Part 5: Unexpectedness in search of the “Holy Grail”

This is part 5 of an ongoing series on bike fits and saddles from the eyes of your in house physical therapist by day and triathlete by alter ego.

“Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”- Princess Leia, Star Wars: A New Hope

Part 4 lead you through more detailed saddle reviews and more frustrations of finding the right saddle.  Seemingly, how I sit on the saddle and my anatomy are unique and particular as to what will agree with me.  Will persistence prevail?

The continuation of the search:

Chris, as I expected, was left scratching his head as to what to do or suggest.  He admitted, “This is the hardest fit problem I have had.”  He suggested, perhaps we needed to get another fit expert, an industry legend he studied under, involved for suggestions.  I admitted to Chris I had thought about emailing him, but I wasn’t sure how receptive he would be to some random person contacting him with my issue. 

Within an hour, Chris called me.  Low and behold, he reached out to this expert…THE Dan Empfield (well, that was unexpected).  He’s an industry pioneer, founder of Quintana Roo,  the only company to be 100% dedicated to triathlon with tri specific bikes and wetsuits.  He now runs, a website/forum dedicated to triathlon.  He also pioneered the triathlon bike fitting protocol (Fit Institute Slowtwitch-F.I.S.T.) and continues to evolve it as the industry and science has changed. 
Chris told Dan of my issues, my rider history, and the low down of everything we went through in the last 4 plus months trying to find a saddle that would work.  Just based on that information, even Dan was a bit stumped.  Chris asked if he wanted to talk to me, but he said it would be better if he could get his hands on the fit.  Dan suggested that if I could make it to a fitting class he was teaching, he would use me as a test case.  The catch: the class was in Connecticut, the following week, and in the middle of my work week.  Oy.  Chris passed along this information to me as I was a bit surprised.  Dan Empfield, industry icon, was willing to incorporate me into one of his bike fit training classes to help me (definitely unexpected).  Who the hell am I?  I’m just a random, elite age grouper racing to better myself, not some professional triathlete competing for my next paycheck.  If it’s one thing I learned about bike industry folks, some are real elitist, but most, because of the passion of the sport, are just really good, easy going people.  Chris, Dan and many others I have met over the years, thankfully, fall into the latter. 

Now, generally, I tend not to be too excitable about most things.  In this case, my demeanor held true.  Part of me was still cautiously optimistic as I tempered my emotions.  Look at all that has transpired with every saddle try ending in disappointment.  Chris was more excited than I was about the opportunity just to see if Dan could figure out the final pieces of my bike fit.  Deep down, I was shocked Dan offered to help in this manner.  In the back of my mind, my initial thought, what if this is for not???  What happens if I drive 10-11 hours round trip, miss a day of work, spend maybe 2 hours with Dan and come back no further than where Chris and I left off?  Could you blame me for my pessimism?  One would think I’d be jumping around and excitedly screaming, “Holy shit! I have a chance to work with Dan Empfield!!!”  Nope.  Can’t say that was my first initial response, my emotions were muted. 

I shared my unique opportunity with a teammate.  He asked me a bunch of rhetorical questions on the matter and advised me, even if it ends up being unsuccessful, at least you will have learned a lot and learned something else about your fit that might need work.  Who am I to argue with an older, wiser friend, who’s in the sport, and is a former age group IM World Champion??  So in some ways, I needed a swift kick in the ass and he certainly provided perspective that convinced me, I NEEDED to go, not SHOULD, but NEED. 

Thinking about the prospect of the opportunity, I bounced the idea off a few more friends (non-triathlete) who thought it was a cool opportunity.  Given what I had told them of my bike saddle dilemma, they all said “GO.”  Having different perspectives and the positive energy around me really helped keep the silver lining sorted out.  In my heart, I knew I should go.  I’ve always believed you should NEVER pass up unique and RARE opportunities/experiences that may better you.  Live with no regret.

