Interview by Jeff Lockwood, Illustration by Nicholas Rich
Lennard Zinn is an institution in the bicycle world—a legend. Legions of cyclists have learned to repair bikes from him, ridden bicycles he’s built, or used his advice as guidance on how to better enjoy the world on two wheels. He grew up in the science hotbed of Los Alamos, New Mexico. After graduating from Colorado College, Zinn immersed himself in the bicycle world. He started his own bicycle company, Zinn Cycles. He became Senior Technical Writer for Velo (formerly VeloNews), and is now the longest-employed writer appearing on the masthead, with 24 years’ experience. He’s also written a small library of books on bicy- cle maintenance, skills, and performance, most notably Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance and Zinn and the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance.
What’s the path that led you to bicycles?
I was an alpine ski racer at Colorado College, and freshman year I got a knee injury. I started to ride a bike as a way to strengthen my knee, but started to get into it more and more. By the time I was out of college, I was on the National Cycling Team.
Towards the end of the 1981 season at the Tour of Ireland, I tore my gastrocnemius (calf muscle), and it didn’t heal correctly and calcified. It took about a year to heal, and in that time I didn’t know what to do with my- self. I had no income other than bike riding.
I couldn’t stand to be around Boulder without being able to ride bikes. So I moved out to northern California and started working in geophysics. I got laid off, and ended up working for Tom Ritchey at the end of 1981. I actually lived in his house at the very early part of the mountain bike thing, building Ritchey mountain bikes and Ritchey bull- moose handlebars.
Eventually I came back to Boulder be- cause my knee wasn’t getting any better. And then my grandmother died and left me $10,000. I thought, “Well…what the heck am I going to do with myself?” So I figured I’d start a frame-building business.
How did you get involved with writing about bicycles?
The writing came along later be- cause one of my former teammates, Felix McGowan, bought VeloNews in 1987 and moved it to Boulder. VeloNews never had any technical writing—it was all just race reporting—and he wanted to have some.
Another buddy from college had started Rocky Mountain Sports & Fitness magazine. In order to get some bike advertisers, he wanted to have some bike tech stuff. I had written some stuff for him, and Felix had seen it. And being an old teammate, he came to me first.
The book writing…it was sort of two things. One was that I had a customer, Lou Morgan from Chicago, who was really into time trialing, and would meet me at the wind tunnel at Texas A&M where I was working with guys like Greg LeMond, Lance Arm- strong, and all the top triathletes. On one of the trips, Lou said, “You know, I really try and read that shit you write in VeloNews, but it is so boring! What you should do is write a book because it would be great for insomniacs!” The other thing is there is an old classmate of mine from Los Alamos who owned a bookstore here in Boulder, Discount Books. My wife is a teacher, and each time she would go in there, he would tell her, “Lennard needs to write a book, and he needs to call it Zinn and the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance.” One time she came home with a mock cover of the book he made up for her.
All of a sudden it just kind of gelled. I could really visualize doing it. I was aware, in my estimation, there just weren’t any decent books that answered the kind of questions people were constantly asking me about how to work on their bikes. So I just decided I could do it.
What’s the one piece of advice you have for people looking to learn about maintenance and fixing their own bikes?
I’d say just start doing it! I really think people tend to be scared off by it. They see the bike as a black box. They’ll maybe put a little chain lube on there. But they’re like, “My God! I took the chain off…how would I route it through all those jockey wheels and all those little tabs on the derailleur?”
If you don’t actually just get in there and start taking things apart, you’ll never learn. Be willing to make mistakes. You’re going to make mistakes the first time trying to work on a bike. You’re gonna try and adjust your derailleur and you’re going to turn the barrel adjuster the wrong way and make it worse. But that’s how you learn.
I’m by no means a master mechanic, but I do like to work on my bike, and see it as part of my cycling experience. Do you see maintenance as part of cycling, or are they completely divorced from one another?
