Buying a New Tri Bike: The Untold Story and What You Need to Know.
Let’s face it: there is a huge disconnect in the tri bike world. As with most things in life, it has to do with incentive-caused biases. By that I mean what is best for the manufacturers, bike shops, and athletes is not necessarily the same thing. Hence as a potential consumer of a tri bike, you must be armed with good information – not marketing hype or forum hearsay, but in-depth knowledge and unbiased advice. Unfortunately on a daily basis I meet with athletes who still fall into the traps of agents (shops, manufacturers) who are simply trying their best to do what brings them success, even if that is at the expense of the athlete.
First we must understand where the interested parties are coming from; where their bread is buttered so to speak. As an aside, in another life I hold a Chartered Financial Analyst designation and have spent years as an equity analyst and portfolio manager, so I do know a little bit about business and finance – especially behavioral finance. The bike business is tough. Manufacturers must invest in engineering, molds, and marketing many months (years) before a new bike design will hit the market. These investments ideally need to be amortized over quite a few years of robust bike sales. So for them it is a volume game. Scale of operations and more bikes sold means better margins, survival, and success. If you want to sponsor a Pro Tour road team, it will cost around $2M plus maybe 80 bikes. That is a tough nut to crack for a small or medium company regardless of whether they have the “best” product. Only the companies that have achieved scale can even consider playing here. Sponsoring a top pro triathlete might cost $100k – still tough for a small company. So the industry consolidates into fewer larger players, where synergies in management, distribution, and manufacturing can turn it all into a reasonably good business. But you need to sell a lot of bikes – ideally all kinds of bikes – MTB, recreational, road, tri, etc – to leverage your infrastructure.
Tri is just a niche, but a fast growing, high income niche. Triathletes are the early adopters and are willing to spend for speed. While a topic for another article, in the non-drafting race world, you can buy some extra speed. In the draft-legal road bike world, not so much. Once you hit a certain level, a good road bike is a good road bike, assuming it fits you. That new one is unlikely to move you from Cat 4 to Cat 3. But the high-zoot tri bike just might make the difference in qualifying for Kona or Worlds. Of course, that assumes it is the right bike for YOU, and that your fit is dialed. Which are a big assumptions.
Next comes the retailer who buys bikes from the manufacturer and sells to the athletes. The bike shop business model was built over many years of selling a variety of bikes that require little knowledge of fit. Road, recreational, MTB. You can get away with quite a bit as far as fit is concerned in these categories. In tri you cannot – end of story. Triathlon is simply a very different sport from cycling having amazingly little overlap with traditional cycle sports. Many tri bikes continue to be sold as if they were $400 hybrids. Stand over it, ride it around the parking lot, maybe get on a trainer for a few minutes. SOLD. This model is not the fault of the shops, but a product of tradition and the economic constraints of keeping a bike shop in business – a very tough business. We absolutely need quality local bike shops, but many walk a fine line between survival and doom. Depending on the manufacturer, if you want to carry a big name brand (and as we said, the smaller brands are finding it harder and harder to survive), you must commit to a large preseason inventory order. Then you have the typical fixed costs – facility, staff, financing. You need to move these bikes to keep the lights on. This works ok for most bike categories. As a triathlete though, you should not allow this model to rope you into a stupid purchase. Remember that shops need to SELL. You, however, need to spend many many hours training and competing on a bike that costs you $2-10,000 or more in a sport that costs you God knows what. You better get it right. Unfortunately, most bike shops are not equipped, nor are they incentivized to make sure you are on the best bike for you and that you are fit correctly. They most likely come from a road racing or MTB background. They may have never raced a tri. They may have a fit certification from somewhere – better than nothing, but 2 days does not a fitter make. They are rarely triathlon fit experts- even if they are road fit pros. I have seen some of the worst tri fits come out of well known road-fit shops.
Tri bike fitting is a specialized discipline, and most shops cannot find, much less afford to hire a fitter with the deep knowledge of tri fit required to get your fit right and be able to tell you exactly how your contact points translate to available bikes. That fitter will have had to invest a great deal of time learning his craft, and undoubtedly racing in the saddle too. They must have an architect or engineer’s brain. The fit process takes time, and it may honestly result in selecting a bike that the shop does not sell. A shop can only carry so many brands. And the brand portfolio is not likely to be selected as to fit spectrum – i.e., so that they have at least one model that fits each part of the typical spectrum of fit “shapes”. If I sell Specialized (in which case I have made a large inventory commitment), and you are a tall athletic guy with short legs you probably don’t fit on my Shivs. So am I going to send you across town to the Cervelo dealer when I’ve got all these Shivs on the floor, and another shipment coming in 2 months? Although some newer fit systems claim to produce ecumenical results, that is ultimately up to the shop and fitter. Always consider what the guy on the other side of the transaction’s personal incentive is. Most likely it has something to do with selling more bikes as quickly as possible. It is not evil, it’s just survival.
