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DIY Bike Fit Part 1

Physiologically sound bike position will ensure your cycling longevity, but attaining a position that is comfortable and performance enhancing is easier said than done. Our long-term contributor and resident positioning guru Steve Hogg has something to say about how you can assess areas of discomfort to improve your results on the bike.

Getting comfortable on the bike is important. It’s intrinsically linked to performance, but also and perhaps more importantly it will prevent unnecessary position-related injuries. I hope this first article will provide you with a reasoned basis for a decision to alter and improve your bike position, help to make those changes, and suggest bike and equipment choices to further enhance your performance.

Before moving on, we need a definition of bike fitting.

Bike fitting is the process of attempting to mate rider with bicycle for best performance while minimising chance of injury.

That sounds nice and neat but the reality is never quite that simple because of one unpredictable variable; the rider. I’ll talk more about this as the series progresses.

An axiom is a self-evident truth, ie a premise that can be generally accepted and on which you can base further reasoning.

A bike is symmetrical (in a positional sense) while the rider is not.

A bike is positionally symmetrical. Look at the contact points; the seat is over the centre line of the bike while the handlebars and pedals are equidistant from the centre line.

Contrast that with yourself, the rider.  Stand barefoot in front of the mirror while stripped to your underwear. At a glance you could be forgiven for thinking you are symmetrical because you have two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two arms and two legs. If you observe yourself more closely, you will see any of, or any combination of the following:

  • Your head tilted to one side
  • Your head not over the centre line of the body
  • One shoulder higher and/or more forward than the other
  • One side of the body is more muscular than the other
  • One side of the pelvis is higher or more forward than the other
  • One knee closer to being locked out than the other
  • Each foot may have a different shape, length or arch height than the other
  • And one that you can’t see, but experience every day – one side of the body is more facile than the other (handedness/footedness).

This is not a complete list and if you could view yourself from each side, behind or above you would probably be able to note more anomalies. Nobody is symmetrical; this is normal and to be expected.

Crashes aside, all injuries caused by cycling are overuse injuries

This is explained by the fundamental mismatch that occurs when a functionally and sometimes measurably asymmetrical rider interacts for long enough or intensely enough with their positionally symmetrical bike.

It is normal to be asymmetrical and generally speaking, we cope well with our asymmetries off the bike because we have evolved to be upright creatures whose only contact point with the planet is our feet.  We have evolved to walk and run, not to cycle. Our pelvis, hips and ankles can tip to either side to allow us to traverse uneven terrain when walking or running. We can run and walk quite effectively despite our asymmetries because these are natural activities that humans have evolved to perform.

In contrast, cycling is an unnatural activity which we have not evolved to perform.  Cycling requires us to be locked into a more or less fixed relationship with the symmetrical bike while applying sometimes significant force.  It is this more or less fixed relationship to the contact points of a bike that produces a lower tolerance for asymmetry.

For best performance and the lowest chance of injury, the rider needs to be as functionally symmetrical as possible.

Having read this far, this shouldn’t need much further explanation. No one will ever be completely symmetrical, but we need to be symmetrical enough to rarely have issues caused by riding a positionally symmetrical bike. Everyone has limits to the amount of cycling training volume and intensity they can cope with without becoming injured. The more functionally symmetrical the rider, the more those limits are expanded.

The rider will only function as well on the bike as they function when off the bike.

One thing you’ll note if you follow the pro cycling scene, is how many riders are riding frames that appear too small and who are using 130mm, 140 mm and even occasionally, 150 mm stems that are slammed all of the way down to achieve their positions. Most pros ride mass produced frames.  Mass produced frames designed with head tubes tall enough and top tubes short enough to be suitable for their major market; biomechanically dysfunctional, inflexible, middle aged men (and sometimes women) who have spent most of their last 20 years sitting down for a living. The rider’s body needs to be conditioned to the activity of cycling.

‘Conditioned’ means much more than doing long hours in the saddle to improve cardiovascular and muscular efficiency. It means performing activities off the bike that allow the rider to not have gross restrictions on range of movement of major joints and poor ability to stabilise themselves while they exert force on the pedals.

Inflexible and/or unstable riders will butt up against their self-imposed limits much more quickly than those who they are reasonably flexible and reasonably stable. Engaging in off the bike activities that help unwind the postural and biomechanical deficiencies that they have acquired over time is a must.

Central nervous system function should be prioritised over biomechanical ‘lore’.

You will hear a lot of advice like ‘seat height is your inseam length multiplied by a number’; ‘the ball of the foot should be over the pedal axle’; ‘the tibial tuberosity (bony bump below knee where the patella tendon attaches) should be over the pedal axle’ and similar. Most of these old saws are without foundation. If in any doubt about changes to your position, prioritise central nervous system function over other considerations.

Multiple examples of this will be given as this series progresses.

