I used to think that I was unimportant to the people reading the words I’ve written about bicycles and the related gear. They weren’t buying me, they were buying bikes and shorts and tires and all the other stuff. I just needed to get the hell out of the way and do my best to give them the information they need to make the best decisions for their riding needs.
I started this blog for personal reasons. I had grown dissatisfied with the things I was writing for Bicycling and I felt I needed a place to experiment. Something that might unearth some creativity and inspiration and improve my professional writing. It’s public, but only because I wanted to share the contents with friends and people I respect for feedback.
From the start, though, it has been - inadvertently - a confessional. The majority of the writing has focused on the challenges I face and the doubts I must deal with as I review gear. This was not a plea for sympathy. I really like my job and I am well aware of how lucky I am: I try very hard not to take it for granted. Sometimes, I do, but I don’t think that is uncommon, especially if they’ve been at it for a while (over 15 years for me so far).
My writing here has helped me discover and clarify some of the feelings I have regarding the relationship between reviewer and product, and reviewer and buying public. One of the most significant: I don’t think I appreciated just how subjective bicycle-related product reviews are and how much the reviewer’s context, experience, philosophy and personal worldview can influence the published review. And because of that, I think it would be helpful and enlightening for the reader to know as much about the reviewer - me, in this case- as possible. A decoder for the stories, reviews and news I write for Bicycling. So, here goes. Please feel free to email me any questions that I didn’t answer. I’ll add the good ones - my discretion - to this string.
Born January 25, 1973; a touch over 5’8” and, let’s say, 160 pounds, give or take 10 (mostly give). Build: thick - my “friends” use words like “dumpster” and “cinderblock.” Proportions: A bit longer in the leg and shorter in the torso than typical for my height. Flexibility: terrible in most areas, but, surprisingly good in the hips and lower back. Saddle height: 73cm from center of BB. Shoe size: 41. Saddle setback: 63mm (with Fizik Arione saddle)
My dad was a racer from before I was born and I tagged along to many of his races from an early age. I raced a little bit as a “midget” but, never caught the racing bug. But, loved the bike, loved hanging out at the races and being surrounded by bikes. I suppose you could say (if you like to mangle English) I’ve never not ridden. Got my first mountain bike in 1988. Worked the front counter at a bike shop in high school. In college, worked as a mechanic and service manager for several years. Started my association with Rodale Press (publisher of Bicycling) in 1995. Been here ever since.
How many miles a year do you ride?
Good question. I am not fastidious about keeping track. I’ve never kept a log and even today I don’t bring the Garmin on every ride. Educated guess: about 4000 to 5000 a year.
Resting heart rate, LT, max power, Vo2 max, hematocrit level?
I really don’t know. Might be fun to find out, but, since I’ve never been a serious racer, it’s never been important.
How do you test a bike?
In most cases, the bike is shipped to me in the same state it is shipped to a dealer. I build it myself, set the saddle height and offset, bar height and reach to my preferred measurements and ride. I will swap out a stem or seatpost immediately if it is necessary to achieve my preferred riding position. Other than that, I try to get at least a handful of rides on a bike in stock form before I start swapping out parts.
My rule for swapping out parts is this: if I find a part distracting, I will swap it for something familiar that I like. Example: if I find that I’m fixating on a handlebar’s shape because I dislike it, I will replace it with my favorite bar.
At some point in the testing I will swap in my “control” wheels. These are wheels I’ve ridden a lot, on a lot of different bikes and they help me ensure that I have a good sense of the frame’s qualities. Right now, my control wheels are Zipp 303 Firecrest tubs (my favorite wheels) with Zipp Tangente 23c tires.
Have you ever had a bike fit?
I’ve always fit myself by feel and never had a discomfort issue to address. But, I did pay for a professional fit a couple years ago just to see if an outside expert might suggest any adjustments. After several hours and a big pile of my own money, the fitter said to me, “You look good. I wouldn’t change anything.” Wah-wah.
How do you test parts?
I keep a bike around as a “control” bike. One of my favorite bikes that I have a lot of time on and am very familiar with. Right now (early 2013) it’s a Wilier Zero.7. When it’s time to test, say, a handlebar, I’ll put it on the control bike. By only changing one part on an otherwise familiar bike, it helps me isolate that part’s qualities. I try not to test more than one part at a time. If I do, I’ll phase them in. Swap in the new bar and get in several rides, then swap on the tires and do several more rides, then the saddle.
Side note: if I’m testing several bikes at once, I’ll use the control bike to cleanse my palate and reset my impressions so my baseline for evaluation is the same.
