Which bike fit is right for you?
Iain Treloar gets tested, prodded and probed in his search for the perfect bike fit.
The bicycle is a highly accommodating machine. From a configuration of tubes and a few different sizes, it’s capable of being adjusted to more or less fit basically any rider, allowing them to pedal away in moderate comfort for as long as their body will let them. However, when discomfort starts, it can really kick in – turning a bike ride from a joyous pursuit into an activity of absolute agony.
For decades ‘specialists’ have been trying to find the ideal bike fit for riders wanting greater comfort and power. There have been many different theories applied and rejected over the years, with bike fitting becoming an increasingly exacting science, shifting with bike technology to establish a new norm of what a ‘correct’ bike fit should be.
A fitting tradition
Taking a backwards glance into the archives, it’s clear that there were wildly different fitting ideologies in play as recently as the 1980s. Bikes were more stretched out, with a much smaller drop from seat to handlebar compared to modern bikes. A glimpse at the bike of Italian road cycling great Gino Bartali shows a saddle level with the handlebars and brake levers way down the curve of the handlebars, a position optimised for both longer distances and a greater proportion of time spent in the drops compared to the modern road rider.
Bike fitting continues to be most commonly associated with road cycling and triathlon, as these forms of cycling put the rider in the most extreme position, but every rider can benefit from having their bike set up to maximise their comfort.
Bike fitting is becoming an increasingly exacting science, shifting with bike technology to establish a new norm of what a ‘correct’ bike fit should be.
There are still very divergent views on how to achieve the best fit, with supporters of different techniques each claiming they know best. Most bike shops have at least a basic bike fit system, usually based around a number of general measurements that are likely to fit the largest number of riders – just as, in the age of mass-production, bikes tend to be sold in a variety of sizes to achieve a reasonable fit ‘off-the-shelf’ for the vast majority of the population.
Some rough guidelines to judge basics such as seat height have remained constant for decades. Measurements include the established classic of placing the heel on the pedal at the bottom of the stroke while seated, and raising the seat until the leg is straight. If the hips rock from side-to-side when pedalling backwards in this way, the seat is too high. Once the seat height is determined, the foot is moved back to its normal pedalling position, the theory being that a ‘correct’ slight bend in the knee will then be accommodated for. But this traditional method doesn’t account for differences in pedalling style; for instance, if you normally pedal with your toes lower than your heel, the seat is likely to be too low.
Another traditional measure is to align the centre of the front hub with the handlebars when the rider looks straight down through the bar, which again provides a good general guide for the correct length of a bike but fails to account for a rider’s core strength and ability to maintain a given riding position for an extended period of time.
Traditional measures, and those from more elaborate fit methodologies, should only be viewed as starting points which require interpretation. And that’s where the professional bike fitter steps in.
Bodies and their many nuances vary widely, with shape, posture, structure, past and present injuries, flexibility and time spent in the saddle all critical factors to consider before even touching the bike to make changes. The more experience a bike fitter has with the myriad of complexities presented by different bodies, the more likely they will be to have a solution to any given problem. Some fitters, such as Steve Hogg in Sydney and John Kennedy in Melbourne, have been in the game for a long time, their experience earning them a good reputation even if their methods can be a little unorthodox (Hogg, for instance, occasionally advises to run the seat off-centre to counteract asymmetry).
In search of perfection
Of course, it may not be necessary to see a sage of bike fitting to be comfortable on a bike, and many riders have their tales of chancing upon the ideal riding position – when everything aligned just so, bike and body becoming one in a brilliant millimetre-perfect moment of transcendence. However, wonderful as this discovery can be, it always seems to have been stumbled across, rather than calculated – it’s not a repeatable and quantifiable process.
The challenge taken up by modern bike fitters is to take that feeling of bike nirvana and replicate it for each of their clients, within just a couple of hours. These fits may lack the mysterious sense of craft found when getting tweaked by someone with decades of experience, but they do have fancy contraptions and a set of finely honed procedures, in keeping with the high level of research and development invested by both the practitioners and their guides.
Is it for you?
So, who can benefit from a bike fit? The short answer is everyone, to some extent or another – but the style, frequency and intensity of your riding is worth considering before determining whether it’s worth the expense. Most bike shop staff can competently size a customer up on a bike – the broad designations of small/medium/large frame sizes aiding this process. Providing a bike is the right size and style for its intended use, a quick adjustment of seat height will normally get you in the right ballpark – and for many recreational riders, will be sufficient to achieve moderate comfort for a couple of hours on the bike of a weekend.
However, an increase in the amount of time spent on the bike can quickly expose problems, as the body’s ability to handle a foreign position erodes – what was comfortable for two hours one day might only be comfortable for one hour the next, as the body will not have had time to adapt to the change.