The acquisition and maintenance of good posture is the most important daily cycling exercise

To cycle efficiently requires that the rider be biomechanically efficient. A precondition of biomechanical efficiency is neurological efficiency. No muscle will fire during a pedal stroke unless a signal arrives from the central nervous system at the right time in the motor pattern (muscle firing sequence). Optimal nervous system function is intimately linked to good posture and good alignment. Good posture is upright posture. Good posture is that which resists gravity well. Gravity is omnipresent and we forget how pervasive its influence is while it slowly pulls us down into our individual versions of postural dysfunction. Stand tall, sit tall and cultivate the habit.

How to Avoid ‘Bike Fit Hell’

Bike Fit Hell! It is a succinct term that describes the home address of a percentage of my fit clients. Gaining entry to Bike Fit Hell (BFH) often happens like this:

A rider perceives a problem with their position and makes a change. The change might be to seat position bar position, cleat position, foot correction; it doesn’t matter which. The change feels better but another problem becomes apparent that wasn’t there before. So the rider makes another change in an effort to solve the new problem. The second change works to a point but now another reason for dissatisfaction arises, which in turn means another change to position which creates another problem. And so on until…aaarrrggghhh! Which is the sound that a frustrated, and by now possibly injured, bike rider makes when they finally free fall into Bike Fit Hell. So how do you avoid this scenario?

Measure or Mark Your Existing Position

I don’t care how you do it; any method is valid as long as it is repeatable. Measuring your position establishes a base line that you can return to if you get off track at any time. Equally simple is to mark your position. A correction pen is all you need. Mark your seatpost where it emerges from the frame. Mark the seat rail of your seat immediately in front of the forward most edge of the seat rail clamp. Place a mark on your bar on either side of the slot where the front plate of your stem leaves a gap to the body of the handlebar stem. Trace an outline around your cleats on the sole of your shoe. 

Make One Change at a Time 

Don’t make serial changes. Make a single change. If that doesn’t work, return to your base position and reassess before trying again. 

Habituation, Habituation, Habituation 

Never make a successive change without riding with a previous change for at least a week, and with at least one longish ride thrown in, all without problems. Often a change that feels awkward at first will feel much less awkward after a familiarisation period. It takes time to break down a motor pattern (muscle firing sequence) and learn a new one. The only exception to this is if you are in pain. Muscular soreness may disappear or die down with familiarity with a new position. Pain that increases ride on ride or stays the same but with a reduction in time taken to onset, means that the change was almost certainly not a good one.

Cruise Post-change 

If you have made a significant change, then don’t expect to go out and blow the opposition apart from day one. Cruise for a few days. Smell the roses and let your CNS (central nervous system) get used to an altered muscle firing sequence. Once you have done two or three cruisey rides, then put the foot down a bit. This advice is for a single parameter change only. If the entire position has been changed, as it would be in a fitting session, then cruising for two or three weeks is often necessary. 

Keep a Record 

Keep a diary. Record the change to your base settings that you made and your subjective feelings about each ride post change. Also include weather conditions and other variables. A week or two after a change in position and if you are still conducting an internal debate as to the merit of the change, consulting your diary will usually push you one way or the other based on what you have recorded. 

Occam’s Filter 

Occam’s Razor is a philosophical filter that suggests (often quite rightly) that when there are two or more contending theories that equally explain a set of facts, the correct one is more likely to be the theory that makes the fewest new assumptions. So it goes with positional changes in a ‘kind of/sort of’ way. If you feel you have an issue and are unsure which of say, three potential adjustments will make a positive difference, choose the one that will be the least change to your current position first. Often large changes set you on the slippery slope to BFH. 

Real World Matters 

Theories are good for arguing over coffee but any change that works for your benefit and is proven over time in the type of riding that you do, is a good one for you, no matter what theory or received wisdom about bike position that it may contradict. Individuals are just that, and too much cycling ‘lore’ regarding position assumes that we all came out of the same factory as mass produced items. Not so. 

Load

If you are encouraged by a change you’ve made in your position and have left it in place for a reasonable period without problem, test it under load. ‘Load’ can be flexible in its meaning to you. For a crit racer, that means having a red hot go in the weekend crit. For an Audax rider, that means doing some serious distance. Try the change out in conditions that are at the high end of the spectrum of what you do on your bike. 

Murphy Was a Cyclist 

A surprising number of people have poor perception of how they actually function on a bike. What this means is that in many cases, the rider will perceive a problem with their position and think, ‘There are three things that it can be’. For many, I can just about guarantee they’ll choose the wrong two options first. No one is immune from this possibility. Don’t worry about it. Return to your base settings, follow the rules above and you will get there. 

Record Positive Changes

This is self explanatory. Once you are convinced that a change in position has been a positive, record it so that you have a new version of your base settings. You are now in a position to make further changes without risking entry to Bike Fit Hell. 

The next article of this series will move straight to advice about how to improve your position, starting with seat height. 

Steve Hogg is a Sydney based bike fitter with an international clientele. Steve has trained bike fitters from the U.K, the U.S and Canada.

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