Photo: Chris Milliman
We here at Paved are sad to see that Serotta bicycles will soon be shutting its doors. Ben Serotta made the bikes for the 7-Eleven team—the first American team to race the Tour de France—and for years Serotta has been one of the most respected small bicycle brands in the business. We hope to see Ben make good on his desire to build bikes again in the future.
Paved contributor Gary Boulanger profiled Ben Serotta in our inaugural issue.
Ben Serotta, The Builder
Like most frame builders in the 1970s, Ben Serotta was designing custom frames based on the initial work of the Italian Cycling Federation, which published a book that suggested frame geometries based on a cyclist’s body measurements. Serotta sought a better way, based on the individual rather than a database of random dimensions.
“Making a long story very short, the results proved disappointing too often,” he said. “Over a number of years I worked to refine this formulaic model that was based on assuming that cyclists with similar measurements would share the same ‘fit’ dimensions: If your leg length was the same as Mario’s, then your saddle height would be the same and so on.”
Partly by observation, shared findings and, ultimately, brainstorming with a physician friend, Serotta came to the conclusion that trying to find the perfect formula for fit was a pursuit without a satisfactory conclusion. Through the process, he realized that there were many more variables that affect fit besides measured length of limbs. These included fitness, flexibility and orientation of joints, asymmetries (we all have them), prior injuries and cycling technique—all variables that impact final fit.
“The final meeting with my physician friend proved to be the aha moment when the lightbulb flashed,” he explained. “Rather than focusing on comparing one cyclist to others, we learned to evaluate each cyclist as a unique individual, for power, fluidity of motion, comfort, etc., and while there was much to learn, I knew that a good place to start was to develop a tool that we could use to evaluate and observe the individual cyclist. By 1979, the Serotta Size Cycle was born—essentially an infinitely adjustable stationary bike that allows us to move the cyclist through a broad range of positions until we find the perfect orientation between the three contact points: saddle, pedals and handlebars.”
In the 1980s, Serotta took a leading role in a movement away from traditional straight, constant diameter tubes, changing the size and shape to optimize performance. Tapered main tubes, and S-bend chainstays were introduced and, along with them, the concept that drivetrain performance and comfort were no longer mutually exclusive. Designing to specific function traits rather than by simply selecting from standard material offerings matched the company’s work in fit too. It was the same out-of-the-box, fresh approach Serotta used with bicycle fit—a focus on individual performance.
“As we’ve continued to evolve materials technologies, the focus is still the same: Design each area of the frame—and this should extend to components selection—to be ideal for the individual,” Serotta added. “We offer a greater range of tuning the ride, including the fork—we’re the only company that produces forks with a selection of stiffness—than any other company. Think about it: Everyone else designs a fork with the assumption that a 100-pound and a 250-pound cyclist will use the same equipment. From our perspective, that’s ridiculous for a large number of cyclists, because the fork—or frame, because the same design criteria apply—will be under or over engineered, not optimized for the individual, which is the only way we build.”
This approach to building frames caught the attention of 7-Eleven cycling team owner Jim Ochowicz, which led to a multi-year relationship and dozens of podium appearances and overall victories.
“It was an exciting time for us,” Serotta said. “While we put the same effort into building all of our clients’ bicycles as we did the team bikes, it felt as though each team bike had a special aura around it. There was something magical, knowing that you were crafting a frame that was going to participate in the Tour de France. I developed great professional and personal relationships with a number of the team members, which ultimately have helped to shape and influence what the company is today. The influence was widespread: We learned how to listen and interpret nuances in a way not previously understood, which set the foundation for the high levels of personalization in ride characteristics, tuning the ride in every aspect—power transfer, handling, comfort, we offer today.
“Our team experiences also moved us to become one of the first U.S. companies to establish a scientific approach to product testing, evaluation and extremely tight testing and quality protocols. These aspects of design and manufacturing run deep in our business; it’s why we produce everything in the U.S., in our facilities. It’s about control of the process and the product. So in a way, every bike we build today owes something to the 7-Eleven cycling team.”