A bike fit is a bike fit, right?
In theory a bike fit is a bike fit – it shouldn’t really matter who does it as there is a ‘right’ fit for you and that’s what you get when you pay for a ‘professional’ fitting.
So why do I think that commercial systems like Retul and Bikefitting.com tend to come up with fittings that are significantly different from mine?
If you’ve been for a commercial bike fit you might recognise yourself.
Or maybe not from the front. You have no head, no hands, no muscles, no fat and no skeleton. You have no mass and no centre of gravity. Your joints are on the outside (of the body that you don’t have), there aren’t that many of them and they have no ligaments. The bits of you that touch the saddle are also conspicuously absent! The system only knows anything else about you from the statistics and algorithms programmed into it. You’re average.
You might be led to believe that a ‘professional’ high-tech bike fitting is a precision exercise but in reality it’s a statistical approximation based on that approximation of you above. Approximation squared.
The fitter might indeed be an expert, but he’s like a chef microwaving a ready meal for you, or a tailor selling you an off the peg suit. Anyone could do it. The point of a systemised bike fit is that the fitter doesn’t have to be an expert.
I fit the real you. You don’t have to tell me about your warts as they’re probably not relevant, but I’ll soon be able to see how flexible and symmetrical you are. I could ask you to touch your toes but that’s not necessary for riding your bike. If you try to ride in a position that demands too much flexibility it’s pretty obvious. It’s certainly obvious to me and it’s probably obvious to you too though that commercial system wouldn’t know. What might be less obvious to you, and what the system can’t begin to contemplate, is how adjusting the loading and tension in your joints and muscles can transform your riding experience.
My setups are not just for the real you, they’re for the real world.
Commercial systems don’t seem to know about handling and riding in the real world. If they did, they wouldn’t accept some of the setups that they produce. If you want to ride on the turbo, where there are no corners, no bumpy road surfaces, no traffic, no other cyclists, no descents and no wind they do a good job as you probably won’t be on it for much over an hour at a time.
But the people who created these commercial systems are not stupid. Their algorithms are based on real world experience. Why don’t they produce real world setups? I think that it’s because there’s a mistaken belief that the joint angles are the key. The angles are simply the easiest thing to measure. I don’t measure any angles at all. That’s not to say that I’m not acutely aware of them – but I’m more interested in other things…
I’m interested in reducing, minimising and ideally eliminating unnecessary tension. Tension is the enemy of sustainability. Tension occurs when muscles can’t relax. When you’re cycling you just want the big muscles in the leg that’s pushing the pedal to be working. If a whole load of other muscles are working, such as those in your arms, your shoulders and your back there’s something wrong.
I’m interested in applying force effectively to turn the pedals. The pedals follow their own circular path: You can’t make them do anything else. Any forces that you apply which don’t push them along that circular path are, at best, a waste of your energy. At worst those forces might be trying to push you off the saddle in which case you have to generate more forces, in the opposite direction, to counter them.
I’m interested in how you support your body weight. The pedals take some of your weight when you’re pushing down hard, but most of it is on the saddle and the handlebars. You can try this experiment if you like: get in the press-up position – maybe on your knees. Now bend your elbows just a little. Look forwards rather than at the floor …and hold that position for an hour or so. Did that seem a bit excessive? Do your hands ever go numb when you ride? Do your shoulders and neck ever ache?
Systems like Retul don’t care about these things because they can’t. They can’t see which muscles are tense and which are relaxed. I can. They can’t see which way you’re pushing the pedals because they can’t see which of your muscles are firing. I can. They can’t see how your weight is distributed or how you’re sitting on the saddle because they can’t see your weight and they can’t see your saddle. I can.
They also can’t see your face. I can. Not just which direction you’re looking (which is relevant in the real world), but what your expression is.
Do my setups look different? They do to me. How the rider and the bike actually look, of course, depend on the rider and the bike. I find that ‘system fitted’ riders tend to sit upright on the front of the saddle and rest heavily on the brake hoods. They don’t look comfortable riding on the drops and they don’t look comfortable surrounded by other riders.
Riders fitted by me always sit on the back of the saddle and tend to be less upright. They tend to ride on the drops when they’re riding on their own, riding into the wind and when riding downhill. Having spent a couple of hours with me they’re also conscious of these things and of their pedalling technique.
What else is different?
The price. I don’t have to pay for expensive equipment or high street rent so I can just charge for a couple of hours of coaching time. My fittings are just £130 at the weekend and £90 during the week. About half the cost of a high tech microwave meal.
To learn more about how and why bike setup can affect comfort, handing, control and performance please browse some of my other articles, and to find out more about my bike fitting service please see my bike fitting page.