In at the deep end

With the winter nights drawing in and my cycling becoming limited I decided back in September to try to swim more often. With my desire to get into more triathlons in 2013 it seems like a good way to keep fitness up.

I’ve always been a swimmer. I started club swimming when I was just 7 or 8 with Houghton Regis Swimming Club, competing in various local galas, club championships and the occasional county level meet. When I went to senior school I stopped club swimming but continued regular training and competing for the school. My speciality was backstroke but I was decent at all four strokes so also ended up doing individual medleys.

Whilst I was technically good and at the level I was at able to get the odd win, I was never good enough to progress to the next level which would have involved a far greater dedication to training. When I went to university I went to a couple of training sessions but soon gave swimming up in favour of more usual student pursuits! Up until now my swimming has been limited to the odd trip to the pool, an abortive attempt to get into masters swimming when I lived in Southampton and a couple of Swimathon challenges.

After the HSV Sprint Tri in September I contacted the St. Albans Masters Swimming Club and arranged to go along to a Monday evening training session. It went well, although I had to drop down a lane halfway through due to lack of stamina. I soon joined up and have been to one session a week since (though I want to pick that up to two.) The sessions are well structured with a coach present, and it is good to do more specific work than just plodding up and down for an hour. It’s also a motivation to be swimming with others of similar or better ability.

One other motivation for joining was to see if there was any possibility of competing again. I have great memories of galas from my club and school days. The warm up; nerves as your races get near; focussing before the start; exploding off the blocks and, most of all, the pain!

Fortunately my chance to compete came quickly, and this Saturday evening saw me line up as part of the STAM B squad at the Herts Senior League meet in Bishops Stortford. I was pencilled in to do the Men’s 25+ 50m backstroke and the Men’s 25+ Medley Relay. Even though I am 37 I was swimming in the 25+ rather than 35+ category primarily because the 35+ category is particularly strong in our club. In fact, our A team was partially composed of recent National Masters champions and European record holders!

My B race for the backstroke saw me line up with two other swimmers. From watching other races it was clear that the standards in B races differed wildly, but given I was racing people as much as 12 years younger than me I just planned on having as good a race as possible. My one concern was the backstroke turn. I grew up being coached with the old style of turn where you stay on your back the entire time. Only in the last couple of years of my school swimming did the current style where you can flip onto your front and tumble turn come in. I was never coached it and when I tried it in school events it was not unusual to get a disqualification. The trick is judging the right point to flip onto your front. Too early and you can be DQ’d for either needing an extra pull, gliding or not touching the wall with your feet. Too late and you hit the wall with your heels or worse head! In either case you don’t get a good push off the wall. In training sessions I’d been practicing and maybe got it right 50% of the time. However it is difficult to do a lot of practice at full race pace.

I wasn’t worried about my start which has always been pretty good, and I got a decent start in the race, dolphin kicking underwater for about 6 kicks before flutter kicking to the surface at about 10m. A 50m is then basically about power whilst trying to keep as efficient a technique as possible. On the first length I couldn’t see either of my competitors. Passing under the flags I counted four strokes then turned and hoped the wall was there… which it was! The turn went perfectly and on surfacing I could see the splashes of the guy in my inside lane about a body length behind me. Now it was just a case of powering for all the second length, right into the wall. I managed to get a pretty good touch into the wall, I definitely couldn’t have got another stroke in, and knew I’d beaten the guy on the inside. A glance to the outside lane saw the other guy still halfway down the pool so I’d won!

The old feeling of elation came right back to me, as well as the feeling of needing to throw my guts up from the effort. I asked the timekeeper for my time, which was 36 point something seconds so not actually particularly fast but a good benchmark to work from. Team mates on the poolside told me I was trailing slightly coming into the turn but actually came off the turn in the lead, which was very satisfying.

The medley relay also went well. I led off on the first backstroke leg and got us into a good lead which we managed to hold onto and win the race.

Overall the STAM B squad actually finished the meet in fourth place, topping the B squads and even beating one of the other club A squads! All that was left was to head off for a big celebratory curry!

My bike fitting experience

There is a lot written on the web about the process of bike fitting. Like most, when buying bikes in the past I’ve had the most basic of fits done by the shop. This typically relies on techniques such as ‘stand over’ and the old faithful ‘slightest bend in leg when heel is on pedal at dead bottom’ methods of getting the seat height right. In one experience it also involved a stem change using the ‘hide the front hub underneath the bars’ technique.

In short, most local bike shops are going to do a minimal amount to attempt to get you fitted onto the bike of your choice. A good shop will steer you in the right direction of frames that have a geometry to suit you, but there will be little fine tuning. There are of course exceptions and more shops are beginning to offer a more comprehensive fitting service as part of the purchase, but what if you’ve already got the bike? Are bike fittings worth the money?

For me, a proper bike fitting was something I’d always thought about, but never justified to myself. I’ll also be honest and say that if there was money to be spent on cycling I’d have rather spent it on tangible new equipment! However, in the various sportives and riding I’ve done this year I’ve noticed an increasing tendency to get some discomfort in my left knee. Therefore I decided it was time to try a proper bike fit.

Professional bike fitting has been something of a growth industry recently, especially with the rise of Retul and their ever growing list of fitters. Indeed, so successful have they been that none other than Specialized have bought them up. The Retul approach is based on 3D motion capture technology and feeding lots of data into a computer which then outputs your optimum position. Normally this would be right up my street. I am a technologist by trade and who wouldn’t want to have the full motion capture 3D movie-style experience?

However, something made me feel that a bike position is more than just an algorithm, and something that experience and feel plays a part in. Hence after research (e.g. reading this BikeRadar thread) I decided to book a visit with Adrian Timmis at Cadence Sport. This involved a 200 mile round trip and a day off work, so wasn’t a decision taken lightly.

