Toolbox: What’s a Successful Bike Fit?
Lots of new technologies have emerged in the world of bike fitting that has the potential to alter the language that we use when we are discussing bike fitting. However, the ultimate aim remains the same no matter what tools are or are not used. What does a successful bike fit look like in the end?
The Belkin pro team and many other teams use a jig like this one to measure the exact dimensions of each rider’s bike so it can be reproduced time and time again on any bike. The most important thing though is to get those measurements right in the first place.
Technological versus Human Evolution
In Part 1 of this series, I presented a discussion on high tech vs. low tech approaches to bike fitting. As it turns out, the commonalities far outnumber the differences. Although the tools may vary, the service methodology used on you, the athlete, is the most important consideration.
The simple reason for this is that human bodies haven’t changed during this ‘tech revolution.’ Business author Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, offered service-related advice that seems to sum up the state of bike fitting: “While the practices of engineering continually evolve and change, the laws of physics remain relatively fixed…the specific application will change (the engineering, or technology), but certain immutable laws of organized human performance (the physics, or biomechanics) will endure.”
I’ll state it again, plainly – Bike Fitting technology will always be changing and evolving, but the human body will always remain the human body.
Aims of a Bike Fitting
So, now let’s focus on you the athlete. If you race, or simply train to smoke the next Gran Fondo, whether you want to hang on in your weekly club ride or just use your bike as a primary fitness tool, we riders share three common goals:
• Be more comfortable on a new or existing bike.
• Simply ride ‘better’ (faster, have more power, achieve improved balance and handling).
• Minimize the risk of injury, especially repetitive use injury
At minimum, your bike fit MUST achieve these three objectives, AND the improvement should be verifiable by output reports (speed, power, efficiency). Equally important is the subjective response which every fitter should require: “my neck doesn’t hurt now,” “I feel more neutral on the bike” or “I hate it, put me back where I was” are a few common responses that we have all heard. The “How Does It Feel” element should be applied before the fit, directly after the fit, and a week after for critical follow up evaluation.
In my 35 years + of bike fitting I classify clients’ needs into two main categories:
1. Buying a New Bike
This is more of a sizing exercise, using specific body measurements that translate into specific geometric specifications of the bike such as top tube length, seat tube length, stem length, crank arm length, etc. This is the most basic of all bike fits and with an array of fitting devices available, and most shops do an excellent job of getting it right.
2. Sorting Out Comfort and Advancing Performance
Making cyclists comfortable on their bike is sometimes a challenging task and can often be an iterative process. Step 1 normally involves the critical points of contact: feet, buttocks, hands, and elbows (if we are using a time trial/Tri bike).
Feet First: Addressing the body in that order follows the bio-kinetic chain from the bottom up. In the pedals, the feet should be as flat as possible with no supination or pronation. The best concentric force vector is produced from a flat and straight foot, which usually means disciplining the pedal stroke by minimizing free float or even locking the cleats in a forward plane. I recommend eliminating the power sapping free float as much as possible which, in spite of what you have read or been told, rarely has an adverse effect on the knees.
Saddle Up!: I’ve found most cyclists are not completely comfortable on their saddles, which simply means more choices are needed for objective evaluation. In spite of attempts by manufacturers to shed light on anatomical issues and produce corresponding shapes that fit the norm, we have found this process to be of minimal value due to a variety of anatomical nuances that effect posterior balance.
Arm Yourself: Hand and elbow comfort has a lot to do with pressure, which in turn is affected by the saddle nose tilt, fore/aft placement and stem length. This interconnected relationship is part of the elusive character of blending comfort with power.
Unfortunately, many bike fits stop here. Once all of the above contact points have been addressed and your stroke has been deemed acceptable within a specific, numeric range, many fitters will declare victory and send you on your way. But this is barely the tip of the iceberg. Let’s dig deeper.
Assessing Your Functional Anatomy
I’m amazed just how many cyclists are in pain while riding their bikes. The vast majority of the cyclists who come to me are suffering from problems related to either their bike set up or some other physical malady that has either reduced their ability to ride, or sidelined them completely from the activity. The most common complaint I hear concern knees and low backs. Sometimes the fit has little to do with the inherent issue and becomes instead a therapeutic session of body work to address problems that have become chronic. This scenario is becoming more common, as the average age of my clients is on the increase; however, younger athletes are not immune, either.
Addressing Physical Issues Before They Become Problematic
When problems are left unchecked for years, minor problems can escalate into debilitating disasters. Without a biomechanical assessment of joint movements, and range of motion of both general and specific muscle function related to the motor action of pedaling, the bike fitter who can only make mechanical adjustments to a bike will quickly run out of options. A professional assessment needs to follow a pattern to determine ROM of specific muscles and accompanying weaknesses in the corresponding muscles.
