Monday, February 8, 2016

Bike Fitting - Science or Art?

I started playing the guitar in my early teens. I didn't want to play the folk guitar, I wanted to learn how to play whaling lead guitar like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. My first teacher told me that it was imperative to learn classical music theory. Being a very impatient 13 year old, I would go to my weekly lesson and pretend to be very studious and then go home and turn up the distortion on my amp and slam out Smoke On The Water for hours. Realizing that was not following his directions, my teacher told me that once I learned "theory" then I could forget it and just play with feeling and go where my emotions took me.

Today, when I listen to a lead guitar player I can immediately tell the guys who play a lick that follows some theoretical pattern and the guys who play with pure instinct and emotion. The instinct version always seems to flow with the song better. It just fits.

Old guitar players don't die, their timing just gets bad.

I can equate lead guitar with bike fitting.

I've been getting bike fits for almost 2 decades, from a handful of different guys who each follow some system of fitting "theory" such as BG Fit and Wobble-Naught. Donny Perry (aka Quixote) was my first coach and also somewhat of a pioneer bike fitter in the Midwest. He went on to become a master fitter at Specialized Bikes and now serves as a global marketing guy.

I recently took delivery of a new bike - a 2016 Trek Madone. Compared to all of my previous Madone's, this bike looks very radical. But, at the end of the day, the geometry is pretty much the same as that the previous years bikes. At the same time, I switched shoes. Actually, the same brand - Specialized. But the 2016 version is different and I also changed shoe sizes. So, with a new bike and new shoes I decided it was a good time to review my fit set-up - which I have been using for the past 4-5 years.

I decided to try a new Bike Fitter. Kurt Rosenquist ( is a very respected guy and has done over 3,000 fits in the past 30 years.

In the past, fitters who use the canned "systems" take loads of measurements. You sit down and they measure. You lay down, and they measure. You roll over onto your stomach and they measure some more. Today, most guys even have lasers pointing at different angles of the bike and your knees and hips. I've had florescent dots pasted on every joint on my body. And mirrors - more mirrors than a Vegas honeymoon suite (I've been to a Specialized shop in Morgan Hill and records video from three directions providing before and after views).

Once the measurements are compiled and recorded it's time to start fiddling with the bike. Lots of micro-adjustments and tape measurements. Adjust, measure, repeat. Sometimes a dozen times.

Finally, you are invited to climb aboard and take a spin while attached to a stationary trainer. For the most part, I have always been lead to believe that the "fit" is a science and your position was almost always determined by the numbers.

I spent 3 hours with Kurt last Wednesday. Most of the time was spent listening and talking. I learned so much about biomechanics. In fact, I learned a few things that directly fly in the face of what I have thought to be true about pedal stroke, body position and aerodynamics.

Here is just one example: I am 6'4" tall. By default, I have always ridden with 44mm wide handlebars. In fact, early in my career, I considered myself to be a sprinter and contemplated running wider 46mm bars. On the other hand, I have very narrow shoulders for my height. This helps me to be more aero. According to Kurt, 40 or 42mm bars would match my shoulder width and make my position more aero. What's more, my new Trek handlebars that I thought were 44's actually measure 46mm. Equipped with this new information, I still opted to stick with my existing handlebars, but in the future I might consider going with a narrower bar. Here's some interesting info from Kurt's website regarding some of the handlebar considerations. Pretty comprehensive, don't you think?

Back to the Fitworks Fit - Each part of the fit started with a lengthy explanation, so that I understood what we were trying to accomplish and therefore I could provide better feedback. Some of the areas addressed were, cleat position, saddle position, saddle height, cockpit length, drop, handlebar height, width, position. Mostly I learned that bike fitting is absolutely NOT a science, but rather an art. There are trade-offs with comfort, power, aerodynamics and handling.

In the end, I am not sure that we made any significant mods to my set-up. Only a few millimeters here and there. Mainly, I learned some very important things about hip position that will help me make more power and be more comfortable in the saddle.

I've been riding for a week now with the new set up. I can easily say that I can feel the difference. More comfort, more power and more stability. But most of all, I feel like I understand many of the "whys" that support my strengths and also areas where I can gain performance.

If you spend time in the saddle - whether you are an athlete or just enjoy riding your bike for several hours, I think having your bike professionally set up is a very good investment and will make your cycling experience much more enjoyable.

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