Monday, November 15, 2010

Tall Man On a Bike

This post is about tall men on bicycles, not about tall bikes. Possibly tall women and anyone on the fringes of normalcy of size and body proportion will find something useful here too, or at least someone to commiserate with.

Let me start off by admitting up front that I am no bike expert. Everything I have learned about bicycles comes from a few months of focussed obsession. If you think I have something wrong, feel free to point it out in the comments.

I'm 6'7" tall. Readers of my blog already know this, but I expect that this post will get a lot of visits from search engines. My own experience tells me that it is almost impossible to find advice on bikes for the tall using google, so I am intentionally including some text to make this more findable. This advice is tailored for those, say, 6'5" and up. If you are 6'2" (and male) normal bike buying mostly applies unless you are oddly proportioned - go to your local bike shop (LBS) and they will take care of you (or go to a couple and pick the one that seems most competent to go back to). In between 6'2" and 6'5" it kind of depends on your proportions.

I haven't had a bike since I was a kid. One day a few months ago I decided that I wanted a bike, so I did what anyone would do. I went to my most bike knowledgeable friends and sought their advice. They almost unanimously told me to go to my LBS. So I did. A couple. A few. A bunch. And I went to REI. And it wasn't all that helpful.

Here is some math for you that illustrates the problem. About one person in ten thousand is my height or taller. Let's imagine an extremely experienced bike shop owner who has sold five thousand bikes. What are the odds that he has sold bikes to enough really tall people to be considered knowledgeable about the problem (say 3 tall people)? I won't bother you with the actual number because it is vanishingly close to zero. There is in fact a 99.5% chance that he has never sold a bike to even one person my height or taller.

Here is what will happen. You'll walk in and say, "I'm 6'7", what kind of bike should I get?" They will ask you some questions about what kind of riding you want to do and perhaps take some measurements. If they are honest they will at some point tell you that there isn't really anything and you should go custom. But eventually all of them, even the honest ones, will try to sell you a mass produced bike.

They'll find the biggest bike they have or can get and talk to you about adjusting it to fit you. They'll talk to you about sliding the saddle back and getting a longer seat post and adjusting the bar and stem and so on. If you go this route you will spend a thousand dollars on a bike that doesn't really fit. It might work OK. It might cause you back aches. It might handle super funky. It might rattle your teeth. It might fall to bits in a few years, crushed under your weight and mangled by the stresses you put on it.

Here's the thing: there is no mass produced bike that will fit you. Let me say that again. There is no mass produced bike that will fit you. If anyone reading this knows of one, please do us all a favor and post a comment. But there isn't one. Really.

When I finally came to this conclusion I was very annoyed, even angry. But I have mellowed a bit. I don't go into a mall expecting to be able to buy clothing, so why should I go into a bike shop expecting to be able to buy a bike? As with many things you are going to have to pay more than most people. I call this the "tall tax" when I am in a good mood and "bullshit" when I am in a bad mood.

OK, so what are the options?
  • Get the new mass produced bike anyway. Look for a strong frame and fork - I advise steel. Larger frames that use the same strength tubing are intrinsically weaker and tall people are intrinsically heavier. Get strong wheels too. Skip the suspension or get a super strong one that you can lock out. Get something as adjustable as possible - threadless headsets are your mortal enemy.
  • Find the biggest used frame you can and fix it up yourself with adjustable parts (long seat post, long quill stem). This still won't fit, but it will cost a lot less. Look for strong. Look for adjustable. It will be hard to find a good large frame, so expect the search to take some time. Craigslist is your friend. You should consider being your own bike mechanic.
  • Find a stock frame from a smaller company that fits. There aren't a ton of these, but Rivendell Bicycle Works has two frames that fit me - a 71cm A. Homer Hilsen and a 68cm Bombadil. This is the way I went and I'll let you know how it turns out in future posts (I ordered an A. Homer Hilsen - they had three of these in stock, bless their tall-friendly souls).
  • Go custom. There is a lot of good news here. A custom frame designer is much more likely to know how to help you. You can build what makes sense for you.
How much are the last two going to cost? A lot. It is going to be at least $1,000 for a frame and fork and probably a good deal closer to $2,000 (and up). And then you have to turn that into a bike. You can buy cheap parts, but I at least couldn't bring myself to do that after buying a high end frame. If you don't put it together yourself there will be a fee associated with that. If you do put it together yourself you will have shipping fees from all of the places you source the parts from and you'll need a bunch of tools. You might be able to put together a bike for $1,800, but it would be quite challenging and I'm not sure what you would end up with, so probably a bit more than that at a minimum. You can put together a very nice bike for twice that.

But wait, you say what you really want is a folding bike? An electric bike? Some form of technical mountain bike that I've never heard of? My advice: want something else - you'll be happier.

If you get a custom frame you can have it made with couplers that will make it foldable, but it will be "fold it for air travel" foldable, not "commute to the office, collapse the bike, and carry it to your office" foldable.

There are kits for converting bikes to electric. The geek in me kind of wants to try this on some old used frame, but they aren't cheap and I certainly don't need anything like this. But maybe you do.

Here is some stuff you might find useful:
  • Rivendell on picking a frame size.
  • Zinn on crank length. I myself didn't take this advice, largely because of cost. I will have a 180mm crank, but the article says I should have a 216mm crank.
  • Sheldon Brown on bike sizing. This has links to even more resources. Sheldon's site is a wealth of information.
  • Zinn Cycles actually specializes in bikes for the big and tall. I went with a Rivendell because I want an all-purpose bike, but if your tastes run to something more modern and fit for purpose this looks good to me.
Good luck in your bike hunt!