Should you get a bike fit?

Phil Cavell and Julian Wall

£175 to tell you which £3500 bike will fit you best? Is bike fit a science or the bike trade’s homeopathy? I attended the first European Cycle Fit School to find out.

In the US, cycle fit is a growing part of a bike shop’s repertoire. There are many methodologies available. It’s hard to ask for £175 for the ‘eye’, no matter how expert, clients now expect to be measured, scanned, and videoed.

Wielding an allen key to raise or lower a saddle, or adjust a stem, is one way to approximate a bike fit, but is it good for you?

“In my experience, setting your bike position using trial and error results in more of both,” says Phil Cavell of CycleFit of Covent Garden.

Two years ago I had Cavell give me a professional bike fit. It alleviated some nagging back pain when I rode, and it was (sort of) fun to watch my pedalling motion on video playback and to hear, for the first time, buzz bike fit phrases such as “the body’s kinetic chain of responses.” I was also fitted with some shims for my cycling shoes, which made my pedalling less painful on one side.

Cavell and business partner Julian Wall (both pictured above, Wall with legs in the air) use the fitting methodology developed by the Serotta International Cycling Institute of New York state. SICI is an offshoot from custom bike builder Serotta.

UK customers who want a SICI bike fit have, until now, had to visit CycleFit’s Covent Garden shop. However, thanks to the staging of the first European Bike Fit School in December 2008, there are now other SICI-trained bike fitters out there, and listed on the SICI website. This will boost the level of recognition of cycle fitting in the UK.

The December school (pix here) took place over three days of intensive study. Sessions covered included functional anatomy, flexibility, cycling biomechanics, cycling injuries and niggles, cleat-position, foot-structure, frame geometry and fit, tri- and time trial position and theories of aerodynamics, as well as fit business fundamentals.

Pro cycle trainer Adrian Timmis was one of the six students on the first course. Tutors included Dr David Hulse, sports physician to the Tour of Britain, a former orthopedic surgeon, an expert in taking knees apart (and putting them back together); and Paraic McGlynn, SICI’s Director of Applied Cycling Science. McGlynn is based in the US but comes from Dublin.

I asked McGlynn (audio podcast here or on iTunes) whether bike fitting was all smoke and mirrors, a pseudo-science.

“That’s a common reaction when people have no knowledge or understanding of what they’re criticising. US stores had a similiar reaction but since they started to hear about happy clients, that’s all changed.

“There is a bona fide science behind it. There are thousands of happy cycle fit clients out there. The techology and methodology is sound.”

Cavell agrees that bike fitting isn’t an alternative therapy.

“It’s not homeopathy. It’s a marriage of applied science, biomechanics, and physics. However, there’s definitely a subjective element, an empathic element. This is because everybody’s body is different.

“Bike fitting is now on a radar in the UK,” said Cavell.

“Competitive cyclists are asking should I have one?’ In the US, it’s not a question any more, if you love cycling, if it’s part of your life, you’ll have a fitting.

“Every serious bike shop will have a fit methodology.

“Customers like it because they’re having a light shone on them, and cycling is probably their favourite subject. You can take a bike fitting forward for a lifetime. It’s not cheap, but it’s not expensive. Spending money and taking time to investigate your body’s interface with a machine is a good thing.”

For McGlynn, the cost of a bike fit is a technological investment.

“In every other sport, people are used to paying money to do it better. The golf industry has expensive swing analysis. Cycling is late to the table. You don’t just get on a bike and pedal any more. This is the right way to buy a bike.”

In the US, bike fit has been taken to an extremely high level by bike shop superstars such as Paul Levine of Signature Cycles, New York. Levine uses the SICI system, as well as blend of his own techniques. Signature Cycles is a destination retailer, with customers flying in from all over the US to pay to be fitted. Last year Levine was the winner of the inaugural Bicycling magazine’s “Excellence in Applied Science” award.

This award “recognizes bicycle industry retailers and innovators who provide exceptional service and education in the area of integrating the human machine with the quintessential human-invented machine: the bicycle.”

Bicycling marketing director Zack Grice said:

“Passionate cyclists go to obsessive lengths in the chase for optimum performance and how important a properly-fitted bike is to the experience. High-end riders today are more demanding of their bikes than ever before – they train hard, eat right and balance busy schedules to get the most out of the sport, and they expect their bikes to help translate this dedication into power, speed and control. We’re proud to honour shops that show this same obsessive dedication to helping their customers ride faster and farther by fitting them to bikes that perform as extensions of their bodies.”


Bike fit tech

During a professional bike fitting, minute adjustments are made to the sitting position, adjustments measured in millimetres. ‘Cycling biodynamics’ can increase comfort, enhance pedalling efficiency, increase power output, and lower the risk of repetitive-use injury. Appointments typically take two hours for an initial assessment and can cost £175+. Follow-up sessions – of half an hour or more – are recommended. The most up-to-date ‘bike fit labs’ use lasers, video cameras, and 3D computer imagery to show a client how to sit on a bike. Retül 3D motion-capture technology, for instance, uses light-emitting diodes placed at various key points on a cyclist’s body. Lance Armstrong’s trainer Chris Carmichael uses the Retül system. Others use Dartfish video motion system.

Bike pain: it’s history

A bicycle isn’t an instrument of torture, but sit on it for a long time in a less than optimum position and pain will result. Typical complaints are bum soreness, tingling toes, hand numbness, lower back pain, and hamstring discomfort. Knee pain is often alleviated by moving the saddle fore or aft. Neck discomfort can be resolved by moving up the handlebars, or even fitting different sports glasses or removing a helmet visor. Lower-back pain can be lessened by lowering the saddle, or cycling with the spine in a ‘neutral position’, in other words not slumped. Saddle soreness is alleviated by getting out of the thing frequently when riding.

But bike fitting isn’t just about pain, it’s also about performance. Use of power meters in the bike fit lab can show how a change in position can alter performance. However, cynics point out this could be due to muscles being used in a different way, hence some initial improvement. Once muscles are conditioned into the new position, the power output goes back to the norm.

The next SICI European Fit School, to be held in London, will be staged March 14th, 15th and 16th 2009

The 3rd annual SICI Symposium and Expo will be held February 8-10th in Boulder Colorado. This symposium attracts 400+ attendees.