20 Apr 2016

Bike Fit

Cycling isn't inherently comfortable. There are so many things that can hurt when riding, and as one accumulates years, so one accumulates... 'aches and pains'.

But there is pain, and then there is pain. (There is also the other pain - the feeling of parts of your body that have had their structural integrity compromised... but I think our imaginations have this one covered, and I'm going to leave this one out so I don't tempt fate.)

There is what I would consider to be fairly normal pain. The post-training-week bruised feeling of thighs that feel like they've been used as punching bags. That general overall feeling of dehydration and gnawing hunger that is only sated by the pizza and beer that your Top Secret Trainer has 'recommended' you avoid. The two-days-later ache of giving it everything you've got (and then forgetting to stretch), and the infamous burn of just going as hard as you possibly can.

I'm led to believe these things are character building, and have something to do with the general concept of getting fitter. For these, I'm told, the cure is a good stretch, some rest now and then, and a heaped teaspoon of cement powder stirred thoroughly into a hot cup of coffee, once per day (or as required), to improve intestinal fortitude.

Then there are the niggly pains. The ones that creep in over time, or don't even seem to be related to cycling at all. The ones that can't simply be attended to by meditating on Rule 5. Toes and fingers that go slightly numb, shoulders that seem to retain some form of tension that indicates they've forgotten to relax in the last week or so and make it hard to get comfortable on the bike. The hips hurt, the lower back burns, stabbing pains in the knees and a constant aches in the triceps, and it can get bad enough to suck the life out of you. Over time a couple of things seem to happen - either you get used to it, which isn't always a good thing - or it simply never stops hurting, and possibly gets worse as time goes on.

All this makes it painful to ride a bike for any amount of time. We spend hours on road bikes in one of a few pretty silly positions, physically, and when it isn't comfortable... well it can literally be a pain in the arse.

And that is why we, apparently, invented bike fits... and I've had one on my List Of Many Things as something to get done well in advance of Taupo.

I've never felt that my bike was quite right. The general size and shape of it fulfils a bunch of basic requirements - two wheels where you'd generally expect them to be and a couple of other handy components that, for the most part, make it go forward and around corners. It was also infinitely more comfortable than the last bike I'd ridden - the one The Engineer had lent me for approx 2500km. The thing that bugged me was the little things - the exact positioning of the components - it never quite felt quite right to me, and while I could probably tweak it myself, I'm not exactly sure where to start, so I've been intending to get someone with a vast amount of experience to, basically, do it for me.

When I purchased my bike I was given a bike fit. This was after I'd agreed to purchase the bike - a decision that I'd made based on a bit of research that, in itself, might be topic of another blog post altogether. Save to say that the basic requirements at that time were price and the frame has to be the 'right' size.

This original fit went rather smoothly. Nothing needed swapping out, all the parts were exactly the right size for me, and the bike seemed, magically, to be exactly what I needed. A couple of washers were added to the pedals to space them a bit wider, but that was about it. I rode away from that with a bike that seemed to fit exceptionally well and rode it for months, quite happily. But I also rode away with this idea ticking at the back of my mind - a feeling that it was all too easy. Like going to a tailor to get a tailor-made suit and being handed one off the rack that is, according to the tailor, exactly the right fit.

Purchasing a bike before getting fit for it wasn't necessarily the cleverest of ideas, but you need a bike to get fit to, and if you get the wrong bike you'll end up having to get another one. At least the second time around you'll know what you need to get. I'm now realising that I don't know how you'd step into this cycle without buying a bike fairly blindly in the first place... perhaps some clever person has come up with an answer for that?

Because I've been getting uncomfortable on the bike, and because of the lingering feeling that it might have not been set up in the first place, I asked around about bike fitters and The Colleague, as full of awesome advice as ever, recommended Anthony from Bikefitter. I looked the guy up, and found that Anthony is a cyclist, a physiotherapist, and a bike fit expert. He's also a bloody nice guy to work with. Friendly, knowledgeable, and refreshingly straightforward.

And he wasn't invested in selling me any parts.

Anthony works out of Christchurch and does a few fits a week as a part of his practice as a sports physioherapist. Luckily for the rest of us he also does a world-tour of New Zealand once every three months or so, and I managed to catch him while he was up in Wellington last week. While travelling he bases his fits out of a friends' garage, which sounds sparse - but to me is the quintessential bike experience - setting up your bike in the garage with a mate seems the exactly the right way to do it.

I was slightly nervous going in - the fear that I'd be told that I had to replace my whole bike because it wasn't going to be suitable for me, or what I wanted to use it for - the concern that I'd have another "na mate, looks like it's all set up pretty sweet aye" bike fit and waste my cash. My nervousness probably didn't show though - even though the first time I went up to meet Ant I actually forgot to take my bike with me. Thankfully I only left it on the car so didn't have that far to go and get it!

We got down to it, and the rest of the evening was a blur of video cameras, dots, allen keys, callipers and the fan-blades of a stationary trainer. We talked a lot, lots of things were moved around, and I came out the other side with a lot of information - some of which I'm still percolating as I go about my training.

We started with a pretty thorough run-down of my collective injuries and how I feel they affect my cycling, then he watched me cycle for a bit. We then talked about my posture, he took some video, measured some angles, watched my technique and made some more very accurate measurements - and along the way he made a observations about my... everything.

