Winter is, in theory, the time for getting in the miles and building up a solid base for the long season ahead. However, whether due to the cold weather or just a general lack of fitness at this time of year, for me winter always coincides with some sort of niggling injury - nothing catastrophic, but just enough to force a couple of days off the bike. Last year it was my right glute, this year it was my left knee – I was starting to think that something was destined to go wrong each winter.
By nature, I’m a bit of a serial bike position tinkerer, and have done quite a bit of research into the subject to try and sort things out myself, but it got to the point where I had to admit that it was time to see a specialist and get a proper bike fit. With Belgium and the prospect of near constant racing on the horizon, I realised I needed to sort my body out pronto. Step into the fray Pete Giddings (@honed_coaching) and Simon Barnes, from the Stonehouse Clinic.
Pete is a fellow (getting a bit ahead of myself here, the degree isn’t over yet!) Mechanical Engineering graduate from Bath who’s now a freelance coach and bike fitting guru, while Simon is a chartered Physiotherapist based at the Stonehouse Clinic near Corsham, in the beautiful surrounds of Hartham Park Estate.
The bike fit consists of two components: first, a 40 min physical assessment from Simon who goes through your medical/injury history and attempts to fold your body into various positions to determine flexibility and range of motion in crucial cycling areas. Conclusion: not good. The information from this assessment then goes into informing the fit parameters of the actual bike fit, conducted by Pete. Overall, the process lasts around 2 hours, though there is a bit of flexibility there depending on how many adjustments are required.
Currently, the term “bike fitting” encompasses many different philosophies ranging from old-school-man-with-a-plumb-line to 3D motion capture, and everything in between. The current trend seems to be towards a more technologically sophisticated style of fitting, with big names such as Retul and Specialized offering standardized fit procedures that make heavy use of cameras. However, there are some things which can’t be effectively captured by camera – such muscle activation patterns – which need an experienced fitter with an understanding of human physiology and pedalling mechanics, to diagnose and hopefully improve.
The bike fit at Stonehouse falls somewhere in the technological middle ground as it makes use of a camera to capture body angles and small details which the human eye can miss in real time, while still relying heavily on the fitter himself eyeing you up from different angles and prodding various muscles to check they’re working.
The fit started with me pedalling in my current position, alternating between tops, hoods and drops, in order to get a baseline from which to make changes. Going through the video (see first part of video below), it was clear that there were some serious issues with my current position.
The earlier physical assessment had identified a slight asymmetry in my pelvis, which had caused a tightening of my hip flexors and hamstring on my right side, and the video showed how I would lift my body out of the way as my right leg came over the top of the stroke. I’d always felt that I was sitting slightly skewed on the saddle, but seeing how much my right side moved was still a bit of a shock. This movement is obviously pretty inefficient, and is something the fit would aim to correct.
Before and after shots with leg extension measured
Leg extension was the second area to be addressed. The physical assessment had identified my free maximum leg extension at 148 degrees, while my leg extension on the bike reached 150 degrees at the bottom of my pedal stroke (see video). Clearly, I was forcing the bottom of the pedal stroke and having to waste energy in overcoming my hamstring flexibility. My heel was also having to lift in order to reach the bottom of the stroke – another inefficient movement.
Having established an idea of my current position, it was time to make some changes, starting with cleat position. I had previously placed my cleats symmetrically on my shoes, but because of differences in my feet, they were actually different places from a functional point of view. This was corrected so that the cleats were positioned under the ball of my foot.
Pete had also observed that my right knee was collapsing inwards at the bottom of the pedal stroke, and so a 1.5 degree varus wedge was inserted under my right cleat. This was also moved outwards slightly in order to reduce q-factor in an attempt to straighten up my foot.
Next on the table was my saddle position which was moved down and forward, reducing my leg extension to 148 degrees (see second section of video). The changes were only small, but the difference in feel was significant. The effect was that my pelvis was a lot more stable while pedalling which should help improve power and reduce the potential for back pain. The movement in my right hip was reduced from 4.5cm to 3cm as a consequence.
With the saddle position sorted, it was time to look at my handlebar position. Like most people, my default handlebar position is with a negative rise stem slammed on the top cap. Turns out this was causing quite a lot of tension through the shoulders as I had to bend my neck back just to see where I was going. The bars were moved upwards to try and reduce the curvature of my upper back and create a more natural shoulder position. Horror of horrors, I’ve now find myself with an upturned stem which is certainly providing the motivation to do those oft neglected stretches!
Video of the before and after positions with annotations. Excuse the stupid faces
Throughout the process, Pete takes the time to explain each of the changes he makes and the reasoning behind it, always focussing on backing things up with science. As someone more technically minded, this was actually one of the best things about the fit and I left not only more comfortable, but more enlightened as well.
At the end of the fit, I received a document with all of my new measurements to set up my team bike, or any road.cc test bikes, as well as a summary of the physio assessment and the negative aspects of my current position. Simon’s physiotherapy background comes into its own here as he prescribes some exercises and stretches to improve your range of movement and functional stability.
A follow up fit is conducted 2-3 months afterwards to see whether these exercises have had the desired effect and whether the bike fit needs to be changed to accommodate this improvement. From a personal point of view, my current position is very high – limited by the range of motion in my right hip – so I’m hoping the exercises will enable me to sustain a more aggressive position in the future without compromising power. As a tall rider, I need to get out of the wind as much as possible.
1 week on from the fit, I’ve now put in a good 600km in the new position and I have to say, I’m very pleased with the results. While the upright position took a bit of getting used to, the extra power I was able to develop meant that my average speeds on my rides have actually increased. Indeed, 2 days after the fit, I went out and did 2x25min intervals at threshold and was, on average, 2km/h faster than during the same intervals on the same stretch of road the week before! I wasn’t really expecting such large improvements but I’ll take them, that’s for sure! Moving on, I’m pretty excited about these gains and looking forward to 6 weeks of solid training, unaffected by injuries, before the season starts proper.
Thanks to the Dave Rayner Fund (@DaveRaynerFund) for supporting my 2014 season in Belgium with team Terra Safety Shoes. In addition to the blog you can catch my day to day ramblings on twitter: @liamtglen
For 5 years, racing was my life and I went all the way from a newbie bonking after 40 miles, to a full-timer plying my trade on the Belgian kermesse scene. Unfortunately, the pro dream wasn't meant to be and these days, you're more likely to find me bimbling about country lanes and sleeping in a bush on the side of the road.