Part 7: The Season Begins…Race Mode: a whole other animal.

This is part of the bike fitting and saddle series from the perspective of your physical therapist and competitive triathlete.

Part 6 lead us through more saddle testing, bumps in the road, and finally settling on saddle.  So, what would race day bring?  Were the last 7 months of saddle torment and dialing in my new bike fit pay off?  Would my feet be happy?  How would my body react to race pace efforts in my new position?

The race day test.

Race effort was really going to tell us a lot.  It is not something you can simulate well.  The mind set, the intensity, the effort, the competitiveness… the heat of the moment (in some sense this was literal) it only happens on race day.  Trusting months of training to unleash the race beast.  My short pre-race ride went well.  The saddle with my thin chamois shorts and the set up felt pretty good.  I was feeling excited and ready to roll. 

During the race itself, I was riding well, feeling aero and fast.  The one thing race day threw at me were the conditions: hot and WINDY.  The heat for this race was nothing new.  The winds on the other hand were blowing a bit more than other years.  Of the 56 miles, I swear 40 of it was directly into 15-25 mph head wind.  It was brutal.  I felt fast on my bike, but the winds made you work that much harder.  Race intensity had me moving all over the saddle.  Ride on the rivet, scoot back, ride on the rivet, scoot back.  I wasn’t sure why but I know I tend to ride the nose during races.  About 90 minutes or so into the bike, my back started to get sore, my upper back and shoulders were tense and sore, and my nether regions were none too happy.  Now, objectively, it is hard to determine whether this was all a bad thing or not.  I rarely ride at this intensity in this folded over position on my bike in training for 99% of 56 miles.  Training and racing mode are clearly TWO different beasts.

The variables contributing to the tension I felt:

-race mode (your whole body tenses up in the heat of the battle)
-soaking up the asphalt (bumps, cracks, chip seal, pot holes, etc.)
-drastically new position at race intensity
-3rd real ride outside
-the winds (trying not to get blown off your bike)
-scooting back and forth on the saddle constantly

It is different than riding your stationary trainer because …it’s stationary.  On the trainer, you can relax the postural muscles somewhat used to balance yourself on your bike while interacting with your environment outside.  From how I was feeling and moving around so much, my body had not adapted nor adjusted to my outdoor demands.  Stupid weather.  I maintained my objectivity of my race experience.  I was my own guinea pig in this experiment around my bike fit.

Curious to hear how things went at the race, I sent Chris my race report.  He was ecstatic over most of my results, while I was only luke warm over my performance.  I say he was “mostly” tickled with my results as he was equally unhappy as I was with my run.  He wondered why?  I’m faster than what I put out on race day.  My quads cramped throughout the first mile of the run and the heat made the shadeless run course feel like an oven.  I know I can’t control conditions.  I can only control my attitude, my training, my nutrition, my recovery, my sleep, my effort, etc.  As a consequence, it directly influences what my body was willing to give back.  During the run, my body was in a minor state of revolt.  

Post race analysis had me questioning everything except my equipment.  I was not fully heat acclimated (nobody else was either), I didn’t have enough bike to run transitions under my belt (weather limited), and my sleep was not good during race week for whatever reason.  Despite the discomfort on the bike during the race, I sucked it up and battled through.  Take what the day gives you.  It was a solid effort, but not what I know I can put out.  You could say, I wasn’t satisfied.

Chris and I discussed my discomforts and wondered if there was another small little tweak we needed to make to lessen the stress on those areas.  After a bit of back and forth discussion, we decided to swap to a shorter stem (by 10 mm) to see if that would improve my overall body comfort, distributing my body weight better from front to back.  We didn’t even mention much of the saddle.  Apparently, I have now become a long term study.  He wanted this saddle to work. 

First ride with the shortened stem resulted in what felt like a better more natural body position.  Not too cramped, not too stretched even at effort.  No abnormal discomforts in my shoulders or my back.  It seems we’ve found my sweet spot for my cockpit length.  The shorter stem has shifted some of my weight back onto my saddle.  Speaking of saddles, the saddle continued to be problematic.  Chris remained hopeful that this tweak would settle me into saddle nirvana.  I was having my doubts as I tried to just roll with it and not get caught up in the annoyance and frustration of it all. 

