Part 2: The Bike Fitting Experience

This is the second installment of the bike fitting series from your in house triathlete and physical therapist.

Part 1 detailed the “what” and “why” of a bike fit and left you with this question: “What’s your comfort, experience and relationship worth to you?”Well, I’m gonna tell you.  All this talk of bike fits and its importance, leads to my own personal bike fitting journey which inspired these writings.  The purpose is to share with you, my experience from the eyes of an athlete, but also as a physical therapist.   

However, before we dive into the details, let me preface that MY experience greatly DIFFERS than most others.  As you will read, definitive challenges were encountered, mostly in the saddle comfort department, specific to ME.  Most others may find their sweet spot on their bike and their saddles fairly quickly typically in a few sessions (or the first).  Apparently, I am an outlier (nothing new there).  Others will tweak on their own without giving feedback to their fitter leaving no lasting relationship beyond their fit session.  So as you read through my journey/experience, keep this in mind.Onward to my bike fitting journey:When I first bought my bike a couple of years ago, I went to a fitter my local shop recommended.  Like my previous fits on other bikes, it was about as basic of a fit as you could get.  The fitter took angle measurements based on video capture, placed me in the so called “optimal” range of acceptable industry body angles and sent me on my way.  It lasted exactly an hour.  I asked about a few other items of my fit.  The fitter made a few recommendations, but overall dismissed my concerns and didn’t follow up or pursue resolution.  No frills, no thrills “fitting.”  I wasn’t terribly impressed while left to my own devices for solutions.  Some of which resolved with a bit of tweaking, other issues I basically tolerated.  Yes, I should have known better, but I was balling on a budget at the time.  I tweaked as far as I could to get myself to “tolerably” comfortable.Fast forward to the end of last season.  It was time to work on maximizing my potential (and maybe improve my saddle comfort) on my bike, namely a more aggressive, aerodynamic fit.  As I noted in my previous post, I researched, seeking to find a new bike fitter.  A more comprehensive fit and experience, something more thorough leaving no stone unturned.  I was willing to travel a bit to work with a fitter that would meet my needs.  I didn’t want the generic, “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” bike fit of my past.  My focus was optimizing my position to maximize my performance and I was willing to invest in the process.  All the years of racing in a less than optimal position, I wondered what I had left on the table.My search ultimately lead me to Chris Richardson of Bike Doctor in Waldorf, MD.    It started with a simple email telling him a little bit about myself as an athlete as well as my needs, goals, preferences, and expectations.  He (and his staff) promptly replied and explained which fit process he offered would best meet my needs.  To my surprise, it wasn’t a short abbreviated email response; it was a well-articulated email addressing my concerns and questions.   Many of the online reviews had noted in so many words: he’s not out to sell the highest price package or sell you unnecessary things; he truly wants to help improve upon what you already had or didn’t have (of course, he had NO idea what he was starting with).  The hour drive was the least of my concerns, especially if it was worth it.  The cost was reasonable (almost too reasonable, I would have paid him more) and in line with other fitters in the area. 

Like my health, my bike fit, and my ambitions are of great importance to me.  I was investing my time, energy and money into this process, so I wanted to work with someone who knows his stuff.  I know better than to get too googly eyed over a person’s credentials, but Chris’ experience was what really did it for me.  Certifications mean nothing unless you can back them up with tangible results.  Based on opinions/reviews of strangers of varying experiences in cycling/triathlon, his credentials, and the email responses, I took a leap of faith and set the date.  The day had come to meet Chris for the first time.   I was excited for the possibilities and more importantly the outcomes of my efforts.  The funny thing: my inner tri nerd missed the premiere of the Ironman World Championship coverage on the day of my fit.  I went as far as emailing the shop asking if they had a TV so I could catch the coverage (they didn’t).  My focus should be on this bike fit anyway, right?The pilgrimage to Waldorf was uneventful and a pretty easy going drive (as long as it’s before the traffic builds).  Walking into the shop, the staff was friendly as you made your way in and Chris immediately greeted me with a quiet unassuming demeanor.  I knew from the first meeting, this was going to be good (going with my gut instinct here).  I filled out the information sheets, he asked more specific questions about concerns of my current fit and the goals of the session.  From there, the process began.  Like a tailor, Chris meticulously took my body measurements, assessed my flexibility, checked for asymmetries, checked/adjusted my cleat placement on my cycling shoes, and checked my ischial tuberosity width (with a tool called the “Ass-o-meter,” yes, there is such a thing).  

