasp something we can believe in: Should we buy into manufacturers claims of aerodynamics? Is bike weight the primary determining factor in what is best? How important is bike fit anyway? What about components? It is a confusing decision with little consensus.

When I talk to consumers about their bike shopping they tell me they are doing “research”. The term “research” suggests an orderly and empirical process of evaluation and selection. It all seems very sentient and orderly, like Mr. Spock feeding the bike brands into his Tricorder and then buying the one determined to be the most logical. It isn’t like that.

People may like to believe they buy bikes like that, but they don’t. “Research” when buying a new bike often starts as an attempt to gather some basic facts to compare bikes then lapses into frustration since there is little standardized information. Then “research” defaults to justifying the purchase of the bike we think looks the coolest.

There isn't anything wrong with factoring in emotion when buying a bike. I do it, we all do. For most of us bikes are like sports cars, we really don't need them, but they are fun to have. It does take a bit of a turn when you miss your first age group trophy by four seconds. Then it starts to become more serious. Then we want some Mr. Spock to help us buy those four seconds back. I think it is a healthy and noble pursuit- going fast and doing the best we can.

If we had a “stack and reach” type standard for bicycle aerodynamics it would take one more variable off the table. As an industry it would likely sell more bikes since it would emphasize the advantages of having an aerodynamic bike frame separate from a glitzy sales motive. Standardized wind tunnel testing would also challenge the industry to build better product and likely make the customer focus on other issues that would influence performance like bike position and training.

If we had a standard wind tunnel test for bicycles we could make meaningful comparisons from one bike brand and model to the next. Bike buyers would have more confidence in their buying decisions. An emphasis would be placed on design at the manufacturer level with a standard yardstick for manufacturers to measure their products. All of us would understand what we are buying and we’d spend less time buying it and more time riding it. Then we’d all be on the same sheet of music about bike aerodynamics and we could focus on training and racing instead of trying to cut through all the marketing baloney and phony wind tunnel tests.


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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