The Story Behind the SwitchGrade
Originally posted February 12, 2021
So how did we get here and where'd this crazy idea come from anyway?
Hard to imagine that the idea for a saddle angle switcheroo thingy first met paper back in 1997 (yes I'm an OG and by that I mean old guy). Back then I was likely on a Norco TNT or Cove G-Spot with its 4-bar linkage and concentric BB design. It definitely wasn't light but it was the most fun on two wheels I'd ever had up to that that point. Of course, the weight didn't do me any favours, especially when I was the first of my buddies to get a 'freeride' oriented bike while they remained true to their XC hardtails.
Like most inquisitive folks I thought 'there had to be a better way' so I penned the concept down in my little black book of kooky ideas (see inset). I had no idea about what form it would/should take but that wasn't the point of jotting ideas down in "the book" - the goal was (and still is) to capture abstract concepts from the ether before they vaporized. Forever.
Following that, I drew a few more sketches conjured up by pillow-prompted dream sequences and the idea took shape and became my then latest obsession. I say "then" because, true to form, I quickly moved onto the next shiny object. In fact, like an insensitive ex bereft of sentiment, I shifted gears entirely and developed a proof of concept and prototype for a completely different bike related component which I was ready to go all-in on back in 1999/2000. But that's when my budding career forced me put my side hustle and dreams of inventing/entrepreneurship on the backburner - for 20 years! More about what that bike component was later...
Fast forward to 2016/2017 when anyone who was anyone straddled bikes with modern geometry, everyone memorized their favourite "long, low, and slack" sound bites, and we all enjoyed free trail shuttles, gondola uplifts, cheap e-bikes, physics-defying flat climbs... errr no. Clearly that last bit was a stream-of-consciousness sequence.
Love it or hate, climbing is every bit a part of this sport we love. Depending on your perspective we all need to 'earn our turns' or as I say, 'suffer the ups to get down.'
I started noticing more and more riders with their saddles nosed-down. But coming in with a freeride bias, while I completely understood the benefits of nosing down for climbs, the idea of keeping the saddle that way for descending sounded horrible. After nearly two decades of riding with either a flat or slightly upturned saddle, nosing up sounded like hell on my taint, not to mention raising the spectre of chronic back pains and numb nuts threatening a hard return (pun intended). Add to that my short inseam and history of crushing seat rails (I now keep a spare post and saddle in my vehicle ), and the idea of an uptilted saddle was a hard no. Still, I was curious...
I started down an exhaustive primary and secondary research path to understand the current and prior state of technology and IP, and where the gaps lay. Then I did my best to assess market needs and demand, developing pro-forma financials and in-depth what-if analyses to assess whether this expensive journey might be worth the risk. I then talked to real riders, and consumed any and every article, video, forum topic, white paper, sound byte, podcast, Instapost, and story related to saddle tilt, actual and effective seat tube angles, bike fit, bike geometry, and the biomechanics of cycling.
In summary what I found was a lot of conflicting information, problems for riders at both ends of the height spectrum, challenges for bike and seatpost manufacturers, a clear lack of understanding of the pros and cons of saddle tilt, divisive and tribal stances related to tilt vs don't tilt, and waaay more research on road biking vs mountain biking. The topic of saddle positions was clearly polarizing (just look at the upvotes and comments anytime a nose-down saddle shows up on Pinkbike).
And that's when I quickly realized the idea had merit.
Yet despite the high risk stack, curiosity and the prompting of my go-getter wife lit the fire and convinced me it was time to do something about it.
After an exhaustive search, I managed to find a local engineer who just launched a side-hustle consulting practice and shared my idea after the NDA formality dance. We gelled right off the bat and went head-first into user stories and use cases, followed by repeated cycles of idea generation, research, design, and testing. Many a draft was drunk and countless Triple O burgers consumed over the course of over 2 years. Bear in mind we both had steady and demanding day jobs so our meetings were few and far between, but truncated and ultra focused - they had to be, mindful of our spouses who waited anxiously at home so we could 'Netflix and chill'.
Over the course of 2 years we churned out proof of concept, multiple prototypes, and tested each MVP (minimum viable product) - learning and iterating each step of the way. We were really getting somewhere but always fell short with the last, most vexing part of this campaign, continually eluding us - universal compatibility! Heck I'd have been happy with provincial compatibility.
We were tired, the creative juices were waning, and my day job as a technology executive was taking its toll. Burnout was imminent. New shiny objects were beckoning. And then Covid-19 hit. Boom. Solving the conundrum of seatpost compatibility seemed to be slipping further and further away...
You might be wondering why something like the SwitchGrade took so long to develop so I wanted to share just a smattering of what we were up against:
Developing "macro-adjustable" technology i.e. the ability to lock a saddle into fixed angles.
Working with extremely limiting constraints given the small space envelope underneath a saddle. Think the size of a diamond engagement ring box (but 3 times more expensive than it's contents to make).
Ensuring enough allowance to manage the inherent flex found in bike saddles.
Lack of any consistent seatpost standards with respect to: post head lengths, bolt hole angles, bolt hole bore circumferences, bolt hole centre to centre distances, post head cradle arc radius, bolt dimensions and threads, air valve allowance.
Making something reasonably light yet strong and durable to withstand immense abuse, Pacific Northwest climates, and intermittent user maintenance.
Acceptable manufacturing and assembly costs.
Easy to install, assemble, service, and rebuild.
Clean lines and slick aesthetics because, let's face it, we care.
Maintaining low stack height.
Simple design with fewest parts possible.
And of course it had to work. Oh and not to mention, we had to navigate around a minefield of patents and prior art. You'd be hard pressed to find any engineer or designer that would read the above and say "no problem" without rolling their eyes.
Making cool stuff is hard. Really hard.
Fast forward to today and what you see in the SwitchGrade is the culmination of three years of self-funded research and development, testing, real and sweat equity, countless sleepless nights, oh and the first of a series of 'planned' industry disruptions.
Think it'll be worth the ride?