Funnyman Robin Williams has two. Less funny presidential also-ran John Kerry has four. Rich but not famous Manhattan hedge-fund magnate Ephi Gildor has just flown his helicopter 45 miles up the Hudson River to the town of Central Valley, New York, to get fitted for his very own Serotta—the ultimate custom-built pedaling machine.
Soon after entering Serotta's headquarters, Gildor pronounces himself a hunchback. That's an exaggeration; he's an ex-jock with some curvature in his upper dorsal area. But Paul Levine, who trains Serotta "tailors" nationwide, doesn't miss a beat: "And we're going to build a bicycle for that hunchback."
While the name Serotta may suggest some high-end Italian job, the company is actually a labor of love for the American Ben Serotta. After apprenticing with a master bicycle-frame builder in London, he returned to his hometown, Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1972 to marry traditional craftsmanship with a high-tech approach to customized fit. Most bespoke bike companies will construct a bike from your body measurements the way a Neapolitan clothier sews a tailor-made suit. But for the 150 Serotta dealers across the States (including Levine, with stores in Manhattan and Central Valley), matching more than 3,000 bikes a year to their new owners goes well beyond the tape measure.
First, Levine quizzes Gildor about his riding habits and goals (to compete in his first Ironman triathlon, it turns out). Since Gildor is new to cycling, he doesn't really have a riding style, but a more experienced client could tell Levine whether, for instance, he attacks the hills more like Lance Armstrong, who is often out of the saddle and leaning over the front wheel, or former American great Greg LeMond, who usually slid back in the saddle and grinded away, his weight over the back wheel. (Rumor has it that LeMond won a Tour de France on a Serotta disguised to resemble the bike of one of his sponsors.) Different body weight distribution suggests a different optimal frame shape, or geometry. Levine does know that neophyte Gildor needs a stable, no-surprises ride, which translates to a longer wheelbase and gentler tube angles.
Unlike the off-the-rack racing machine in your local bike shop's window, a Serotta—be it the titanium Legend ($5,500-$7,500), the steel-framed CDA ($3,200-$5,000, depending on the components), or the carbon-and-titanium Ottrott ($8,000-$12,000)—doesn't have a fixed personality. The bike's temperament is what emerges in the fitting stages to suit the body and soul of its rider.
The heart of this process is a test ride on Serotta's trademark SizeCycle. A sophisticated version of a stationary trainer, it measures the power applied to each pedal with every stroke. As Levine adjusts the lengths and angles of the tubes that compose the diamond-shaped frame, as well as the position of the saddle and handlebars, he studies the power readout on the computer monitor to gauge the effect. The more natural Gildor's position, the fewer kinks in his "kinetic chain" of firing muscles, the more watts generated. Levine takes some 18 measurements from what is now a Gildor-tuned SizeCycle and plots them on a spreadsheet, which he'll send to the Serotta factory in Saratoga Springs. In four weeks' time Levine will have the frame, machined to within a millimeter's tolerance of his specs, and he'll build it with the best stuff on the market—Easton or Mavic carbon wheels; top drivetrain, or gruppo, from Shimano or Campagnolo; a Fizik saddle; and Easton carbon handlebars—all positioned for comfort and maximum leg power based on the SizeCycle data. ("How does the saddle feel?" Levine asks. "Pretty good but not like a sofa," Gildor says.) Serotta offers 25 frame colors and 12 decal choices, which you can mix and match to your heart's desire.
This level of customization defines Serotta in an increasingly crowded high-end bike market. Whether produced by larger U. S. companies such as Trek or smaller, more soigné Euro brands such as Colnago or Bianchi, equipment that was once the near-exclusive province of pro racers is now almost de rigueur for the keen recreational cyclist of means. We're talking frames of less than three pounds, made from superstrong, ultralight materials such as carbon fiber and titanium, matched with top-of-the-line gears, brakes, and cranks. The price of admission to this club begins at around $4,000 and maxes out somewhere north of ten.
Now, you can't spend that kind of money and buy a bad bike. But you can roll out of the shop with a bad fit, which amounts to the same thing. Either your body doesn't match an off-the-rack frame size (latenight talk-show host Conan O'Brien, he of the superlong legs, is a Serotta devotee) or the handlebar angle is wrong. You're too high or too low, too stretched out or too cramped. The result is less than optimal performance and, perhaps more important to the noncompetitor, the likelihood of an achy back, a tight neck, sore knees.
A Serotta fitting session can double as a remedial course in Serious Cycling 101. For example, O'Brien went on training rides with Levine to master basics such as pulling the pedals back and up from the six o'clock to the twelve o'clock position using the hamstring and psoas muscles so as to eliminate the "dead spots" in the stroke. Get it right and you're not just pedaling, you're "spinning," which has an almost metaphysical resonance. When Lance is really on form, he'll say he doesn't "feel the chain"—in other words, he's spinning so strongly and smoothly, all sensation of resistance melts away. Doubtless, Levine would like to capture that on a spreadsheet.