I just don’t see how one can have the full enjoyment of riding a bike if they don’t [maintain it]. Most of my riding, I do by myself. And I love it! But there is never a nagging thing in the back of my mind like, “Oh boy, I’m way out here. If something breaks, I’ll never be able to get back.” It just never crosses my mind. And I think you rob yourself of a lot of what’s possible if you don’t sort of have that underlying confidence of, “I can fix this if anything goes wrong with it.”
What’s one common fix for people that’s generally not known, but that’s really simple to possibly fix on their own?
Brakes. People just get all wigged out about it, but it’s simple. People are most dependent on the brakes for safety. I’ve seen some unbelievable things—pads hitting the tire, ready to blow out the tire at the worst time; pads worn out; people not closing the quick-release on their brakes after putting them back on.
What’s your general philosophy about bicycles?
My guiding philosophy on the bicycle is that it’s a tool. And that’s why I never exhibited at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show…maybe it’s changed in the last five years, but it sure struck me as a place where the people who went were just looking at eye candy and weren’t interested in buying. It’s what got pictures in the magazines, and what people wanted to see…the stuff that has nothing to do with riding. The hand-filing of the lugs, the curly Q’s, and the curved tubes and the weird chains with half lengths, and all this stuff…$30,000 bicycles that are no more serviceable than a $1,000 one.
Most of the bikes I build are for really tall people. And the reason I do that is because those people…I can identify with them. I’m 6’5”, and I never could get a bike to fit right, and it was rare I got one that wouldn’t shimmy like crazy at high speeds.
I have a degree in physics, and had actually done my senior seminar on the stability of the bicycle and had written computer models in Fortran for bicycle stability. I had given seminars on it and really had some ideas I wanted to test out. I used to teach jewelry making with the leisure program at Colorado College, so I knew how to silver solder.
Tell me more about your work with bicycles for tall people.
I know they can’t get one that’s big enough, and any one they get that’s even close…by the time they geek out the post and stem and everything…that thing’s just going to be scarier than hell going downhill at high speed.
So that’s been my mission, to provide bikes for tall people that fit. That involves frame design in terms of making sure their touch points are in the right position.
I was the first one that I know of using 1-1/8” diameter steerer tubes for road bikes, and we had to make our own stems at the time because there weren’t any stems avail- able. But as soon as 1-1/8” headsets were available for mountain bikes, I was able to make a bigger head tube and use a bigger down tube and top tube. As soon as people accepted frames that weren’t lugged, you could do fillet brazing or TIG welding that allowed the freedom with angles and tube diameters that lugs didn’t al- low. Now I’m able to drop the top tube down and angle it… all sorts of things to stiffen up the front triangle.
Then I started making custom cranks that were proportional. Just like the frames were proportional to the size of the rider, I believed the crank ought to be proportional, too. With big people, you end up with cranks that are way outside what anyone else is making. It also allowed me to raise the bottom bracket. By raising the bottom bracket for clearance for those big cranks, it allows me to shorten the seat tube from the bottom as well as shortening it from the top. So I can just tighten up the whole front triangle and make the whole thing stiff enough to not shimmy.
So that’s what I think my gift is, if you will, in frame building, in the design aspect of it…making a bike that’s re- ally efficient for a [tall] guy, and also in terms of strength and durability and definitely in terms of performance of not shimmying and of being really stable at high speed.
What’s one major misconception of bicycles built for taller people, or in the construction of them?
Once you get to be an adult—at least with road bikes—basically everybody has the same length crank: 170-175mm, or even 165-180mm. With certain cranks, you can get that much range, but that’s still no kind of range relative to the difference in proportions of people. And then with wheel size, other than a few people riding 650B…smaller people can get away with smaller wheels… there’s no bigger wheels. Everyone’s got the same wheel size.
Now with mountain bikes you have a big range of wheel sizes, which is wonderful. I’m really happy about that.