Ultimately, I decided “Why not?”  To have a RARE chance to work with one of the innovators in the triathlon industry, I’d be stupid to pass this up.  I’ve spent months and countless hours working with Chris trying to get this right and we just needed the last piece of the puzzle.  We both invested A LOT of time and energy into my fit.  I mentioned to Chris that he’d been along this ride with me the whole time, granted I was the one that had to sit on my bike.  He assured me he was in this for the long haul.  It meant a lot to me that he hadn’t given up.  So, in some ways, I didn’t want to let Chris down by NOT going.  I’d be foolish to squander the opportunity.  He didn’t need to do all the things he had done for me for the last four months, let alone the last two, trying to figure out the saddle issue and listening to how frustrated and annoyed I was with each passing saddle, but he did.  He reached out to Dan out of the blue.  I couldn’t let Chris down with a chance of leaving anything on the table thinking what if Dan DID have the answer and I blew it.  Somebody has the answer to my saddle issue. 
I owed it to Chris, so I rearranged a few things in my work schedule to make it happen.  Later, I informed him I would go.  He lit up with excitement for me and the opportunity to do this. He told me he would LOVE to make the drive up with me, but unfortunately, he couldn’t leave the shop during a peak time for his business.  I understand that.  He was eagerly interested in what Dan might find and come up with, but he’d have to wait for the recap of what happened.  Chris spoke to Dan first thing in the morning and arranged everything, so all I would basically have to do was show up. 
Later, I contacted Dan, as requested, and thanked him for the opportunity.  I also thanked Chris for going WAY above and beyond what I ever would have imagined with my fit and also for hanging in there, bearing with me through the whole process.  As I mentioned before, no words could/can even express my gratitude for all the efforts Chris has done to help get my fit right. 
Dan collected all the information from Chris regarding my fit, all my motion capture shots, and my fit numbers.  Dan asked me more in depth details of everything we’d tried (saddles/shoes), different things we tried with my cleats, and what I’m riding and its set up.  He wanted to know everything and get a full history to see the bigger picture.  In many ways, Dan, like Chris, was humble and modest.  Playing down his legend and complimenting Chris to the fullest “Chris is a first class fitter.  I don’t know what I can do that Chris couldn’t or didn’t do.”   Dan still willingly took on the challenge to see what he could do to help, not only me, but Chris as well.

While this was going on, Cobb et al had emailed back.  Rachel really didn’t have much to say except try another saddle in their line up (which I suspected she would suggest).  As far as the tweaks (which ended poorly), she said it would be difficult to make further suggestions without actually seeing me in the flesh.  I’ve stumped one guru (Cobb) with what I had given him remotely.  I understood where they were coming from.   It’s hard to do my job as a physical therapist without physically seeing what I am working with.  Physical therapy is probably one of the few careers you can’t outsource or delegate when you are the primary tool and brain.  Ironically, she deferred to the possibility of seeing Dan since he was doing his roadshow tour.  Too late, he already blew through town and now he’s headed to Connecticut.  And even more ironic, thanks to Chris, I have a better opportunity to be front and center with industry guru Dan to work with him on a much deeper level to sort out my saddle issue. 

Going all in…road trip!!

In the lead up to my road trip, I lurked on and stumbled upon an article posted by Dan, “For want of a saddle.”  I clicked it open and found that I seemingly inspired the subject at hand.  The first paragraph mentions a woman who is traveling 5 hours to be a guinea pig for his class.  Gee, guess who’s the guinea pig??  I had to laugh and sent the link to Chris.  Apparently, Dan was really thinking this through.  All the styles of saddles, how you’re supposed to set them up and how you’re supposed to sit on the darn things.  Some saddles are not designed in such a way that it’s blatantly obvious.  As with a lot of things, it’s all in the prep.  To see the article, click here.

More complexities.  Now that I have Dan’s mind stirring, I was hoping my trip to CT would be enlightening to my saddle and foot woes.

309 miles, 5 ½ hours up to Connecticut.  We (my supportive half and I) arrived right at the lunch break, and upon entering, were greeted by the gracious folks at Guru Academy who quickly offered food and drink.  They seemed surprised that I would drive 5 hours up from Virginia for the class only to turn around, hop back in the car and head 5 hours back home.  I had a practice to get back to and patients who needed me to help them.  This was a business trip, not a sightseeing trip.  Once I saw snow on the ground (it’s April mind you), that was enough sightseeing for me. 

The facility had a no frills, industrial feel to it.  It was like an upscale man cave with fancy fit bikes, tools, organized racks and shelves of various handle bars and saddles, bikes displayed like pieces of fine art, a few tables, a couch and chairs.  It was all laid back and informal which was just the way cyclists would like it.  As the class of 10 fitters broke for lunch, a tall fella clad in jeans, a t-shirt and a flannel approached.  I knew, this was THE man.  Dan Empfield.  He introduced himself as he correctly guessed who I was.  I introduced my supportive half and he was equally, warmly welcomed.  Knowing Dan was a Cali guy, I had a feeling we’d get along just fine being a Cali girl.  I think he was also shocked I would drive up for this, but I needed answers.  He took a peek at my bike and we chatted for maybe 5-10 min as he grabbed lunch.  He said we’re welcome to come in and listen to the “working” lunch as he covered more material to his class.  We were just happy to get out of the car and walk around.    As we wandered around the facility, we chatted with the Guru folks.  One of the guys was a renowned fitter from NY who works with the Academy.  We chatted about my issues which was what brought me to CT.  He shared his initial thoughts about my fit problems, though it would be hard to really assess completely without seeing me in my current position. 

