Is your bike fit for you?
October 04, 2016
In the beginning, if you could stand over a bike, it fitted. These days, a bike fitting combines technology, physiotherapy and even psychology, as Richard Peace discovers
What do you do before a cycle ride? You may have plotted the route, packed a puncture repair kit and even eaten a sensible meal but have you checked whether your bike is the right fit?
As more people take to the road on two wheels, more shops are now offering bike fitting as a service, with the main aim of improving performance while minimising the risk of injury. Improved performance is encouraged by checking your body is in the optimum position so you can get the most power out of all the muscles you should be using, while ensuring your riding position does not create any undue strain.
Riders come in all different shapes and sizes, so everyone’s bike should be set up for their specific needs. Bike fitting can also mean you get the bike components you need without having to waste money on trial and error. And, ultimately, if you are comfortable you will enjoy your cycling more.
But if you think this means a quick session with a tape measure and checking the frame size then you’d be wrong. A top-end fitting session may take several hours and can include taking a mould for better fitting shoes or measuring the width of your sitting bones in order to get a comfortable saddle.
Think about the position
I asked cycle sport research specialist Dr Barney Wainwright how a good fitting can be important in stopping damaging long-term injury:
‘Most injuries in cycling are chronic injuries that are caused by long-term repetitive movements when the body is not in a good biomechanical position. Common areas of injury and pain are knees, hips, lower back and neck, with ankles and wrists being less common,’ says Wainwright.
Saddle discomfort is also very common and is an area that can usually be alleviated in most cases. ‘Very poor positioning on a bike can often result an unstable position that negatively affects handing and could make crashes more likely, so this is another aspect that might be addressed in some cases,’ says Wainwright. ‘A good bike fitting should reduce the problems unless there are some underlying biomechanical issues that need to be addressed separately by a physiotherapist, for example.’
Think about the ride
Before deciding to go for a bike fit you should think about what kind of riding you do so you can brief the fitter properly. For example, novice riders who participate in long-distance events for enjoyment as much as performance might want to opt for a slightly more upright and relaxed position. Comfort and control of the bike are more important than marginal gains in performance times, for example by being able to tuck down lower and longer on the bike.
But very experienced riders who think they have nothing to learn have also been surprised at the findings of a fitting and the time gains and comfort it can help them make. Once you’ve given it some thought, shop around to find a bike fitter who you think fits the bill.
Think about the fitting
The following isn’t an exhaustive list – each fitting system will vary in the details – but it gives an indication of the areas that can be looked at and possible problems and solutions:
- Interview and flexibility assessment: What kind of riding do you want the bike set up for? Initial assessments also look at flexibility (or lack of) as that can be an important fitting factor.
- Frame: You might think this is just a matter of the old stepover test but a professional bike fitting will consider a variety of frame measurements. Be prepared to enter the world of seat and top tubes and stack and reach measurements.
- Handlebars and stem: It’s not only the handlebar position that is important, but the handlebar width as well. Lever and gear changer positions may be considered too.
- Seat: Width as well as angle of tilt, and fore and aft movement, are all important for comfort and maximum pedalling efficiency.
- Feet and shoes: Cleat and insole adjustments will help your legs track in a straight line, enabling them to move smoothly up and down, piston fashion. Some fitters film the rider on a monitor at this stage, with reference lines indicating where the legs should be moving that can be compared to where they are actually moving. Custom shoe insoles can be another option.
- Findings and report: Fittings generate a host of measurements and you might want to know beforehand if these are available in printed or digital form, perhaps along with recommendations, to keep for reference.
Think about the fitter
There are various systems out there offered by major manufacturers, frequently through their own ‘concept stores’, but there are also independents that often have staff with a sports science background who can offer a more individual approach. Neither is better – it’s most important to ask some initial questions of the fitter and choose the one you feel comfortable with.
Available at various Giant centres throughout the country, the Powerfit system differs from many others in that it uses a Wattbike to measure power outputs before and after the fitting. Wainwright explains the technology benefits: ‘The unique data that a Wattbike provides is the recording of a pedal force profile…. This allows the fitter to perform a functional assessment of what effective force the cyclist is actually generating before, during and after a fit… A good position should allow the cyclist to create an effective force profile, which will lead to a more mechanically efficient pedal stroke. In nearly all other fits this data is not available.’
Chevin Cycles of Otley offers its own-brand precision fit service, which, according to Development Manager Iain Findlay, has been devised from a combination of formal training and experience of working with over 600 riders.
Findlay stresses the importance of the interview stage: ‘It all depends on what the rider wants to achieve from the fit. The initial process of fitting is really determining an ideal position for a rider based on both physical abilities and desires.’
Although a fitting may only make small adjustments, these can have a big effect on performance and comfort, as Findlay details: ‘One client, an ironman triathlete from Stockholm, initially only wanted to buy a specific bike from us. We arranged for him to come across and have a fitting session for a custom build based on a custom fit. From finishing near the back of his club he went on to finish first with the new bike.’
Findlay says there are many examples where pain has been alleviated. Knee pain in particular is a common complaint and potentially difficult for a cyclist to remedy without access to expert use of fitting tools to track the alignment of pedal strokes. ‘One client with severe knee pain was almost ready to give up on cycling due to riding discomfort. Changes to his cleat position, saddle height and angle relieved a lot of pressure on the knees and next day he was amazed to go out on a 30-mile, pain-free ride.’
And finally… think outside the bike
A bike fitting may highlight problems that require solutions in addition to the bike fitting. For example, it may show up an apparent difference in the lengths of left and right legs. This may actually be due to tight muscles in the pelvis to which physiotherapy may be the answer – hence many bike fitters work in tandem with their preferred physios who specialise in cycling.
Bear in mind that a bad bike fit is not necessarily the cause of all cycle discomfort; other factors such as riding to exhaustion can also play a part. As in many other sports, core body strength is important in preventing injury in other areas such as the back.
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