The thoughts that were thunk and the goings on of my life.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Project Sleipnir - The Search

Now that I know what I want I have to figure out where on earth to get it.

There's a few manufacturers that I love, but quite frankly could never really afford. Firefly, English Cycles, Baum Cycles, and a bunch of others that start at about $5000-8000 for a complete bike.

From there I looked towards people that met the following characteristics:

  1. Knew or understood how to design bikes for tall people
  2. Was a good value
And if I could find somebody local that met the above two, then that would be preferable as I could be more involved in the design process.

Based on those qualifications I started with the following builders:

  • Zinn Cycles
    • This guy is the king of tall. He's my height, used to race professionally, but was put off by the terrible design of tall bikes (like me, but his life was at stake).
    • Unfortunately because of the more experimental nature of the geometry I was aiming for his pricing was a bit outside of the range that I could really justify, plus the bikes aren't really that cool looking. Definitely function over form:
  • Curtlo Cycles
    • Found out about this guy via some internet forums. Also fits the tall bill well, and is very affordable. Plus his bikes are a really good value as he does them all in a big batch. 
    • Unfortunately though, it's hard to know when he's going to do a batch, so you could easily wait 3 weeks or a full year for your bike to be made. Also a function over form builder.
  • Alchemy Handmade Bicycles
    • Local builder that makes some absolutely beautiful bikes, the welds on their frames are amazing. They also do a really good fit process to guarantee a great fit. I even went so far as to get a fitting from them.
    • Unfortunately they fired their welder and are currently making the move to be a bigger company with higher volumes. Add to that there was some crossed communications between us and it just seemed like they were more interested in building their bike for me than building the bike I was looking for. 
  • Tue Fabrication Bicycles - 
    • These guys are local. VERY local, as in the builder actually works on the same floor I do and just 3 rows of cubicals down. They do a wide spectrum of bikes, that are a good balance of form and function on a broad spectrum of bikes. One thing I really loved is that they liked some of my ideas and didn't just say "No, you don't want to do that" instead they seemed excited and interested. That meant the world to me, add to that they are a very very good value and they quickly went to the top of my list.
Based on price, location, and desire/willingness/ability to make a bike for a tall person TRUE fabrication was who I selected to do my build.

Once I put down a deposit we were ready to go. They had a few other bikes before me in the build queue, so I had a couple months to really refine what I wanted. 

And it turned that waiting was actually fairly key in being able to get some of the pieces that I would need.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Project Sleipnir - The Desires

Part 3 of 7 in Project Sleipnir

There's really 2 bikes that I lust after:
  1. The Do-Anything Bike
    A do anything, go anywhere bike that can have fat tires and do a cyclocross race; throw on a set of skinny tires and hang with the roadies; or put on some wider slicks, some fenders, a dynamo, and a trailer and do a tour of the US or world.
  2. The Pure Road Bike
    This bike only goes on the road and it's fast, light, nimble, and has the best tech that you can throw at it. Electronic shifting, fat carbon rims, and counting each gram for each piece. 
Sadly #2 is not really possible for me right now. Between the high price of electronic shifting and carbon rims, combined with the fact that to make a light bike like that I would have to use much more expensive custom-made carbon fiber or titanium, it's just out of my price range.

So that leads to the do-anything bike.

List of Desires for a Do-Anything Bike:
  • Meets all of The Requirements
  • Looks proportionate
  • Hardware
    • Disc brakes
      • Preferably hydraulic
    • Carbon fiber front fork
    • Has internal routing of the cables
Looks Proportionate
One area where bikes for tall people often fail is how they look. Take me. Unless you have something for reference you could see a picture of me and I wouldn't look very different from anybody else. Sure I'm taller, but I'm also wider and deeper. I've got bigger hands, wider shoulders, longer feet, and a huge brain. So if all of me scales, why is it that when people think of a bike for a tall person they only think to make it taller, even dangerously so.

Why do they turn a thing of beauty like this:

Into a gangly monstrosity like this:
Also of note, the guy that rides this bike is the same height as I

If you simply made a taller person by just stretching them up and not adding anything else then they would easily break, topple, or otherwise be maimed. It just doesn't work that way on people, and in my opinion it shouldn't work that way on objects used by those people either.

