The Mid-Season Bike Swap
I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how I was able to successfully change frames leading up to my win at Mt. Washington, and why I did it.
In July I was fortunate enough to have a very attractive opportunity to swap over to Fuji's flagship climbing frame, the featherweight SL 1.1, which would be a real upgrade when it came to climbing performance compared to my setup at the time. Going from one bike to another is never easy and doing it mid-season can be particularly tricky. When everything was said and done I was looking at roughly a month to get the new one dialed in before I would start racing.
It was a hard decision to make because there was no time to spare for getting used to something new, easing into it, making little changes over the course of a couple weeks, etc. This is normally what you do when you get a new bike at team training camp in the winter (if not during the off-season). Instead I needed to be able to put the bike together, do a few easier rides, and then get straight back to work.
By July my training was finally on track and the numbers on the power meter and on the scale were looking good. With races in the US that suited my qualities few and far between this summer, I honed in on Mt. Washington, which had already been on my "bucket list" for a few years. Over the winter I had read Ray Dalio's phenomenal memoir, Principles, which I really enjoyed and had begun using some of his approaches to thinking and decision-making when it came to chasing after one's goals.
I'll save that for another post, but it was in this way that I arrived at the decision to swap frames in the way that I did. It came down to the numbers, something I love because they keep things unemotional and objective: swapping over from my current setup to the Fuji would save me somewhere between 1200 and 1500 grams. One kilo is generally known to save 4.5-5 watts when going uphill, so this meant a savings of 6-7.5 watts. Doesn't sound like much, but that's north of 2%. That's massive. Add to that some additional savings from things like the seatpost, and I was looking at saving over two kilos for a gain of more than 3%. It was a no-brainer.
With the decision made, I turned my attention to making the transition as smooth as possible. How does one make two different frames with different geometries match up? I had previously experienced a lot of trouble over the years getting new bikes set up correctly when changing teams. So I was very nervous, especially since I had no time to spare. Again returning to Dalio's book, I knew that my knowledge was not enough in this area. I needed to tap into the knowledge of experts in this field.
This lead me to long-time friend and supporter, Paul Swift, previously of Bike Fit now known as Cycle Point. Paul invented the cleat wedge that goes under your cleats so that the angle of your shoe in the pedals matches the angle of your foot in real life (more on his websites linked above). He's a true pioneer and expert in all things bike fitting, and was happy to help. He asked me a number of questions about my current setup which I sent over to him, along with the geometry from both the current and future frames.
I'll let Paul speak for himself:
"What we were trying to do was get Barry's position on the new bike to match his old one as closely as possible. It's never going to be perfect going from one frame to another but we could get it pretty close. I had Barry send me the two frames' geometries so I could compare, along with his measurements for seat height, setback, reach, stem length and angle, and any spacers on the stem.
"First I compared the two geometries, and as luck had it they were very close. The height of the head tube seemed a tad higher on the Fuji but reviewing Barry’s goals and the hill climb coming soon I felt this was going to be a good thing. Mind you this was not much but even a mm or two can make a difference with your fit. The reach was almost the same so that was a no-brainer. Keeping the hill climb in mind we forged ahead with the swap-over. From there he just needed to plug in his measurements to get the saddle right and he was good to go.
On one hand it was pretty straight-forward from a numbers perspective but when you change something during a season just a little at a time like this you can never be too concerned. All that was left was the final and more subjective part of making sure everything felt right when the rubber hit the road. Generally these are tiny changes - a millimeter or two here or there.
Despite what the numbers said, the Fuji's geometry felt very different. I was pleasantly surprised at this point to find that the drop from saddle to stem was a lot more than on my previous bike, not less like the numbers had suggested. I had feared the opposite since Fujis tend to go with a sloping top tube. This is a big issue for riders my size, because it's hard to get the front end low enough to begin with, and it's only become worse in recent years as bike manufacturers use bigger and bigger head tubes. Steve Fairchild, who designed the frame for Fuji, had worked hard to avoid this on the SL 1.1, and the result was honestly the best frame I've ever ridden.
Despite all the fuss over the front end with it being slightly lower it actually proved to be a good thing. I had an easier time rotating my hips forward and could better engage my glutes and lower back, something I noticed the moment I went uphill. Paul and I were happy to see this. I also had an easier time breathing since I could better relax and drop my diaphragm. On the handling side, the lower front end along with the frame's rake and wheelbase made the performance on descents absolutely phenomenal.
Another nice difference was going from a big beefy aero frame to a climbing frame with skinny tubes. This allowed me to bring my knees in closer at the top of the pedal stroke, a more natural leg position bio-mechanically. This also has the added side-effect of letting me better engage my core which is a very important component when tackling steep, prolonged gradients like those seen on Mt. Washington or at the Green Mountain Stage Race.
I should mention that the nice thing about doing all of this at home, mid-season, was that I could easily compare things on the same roads and climbs that I had been training on all season, literally days before.
The only major change I ended up making was to go with a 1 cm shorter stem (same angle though). This was because the shorter front end had made for a longer reach to the handlebars. Otherwise I kept everything the same, and was back doing my regular training by the end of the week. A few weeks later I packed up the car and headed north for Mt Washington.
Did it work? It's hard to argue with success; in fact you learn a lot more from losing. In the end I won practically everything I could have possibly imagined winning during my abbreviated season. It's impossible to single out one factor from the dozens — maybe hundreds — of other ones that lead to me crossing the line with my hands in the air. Did the frame play a role in me winning? I think so. But how much and how critical a role is impossible to say.
Was it worth it? It's hard to say. As one of my favorite quotes goes, "Life is just a game of inches." Did the weight savings make a difference? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe I gained a few watts in weight savings but lost a few from missing some training days, stressing over the new setup, etc. Did the improved position and better handling have an impact? I think so, but how can you really measure that?
Maybe I was in better position off a descent to make a break because I was more comfortable on the Fuji. Maybe I was able to conserve more energy coming into the final climb because my economy of motion was better. All possible. On the other hand, maybe the aero benefits of my previous bike would have made up for the difference, even if I were a little further back in the field before I bridged to the break. Who knows?
In the end, swapping frames didn't hurt my performance, so I'll call it a success. As an added bonus I'm happy to have found a frame that I feel really comfortable on and enjoy riding. More importantly, I've now got a blueprint for how to handle these sorts of changes easily in the future. I'll be able to seamlessly swap back to my old frame this off-season when weather gets nasty. Hopefully you, too, will find some of this useful for setting up new bikes in the future.
Thanks for stopping by, and thanks to Paul and Cycle Point for helping me pull it off!