Featured Post by Kelly Hobkirk

It’s good to be back on a bike that fits right

This is a post about hard lessons learned during bike building, followed by joy.

What a winter it was. Heck, what a Summer through early Spring, really. In August, just three weeks after Corpore Sano Physical Therapy and I finally got a bike dialed in to deal with my neck’s lack of flexibility in standard bike positions, and I’d begun racking up some miles, my bike frame broke.

Every ride I had done since then (on other bikes) resulted in neck pain. Then, my Spring began with a nasty bout of flu that lasted a full five weeks and is still affecting my lungs. Things had to turn around. Today, finally, I am on a bike that fits, and whewee, does it feel good.

Frame failure provided important lessons in bike building, frame geometry, the importance of head tube height, choosing a bike shop that truly listens and builds to the rider’s specifications, and utter joy when it all comes together just right.

Orbea Avant bike frame

The broken frame’s manufacturer, Orbea, who provided a warranty replacement frame, no longer makes a frame that fits me correctly, so I had to go one size down. That makes it so there is absolutely no flexibility in the setup. Every single measurement has to be spot-on perfect. The tilt of the bars, saddle height, reach, cockpit depth – there is literally no hedge room.

This was not my first attempt at building a replacement bike since last August. I had another frame from my racing days, which fit me before the neck injury, that we tried building to measure. That build was an utter failure, for a few reasons. For one, I went in with the idea that it would likely work, when the reality was that the head tube was way too short for my required bar height. Then I chose a shop that did not regard my bike fit measurements as having any degree of reality or importance, and simply ignored them without telling me.

Bike building the wrong way

I had dropped off my frame and components, provided my measurements and instructions, and let them go to it. I trusted they would do a conscientious build to spec. Two months later, and a whole bunch of mess that I will spare you (except this one: they cut the steer tube on my brand new fork so short it was unusable on the build), when it was finally finished, I was ecstatic simply to have the bike. In my excitement, I forgot to measure it for accuracy.

Dhoh!Back when I dropped the frame and parts off, as I handed my measurements sheet to the mechanic, I should have taken the hint when he said, “I can’t do anything with these.” Note that if your bike mechanic says this, you need a new mechanic. What they can do with your measurements is make sure the frame and components you provided can be built to your spec. Then, if the frame or parts cannot work for you, a good mechanic can make recommendations for different parts or simply tell you it won’t work, rather than wasting your money and time, or worse, putting you on an ill-fitting bike that may cause injury.

I did the annual New Year’s Day ride on the bike the next day, and felt mostly okay, but I got a bit of neck pain. I told myself it was me, not the bike, even though deep down I knew better. Two more rides on it resulted in consistent neck pain. I knew the measurements I had supplied were correct, so I took some measurements from the built bike and found the following:

– Saddle height was 3cm too short.
– Cockpit depth was 5mm too deep.
– Reach was 1-1/2-inches too short.

Those are huge discrepancies that can cause all sorts of pain issues on the bike.

This was when I figured out that the shop had all but completely ignored my instructions and measurements, building the bike as though I was a lithe 19-year-old with pro racer flexibility. My body could handle extremes at that age; now, (much) more than twice that age, it most definitely cannot.

I tried adjusting the position several times, but could not get it dialed in correctly, and finally gave up. I parked it and resigned myself to an inherent lack of winter miles.

Bike building the right way

After five months of waiting, Orbea finally replaced the broken frame. We had to temporarily hang minimal parts on it (fork, wheels, post, and saddle), then compare my bike fit measurements to see if the frame would even work. Redmond Cycles did a fantastic job of following up on the warranty, and went the extra mile to make sure it would fit.

One big problem presented around components, as I am old-school and ride now-ancient 9-speed Dura-Ace parts, but the frame was made to exclusively accept Shimano hydraulic disc brakes. I prefer single pivot caliper brakes, which allow the rider to apply braking force in a feathering manner instead of imposing grabby braking. Luckily, Orbea had the foresight to also add direct-mount (rear) and standard mount (front) brake mounts. Several shops said my 9-speed Dura-Ace would definitely not work on this bike, and recommended completely replacing the drivetrain, but one Orbea dealer disagreed, saying to give it a try.

As Spring began, with the warranty replacement frame in hand, and the flu apparently invading my body, I chose a different shop, the one I should have started with, the one I know and trust who is right down the street a mile or so – Counterbalance Bicycles – who stripped the frame I had only just gotten built in December, swapping its fork onto an old bike with a much taller head tube so that I would have a backup bike to ride in the interim. Then the shop dug into building up the new carbon fiber frame.

The next week I spent in bed, fevered-up, chilled, and sleeping, sipping hot tea eight times per day, swiftly followed by copious cough drops. At least I could rest easy knowing the right shop was building a bike that would fit, if I survived this nasty dastardly flu.

The day I picked up my new bike, Counterbalance encouraged me to adjust the fit to my measurements and take a couple of test rides out of the store first. They had already built it near perfect and one minor adjustment later, I was out on the trail.

The new frame is my first full carbon rig ever, and the difference in ride quality is startling, with power transfer that is just amazing. It makes the riding feel like there is no wasted effort.

Orbea is known for aggressive road racing geometry, but with the Avant, they seemed to have struck upon a happy medium that could be raced or serve as a decent endurance road bike. I have only a few rides so far, all without neck pain, and I am once again singing Orbea praises.

Since it took so long to get the frame, build it, and recover from the flu, I’m left with less than three months to attempt to get fit enough to ride the 204-mile STP with my team.

I was surprised to find I have not lost much fitness, which may mean I wasn’t very fit to begin! Even though I have had a long forced break from riding, my legs feel mostly okay, with my normal fast spin fully intact. My endurance is another matter, and my lungs have a ways to go.

A carbon frame can help the rides feel great, but I doubt it will do much to increase my endurance in short order. I have to carefully pace my rides because there is no time for overdoing it and dealing with injury at this point. Luckily, the team at Corpore Sano Physical Therapy can probably help with working up a plan.

Important lessons learned

1) Make sure your bike mechanic is really paying attention to your needs and using your measurements.
2) Always have two bikes built to measure, ready to ride.
3) Don’t try to force a bike to fit.
4) Always listen to your body on the bike.
5) Don’t catch the flu.

Ah, cycling.