An Evolution in Fit

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I’ve been fit by more alleged “masters” of the bicycle fitting process than I care to remember. What I’m even less interested in recalling are the specifics of some of those fits. I’d prefer not to have had the journey, but along the way, I’ve seen—and learned—a lot.

One Italian frame builder took three measurements of me while I was in a cotton shirt and chinos as I stood in his booth at a trade show. Net result: The bike was gorgeous, handled like water flowing through a pipe and was at least one centimeter too big, and that left me too stretched out. The measurements of my “custom” frame also coincided with his stock 60cm size. I’d committed to buying that frame set; the day I admitted to myself that I needed to sell it, that it would never really fit me, was a sad one.

Another fit master, one who is known as an LA fit guru wanted to put me on the smallest frame anyone had ever suggested for me, a 53. That was perhaps the biggest (smallest?) bullet I ever dodged. I tried riding the bike around his parking lot. All the while he was beaming, commenting on how flat my back was. He had the largest supply of 14cm stems I’d ever seen. Little wonder.

I’ve had other fits that looked more or less right to most folks. One recent one resulted in a saddle height that was more than a centimeter too high; it looks ridiculous to me to write that, so I respect it must look even more ridiculous to read that. I got into that pickle because of a decision I’d made years before, that I would fully commit to whatever fit I was placed in and not begin monkeying with it a week later.

It would be easy to look in from the outside and pronounce these machinations silly, for someone to conclude that they’d never get caught in such a trap. There were times when I’d look at a change and think, “Okay, that last fit was definitely off; this one is what I need.” But the fits I had were never so far off as to be glaring errors—a fish in a Coke bottle.

What was interesting to me was that over the years. almost all the fits I gave myself over to were never far from that first fit my boss at The Peddler Bike Shop gave me with the Fit Kit in 1989. Later, I attended the New England Cycling Academy, where I was certified in the Fit Kit. In 1992, that was the most thorough course going in fit. Later, I went through Serotta’s early program, and even had the first generation of the Serotta Fit Cycle in my garage for the better part of a year. I’ve been around a number of different fit methodologies for a long time. There have been times when I was bombarded with so many different fit ideologies that it felt like rush week at a big university.

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Despite the variances in my own fit and the conclusion I drew, which was that none of the fits I’d received over the previous 10 years were quite right, I do think the state of bicycle fit is vastly better than it once was. The worst fits I see on the road (and on mountain bikes) are invariably riders on bikes that were sold more than 10 years ago, often closer to 20 years ago.

I’m preparing to write about at least two custom bikes in the next year. As a result, I decided I wanted to get my fit reviewed and for that I decided to go to Steven Carre of Bike Effect in Santa Monica. There are a bunch of very talented fitters in the LA metropolis, so making the choice wasn’t easy. I selected Steve in part because I respect the fits I’ve seen coming out of there and in part because of the number of custom bikes they are selling.

Steven’s approach intrigued me in part because he’s spent time learning most of the major approaches to fit. He is certified by the Serotta International Cycling Institute, Retül and Specialized’s SBCU. Of course, you can have all the fancy gadgetry that drug money can buy, but still not know what you’re seeing. That’s what made my experience with Steven different.

I’m not as fast as I was in 2003, but my flexibility hasn’t changed significantly in that time, which is what makes his results so significant. In many regards, I’m the same cyclist, but not all. I’ve lost height because my spine has shrunk. Those details are easy enough to diagnose. It’s the other details he caught that everyone else had missed: a slight leg-length discrepancy, but one that is not skeletal in nature; a pelvis twist that causes me to sit on the saddle not quite perfectly straight; and unusual back flexibility that allows me to ride fairly low even though my hamstrings aren’t all that flexible.

Steven diagnosed the changes to my fit he thought would be most helpful in short order, but he took me through a couple of extra steps in an effort to be super-thorough. He set up the latest generation of the Serotta size cycle with my current fit. This latest version of the size cycle, if you haven’t seen it, looks some ultra-advanced spin bike, like BMW had entered the exercise-equipment market.