This points out why a prebuy fit SHOULD cost a decent amount of money. It should take some time and some serious thought/work by an educated fitter. BUT – if you end up buying a bike from that fitter’s shop, I believe the prebuy fit should cost almost nothing. Because it really SHOULD be a standard part of buying a tri bike. So paying for the fit SHOULD ensure good results and should promote unbiased info – if you buy a bike elsewhere, at least the shop made something for its work. If it is free, it might just be a sales pitch for one of the bikes on the floor.
A tri bike should not be an impulse buy. It should not be prompted by that cool looking bike you saw in the transition area at least week’s race. It should NOT be prompted by a “test ride” around the block – there are so many variables here that any bike can feel like crap in a test ride – and a poor match can feel ok for a short while. Wheel, saddle and bar choice along with how the fit is set up have far greater influence on your test ride outcome than the frame itself. It must be an informed decision. Ask around – get referrals, figure out where you can go to get the advice you need – and focus on the fitter, not the tools involved (beyond what I consider the basics listed below). Make sure you consider the source of the referrals and whether there is any conflict. Once you drop several thou on a bike, there is strong natural human behavioral bias to really believe it is the best bike ever.
How should a tri bike be purchased in a perfect world? First, you need to know how you fit on a tri bike. You need to know your fit coordinates. You MUST either go to an experienced tri fitter to figure this out, or you MUST, if you are really dialed in on your current bike, be able to translate those coordinates and determine their suitability relative to any tri bike you are potentially interested in buying. One tool that can help with this is our newly launched free site, mybikefit.com. Here you will find fit information that you cannot find anywhere else (certainly not on manufacturer’s websites), and if you know your fit coordinates you can zero in quickly on specific bikes via our Fit Targets. The site is only in beta mode, and there is lots more to come in terms of fit tools, but it already has some very valuable features.
If you get a prebuy fit, it should be done on a dynamic fit bike. Here the fitter is unconstrained in his quest to figure out where your contact points should be. And you can feel immediately, while riding at a moderate or even hard level, what affect any position changes have. In our studio, we designed, patented and built our own automated fit bike. If you want to do some workouts to test out your new fit coordinates, we’ll hook it up to our multirider system and you can go to town. Intervals, what have you. No guess work. Regardless of how the fit is determined, you should receive a report with your coordinates illustrated as well as a listing of what bikes work well for those coordinates. Ideally the fitter understands the tradeoffs and trigonometry here. Not just that the bike “can” fit, but that it is a good fit – and why. Some newer systems spit out a list of bikes (ecumenical or not). But does the fitter in this case really know which ones are “good” and why? Does he have the tools to play with component selection and determine exactly what is needed to make frame X and bars Y hit your coordinates – and can he tell you? Are the choices based on rational front end setups with the ability to tweak the fit in all directions without needing to do something stupid? If not, you are wasting your time. Go elsewhere. If a fitter insists you MUST get a custom bike, be VERY skeptical if you’re not 6’5″ or taller or shorter than 5′ (and even then you may be fine on the right stock bike). First, have him explain exactly why you are so unique, and then get a 2nd opinion (run, don’t walk). If you want a custom bike – great – just be DARN SURE the fit the custom frame is based on is a good one. I have seen way too many custom-made frankenbikes, or customs that coincidentally measure exactly the same as stock sizes but cost 2x as much.
Once you have those coordinates in hand, you should know exactly what bikes to look at, and how they should be set up. In our perfect world example, that fitter can get you the bike and build it to your specs – especially if it is a “super bike”. Otherwise, if you buy the bike off the floor or online, expect that it may need to be completely reassembled to your specs. The more the bike costs, the more proprietary components it has, the tougher it is to adjust/reconfigure, as a general statement. If a shop built it up generically for display, assume the cables or wires will need to be pulled so that extensions can be cut to your specs – and that is just for a start. This is another huge reason the setup should be known BEFORE the bike is even pulled out of the box.
Ironically, the big companies that make the most complex, proprietary bikes, are the ones LEAST likely to deal with fit boutiques. These guys got where they are by moving product! By relying on the old traditional pre-season order-or-die model. As a general statement, their dealers have no idea how (or desire) to properly configure one of their flagship $10k bikes to a specific set of fit coordinates. I have examples of this walking into my shop every day. Bike shops often do not have the tools or knowledge to do it right. When I talk to the folks at these big bike companies, they typically say, “we leave the fitting up to our dealers”, or “we have a system that does this” (which assumes the “fitter” understands the system and can operate it, not to mention has a deep understanding of tri fit). Some companies are so nonchalant about fit that they don’t publish relevant geometry specs, and/or post INCORRECT measurements (which I find indefensible but amazingly common). But the shops have no incentive to take the time or attention to detail that understanding all this requires – they will do much better spending their time on moving bikes that require far less effort. A good fit studio should have the time, knowledge and incentive. But said fit studio cannot order a Cervelo or Trek or Specialized bike for the guy they just did the prebuy fit on. Fit studios aren’t bike shops (unless they are, in which case they aren’t a true fit studio and have the same potential conflicts as any bike shop), and they aren’t high volume and they don’t sell hybrids and urban bikes. But they may actually sell quite a few high end tri bikes. We do. Granted they are from smaller companies that allow us to order bikes as needed.