How long do you test things before you write a review?
Some combination of as long as I can and as long as it takes for me to feel confident in my opinions.
What do you look for in a bicycle?
Depends on the bicycle. The primary thing I evaluate is how well it works for its intended purpose. So, the qualities I look for in a race bike are different than those I look for in a commuter bike. Price plays a role - my expectations for a $2500 Jamis Xenith are different than a $15,000 Pinarello Dogma Think2.
Beyond intended purpose, I look at the usual things: function, value, comfort, product spec, handling and more difficult things to quantify: sex appeal, enjoyment.
What about stiffness & weight?
As they relate to my “speed”, they don’t matter much. I’ve been chasing answers on efficiency - more speed for the same work - for a long time. There are a lot of factors involved. From what I’ve been able to uncover in my interviews, and from what increasingly more powerful measurement tools tell me (powermeters, GPS, heart rate, Strava, etc.), weight, over the course of a normal ride with flats, uphills and downhills, doesn’t make much difference. If it’s an uphill time trial like Mt. Evans or Mt. Washington hill climb, then it makes a bigger difference.
Stiffness, as far as I’ve been able to tell or uncover, makes little - if any - difference in high-watt situations - climbing, sprinting - and zero difference when you’re riding at tempo. On descents, I do believe there is an argument to be made that appropriate stiffness helps make the bike a more confidence inspiring descender, allowing the rider to go faster.
However, weight and stiffness are the biggest factors of the “feel” of a bike. Do I think stiffer bikes tend to feels faster? Yes. Do I think lighter bikes feel quicker? Yes. And do I think that feeling lighter and feeling stiffer are important qualities to many riders? Yes. And because I believe that riding a bike is so cerebral and emotional, a bike that feels fast and feels right is every bit as important as a bike that is actually more efficient.
Personally, I care more about weight than stiffness. Lighter bikes feel better to me: more alive and more responsive. Stiffness I care less about. I do like a bike that feels accurate and confident - particularly when descending a curvy mountain pass at 80KpH on a blustery day - but I prefer a bike with a touch of give and spring over a bike with the unyielding resilience of bridge girder. It just feels better to me, like it’s working with me.
If you want more efficient, then, it’s all about aerodynamics, baby.
What’s your take on ‘laterally stiff and vertically compliant?’
Ah, LSVC. Here’s how I view it: just because it is obvious and overused, doesn’t mean it is not true. Example: if 100 people described Coca Cola, how many of them would not use the word ‘sweet’? Go ride a bunch of modern carbon bikes: most of them are quite laterally stiff and vertically compliant.
Naturally, it’s very, very subjective. Where is the reviewers reference point? The stiffest bike they’ve ever ridden? The least vertically compliant? Their perceived average of all the bikes they’ve ridden? What is their continuum - where is the line between laterally stiff and not laterally stiff? If the reviewer rides a bike that is the most vertically complaint they’ve ever ridden, how does that then effect their perception of the bikes they have ridden before and the bikes they have ridden after?
As I’ve written previously: two riders can have very different takeaways from the same bike depending on their preferences, their context, and their physical differences.
It’s also worth considering that a 54cm Specialized Tarmac SL4 might rate differently versus other similarly sized bikes than a 60cm Specialized Tarmac SL4 and other 60cm bikes.
None of this is an excuse for me or any other reviewer to get lazy and simply describe a bike as ‘laterally stiff and vertically complaint’ and leave it there. The goal is to try and uncover and describe the qualities of the specific bike, how it compares to similar bikes, and its position relative to bikes in general. These differences are often very small and difficult to uncover.
Do you get feedback from other riders?
When I can, and when necessary (to help me validate or invalidate a characteristic or theory) but, in most cases, it’s just me riding the bike.
I’ve noticed that a lot of your reviews sound the same.
I’m aware of that and I do try to avoid repeating myself. In my own defense, however, I often feel like I’m riding the same bike over and over. Despite the logos and paint, most of the road bikes I review are made out of the same material (and often built in the same factory), with geometry that varies only a few millimeters, and built up with the same, or very similar, parts. Additionally, almost every bike is built to satisfy the same requirements: low weight, high stiffness, responsive handling etc. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that a lot of bikes feel familiar.
I do honestly think that the strong majority of the bikes I ride are excellent and will serve any rider well. Really.
Are there any bikes you don’t like?
Yes. But there’s an important difference between a bike that I don’t like because it doesn’t match my preferences, and a bad bike. It’s been a long time since I’ve ridden a truly bad bike. I don’t feel comfortable naming any of the bikes I don’t like. Not for any business or political reasons, but, because if it matches my preferences or not is less important that whether it’s a good match for you.
