A fair while back I wrote a bit about bike fitting. As time has passed I have come to try a number of things myself as advice I had been given – even from the physio-turned-bike fitter who finally gave me the advice I needed regarding my weak glutes and poor posture – still wasn’t working for me, despite taking the advised action regarding stretching and exercises to put those things right.
Interestingly, the outcome of the things I have tried has done a number of things:
• Reduced my saddle height
• Reduced my handlebar height
• Moved my saddle back
• Closed up my hip angle
• Lengthened my reach
All of which are things I was told – by trained, ‘qualified’ fitters – that I shouldn’t do. Furthermore, that little list above resulted in the following outcomes:
• Faster pace for the same routes for the same perceived effort
• Significantly increased on-the-bike comfort
• Eliminated a shoulder issue that has plagued me for years
So what, exactly, did I do to achieve this?
The first thing that happened which triggered these changes was a slipped seatpost, which resulted in lower saddle height. I had wondered why I started feeling so good on a particular ride, only to measure my setup on my return and discover what had happened. As it felt really good I tried a few things based around that.
The next was to ignore any previous advice regarding KOPS (Knee Over Pedal Spindle), and follow the advice of Dave Kirk:
1. Put your bike in a medium easyish gear and ride up a very gentle grade (I use a 42-17 up a slight grade where I can maintain my natural cadence of 85ish without great effort).
2. Put your hands on the tops of the bar next to the stem and ride relaxed like this for a bit. Let your body fall into a natural arch and relax.
3. Now, with your body relaxed, lift your hands from the bars WITHOUT sitting up or changing the angle of your hips and lower back. Lift just the hands off the bars. Just and inch or so. Do not sit up –
a. If you can do this without strain or by using a great deal of core strength then your fore/aft saddle position probably isn’t bad and is in the right ballpark.
b. If you have a hard time doing this even after a few tries then it’s a pretty good bet that your saddle fore/aft could use adjustment.
c. If you tend to fall forward when your hands are lifted it’s a good bet your saddle could go back.
d. If you tend to fall back then your saddle is way too far back (this is pretty rare).
With my position feeling good, I turned to focus on technique. Your glutes power a significant proportion of your pedal stroke, but very few of us – particularly those of us who are desk-bound – use them effectively, and therefore struggle to make them fire on the bike. By working out how to activate them (which is best done on a trainer), and by focusing on making them fire (I found long climbs to be the best place to do this) I was able to add power to my pedal stroke. The added benefit here is that strong glutes create a stable platform in the saddle. This further stabilises your position on the bike. Win-win.
The final, most simple, piece of the puzzle was that I started wearing a cap on the bike at all times (under a helmet). Because of the impact on visibility of the peak of the cap obscuring my view, this forces a change in my head position – which encourages better posture on the bike. Whilst it’s a hot solution in the depth of an Australian summer, it has the added benefit that it helps keep the sun off my head (if you feel this could work for you, please remember it is important that the cap should never impede your ability to correctly wear the helmet itself).
I was previously, arguably, a ‘bike fit disciple’ who believed a fitting session was the only solution to knowing my position on the bike was ‘correct’. In retrospect I think it was more that I needed confirmation that my position was a good point to start from. I tried a number of fitters because none of the solutions I was offered were resolving my shoulder problem – and it took that process to arrive at the one piece of advice that actually worked: Namely that my problem wasn’t bike-related. In fact the solution that many fitters seem to revert to (saddle forward, shorter stem, higher bars) could have been worsening the issue as it did nothing to alleviate the underlying problem, not to mention making the bike handle badly. Now that I have more experience I know to trust my own judgement, and to listen to my body.
Bike fitters can help you, don’t get me wrong – just be mindful that there needs to be much more consideration of the broader picture. With the recent explosion in cycling popularity the ‘bike fit’ in its most simple form has become a new cyclists first contact with the sport to get them on the correct size bike in the first place, and has been followed up with another more in-depth fit as problems have developed or they have come to upgrade to their next bike – which may even be custom. Bike fitting has become a much easier sell for the bike shops, and one or other of the various fitting systems are probably now available in numerous bike shops in most towns. The problem is the training required isn’t perhaps as regulated as it could or should be, and not all of the advice will be quite a ’sage’ as it might be.
That’s not to say that if a fitter tells you that you can’t run a slammed stem they’re talking rubbish and you know better – you probably can’t, unless you’re riding the perfect frame for you (and, in reality, you’re probably only running the frame that you want to be the perfect frame for you). As a broad-brush guide, and specifically talking of size 54cm and above, if you’re riding a Trek Madone, a Giant TCR or a Specialized Tarmac with anything less than a 100mm stem and anything more than around 25mm of spacers, you should probably be on a Domane, Defy or Roubaix. You might not want to accept that fact, but the bike will probably look better for being setup right, and it’ll probably ride better too.
To close, let me just add something: I am a trained bike fitter. I had every intention of setting up my own fitting business but the training I went through made me realise that I was meddling with people’s bodies – and doing so based on nothing more than a set of angle ranges that someone somewhere thinks are ‘best’ for someone they’ve never met, to be setup for riding with. Based on my experience above my bike fit training, I highly recommend seeing a physio who understands cycling before you have a bike fit.
Put your body right, then sort your bike position.