I don’t want to be in the bike shop business. I want to be, and am, in the “help athletes get the best racing experience they can business”, the performance business. I sell bikes because people begged me to, and I found a few companies that make quality products and don’t require the dreaded $50k+ preseason order. Large inventory overhangs and order commitments lead to bad decisions and advice – it is a clear conflict of interest between the shop and athlete. I have had reps or management from most of the big bike cos visit. One said, “you know we have 4 dealers within 10 miles of you and didn’t sell one (high end tri bike) in this region last year.” “That’s funny”, I said, “I just had a guy fly in from Wisconsin (maybe the co’s home state) so I could spec out one of those bikes for him – because no dealer within 2 hours of him could tell him what stem he needed or could agree on which frame size was best and why”. Most big bike cos will not sell their bikes, even a small subset of their bikes, to the very outlets that understand them best and will ensure a fantastic experience for the athlete who in turn becomes a great brand advocate.
Typical scenario: Joe Kona Qualifier comes in for a prefit with a few big name super bikes in mind. Fit results are generated, and we go over the list. Yes you fit on that one well (and here is why). No we can’t get it for you. Why not? (read above paragraphs out loud)… Well which ones can you get? Joe Kona buys one of the good fits we can get, not the big co super bike he thought he wanted. He gets the bike built to his spec the right way, gets some good advice along the way, and gets a free fit on the bike itself once it’s ready. Loves the bike, and now really likes brand X which he never thought about before coming in because they don’t have a huge marketing budget. Seems like a missed opportunity for big bike co.
We (and I am sure many other specialty fit operations) really know a thing or two about each of these manufacturer’s bikes – I would posit WAY more than just about any traditional bike shop. The hard truth is these super bikes are just a big pain in the butt for average bike shops. Whereas the big dollar road bikes are generally no more difficult to fit, build or configure than a bargain basement model, the same can’t be said for super bike tri rigs that come with stacks of proprietary fit parts, about 4x the build time (not to mention the learning curve required to build one), and finicky type-A riders (who SHOULD be finicky). The assembly manual for super bike A is 19 pages with 97 figures, super bike B is 57 pages, and super bike C is 42 pages and/or a series of 18 videos. Then there are the fit manuals and whitepapers. All of which we read and understand, even though we can’t offer said bikes to clients. We built custom fit computers for each of these super bikes just so we can understand how fit works on them. I can tell you in minutes what stem and bar setup you need on that new super bike. And we can build it to suit your fit and race goals perfectly. But just don’t ask us to get one for you.
I spoke with another rep from a big Pro-Tour-sponsoring bike co who looked to be losing their only dealer in our region. So I said we can sell your tt bikes and probably some road bikes too. I have a custom-built computer that specs out exactly how each of your umpteen proprietary stem configurations affects fit. His response was that they can’t just let me sell their “hot” bikes… Once again, they need to move a lot of product to pay for the Pro Tour sponsorship and R&D, I get that. A fit studio isn’t going to put much of a dent in that nut. But then again, I am not sure that offering select bikes via a high service, high touch, knowledgeable channel like a specialty fit boutique somehow hurts the rest of the business. Seems to me it would be additive if you already aren’t selling any of these bikes in a region. And in brand satisfaction and loyalty, the payoff could be much bigger than the relatively small monetary bump. But then you would have to tell any traditional shop that you sign on as a dealer that some fit guy is selling their high end TT bike. Which is probably the big issue here – that just won’t float in the bike shop world – unless maybe some kind of a partnership could be developed.
We don’t need to sell bikes. But it sure makes the process more enjoyable for the athlete and we sell quite a few even though we have almost zero inventory. And we certainly don’t mind the extra revenue. Ask any client of ours – you get a list of all bikes that will fit you – the way it SHOULD be – but many/most of which we probably can’t get for you. We are a fit studio first – that sells some bikes via special order, not a bike shop. We believe we are the model that SHOULD be used to sell tri bikes to triathletes (maybe only tri bikes but probably high-end road bikes too) who invest huge amounts of money, time, and effort into their sport. Luckily some bike companies are on board with this. Most are not – yet. Maybe this will change. We CAN get you any wheelset, any components and accessories you need. We SHOULD be able to get you any bike you want. Assuming the big bike cos can’t wrap their heads around this, I think there is potential for the tri-specialty fit studio to partner with bike shops so both sides come out ahead. The bike shop can outsource the fitting, bike selection, and even the bike build to the fit studio while increasing the throughput of high-end tri bikes and bringing more triathletes in the door. The fit studio gets access to bike brands that they wouldn’t otherwise get – both sides bring each other business and stick to their core competencies. Both sides, the bike company and the athletes benefit. But until then the industry is stuck trying to push high tech, high strung high cost machines to high knowledge high dollar clients through a channel designed to sell moderately priced bikes to everyman. Remember that next time you go shopping for a tri bike, and please get a GOOD fit FIRST.