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A bike fit is a bike fit, right? Why my bike fits are different.

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.  

Froome, my part in his Giro victory.

 

There’s been a lot of controversy around Chris Froome’s Giro d’Italia, from whether he should have been there in the first place to his memorable 80km solo win on stage 19.

Setting aside those Salbutomol issues for the moment, were his stage 19 win, and his overall win, quite as outrageous as some might say?

I think not. 

Going into the Giro the field looked decidedly weak**.  That’s not to take anything away from any of the riders on the start line, but apart from Froome only Dumoulin and Aru were previous grand tour winners, and though Pinot and and Yates are ‘front group’ riders they didn’t go in as proven leaders.

That front group in recent grand tours has been dominated by Quintana, Nibali, Contador, Landa, Uran, Valverde, Bardet, Porte, Martin, Kelderman, Kruijswijk, Fuglsang, Zakarin…   …all absent from the Giro this year.

With Yates blown up and his domestiques out of the way Froome and Sky turned the race into a one on one with Dumoulin.  Watching from the sofa I felt that Dumoulin lost the race the moment he decided not to chase Froome down the Finestre.  Why on earth did he wait for Pinot and Reichenbach, two really poor descenders*** who he’d already dropped on the climb, when Froome was also on his own and only a few seconds ahead?  Dumoulin has made a name for himself by pacing himself up the climbs.  Pacing works because you don’t have to slow down and recover: because you can be relentless.  There’s no benefit in pacing if you’re not relentless.  Froome was relentless.  

So what was my part in Froome’s win?

In December 2015 I wrote the following letter to Dave Braisford: 


Dear Dave,

I hope that you are well.

I was prompted to write by the juxtaposition of two articles in the paper this week (photo attached), one on Chris Froome, the other on Emma Pooley.   As you might recall, I coached Emma until the London Olympics. 

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Chris and Emma both came into professional cycling by slightly unusual routes.  Both have extraordinary physiology, work ethic and intrinsic motivation but neither arrived at the top level with years of bunch riding and handling skills.   

Emma and I spent a lot of time working on her skills and her position on the bike.  She could always climb, and could break clear on long climbs, but womens’ races never had mountain finishes so to win she had to be able to descend and ride solo on her road bike. 

I’m aware that the nature of mens’ racing is different and that one upshot is that descending and riding solo are no longer key skills – especially for top GC riders in the Tour de France, but in the world of marginal gains surely great descending is a weapon worth having.   Chris is lauded for his professionalism and attention to detail, yet Graham Watson in this week’s Cycling Weekly writes, “I have to confess this [good shot of Chris descending] is a 1 in 20 success, many images that I have of Froome show him struggling on descents.”

I’ve been doing, watching and coaching cycling for many, many years and have seen lots of subtle changes in riding style and bike setup – and along the way the skills of cornering and descending have either been lost or sacrificed.  I’m struck by how stressed Chris looks in the picture in the paper – his whole body is tense.  But he’s not that unusual: the majority of current pros now make descending look like a white-knuckle ride.  Unfortunately the coaching maxim of ‘watch what the pros do’ is resulting in everyone fighting their bikes round the corners.  Contrast the other riders in this photo, with Cadel Evans.

I’m sure that I’m not the only person who coaches descending and cornering technique but I know that my coaching has a big impact.  Some people come to me because, like Emma, they realise that their descending or cornering is costing them results.  Some come because they are scared.  The boys in the National Junior Triathlon Squad came because they were going as fast as they could down a mountain road and I left them behind.  Most people, however, simply don’t appreciate the difference that learning to descend and corner makes.  And it doesn’t require any fitness, power, calories, weight loss…

Good descending and cornering aren’t about fearlessness, they are about control.  They are governed by simple principles of physics and biomechanics.  The technique is easy to learn but coaching requires a suitable environment for deliberate repetitive practise. 

I have some stuff on my website (here and here). 

Good luck in 2016.

Tim


 

Froome won the Giro because he raced the descents and his only rival didn’t. 

 

 

Footnotes

** Weak field
Though the Giro was a fantastic spectacle as usual, it wasn’t just thin in top-flight GC contenders.  Without Kittel, Greipel, Cavendish, Kristoff, Sagan, Colbrelli, Demare, Gaviria, Matthews, Bouhanni, and Ewan it was pretty much plain sailing for Viviani in the sprints.

The Giro is exciting because the terrain, the roads and the weather make it difficult for teams to control.  But this year it had the feeling of a B race.

Did the big names not fancy that trip to Israel?

*** Poor descenders
From outside the peloton it’s not easy to know who are the good and bad descenders.  Descending mostly happens away from the TV cameras and within a lined out bunch.  A couple of years ago, however, Riechenbach was caught on TV losing a stage-winning advantage in the Tour de France to Jarlinson Pantano because of his slow and nervous descending.  Pinot’s descending is widely acknowledged to be poor.

