Leaving Las Vegas, City of Algorithms

As the plane left the runway I looked down at the endless expanse of huge hotels, casinos, and over-the-top glitz that attracts millions of people each year, arriving with hopes they’ll leave with newly found fortunes.  But Las Vegas is a city built on algorithms, complex formulas that, stacked in its favor, have delivered more steel, glass and polished Italian marble than likely exist in Vatican City, all to enshrine the vast variety of seductive cash-extracting enticements.  The ever-growing display of excess is proof that the formulas are still working in the city’s favor while encouraged to leave what happens in Vegas behind, visitors are made to feel pretty cool about it all, happily re-enacting Hangover parts I-III all in a weekend of revelry.

But I’d gone to Vegas with the specific intention of not leaving anything behind but to reconnect with friends and colleagues of the bicycle world while also working on my ‘what’s next’ ideas, all during the annual trade show known as Interbike. Now, rising higher into the clear blue Nevada skies I took a last look out the window at the receding shrine to temptation and realized that my biggest takeaway from Interbike 2013 is that this was bicycling’s year of the algorithm too.

Aisle after aisle there are more subcategories of categories of specialty products than ever before.  Hopefully marketing experts somewhere have employed valid algorithms accurately predicting that the recognized trends will indeed generate enough demand to consume all of this stuff or next year’s show may be a lot smaller.

During my career, I’ve devoted a lot of time and effort towards improving cycling through better fitting bicycles.  The past few years has seen an explosion of products and training programs related to ‘fit’ so I made a point of catching up on everything that was new and improved. There were well more than a dozen vendors displaying fitting tools and perhaps ten companies showing versions of an infinitely adjustable stationary bike, updated takes on the first such device, the Serotta Size-Cycle, which was built in our barn workshop more than thirty years ago.

A few were pretty basic while others were packed with plenty of bells and whistles.  A prevailing theme among the competing brands with the most technical gear was that “algorithms!” is the word du jour. I probably heard it a hundred times, as vendor after vendor fit the word into dialogue as many times as possible to make sure that I understood that someone was utilizing advanced calculus behind the scenes, something it is still assumed most people in the bike industry haven’t heard of.  The other notable motif was the proliferation of lasers, which were as abundant as a 1980’s disco light show, with red cross-hairs landing everywhere.

To be clear, I don’t mean to belittle any of the bike fitting products I saw, nor the people who were so passionately trying to convince show-goers that their version was indeed ‘the best’. Fitting has come a long way, and for the most part, that’s a very good thing. By observation alone, improved accuracy appears to have been taken seriously and in an industry that measures in millimeters it’s a good thing when the tools are true to the scales.  The challenge is that with so much energy focused on pitching “ours is the best system” that the industry is generating a lot of confusion for the retailers, who genuinely want to deliver a great customer experience. It’s more confusing still for consumers, who are relentlessly told how important bike fit is and then are faced by a bewildering range of choices, should they happen to shop at multiple dealerships.

Thousands of store ‘fit technicians’, PT’s and coaches have participated in one or more of the many bike fit training programs, collecting certificates of achievement the way boy scouts collect merit badges.  Yet, privately, virtually every Grand Poobah in the bike fit world agrees that the best Fitting experience takes a very holistic one-to-one approach. Delivering that, is still a combination of art, science, and disciplined repetitive experience that separates the true master fitters from the journeymen practitioners.

Tools, so long as they are accurate, make the task easier, more repeatable and more convincing to the consumer but they do not replace the importance of the hard, rehearsed and repeatedly practiced protocols.  Wanting to find reliably consistent results for the masses, other systems that revert to an earlier hypothesis that comparing one individual diligently measured to others leads to a good set of ‘fit’ coordinates. In this camp you’ll find believers whose dedication is as sound as Mr. McGuire’s in The Graduate. “Ben.  One word: Algorithms!”

The industry, myself included, has had a tendency to think top-down, looking at how we serve consumers from our perspective.  In my opinion we’d all do well to change our perspective and see how it all looks from the consumer’s point of view.

There’s work to be done and there’s hope.  More in my next entry…

In the meantime, here’s hoping to see you on the road,


4 thoughts on “Leaving Las Vegas, City of Algorithms

  1. Ben, thanks for voicing this. We are at an interesting time in our little industry-within-an-industry. The explosion of tools proclaiming to do the task faster/easier/more accurately is simply staggering. Many of these tools masquerade as “systems” or “methods”. Those of us who have been practicing for decades know that any tool is only as good as the person using it. Training and subsequent experience are essential. It appears many of these “systems” want to remove the human interaction and relationship involved. It would seem to me that any IBD wanting to stay ahead of the price cutting of online sales would want to emphasize this aspect of customer service – create the value of relationships via a customer oriented service, not offer an “algorithm” which could be easily replicated by online sales or mass merchants.

