Each time I climb on a new bike I go through a process of adapting to the bike. We all do this. No one really talks about this process. The idea is that fit addresses this, that proper fit shortens the distance between your particular physiology and the touch points of the bike so that the bike feels as natural as possible. My experience as a bike reviewer, and having ridden hundreds of bikes over the years, is that perfect fit is rare, even when the numbers seem right.
Here’s what I notice when I climb on a bike: It’s not uncommon for the balance and handling of a bike to feel off. When too much of my weight is on the front wheel, the bike doesn’t want to turn. It’s as if the headset had been overtightened. Small shifts of my weight in the saddle combined with how much my elbows are bent and how much my hips are rotated can make perceptible changes in a bike’s handling. We do this out of the saddle as well. How far forward or back our hips are when we get out of the saddle will change a bike’s handling; just bring your hips forward a bit if the bike feels nervous. It’s something we all do when we begin riding a new bike.
What often escapes us is that once you’ve ridden a bike for 20 miles, muscle memory takes over and those adaptations begin to feel like the natural fit. And this only becomes a problem if that position you’ve adapted to asks more of your physiology than your body will accept. Tendonitis, pinched nerves, premature fatigue, your body can talk back in a variety of ways. Again, the better the fit, the less of this accommodation that takes place.
Fitters like to talk about neutral position. It’s the position that allows you to sit on the bike most naturally and to produce the best possible power for a given position on the bike. That is the goal behind working with a knowledgeable fitter, rather than just getting out a tape measure and guesstimating.
In more than 20 years writing review for bike publications, I’ve ridden several hundred bikes. I’ve learned that we are far more adaptable than we tend to think. The way we become accustomed to one bike teaches us to perceive any change in fit as a problem. That difference, the alien feeling, can convince us we won’t be able to perform as well on a bike. And while I’ve found that I have my limits—too much weight on the front wheel and the bike won’t turn, or too little will make the bike skittish—I’ve come to embrace how as my type of riding changes, so does my fit.
My fit on a traditional road bike, while higher than it used to be (I’m not the same rider I was in my early 30s), is lower than my other fits. My position for cyclocross and gravel riding is higher and shorter; it’s not the same reach just at a different height. And where mountain bikes are concerned my position on cross country bikes is lower than my position on a trail bike. I’ve come to see fit increasingly through the lens of what the bike is meant to do and not just the position from which I’ll produce maximum wattage.
It’s been a surprising epiphany, that there is no one, true fit.
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