On arriving at the shop (impressive, and full of memorabilia to boot) I received the first of countless offers of coffee and was shown upstairs to the fitting area. I got changed as Adrian set my bike up on the turbo.

My bike set up on the turbo

To begin with Adrian asked me to simply hop on and pedal away whilst he observed me from a number of angles, and took some video (more of that later) whilst chatting to me about what kind of cycling I do and intend to do, and any problems I had. Of course I mentioned the knee issue. A few times he asked me to drop my elbows lower, and also to move between the hoods and drops.

Once off the bike the fitting process began with my shoes. Part of the fit includes the creation of custom Sidas insoles which involved use of a special machine for taking a cast of my feet. This process took about 15 minutes or so. During this time Adrian also conducted some physical assessments, concentrating on the feet and legs as well as taking a variety of measurements of both me and my current bike setup, all the time jotting figures and notes down on his clipboard.

Even without any further cycling the first adjustment made was to move the lever position on the handlebars. Once the footbeds were ready and installed in my shoes it was time to hop back onto the bike and start the first of a lot of efforts whilst Adrian analysed, adjusted and further analysed. The majority of the session was spent concentrating on my shoes, especially around cleat positioning and the fitting, removal and re-fitting of small pieces of material under the cleats. Adrian was deliberately not telling me what he was doing at this point, instead looking for feedback from me to see if I could ascertain improvement. This is where I struggled as I had a pre-conceived idea that my knee pain was caused by not having the correct leg extension during the pedal stroke and I thought the material was used in an attempt to even out my leg length. This pre-conception coloured the feedback I was giving, but also to an extent I wasn’t feeling significant differences that were easy to describe. Part of the problem as well is that my knee had started to have some discomfort during the session (possibly through trying to hard on the turbo, having never ridden on one before)

Eventually, Adrian described what he was doing and trying to achieve, and it came as a complete surprise, but also made complete sense! During the examination he had discovered that my left foot has a natural Varus position whilst my right foot was neutral. In addition, my Specialized road shoes have an in-built level of Varus (of about 1 degree apparently). What this all meant was that during pedalling my left knee wanted naturally to move to the left, and this was exaggerated by the shoe. I was working against this natural inclination in order to keep my leg centred over the pedal. Not only was I wasting effort doing that, it was obviously putting lateral strain on the knee. The experiments Adrian undertook were to play with various wedges (not, as I had pre-supposed shims) which would change the angle of my foot in the cleat to bring it back to a neutral position and keep my knee centred over the pedal. I ended up with one wedge on the right shoe to counter the inbuilt bias of the shoe and two under the left to counter mine as well.

Incidentally Adrian mentioned that the more common problem is Valgus – where the knees naturally try to be closer together (imagine them aiming inwards towards to top tube.)

During all this assessment of my legs, my seat post was also raised by about 10mm and at various times the angle measurement of my leg at just before the bottom of the pedal stroke taken. Adrian also used a laser to plumb the ideal position of the knee at the bottom of the stroke. I was pleased to know that my saddle position was right and no fore/aft adjustment was made.

Attention then turned to the front of the bike. Adrian removed my stem and replaced it with his special one that allowed easy dynamic adjustments to be made in length and other factors. The problem he described to me about my position was one he diagnosed straight away from my initial pedalling. I was too stretched out when on the hoods, so that my shoulders were pushed forwards and my arms nearly locked out. Hence why he asked me to drop my elbows during that initial session. This immediately rang true, and indeed looking back at photos you can clearly see that I rode with almost locked out arms:

Look at the arms and shoulders

Not only was this an inefficient position, with my body not centred on the bike, it was also a tiring one. The aim was to get me into a position that I dropped into naturally when on the hoods. This involved yet more pedalling, adjusting and pedalling as Adrian observed and asked me for feedback. The differences here were far more obvious as things suddenly started to feel natural. I felt so much more planted on the bike and with no tension in my shoulders my pedalling felt more natural and fluid. On moving between the hoods and drops there was less, if any, noticeable change in cadence (the turbo made it easy to hear any difference.) The adjustments involved dropping the height of my bars giving me a larger saddle to bar drop – something I was very pleased with as it should help me get a bit more aero during TT and tri efforts.

Eventually after about two and a half hours we claimed victory with my new setup and position. This included additional time setting up a new pair of tri-specific shoes I purchased whilst I was there. As mentioned earlier Adrian spent some time taking video with his iPhone. He was trying out some new software which basically allowed side-by-side comparisons, much like that used in running gait analysis. The ‘before and after’ is below (before on the right):

The table below shows the measurements taken before and after (all in mm):

Measurement Before After
Saddle top to BB 752 764
Saddle to stem drop 77 95
Saddle tip to Handlebar 558 568
Saddle tip to lever 714 702

So in short I’m a little higher, have more of a drop to the bars, have a longer distance to the bars but crucially a shorter distance to the lever/hoods.

All that was left was to have another drink and a nice chat about pro cycling. At this point it is worth noting that Adrian is a former pro, and rode and finished the Tour de France for ANC Halfords in 1987.

The cost of the bike fit was £150 including the footbeds, with a little extra for the wedges. So, was it worth it? Well I’ve done two rides since, including my club Sunday run. I certainly feel a lot, lot better positioned and it was very noticeable that a lot of the other riders on the club run were in very similar positions to the one I used to have. I felt lower and more aero than them. Crucially as well, there was no knee pain and I could feel my pedalling being more direct. Even on stints on the front of the group and on climbs everything felt natural, comfortable and efficient. Of course time will really tell but everything seems good so far and in that respect I’d say the fit is already one of the best investments I’ve made in my cycling. If you are thinking about a fit I’d definitely recommend a visit to Adrian.