One of the problems then, if you take someone as tall as me, and you’re going to fit them on a road bike with a 175mm crank, and you want to do the standard knee-over- pedal positioning, the seat has got to be way, way back over the bottom bracket in order to get the knee over the pedal. What you end up with really makes the bike terrible, in my estimation. You have a super-shallow seat angle in order to get the seat back far enough to get the rider’s knee over the pedal.
And what you end up with is the rider cantilevered way back over the rear wheel—weight distribution is awful. You have very little weight on the front wheel, and tons on the rear. It tends to wheelie the bike riding up steep climbs, and it doesn’t really have good weight distribution for handling on the descent.
And I think those bikes just generally do a disservice to tall riders and tend to discourage them from riding, because most tall bikes are too flimsy and too flexible. They just shimmy. And then with this positioning problem, the rider winds up super folded up at the hip angle because the seat is pushed so far back, and then the handlebars are not far enough forward and way too low. They’re just uncomfortable.
And that’s for a skinny tall guy! For a tall guy with a beer belly, it’s even worse! The shimmy is worse the heavier the rider gets. Those guys are the ones that really need to be riding a bike, and are the ones least comfortable and least safe on the thing.
You mention how mountain bikes have advantages because of the different wheel sizes, and that road bikes don’t have that. One of the questions someone posed for this interview is, “Should the road bike industry learn from the mountain bike industry and develop 800c, 900c, or even meter-diameter bigger wheels?”
Oh yeah! I agree entirely. For me, clearly a 29” mountain bike works way better than a 26”. There’s not even a comparison. On the other hand, I think it’s a disservice to make 29ers for five-foot-tall people. What makes sense is to have wheel size that is proportional to the rider.
What happens with tall bikes is that you end up with just more frame [that’s likely] to twist around. Say you had an 800c wheel… it would have proportionally larger cranks, proportionally bigger wheels—just like one of my 29” mountain bikes for someone my size—200mm cranks, 29” wheels, XXL size. If you saw that leaned against a house with nothing to compare it to for standard reference, it looks like a normally proportioned bike. Just like if you had a 16” mountain bike there with 26” wheels.
With road bikes, if you could scale up the wheels the same way, there are a number of benefits that would happen. One is that the frames would be quite a bit stiffer because you wouldn’t have all these tube lengths…super long head tubes and everything in order to deal with getting the rider’s handlebars up enough. You’d have proportionally more gyroscopic stability for the bigger riders. You’d have the more powerful guy—just like with the mountain bike—the bigger, more powerful person has an easier time dealing with the heavier weight of a rotating 29er wheel than the 5-foot, 90-pound person trying to turn it with a 29er. It just doesn’t make any sense.
If you go to the length where you scale up cranks and wheels and frames with riders, you end up being able to use the same gearing on all bikes. As the crank gets longer, you can maintain the same foot speed, but it’s not realistic to maintain the same cadence.
But more leverage gives you the same kind of advantage that higher cadence does. It allows you to put out the same power output with lower peak loads if you turn your feet around faster. So, you tend to build less blood lactate at the same workload. In a big rider, that makes much more sense.
When Jan Ullrich tried to pedal like Lance Armstrong, he trained and trained to try and figure out this super-high cadence thing that Armstrong was doing and it just wouldn’t work for him because he’s got these much bigger, heavier legs. It’s inefficient to turn big, heavy, long legs around at a really high rate like that. If he had a proportionally longer crank and proportionally bigger wheel and everything, then the whole thing, I think, would have worked a lot better. He would have been able to benefit from the lower peak loads that Armstrong was, except doing so by using more leverage.
If you weren’t working around bicycles, what do you think you’d be doing?
Wow. [laughs] You know, really… it was that whole thing with the lifestyle of bikes, and traveling to ride bikes…I grew up in a town where all of my peers got a degree in sciences, and all went on to get advanced degrees. My brother and his wife are both biochemistry professors at Cal Tech, and most of my high school friends are university professors. I suppose I would have done that had I not discovered bikes.