Why Yoda always spoke backwards…

Backwards this is (in a throaty voice from a green muppet). Yoda probably used WordPress, which puts the most recent posts first. Despite his strength in the force, figure out how to reverse it he could not.

My blog on bike fitting is in reverse order, there’s nothing I can do about that.

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Expensive popcorn…

Anyone who has looked into getting a bike fitting has seen the vast array of fitting options. There are basic fittings, advanced fittings, precision fittings and a whole bunch of high tech fittings using the latest computerized fitting systems. I keep returning to my basic goals of a bike fitting and asking myself if there’s more value that I can offer – that’s where it gets a little confusing…

The bike industry has taken a number of facts and come to a conclusion, it looks something like this:

The learning process takes time.

Time is money.

The learning process takes money.

And that is why there are 4 hour fittings that cost $500… What they never ask is how do you make a better rider? Isn’t that what the customer is paying for??? I ask that a lot, I’m pretty sure I’ve already seen the answer.

When I started working at Wheelworks, I started to ride with John Allis. John was coaching the Harvard cycling team, he would show up on the early morning rides every day and work with the riders. His version of a fitting would take 2 minutes – just getting the saddle in the ball park. Over time he would make adjustments, both to their bike and how they used it. He started with novice riders in September and had good cyclists by November, year after year.

There’s only so far you can get by adjusting the bike to the rider. Beyond that you have to work with the rider on technique and skills. When I do a fitting I teach the customer how to get their body weight on the pedals, not the handlebars – I don’t understand how a fitting can work without this step. I also teach pedal stroke classes over the winter. The difference is that given 4 weeks and a little bit of homework, I can actually teach a rider how to get their full body weight on the pedals. During a fitting the customers who pick up skills quickly may learn how it’s done, most get the idea but don’t retain the skill.

When I coach riders I work on skills. Over the winter it’s pedal stroke and how to isolate large muscle groups and only use them where they are effective. In the spring it’s riding skills. I teach my riders how to make contact with another rider (if you ride with a group this happens all the time – it’s no big deal), I teach cornering, speedwork, hill climbing… These are skills that cyclists should have, it’s not about racing, it’s about riding well.

People don’t need to spend more on fittings, they need to get more value out of their cycling time. Bike shops should be offering this, but they don’t. Bike fitting prices always remind me of the expensive bucket of popcorn at the movies…

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The myth of self fitting

If you look to the internet for information about fitting you will find lots of “fit yourself” videos. It makes sense, there’s a very limited number of adjustments that can be made, and you can tell when things feel right. Or can you???

A cognitive bias is an error caused by trusting what’s stored in your memory over what is real. The cognitive bias that gets in the way of self fitting is familiar – literally. What feels right to you is what is familiar, not what is really right. Even after generating an injury, most people return to the feel of the bike that caused the injury because it’s what they know. What’s needed is an outside perspective and a good understanding of biomechanics.

What drives this whole self fitting movement is the belief that bike fitting is simple. It is. I can’t pretend that bike fitters have lots of education in bike fitting. Most “certified” bike fitting classes are 3 or 4 days, and there is no internship program for bike fitters. What makes a bike fitter valuable is experience in seeing people on the bike and understanding the problems that can come up. It’s not a common skill, and one that I wish I could turn off. On a group ride most people just see other riders. I see people who either fit on their bikes or they don’t – it actually hurts me to watch someone who is well outside of range of motion because I understand all the injuries that can come from that.

Abraham Lincoln said that a man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client. He might have said the same thing about bike fitters had the bike been invented back then.

