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Proper Bike Fitting

May 19, 2021

You have to sit somewhere, and the handlebars and controls need to be within reach. Considering how remarkable our bodies are in their ability to function in a wide range of positions, just sit, push the pedals, and go! But what about a bike fitting?

You want to be comfortable during and after the ride?

You want to cover distance efficiently?

You want this to be optimally healthful?

That’s a whole other story. It’s a ride I’m willing to share with you for whatever distance you find rewarding. You can pull out of this paceline whenever you want!

Without a Proper Bike Fitting Your Body Compensates

We have fitted thousands of riders. Some day, in the dead of winter, we will count all the Fit Cards on file that document each of these sessions. Considering bike fittings take a minimum of 1.5 hours, often 2 hrs. or more, we are interested in how many hours (months?) we have amassed in this pursuit. But it doesn’t matter because we are looking only forward to the next rider.

Every body is a puzzle. But not necessarily a cognitive one. My background and experiences have led me to go blank, to observe but not judge or assess, during part of every fitting. It is an offshoot of growing up on horse farms. Here’s the story…

When I became somewhat sentient, maybe age 12, I remember the day that a significant horse that was boarding where we lived was deemed lame. I could see the horse walk, trot and canter with a rhythmic hitch in the indoor ring, different with each gait. I couldn’t avoid comparing and watching all horses as they moved. It’s like someone who is a car buff looking at every car on the road, an obsession. There are signs, that interruption of smoothness, that are perceptible when something musculoskeletal is awry. It can be very subtle within a small muscle and joint relationship.

So, it is with people. Even cyclists! One could jump in and say, “whoah, (heh heh, equestrian humor!) people have nothing to do with horses” or similar. I’m not saying there is a direct parallel (although if you look at a cyclist with their hands on the bars, they look remarkedly like a quadruped, spine extended in slight traction …) but what we are talking about are compensations.

Injury Risks Increase with a Poorly Fitted Bike

To illustrate this concept, imagine you have a knee brace on one knee that limits its ability to bend correctly. Your hip and low back on that side will have to compensate for the reduced function of the knee as you hoist your leg off the ground with tissue that doesn’t usually work that way. You are compensating.

Your back will get sore; maybe your diagonal shoulder and your neck opposite that will also. This reaction is a compensation chain. Everything that makes us work the way we do is compensation or adaptation because we have no choice but to respond to the forces we face. For instance, we’ve never seen someone with scoliosis who does not also show a leg-length difference to cause such a lateral reaction up the spine.

On a bike, if we are asking our bodies to work beyond their range of motion or if we bring an injury into the picture, we will be forced to compensate. It can be very subtle, a hint of a hint that there is something outside the ideal. To perceive this for me involves looking at an animal like another animal. That’s why I blank out.

This might sound a little hokey, but our outcomes are consistent, by the thousands, excellent. So many riders over these many years have mentioned that they have moved away/purchased a new bike/changed something with their saddle or cleat position, and they can’t get that good feeling back. When you are out on a cruise, and the voice inside your brain is saying, “aaaah, this is IT,” you can’t settle for less after that.

The Right Bike Fitting Makes a Difference

We have had numerous riders give us feedback from fit-related experiences that indicate there was a consensus between our work and that of other respected bike fitters:

Barbara presented as an exemplary fit that “needed no adjustments, who did your fit?!” by none other than Andy Pruitt, when attending one of Lon Haldeman’s ultradistance camps. All other riders were radically adjusted in their positions.

Sean was at race-training camp, attended by the 7-11 team doctor Dr. Max Testa. Dr. Max had no recommendations for improvements. He used Sean as an example of what to look for.

We worked with some members of a local triathlon club. Everyone we fit had a cycling PR, which was in the first race of the season here in the Northeast, without the benefit of peak fitness. Nobody who was properly fitted did so.

Bike Fitting Is a Combination of Art and Science

We have invested in top-level bike fitting equipment. Our primary tool is a Purely Custom fit bike coupled with additional tools that we have created because they don’t exist on the market. Please recognize that it is about the drummer (and the cyclist!), not the drumset for bike fitting success.

Nevertheless, we investigate all possible “drumsets,” like motion-capture systems, but find the distortion and imprecision that comes with looking through a lens, or using geometry generated by hotspot markers, alienates us from the reality of the rider. This technology can be exciting, making the rider feel like they are the focus of a human potential study [Dolph Lundgren/Rocky IV], but it is dangerously close to the smoke and lights of Oz.

We are after a more profound result than superficial angular relationships like a stick figure or a constellation. There doesn’t seem to be a replacement for the human eye and brain in this role yet. But we are working hard to replace ourselves every day. When we succeed at the technology of reading muscle engagement and release on all planes, real-time, we will bring it in the shop. We are not going to install something that is a “sales tool.” Validity is our credo.

The Physiology Behind a Bike Fitting

Although we have been talking about non-cognitive “lizard brain” stuff, akin to a predator reading weakness in potential prey, let’s now move up the scale. At some point, a bike fitter needs to become a coach and to team up and communicate. It is astounding how well our bodies can flourish within the false construct of cycling, considering how different the posture is from our natural state. What a great thing cycling is.

But it works best when we use our muscles in a hierarchically sensical way- and as naturally as we can. We can’t dump the weight of our upper bodies on our hands, wrists, elbows, arms, shoulders, and neck and expect anything better than it sounds. “Let’s go for a 50-mile pushup!” is not appealing, is it?

We need our torso to support itself with its own muscles. Self-stable yet connected in the goal. If we reach for the bars with our pelvic floor in mind (for extreme simplicity’s sake, apologies to those who are “in deep” already), we can wake up and engage the muscles on both sides of our spine.

The Paraspinals (parallel to the spine) are columns of muscle that initiate at our tailbone and terminate at the nape of the neck. They become an “equals=sign” of support, like the flanges of an I- beam. If we don’t actuate them, we hunch, droop or drape over the bike, we correct this errant trajectory at the neck with extreme cervical dorsiflexion to see forward, and we are doomed.

We are doomed to compromise breathing, now reduced to a shallow gasp because we have driven our ribcage into our diaphragm, to convolute nerve pathways that give us tingling fingertips, or much worse. We will ‘build the body we practice’ and develop kyphosis with continued exposure, the defeated-looking hunch we associate with the highly aged. Is this what we want out of cycling??

All this can be replaced with spinal stability, an erect posture that belies our years, deep breathing, soft elbows, and hands almost smiling back at us.

Stop by Our Local Bike Shop for a Bike Fitting and See for Yourself

We are going to address that and more in our bike fitting. This is where the magic comes in, the magic of humans working together and teaming up to share techniques that “stick” from the moment of the epiphany because nature won’t continue with discomfort and inefficiency if it knows better.

Form, optimal cycling posture, is what we are after. We will position the support surfaces on your bike to grow this in your body. Much like you don’t swing a tennis racket (successfully) as though you are swatting flies, there is a successful way to use your body in cycling. I’ll see you at your fitting. Deeply.

Our cycling shop is located in Mt. Kisco. In addition to bike fitting, we offer bike repair. Plus, we have bikes of every kind along with great bike gear to make your ride even more enjoyable.