My bike-fit encounters
Coming from a road-riding perspective, I embarked on my own process of bike-fit discovery. Two initial assessments in a pair of typical local bike shops did little to inspire confidence; advice in the first shop put me on a road bike with a 55.5cm top-tube and a 110mm stem, while the next raised my saddle by almost two centimetres, advised a larger frame with a 57cm top-tube, and dropped my stem a spacer-width. Given both shops were using the same fitting methodology, this was a worrying inconsistency – and despite having worked in bike retail for some seven years myself, and feeling confident that I knew my stuff, I was getting a little unnerved by such dramatically different advice.
Seeking to get some clarity on the matter, I sought the guidance of two of the most widely used and successful bike-fit systems on the market; Retül, and Specialized’s Body Geometry fit.
Seeking to get some clarity on the matter, I sought the guidance of two of the most widely used and successful bike-fit systems on the market; Retül, and Specialized’s Body Geometry fit.
Specialized Body Geometry
Over a number of years, Specialized have moved from being a bicycle manufacturer into the sphere of biomechanics, with a large range of acclaimed saddles, shoes, insoles and gloves, all seeking to introduce a level of medical thinking into the bike retail environment. Evidently, it’s working for them. At the top level, Specialized’s bikes have been ridden to Olympic gold, Spring Classic wins and Tour de France titles, while on Australian roads they’re a substantial presence in any bunch ride, inspiring a fierce loyalty among their riders.
The Body Geometry fit is fairly widely available in Australian capitals – I used the services of the large and bustling Total Rush, in Richmond, Victoria. Instantly put at ease by the professionalism and confidence of the staff, as well as the clear abundance of bike-fit gadgetry on display, I sensed this would be a very different experience to the “she’ll-be-right-mate” slapdashery of my previous fits.
And true enough, it was. Four hours and $370 later, having had my medical history carefully examined, my flexibility tested, my sit-bones appraised and my feet unflinchingly scrutinised, my position on the bike had been dramatically altered. And it had all happened in the most assured and certain fashion, with patented apparatus to ensure that I had the right level of arch support in my shoes (I didn’t), was sitting with my sit-bones on the saddle rather than delicate fleshy nether-regions (I wasn’t) and that my knees were tracking correctly through the pedal stroke (they weren’t).
There was much to be done and the friendly Luke McKenzie at Total Rush was able to provide clear and concise explanations for the changes he was making – backed by guides that were difficult to argue against, even if they did steer the conversation toward a gentle sales suggestion of a Specialized-branded insole, wedge or saddle. However, Luke was quick to point out that any gadgetry used was simply a small part of the process – although Specialized Body Geometry practitioners receive regular training to ensure that their skills are kept finely honed, “different fitters with the same tools can get different results.” “These are just pretty tools that help us do things”, says Luke, “and a lot of it comes down to experience.”
Without that experience, physical abnormalities may not be correctly accommodated for, leading to further discomfort down the road. In my case, pronounced scoliosis (misalignment of the spine) was allowed for by moving one of my brake levers back towards me on the handlebar – fitting this contact point to my natural slant, rather than trying to force my body into an inherently uncomfortable position. This was a brilliant piece of intuition, and an apt demonstration of Luke’s experience of some 400 Body Geometry fit-ups. With his advice to avoid touching the set-up for at least two weeks to give myself time to get used to the changes, I stepped out into a bright summer’s afternoon ready for a new world of power and comfort. Only, it didn’t quite turn out that way.
On my first ride post-fit, my toes were numb within minutes, my sit bones felt bruised and I felt completely demoralised. Maybe it was all a bit much too quickly? My seat had been swapped, raised another two centimetres and moved forward, cleats moved some way back, and my handlebars raised. Matters gradually improved over the next couple of weeks, but it was still some distance short of the anticipated sense riding bliss. For most riders, tweaks to the initial set-up would be included in the price of the initial consultation – Luke sees bike fit as an ongoing conversation, rather than a set-and-forget – but my path was different. It was time for a Retül fit.
Retül differentiate from the Specialized fit by taking a clinical approach to sizing up a bike, with many of their aligned fitters working out of private practice from a medical background, rather than out of a retail store. I chose to use Dr Andrew Steel of Body Care Solutions, a clinical orthotist and podiatrist.
Operating out of more homely surrounds than the polished concrete of Total Rush, Andrew’s use of the Retül system represents something slightly different than the overarching “fit philosophy” of Body Geometry. Retül is, Andrew says, “just a measurement instrument. It measures you and your bike very quickly, very accurately, and in all dimensions at once.”
The data provided – and there is a lot – is then interpreted by the fitter, with changes made in consideration of a thorough physical examination undertaken at the start of the fit. “Some people are better at interpreting that data than other, [but] I was the first to bring Retül to Australia and have fitted the most people with Retül,” says Andrew. He’s also keen to emphasise that his approach to bicycle fitting comes from a medical perspective; his interpretation of the Retül measurements flows from an evidence-based perspective, and incorporates detailed analysis of both sides of the rider.