After a couple more outdoor rides, I modded the saddle itself in an effort to shave a few millimeters off the width.  It was nothing drastic, since the saddle was technically still on loan from Chris.  I noticed the padding of the saddle softened in my time riding on it.  As a result, the padding on the “prongs” started to flare outward just a wee bit.  Those few millimeters of flaring were giving me points of irritation into the crease of my thigh.  So, out came the electrical tape.  One of the few cheap items for quick fixes (zip ties are among the other items).  Much like taping an ankle, I taped a small section of the each “prong” to provide more structure and support to the padding to minimize the flaring.  It seemed to do the trick despite looking a little funny.  Honestly, I don’t care if it improves my comfort.

A few rides on the trainer and outside,  I started experimenting with my pelvic angle as I sat on the saddle.  I may have found the sweet spot.  If I rolled past the pubic bone (anteriorly rotated my pelvis a hair more), then I can rest on the lower abdomen region without issue.  It’s like laying out on your bike.  No pains, no discomforts, actually comfy.  The taped region of the saddle creates a small indentation in the padding which my pubic bone seems to sit in and lock into place while in this position.  Because of the added “structure” from the tape I felt more supported rather than sinking into the padding and bottoming out.  I also lowered my front end 5 mm to see if that would help facilitate more forward roll of my pelvis.  It seemed to help.  I eventually lowered it another 5 mm to really see if I could comfortably roll forward and maintain that position.  I wasn’t out for getting more aero by lowering myself, I was searching for saddle comfort.  The aero part would be a bonus.

During this time, my communication with Chris was limited.  There wasn’t anything really to discuss.  I told him my theory and what I was doing.  He didn’t have anything to contribute as it seemed he was following my lead in my quest for saddle comfort.  He was interested in the next race result and wanting to re-evaluate the fit after the next race.  So, we wait.

The next race day test would provide more information as to how my body interacts with my bike.  Millimeters here, millimeters there, a half to a full degree up or down… the difference between agony and comfort.  Think about that for a moment, a MILLIMETER!?!?  Placebo or not, my body has a small tolerance zone.  It’s become annoying.  I just want to ride my bike!

Breathe…. patience.  Perfection takes time…I said this to a patient recently.  It struck me.  I, like my patients, wanted instant results and gratification.  Unfortunately, that is not how processes work.  The bike fit process, the rehab process, they all take time to achieve the desired end result.  Back to the roots of trusting the process.  Stop over thinking.  It’s not going to be all roses to get there.  Breathe….

Next race…

Results from the 2nd race of the season were promising.  The ride itself from a time perspective was good.  My body was dialed in well except for my undercarriage.  It’s apparent now that my race kit shorts DO NOT agree with the Cobb.  The seamless seam of the chamois contact the saddle and me in all the wrong ways.  It’s all I felt the whole ride.  The hot spots were different than in my training shorts.  I still moved all over the saddle during the race.  Scooch forward, push myself back, scooch forward, push back… it’s obvious now that my race habits vary a great deal than my training habits.  No matter what was done to improve my relative comfort, it was short lived in small doses.

My low back felt fine, the cockpit length was right where it should be.  My upper trapezius muscles were the only parts of me that were unhappy by the end because of race effort, sighting the road, and hanging out in aero position.  They were otherwise ok during training sessions even on the trainer.  The saddle was the only thing torturing me during the bike portion of the race.  I was eager to get off the bike for relief. 

I sent Chris my official race report and follow up of more specifics of my race day bike experience.  He was happy with the outcome but not so happy with my lack of saddle comfort.  If he only knew.  We were both at a loss as to what to do next.  He re-emphasized that he’s “here to help.”  The Cobb over the last 2 months just hasn’t met the comfort needs of my undercarriage.  If I’m this uncomfortable for a 56 mile ride, I don’t even want to venture to find out the misery of a 112 mile ride. 

I mulled over the saddle options (or lack thereof) and debated on whether to gamble on the one saddle I eyeballed for months without a return policy.  I looked at the pictures and compared notes from other saddle designs I saw and sat on.  What worked, what didn’t work and what theoretically would work.  I measured the Terry’s sweet spot.  I measured the seated area of the Cobb.  I was trying to ascertain the potential of this one saddle and decide to cough up a small chunk of change.  What the hell, it’s only money right?  It was either going to be a functional purchase or a really nice paperweight. 

I think both, Chris and I, wanted to put this bike fit to bed and live happily ever after. 

What will this next fancy pants saddle bring?  The majority of the reviews are glowing, but remember, saddles are very personal.  Personal indeed. 

Dr. Jamie So

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


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