We’ve been kicking around this idea for months. How do we answer the very simple question that just about everyone in cycling has asked, especially after reading online publications and half-assed blogs: do I need a bike fit?
It isn’t an easy answer. First off, every person is different. Your experience level, your injury history, your current fitness level, even how long your average ride tends to be can all contribute to determining how useful a fit would be. Of course, it works from the other side, too; not all bike fits are the same, and all the factors of experience, tools, and education dictate whether your bike fit improves your performance or reduces injury, or just cost you a bunch of money to have someone tell you to lower your seat 2mm.
To eliminate as many variables as possible, we asked Wes to get a fit. But since Wes is really lazy and never got ahold of Mark at Ride Science, we fired him and got Dan Ellis to do it. And we made it both easy and hard on Mark; Dan is a fit, Elite level rider with no real issues with his fit. The challenge and the test, therefore, was to see if Dan finds ‘gets’ anything out of a bike fit if he isn’t having the sort of issues that typically bring people in.
We identified two very broad people for fitters. The first is the rider with a specific issue or set of issues they need addressing. A sore back, tingly hands or feet, numb man-bits; all the stuff that you can try to ‘fix’. The other sort of rider is one looking for a performance gain, whether it be more power, more efficiency, or less wind drag. Dan had no issues with back pain, joint pain, and only a slight issue with an elbow injury that we’ll check in on. So what was Dan looking for?
It took a while before we got to that, though. The first 60 minutes of the fit had nothing to do with pedaling. Mark made Dan lay down, bend, stretch, reach, and squat to determine things like flexibility, injury history, even a pretty noticeable difference in both leg length and foot size. All those little things add up. By the time Dan actually started pedaling, Mark had a solid head start on where to take the fit.
Almost immediately, we saw something worth fixing. Dan’s left leg was putting out 30 Watts less than the right leg, a point made quite clear once Mark adjusted the bike to pedal with independent cranks. With the crank arms no longer pushed or pulled by the other leg, and inefficiencies are embarrassingly obvious. Dan’s right leg was doing laps around his left, which floundered like beached salmon. That leg length discrepancy was playing a big role; his entire body was shifted over to compensate, causing the long leg to feel too compact, while the short leg was just slightly overextended.
As a result, Dan seemed to be riding his seat lower than necessary, and with that lower seat came a lower cockpit, with a slammed stem (sweet) and low front end. He also was running his cleats near the front of his shoes. With a shim inserted and the cleats pulled back, things were really starting to come together from the butt down. But up top, there was work to do.
Dedicated readers may recall that Dan went to Mexico last year. He did NOT return with a souvenir t-shirt, but he did return with a pretty nasty elbow injury that was hastily (and we believe drunkenly) sewn up by a veterinarian from Chihuahua. His only treasure from the trip is a few bits of pure, 100% authentic Mexican chunder (stone and gravel from the crash) and a slight ache in the joint and shoulder on long rides. It’s gotten better over the past few months, but the injury can still pop up now and again, especially on trainer rides where there isn’t a lot of opportunities to move around or get out of the saddle.
Mark was on it. After measuring Dan’s shoulder width, Mark decided the 42cm bars were too wide. On popped some 40s, and voila, and hint of discomfort went away. While it’s going to take a lot longer to see if that’s a long-term fix, it’s interesting to see that 10mm can have such an impact so quickly. It also follows a trend in road cycling to run a narrower bar; for example, 5’8” rider Michal Kwiatkowski and plenty of others are riding 38cm bars 2-4cm from what would normally come stock on a 54 or 52cm frame.
We’ll have to wait to see how this affects ride quality because this bike isn’t just going to pound the pavement. Dan decided to focus his fit around his Santa Cruz Stigmata. It’s what he does most of his riding on, gravel racing, and more than a few trail rides throughout the year. Dan was just a little hesitant to ride narrower bars, with the aerodynamic advantage not worth any decrease in handling. Again, that’s going to be another test we might not know about until late spring, but Mark is confident the bike will still perform well in the woods.
Mark made all the changes to Dan’s bike, and we all talked about the experience with the understanding that you can’t measure a bike fit the day of a bike fit. It’s going to take plenty of miles and a few tweaks, but what we did decide rather quickly is that having the right tools to quantify a fit are key. At a place like Ride Science, the fit changes aren’t just measured in millimeters, but in Watts. Every change is measured by how much it affects power output, and that might make all the difference in determining if you should pay for these kinds of changes.
When I worked at a bike shop, I’ll never forget one client leave a fit with us and comment, “All that time and money and all they did was raise my seat 2mm!”. As a salesman, I remember thinking, “Oh shit, he’s right!” But then again, that adjustment comes within what’s a rather small window. I asked Mark how much the average person’s seat height changes. It’s minimal, usually within just 5-7mm. If your seat height, for example, was off by much more than that, you probably would be in so much discomfort that riding at all would be miserable! Instead, it’s important to look at how all the changes add up to a better ride, not just at how ‘big’ each adjustment is in isolation.
For Dan, a lot of little things added up. After raising the seat by 3mm and moving the saddle forward over the cranks, Dan’s pedal stroke immediately balanced out, displayed as a nearly perfect circle on the BioBike display. The sum of those small adjustments was obviously adding in efficiency, and power was already balanced between legs. A few millimeters here, a few taken off in the bar width, the possibility of shorter cranks, and pretty quickly, you’re talking a few centimeters in total change.
The fit was a little over two hours, a bit quicker than most, which tend to be closer to three hours. A big part of that was Dan already being really, really close on his fit and decisive on his changes. I could see how this could be a process; the newer the rider, the less sure of what works, and the more reliant on the fitter to make the call. And that’s really where I think have the right tools and ways to measure those changes in power and efficiency, make all the difference.
Going into a fit, the best thing to do is quantify what you want out of it. Go in with a list of goals that you’d like to achieve, or a list of issues you’re experiencing. By the time you leave, you should have checked the boxes of having those issues addressed, but don’t expect them to be fixed after one day or even one week. The biggest thing we learned from our time at Ride Science is that what aches and pains you have on the bike aren’t just from being on the bike. They’re issues of flexibility, prior injury, even from how you sleep at night that are exacerbated by the extreme positions and exertions of riding a bicycle, sometimes even at speed.
So, are bike fits legit? We say yes, but with conditions. First, you need to work with someone who knows what they’re doing and has experience with all levels of athletes, and ideally with the biomechanics of athletes beyond cycling. They aren’t ‘fixing’ your bike; they should really be looking to fix YOU. Second, while flashy gadgetry isn’t the be-all, end-all of a bike fit, your fitter should have some way to demonstrate the effects of the adjustments on your body. Without showing power, pedal stroke, or power distribution, we have a really hard time saying they’re doing anything other than eye-balling your position on the bike and saying, “Yeah, looks good to me.” How you feel should be balanced with quantifiable data to confirm that what feels good also works well.
Is it a bunch of malarkey? No. Are all bike fits created equal? Hell no. Is it worth the money? That’s up to the quality of your fit and how much you ride. Investing even $300 for a bit when you ride eight hours a week, 52 weeks a year? That makes more sense to me than playing guess-and-check with seats, pedals, handlebars, and measurements every time you have some discomfort. Follow up after your fit with questions and feedback and make it work for you.