In early June I cycled the ~84 mile out and back from Toutle to Johnston Ridge in the Mt. St. Helens blast zone. Although I was off to a strong early season that included several hard 100+ mile rides, I felt horrible that day: My legs repeatedly cramped, my lower back and butt hurt more than usual, and to relieve the pain I resorted to walking several times. I have a couple of chronic difficult-to-solve mechanical and physiological issues that cause problems on the bike, but it later dawned on me that I hadn’t had a proper bike fit in way-too-long.
Shortly after that very bad day on the bike I sought out a professional bike fit, this time from physical therapist Neal Goldberg at FootWorks Physical Therapy. I went to Neal based on the word of mouth recommendations from friends. Neal has been a physical therapist for nearly 20 years and has been in the bike industry for almost as long. In addition to his physical therapy background, Neal’s approach to bike fitting integrates new techniques and technologies including video analysis, footbed technology, and physiologic measurements.
Seattle has a number of top-notch bike fitters, and choosing the best one for you might be as much about interpersonal chemistry as the fitter’s training, experience, and reputation. To produce this post I also touched base with other local bike fitters about whom I hear the most positive chatter:
Craig Undem at Cycle University:
Craig has been professionally fitting bikes since 1997, is trained in Specialized’s Body Geometry Fit system, and for the past ten years has collaborated with the top local coaches and racers who have worked at CycleU. I got a bike fit with Ed Ewing at CycleU in 2008, and wrote about a teammate’s bike fit with Lang Reynolds in 2009.
David Richter and Todd Herriott at Herriott Sports Performance (HSP):
David is one of the area’s top bike racers, and is also trained in Specialized’s Body Geometry Fit system. His training is complemented by decades of cycling experience, and experience as a coach, instructor and consultant to amateurs and professionals around the world.
Although I haven’t gotten a bike fit with David, I am a huge fan of the “functional strength and conditioning” classes at HSP, which in my opinion perfectly dovetail with a professional bike fit. My experience has been that regular ongoing functional strength and conditioning movements have enabled me to build on the physical therapy I’ve gotten over the years, which in turn stabilizes my position on the bike, which in turn makes me smile.
Erik has been fitting bikes for over 22 years, has taught bike fitting courses since 1993, and has a diverse bicycling background including racer (road, cyclocross, mountain, velodrome, and triathlon), coach, and UCI and national para-cycling classifier. Beth has 17 years of experience as a physical therapist and has 25 years of bike racing experience in all formats.
Erik emphasized what physical therapists bring to the bike fitting experience: “We are trained to identify biomechanical or musculoskeletal irregularities, pain syndromes, and injuries related to activity. Physical therapists understand how much the body will bend, and can instruct people on activities to improve their tolerance and function on a bicycle.”
I haven’t had the opportunity to work with Erik, but in preparation for a long-distance bike race several years ago I got physical therapy from Beth that successfully addressed a chronic lower back problem. She reminded me: “I like to teach people specific home exercises and stretches to improve muscle imbalances. These are what I find contribute to ‘functional leg length differences.’ I teach people specific exercises to minimize leg length differences from muscle imbalances which are often in the hips and pelvic girdle.”
While some bike shops perform a basic bike fit as part of the bike purchase, Neal, Craig, Todd, David, Erik, and Beth are dedicated bike fitters who provide services that are more at the “cycling analysis” end of the spectrum. According to Neal, “cycling analysis looks at the rider’s biomechanics and physiology, pairs that with the mechanics of the bike and contact components (saddles, bars, shoes, pedals), and uses technology to help visualize and measure what is occurring.”
(And…there are also bike fitters who appear to employ shamanic powers, like Australian bike-fit guru Steve Hogg, described in this Bicycling profile.)
What can you expect during a bike fit? My bike fit experience with Neal went like this:
1. An in-depth interview to understand my history, goals, and specific problems. We started with some back and forth email, a phone call, then an in-person discussion at the start of the bike fit session. In my case, I was in a near-fatal auto accident in 1996 that (among other things) seems to have torqued my pelvis a bit, I have a herniated disc in my lower back, and I had recently purchased a new saddle and shoes. I also had a chronic problem with a saddle sore on my right sit bone, especially during the hotter, sweatier months when there is usually more friction down in the nether regions.
2. Before getting on the bike, Neal did a biomechanical assessment to determine strength, flexibility, foot alignment, leg lengths, pelvis symmetry and function, spinal alignment, and shoulder function.
