Bike Fitting

Kind of an ‘Ask The Bike Tart’ and a Tuesday Tune-Up all rolled into one this week (and delayed a week due to the migraine that knocked me flat last week!). An important subject too: Bike fitting.

Luis asked me this:

“You’ve mentioned several times the importance of proper bike fit. Do you have any preference regarding a particular method or set of tools, such as Retul, for example? Or are we to depend on an experienced pro?

On top of that, how long does it last, or how often should I go back for a refit?”

It’s difficult to know where to start here so I’m just going to talk and see what comes out…!

Bike fitting is a subject I could probably bang on for days about. There’s so much going on, so many interpretations of what is ‘right’, so many people doing it wrong, and of course those who ‘Slam Their Stem’ just to look cool regardless of what it’s doing to their riding.

I’m about to have yet another fitting session because I’m about to buy another new frame and want to be sure my current position isn’t too far off the mark. This will be fitting no.7 for me, and all within the last three years. Why so many? Well, we’re constantly changing, so why expect your bike position to stay the same?

Over these sessions I’ve had fittings using the Specialized / Andy Pruit BGFit system, two using the Retül system (which I am also qualified in using), twice at CycleFit in London (one at Covent Garden and one at Pearson Cycles who are trained and licensed by CycleFit to use their name) and once at Baum before they built my Corretto. The next one will be with my physio who is also a trained and well practiced bike fitter.

So system which do I prefer?

In truth, none of them. I have always taken on the advice of the person doing the fitting, ridden my bike for a while post-fitting (which you should always do, and for long enough to settle into the changes) and then tweaked my position for comfort where I still didn’t feel right / wasn’t comfortable post-fitting / felt better pre-fitting / come to a compromise. Each fitting has contributed some useful info, and each fitting (with the exception of one) left me with doubts about the fitters understanding of my issues and / or knowledge of what they were doing. One of them in particular (and I’ll keep that to myself for now) I would only ever use through a VERY experienced fitter too…

The conclusion I have come to is a topic that is quite hotly debated within bike fitting itself – should the fitter also be a physio, or just stick to their specialism? I think they should be both. Why? Well, a fitter can (or rather, should be able to) tell you if you’ve got tight hamstrings, whether you have varus / valgus feet, point out leg length discrepancies and so on, and then take that information forward into your fitting session. All well and good. Except they might not be able to tell you what else is going on.

Take my recent shoulder issue for example. A pure bike fitter will tell me that I need to take pressure out of my shoulder and change my position on the bike to do that. They will be looking for reasons in my bike fitting that might indicate why my shoulder is giving me grief. On the flipside, a physio would tell me that short term I need to get more comfortable on the bike, but ultimately it’s issues such as poor gluteul strength that are creating referral pains in my shoulder and neck through my body trying to compensate, and that my (also pretty bad) posture is putting strain on my neck and shoulder. They’d also tell me that both can be corrected through some simple exercises – all of which will make my life on the bike much more comfortable and will ultimately mean a return to a better bike position.

Which would you prefer?

That said, nobody can put you in your ‘perfect position’ – it doesn’t exist. There are people that can put you in the best position to make you as powerful as you can be (even using fancy systems that adjust on the fly and have dual SRMs to tell you what’s happening to your power whilst they’re making changes), but that might not be comfortable. There are people that can put you in the most comfortable position possible, but that might not be powerful. In both respects, bike fit will always be a compromise. Probably.

An example: Whenever Cadel Evans is on a TT bike my twitter feed is always full of people saying how they wish they could get their hands on Cadel and fit him better to his TT bike because he’d be “so much faster” for it. But would he? Change his position and there’s a good chance you’ll change his mental state – he knows he’s fast in his super-low, apparently ‘inefficient’ position so why does he need someone to tell him he’d be faster if he changed that? He doesn’t, end of.

Consider this also: Have a good day, be happy and relaxed, then go for a bike fitting – you’ll probably end up in quite a different position than if you were tired, stressed and unhappy. However, during your fitting you’re sat indoors on a trainer or fitting jig so in reality either way your position will probably be slightly different when you’re out on the road anyway. You will sit differently on the bike depending on how you’ve slept, what your stress levels are like, how happy you are, who you’re riding with, what type of ride you’re doing etc. Given that’s the case, how can there be such a thing as ‘perfect fit’?

Does that mean fitting sessions are worthless? Not at all, but they’re also not a gospel, word of law or statute that you must adhere to. What they are is a solid, theoretical and experimental basis to get you in a better position on your bike, and for that alone they are worth their weight in gold.

How often should you have a fitting? Much more often than you probably think. You probably wouldn’t blink an eye at spending $150 / £100 on some essential parts for your bike, but spending the same on a top-up fitting? “Oooh no, I don’t need that”. Actually you probably need it every bit as much, if not more than those parts, yet because it’s not a physical ‘thing’ that you can hold in your hand you struggle to see the benefit. Do yourself a favour: change that attitude.

Then of course you need to help the fitter to help you. As an example, one thing I personally have been particularly bad on is saddles; I just cannot stay still with them and settle on one that works for me. The problem here being that (in theory) as soon as I change my saddle I’m changing my position on the bike – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. I have to stop doing it, and now that the Specialized Toupe range seems to have been refined and is working well for me I hope to be able to stop and stick to using just that range of saddles… but I just cannot help wondering whether there’s something more comfortable out there! I guess what I’m saying here is, find a saddle that works for you and stick with it. Chopping and changing could be doing more harm than good.

More to the point though, listen to what you’re being told and do your fitter the courtesy of actually giving their advice a thorough test, and go back to them and GIVE THEM FEEDBACK! If there’s one thing I rarely saw when I was working in a shop that did bike fittings it was people returning after a couple of weeks for a top-up / tweak / adjustment – yet most shops do offer it as an option.

One last thing: If you pay to see a professional to ask about your bike fit, don’t be upset if they tell you your bike is the wrong size or that you can’t ‘slam your stem’ or that you need to be running your front end higher than you want to because it means your bike won’t “look pro” – honestly, they probably know better than you. If you want your bike to “look pro”, have a slammed stem or be the right size then go and have a fitting and then get the fitter to tell you what will work for you – DO NOT buy a frame and then ask them to fit you on it, that’s the wrong way around!

So there we go – lots of words, but hopefully some useful advice. I honestly could keep going, but I’ll just start getting into contentious topics that’ll cause ructions!

Rich [@RichTheRoadie]