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Getting the weight on the feet

If riding a bike is really as easy as riding a bike, why do so many people get it wrong? When I do a fitting I have an easy way of showing people how they’re doing it wrong. I stop the pedal at 3:00 and tell them to look down at their foot on the pedal and push down on the pedal. almost everybody fires their vastus lateralis (the large muscle in the quad). I point out that they are extending the lower leg from the knee, pushing mostly forward, not down. It’s the skill set of lifting your body weight, which is the basis for walking, standing or running. It only works if your hips are directly over your feet. On the bike the quads can’t push down – nobody tells you these things…

You have an active skill set to use your quads, it’s your most used skill set. There is a passive skill set that you use all the time which activates your glutes. It’s called sitting (I list sitting in my resume as one of my strongest skills). If you lean forward while you are sitting your body weight is transferred to your feet on the floor my firing the glutes. You don’t notice it because it’s the largest muscle in your body, compared to the width of the muscle it’s doing very little work. Learning how to use the glutes on the bike takes three things: Trust, Gravity and Lazy – in that order.

Trust: You trust the ground you walk on, it’s solid, it will support your weight. Ever miscount the number of steps and try to put your weight on something that wasn’t there? As soon as you realize your mistake your hands go in search of some solid object. On a bike the pedals turn. As soon as the pedal starts falling away, your brain says “don’t trust that!” and your hands go in search of some solid object like the handlebars. This is why most people never get their full weight on the pedals, instead they try to make a bridge between the saddle and the handlebars using their spine and arms.

Gravity: The problem with trying to push down on the pedal is the trying part. Your most practice skill set is firing the quads to lift your body weight. If you think about pushing down your body will fire the quads – this is well practiced. You don’t have to push down. F=M*A. Force = mass X acceleration. The mass in this case is your upper body, the acceleration is gravity. Just lean forward – there’s your force.

Lazy: This is where you need to think like a sack of potatoes. If you push a sack of potatoes off a table it falls straight down. Do the same with a person and they flail their arms and legs in search of something to support their weight. Be the sack of potatoes, lean forward, fall into the pedal.

You have a finite amount of weight. If all of that weight is put on the pedal it is called power and it moves the bike forward. If none of that weight is on the pedals it finds it’s way to the handlebars, and it’s called uncomfortable. Unless you have learned how to levitate, this is how physics works. The only way to solve the problem of too much weight on the hands (and the aches and pains that come with) is to put the weight on the pedals.

At this point I usually have to deal with the mental image that most people have of a cyclist – there should be almost no upper body movement, right? Most cyclist have been told that upper body movement is wasted energy. It’s not. Think of the torso as a lever arm, if you want to push down from the hip you need that lever arm to supply force.

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Range of motion

You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means

– Inigo Montoya

I use the term range of motion a lot because it’s the transition point from exercise to injury. Every joint in your body has a working range of motion. That simply means you can move that joint to a certain point without reflexes limiting that movement. Once you get to that point the body’s defense mechanisms take over to reduce the damage. The real problem with limits of range of motion come from the fact that your body doesn’t cope well with being attached to a machine that controls movement.

Reflexes are weird things. They are there to defend the body agains injury, but they often supply the force needed to create injury. Your body sets limits on how much force you can generate in an amazingly intelligent way. As you use a muscle it both gains tensile strength (the amount of force needed to create damage) and changes how the muscle fibers are recruited. Muscles that are used infrequently are slow to respond and limited in the force they generate, thus lowering the chance of damage. There are no such limits put on your reflexes. In defending against injury your body will gladly injure itself…

What causes injury on a bike is when the bike is controlling movement and reflexes are fighting that control. A good example of that is when the saddle is too high or too far back and the distance from hip to foot when the pedals is at 5:00 (furthest point from the hip) is too great. The leg runs out of range of motion, the pedal is still moving away, so it pulls down on the foot. The foot now acts as a lever arm, pulling on the anterior tibialis (the muscle on the outside of the shin which lifts the foot). That muscle responds in what’s called a pull reflex – it contracts to counter the force of the pedal pulling the foot down. You now have two opposing forces pulling in different directions, the bike trying to increase the distance from hip to foot while the body is trying to shorten that distance, The end result is a tension spike, which is where injury starts.