Equally important in this process is the actual mobilization of soft tissue to eliminate muscle impingements, scar tissue that impedes the function of the various muscles used in cycling. A professional treatment protocol is strongly recommended if maximum performance is to be achieved and maintained. Actively releasing tension in areas such as external hip rotators and psoas will have a positive effect on one’s ability to leverage more power with less opposing friction in the joints and soft tissue.
This is the rider’s ‘holy grail’ and it’s where a fitter’s experience pays dividends to you. The fitter, in these circumstances, becomes a consultant and a solution provider. Assuming the bike is sized correctly at the local shop, and the comfort issue has been achieved and you feel “fast”, the fitter may choose to take the fitting to another level by a process of testing. The test includes assessing the rider’s output – speed (MPH), power (watts), and pedaling efficiency (torque, left/right power balance, torque angles) and energy cost (heart rate).
These assessments, using the CompuTrainer SpinScan should occur both before and after the fit to gauge progress and the averages need to be available and shared with the cyclist. Of equal, or sometimes of greater importance is the rider’s Functional Movement (FM), both on and off the bike. FM tells us everything about the rider’s “can be” profile. FM is an important aspect of the fit because it determines how quickly the athlete can adapt to the mechanical changes.
At this point, it helps to bring in a therapeutic consultant who can conduct an anatomical assessment and recommend specific exercises – stretches and strength training – which after demonstration should be reinforced during the fit. These range of motion (ROM) and personalized strength exercises should become a regular part of our personal training program. Assuming the bike is dialed, a bulleted list of personal idiosyncrasies are logged then addressed in a second round of personalized ROM and Strength instruction. If this plan is undertaken, a highly effective fit and a joined-at-the-hip personal training plan may now evolve.
The REAL Secrets to a Successful and Long-Lasting Bike Fit
Yes, my experience runs deep, but I don’t consider myself a magician. Like other practiced fitters, I have the reputation of being the “go to” guy when other fits fall short of their target. But this can be a conundrum when people are expecting a fit on par with waving a magic wand. In a few hours I’m sometimes expected to not only make them faster, but solve aches and pains that have sadly become mainstays of their cycling experience. My reputation is built from years of effective word of mouth feedback, and like other experienced fitters who call ourselves professionals, protecting our reputation and our service ethics are important to us.
Secret #1 – The obvious critical element to a successful bike fit – Did it work? Your feedback is critical, and satisfaction is not complete until it is mutual, no matter how long it takes.
Secret #2 – While effective mechanical adjustments often de-tension muscles and open up joint vectors for greater potential, true improvement is based on improving functional anatomy, because ultimately this makes the fit powerful.
With the progression of my experience as a fitter, it has become increasingly obvious that aging bodies don’t always respond to just turning allen bolts. Physical changes to the bike cannot be successful if the body is not receptive to the change. It’s no secret that a lack of mobility can eventually lead to injury. For this reason, I have added to my practice Dynamic Motion Therapy® as a component of my work as a fitter. DMT® allows me to conduct non-invasive soft tissue management of the body which I find extremely valuable in dealing with the lower and upper extremities with immediate and ongoing results for my regular clients. With the inclusion of stretching and strength training, the rider improvement process is enhanced well beyond the boundaries of conventional fittings. In lieu of finding a local DMT® practitioner, similar ‘body work’ can be found through other sources such as Physical Therapists, Sports Chiropractors, or deep muscle massage therapists, just to name a few.
Yes, body work de-stresses the muscles in bike fitting and awakens muscles for greater power output. The combination of mechanical adjustment and biomechanical assessment and mobilization allows for immediate positive results, greater sustainable power and longer lasting comfort. You will have less chance of injury and you will ride better, significantly better.
In the final installment of this series we will touch on our therapeutic goals then head right into the solution – a discussion of the specific exercises that open up primary and tertiary muscles for greater functionality with an eye on our long term goal of increasing core stability and muscle function for dynamic improvements and maintenance of more power and speed.
About the Authors
John Howard is one of the pioneers and true legends of American bike racing with palmares including: 3-time Olympian, Ironman world champion, bicycle landspeed record, USA Cycling Hall of Fame, and elite and masters national champion. John is also an active cycling coach and the author of Mastering Cycling. Check out more information about John and his coaching at www.fittesystem.com and www.johnhowardsports.com.
Ralph Walker is CEO of John Howard Performance and has 40 years of experience in cycling as a racer, tourist and cyclosportive rider. Ralph has been a certified PowerFiTTE practitioner for 10 years and has multiple other bike fitting certifications. He is ASCM trained as a personal trainer and specializes in incorporating cycling as part of a multi-faceted fitness regime.