One of my top goals on this project was to figure out how to make a bike that managed to not only get stretched upwards, but also lengthen and get stronger to accommodate my larger body.

To do this I started fairly basic. I looked at some of the bikes that inspire me: Specialized Roubaix, Salsa Vaya, Cannondale CAAD10, Soma Double-Cross, Specialized Crux Disc, Fixie Pure Blood, and a few others. From there I looked at their model that would best fit a normal 5'9" rider, usually a 56-7cm frameset. From there I broke down the bike as a set of proportions instead of raw dimensions. 

Note: One thing of interest is that there is actually a very very finely tuned window of fore-aft weight distribution of bikes as it relates to the bottom bracket (BB) position and the overall wheelbase. Faster road bikes will put things at 59.5% fore and 40.5% aft of the BB, and more relaxed tourers are at about 58% fore and 42% aft of the BB. This is a surprisingly narrow window between twitchy sport and relaxed tourer. But what was even more surprising was that bikes for tall people are often 61% fore and 39% aft of the BB. Meaning there is as much difference between a touring bike and a twitchy fast bike as there is between a fast bike in a normal size and a fast bike in a tall size. This basically means that tall bikes are less stable and even more twitchy even in the same models than they should be and by a fairly drastic margin. 

Once I had a good idea for what the proportions were I then scaled up by 13% (5'9" x 113% = 6'6"). This yielded some interesting results and while not a hard blueprint did provide the guidelines for what I was looking for overall. I was aiming for a bike that had a wheelbase of 1100-1150mm (vs 990-1010mm for normal guys) and a chain stay (that back piece from Requirement #2) that was about 450-480mm (vs 400-420mm for normal guys).

I then mocked up the scaling in a CAD application and everything looked great, except for one piece...the wheels. Unfortunately you can't scale the wheels; therefore things did look pretty much the same on the scaled version except for that the wheels looked a bit smaller and to keep the same height from the road those smaller wheels have to be pushed down a bit. All-in-all though the scaled version of the bike seemed to work very well both mathematically and as a model.
One of my CAD drawings. 
While larger than normal it's not gangly.

When things work right as math and also look right on paper, then you're in good shape. Therefore, I was pretty happy to move forward in the Looks Proportionate department.

Hardware - Brakes
From having ridden around on my current bike for a few thousand miles there is one thing that was number one on my list of must-not haves...Cantilever Brakes. They're hard to set up, prone to squealing, and are terrible in the wet.

Fortunately there's been a bit of a move in the road-biking world to get disc brakes on bikes, and that really seems like the way to go for me. You get much more consistent braking (even in wet conditions) with discs and you can brake with much less effort.

In my mind discs brakes are simply the best way to stop a moving wheel, and the main reason that you don't see it on more bikes is people waiting out to see if the new tech will stick.

Additionally I really wanted hydraulic disc brakes, but when I started looking into building a bike they didn't exist for road bikes. Hydraulic brakes provide better control of your braking power, which is something I really crave given how little of it there is in my current cantilever brake setup. Sadly though, nobody (yet) makes hydraulic brakes for a road-bike, so this definitely poses a problem. But then as time progressed in the build process something very exciting (to me) happened. During EuroBike 2011 there were many manufacturers that came out with cable to hydraulic conversion systems. This opened the door to use standard road-bike levers, but get to have the advantages of a hydraulic braking system. Another added bonus is that the overall weight of the system is less than that of a cable-pull system all while giving more power with existing pieces. Best of all worlds!

There were a lot of designs shown, but this is the one that I fell in love with:
Hope V-Twin Cable to Hydraulic Brake Converter

The only real downsides were that these products only existed in prototype form and that prices weren't released. So these were mostly a dream. But the disc brakes were going to happen even if I had to use the lowly Avid BB7.

Hardware - Carbon Disc-Compatible Fork
To run discs means you need them in front and rear. But another challenge of this build is that when I started the only possibility of getting disc brakes on the front would be to use a steel fork. Steel is great for a lot of things, it even makes a decent fork. But the best material for a fork on a bicycle is far and away carbon fiber. (Carbon Fork Strength vs. Steel Fork Strength).

