Bike fitting is part science, part art. Many bike fitters like to capitalize on the “art” part of this, espousing a magical method for getting you set up just right on your bike, alleviating all discomfort. Likewise, many riders feel that their position is absolutely critical to their performance and sensation on the bike. A saddle that is a couple millimeters too low will ruin their training or racing for the day. Fortunately, there are fitters out there who offer proprietary systems of sensors and computers and force plates which will set you perfectly on your machine. Or will they?
I often get asked what "system" I use for fits or what my thoughts are on this or that. Well, I think bike fit systems (and sometimes bike fits in general) are over-rated. Yes, I do a decent number of fits on patients, but perhaps my end goal is different than most. Here are my thoughts on the process.
There are two reasons why riders get a bike fit. Commonly, someone has an ache or pain on the bike which is impacting their performance and/or enjoyment. To address this, we offer a "Medical Bike Fit". Other riders have no pain at all, but they want to improve their efficiency on the bike, producing more power for less physiologic cost.
Many of the fits I do are "Medical Bike Fits". These are the ones that are attempting to address a pain or chronic injury. This post will deal primarily with this type of fit, but there is certainly some carry-over to the "Performance Bike Fits"* as well.
First of all, if your body is the problem, a bike fit will not fix it. Many people that come to see me for a fit have spent many dollars and many hours assembling the components, wheels, and electronics on their bikes. They may show up with multiple cleat/pedal systems and multiple saddles. They’ve obviously put a great deal of thought and research into the issue. When I ask them how much time they spend on their mobility, stability, and “core strengthening” programs, the answers range from a few minutes per week to a blank stare. We may have just identified the problem, and we’ve not even gotten on the bike yet!
With that in mind, here are some thoughts on the topic of bike fitting:
As I said, the best fit will not fix a dysfunctional or neglected body.
Every fit should include a detailed evaluation of how the rider’s body functions. This evaluation is not simply checking to see if a rider has "tight hamstrings" or a "difference in leg lengths".
A bike fit can be a very good way to evaluate whether cycling, as a repetitive motion, is causing or exacerbating an overuse injury.
If there is a motion abnormality, it is sometimes structural (ie – leg length discrepancy) but more often functional (ie – imbalance in the musculature).
Structural problems may be addressed long-term with changes in a rider’s fit. For functional problems (the most common type), a bike fit should be considered a short-term fix.
In most cases, a bike fit can identify problems and offer a short-term fix while the rider addresses the underlying cause. Think of it this way... If you break your ankle, a cast can be the short-term fix while your body heals the fracture. But you wouldn’t just leave that cast in place forever! I think of some aspects of bike fitting in the same way. If something hurts on the bike and a functional problem is diagnosed, the placement of a shim or moving a saddle will not fix the problem. Such changes may offer some relief while you address the primary cause off the bike though.
If your goal with a bike fit is to improve performance by addressing aerodynamics and power production, that is a different topic. If you have pain on the bike and are in a reasonably normal position, then a bike fit is a part of your diagnostic and treatment plan. The real magic is usually going to happen off the bike though!
Fortunately, all of our bike fits include a detailed evaluation of your movement patterns and “core strength”. Along with that, we have the resources necessary to set you up with an individualized and customized workout plan to ensure that you are addressing the problem off the bike. This will make you more comfortable and improve your performance. In my opinion, this is the perfect bike fitting scenario!
(*In the coming days, there will be another post addressing our "Performance Bike Fits". If you are interested in that service, stay tuned.)