The Chainlink

Why Do You Have to Go and Make Things So Complicated?

By Brett Ratner

Over the course of my eventful (albeit disappointing) career, I've worked in the musical instrument industry, the powersports industry (motorcycles, scooters, snowmobiles, etc.), and later on in consumer electronics.

A big chunk on my job description over the years has always been technical writing. This could include the creation of anything from instruction sheets, to quick start guides, to training videos, to parts manuals.

In other words, it was my job to decipher the technical language of the engineers and product managers, and then translate that into content an everyday consumer or retail salesperson could understand.

What I'm driving at is this: On the surface, it might seem that a bicycle would be inherently less complicated than, let's say, a printed circuit board inside a guitar amplifier or the carburetor assembly of a personal water craft.

However, I've never in my life so frequently found myself neck deep in rabbit holes, trying to make heads or tails of specification sheets and parts diagrams as I have since I got interested in bikes.

To put it another way, bike mechanics are the most underpaid and under-appreciated people on earth. The amount of intelligence needed to wade through the bike industry's myriad of compatibility issues and spec ranges, let alone bolt everything together and make it work, is worth a medal (or at least a raise and some respect).

Granted, some of this complexity is not the fault of bike manufacturers. When, over a 100-year time span, you have technology simultaneously developing on different continents, it only seems natural that you'll wind up with a hodgepodge of standards. A great example is your 100mm stem clamped to a 1-1/8" steerer tube.

But hey, bikes are now a global industry...and everyone in the industry should be mutually interested in getting people on bikes. So maybe it's time to make things a little easier for people to understand exactly what it is they are trying to buy.

I mean, I write technical documents for a living. If I'm struggling to figure some of this out, it's probably too complicated for the average bike consumer.

Here are some examples:

The Problem: Bike Sizing is Confusing as Hell
I'm just going to go ahead and say it; bike sizing is a mess, and it's no wonder why so many new AND experienced riders struggle to find bikes that fit them.

In my own personal stable of bikes (consisting of many different brands), I've owned a size "Medium," "54," "53," "52," and a "17.5." A bike I'm looking at buying would hypothetically add a "Small" to my collection. So here we have six different names for sizes of bikes that all fit me and have near identical dimensions.

Do you know what all this stuff means? If you work in a shop or in the bike industry, you hopefully do...but for normal consumers, a more simple (and standardized) sizing guide might better help people get on the correct size bike.

To make matters worse, some people recommend you size bikes by "standover," others by "effective top tube," others by "stack and reach" and of course the classic "seat tube length."

Fortunately, I've spent enough time with my nose in frame geometry charts to have gained at least a compulsory understanding. But most people aren't freaks like I am, nor do they have that kind of spare time. 

The solution? I propose that bicycle companies simplify and standardize things. They should size bike frames either like clothing (small, medium, large) or like shoes (1, 2, 3, 4). And more importantly, all bike manufactures need to agree what size frame should fit what size range of a person. This way, once a consumer has established he or she is a "large" or a "4" or whatever, that person can walk into any bike shop, hop on that size and be confident it fits.

And for the few companies cool enough to still offer a full range of sizes in some bikes (instead of offering every other size, but with a sloping top tube), they can go ahead and do "small," "small plus," "medium," "medium plus" and so forth.

And if companies want to put additional information on their frame's sizing sticker (like geometry, recommended height ranges and so forth) more power to them. The way I see it, the better the information they're putting on that size sticker, the fewer people rolling out the door on bikes that don't fit.

The Problem: Choosing a Saddle is a Pain in the Butt
I feel lucky that I don't have any issues with the saddle I've used for the last nine years. I think I purchased the first one (a Fizik Arione) because it looked sporty and that's what the cool kids were using. It just so happens that it wound up being comfortable. Either that, or I got use to it over time.

If I was actually trying to shop for a saddle, I wouldn't even know where to start. I honestly think it would have to come down to trial and error.

Evidently, Selle Italia has a fitment system that will require you to seek out a dealer with the requisite training and measuring equipment. Many Specialized dealers have a measuring device (affectionately known at the local shop as an "assometer") that gauges the width of your sit bones. Specialized also has their Body Geometry system. Fizik has their "Snake/Chameleon/Bull" Spine Concept thing.

Fizik offers three primary saddle models, including the Arione (above). Outside of a diagram depicting one's ability to touch his toes, there seems to be minimal direction on the Fizik website indicating which of the three models is best for you. Fortunately, every Fizik model I've tried has been comfortable.