If possible carbon fiber is the best way to go by leaps and bounds for this piece of the puzzle.

Hardware - Internal Cable Routing
After having all of my frames get scratched up by their cables at some point or another I've decided that's enough. I don't care if it makes my next bike weigh more, I want all of the cables to be internally routed. That way you only see the cables controlling the gearing and brakes come out of the handlebars, disappear into the frame and then only re-appear near where they are actually being used.

Exeternal Routing vs. Internal Routing

I like the clean look it gives the bike, plus it allows me to use full-length cable housing which will mean that my cables are less likely to get blocked up with dirt and grime.

Desires Conclusion
Now that I know what I want and how I want it done, it was time to go and find somebody that could help me turn these pieces into a reality.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Project Sleipnir - The Requirements

Part 2 of 7 in Project Sleipnir

Quite simply, I don't fit my bike. 

At its root, getting a proper fit is pretty simple. There are only three places where your body touches a bike:
  1. Feet
  2. Butt
  3. Hands 
If you think about it, spinning a crank on a bike is a lot like climbing a flight of stairs. You essentially take a step up, then another, then another. But cranks (just like stairs) are only made in a size that fits the majority of people. But what that means for somebody like me is that if you want to go up quickly, that you have to take all these tiny little bitty steps really fast. Or you can do what most of us taller folk do, you can go two steps at a time. It's easier on the body and faster at the same time. 

This same basic principle should apply to spinning cranks too. Longer legs can and should move further per step than shorter legs. Unfortunately due to the nature of mass-marketing things to people they bless us with making 2 standard sizes of cranks: 170mm and 175mm. If you're lucky enough to be 'normal' then these sizes are great. 5'8"-10" are perfect. But this means if you're 5' tall you have to push and pull much further than your body would really like. And if you're 6'6" tall you have to make these movements that are much smaller than you should make.

But then the question is "How much bigger is best?" 
There's not a perfectly solid answer on that, but there are a couple of interesting pieces out there to help find that answer:
Both of these (and many other sources) indicate something in the 20-21% of inseam is the ideal length. And when it comes to proportions I'll trust a percentage or ratio any day over somebody saying, that a 5'9" and 6'6" person need the same size crank. Similarly if you look at the size difference between the tall person and the normal sized person you'll see that the tall person is about 113% (78/69 = 1.13) the size of the normal guy. Apply that math to the normal cranks (175mm * 1.13 = 198mm), and you'll find the tall guy would be better off with something in the 200mm range. 

That number is surprisingly close to what I needed based off of various crank calculators. And now we have the first requirement:
Requirement #1 - Bike must fit 200mm cranks

That requirement actually poses a whole host of issues which we'll work out later.

One part of fitting properly on a bike is making sure your knees are not too far in front of the cranks. Doing that would put a lot of extra strain on a hyper-flexed knee joint and that will lead to lots of problems later. But to make that work on somebody with a long femur that means you have to push them back...way back.

There's a couple of problems with that. If you go back further your handlebars are now too far in front of you. Additionally because the person with long legs will also need the seat up really high and the angle of the seat tube you can end up with the butt's contact points being almost directly above the rear wheel. 

Being so far back actually changes the handling of the bike. Even on a flat your weight distribution is greatly changed from the optimum that's been honed over the past 170 years of the bicycle. But things get much worse on a slope where you actually end up pulling wheelies, which can get nerve wracking.

I made a simple diagram to show this below 
Figure 1: As the seat-tube gets longer and seat has to slide back the relative position of the rider's weight in relation to the rear wheel is adversely altered.

Therefore we now have the basis for the second requirement:
Requirement #2 - The position of my butt must remain the same relative distance from the rear hub as on a normally-sized bike

The final fundamental piece of fitting properly on a bike is where are your hands relative to the rest of you. Since the fundamental center of a bike is the axis on which the crank rotates, the best way of determining where your hands go is based on how high up your seat goes and then how far forward your arms and torso go.

