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.
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:
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):
|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.