  2. Having seen bicycles made for riders based on “software spit outs” or “algorithms”, that fit as poorly as a stock size taken off the rack, the reality that intricate data, without the human to apply their craft passed down to them by previous masters, experience, and intuition, is useless. Coming from a heritage of builders where a few measurements and a lot of intuition mixed with a fundamental feel for why a fit will work for a particular rider was the way to build a custom frame, we observe that which you saw in Las Vegas. Riders submit to us a geometry that a software program has calculated for them, and we gladly make that frame for them. But with our experience, that is not the frame we would have put them on.

  3. Mr. Serotta,
    As an English Professor, I would like to express my appreciation for your writing: it avoids the kind of marketing hyperbole that most cycling journalism has fallen into, and it, also, returns to cycling as as a chiefly athletic endeavor as opposed to a mindless quest for ‘tech-weenie’ bliss.
    I enjoy a finely designed and tuned bicycle frame and components, but I balk at the frenetic pace of change in the bicycle industry. Every year (or two months) we get assaulted with some vital and very expensive ‘must have’ (aerodynamic frames, wider rims, tubeless tires…..). I reject them all on the grounds that bicycle design cannot really advance beyond certain physically prescribed limits (call it ‘physics’ if you will). Ironically, the ‘new’ invention of wider tires is, of course, not new at all; we are just returning to an old practice that we only left because the marketing gurus told us to! I for one, have always ridden 28c tires (yes, even in road races) because they are more comfortable and hold a line better… my ride companions used to gently mock, but now they are converts; why the change? The marketing gurus have done ‘tests’, and they believe them as dutiful slaves of the media.
    We are going in circles now; most of the innovations are quite superficial. The traditional steel frame defies improvement. I am tempted to buy a carbon frame, but when racing, I note that my race results have not declined even though I now compete against men who ride bicycles 7 lbs lighter, on average, than my steel ‘Mercian’ custom. I also race with 10 speed index down-tube shifters– not because I am a Luddite or because I shun improvements, but only because they perform better in almost all contexts.
    In the postmodern society, niche groups are becoming the norm, but many in the cycling world still fall for the ‘single market’ hype. I predict that the glossy and largely over-priced world of mass-produced carbon wonders will be short-lived; it requires a mass audience, and mass audiences may not survive the vagaries of this age of relativism and sober wealth reduction. The future is in the uniquely hand-built promise of individual fit and function. As a professor in the humanities, I can see this trend growing throughout society; I think young people are suspicious of big-ticket promises of bicycle mass-utopias. Middle-aged Boomers still cling to a world of big manufacturing along with the siren song of ‘your bike denotes your status’ kinds of values, but younger riders will not. The future will be the ‘primitive’ bicycle– brazed by hand (perhaps on an open hearth like the Mercian frames), designed by a real craftsmen, and idiosyncratic too. Maybe in the future, I will be able to go to races and not have to endure comments like this, “man, if you had a carbon bike, you would drop all of us….’. Sadly, they are all to wrong– the machine never makes the man; the man makes the machine or, else, the machine simply reduces the man to less than his full human potential.

  4. Dear Ben,
    For over thirty years, the first generation Colorado bike you made to measure for me at R & A Cycles, in Brooklyn, has been a constant companion in my life. During the construction of the frame, you mentioned to me you were the one who did the fillet brazing, and your wife did the finishing details on the paint.
    At first, it was my weapon in Central Park, racing with the Century Road Club Association.
    Years later, with my new wife-to-be, we courted and toured Long Island with the Long Island Bicycle Club, and took several very memorable bed and breakfast trips in New England.
    Once our children were born, the proud racing bicycle did duty by pulling a bike trailer loaded with infants, stuffed animals, and containers of Cheerios along suburban trails.
    Fifteen years ago, the original Campy C Record components and silk tubulars were replaced with Campy (naturally!) racing triple components, clinchers, and gearing appropriate to aging legs and the mountains of Colorado.
    Now, well into my fifties, the steel Colorado is helping me to recover from multiple knee replacements, lower back injuries, and other ailments.
    Every time I ride my Serotta, or feel the fine craftsmanship of the brazing and lug work, I can truly understand your passion and commitment to the art and science of hand-built frames. Thank you!
    The best of luck in all of your future endeavors! I know the best is yet to come!
    With warmest regards,
    David Kitazono
    Colorado Springs, CO

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