Think of that point of reflex as a cliff. It doesn’t matter if you step off the cliff or take a running leap, what’s gonna kill you is the sudden stop at the bottom. 1mm beyond range of motion may be a tiny percentage of the whole distance, but it still causes the same damage.

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How or where do you ride?

In any bike fitting there will always be the question of what type of riding you see yourself doing. Most bike fitters will start with an interview where they ask how you plan on using the bike. Cycling has many categories which seem to have very little in common. Mountain biking, gravel riding, road riding, touring, commuting, track racing – the list goes on and on. They are all cycling but the skill sets are very different. Given the different skill sets it would make sense to find a fitter who specializes in the type of riding you’re looking to do, right???

Let’s go back to the two primary goals of bike fitting: Put the rider within their range of motion in every direction and teach them how to get their body weight on the pedals. Note that the type of terrain they’re riding on or the amount of stuff attached to their bike never comes into it. Bike fitting at it’s core is interfacing a machine with terrible quality control (the human body) with a machine with very good quality control (the bike). If the fitter doesn’t reach the primary goals, nothing else can work.

Let’s talk about quality control. In manufacturing, companies produce parts which are interchangeable – standard light bulbs all screw into standard sockets. Quality control is when a part that doesn’t meet standards gets rejected. Bicycles have good quality control, the left and right crank are the same length, stems hold bars straight, seatposts hold saddles on center… The human body has no such quality control. Some people are tall, some are short, there’s no guarantee that your left femur is the same length as your right femur. Some people are as flexible as a rubber band, others are as flexible as a brick. And then there’s your injury history… The hard part about bike fitting isn’t the bike, it’s the human body. Perhaps I should change my title to Human Interface Engineer…

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Bike fitting is a thing…

I recently tried to update my Linked-In profile by adding my occupation, but bike fitter isn’t on their list of possible jobs. If riding a bike is truly as easy as riding a bike, why would anyone need a bike fitter? This blog is my attempt to answer that, and a few other questions that people have asked me over the years.

Bike fitting exists because they human body was never meant to be attached to a machine which controls movement. If that movement goes beyond the body’s range of motion in any direction destructive force is generated. This is where riding a bike is very different from other activities. If you’re walking and you take a bad step, it happens once. On a bike, if the pedal is taking the rider’s body beyond it’s range of motion it happens 80 times a minute for as long as they are on the bike.

If you Google bike fitting you’ll get all kinds of information. You’ll find there are YouTube videos about how to do a bike fit, on-line bike fitting resources and local places to go to for a bike fitting. What you won’t find is a definition of a bike fitting. Some places will offer a list of steps taken in a bike fitting, others will describe the technology used in their bike fitting, the “how to” videos will just tell you to change certain things without explanation.

So what is a bike fitting? I have two basic goals when doing a bike fitting:

  1. Put the rider within range of motion in every direction (eliminate destructive forces)
  2. Teach the rider how to put their body weight on the pedals

That’s it. There’s really nothing complicated about it until you realize that every body is different, and we’re all a growing list of injuries and limitations. There are lots of ranges of motion to pay attention to, most of them oppose other ranges of motion – it’s never that simple…

Part 2 is something I learned over 25 years ago when I first started bike fitting. I fit a rider on their bike and then I went riding them to observe the outcome (something that’s missing in bike fitting). What I saw on the road was a rider trying to create a bridge between the saddle and the handlebars with their spine and arms. They were supporting 1/3rd of their upper body weight on the handlebars, which is pretty common. This was not a person who walks around on their hands and feet, something that works while walking wasn’t working on the bike. Have you ever miscounted the number of stairs and tried to put your foot on nothing? Your brain goes into panic mode and finds the next solid object. As soon as the pedals start to move your brain goes into panic mode. The next solid object would be the handlebars. For a fitting to work the rider must learn to put their body weight on the pedals.

So there you have it, two very simple goals for a bike fitting.

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