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Honestly, when I first saw it, it looked over-thought, the proverbial better mousetrap. And then Steven did something simple, something amazing, something simply amazing. He took an electric driver and began moving the handlebar away from me. With the original Serotta size cycle, you could set it up in nearly any fit you could imagine, but to do so, the rider had to dismount the bike and then remount it. With the new version, you’re able to make adjustments as the rider is pedaling and the electric driver gives the fitter the ability to make smooth, gradual changes.

With that electric driver Steven was able to move the bar forward and backward, from Obree Superman to kid’s bike. He did the same thing with bar height, taking the bar from English 3-speed to pursuit bike. We took a couple of passes in each direction and I’d tell him how I felt periodically, doing my best to indicate when the bar’s reach and height felt most comfortable. In an effort not to influence the process with any opinions of my own I looked forward as he made changes.

Steven told me that with each pass I was consistent in where I indicated the bar was most comfortable. Not only that, Steven noted how my upper body was less tense in the new position than it had been in the old position. More relaxed means more miles without discomfort while riding in the drops.

Before I went into the fit my fear was that he would move the bar up. Part of my concern was that I would need to add spacers on forks that had already been cut to length, and on top of that was the challenge of making sure my fit didn’t conflict with manufacturers’ guidelines for the maximum length of spacers between the headset and the stem. As it turns out, Steven moved the bar back 1cm and down 2cm. That was a surprise.

Because my saddle came down a centimeter as well, on a great many production bikes I’ll be moving from something in the 58cm top tube range to options in the 56.5 to 57cm range. That will prevent me from having to run 10cm stems, which make the bike a bit more twitchy than I’d like.

We made the changes in stages, moving the stem by a centimeter every two weeks and the saddle by a half centimeter. I’ve been riding with this new fit on two road bikes (I changed my mountain bike fit as well) for four months now. I can say that I’ve got more power in the saddle now and have enjoyed greater comfort in my shoulders on long rides.

I’ve had several different offers to be fit with various systems lately. While I’m curious to know more about the processes, I’m reluctant to let anyone else work on my fit. Reluctant the way I’d feel were I to face a firing squad. I played along for a long time, but as I age my body has become fussy. I may not be the old cat laying in the sun just yet, but experimenting with my fit has the potential to reduce how fun riding is, and in that I just don’t see the point.

 

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22 comments

  1. Alan Canfield

    Sounds like you got an excellent fit from Mr. Carre, tailored to your personal needs. As most fitters will admit (and you have experienced), it’s not about the technology but the knowledge and experience of the fitter.

    Having said that, these new fit bikes that can be adjusted on-the-fly sound very useful. The ability to provide good feedback during a fitting is an important part of the process.

    I would also be reluctant to let anyone muck with your new fit. It’s like a new set of wheels you wouldn’t want to loan out for fear of someone knocking them out of true.

  2. tinytim

    Sounds like you got a good fit. Very wise to identify a fit issue that needed improvement, and then adjusting toward that goal slowly and progressively, ie 1 cm every two weeks. Personally, after having had a nagging knee injury that was due to poor self fit and compounded by blunt trauma (hitting my patella against the top tube of my single speed mtn while trying to clean a tricky section), a proper fit performed by a physical therapist and SBCU trained fitter, allowed me to ‘find’ a good position that was conducive to both healing and power output. I think that some riders are very fit dependent, while others seem to do well with no specific fit, and can move from bike to bike without difficulty. I find fit more important than material, weight or cost. I’ve grown so attached to my dimensions, that I have all the numbers jotted down in a book somewhere, and have marked the rails of my seat post and the cleat outline of my shoes with a sharpie.

  3. Maremma Mark

    The magic of bicycle fit. In there you can find an entire world, much of it made from legend and lore. Like you, I too am a graduate of the Serotta fit school. I learned a lot, at the time it felt almost like too much information. Though I stubbornly didn’t let the new knowledge alter my own position, found in years, decades, of experimenting.

    Over time however I came around to accepting that most of what I’d learned from Serotta’s people made a lot of sense and I changed my position gradually. I also share that knowledge with other cyclists when appropriate. As in, don’t say anything if you’re not asked. Cyclists can be touchy about their position, especially if it was worked out with a guru. And I’m certainly far from an expert.

