I have had my "it's all about the bike" experience. While I cannot possibly do justice to it in the way that Robert Penn did in his excellent book, I can stumble through my own version. It is about my experience at Engima Bicycle Works. This is a company that might be relatively small but it nevertheless offers something that few other company's can or are perhaps are willing to, whether in terms of enthusiasm, quality, attention to detail or customer care. Dealing with this group of people sure beats any experience I have had of going to any bicycle or triathlon shop or retailer. There again, I must confess to like to talking to and dealing with people who have an interest in, if not a passion, for what it is they are building and/or selling. I certainly got this at Enigma.
I should perhaps explain that Enigma is a local company. It is based in Hailsham. It is a boutique firm that specialises in hand built titanium and steel frames. It offers standard sized or custom-built frames and complete bikes across a range of models and styles.
I have had one of their titanium frames, which I had built up as a time trial bike, for the last five years. I have loved riding it. It is comfortable, light, yet strong and, I must confess aesthetically pleasing. Some of you will know that I called this machine 'Mabel'. Unfortunately I noticed a nasty crack had developed just above the front derailleur the night before the Worthing Tri. I must confess to have been in something akin to mourning. Mabel had so superbly carried my overly large body mass, had to put up with my horridly imbalanced and stomping pedalling style (which I wondered might have had something to do with the crack?), as well as my complete inability to steer in anything remotely like a straight line. It had done all of this quite superbly and given me a great deal of pleasure and pride when doing so. Mabel has very much been a part of me improving from a 'can I get round?' participant, to a 'can I improve my time?' and then to an age group representative athlete.
I thought carefully about what type of frame I wanted and whether I wanted to go back to carbon. Carbon, after all, is light, rigid and capable of being moulded into wondrously looking designs. I looked at what all of the main off the shelf manufacturers were offering. I marvelled at the apparent magic of modern science and was tempted by the time saving aero claims associated with what are increasingly looking like space-age machines that are remote relatives of the classic triangulated diamond frame pattern. I was really tempted to get what the pros are using. After all, these are carrying them to success and why should one of them not do the same for me?
I had a chat with a few people who know much more about these things than me. I looked online, went into bikes shops and spoke with really capable athletes and cyclists. I got some really interesting views. When all was said and done, I sat down and decided to create a list of what I wanted from the bike given who and what I am as a triathlete. I wanted something that would fit me, as a person; carry me in relative comfort (important given that I tend towards middle and long distance races) and which would be functionally focused for racing. I had to be conscious that: (a) I am close to 60; (b) not nearly as quick in reality as I am in my dreams; (c) hardly have the classic body shape or size for a triathlete, with a rather body frame, including wide shoulders; (d) despite my best efforts, somewhat heavy and still have considerable bulk, with a large and sprawling rear end and spare tyres around the middle that on a good day do justice to the lava lamp appreciation society and (e) that I am noted for being a pedal stomper rather than a classic stylist.
When I weighed everything up, I decided that if I was to spend the amount of money to get the bike that I wanted, it was probably best to stay with what has served me so well and which has given me so much pleasure and pride. Perhaps most significantly, I wanted yet another unique frame that was suited to me and built for me. I like titanium. I like the look of it, the feel of it and the ride it provides. I bought the original frame for no other reason than I have so much of David Rickett's and his colleagues efforts at titanium meccano-building in my body that I thought I might as well stay with it for my bike frame. This though, I was going to have the frame custom built for me.
So, on the 17th August, I took myself off to my appointment for a fitting at the Enigma workshops and for a discussion as to what I wanted. I had some idea that I wanted to maximise a power output from a solid, comfortable riding position off of a reasonably aggressive set-up but other than that, not much else. As is usual there, I was met with the most friendly, polite and helpful people, whether the back room staff, the designers or the craftsmen who build the frames and bikes. I was immediately put at my ease and made to feel welcome.
The first part involved some discussion with Paul Smith, the fitter and designer, about what I wanted the bike for, how I intended to ride it, on what course and in what races. He looked at my training bike as a basis for assessing my current riding style and set-up. He looked at me off the bike and then on my training bike set up on a turbo-trainer. He took various measures of my body and then of my bike. I could sense from the outset that this very experienced eye had much to offer in the way of advice. This was very much an old fashioned fitting, way away from the technical, electronically based retul based system that is advertised in most of our magazines. True enough, within seconds of pedaling, Paul suggested that we raise my saddle "a bit". 'A bit' turned out to be a lot, as Paul moved me through incremental raises in the height of the saddle to get me to what he thought would be the optimum height for efficiency and comfort. I had thought that I had a pretty good feel for where my saddle ought to be but I was way out. I was suddenly pedaling with a much freer and rounded style, moving away from the stomping and somewhat imbalanced style I had been using just a few minutes early. We talked then about rising in the aero position and he watched as I pedaled, trying to emulate the flat, un-oving back of Sir Bradley and succeeding only in giving an impression of a waddling tail of a fish that is being systematically torn form its body. Nonetheless, after considerable discussion and careful watching of me riding did Paul did announce that he had enough information for that stage and that I could stop pedaling. It was just as well really. I was knackered. I had been going for what was nearly an hour - not that I normally moan about the opportunity to train. However, I had ridden over there from home and was acutely conscious that I had to ride back again. A gentle 50ish mile training session was becoming something more and I didn't want to appear to be a wimp. Paul took another series of measurements and began to input the information onto a computer programme.
We talked about the design of the bike over a cup of tea and then started the process of adjusting the dimensions and configuration. I had decided during the discussion with Paul that I wanted the machine to have traditional tubing. I was secretly questioning myself as to whether I was mad to eschew aero tubing but then when I thought about it, I am not likely to hold speeds above 25 mph for long periods. Moreover, given my body size and shape, even in the tuck, I present such a huge frontal drag mass that is unlikely to be compensated by a 1 cm saving on the front-end width. I also find it hard to pedal in anything like a straight line when in the tuck and, therefore, am not likely to be the best candidate for wind tunnel tested physics. At the same time, I am getting old and quite like the retro look that goes with my age. This bike, after all, is most likely to be the last TT bike that I get and it might as well look a bit like the fat old bloke who is riding it.
What Paul came up with is, to my mind, a super compromise of TT suited specifications, pleasing aesthetics and satisfying customer focused design. I have shown the finished specification below. It is, to me, everything that I could ask for. It might not have the super futuristic looks of a Specialised Shiv, or a Cannodale Slice or the slickness of a BMC Timemachine but none of them can, to my mind, match up to the fact that this bike was designed specifically and will be uniquely built just for me - and it comes in at a price that makes me wonder how the off the shelf machines can justify the prices that they charge. I bet too that a customer buying one f them will not get the personal-based, focused and super friendly service that I got at Enigma. This is an experience that I will remember for a long time. I hope that I will be able to do justice to what is produced for me.