Dumoulin, on the other hand, successfully defended his pink jersey in last year’s Giro by chasing Nibali down the Stelvio.

 

The photo at the top of the page came from stickybottle.com

 

The Good, the Bad and the Superficial

The Good. 

Some things really made the world of cycling a better place.

Here are my picks (in alphabetical order)…

  • The Aheadset.   Goodbye and good riddance to headset spanners, quill stems and indexed steering!
  • Camelbak bidons.

  • Cassette freehubs (though the original notion of being able to build your own cassettes never really materialised)
  • Clipless pedals
  • Compact bars
  • Double pivot brakes
  • Flippable stems
  • Front loading stems
  • Gatorskin tyres
  • Hollowtech 2
  • Index shifting
  • LED lights
  • Noseless saddles (for bikes with aerobars)
  • Sealed bottom brackets
  • Spd.  Even more world changing than Look pedals
  • Standard seatpost sizes (almost,  27.2 fits nearly every frame…)
  • Sti

  • And these.  I don’t know what they’re are called but they are, without doubt, the best gear adjustors.  I don’t miss down-tube shifters but I do miss the bosses on the frame as, without them, there’s nowhere to put these.

 

 

The Bad. 

The cycling world would be a better place without these.  They add nothing but inconvenience, discomfort, weight, weakness, risk, obsolescence or expense.

  • 1 1/4” steerers
  • Anatomic handlebars.  Was a name ever less appropriate?
  • Brakes under the bottom bracket
  • Direct fit bearings
  • Drop-in handlebars.  What was Greg Lemond thinking?

  • Four bolt spiders
  • Frame-specific seat posts
  • Head tube cable stops

Compare these worse-than-useless adjustors with the beauties above.

  • Integrated handlebars and stems
  • Internal cables
  • ISP
  • ‘Lawyer’s lips’
  • Mini pumps
  • Non-adjustable aerobars
  • Non-flippable stems
  • Pedals without flats for a pedal spanner
  • Raceblade 2 mudguards
  • Seat post wedges
  • Spinacci

  • Star-fangled nuts.  Fortunately not essential for Aheadsets!
  • Torx bolts

 

The Superficial.

I can’t see the point of them, but if you don’t have anything better to do with your money…

  • Carbon bottle cages
  • Carbon cranks
  • Carbon handlebars
  • Carbon tubes in titanium frames
  • Curved down tubes and top tubes

  • Disc brakes on road bikes
  • Electronic gears
  • Oval chainrings
  • Saddle cutouts
  • White handlebar tape

 

There are seat posts and saddles that I could put into all three categories.

What does your list look like?

 

 

Born to run? Does it look that way?

Even in this modern word where every phone is a video camera seeing yourself cycling, or running, or swimming (especially swimming) can be quite a revelation.  And quite a realisation.  Normally a realisation that you don’t look quite like you thought that you do.

Once you’re past the realisation bit things become a little more tricky.  The first problem is working out what it is that’s ‘wrong’.  And that’s easy compared with working out how to change it.   If you’re doing something wrong several times a minute for hours at a time you can’t normally put it right just by thinking about it. Even if you can do it temporarily you’ll lapse as soon as you stop concentrating.

This is where the coach comes in.  As a coach I don’t normally need video to analyse running, swimming or cycling technique: they’re repeated actions.  Slow motion and freeze frames can be useful for confirming things but generally watching real people move in real time beats watching them on a screen. For me video is useful because I can use it to help people understand what they see when they’re looking at themselves and I can show them what I see when I watch them.

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It’s powerful stuff. People come to see me for bike fits and go away with a whole new appreciation of cycling.  Of course I’m a big believer in the importance of bike fit and setup – but I believe more in the importance of great technique. A good bike setup enables good technique, but does not enforce or ensure it. A bad set up doesn’t always prevent it, but it adds a cost – normally tension of some form.

For running and swimming there’s no contraption to hold you in (or out of) position. That ought to make them easier – but it doesn’t. For many people it makes them much harder.

We all know that swimming is a learned skill – kids go to swimming teachers for swimming sessions, but we tend to assume that running is natural.  Who ever heard of running teachers and running lessons?  We run how we run and we get faster and go further by doing more and becoming fitter.

But why should different people run differently?  We might be different sizes and have different proportionality – but fundamentally we have the same muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments and organs.  Gymnasts and divers learn how to somersault and twist; tennis players learn how to serve, smash and volley; cricketers learn how to drive, pull and hook; high jumpers learn the Fosbury Flop. They learn and are coached to make the movement patterns that work best.  If you try to do those skills with the wrong technique they either don’t work at all or the result is… well, how high can You jump?

So why don’t we learn how to run?

Planning to do a Sportive?