But outside of getting a professional fit (which isn't necessarily a bad idea), there doesn't seem to be a ton of information out there guiding consumers to the right saddle. 

The Solution? I know a lot of people who have comfort issues with their saddles. It would be nice if makers of saddles offered some education initiatives to help shed light on what type of saddle matches what body type, key measurements, riding style and why. Also these materials should outline what common comfort problems are saddle related, and what ones might be bike fit related, etc. Then it would be cool if manufacturers of bike saddles positioned their product lines in keeping with the saddle types outlined in the educational materials.

For example, if I determined I needed a "Sport, Wide" saddle, and I could go into any bike shop and find that saddle in whatever brand they carried, it would help my selection process.

In other words, the saddle manufacturers need to devise a standardized system that makes it very clear which saddle in their line matches up to each rider.

The Problem: Tire Companies Print Unintelligible Shit on the Sides of Their Tires, and Have WAY Too Many Redundant Models
Have you ever shopped for a bicycle tire and not simply purchased whatever happened to be hanging on the wall at your local bike shop? I mean, you came in looking for a specific tire with specific features? If so, then you know what I'm talking about. The example I'm going to give pertains to mountain bikes, but I've seen the problem in tires for road and commuting too.

Earlier this year, I entered a 100-mile mountain bike race. I was doing pretty well until I punctured BADLY at mile 60. With the help of my teammate, I booted up the massive hole in the tire, limped back to the start/finish area, and immediately began shopping for a replacement tire.

My requirements for the tire were pretty straightforward: It needed to be run tubeless. It needed some sort of puncture protection feature. It needed a versatile, mixed conditions tread.

Long story short, it took a VERY long time for myself, teamed up with a very experienced bike shop mechanic, to find the right tire.

Why, because tire companies have these crazy icons, logos and acronyms that they slap on the sides of their tires, and dozens of seemingly redundant tread patterns all apparently designed to do the same thing. 

This Maxxis Ikon turned out to be an amazing tire, but what the 'ef does 3C, Maxx Speed, EXO and TR mean? I figured it out eventually, but tire shopping should be more intuitive. 

In my quest for this specific tire, I looked at Continental, Kenda, Schwalbe and soon my head was spinning. Of the major brands, one of the easiest to decipher was Maxxis, and it was still hard.

For starters, in the Maxxis line, there were no fewer than TWENTY tread patterns to choose from. Thankfully, one model was described as "versatile," so I went with that one. Once I settled on a tread pattern, there were THIRTEEN variations in my wheel size. This included three widths, two rubber compounds, two types of beads and a bunch of feature icons I didn't understand.

Eventually, it dawned on me that "3C/EXO/TR" meant it had a triple rubber compound, puncture protection and it was tubeless ready. Finally, I had my tire. The tire itself has been fantastic (as have the various Schwalbe, Continental and Clements I've used over the years). I just wish they were easier to shop for.

It's worth noting that some Continental tires have a "protection" logo on the side. While one would assume this indicates it's got puncture protection, it actually means it's tubeless ready. Wut?

Schwalbe's massive product line (and vague product descriptions) are enough to make your skull implode.

At Interbike, I actually stopped by their booths and mentioned my difficulties understanding their product lines. The typical response was "You're definitely not the first person to tell me that." One of the people I spoke to in a booth (I won't mention the brand) was as confused about the product offerings as I was.

The Solution? Tire companies should pair down their product lines to three (maybe four) models per discipline. Don't give us six different tread patterns all designed for "hardpack, medium, loose over hard, loose." Pick the best dry, mixed and wet tread you offer and give us that. Give us your best compound for the tire's intended purpose. If you must offer two compounds, give us a "race" compound and a "durability" compound.

And come up with easy-to-understand, universal language and/or symbols so no matter what brand, we know if we can run it tubeless, if it's got some sort of puncture protection in it, and if that puncture protection is down the middle, on the sidewalls, or spans the entire tire.

In Conclusion:

I know I went into a lot of detail here. But maybe in a way, the detail required to write this article helped illustrate the problem. Bikes shouldn't be this complicated. In short, I think if you simplify product lines and product descriptions, more people will be inclined to buy bikes and bike accessories.

About the Author

Brett Ratner (brett@thechainlink.org) began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.

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