…and other reasons for not having a bike fit.
Now look. I wouldn’t want to come across as some kind of bikefitting fascist, and if people don’t want to be fitted then that’s absolutely fine by me, I’m not in the business of making fitting compulsory or anything, but what does sometimes leave me bemused are the justifications I hear for not having a proper bikefit.
Probably the single most popular runs along the lines of “oh, I’m not all that serious, I don’t race or anything”, which to me is rather like saying “I’ll use string to hold my trousers up rather than a belt, because I don’t get out much so nobody will notice”. So while, yes, you can manage with this approach, a self-defined solution might well not look great, nor be very comfortable, and possibly not be that reliable either. And when I say not reliable, while in the case of trousers the result may simply be embarrassing, on a bicycle biomechanical unreliability can potentially result in injury and lack of efficiency, neither of which are particularly desirable whatever your level and ambition as a cyclist. I’ve worked with many riders who have really found their cycling mojo post-fit, because being properly set up has made them realise that riding a road-bike doesn’t have to be a painful experience, and they’ve gone from being casual, suffering, cyclists to fully paid-up evangelists of pedal-power, intent on broadening their horizons in ways they hadn’t previously imagined.
Interestingly, riders at the other end of the scale can be equally closed to the benefits of a good fit, but for different reasons. Many racers at pro-level are notoriously reluctant to make alterations to their position, either because they fear taking a permanent backward step or won’t risk losing performance temporarily while the muscular and neurological adaptations that a change of position may require take place. It’s sticking with the devil you know, if you like, and in a sport where, for the vast majority of riders, your value and ability to make a living are dependant on your recent results this is completely understandable. Certain purveyors of bikefitting systems and protocols may have you believe that the riders of this, that, or the other team are fitted using their tech, and may even have photos of your favourite pro hooked up like a lab rabbit to prove it, and while I wouldn’t ever say never, there’s also a pretty good chance that, for example, the saddle they tested that supported them better because it was wider than their old one was ditched by their mechanic because it was also 25 grams heavier.
When changes are made it’s often in response to a kind of herding instinct, in that if one rider is using a certain position and getting good results others will tend to mimic him or her, and this group-think then percolates down to the lower ranks and the wannabes, so that before you know it every would-be Sagan is running a negative 130mm stem and a frame that’s a size too small for them. Anyway, the fitting faux-pas of professional cyclists could provide enough material for a complete blog of its own (as indeed they will, in due course) so let’s move on.
“I’d rather spend the money on upgrading the bike”. Really? Just how much are you expecting a fit to cost? Okay, so others may charge more, but let’s say that a typical bikefit, including a couple of common little extras such as footbeds and maybe a different length stem, is going to run you around £200. And now let’s do a bit of internet research and find out just what Black Friday upgrades this buys.
Wheels are the traditional first port of call, so knock yourself out with a pair of Fulcrum Racing Fives, whoop, whoop, or some Mavic Aksium Elites, complete with tyres (which will slow you down plenty when they start puncturing). Or how about upgrading your Shimano 105 chainset with an Ultegra one? 62 grams to be had there, and no mistake. Some carbon handlebars might save the same amount, and I know we’ve all heard that bloke in the glasses banging on about marginal gains, but the idea is to accumulate them, not sit back after just the one. And would any of these suggestions sort out that pain on the back of your kneecap, or the burning feet that mean you have to get off the bike after an hour-and-a-half? I seriously doubt it.
And then we come to my favourite: “I have a friend who knows about bikes, and he’s set me up already”. The world is full of people who speak very confidently about all things bike-related, and while I’m not saying that they are all full of the proverbial, don’t assume that because someone has been doing something since Chris Froome was an embryo (some people hardly change, eh?) that they’ve been doing it correctly. The same goes for bike shops and even bikefitters, by the way, as there are plenty of both of who have never stopped to enquire as to whether thinking may have moved on since they first opened their doors or received a goniometer for Christmas.
Sticking with the “helpful friend” for the time being though, I’d like to illustrate the perils of this approach by briefly talking about a rider – let’s call him Ben – who I worked with recently. Ben told me he had been set-up by a friend, and when he said “set-up” I’m assuming that he didn’t mean in the negative sense, although looking at the first image of him you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Said friend, Ben explained, had told him that he’d be more comfortable if he was in an upright position (a myth I shall be debunking in a future post) and had his saddle low enough that he could comfortably reach the ground when waiting at junctions and the like. Not surprisingly, Ben was becoming disheartened. Having spent a fair amount of time in gyms and boxing rings, he’s a bit of a unit, and therefore wasn’t surprised when his riding buddies scampered off up hills and had finished their Clif Bars by the time he caught them up, but was perplexed that he was losing ground to them on the flat too (when they weren’t drafting behind him, which they must have loved…). Well, 80 degrees of bend in your leg at maximum extension combined with the frontal area of the Team Sky bus will do that for you Ben.
You’ll be relieved to know that I could help. Of course, you expected that would be the case, but what you might not have anticipated is that Ben actually sits on a bicycle rather well. The forward rotation of his pelvis is really nice, and increasing the saddle to handlebar drop has eliminated not only the strange kink he had about two thirds of the way up his spine, but also the associated upper back ache he was experiencing. Leg extension is still at the conservative end of Retul’s recommended range for dynamic capture (35-40 degrees), as is his back angle, but he now looks like a cyclist, albeit one who packs a good uppercut. What you can’t see from the side is that his lateral knee travel is now spot on, exceptionally good in fact, with both knees moving up and down pretty much plumb vertical when viewed from the front.
All in all, I have high hopes for Ben’s future on two wheels and am pleased he didn’t become resigned to being somebody who just “wasn’t built to cycle”, or who felt he didn’t deserve to give himself every chance to improve. As for Ben’s friend, I can only apologise if I’ve ruined his tow. Or his fun…