As the working lunch break came to a close, it was my turn.  My turn to be questioned, assessed, and critiqued on my fit.  It was a little weird because I felt like I was representing Chris’ body of work (because I was).  None of the other fitters knew of Chris, so if another fitter started to assert any authoritative tone about the fit, I felt protective.  They didn’t know Chris and I didn’t want them judging him based on the inability to figure out my foot issue or my saddle issue.  Thankfully, everyone was nice and respectful. 
John Cobb was a bit stumped with the little bit he tried to help with.  Would I stump another guru?  Dan again played down his legend as he, again, mentioned to me that “Chris is a very good fitter” and reiterated to me that he’s not sure he can help if Chris didn’t already try it or couldn’t do it.  He said as much in front of the class several times as we discussed my issues.  Dan knew Chris and how he fit athletes to their bikes. 
As a group, we discussed shoes, foot beds, cleats, pedal systems, and pedal spindle lengths.  These were all suggested to possibly help with the foot numbness.  One fitter suggested that maybe it was a neuroma.  I quickly discounted that idea (I don’t have the issue with anything else).  Dan got into discussion of foot beds.  His perspective on insoles was great.  Since I don’t work with cyclists and their fits on a day to day basis, it was a viewpoint that I hadn’t quite considered.  Go minimalist.  More minimalist than what a runner would need with an off the shelf orthotic.  The least amount of structure (you want some for the arch) and low volume (since it can change the fit of the shoe).  Because this is a cycling shoe, you don’t need a ton of structure since you don’t load the foot in the same manner as you would when you run.  It made sense to me.  I’ve always been of the mindset of using enough structure to support not necessarily alter (unless absolutely needed). 

For the saddle, we didn’t really get too deep into which saddles I had tried.  It was ironic since that was WHY I went up there in the first place.  Instead, Dan asked about shorts.  I told the group of the types of shorts I’ve tried and wore.  Since the majority of the group was male (one of the fitters was female), it was an interesting discussion.  Dan suggested that perhaps maybe I should wear a pair of bike shorts OVER my tri shorts for races.  He was half joking as I looked at him, like you’re kidding?  He was kinda serious but I think he knew the answer.  It was “no.”  Someone asked if I had ever tried bibs.   I said no.  They asked why.  I didn’t immediately give a reason but thought a bit more.  I don’t wear bibs because of the bathroom issue.  The guys tried to explain that it’s not that bad.  Well…you’re a guy.  Ladies practically have to disrobe just to PEE!  The one female fitter understood where I was coming from.  She continued the very lively discussion with the guys because they simply couldn’t relate.  While the bib debate went on, another fitter and Dan switched back over to my foot issue.  We talked a bit more. 

Soon it was time to be the patient.  Dan showed off my bike to the fitters and explained stuff about the geometry and the complexities of triathlon fits, while I went to change.  He loved my choice of bars for the range of adjustability.  Sweet Dan Empfield approved!  I overheard Dan telling the group that when fitting triathletes to their bikes that they needed to consider the fit from the bars back (he has written about this on his website). 

He proceeded to take measurements off my bike to enter into the Guru machine to replicate my position on my actual bike.  The aerobar set up on the machine was not quite set up to the exact position to where it was on my bike.  The bars used were limited in their adjustability and the machine maxed out.  He put a Fizik Tritone 5.5 saddle on the fit bike.  Once everything was entered and the machine was set, I hopped on the fitting machine.  I started spinning as the fitters and Dan looked on.   
We started with my seat height.  Dan started tweaking the saddle height in 5 mm increments (I believe).  I think my saddle height might have started a bit low on the machine for whatever reason, much lower than what was on my bike.  It was eye exam time…you like the 1st position or the 2nd?   Dan wanted no commentary from me.  It was yes, no, 1st or 2nd.  Ok…you got it boss.  After maybe 2 or 3 rounds of 1stor 2nd, we reached a sweet spot in my pedaling cadence.  I moved up, my cadence increased.  I felt the change in my legs.  They just felt free and natural.  The saddle moved down a little, my cadence dropped back down.  I went back up and the cadence went back up.  I said nothing, but knew what was going on.  Whispers from the fitters as they looked on, “her cadence went up.”  Dan (it might have been another fitter) pointed out that when a rider’s cadence increases like mine did, they were in their happy place.  I finally blurted out my quads didn’t feel as loaded.  We found MY body’s preferred seat height.  Dan had tried a bit higher, but no more since my knee angle would be wandering into a less efficient range.  Ultimately, the “sweet spot” just a tad lower than the last setting was where we set it. 