Before tinkering with anything on my bike, Chris jotted numbers down of my bike in its current state.  To get an idea of what he was really working with, the pilot (namely me) would complete the big picture.  He placed “fitting dots” (stickers) on the key bony prominences of my body to insure consistency of his measurements.  Using video capture technology (Dartfish), he measured my body angles while aboard my bike with those carefully placed dots as reference points.  We looked over the video analysis.  I wasn’t in a horrible position, but there was definitely room for improvement.   I’ve always wondered how much I was giving up solely based on my less than stellar position on my bike.   Chris checked my contact points, listened for my pedal stroke, and watched intently for how I interacted with my bike.  

My “before” in action.  Note the upright positioning of my head and upper body = conservative position.

With all the information gathered, there was no reason why I couldn’t get into a more aerodynamic, powerful position.  I had the flexibility, the athleticism, and no outstanding injury issues to contend with.  My limiter was the existing equipment/components on the bike.  The other minor limiter were my body metrics: long torso, short in the legs and a bit long in the arms (swimmer build).  Tri bikes these days aren’t made (geometry wise) for people built like me.   The industry trended towards higher stacks and shorter reaches.  My body fits better on “long and low” geometry (long reach and short stack).  My bike frame sat towards the middle.  See illustrations below:

From Slowtwitch.com:

We haven’t even made changes to my bike yet, but this was, by far, the most intimate and most extensive fit process I have done in all my years of riding and racing.  Every last detail, precise, with every degree and millimeter recorded.  It goes to show you, how far bike fitting has come to the general population.As Chris stared at my bike, I could see the wheels turning in his head (it reminded me so much of my first mentor in PT, that serious look of deep thought leading to the “aha” moment), his train of thought focused.  I didn’t want to disrupt the thought process with idle chit chat or questions.  As I stood quietly looking on, he suddenly blurted out in an almost devious manner of a mad scientist, “Hmm, where do I start?   The front end or the back?  There are so many things I want to do.”  This was when I knew for sure, Chris really loves what he does. With a game plan in hand, he started tinkering just to get me into a better position with what I had given him.  He explained all the changes as he made them.   By the end of the bike portion of the fit, we had lengthened my reach and lowered my front end a little.  The stem was swapped with a longer, flatter stem, Chris cleverly tweaked the pad stack a little (maybe 5 mm) all in an effort to get lower and flatten my back a bit to improve aerodynamics.  He also lowered my saddle height a touch.  It didn’t sound like much, but it was a start.  Unfortunately, we had maxed out the potential of my position with the existing equipment while the fit remained fairly comfortable. We discussed the potential areas of my fit to improve.  Lucky for him, I had a few things in mind well before I decided to get a refit.  I wanted to run them by him before making any purchases based on what he saw and where we could go.  I showed him a set of bars, the Tri Rig Alpha X and Alpha C, I was eyeballing with a ton more adjustability in order to get lower, not to mention more aero and a little lighter to boot.  Chris was intrigued noting the bars may do what we need them to do.  Sweet, now I needed to I wait for Santa.Since we were talking about optimizing, Chris also threw the idea out there of going with shorter cranks.  I hadn’t really considered it, but it did leave me intrigued.  There were a number of benefits with little downside.  It was something to consider and research.I was ready to go all in to invest in my bike to improve my position to its fullest potential, not a cheap proposal.  Sure, I had a decent “chassis” but I wanted to make sure we put some thought into the modifications in order to optimize my interaction with my bike.  It was a matter of time and money before these changes would take place.    All the bike talk during the session, the technical jargon and biomechanics, peaked my inner bike nerd while my physical therapist brain soak it all in with great interest.  It filled in the blanks, affirming all the information I read about tri bike fits.  My brain was buzzing.Up to this point, Chris’ knowledge and vision for putting someone on a bike was impressive.  The session never felt rushed or hurried.  He meticulously and methodically went through every last detail and entertained my questions.  Even more impressive:  his display of passion and pride he takes in his fits.  Rare traits to find in anyone in their trade: passion and pride.  You, on your bike, your outcomes, all a reflection of your position on your bike (your fitter) and you (the engine).  As a PT, a business owner and as a person who values those traits, it’s refreshing to see.  Even his staff reflects the same passion and genuine care to every person walking into the store; all a direct influence of their leader.  I think too many times we get caught up in the material things in the world that we truly fail to see the true character of  genuinely good people.  I guess it’s all a matter of how one values their relationships with others.  I definitely know that Chris is someone I’d go back to should I need his help with my bike stuff. 

So, what about the saddle?  There has been no mention of saddles yet.  Patience, grasshopper…Next: we will venture to the most important piece of equipment of the bike, the saddle.  The next parts of this series will continue to answer the original question presented at the beginning of this post.

Dr. Jamie So

Jamie So, PT, DPT, is the owner and physical therapist of Manual Therapy Effects.

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