Randy Newman’s silly tune “Short People” was unfortunately taken literally rather than as its intended satire by the listening public when it was released back in 1977. So, I heard this song all too often in the wrong context in those days – with people I knew laughingly singing the lyrics while mocking their friends of shorter stature, seemingly with full license from Randy himself.
But, the song was intended instead to mock those who held such discriminatory, narrow views of other humans who were ever so slightly different from themselves – a problem of human nature which seems to know no end or bounds (current events confirm this resoundingly).
The cycling industry is a casualty of such views, not only with regard to human stature, but also with regard to gender and race.
One of my quests has been to educate cyclists about the world they encounter when trying to find the appropriate bicycle for their needs. In an ideal world, there would be no bias toward any particular size or type of bicycle. Instead, bicycles would be manufactured according to the variation of human sizes, and according to their intended purposes (and that is to say that only a tiny fraction of bicycles would be “racing bicycles”).
The opposite was true for many recent decades. Bicycles manufactured to fit only a certain taller human were offered, and all such bicycles were conceived as racing machines, since that is what appealed to the western, white male mass culture of the times.
The needs of daily riders, smaller cyclists, older cyclists, non-male, and non-white cyclists, and differently-abled cyclists were never considered. Economic justice issues as they relate to transportation were not even in the vocabulary.
Meanwhile, let’s talk about what has changed and is changing in the industry, and how those changes address these basic inequalities:
Wheel size: the move toward smaller wheels for smaller frames is finally underway…again. There was no bias in the early days of cycling toward any particular sized wheel. “Velocio” championed small wheeled bicycles from the late 1800’s through the early 1900’s as more efficient, even though he was of taller stature than most humans. Georgena Terry is a modern day pioneer of small wheeled bicycles. She continues to design frames around the anatomy of cyclists who are of smaller stature. Rodriguez Cycles, builder of custom frames in Seattle, also figured this out long ago, offering many frames designed for 650b, 650c and 26″ wheel sizes. Brompton, Bike Friday and other builders of small wheeled and foldable bicycles (which can be ridden by humans of any size) are also part of the solution. Grant Petersen of Rivendell began offering smaller frames designed for 26″ and 650b wheels decades ago, well ahead of any current wheel size trends.
Frame size, construction and materials: While I love and prefer lugged steel frames, fillet brazed and TIG welded steel frames offer much in the way of customization for tube angles. Georgena Terry’s smaller frames feature fillet brazing, with a sloping top tube. Purchasers of her custom built frames can specify the degree of slope they prefer. But one thing to remember is that for any cyclist who is actually riding a bicycle with appropriate sized wheels, they also need to carefully consider top tube length, which for me is the most important measurement on a bike’s frame. The Terry that I include in my constellation of daily riders is a fillet TIG welded off the shelf Tange steel model from the 90’s. The short 51 cm top tube means that I experience a comfortable ride, even on long hauls. The 559 wheels allow for a large head tube – and that means an overall very comfortable ride, with more steel underneath the rider to absorb road shock. Shorter cyclists should rule out most modern aluminum frames, as they will be much too stiff and uncomfortable due to their smaller overall size. One exception is vintage ALAN frames (or any other bonded aluminum frame) from the 70’s to the 90’s. These aluminum frames can actually be more flexible and comfortable than their steel counterparts.
The crazy obsession with stand over height: When was the last time you had an unfortunate encounter with your bike’s top tube? Probably, if you are an adult, the answer is NEVER. There really is no reason to fret over whether you have just the right amount of stand-over height for your bicycle (whatever that is) unless you are planning to use your bike for stunts. It’s very easy to dismount a slightly taller bike than one you would normally ride and lean it over at stops. If you have ever been to Portland, you’ll enjoy seeing the occasional tall bike making its way through traffic. The rider has no chance of putting a foot down at stops, and instead learns to balance and maneuver their odd contraption, sans traditional bike fitting advice.
And, summing up: if you are a shorter cyclist looking to get back in to cycling, or to find a bicycle better suited for your build, DON’T go to your Local Bike Shop (at least not initially). Look at the bike you currently have: can it be converted to a smaller wheel size? If not, I advise purchasing an appropriate frame (or having it custom built), and then building it up to your spec’s from there. Better yet, learn how to do this yourself by enrolling in the many bike maintenance classes that are available in your city. Smaller lugged steel mountain bike frames make wonderful and inexpensive commuter bikes – but pay attention to the top tube length. And, there are many lugged steel vintage 700c frames that are good candidates for conversion to 650b.