What's Cool In Road Cycling

BIKE FIT: Comfort and Power

It is remarkable that the large majority of cyclists go through their entire careers setting up their bike by little more than trial and error. As part of the plan for recovering from his serious injury, our Toolbox Editor gets fitted out properly for a new bike for the first time, learning a few things in the process…

Starting from Scratch
Surviving a bone-shattering accident like I did back in August definitely wakes you up to a lot of things. Besides giving a really personal connection to the Livestrong bracelet on my wrist, it’s made me re-evaluate many aspects of my riding and training. And by far and away, the biggest cycling-related item I’ve decided to evaluate was my position on the bike.

My position mainly followed the LeMond method of saddle height at a set percentage of inseam length with a really long top tube and reach. With this setup for the past 19 years or so, I’ve been fortunate to have ridden and raced without ever experiencing back or knee problems, so I have always assumed that my bike position was fine. But with major shoulder damage and possibly upper body misalignment, that assumption likely no longer held true. In addition, injury-free does not necessarily mean performance-optimized.

One of the benefits of taking my Klein out to the recycling box was that I had no excuses to keep with the “same old, same old.” As I was getting a brand new bike, it gave me an opportunity to determine my new bike position from a “clean slate” approach, ideally unencumbered by any past habits. With that in mind, I visited Brian Walton and the gang at Cadence Performance Cycling Center in Philadelphia to go through a complete fitting process. Below are some of the things we looked at and also some of the main changes to my position, along with Brian’s analysis…

The Cadence Philosophy
Many of the Cadence Bike Fit Principles are very similar to our coaching principles:

1. Individualization: It is important to realize the background and the goals of the individual. The athlete’s goals will change how they are set up on the bike and how quickly changes can be made. For instance, a 4km pursuit rider will be set up differently than an Ironman distance triathlete and a new rider will be set up differently than a 10 year pro.

2. “Fluidity”: Just as an athlete’s training will be different from season to season, a bike fit will change over time. Flexibility, core strength, body composition and riding style and goals may change. Additionally, a change of components (especially saddles, pedals and shoes) may influence position. Often, changes must be made slowly instead of all at once in order to allow the rider to slowly adapt, therefore reducing the potential for injury.

3. Fit the Bike to the Rider: Most people have irregularities and imperfections that cause them to fit on a bicycle in ways that are different from the norm. Some of these irregularities can be corrected over time with a proper fit, work on pedaling technique, increased core strength, visits to a chiropractor, surgery, increased flexibility, etc. but usually they must be accepted, at least in the short term. Therefore it is important as a bike fitter to be careful not to put the rider in a position that forces them to conform to a notion of what a good fit looks like. Rather, the bike should fit the rider (irregularities and all) and comfort should be minimally sacrificed.

4. Fix the root cause, not the symptoms: If possible, try to find the root cause of a problem and fix that rather than putting a “band-aid” on the symptoms of the problem. Remember that the bike fit is an ongoing process, and not all problems can be corrected immediately with a change in the bike fit. There are times when a “band-aid fix” can work as a temporary solution (ex: fore/aft asymmetrical cleat adjustment, wedges, insoles), but it is important not to make any changes that would prevent the rider from fixing the root cause.

The Third Degree
First rule of getting a good bike fit – if the first thing the bike fitter does is have you jump on the bike and ride, I’d suggest just staying on the bike and riding right out of the shop! Bike fitting is probably one of the best examples around of art and science working together, and it is far too individualized a process to simply rely on equations. Remember that the most important thing is that the fit is right for YOU, so it’s critical that the fitter first learns as much as possible about you.

Before I ever jumped onto the bike on the trainer, I filled out a multi-page questionnaire including questions on my riding/racing history, annual mileage, numbers of races, current bike and equipment, likes and dislikes about my current bike, shoe size and model, pedals, even typical rides. The whole purpose here was to get to know why I ride the bike. Racing first and foremost? If that’s the case, crits or long road races? Recreational riding mixed in with some racing or fast group rides? Randonneurs and cyclosportif rides?

Each riding style has its own emphases and priorities when it comes to positioning. While comfort remains critical, the exact definition of “comfort” can be a moving target. In my case, I’m mainly a recreational rider with some fast group rides and about ten races a year if I’m lucky. Most of my riding is solo, and my ideal rides are 3 h in mixed terrain.

Touch Your Toes
Once we figured out the purpose for being on the bike, the next step was to do a basic analysis of my functional anatomy. This included testing my lower and upper body flexibility (e.g., hamstrings, hip flexors, lower back). The other important consideration was whether I had a functional leg length discrepancy. This was the point also where, besides doing “simple” things like measuring inseam, we also looked at arm length, shoulder width, torso length – basically getting measured in every possible dimension.

In my case, functional anatomy was a major concern of mine due to my accident, as I figured my ability to reach forward and downward would be nowhere near what it was pre-accident. It is also interesting to note here that bike fit is a dynamic process and not a “do it once and that’s the end of it” thing. For example, we quickly determined that my flexibility is lousy in all directions, and that my right shoulder was also lower than my left by about 1.5 cm. These may all change with a focused stretching program and continued rehab work on my shoulder, possibly changing my optimal position down the road.

Brian’s Analysis:
Now that you understand the general principles let’s have a look at Stephen…
Stephen came to us with a unique but not out of the ordinary predicament. Since he was still recovering from his serious crash it was difficult to fully dial in position, even temporarily. The first area of concern with Stephen was not even related to the crash but his poor flexibility with his hip flexors. We suggested that he work on his stretching more since poor flexibility in the hip flexors could result in future medial knee pain and back pain.