Planning to do a Sportive?

Or a ‘Sportif’?

Or a ‘Gran Fondo’?

Something with closed roads perhaps like Ride London or The Tour of Cambridgeshire?

Maybe even the Etape du Tour?

Put another way, are you planing to ride in close proximity to a lot of other cyclists?  Does that thought fill you with excitement, trepidation or sheer terror?  Will you be trying to ride as close to the people in front as you can, trying to keep your distance or trying to get past?

I’d expect anyone new to cycling to feel pretty apprehensive, but for a long time I was surprised by the number of experienced, long-time cyclists who came to me for fittings and told me that they actually felt pretty nervous with other riders close round. They didn’t tell me in the sense that they though it was a problem – far from it.  Typically it cropped up once we started to talk about the way they had their bikes set up.

“Do you find that your hands go numb after a while?”

“Do your shoulders and neck start to ache at all?”

“Do you use the drops much?  Can you reach the brakes OK on the drops?”

“Do your quads burn when you’re riding uphill?”

“Do you find yourself sliding towards the front of the saddle?”

“Do you find that your bike veers to the side when you take one hand off the bars? – maybe when you reach for your bottle, or your pockets…”

I started to realise that the concept of ‘experience’ having any relationship to ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ was often non-existent.  People tend to ride their bikes how they came or how they always have.  Many people, for example, position new cleats precisely where the previous cleats were, meticulously preserving a setup that was pretty much random in the first place.

One problem with a poorly set up bike is that its handling is likely to be twitchy.  And twitchiness is particularly evident when there are other riders or traffic around, especially at speed.  The difference that being ‘experienced’ makes is, perversely, that experienced riders seem more likely to assume that twitchy is normal and be less phased by it than inexperienced riders.   Instead of thinking ‘this can’t be right’ they think ‘this is what a thoroughbred racing bike is like’.

I’ve ranted before about the steep geometry and limited adjustability of modern bikes.  I’m not really sure where the blame lies, if indeed any single party is to blame.  Manufacturers certainly seem to want their bikes to rocket forwards as soon as you press on the pedals – and then they’ll claim that the handling is ‘fast’ and ‘direct’ – (and point out that if the ride seems a little harsh you could upgrade to a model with vibration damping features).   Sure, I want my bike to respond quickly when I ask it to change direction, but I don’t want it to change direction otherwise – especially if I’m trying to get at my lunch!

Steering geometry does have an impact on handling but not nearly as much impact as saddle position.  Likewise frame material has an impact on the amount of road vibration that you feel – but not nearly as much as how your weight is distributed and upon which parts of your anatomy.

I think that the answers to the questions above should be “no”, “no”, “yes & yes”, “no”, “no” and “no”, whatever material your frame is made of.

If your experience is different drop me a line.

The Technique Paradox

In a previous blog I wrote about the importance of being coached good technique. An obvious counter to my argument is that some people do very well with little or no technique coaching and some do very well with little or no technique – or at least no technique that most coaches would advocate.

These people have found their own way that works and, though it’s possible that they might have been even better with textbook technique, it’s difficult to justify trying to change a winning formula.

Most people don’t start their sport with excellent coaching. Even those that do rarely get individual coaching until they’re already doing well and standing out. And that’s normally because they’re the ones who are working it out for themselves.  Kids who don’t work a sport out for themselves pretty early on are likely to get disillusioned and give up pretty quickly.  We’ll come back to them later.

Coaching good technique to children is a real challenge.  They don’t often do things just right first time and, as they’re typically in a group environment, it’s difficult to give them one-to-one attention.

Good coaches create challenges, games and exercises to stimulate thought processes and movement patterns.  Kids fortunate enough to be well coached don’t necessarily know it at the time: they’re just having fun. But the things that they’re working out for themselves are more relevant and more useful.   There’s nothing new in this, but the latest buzzwords for describing this type of coaching are ‘constraint led’ and ‘guided discovery’.

But even learning good technique as a child, under the guidance of good coaches, doesn’t necessarily mean that you actually know either much about it or how to coach it yourself. Good athletes often make poor technical coaches because they don’t know how they learned their technique. They just did their sessions and worked hard. So that’s what they assume will work for others

Most coaching in swimming, running and cycling is based on the model of giving exercises to groups of children, seeing which of the children stick with it, and then making them fitter and stronger.

The emergence of triathlon has highlighted the weaknesses of this aspect of coaching.  Triathlon started as a sport for adults – an endurance test between people who were game enough to have a go at sports other than their own.  As triathletes became more serious and sought coaching the coaches who got involved were the people who coached marathon runners and cyclists – endurance coaches: People who set training programmes.

