Bike Fit: Your Body or Your Bike.

By John Higgins – 

Cyclists as a whole are prone to seeking improvement, either against their own personal performance or against others. Strava wouldn’t be the as popular as it is, and Zwift would not be on a meteoric rise if this was not the case. You define what sort of improvement motivates you. It may be riding a longer distance; knocking out a nominated distance in a faster time; entering a new event; achieving more elevation in a ride; improving sustainable power or simply having more fun on the bike.

Cycling West - Cycling Utah Magazine logoTo achieve any improvement it’s vital that you and your bike are working well together as an integrated unit. If not, then that is probably the first place to start. Which may mean a bike fit. Or not. In August I attend a 3 day bike fit symposium in Colorado to hear the latest on bike fitting from researchers and practitioners, many of whom have a deep background in physical therapy and an understanding of how a cyclist’s physical condition can impact their cycling comfort and performance. The presentations and conversations highlighted the dilemma all experienced bike fitters face when seeing a client. Is it their body or their bike? i.e. what are the cause and effect relationships that are detracting from this persons cycling experience? Is the priority adjusting their bike, or adjusting their body so it can function better on the bike?

Some detective work is involved to answer these questions, and one of the clues is how the bike looks without the rider on it, and then how the rider looks on their bike. If I look at a bike and I see some funky angles at the seat or handlebars, and uncommon relationships between these two parts, there is a high probability the rider’s body is being forced into a compromised position, and the issue is in the bike set up. This is usually confirmed when I see the person on their bike and pedaling, through measurement and observation of body angles and posture, as well as their symptoms. Changes to the equipment usually bring about significant improvements for the cyclist.

On the other hand, if a bike set up looks “normal”, and the cyclist looks good and measures up well on their bike, there is a higher probability that there are some physical factors at play that may not be resolved through making adjustments to the equipment. A bike fit in isolation of a movement assessment and remedial exercises may not result in any meaningful gain.

As a cyclist, how do you decide who to see and what to do? If you are out on a club or group ride, and someone says “you really need a bike fit”, they are probably seeing a noteworthy compensation going on in your riding form that makes them wince. It’s hard to see yourself on a bike from all angles, and someone else’s perspective can be beneficial. If it’s that obvious, it’s probably the bike that needs adjusting. This also applies if any discomfort you are experiencing only happens while you are cycling, and not during other activities.

However if you know your bike fit position is reasonably refined and you experience some aches, pains or niggles which occur not only when cycling but during other activities, you may be better off seeing a body specialist. This could be a PT, chiro, acupuncturist or sports med doc.

Now let’s say you go and see a sports massage, PT or a Sports Medicine doctor about a physical complaint you experience. They are unlikely to rectify the issue satisfactorily if your bike set up continues to provide a source of aggravation to your body. Or if you see a bike fitter to address an issue, but they are not able resolve your discomfort through adjustments to the bicycle, there are probably some subtle but habituated body movement patterns and restrictions that are holding you back. Improvement may only come from mobility and strengthening exercises. For this you may need to consult with a PT, athletic trainer or strength and conditioning coach. For those with a motivated DIY approach to body work, pick up a copy of the recently published “Maximum Overload for Cyclists by Jacque DeVore and Roy M. Wallack, published by Rodale. Maybe you don’t need a bike fit, you just need your thoracic spine mobilized, your hip flexors stretched out, and your glutes woken up!

John Higgins wants to elevate your cycling experience. He operates BikeFitr – an independent bike fitting studio, and Fit Kit Systems – supplying equipment and education to bike retailers and fitters. Contact: [email protected]

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