Now Let’s See You On the Bike!
With all that done, at last it was time to jump on the test bike on the trainer. Here’s where attention to detail becomes critical – is the bike level? If not, then any measurement you take or propose becomes meaningless! We definitely took the time and effort to make sure the test rig was completely level both forward/backwards and side-to-side before anything else happened.

Once done, we set up the test bike as close as possible to the setup I had with the Klein. I was then videotaped while pedaling both from the front and sides as Brian adopted a very thoughtful gaze.

In combination with plugging my body measurements into Cyfac’s database and equations, combined with all the above information and Brian’s observations, we came up with a number of changes. Here are the changes, Brian’s rationale, and my thoughts after riding about 300 km with it:

1. Shimming the left cleat and switching pedals.
We decided to compensate for the right leg being functionally a bit longer by adding two LeWedge shims under my left cleat. We also switched from Speedplay X pedals to Speedplay Zeros.

Brian’s Analysis:
The reason for the switch to the “Zeros” was to take advantage of the adjustability and limit the lateral and medial cleat rotation.

Stephen: As soon as we put in the shims, I knew we were onto a good thing. From the SpinScan on the CompuTrainer, I always saw that my right leg had a lower SS# than my left. At the same time, subjectively my right leg always felt choppier than my left. This completely disappeared with the shims.

2. Moving the saddle back 0.5 cm.
In combination with #1 above, we also moved the saddle back a bit, effectively raising the saddle. This combined with recommending a slightly slacker seat tube angle than with the Klein. We also switched from a Selle Italia C2 saddle to a Fizik Arione, which is longer both front and back to permit further butt movement.

Brian’s Analysis:
Stephen’s functional leg length discrepancy, “right leg longer” was probably due to his crash so we have temporarily added two LeMond LeWedge shims under his left cleat. Once we did this we really noticed (with the use of lasers) how much “cleaner” (less wasted movement) his pedal stroke became. The “wobbling”, as Stephen put it to me was due to the right leg acting longer and trying to make up for the extra length since the bike was initially optimized for his shorter leg. Moving the seat back and up slightly took care of these issues.

Stephen: The leg extension overall hasn’t felt that different from my original setup with the Klein. It might be a combination of an enforced layoff post-accident and also using regular cranks again after using PowerCranks for seven straight months, but it’s taking a while (work in progress still) to feel smooth on the bike out on the road again. The potential benefit will be huge though, as the CompuTrainer makes it clear that my pedal stroke has greatly benefited from the PCs. My SpinScan (a measure of pedal smoothness calculated as average torque / maximum torque went from ~55 pre-PC to a whopping improvement up to 75 during a field test done as part of my fitness.

3. Shortening the reach.
My Klein had been set with 57.5 cm from saddle tip to middle of the handlebars and 6 cm saddle-bar drop. We shortened the forward reach to 53.8 cm, quite a bit shorter, and a drop of 5.8 cm from an original 6.9 cm. Despite my having long arms, it was felt that I was far too forward on the bike. We also switched from Bontrager Ergo bars to a more “classic” ITM bars with rounder drops and a shorter drop.

Stephen: This was the change that I was most leery about at first, as nearly 4 cm is a huge change in forward reach. However, I was amazed that I never felt cramped with the new position. Part of this change might be attributed to my injury, and part (~1.5 cm) definitely due to the longer Arione saddle. However, the new reach seemed really natural to me. I still feel very stretched out but in a good sense. Essentially, I feel low and aero but still able to breathe freely. I also love the ITM bars with the smoother drops, and find myself able to spend more time comfortably on the drops.

4. Narrower handlebars
I have been using 42 cm (c-c) bars since about 1990, with the prevailing thought that it would open up my lungs more for breathing and also add leverage when climbing/sprinting. From the Cyfac measurements and video, it was really evident that the bars were too wide and we switched to 40 cm (c-c).

Brian’s Analysis: It really did not become evident to me regarding Stephen’s shoulders being too open and the back/neck muscles being cramped until we went back to the video and noticed how his grip on the handlebars was significantly wider than his shoulder width. Narrowing the bar width brought us more into line.
This is where the use of tools (laser and video) work wonders even with the most experienced fit specialists.

Stephen: Psychologically, it’s difficult to get rid of the “more is better/manlier” rat race feeling of “my handlebar/crank length is bigger than yours,” so this was another change I was leery of. It was definitely a big process of adaptation, as I felt like everything was all screwed up while seated and especially standing for the first five rides. The feeling has faded though, and the bar width feels completely natural now.

Brian A good bike fit is a balance between the four factors I discussed earlier, but not always a compromise. Many changes can be made that will increase power output without compromising efficiency, increase comfort without increasing aerodynamic drag, and so forth. However, it is often important to be reminded that all of these factors are important to everyone, even if one factor may take precedence.

A properly fit athlete will be stronger, faster, safer and more comfortable. At Cadence, we realize every athlete is different, so we will adhere to the credo, “Power with personal comfort; effective and efficient biomechanics.”

DisclosureThe bike fitting procedure was performed free by Cadence Performance Cycling Center for Dr. Cheung.

About Stephen and Brian:

Brian Walton has a uniquely well-rounded perspective on training and coaching. He was one of the top Canadian riders of the 80s and 90s, riding as a pro with 7-Eleven, Motorola, and Saturn, and winning the 1989 Milk Race and silver in the 1996 Olympic Points Race. He then became the DS and coach for Team Snow Valley, turning it into the top Elite Men’s team in the USA. He is currently the Director of Performance for Cadence Cycling in Philadelphia, and can be reached for comments or coaching inquiries at [email protected].

Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University, with a research specialty in the effects of thermal stress on human physiology and performance. Stephen’s company, Podium Performance, also provides elite sport science and training support to provincial and national-level athletes in a number of sports. He can be reached for comments or coaching inquiries at [email protected].

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