We moved to the front end.  The bars set on the machine were not ideal and limited my actual reach from my bike.  I maxed out the bars and the machine for testing, but it was close to how my bars on my bike were set, sort of.  Fore and aft, up and down.  Dan wanted my elbows under me a bit more, so he made the incremental changes and proceeded with 1st or 2nd.   Eventually, we got to the final cockpit position. 

During the process, I tried not to look up at what Dan was doing (the numbers), as I felt the machine move under me into the new position.  I wanted to limit any bias.  Dan reminded me, focus on the COMFORT and POWER, ignore AERO for now.  Ok.   So that was what I tried to do.  Focus on my body, how does it feel as the changes were being made.  Better, worse, the same?  If I’m comfortable and powerful, then I’ll stay in aero longer.  If all I did was focus on aero, then comfort and power may be compromised if I can’t even STAY aero to benefit.  Meanwhile, my other half and the class pulled out their phones and ipads to video my “new” position on the fitting machine (I knew my supportive half was shooting video, but I had no idea the fitters were also taking video).

On the Guru Dynamic Fitting Machine: The front end was not completely optimized due to hardware limitations, so this was not a true representation of the tweaks Dan prescribed.
Next, Dan wanted to see me on my bike.  They set my bike up on a trainer and I hopped on to show my position on the bike to the class.  Dan asked me how I felt compared to the new position.  The saddle felt a little low (granted it’s kinda always felt that way) and maybe a touch stretched.  He noticed my knee angle and said my knee angle actually looks ok on my bike.  More video was taken for comparison.  
My actual position on my bike that Chris and I agreed upon based on my feedback and Chris’ watchful eye.  If you look back from my “in action before” picture, notice my head and upper body are now in a lower position and a slightly more forward position in my current fit.  The Dan prescription would only slightly tweak my current position so the changes may not by perceptible to the average person. 

The “before in action”.  Note the upright posturing and my head “periscoping” rather than being in line with my torso in a downward position from the video.  Aerodynamics is about minimizing what the air can see which impedes speed.  It’s like a big boxy SUV versus a slick low profile sports car.  All things being equal, the sports car is slicing through the wind with minimal disruption to the surrounding air.

Dan finally asked about the saddles.  I said oddly the Fizik was comfy and I really didn’t notice it.  The Cobb 55…just feels firm.  I told all the fitters that was the issue I’ve had with 3 other saddles, it felt great at the shop and I get the bike home and the saddle was completely different.  Dan playfully said “I guess you need to do all your training rides at the shop.”  I sarcastically replied “OH, Chris will love that idea.” 

Dan asked me to sit on the Guru machine one last time to see what my foot was doing.  They noted I turn my left toe in a little more than the right but my cleat wasn’t allowing me to have the extra “float” or play in the rotation from the cleat to pedal interface.  My foot numbness problem still left the everyone with few ideas that would alleviate it.

Once all of this was said and done, Dan gave me his “prescription”: 1 cm shorter stem, increase pad stack 1 cm, raise saddle 5 mm, maybe slide the saddle forward 1 cm.  He teased me a bit saying I don’t seem to be the type that would be willing to follow his suggestions.  I looked at him and said that I look at this as a collective of suggestions that I can pick and choose from based on my needs and benefits.  He looked at me and gestured in a manner of “fair enough.”  I wouldn’t drive all this way NOT to try out his suggestions and look into all the other information that I had gathered.  Otherwise, why waste everyone’s time?

All in all, there were minor changes to my bike fit. Chris was pretty
much spot on with my fit.  To be fair and credit Chris, my pad reach was initially set shorter than it was (basically in the ideal range where Dan wanted it), I moved the pads forward and stretched myself out.  In the end, Dan told me that I had a really great fit on my bike and I was just a tad too stretched (Technically, I was still within the range as far as my torso to upper arm angle and I was comfy). 

The debrief and wrap up was talking about pedals/cleat systems, and pedal spindles.  With my toe in posture on my left foot, we discussed my mechanics and proceeded to try and brain storm ways to help it which may help alleviate the foot numbness. 