    The industry seems to be doing a better job in recent years, I am seeing fewer ridiculous positions on bikes and that’s a good thing. If anything, I find that more than a few pro racers have what appear to be radical fit issues. Makes you wonder how they can handle the load of work they’re required to do, or even control their bikes. For example on long descents.

    But that’s opening a different thread…

  4. Sam findley

    I don’t know what this implies, but my daughter sat down next to me, saw the first picture, and said, “hey, is that granpa?” Apparently, Padraig, you look like my dad (who’s also skinny and fit).

  5. Les Borean

    One reason I read RKP is to get the knowledge to optimize my cycling.

    From an earlier mention of Mr. Carre by you in a previous post, I had a fit by him and in fact have a third session scheduled. This is my first fitting and I can thank you for pointing me toward a master of the trade. It is a good thing that I don’t know what a bad fitting is, except for the one I did on myself.

    My take on fittings previously was a fine mechanical adjustment of the bike. Now I see a fitting as a fine tuning of the rider and bike for working with each other. A physiological/mechanical tune up.

    I am impressed with Steve’s breadth of knowledge. For example, I have been wearing orthotics prescribed by a doctor for ten years. Steve told me that these orthotics were wrong for me and outfitted me with the e-soles adjustable orthotics. These do a much better job of dealing with a painful foot condition (metatarsalgia) than the prescription orthotics, at less than one-tenth the cost. That right there almost paid for my first session with Steve.

  6. Full Monte

    You bring up an interesting point with that mention of the 53cm frame. I’m noticing so many pros ride tiny bikes (granted, some of the guys are themselves quite small). But when I see a 6-footer on a 51-55cm bike, I wonder how the heck he can contort himself to ride such a thing.

    A nearby CAT racer is himself 6′ 3″ and rides a 56 cm. And insists this is perfectly normal for a racer, in that it’s less bike, less weight. Add the slammed stem, super long seat post, and I ache just looking at his bike.

    Perhaps the level of fitness and flexibility of these athletes allows them to “cheat” with smaller-than-ideal-fit bikes. Or maybe that’s how they’ve taught to ride from the beginning, so a small bike is their “normal.”

    As for my own fit — arg! Old injuries like a broken spine and hip reduce flexibility. Add arthritis in my hands. I’m 6′, but have arms and legs designed for a man 6′ 4″, which means I have a short torso. I own both a 56 and a 58 frame, and like both for different reasons. I’m thinking that as my 50th is on the near horizon, it’s time to see a guy like Steve and get a bike built that’ll carry me for a few more years.

    Great article, look forward to the next stories about the custom built bikes.

  7. James B

    Bike fit is an interesting thing. There is not too many sports, if any, where the participant is locked into such a limited range of motion for such a long period of time. If a person does this for any length of time, your almost guaranteed pain, discomfort, and possible overuse injuries. Your only saving grace to this locked down position is riding out of the saddle, but this can be pretty difficult and inefficient while “motoring the flats” or riding into the wind.
    I think any person that is serious about cycling and more importantly health and longevity (especially the older athlete with miles under his belt), would spend perhaps 1/8-1/4 of their overall weekly training time doing strength, mobility, and corrective exercises.
    In my mind, this trumps the “magic” bike fit so many folks are after.


  8. Author
    Padraig

    Sam Findley: I’ll take that as a compliment; thank your daughter for me.

    Les: You bring up an important point. One of Steve’s better qualities is knowing where his role ends and other experts should become involved. He’s given me a few recommendations that I need to follow up on now that life is calming down some in our household.

    Full Monte: Euro pros and bad fit are like Tom Sizemore and cocaine: You can’t really separate the two. The small frame and slammed, 14cm stem have traditionally been the domain of the domestiques. It’s been a function of trying to achieve an aero position for all those miles with their noses in the wind. If you look at the climbers and sprinters you’ll see that very few adopt that position. Scott Holz at Specialized has done a remarkable job in bringing fit into the 21st century for the pro teams that they work with.

    James: There’s no doubt that the average cyclist (especially me) needs to do more strength and flexibility training. I’m clear that I would benefit if I could find a way to shoehorn it into my other time demands. That said, I don’t really think fit is “magic” though that can be a fun adjective to use to describe our reaction to a new fit. And while fit isn’t magic, it’s easy to underestimate how necessary a good fit is for riding well. The benefits are sometimes surprising.