What are your favorite bikes?
The best road bike I’ve ever ridden was a Parlee Z2 Custom and I said so in print. Other bikes that are at the top of my current favorites list are: my personal Rock Lobster Team TIG SL; Giant’s Defy Advanced SL 0; Cervelo’s S5VWD, Cannondale’s CAAD10 and Colnago’s C59 Disc.
Those are all high end bikes. Are you a snob?
Yes. Yes I am a snob. However, I’d challenge anyone to ride as much equipment as I have and not develop a strong appreciation and preference for the higher-end stuff. That said, I wouldn’t stop riding if I had to ride less expensive equipment the rest of my life. If anything, riding all the high end stuff and all the low end stuff has shown me the high end stuff doesn’t make me much, if any, “faster” and doesn’t make me enjoy cycling more. Yes, I’d prefer to ride a S-Works Tarmac SL4 over a long pass and not an Allez if that was a choice I could make. But a bike like Cannondale’s $2790 CAAD10 Force Racing - amazing. It’s probably what I’d be riding if I had to buy my own equipment.
You said you build all the bikes before you test them: are you a good mechanic?
I've never been to Barnett's or UBI and I've never been a race mechanic, but, I did work in the service department of a shop and, therefore, was a “professional” mechanic. Plus, doing all my own service and repair for the past 15 years plus has kept my skills sharp. I can build, service and repair a wide variety of equipment on my own. Am I good? Good enough, I guess - I usually find that the bikes I've worked on function better than the bikes that other people have serviced. That said, I still forget to tighten a crank bolt now and then.
Do you glue your own tubulars?
No. I can glue tubulars if necessary - learned because I wanted to know how - but, I pay a shop to do it because I have a small home workshop and they’re better equipped to handle the task. Plus, I’m so busy it’s much faster to have them do the job.
Can you build wheels?
I can, but, it’s not a skill that’s needed much anymore. In the rare cases I need wheels built, I pay the shop to do it for the same reasons I noted in the tubular gluing question.
What happens to the products when you are done with the review?
I don’t sell anything I receive for review, if that’s what you want to know. My rule is: if I paid for it, I can sell it. Some brands let me hang onto bikes for a while after the review is done, but, eventually, all go back. Parts, accessories and clothing are sent back at the company’s request. If not, I might hang onto the product and continue to ride it, or, give it away. My favorite places to send stuff are: Durango Devo and Trips For Kids.
What do you think of lab tests?
They have their place, but, I don’t think they provide as many answers they seem to; many times, I feel, they just serve to raise further questions. I’ll use this seatpost deflection and damping test Velonews did as an example.
Up front, I’ll say that I like and respect Caley Fretz and Lennard Zinn a lot; that I know the test involved a lot of planning and work; and that I felt the test had value and the results were interesting. This is not an indictment of their work, or Velonews or anything. It’s just a convenient example.
Here’s my problem with lab tests: they only answer the questions asked, of the parts tested, within the specifications of the test. If it’s not asked and tested, it’s not answered.
What the Velonews test answered was this: the deflection and damping characteristics of the posts tested, on the specific bike tested, with the specific parts that bike was equipped with, at a specific saddle height and setback, at the test riders specific weight, with a specific saddle, at a specific tire pressure, at a specific vibration frequency, on the rollers used for testing.
This is a problem because a rider experiences a bicycle as a system: what we feel and experience starts at the tires touching the ground and is filtered through all the parts in between the road and your hands, feet and butt. Even the qualities of the ground are part of the system, which is why your bike feels different when the road surface changes from concrete to chip seal.
A change in any of the specifics of the Velonews test makes it uncertain if the results of the test apply. It’s possible they might apply, but to find out, you’d need to test every variable - an impossible task. Another variable to consider: parts are not static. If a post maker makes a running change and adds a layer of carbon because they were having too many warranty returns, the results of the test no longer apply.
If you’ve read this correctly (and if I wrote it correctly) you’ll see that I feel that lab tests are largely irrelevant to an individual’s on-the-road experience.
But, I still think there’s valuable and interesting information to be uncovered in a lab test. I think they’re worthwhile, because I think the pursuit of knowledge is always good and noble. But I don’t think most lab tests “answer” or “prove” as much as we’re led to believe.
How many bikes have you reviewed?
I don’t have an exact count. Someday, I’d like to build a database of all the bikes I’ve ridden and reviewed. A few years back when I was sick or injured, I did spend a day getting an approximate count, and it was well into the thousands.