Saturday, September 5, 2009

Big Ideas from Lennard Zinn

If anyone within the bicycle industry qualifies as a "Renaissance Man," Lennard Zinn does. He is a racer, writer, framebuilder, clothing designer, and component/tool engineer. When I found out he and his team at Zinn Cycles were devoting much of their time and energy to designing and building bicycles, cranksets and clothing for tall people, I was intrigued. I contacted Zinn, and he was happy to answer questions for an interview.

Lennard Zinn, Renaissance Man

Q: Why did you decide to cater so specifically to big and tall bicycle riders?

A: I originally started making big and tall bikes because I, at 6'6", felt at a big mechanical disadvantage when I was on the US National Team relative to other riders in terms of both fit and performance, particularly descending. I had won, for instance, the Durango-to-Silverton stage of the Iron Horse Classic in 1980 and had set the course record, using a Masi that was pretty stiff and descended well. In 1981, I had a different bike sponsor, and I had to let the group go when we hit the descents toward Silverton because the bike shook so bad at high speeds. I had a degree in Physics and figured I could do a better job. As long as I was limited by building with lugs, it was hard to make a bike that fit that was not also so flexy that it shimmied on descents. Eventually, using TIG welding and using larger tubes, lowering the top tube, sloping the top tube, raising the bottom bracket and using longer cranks, and adjusting the front end geometry, I was able to eliminate shimmy issues and produce consistently stiff, high-performance bikes, even for riders well over 6'8" and 250 pounds.

Q: Please elaborate on what you mean by “adjusting front end geometry.”

A: In general, I reduce the head angle to absorb more shock in the fork and select a fork rake which, when combined with the head angle and wheel radius, will give a large amount of fork trail and hence stability.

A Zinn Fassa magnesium frame

Q: How does your attitude toward big and tall cyclists fit in with your approach to the bicycle business in general?

A: In general, in this day and age, it is hard for a small builder to compete with the large companies making superlight carbon bikes, which admittedly are often extremely good bikes. This was not the case when I started my company in 1982, because at that time the top of the market was a custom steel lugged frame. Production builders were using the same tubing, but a small builder could improve on the fit, the paint, the brazing (or silver-soldering) quality and on the filing of the lugs. Now, I see the only way for a small builder like myself to succeed is to find niches where there are not those strong competitors, and since I don't see anybody else making bikes for big and tall riders that are nearly as good as ours, there's a great niche right there. I'm talking about road -- where we make custom titanium, magnesium, and steel frames for big riders, and mountain -- where we make stock full-suspension 29ers in two models in two sizes: only XXL and XXXL, as well as custom titanium, magnesium, and steel hardtails and custom titanium full-suspension 29ers. The other niche that we exceed the quality of anything else on the market is in travel bikes, especially those for tall riders. We make custom frames with four couplers (patent pending) out of both titanium and steel that break down into four pieces to easily fit a huge bike in a small 28X28X10-inch case and a stem with a coupler in it to speed breakdown and buildup yet more.

A Zinn Travel Bike, with a detail photo of the stem

Q: Other bicycle companies have indicated that their largest bicycles and frames are generally their slowest sellers. Have you found a way to entice and energize the big and tall market that others have missed?

A: We are a small company. There are plenty of tall customers to keep us busy. Especially after they've bought a bike that fit so poorly they didn't enjoy riding or one that scared the crap out of them on a descent when it started shaking uncontrollably.

Full suspension for the full-sized fella...

Q: Do you see the big and tall bicycle market as a growing market segment?

A: I don't know. I suppose so, as more tall riders discover that there are bikes that can make the sport fun for them.

Q: How do plan on helping it to grow?

A: By serving those customers well, and we do that not only with the bikes and cranks and forks we have for tall riders, but also by offering big and tall cycling clothing and big cycling shoes for both road and mountain-bike riding, we can keep tall riders happy and keep them talking to their tall friends about what's available to make riding possible for them.

Any tall person will tell you that an extra long bib is a VERY good thing

Q: Are most of the large bicycles you build mountain bikes or road bikes?

A: Both. Our sales are split pretty evenly between road and mountain bikes.

Q: Are most of them "performance" bikes or bikes built for transportation?

A: Most are performance bikes, but we are a custom builder, so we build anything the customer wants. We have built some amazing transportation bikes for tall riders for the third world and for hauling trailers, etc.

Touring bike, Zinn style

Q: What is the biggest bicycle you have ever built?

A: Probably 72cm road bikes. I have done that a few times for 7-foot riders.

Q: Tell us a bit about that project, please.

A: One that comes to mind is the bike I built for Bill Cartwright, the former 7'1" star center and later coach of the Chicago Bulls.

More Zinn clothing for the extra tall

Q: Other than your Big and Tall Bike Shop, what is Zinn Cycles up to these days?

A: Making and designing long cranks and tall bikes. And designing tools. Have you seen the Pedro's Vise Whip? I designed that tool, which revolutionizes removing a cogset,, and of course, writing my books (I just finished the 3rd edition of Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance) and writing for VeloNews.

Looooooong cranks

Q: How can we get more people out of their cars and onto bicycles?

A: Make better bike paths and make sure people know about them.

Q: What else would you like to say?

A: I have a dream job, designing, building, and riding bikes and bike equipment and writing about it. Whenever I have regrets about having quit racing so early when many of my peers went on to long careers in it, I look at the fact that I'm basically being paid to ride a bike still at age 51!

Q: What do you like for breakfast?

A: I make a smoothie with two raw eggs, a banana, apple juice, and whatever other fruit we have in the house almost every day. I've probably been doing that for 15 years and love it.