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,