Friday, May 11, 2018

Conquering the Andean

Recently, I posted a couple of teaser pics of a bike on Facebook.  I get the opportunity to work on some fun projects in the studio, and today's project is a brand new Diamondback Andean custom-ordered on behalf of a customer.  Aside from being a really interesting bike, the reason I wanted to write about this is because of the packaging: Diamondback is making some waves in the industry with their approach to direct-to-consumer bike delivery, which involved rethinking and retooling their shipping department to allow a consumer to receive a bike that's basically ready to ride.  Let's take a look at how they are doing things differently and if this is something that the end customer can comfortably assemble and ride safely.

I've had the opportunity to assemble a lot of bikes when I worked part-time at LoKe Bicycles in Fishers for a few months in 2016.  Bikes destined for the bike shop arrive in a similar state of assembly - the box is as compact as it can be, the bike is well-padded and there is quite a bit of assembly to be done.  I am certainly not the fastest mechanic, but most bikes took anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half to assemble.  LoKe has a really solid process documented for the assembly of every bike, from the tiniest of kids' bikes to the high end racing machines.  The process includes truing the wheels, ensuring the brakes and drivetrain are all working perfectly, cleaning and polishing everything, and ensuring everything is tightened and torqued to spec before it's put on the floor or delivered to a happy owner.

Diamondback wants to change that process (well, not the happy owner part) with a direct-to-consumer model, essentially eliminating the local bike shop.  For the bike shops, this doesn't sound like good news, but this is the way of our world now.  Good or bad, this is an option for consumers.  I'm all about consumer options, so let's look at this one.

This bike was for a customer, who we'll call Roger Shrubber.  Roger came to me for a MATCH bike sizing, where we discussed his goals and ideas for a bike, we sized him up using the F.I.S.T. protocol, and came up with a list of bike solutions that fit him along with his measurements.  In my opinion, this is the only way to buy a bike - find your happy place in space and put the right bike underneath you.  Roger's list included quite a few options, and he had been particularly intrigued by the Andean.  With his fit information in hand, he went to the Diamondback Custom Studio website and built his Andean the way he wanted it, even down to using the same aerobar extensions and saddle that he was sized up on.  There was one small hitch in the plan - we sized him up for 165mm cranks, but they were in short supply.  After a bit of discussion with the folks at Diamondback, we convinced them to allow us to install a crankset from a different source, making a rare exception of not delivering a complete bike.  So, what you see here is a bit of an anomaly, and it was nice that Diamondback trusted us to finish the bike.  With that, the bike was on it's way, shipped directly to me so I can have it ready to go when Roger comes in for his fit.

I picked the bike up at the local FedEx store.  The first thing that the guy behind the counter said to me was, "dude, your package is huge - let me get you a cart."  He wasn't kidding.  The box measures approximately 45" long, 37" tall, and 21" wide.  It's a bit cumbersome, so thank you Mr. FedEx guy for loaning me a cart.

Once the bike was at the studio, it was time to start the unboxing process.  The top has three tabs, and 4 layers of cardboard.  Opening the top exposes the bike, and the first thing you notice is that the handlebars are completely installed, which is part of why the box is so wide.  The aerobar extensions are detached, and packaged vertically right in front of the head tube.  Roger opted for HED wheels, which are packaged on either side of the frame.  An unmarked box sits on top of the back part of the frame and the seatpost sticking out of the bottom of it suggests what is inside.

Opening the box, we find the User Guide and Owner's Manual.  The Owner's Manual is your typical generic bicycle Owner's Manual, with a bunch of generic instructions on how you should probably wear a helmet, have air in your tires, etc.  It does come in a nice little sleeve with a magnetic latch.  The User Guide is a bit more useful - it includes instructions on how to unbox and assemble your Andean.  It probably would make sense to put a label on this box saying "Hey, open me first - the instructions are inside here."

Digging a bit more into the box, we find the saddle is installed on the seatpost, the bottle cage, and a few other parts and accessories, including a full set of spacers and bolts for the aerobars, which are the Profile Design Aeria, in this case.  Also, because of our special order, the Shimano chain was in here in the original packaging.

Following the instructions in the User Guide, we remove the velcro straps securing the base bar and wheels.  I pulled the wheels out first, the rest of the cardboard pieces, and finally the frame.  Tucked away near the front of the bike were the Profile Design accessories Roger ordered.

At this point, I'm ready to put the bike together and would like to put it in the bike stand.  The problem is that I can't find the seatpost binder clamp.  Digging around, I'm starting to panic a bit when I realize the unmarked box has a secret compartment, with a whole pile of more goodies, including the seatpost binder clamp.  Crisis averted.  We hit the jackpot - along with the binder clamp, we've got the Di2 charger and plug tool, a torque wrench, thru-axles, an extra rear derailleur hanger, and a bunch of other stuff.  The good news is we've got lots of stuff!

The bad news?  Umm, we've got lots of stuff!  This is starting to look like a bike that the average consumer might not be able to assemble.  I get the impression this would be pretty intimidating for a new owner thinking they're going to get a bike that's almost ready to ride.