It went something like this: My cleats were too far back so my foot wasn't sitting in my shoe properly, and my ankle was too high to pull through on the stroke properly - though this was also partly because of my technique which 'could use some working on'. My saddle was a bit too low, and with my cranks a bit too long, my belly getting in the way and my tendency to sit forward on the saddle because it isn't the right width; meaning that my hips had to lift out of the way to allow my thigh to come up high enough to clear the top of the stroke. This caused me to want to lengthen my back and lift my belly and hips out of the way, so I was lifting up my shoulders to make my back longer. This rotated my shoulders, moved my arms, caused my elbows and wrists to get in strange angles, made it harder to breathe, and put my neck in a funny position. My handlebars were, thankfully, the right width, but the angle on them - rotated forward/back - was a bit off, and they were a bit too high, which had further impact on the way I was using my hips and holding my shoulders.

It turns out that the way the bodys' bits interact is pretty darn complicated.

A lot of the outcome was fine adjustments to my existing setup - cleat position, saddle height, bar height and angles. Just having those things tweaked a tiny bit moved the pedals away and brought the whole front-end of the bike closer to me so it didn't feel as if it was as much of a stretch to get there. He even adjusted the reach on my brake handles so I don't have to go grabbing for them when I am in the drops. Awesome!

There are a few things that have to change though, and it's a good indication of the type of thing that can come out of a bike fit. In theory I'd rather change small things than get a whole new bike, but this could be a fairly expensive set of changes.

So I'm in the market for a new crankset with 170mm cranks to replace the 172.5mm cranks I'm currently using. On the up-side though I'll be dropping my gearing down too, which is more of a recommendation than a requirement, and something that I've been thinking about on and off. As I live in Wellington hills are pretty much unavoidable and with my current weight and level of fitness I can't currently spin up some of the gradients around here with my 36/25 gearing, so when I replace the crank I'll be dropping to a full compact. I might also be dropping the cassette for a 12/27 - currently 11-25 - for the same hilly reasons - not to mention that I've managed to wear out the first two gears in my current cassette because I simply can't go up the hills in anything higher. It seems like this will all work out nicely.

There is also the possibility that I'll need to change the stem from 100mm to 90mm or so. At this stage we're not sure if it will be required though, as first I need to change the saddle.

The saddle needs to go because, basically, it isn't wide enough, and therefore I sit on it funny. I'm not devastated as I've actually not felt comfortable on it for a while anyway, but now I have a clear idea of why it isn't comfortable. Great news is I'll get to try out some of the saddles that The Mechanic at Kiwivelo has been raving about. I'm not going to miss this old saddle - it was a pain in the arse. Ha!

Discussing saddles revealed another thing that amazed me about Anthony. I asked him a lot of questions about replacing the saddle because the darn things are bloody expensive to make too many mistakes on. Replacing gears and cranks is pretty straight-forward - you get a very limited range of options so there is very little thinking to be done. On the other hand - saddles - there are probably 1000's of the damn things out there all with their different advertised forms and features... yet here he was; standing in a garage in Wellington, rattling off which brands were likely to have which sizes, what width-increments some of the major brands had, which brands didn't do different sizes, who had good saddle-try-out systems. I admire a mind that stores that kind of information for immediate regurgitation.

Anthony was so impressed with my physique he requested to see me again in 3-or-so months when he is next in Wellington. I'm pretty sure it's because he needed to remind myself of my prowess as a cyclist, and has nothing at all to do with the fact that I need to change a lot of things about my set-up, lose up to 15kg, get better at riding up hills, have improved core stability, and learn to pedal properly.

The feedback was awesome and I have a slightly better idea now of how I should be holding myself when I ride the bike - how I should be pedalling - and I can do all of this knowing that the bike is set up for me by the same person who is doing the recommendations. It all fits together.

But how does it ride?

So after getting the bike fit done we'd actually planned to take a week off so B could attend and present at a conference in Hamilton. This had originally been a week that my Top Secret Trainer and I had discussed as a no-riding week, but in light of the bike fit, and with my beautiful wife's seemingly endless tolerance for my cycling; we decided to take the bike away so I could do some sweet riding around other parts of the country.

So I got to take my new set-up on holiday, and took a spin through the back-country of the Manawatu, checking out the awesome countryside between Kimbolton, Rangiwahia, and Mangaweka. This is the type of cycling I love - beautiful scenery, being chased by enthusiastic sheepdogs, long winding descents down sheer sandstone cliffs, and rickety one-way bridges that cross crystal clear rivers.

And the whole thing hurt, and the bits that don't hurt feel... strange, and when it all seemed to be working well everything felt... smoother.

It seems the tweaks in my posture have moved the niggles around, or set right imperfections in my pose, so it seems that a lot of the ongoing pain of imperfect posture have been magically turned into the other type of pain - the one that can be handled by mulling over The Rules while sipping a nice warm cup of Harden Up.

I am struggling with changing my technique and I can see that I'll be working on this for a while to come. I have to keep reminding myself to roll my hips forward, or to lower my heels during the bottom of the stroke. It is a flow-on effect that starts when I realise that my shoulders are up around my ears - lower the shoulders, the hips, lower the heels - or when I realise my feet are doing the wrong thing; the reverse happens; lower the heels, reposition the hips, feel the shoulders lower themselves.

I'm not breaking any records, though it is also fair to say that I am probably not breaking myself any more.

Or, at least, not as much as I was.

I'll follow this up with Part 2 when I get my second fit done in three-ish months - then I can do some of that long-term reflection and see what differences I think it has made. Overall, though, I would recommend that you check out getting this done by a professional, and I highly recommend Anthony for the job.
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