  9. travis

    Steven is an old friend of mine and is indeed one of the best fit specialists I know. I have been a fit person for a long while and Steven is one of the most informed, and skilled persons in the industry. His shop Bike Effect is amazing (I moved away from LA and have only recently gotten to see it in person). I am looking forward to having him refit me next time I am up in LA. He always catches stuff that I can’t possibly catch on my own.

  10. Les Borean

    James B:
    You echoed one of Steve’s recommendations to me, that sacrificing a little time on the road for more time in exercising would be beneficial. But I don’t agree with you that this trumps getting a good fitting. I for one, need both.

    As for the “M” word, maybe you’re referring to someone else’s comment, but the fitting seemed quite practical rather than Magical.

    Except one part of my fitting did seem magical. I have a bad left knee from an ACL tear back in the ’80′s, and this is a challenge to my cycling.

    The power meter display on the flatscreen at Bike Effect shows a figure-eight, the sizes of the two lobes representing the real-time power output from each leg. When I pedaled normally, the left lobe was significantly smaller. And in fact, my left calf is less developed than the right.

    So, here’s the point. Steve said to picture a smoothly revolving circle to represent the chainring. And like magic, picturing the circle evened out the lobes without my even trying. Weird.

  11. Jon

    It was great hearing your descriptions of the old Fit Kit and Serotta Fit Cycle. That takes me back to my bike shop days. Not to sound like an old Fred but the best fit I ever had on a bike was using the formula Greg Lemond outlines in his book. Saddle back, Legs and arms extended, back flat. I still run that same fit 25 years later and it feels great. I have dabbled with various fit systems through the years but I still come back to that formula.

    Looking sharp in the RKP kit by the way.

  12. bryand

    A few notes of my own as a 45 year old who doesn’t race so much anymore but still tries to be as fast as I ever was… I feel that we, as observant cyclists, can help dictate our own fit. As Padraig found out, trying different positions is great but it may be more important to take the time to think about what feels good and why it feels good. What are you feeling while powering the flats? How about when climbing? Can you feel the effects of the road through your feet, your hands, your back? Do you notice yourself moving fore and aft on the saddle? Take the time to really think about this stuff and what the changes are doing (or could do) for your fit.

    I also agree that flexibility and core strength become more and more important as we age. I’ve found that I’ve actually even come to enjoy running as part of my regular routine. It’s not fun like cycling, but by consciously making the effort to do something different I’ve become stronger, and in the end, a more fit cyclist.

  13. Lyle Dickie

    Thanks for all of the great material that you guys have been pumping out, as well as the at times hilariously entertaining race coverage. Just the other day someone said that Cadel was going uphill “like a monkey climbing a fence,” and I nearly spit out my cereal. It’s hard to find writers that can seamlessly blend humor without effort into their craft. You seem to have discovered a few, and it’s kept me coming back.

    Regarding the need for strength and flexibility training, as well as time crunched schedules, I think that nearly everyone reading is probably facing a similar predicament. I’m personally allergic to the particular vein of boredom encountered at the gym and, when coupled with the price and the commute time here in Tokyo, I avoid it like a fat kid avoids exercise.

    I was wondering if you had seen the the recent NYT article that covers body weight only strength training that can be accomplished in a rather short period of time? It seems to be a really efficient way for cyclists to get nearly all of the physical gains of hitting the gym without the time and monetary commitments, not to mention boredom. It links to the original research, and I though ought it might be worth checking out for time-crunched skinny guys and girls.

    http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/09/the-scientific-7-minute-workout/?smid=tw-share

  14. Sam findley

    I’ll weigh in on the topic of core/strength training for cyclists. I began training aikido with my daughter about 7 months ago; it’s made a HUGE difference in my flexibility (I can touch my toes!), and core strength (what are those? oh, stomach muscles.). Plus, training in the right martial art, with the right teacher, is great fun for father and daughter (couple of weeks ago I got to say, “OK, kiddo, come punch your daddy.” What fun!). Throwing each other across the room sure beats doing crunches any day of the week. For cyclists, I think that judo, aikido, or jiu jitsu also have the added benefit of some serious drilling in how to fall and break the least possible number of bones.