Nonetheless, we continue.  After installing the binder clamp, I put the bike in the stand for assembly.  Removing the last bit of packaging, I realize that when they describe the packaging that protects the rear part of the frame as a foam roller, they actually are including a real foam roller!  A quick look inside the box again, and the piece of foam that was used to protect the bottom of the fork is a pull buoy.  Way too fun - what a neat idea!

Since this bike was a special order without a crankset installed, the installation process was a bit more complex than what most folks will be faced with.  Basically, when you get this bike, you have the following to do:

1.  Install the seat post in the seat tube.
2.  Put the wheels on.
3.  Install the aerobar extensions.
4.  Install optional accessories.

Most of these steps are things a triathlete or cyclist will have to figure out eventually, but may not be comfortable doing themselves.  It seems like a lot at first, but Diamondback does a pretty good job of making it all as easy as it can be - the instructions are good, they provide things like carbon paste for the seat tube, etc., and also include a torque wrench so you can get it right.  It is nice to have a work stand and all the tools, but you could get by without.

For this specific bike, aside from the crankset installation, there were a couple of changes we ended up making.  When the bike arrived, Diamondback had set the pad stack and reach to be pretty close to what we had indicated online.  In this case, because Roger had selected the Profile Design Aeria cockpit, we had the ability to set it up a bit differently than Diamondback did.  Diamondback favored their stock stem spacers, while we chose to take those out and use the Aeria's pad/extension risers to get our desired position.  We felt it made for a bit cleaner front end, and frankly, looks a little cooler, too.

We also chose to swap out the round frame-mounted bottle that came with the Andean for an Elite Chrono bottle, which is a bit smaller, but makes for a tidy setup that is easier to get out of the cage.  As an added bonus, it matches the color scheme quite nicely, too.  If I were to use a traditional bottle on this bike, I would opt for a side-load cage to make it easier to get the bottle out.

Finally, we are looking to make for a smoother front end flow of the hydration system to the stem/storage box.  I am using Autodesk Fusion 360 to design a 3D-printed bracket to mount an FC35 on this bike.

With all this said, what does this bike and its gigantic box mean for the bike shops?  Diamondback is one of several brands working to make direct-to-consumer sales work.  I just got an e-mail the other day from Quintana Roo the other day where they were talking up their new packaging.  Talking with some of the bike shops in my area, many have realized that they need to adapt - maybe they aren't getting a new bike sale, but some are starting to offer an "Internet bike" assembly service, with some even supporting having the bike shipped directly to them for final assembly for the customer.  In my opinion, this has the potential to be a fair trade-off - make a little bit of service money without having the inventory/storage costs - although there might be some questions about how to handle any issues that come up, such as "what happens if the bike is damaged?" or "what if parts are missing?"

As Bob Dylan said, the times, they are a changin'.  As more manufacturers move to direct-to-consumer, will the local bike shop die off?  Only time will tell, but I think your LBS is safe for now, if they are willing to evolve with the marketplace.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Sidetracked Ride Review: Redbud Ride - London, Kentucky - April 21, 2018

After a pretty scary crash warming up for a cyclocross race in October 2016, I lost all desire to compete anymore, and decided to retire from racing - if you can call "no longer competing at the back of the pack in events I pay for" on par with "retiring from racing."  One of the main drivers for my racing was that I wanted to race in all 50 states plus 10 other countries, mostly because this set things up for "racecations" - a way to take the family to fun places that we might not otherwise consider.  It's a pretty simple deal - I get to go out and beat myself up for a day, and then we relax and have some family fun for a few days.  Everybody wins.  We've had a lot of fun in the process, and had hit 11 states before my accident.  Although I might not be racing anymore, I still want to continue creating good memories.

So, being a bit sidetracked, the goal has been tweaked: a metric century or longer in all 50 states and 10 other countries.  The attitude is different - I'm a tourist now.  The goals are simple: To take in the sights and experience.  To explore new places and new cultures, at a speed that allows one to take it all in.  To find peace through mileage.  To enjoy just riding a bike for the rest of my life.

These goals are not unlike the majority of the customers I see in the fit studio.  For many of us, there's something special about riding a bike - maybe it's the sensation of the speed and wind, or maybe it's a way to revert back to childhood, when a bike was our first real vehicle.  Whatever it is, it's a good feeling when you find it.  For some odd reason, I feel a need to share these experiences with you, in the hope that you might be intrigued by the events and participate someday, too.  I'm here to inform.  So, I hope you enjoy the first of what I hope will be many "Sidetracked" ride reviews.

The first event in this quest was the Redbud Ride in London, Kentucky.  I have known quite a few people who have spoken highly of this ride, it's not too far from home, and the timing was good - the Redbud Ride is held on a Saturday towards the end of April every year, and this year it fell on April 21.