The data given by the Retül fit-up differs dramatically from the Specialized fit, with an inward tracking knee on the Specialized fit not showing up as of any particular significance on Retül. However, in terms of actual changes to my position, what the Retül fit did most effectively was fine-tune the Specialized fit; rather than making major adjustments from the Specialized fit (as Luke had made to my previous fit) the Retül changes were comparatively minor.
My saddle was again raised, although only 2mm this time (for those playing at home, that’s a whopping 4cm+ since my first fit), the nose of the saddle was angled slightly up and shifted forward on the rails, dramatically improving the comfort of that new Specialized saddle. The surprise revelation from the Retül fit was that I was sitting crookedly on the saddle, my right side further forward – no doubt a side-effect of the scoliosis, an issue not identified by Body Geometry. Andrew is adamant that Retül’s practice of detailed analysis of “both sides of a rider, as we are not the same on our left and right sides” makes his fit the “most advanced fit available in Australia”. A two-hour process, Andrew’s Retül fit comes in at $270, although there is some variation in pricing between other Retül providers. Owing to its medical basis, you may also be able to claim some portion of this expense back on your health insurance.
A concerted effort is being made by both the bicycle and medical industries to improve the comfort and enjoyment of riders.
Which fit fits best?
All in all, the Retül fit felt pretty good, if not perfect – but at least I was on the right track, edging towards some sort of consensus about how my bike should look and feel. I felt undeniably quicker and more balanced in the aftermath of the two fits, although with so many changes made to my position it was difficult to truly pinpoint what the changes of greatest significance were. With my somewhat chequered medical history, I think the clinical perspective of the Retül fit helped achieve a better result, where the Specialized fit followed a slightly more rigidly defined set of rules – advised angles for particular joints to track at and such, which proved unsuccessful in allowing for a body that really didn’t want to track at said angles.
If you don’t have such pre-existing quirks, however, the Specialized fit is well worth the expense and time, and despite the inherent asymmetries of my body, within just a couple of hours of me walking through the doors they had gotten me about 95% of the way to the eventual position I’ve ended up with – which is, when you consider the countless frustrating hours riders might spend tweaking their positions at home, a pretty remarkable achievement.
Both fit systems offer an in-depth, detailed analysis of your body’s motion on the bike, and are likely to bring you closer to comfort on a bike – with the caveat being that individual results are highly dependent on the skills and interpretation of the fitter.
It’s worth it
What is apparent from my experiences of bike fitting is that a concerted effort is being made by both the bicycle and medical industries to improve the comfort and enjoyment of riders, and changes made to positions are done from a place of genuine compassion and care for the subjects of the fit. Although at first glance a bike fit may seem an expensive irrelevance to your riding, consider that the benefits are lasting and ongoing.
For the price of a couple of cycling outfits or tyres, your time on the bike may be radically transformed for the better – and if that’s not worthwhile, I don’t know what is.
A case study
Jeanette Acland, touring bike
Jeanette Acland decided to investigate bike fitting as a solution to the discomfort that was making long-distance touring a painful ordeal. Having invested in a made-to-measure chromoly touring bike with drop handlebars, Jeanette was surprised to discover that “despite it being fine for a lot of the time, after touring for hours at a stretch, I’d get a numb right hand and pain in the shoulders”.
Worse was to come. “At first it would be tingling fingers after several hours, then the next day after just a couple of hours, and by the end of a nine-day tour, I’d have numbness that started within five minutes.” Anxious to resolve this issue, she sought advice from an osteopath and a local bike shop owner, among others, with the consensus being that with so many different fits available, “you need to try them on and see”.
With an open mind, Jeanette began her search, visiting a physiotherapist specialising in bike fit, as well as an in-store fit practitioner and another specialist bike-fit consultant. “Most changes I welcomed, and was hopeful of a good result, and there were some where I got on and could see an improvement,” she said. However, when it came to stepping up to longer rides, Jeanette was again disappointed. “Ultimately, the same symptoms presented themselves after all of the changes.”
She attributes this to a couple of different factors – firstly, that they “were all doing it from their own [road rider-based] framework and couldn’t think outside that”, and secondly, that any adjustments made “worked around the existing bike … and none of those performing the fit wanted to go back to basics and see if the bike itself was the issue”.
Jeanette was particularly frustrated to have to disregard the results of one fit, as she had “paid $400 to have them tell me what my race position should be”, despite the fact that the primary goal of the fit was comfort. Although there are many professional bike fitters doing an excellent job accommodating for a range of different riding styles, she was unfortunate in this instance in finding herself a square peg being forced into a round hole.
Despite having spent “something in the order of $1,000 all up”, she is “still not quite there yet. But my bike is one of my favourite things. I still want to persist in getting it right.”
The April-May 2013 issue of Ride On is out now – on Australian newsstands and sent directly to our members and subscribers – including this article and many more to feed your bike bliss.
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