  15. Keysor

    Interesting and good article… The importance of a good bike fit cannot be overstated for long-term health and fitness. However, everyone is different, and I would think twice about going to a fitter who depended on formulas and a goniometer. For those who prescribe to self-help or don’t have a good fitter nearby, I’d recommend Steve Hogg’s bike fit site: http://www.stevehoggbikefitting.com/

  16. bigwagon

    Regarding strength and flexibility, I’ve got to believe that improving either or both will change your fit requrements, so the two topics are certainly linked. Given two otherwise identical cyclists, the ideal fit has to be different for one who is strong and flexible compared to one who is relatively weaker and stiffer.

  17. Mike C

    His could come across as a dumb question, but here goes anyway…
    How does running a 10cm stem make a bike twitchy? Is it because the bars are closer to the pivot point? Please enlighten me. Thanks


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Jon: I certainly tried the LeMond system in years past, but my femur is a good deal smaller in proportion to my overall leg length than his. As a result, I couldn’t get a good spin going and couldn’t generate enough power when climbing. LeMond’s system seems bonkers to me unless you actually have proportions identical to his. But hey, if it works for you, dynamite.

      Lyle: Thanks for the kind words. We’re believe we have a duty not just to give you data, but to entertain you. We’ll do our best to keep at it. I’ve run across workouts like the one you reference, but I’m not someone who chases those things, so I can’t say how much it might help. Probably a good deal more than I know.

      Sam: I love to do a bit of roughhousing with my older son, Philip. He loves for me to pick him up and throw him around. He’s 35 lbs. or so and is right at my limit. I’ve been thinking I should make doing that with him a daily thing.

      Keysor: Who said anything about formulas? If you’re suggesting that Steven worked from some sort of formula you are mistaken. But I will say that a goniometer is a useful tool in the hands of a knowledgeable fitter. As to self-fitting, I think people get a result inferior to what they could do for a friend. So if you’re unqualified to fit your friends, you’re unqualified to fit yourself. I have a great deal of difficulty just making sure I’ve made a review bike conform to my fit. Fitting myself is a recipe for disaster, and I’m pretty knowledgeable.

      Bigwagon: I’ve never experienced that a change in strength changes my fit, but a change in flexibility always changes my fit.

      Mike C: Bingo. As you bring the bar closer to the pivot point, a given bar movement translates to more wheel movement. It also takes weight off the front wheel and as you shift weight from the front wheel to the rear wheel, a bike’s handling will become quicker, more responsive. I’ve learned that I can completely change how a bike handles by changing my fit on that bike, not that the alternate fit would necessarily work for me, but I’ve done it.

  18. MCH

    When I started riding on the road in the late 70s, I read Rodale’s The Custom Bicycle for fitting advice. I still recall the author’s advice that cleats should be positioned such that your toes pointed inward. This would cause your knees to be positioned inwards, thus creating a more aerodynamic position. In the early 80s, a friend attended a USCF coaching clinic taught by the new US coach, Eddie B. The method for setting seat highth was to have the rider sit on the bike without shoes and with his legs dangling. The seat highth was correct when the rider’s heel was exactly the width of Eddie B’s thumb above the pedal cage. Later I learned about the Lemond slam the saddle back method (which Steve Bauer took amazing lengths with his 1993 45* seat angle custom frame).

    Flash forward to today. The european old wive’s tails of fitting have been replaced by empirical research and the science of biomechanics. While I treasure the heritage of cycling, and have fond memories of Columbus SL frames and Campy SR gruppos, I wouldn’t ride one today. Likewise, I won’t rely on fitting advice from this era either.

    Thanks for great insight into the process of state of the art fitting.

  19. jorgensen

    I have a bike that I owned 40 years ago. My placement on the bike has evolved a bit, first I grew 5 cm from when I bought it, now I have shrunk back 3 cm over the decades. Gravity strikes back. I have avoided the wide bar evolution, but could benefit from it perhaps. I long long ago found out on my own that the nose of my saddle needs to be off to the left about 5-7 mm. Just how it is. Sometimes one has to believe in your own observations.

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