The Redbud Ride consists of 4 different length routes in the hills of central Kentucky, all starting in downtown London, with the longer routes taking you into the Daniel Boone National Forest:

Yellow Route - 22 miles, 795 feet of elevation gain
Orange Route - 33.5 miles, 1,481 feet of elevation gain
Green Route - 62 miles, 2,423 feet of elevation gain
Red Route - 101 miles, 4,175 feet of elevation gain

If you have some extra time to make a long weekend out of it, there are two additional events:

1.  A warm-up ride on Friday starting in Barbourville, Kentucky, about 25 miles southeast of London.
2.  A cool-down ride on Sunday morning, starting in Berea, Kentucky, about 40 miles north of London.

The three rides together really make for a nice way to explore central Kentucky.  In retrospect, I wish I would have planned for the additional time.  When you register for the event, you don't select a specific route - you choose whatever route you feel up to.  I had planned on doing the Green Route to get in my metric century.  This was a bit aggressive, considering my longest ride of the year so far had been just over an hour on the trainer with Rouvy.  It's also a bit aggressive in the sense of the terrain - coming from central Indiana, we don't have much for hills.

I chose to do this trip solo, as I had a bit to learn about being a bike tourist.  I also didn't have a lot of extra time - head down after work on Friday evening, spend a night at a hotel, ride on Saturday morning, and return Saturday evening so I can be back in the fit studio on Sunday.  This was a bit of a whirlwind adventure, which was made quite a bit more adventurous by picking up a nail in my car tire somewhere south of Cincinnati.  That's a story for another time involving tire sealants, taxidermy, croissants, and a language barrier.  While I didn't get much sleep and at one point thought I would miss the ride in order to get my tire fixed, it all worked out pretty nicely in the end.

I had only been through London, KY, once before and happened to stay in the same hotel as last time.  I wasn't sure what the locals might think of cyclists coming into town for an event like this, but found that the few locals I interacted with seemed to embrace it.  The locals were friendly and accommodating.  The hotel even started breakfast earlier than normal so Redbud Ride participants could fuel up and get to the start in time.

The ride starts at 8 AM, although it's an open start time - you can really start any time until around 10 or 11, as long as you get to certain points in time.  Since I spent the first part of the morning in the tire shop, I didn't actually get to the start of the ride until after 9 AM.  Fortunately, some friends happened to be at the hotel and planned a bit later start due to the brisk temperatures (it was in the low 40s when we started out) and we rode to the start together.  They had already signed in and were doing the 100 mile red route, while I was doing the green route and still needed to sign in.  We went our separate ways, and I ended up riding most of the ride by myself.

The route was very pleasant, well-marked, and well-supported.  Spring has been a bit slow to arrive this year, so the signature Redbuds weren't in full bloom quite yet.  Matter of fact, the trees were all still pretty bare, with hints of green and a few Redbuds just starting to bud.  Regardless of the season, it is very pretty territory.  The first few miles are in London proper, but it's not long before you start getting into rural areas, and you soon find yourself on some very quiet backwoods roads, following along rivers, with glimpses of waterfalls, rock formations, and some rather interesting local culture.

The roads were very good and the routes were well-marked.  Since I had a late start, I didn't get a feel for what kind of crowd was at the 8 AM start time.  I am not aware of how many riders actually participated.  Printed maps were available at the start, but the roads were well-marked enough that I really didn't need the map, other than maybe for the first few turns in town, which happen in fairly quick succession.

The event provided SAG support, and for much of the ride, the majority of the cars I encountered were the SAG vehicles.  I was amazed at just how many people volunteered and helped out with the event - from the SAG, to the rest stops, to the volunteers at the start and post-race party, and even a few folks helping to guide on course, there were plenty of volunteers.  The locals were friendly, and I found myself waving at a lot of folks along the way.

The Redbud folks also did a really nice job with the rest stops, which were located every 10-15 miles apart.  The food was plentiful with lots of choices from fresh fruit, to various homemade goods like brownies and cookies, to pizza.  There were a couple of flavors of Gatorade and water, too.  The food was served under tents and chairs were available to rest and hang out with friends.

I didn't get any pictures along the ride other than the picture at the top of this article.  Immediately after the second rest stop, there is a bridge that you are required to walk across, due to the gaps between the planks on the bridge being just wide enough to catch a tire.  The ride is also fairly hilly, with most of it gently undulating, with a few flats and a couple of bigger climbs thrown in for good measure.  There were two fairly challenging climbs, with the lesser of the two at around mile 11 and the biggest climb around mile 31 of the green route.

Overall, I found this to be a really enjoyable event, and would certainly recommend it to just about anybody - the 4 different ride routes provide whatever challenge you feel you can handle.  I do have a couple of things I wish I would have done differently: Since my tire adventures threw off my schedule a bit, I didn't get nearly as much time in London as I would have liked, and I'm not sure what London had to offer for the family to do.  Perhaps some others can chime in in the comments below.  I also didn't get to partake in the start when a majority of people started, so still have no idea just how big the event actually was.  I personally like a lack of crowds, and enjoyed just being alone with my thoughts and the wind for a few hours on a beautiful Kentucky Saturday.  The Redbud Ride has certainly set a high bar for my expectations of rides going forward.