Concerning Tiny Bikes: Part 1

[Note: I'm reposting this from a couple years ago because it's just a great read for anyone that thinks they'll never have a bike that fits. Sam now has two Speedvagen, road and cross, and crushes on both!] People think I'm pretty hard.  Super tough and gritty and all that.  It's easy to see why, especially if I have some stubble, which I totally do a lot of the time.  In fact, if a stranger had to describe my whole vibe - my thing, if you will - I'm almost positive that the word they'd use would be "street."  Hell, if I had a half-link for every time somebody mistook me for Omar Little from The Wire, I'd probably be able to make one of those weird half-link chains by now.

I have a secret, though, and that secret is that I am...  not that hard.  Not always, anyway.  It's a tough pill to swallow, I know, but it's true.  Take, for instance, the fact that instead of stuffing my backpack full of my warmest kit in preparation for a cold, wet, snowy, totally tough-guy edition of the beloved Banana Belt series, I am still in my underpants, sitting in a recliner chair, wrapped up in a fleece blanket with snowflakes all over it, thinking about what kind of snacks I might want to eat today.

Here's the thing though:  I'm a little dude, and little dudes just aren't meant for the cold.  Science says so, even; Bergmann's rule, and all that.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, better learn yerself.  So that's my excuse, and with the whole field of heat transfer on my side, I think it's a good enough one for me to not forfeit my super-hard status by sipping hot chocolate and nibbling on pastries instead of racing.

Anyway, that long intro was really just a way for me to work in the fact that I am a little dude.  Did you get that out of it?  I hope so.  And the reason I wanted to set course for the topic of my size on Speedbloggen, is that I wanted to talk a little about the issues and concerns of finding frames for people shaped like me.  Let's do that, in list form.

1)  Top tubes are too long.  It's sometimes tough on a stock frame to even find top tubes as short as 515mm, and that's not even all that short.  If you think 515mm is short, you don't know from short, suckah.

2)  Seat tube angles are too steep.  I may be small, but I'm not proportioned weird or anything, so the oh-so-common 75+ degree seat tube angles put me way too far over the bottom bracket unless I use 25mm+ setback seatposts, and slam my saddle all the way back.  Some stock frames in the smallest size can make it almost impossible to even get 50mm of saddle setback.  And jacking up the seat tube angle just puts that already-too-long top tube even farther out in front of me.

3)  Handling is compromised.  Probably in an effort to avoid toe overlap - a genuine concern for many folks, but not a big deal on a race bike, in my opinion - it's really normal to see the smallest size of stock frames have really slack head tube angles.  That by itself isn't necessarily a problem, but when a company just uses one fork with one offset across its whole size range, you get little (and big) bikes that don't handle well.  I worry that my tiny brothers and tiny sisters that have never had a custom bike, or at least a properly designed stock race bike, don't even know how lovely a bike can steer.

4)  Please don't tell me I need 650c wheels.  It's a normal thing for folks with the luxury of fitting on mid-sized bikes to say that people under "x" number of inches tall should just be riding on smaller wheels.  I suppose there's probably some merit to that, and I don't think a different wheel size should be out of the question, but those people need to keep in mind that I buy and borrow from, sell and lend to people who ride 700c wheels pretty much exclusively.  If us little folks don't ride on 700c wheels, we can kiss goodbye our chances of getting a usable wheel from the wheel car, or finding sweet deals on tires.  And the gearing consideration with a different wheel size is a whole 'nuther can of worms entirely.

So you take all those things and add 'em up, and it can be a real hassle to get a satisfactory bike.

On my first real race bike, a Bianchi road something-or-other in the smallest size they offered, to get my fit into the comfort zone, I ended up having to use a 65mm stem.  I don't know how many of you out there have spent time on a road bike with a stem that short, especially those of you who have also ridden with longer stems for comparison, but I can tell you it's not super ideal.  With your hands that close to being in plane with the steering axis, really little inputs translate into bigger changes in the direction of the front wheel, and you end up with a more nervous feeling ride.

Then on my first cx bike, an older XXXX (names have been removed to protect people's feelings), to avoid toe overap (I'm assuming), the designers chopped the head tube angle out to 69.5 or 70 degrees, if I recall correctly, without pairing the frame with a different fork than the other sizes, which all had much steeper angles.  45mm fork offset on a 70 degree head tube angle does not a wonderfully handling bicycle make.  The resulting trail value ("trail" being a topic worthy of a whole post itself) you get from a setup like that is gigantic; well above the range one would consider "neutral."  It was a revelation when I tried a different bike and realized that cyclocross bikes didn't have to steer like that;  ultra slow, and always feeling kind of floppy and sad.

I can also recall trying to help my mom (tiny as well) pick out a cyclocross bike for herself a few years back, and having a hell of a time explaining to her why the 47cm Redline Conquest actually fit bigger than the 49cm.  See, the top tube on the 47 was something like 5mm shorter, but the seat tube angle was a half or a whole degree steeper, which pushed the front of the bike out and the result was a 47cm frame with a longer reach than the 49cm, if only by a few mm.  It felt like they were trying to trick us.  You see the smaller number on the frame sticker, and if you don't draw it all out, you'd never know that the frame isn't really any smaller!

It seems pretty bleak for those of us down in <48cm land, but it doesn't have to be.  By learning myself a bit on geometry stuff and working with awesome, knowledgeable builders, I've ended up with 3 custom race bikes now that are all just amazing, and I really think my Speedvagen is going to be even better still, on account of some new-to-me design philosophy/ideas we landed on during my fitting.  Gone are the days of mini stems, wonky front ends, insulting geometry charts, and countless fit compromises.  Custom bikes solve real problems for real little bike racers, for reals.  For reals.

And when it comes to tiny custom bikes, Sacha's got his shit together some solid ideas (and a much cleaner mouth than I). For Tiny Bikes: Part 2, I'm planning on asking him some more specific questions regarding little frame geometry (and maybe some medium and big frame geometry too), and digging a bit deeper into the geometry of my own custom bikes that makes me love them.  It's a fascinating topic, I think, and if any of y'all readers think so too, we'd love to get some questions from you in the comments!  Oh indeed.


The Tiniest Sprinter

Posted on July 3, 2014 and filed under Uncategorized.