As the sport grew in popularity, and became more competitive, adults who came into it started to realise that they needed more than training programmes – most often they needed to learn how to swim.   Not ‘how to swim’, they could do that, but ‘how to swim’ – like the kids who worked it out for themselves in the first paragraph and spent the next five years banging out 4km before breakfast five days a week.

However the swim coaching community typically couldn’t really help them.  The stuff that it did with kids didn’t work on adults (especially those who hadn’t worked it out for themselves the first time round) and the stuff that it did with its experienced swimmers was mostly physiology and psychology.

My introduction to triathlon coaching was with someone who could already swim but needed to run much faster.  And the situation was much the same:  All of the material and information that we could find on running coaching was physiological – and we didn’t need that.

Today it’s not just adults who take up triathlon.  Kids are coming in who’ve worked out one or two of the disciplines pretty well, but need a bit more help to work out all three.

That old coaching model doesn’t work for triathlon.  Triathletes don’t get disillusioned quite so quickly. They don’t give up. They need coaches who really understand how to coach technique.

Investing for the long term

What’s the line that appears somewhere in every set of tips to improve your performance?  “Get a coach”.  In the worlds of cycling, running and triathlon that tends to mean ‘find someone to sort out your training programme for you’:  Someone to tell you what to do each day and to plan your sessions.  That’s better than simply following a standard training plan, the thinking goes, because the plan is customised for you and you alone.  Or at least there is someone who should know what they’re doing taking charge.

I’ve seen and heard enough of this type of remote correspondence coaching to be a bit skeptical.  It’s quite easy to create a training plan, especially with few constraints – but a plan like this is only ever going to be fitness plan.  That’s OK, maybe, if your limiting factor is fitness – but  what if the limiting factor is not fitness?  That might not be a problem, of course, but if you’re hiring a coach as an investment surely you want more than a temporary boost.

Fitness is temporary.  There are certainly adaptations from long-term training that take a long time to disappear, but in essence your fitness is a function of the training that you’ve been doing recently.  If you know how to get fit and stay fit you don’t need to worry too much about losing fitness because you can get it back.  If that were not the case any injury would be career ending.  The best athletes and coaches know how to hit peak fitness at key times and don’t waste unnecessary energy being fitter than they need to be at other times.  What they make sure they don’t lose, however, is their technique.

The young triathletes that I coach probably get a bit sick of me putting on my best pantomime voice to ask “What does practise make?” and they know that the answer that I’m looking for is not “perfect” but “permanent”.  Practise makes perfect only if what you practise is perfect.  The downside of practising is that the more you do something, and the more natural it becomes, the more difficult it is to change.   The upside is that once you’ve learned good technique you have it for good.

This was really brought home to me a couple of years ago when I inherited my family piano.  I enjoyed playing it as a child and, though I stopped having lessons soon after I started, I practised a few pieces that I liked and learned to play them quite well.  Then I left home and didn’t play at all for nearly 30 years.  After all that time I sat in front of it …and didn’t know where to start.  So I dug out my first piano book and started at page one.  An hour or so later I’d gone right the way through all of the exercises and played every piece.  So I went through a few more.  In a nutshell I could play all of the pieces that I used to be able to play, and I couldn’t play anything that I hadn’t played before.  The things that I’d practised all those years ago were still tucked away in my memory – a little dusty, perhaps, but pretty much fully intact.  

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Next I decided to try to learn a few new pieces.  Following the teachings of Joy Lisney I decided to learn them well enough to play without the music in front of me.  Joy does this stuff for a living and learns entire scores:  It took me weeks to learn my first page.  But now it’s in there and I can find it – and and a few more pages too.  After a few minutes sitting at the piano I put them together in my mind and play them through.  It seems I can still learn new things at 50.

Swimming, cycling and running technique is much the same.  Learn it well and it’s with you for ever.  Learning it from scratch is relatively easy:  Kid’s stuff – literally.  Learning by modifying your existing deeply entrenched technique is, for most people, extremely difficult – difficult to the point that it might even be worth learning something completely new from scratch alongside and thinking of old technique and new technique as different activities.

You’ve probably come across drills:  single arm drills for swimming, single leg drills for cycling, butt-flick drills for running…  Drills are the way to learn technique.  Just ‘doing’ them probably won’t work, however – so having them written into your programme by a remote coach probably won’t work either.  Every good drill is the result of a coach’s thought process:  “How do I isolate this particular aspect of technique?”.  To get the benefit of the drill you have to understand it and learn how to do it perfectly.  The process of learning to do the drill properly is as important as repeating it.  Getting it wrong, or not understanding it, could be worse than a waste of time.  Most drills are easier to learn to do properly than ‘full technique’, that’s part of the point, but some drills seem harder.  Those are often the drills that really highlight the subtlety of the activity and mastering them takes your performance to a new level.

You might think that hiring a coach to set your programme is a good investment.  But for long-term returns the best investment might be hiring a coach to help you master technique.