The Rant: Millimeters Matter

Originally posted on June 21, 2017 at 1:33 am

Hang on, hang on
Yes, it’s the little things
Yes, it’s the little things
That do us harm
I’m not a stranger
Ain’t a mystery
When we both get it wrong
-“Hang On,” Dr. Dog

The longer I ride bikes, the more it seems that tiny changes can make a big difference in my enjoyment of the ride. But I’m beginning to wonder how much of that is driven by my own skills, experiences and weaknesses as a rider.

Some small details take a long time to figure out. I spent years with knee pain from cycling. I tried all the typical stuff. I slid my saddle around. I ran my saddle a little high; I ran it a little low. I tried cranks with a low Q-factor. I tried 165 mm cranks; I tried 180 mm cranks. But it wasn’t until I slipped some serious arch support into my shoes that my knee pain went away.

My local riding doesn’t have much in the way of sustained descents, but I often end up riding in areas that have a lot of descending. Thousands of feet, all at once, and in a hurry. Depending on my fitness, that can become problematic for me, mostly due to legs that aren’t up to the task of hanging off the back of the bike for so long. Ruining the flow of an amazing descent to shake out leg cramps on the side of the trail is no bueno.

The fix? Leg presses in the offseason? Building my own shuttle trail? Getting a season pass at the local bike park? Nope, nope and nope. I slid my cleats back on my shoes. With less of my feet hanging off the back of the pedal, my legs don’t have to work so hard in rough terrain, and I went from crampy and grumpy to relaxed and focused. All of that for zero dollars and about 5 minutes of time. I expected this to affect my pedaling, but after a few weeks, it felt normal. A few months later when I pulled out the winter shoes, the cleat position felt weird. And wrong.

And grips! What took me so long to find grips I really like? I spent decades swapping grips, dealing with hand pain, trying stuff I figured wouldn’t work but worked for others, circling around and trying grips I didn’t like a few years ago, hoping they would be better this time around. Things would get bad with my hands. So bad that during the last day of a rocky stage race my right hand gave up and just fell off the bars on a descent. I am not sure how I saved that one, but I didn’t break any teeth that weren’t already broken that day.

In my defense, what I was after might not have existed until recently. I like my grips thick, but not squishy, so Oury, ESI and other big, soft grips just never work for me. But over the last few years, I’ve been riding on some firmer grips from Ergon, WTB and Easton that have changed my riding for the better.

I get persnickety about other small things, such as handlebar tilt and brake lever reach. But on the other hand, I’ve stopped thinking much about wheel size, to the point I’ve been scolded by readers for not including wheel size information in reviews. I remember having issues with dropping smaller wheels into holes that a 29er would roll over years ago, but perhaps I’ve adapted? It is not that I don’t notice the differences between 26, 27.5, 27plus, 29 and 29plus tires, but rather that any of those sizes can make a good bike, at least for me.

Millimeters matter, that much is obvious, and the bike industry knows this. The issue is: Not all millimeters matter to all riders. What might be one rider’s life-changing change of grip diameter or chainstay length might ruin things for another.

What has been proven, again and again, is that there is always room for improvement. Sometimes that improvement is new technology or materials; sometimes that improvement is a fit issue, and sometimes that improvement is an adaptation to an injury or change in riding style.

It is easy to get wrapped up in the idea that we need to spend a lot of money to change our riding experience, but some of the changes that have made the most impact on my riding have been cheaper than a night out at the local microbrewery. Everything is constantly changing: our bodies, our skills, the terrain, the bikes we ride. Might as well embrace it and be open to some changes. Even if they seem like minor differences, they might make all the difference.

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