Salty Triathlete: The Search for a Small Enough Bike
Many female triathletes are left riding bikes that are way too big for them. Contributor Kelly O'Mara shares her experience.
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I’d like to start by saying: I’m not that small. At 5’2” I’m really only a few inches shorter than the average American woman. And it’s not like triathletes are on the tall side of average anyways. This isn’t basketball. Basically, I’m a relatively normal size for a small female triathlete.
You’d think, then, it’d be relatively straight-forward to find triathlon equipment that fits me. And yet.
For years, I’ve ridden time trial bikes in the smallest sizes available—whatever the company bothered to designate their smallest version: S, XS— without a whole lot of specifics usually other than “this is our smallest frame” or “it fits everyone under 5’6.” Really, everyone? At one point, I was riding the same Shiv as my husband. For the record, we are not the same size.
The reality is most of the time bike companies manufacture just three or four time-trial molds, designed to cover the majority of sizes. Often, they’re simply taking the bike frame that fits the average 5’8”-5’9” man and shrinking it down slightly—without re-engineering it for stiffness or variances in geometry. Then maybe throw on some 165cm cranks (if you’re lucky) and call it a small.
If you’re not 5’2” or smaller, then you’re probably thinking this sounds reasonable and totally normal. If you are my size, then you know it’s a little bit insane and rare for the “small” to really be small enough. Why are we riding around on bikes with the same frame measurements and specs as people bigger than us? Why shouldn’t we be on 650 wheels? Just because it doesn’t make profitable sense for the industry?
It became clear over the winter, as much as I loved my bike, I needed something smaller. I was simply at the limits of what the frame could handle, with a stem I had to special order to get the front end close enough and a dangerously positioned water bottle. And still, it wasn’t as aggressive an aero position as most of the women I was racing against. I needed an actually small, designed for someone my size, bike. But finding that turned out to be comically challenging.
In some ways, it’s not really the bike companies’ fault. It’s just math. Small riders, who are often women, simply haven’t had many options in high-end time trial bikes. There aren’t many of us who are buying high-end time trial bikes at all—and the number of us buying those bikes who are smaller than 5’4” or 5’2” is even less. Throw in the fact that small bikes are often women’s bikes, and women’s time trial bikes (sigh) are usually beginner time trial bikes (because math)—and what I ended up getting were online forums where someone would try to sell me their totally great “small” 2014 entry-level bike with clip-on bars.
THAT IS NOT THE SAME THING AS A TOP-LEVEL TT BIKE I CAN RACE IN THE PRO FIELD.
After scouring all the forums and listserves and sitting in the back of a work conference Googling on my phone, it turned out there were two used 48cm Cervélo P5s with Di2 for sale in the U.S. and one in Canada. I could buy a 45cm frame new from China and have it shipped for a not small amount of money, but then I’d still have to spec it. Or I could wait until the bike shops were restocked with new P5s whenever Cervelo made whatever its new announcement was going to be—and hope that’d be soon enough and good enough. And, yes, I was set on Cervelo, because it was widely acknowledged as the best the short of us could do.
That was when I met Dan.
It was basically just luck. Or I’d still be bike-less and contemplating stealing my husband’s Shiv back. Dan Kennison came up to me at the Triathlon Business International conference to tell me about a bike he’d designed specifically for riders my size. I was skeptical. Like actually a small bike or just a “small” bike?
This is where I should tell you: Dan gave me one of his XS Premier Bike TT bikes for free to ride for the year. To see what I really thought about being on a bike designed for me.
But he had to sell me on it first since my first priority for the winter was getting the right size bike. Dan saw opportunity for his company and spent the last year engineering a genuinely tiny bike from scratch, building his own 650 carbon wheels to come with it, and then spec’ing it with all the top-level components. Even my bike fitter was impressed it came stocked with a 155cm Infocranks power meter. “That’s someone who’s done their research,” he said.
It’s alarming now actually being on a bike that’s small enough for me. I almost crashed the first time I rolled down my sidewalk. The ground was so much closer than I expected. After a decade of being told things that were too big were the right size, it’s now taking an entire recalibration of my riding to be able to handle my new bike. Plus, I’m finally able to get in a much more aggressive position and all of a sudden I understand why people’s necks get sore after hours of TTing.
I’m hoping I wasn’t lied to for so long that it’s too late to re-learn the truth. I’m hoping this is the feel of speed that actually really fits.