This is the second in a two-part account of my search for the perfect bike fit.
So far in this epic quest (which you can read about here), I discovered that my trusty Dawes did not fit me at all, that bike frame sizes bear very little relation to the size of the person riding them and that spending a large amount of money on a new bike is a lot easier when you have an expert telling you to.
We left our hero standing in Samways (a bike shop in Derby) trying to resuscitate his credit card with a defibrillator and a bar of Kendal Mint Cake. I was the proud owner of a shiny (well, matt grey) new Trek Domane 4.3 and some Specialized Elite (ha ha ha) Road Shoes.
What Happened Next?
Answer: Not a great deal. I had to go home, sans bike (Samways had to do set it up and do all the pre-flight checks), and drive over to Manchester for a Chinese wedding. Which probably isn’t important to the story.
I had to wait until the following Tuesday to pick up the bike. In the meantime, I attempted to juggle the requirements of various family members so that, having picked up the bike, I could go straight over to (be)spoke for my appointment with Andy, the Bike Science fitter.
Thankfully the stars aligned and I was able to book my much-anticipated Retul bike fit for the Tuesday afternoon, after having collected the bike from Samways.
Finally, I was ready to get in front of the motion sensors.
Less Haste, More Speed(play)
Not quite. It transpires that in order to assess your pedaling technique, your bike requires pedals.
I’ll stop with the idiot routine. I’d already discussed pedals with Andy and I had planned to buy them from him. He had recommended Speedplay pedals, since they can be adjusted in an infinite* number of ways to get the optimal set up.
(*Maybe not infinite, but a lot)
The Speedplays also appealed because they are double-sided, like the mountain-biking SPDs that I’ve always used. As far as I’m aware, all other major road pedals have a side that faces up (which you clip into) and a side that faces down (which you don’t). To be honest, clipping in and out of pedals happens much less in the Derbyshire hills than on the London commute, but at least it’s one habit that I don’t need to break.
The other interesting thing about Speedplays (yes, pedals can be interesting), is that unlike most (all?) other pedals, the spring mechanism that locks the cleat in to the pedal is built into the cleat itself (and therefore attached to the sole of your shoe) rather than the pedal itself. The pedals look like little lollipops, which, after some consideration, I’ve decided looks quite cool.
For a really detailed look at why Speedplays are so good, written by an expert, have a gander at this excellent post from a professional bike fitter.
And Finally The Fit
I’ll probably write more about particular aspects of bike fitting in the future, so for now I’ll just give the bare bones of what happened during the session. I may not remember exactly what happened, and in what order, but at least you’ll get the gist.
The first part of the fit was a short discussion around my volume of training (not enough), my objectives (to get around RideLondon in one piece) and any problems I had on the bike (my right knee…).
Then it was into the fitting room, with the bike up on the turbo trainer. Andy quickly fitted the pedals to the bike and the cleats to my new shoes (which is a bit of a faff, since an adapter is required between the three-screw fitting on my shoes and the four-screw one needed by the Speedplay cleat).
Setting Saddle Height
Next we had a ‘traditional’ visual fit to get the saddle height into the right ball park for the later, more precise motion-capture measurement.
I sat on the saddle, with one foot clipped in to the pedal at the maximum leg extension with the other leg doing the same thing on the other side (although obviously not clipped in to the pedal). From his long, lingering look at my ‘pre-season’ backside, Andy determined that my saddle needed to be raised an inch or so.
Let’s Get. Physical.
For the following stage, it was off with the bike, off with the shoes and off with the clothes. That’s not true: I was allowed (nay encouraged) to keep my clothes on.
Andy ran me through a range of strength and flexibility tests on my ankles, quads, hamstrings, hips, wrist, elbows (you get the idea: any part of the body in some way associated with your position on the bike). This then determined if there were any limitations that Andy would need to work around as he set me up on the bike.
Thankfully, apart from the knee (and the flat feet, which likely contribute to the knee issues), there was nothing else of particular concern.
Clarifying Cleat Position
Next we (er, Andy) needed to set up the cleats on my shoes. He got out his Bosch laser level and pointed it at each leg in turn as I pedaled, the vertical line presumably helping him establish the lateral movement of my knee during the pedal stroke (this is me guessing: Andy will have told me at the time but I was still reveling in the joy of riding my new bike).
Based on what he saw with the Bosch, and knowing that my flat feet caused my knees to bend inwards and my hips to bend out, Andy set up the cleats such that my feet were as close in to the bike frame as possible, without touching the cranks.
He also set up the cleats with plenty of float. In layman’s terms, I think this means that during the stroke, the pedal is not forcing my knee to follow a path that it doesn’t want to follow. Which is: A. Good. Thing.
He Did Something With My Feet
The final element of the physiological examination I’m a bit hazy on. It involved some sort of measuring gauge that was put against the sole of my foot to determine… something.
The upshot was that Andy then put a couple of plastic inserts inside my shoes (a bit like orthotic insoles, except thin, flat and shaped to go under the ball of the foot). I then had to pedal and say whether they made it more comfortable in terms of spreading the force across a larger area on my foot.