Ironically, we really didn’t even talk about saddles that much.  Oddly, the Fizik Tritone 5.5 that Dan put on the Guru machine was actually comfy for the short time I was on it.  Maybe I’m on to something.  I think we can officially rule out the bike fit (my position) as the culprit of my saddle discomfort (it may have a small contribution, but not a lot if at all). 
Dan concluded his time with me as the test dummy.  I thanked him for having me and thanked the class.  He recommended stopping by Rubio’s if they have them on the east coast for some fish tacos.  I looked at Dan and shook my head.  Rubio’s ain’t out here.  That’s a Cali thing.  I told him I was from California and he lit up.  So I knew what Rubio’s was.  He asked “What part?”  “Grew up in Northern Cal, and did my undergrad at UCLA.”  Dan seemed impressed.  He wanted me to keep in touch to let him know how everything turned out and what solved what.  Rest assured I’d be back in touch with Dan with the results of my trip. 

The Guru folks were awesome.  They gave us parting gifts of Guru swag and offered food and drink for the ride home.  They still thought we were crazy to drive up and immediately go home after our time there.  They, too, wanted to know the outcome of the session and asked to keep in touch to let them know what happened.  I guess everyone wanted to know if a 5 hour trip was worth it in solving my problem spots.  We’ll see.

3 hours total spent in Connecticut, 2 hours of which was me as the patient.  We loaded up the car and made our way home.  Another 309 miles and 5 hours back to where my day started.  When I left, I had a bit more optimism we were getting closer to a resolution.  I felt the trip was worthwhile.  It validated my bike fit was really good, no, not good, great (I knew the fit was good, nonetheless, there was no doubt, now).  I picked the brain of 10 other fitters, but also that of Dan Empfield.  He was like listening to an encyclopedia of everything bikes and triathlon.  He’s about a humble a guy you can meet with a laid back Cali style that I could easily relate to, it was like being back in Cali (no offense to my east coasters).  I didn’t necessarily leave with definitive answers, but I was armed with more information that could help put the final pieces together to alleviate my discomforts (I hope).  I wasn’t sure what I would get out of this trip so I had no real expectations. 

All this time, I thought to myself, Chris has gotta be chomping at the bit to hear what happened.  His ears must have been burning back in Maryland.  I sent him a vague email telling him it was very interesting and we were in the middle of NJ somewhere on the way home.  About an hour later (somewhere north of Baltimore), he tried to call but I was driving at the time.  He would have to wait.  When I got home, I drafted up an email to debrief Chris on things that were covered with minimal narrative.  He would at least have something to look forward to in the morning.  I didn’t want to wait since everything was still fresh in my mind.

We touched base by phone the next day.  I talked as he intently listened to all the info and pieces of my experience.   Chris was surprised to hear about the Fizik saddle I tried.  I was thinking about the shape and design of the saddle.  In a previous discussion with Chris about my Terry’s sweet spot from our last session, if we could just cut the nose off, it just might be the perfect saddle.  The Fizik had no nose and a fairly decent “trough” of sorts from the nose back.  My pubic bone, because of how much I rotate forward, basically sat in the trough without a nose to irritate the soft tissue.  Most of my weight would be towards the wider section of the saddle.  Chris seemed curious and perhaps it might work.  Overall, he was happy to hear that there were only little tweaks with the fit and that Dan overall complimented his work.  I think Chris started to wonder if he may have missed something, but he felt good about what Dan said about my fit; he felt validated.  I know that Chris has been insanely busy at the shop, and he was working literally nonstop (he sounded tired when I talked to him on the phone, poor guy needed a nap and a day off).  I went ahead and took the lead on the next steps in hopes of completing the fit.

Step 1: set up bike per Dan’s coordinates (moved the cradles back to the center position-moving back, added a 10mm spacer to pedestal the cradles-moving up, and saddle up 5mm)

Step 2: get custom inserts.  I was going to find a place to get the custom foot beds made for my shoes.  The one place locally I found rubbed me the wrong way when I spoke with them (really unfortunate, it was a lesson in how NOT to treat a potential customer), so I decided to go a different route.

Step 3: Ask Chris to source the Fizik saddle and the Adamo PR 2.0 saddle.  Set up time to meet again.  Source any other potential saddles prior to next session.

Will this ever end?  Is there a happily ever after?? 

But wait, there’s more!  Still looking for saddle nirvana…

Dr. Jamie So

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


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