Beth’s perspective on this part of the process: “Often times people have old injuries that have never been fully rehabilitated for which they they have adapted to on the bike, which often leads to some sort of pain–usually in the knee, back, shoulder or neck.”
3. Next, I got on my bike (which was put on a trainer) and warmed up for about 15 minutes. Once I was warmed up Neal observed me pedaling the bike.
4. While I pedaled, Neal used computerized motion analysis to accurately measure the body as it moved. “There are several tools available for dynamic measurements: Video analysis with something like Dartfish software (Neal’s tool of choice) and Retül motion capture. Both have their benefits, but the most important thing for cyclists to understand is that Dartfish and Retül are only TOOLS. What matters is who the mechanic is that is handling those tools. Anyone can swing a hammer, not everyone is a craftsman.”
Similarly, Erik noted: “Good bike fit is not solely based on a fit formula. Formulas are good spots to start, but a mature bike fitter knows when to deviate from the formulaic approach: I like to say ‘millimeters matter.’”
“A good bike fit starts simple and progresses according to a rider’s goals and body capabilities. A good bike fit focuses on safety–safety in equipment inclusion and ability to handle the bicycle in a rider’s chosen environment.”
What did we change?
Neal replaced the stock insoles in my shoes with some Body Geometry insoles that included a forefoot wedge. We made some very small changes to seat height, the front to back position of the seat, and the most interesting change was to rotate the seat about two degrees to the right, which resolved my problem with saddle sores.
In addition to the bike fit, Neal gave me some long-term homework: Stretching my hamstrings and lower back at least once a day. While the bike fit itself is important, you will likely need to incorporate a regular program of stretching and functional strength and conditioning to make the best of you bike fit investment and achieve optimal performance on the bike.
Did Neal’s bike fit improve my experience on the bike?
Yes! The most noticeable improvement was solving the saddle sore problem: In July I rode the ~206-mile one-day Seattle to Portland. It was a blistering hot day, and based on previous experiences I expected saddle sores, and back or shoulder pain. Instead, I experienced no saddle sores, and was pain-free and had strong legs all day long.
Although I’m not necessarily a model to follow, I recommend that a bike fit, or at least a “maintenance fit,” should be at least an annual event.
Neal Goldberg: “Fit should not be an afterthought. After spending thousands of dollars on a new bike, a few hundred bucks will get you dialed in to perform pain free, prevent injury, and ride as powerfully and efficiently as possible.”
David Richter: “Bike fits are dynamic, and your flexibility and mobility change over time.”
Craig Undem : “Every rider needs to be fit or sized to their bike correctly to enjoy cycling, and I am constantly suprised by how many experienced riders are so far off from a good fit. If you have any soreness or discomfort that inhibits your riding, you really need one.”
Erik Moen: “People don’t always realize that their bicycling situation could be better with appropriate bicycle-fit changes. The human body was not designed for bicycling. The body takes time to adapt to the function of bicycling. Bike fit is a process. Your progression through the bike fitting process is a function of your body’s adaptation to bicycle postures (mobility), functional strength, and the coordination of bicycle handling. Bike fitting processes are not necessarily a ‘one and done’ approach. Bike fit will change/advance/regress as a function of your body’s adaptation (more or less riding, more or less body mass, age, etc.)”
Beth Lyndon-Griffith: “It depends on how your body is changing with your life events. Many cyclist get away from consistent riding and the bike fit they had before taking off three years to start a family or when work gets crazy, which can render an old aerodynamic fit painful and unsustainable.”
“I have followed many athletes for over a decade and have had to make slight changes with their changing bodies and natural aging process. I have set up professional bike racers in crazy fast aerodynamic positions, and very upright 78-year olds with flat pedals to happily spin down the Burke Gilman.”
I also asked Beth about any women’s-specific issues: “Having worked with many women over the years; I have found that many have discomfort with pressure on the nose of the saddle. To alleviate the discomfort they roll the pelvis back, which essentially renders the glutes useless, decreases core stability, and over-works the quads. Women with this problem rock on the saddle, which causes fatigue, and as a result they tend to die on hills when the over-worked quads eventually give out. This can also lead to back, knee and shoulder pain.”
As you start to plan your 2015 season, it’s worth thinking about the last time that you’ve had a professional bike fit, and any changes that have happened that might necessitate the need for at least a check-up.