Since I felt the inserts made pedaling less comfortable (I think… who knows), Andy swapped them for ones that fitted between the cleat and the sole of my shoe. These felt much better, so we kept them.
I’m still not exactly sure what they were (indeed, are, since they remain attached to my shoes). I don’t think they are wedges. They may or may not be shims. If anyone has any ideas, then feel free to let me know.
Love’s Got The World In Motion (Capture)
“You’ve got to hold and give, but do it at the right time” John Barnes, 1990
Finally, after all the preparation, it was time for the main event: the motion capture.
Sticky velcro pads were placed at strategic locations on the left hand side of my body (i.e. shoes, ankles, knees, shoulders, hips). The velcro pads were then used to attach the sensors to me. The sensors were all linked to one another, and back to the Retul machine (I’m sure that’s the technical term).
I believe the Retul system works by capturing a series of measurements over time and then averaging them out to determine whether the rider’s position is optimal. That is, optimal according to Retul’s model riding position – and since I don’t have my own model, I was happy to go with theirs.
The measurement period is 15 seconds, over which time I was required to pedal steadily at a level of effort which I could maintain for an hour and a half. I wasn’t convinced I could guarantee any level of performance over an hour and a half, but I reckoned I could pretend to be comfortable for 15 seconds. I also had to maintain a constant cadence (at least within a range of 3-4rpm).
Thankfully I proved capable of producing a steady effort and none of the sensors were playing silly buggers, so we were able to get the first chunk of data rapidly. This told us two things:
1. the back end was fine (the bike’s back end, not mine) – Andy’s visual set-up had proved to be spot on in achieving the desired leg angles;
2. the angle of my back was too low – the length of the bike needed to be reduced.
Stemming The Tide of Handlebars
(Yes, it’s a cycling pun.)
In order to reduce the length of the bike by the required 30-40mm, Andy swapped out the handlebars that came with the bike for shallower ones and, after another run with the motion capture proved that this hadn’t been sufficient, replaced the stem with a 10mm shorter version.
Eagle-eyed viewers will remember that exactly the same adaptations were made to the trusty (but poorly-fitting) Dawes only the week before. In addition to the handlebars and stems that now proudly adorn each bike, I have a rapidly-growing stock of spare handlebars and stems in my garage. Perhaps the start of bikes 4 and 5 (my first self-builds…).
The Wheel Of Fortune
Bike length shortened. Back end spot on. Pedals given the Bosch seal of approval. Andy was feeling good about the final motion-capture period.
I had more velcro pads attached, this time to the right side of my body.
For this recording, I had to pedal as before, for 15 seconds, with the Retul capturing my position on the left side. Then, whilst I attempted not to change my position on the bike, Andy had to remove the motion sensors and spin me, the bike and turbo all around 180 degrees, on the wooden plinth that I now discovered was a giant turntable. The sensors would then be attached to the velcro pads on the right side.
Until now, I’d been able to maintain a steady cadence by watching the data feed on the video screen. For the run-through that would assess my position from the right side, I’d be facing away from the screen, and therefore flying blind (in terms of knowing my cadence – I wasn’t blindfolded).
Luckily I had two advantages: 1. I have pitch perfect hearing and really should be a concert pianist (careful); 2. my new Domane, with its Shimano 105 groupset sings like a nightingale when we hit optimal cadence. An additional, possibly more relevant, factor was that Andy shouted out cadence numbers until I reached the right one. And then I kept pedaling at the same speed and effort.
You are really at the mercy of a man when you are clipped into a bike on a turntable that he has control of.
Andy elected not to abuse his position of power and simply spun me back so I could see the measurement results on the screen, which revealed…
My Bike Fits…!
There were a whole host of numbers that I didn’t really take in. To reduce the complexity (for my sake), we’d talked a lot about the target back angle throughout the two fit sessions. And there it was in (electronic) black and white: we’d achieved my target 48 degree angle.
Andy seemed happy with all the rest of the numbers and declared the bike fit complete.
All that was left was for him to take a series of detailed measurements from various parts of the bike, using some sort of alien arse probe (although with hindsight, it might have been another type of motion capture sensor). These measurements will tell any competent bike mechanic (or incompetent me) how to achieve an identical setup on the bike in future (e.g. after a service).
That is my bike fit saga in its (rather lengthy) entirety. All that remains is to see how my performance and persistent knee injury react to the new bike and its setup.
If you haven’t had one, my strong recommendation, as someone who put it off for so long before finally biting the bullet, is to invest in a bike fit if at all possible.
I’ve learnt an awful lot about bike position, sizing, pedal and shoe choice, and much more. I’ve come away with a bike (albeit a new one!) that fits me better and stands me a far higher chance of completing the longer ride distances to which I aspire.
I’ve tended to go on about my knee, rather than, say, back and neck problems (mainly because I haven’t really had them yet). However, I feel that by sorting my bike position now, I’ve averted issues in those areas which may otherwise have become a problem in the future (particularly if I’d have stuck with my previous setup).
That’s enough about me. What have your bike fit experiences been? Let me know in the comments below.
Anyone who advised me to go get a bike fit is hereby allowed to write messages of self-congratulation and smugness.