The whole premise is summed up well by Lennard Zinn in this column on Stack and Reach
Figure 2: Stack and Reach for Frame and Handlebars

How this relates to the dynamics of riding that bike:
  1. If you stretch too far up and forward your shoulders and neck will ache terribly. 
  2. If you go too far low and forward and not only will your shoulders ache, but you'll also cut off blood-flow to your baby-making fun factory. 
  3. If you go too far up and back your handling is worse and it's hard to go fast.
  4. If you go too far low and back your knees hit the handlebars...which means you don't go anywhere.
There's actually a narrow range of what works to make you both fast and comfortable. Unfortunately this is one of the top areas where I currently suffer. Because the seat is so far back I have to stretch too far for the handlebars. Because I'm tall and my current bike isn't, I have to go low...making man-bits suffer and shoulders ache with creaking fire. Since that is unacceptable I've had to compromise a lot on bike handling and get up and back to the point of the near-ridiculous. This also puts me even further back on the bike exaggerating the problems seen in Figure 1.

The final requirement is actually pretty simple and the gist of the whole project:
Requirement #3 - The bike needs to fit my body

Requirements Conclusion
Looking around there wasn't a single bike or frame available for purchase that met all 3 of my requirements.

I actually almost lucked out with the KHS Flite 747 as it is the only production bike that meets Requirement #1. And based on the measurements it likely meets Requirements #3. Sadly Requirement #2 was sacrificed at the alter of mass-marketability. And another problem with this bike is that nobody has one of these in stock. They're pretty much a buy-and-pray-it-works bike. Combine that with a few features weren't what I was really was hoping for and it's off the list.

Fortunately for me I actually did find a bike that fit my body much like I wanted it to. The Specialized Roubaix in a size 64. Unfortunately although only the 3rd requirement was met and Requirements #1 & #2 were completely ignored. Still good news though as I was able to find some basis for what kind of fit my body needed on a bike. Plus with a $4000 sticker price, no used ones for sale ever, and the fact that the components were not really my preferences it would be a big bill for something that wasn't quite what I'm looking for.

Therefore since nothing exists on the market that meets my requirements that means that I would need to have my next bike custom built.

...and if you're going to custom build a bike you may as well unleash your imagination a bit and see what you can make.

Project Sleipnir - The Intro

I've really gotten into biking lately. Love it. I commute when possible. I ride on the weekends by myself. I ride on the weekends with friends. I ride with my dog on trails. I ride by myself on trails. I ride during my lunch breaks with coworkers. I ride when it's wet. I ride when it's cold. I ride when it's ridic hot. I ride up all the hills. I ride into the wind. I ride into town for errands. I ride in the mud on purpose. When I'm not riding I'm probably thinking about riding. Or I'm talking about riding with people on the internet. I've ridden my bikes thousands of miles a year for at least the past couple of years, and that's a number I hope only goes up.

Bottom line
I love riding bikes. Always have.

The only real downside of riding is a problem I have with everything else in life (chairs, clothes, cars, shoes, etc.). Because I'm so tall I don't really fit well on anything you can just run out and buy at a store. I can get close mind you. But no matter which way you look at it, there's a difference between rolling up all your sleeves because they don't go all the way down to your wrists and having a shirt that just cuffs at your wrists instead of your forearms because it was tailored to you. And that's what I'm looking for in a bike. Sure I can ride just about any bike out there and I'll have fun, but there's always been a yearning for something that fits me right and from that yearning Project Sleipnir was born.

What is Project Sleipnir? Sleipnir is the Norse God Odin's horse. Sleipnir rode to Hel and back and kept his rider safe the entire trip. Sleipnir was huge. Sleipnir was the best of all the horses.
Huge, the best of all the others, and can take me safely to Hel and back. Sleipnir is what I am looking for in my future steed.

About mid-2011 the dream of building a bike that just fit took me and wouldn't let go. I wanted to make something that was uniquely mine and also a bit of a work of art and science. I certainly didn't want to just go grab something off the shelf and say, "This'll do." I wanted to be involved with the process from the ground up. This project comes to its completion in a week or two; therefore, I wanted to document a bit of the overall process that's consumed me for the past few months.

I'm going to break this story into the following chunks:
  1. The Intro
  2. The Requirements
  3. The Desires
  4. The Search
  5. The Set-Backs
  6. The Build
  7. The Completion