We often don't think about how important bike fit is until we start to have a chronic joint or muscle problem. Corollary: if we have a good bike fit, we usually take for granted just how good it is.
My buddy Jon, owner and operator of both Family Bike Shop and the most identifiable beard in MABRA, offered me a free bike fit recently. He has been doing a lot of work upgrading the shop's appearance, and decided to offer a new service, legit bike fits. To do that, he sent one of his top guys, Tyler, and his lovely wife Sarah, off to take several days of training to become qualified to fit bikes, using the Fit Kit system. Afterwards, Sarah said she wanted to practice and offered me a free fit.
I've gotten a really good bike fit in the past. Les Welch, of the East Coast Bicycle Academy in Harrisonburg, fit my road bike a couple years ago and solved a persistent knee problem for me. He's kind of a legendary old school bike shop guy, and worth visiting. He straightened out my pedal stroke and riding became pain free (except for hills which still hurt no matter what). I take for granted what that bike fit did for me, but it in effect trained me to ride in a particular way, to be used to a particular comfortable, efficient position. More on that in a second.
I was comfortable working with Sarah because she is a friend, and in past discussions about this injury or that, she's always displayed a lot of knowledge about physiology and rehab. She is also a licensed physiotherapy assistant, and knows how to use her training to help prevent, and rehab people's injuries. With her new training I figured with her new training I couldn't go wrong.
The bike fit was straightforward. I brought my single speed cross bike, in fixie trim, down to the shop. It definitely didn't fit right; it was rigged up for cross, with a padded WTB saddle, a short stem dropped low on the steerer, and the saddle was up and forward. That works great for handling in cross, but was brutal to ride over any distance, causing immense hand pain and general discomfort.
At the outset, Sarah asked me if there were any problems. I told her about the hand pain, and how I'd start bitching about discomfort maybe ten miles into any ride. I thought it needed a longer stem, and not sure what else.
I swapped over the thin leather saddle, and Sarah had me warm up. After warming up, she asked if I wanted to make any adjustments. I did, raising the seat a few millimeters to compensate for the lack of padding, and then moving it back quite a bit to give it an effective seat tube angle that felt efficient and comfy. My hands still hurt as I pedaled the trainer. Sarah measured the incline of the seat and noted it was tilted very slightly forward. We adjusted it so it was perfectly level, and the pedaling felt fine. The reach to the bars was still crummy, however, and my hands continued to hurt.
Using the fit kit, Sarah worked out my optimum saddle height and setback on the saddle. It turns out that my adjustments on the fly, using just feel (and Sarah's brief measurement of the seat attitude) got the saddle into spot on height and setback - just about physiologically perfect as is possible with my weird physique (short legs overall / long lower legs - Mr. Setback Saddle). We may have tapped it a millimeter in one direction or the other but it was real close.
She also calculated stem length and determined I needed to go at least 10mm longer, maybe 15 longer. She got a longer stem, and it was in the ballpark. There was some weirdness up front - most cross bikes have a tall head tube, so it was hard to get the stem just right. A long stem put me too low or too high, and a short stem had me putting too much weight on my hands. In the end we settled for a 120mm stem with around a 6 degree drop, and we raised it slightly (2mm) on the steerer tube. So I'm reaching considerably further forward, and have more drop than with the 110mm stem. This required a bunch of leg and hip measurements and stem configurations, to see what configuration would allow me to pedal strong, and also to ride in a posture that was comfortable over the long run.
Sarah took final measurements and determined I was within acceptable ranges. She commented that many experienced cyclists are able to do a lot to dial in their bike fit by feel, which is what I did with the seat & seatpost's basic configuration. This was a direct result of Les's good bike fit on my road bike. Thanks Les! What Sarah brought to the process was an accurate way to dial me on things that I have no intuitive method of navigating, detecting the oh-so-slightly tilted seat, and helping work out the complex stem situation - which, BTW, can't be made exactly perfect because I've got weird shaped legs and monkey arms.
I've managed to get a couple rides in on the bike, including a 30 miler. Bike fit is always important, but it really matters on a fixed gear used for longer training rides, because there is no rest, no way to move the hands and butt and to shift posture out of an uncomfortable position. It has to be right or you will hurt badly. Sarah squared me away and the old discomfort is completely gone; it feels indistinguishable from my geared road bike. On the one hand, this is a testament to Les Welch and his old school methods of fit. His road bike fit has gotten me accustomed to having a properly fit bike, and the muscle memory that results from that fit allows me to adjust my bike to at least get the saddle height / setback pretty close to where it should be. On the other hand, other factors like proper hip angle, proper positioning on the bars and over the top tube, are not as intuitive, and little changes in stem can have a huge effect on how well your lower body is able to work. Sarah's fit is perfect for me on the fixie and I'll definitely hit her up for a bike fit in the future.
My takeaway is that it would be worth paying the money to get a fit, and that's what I'll do with the next bike I purchase. FBS is offering basic fits for $50http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif, and a more extensive and detailed fit for $250.
Family Bike Shop's fit information is here.
Les Welch's information is here. Other places that have fit my friends, to great good effect, include Contes, which does 2D and 3D bike fits; and my good friend Beth Mason, who uses the Retul system for 3D bike fits. Beth is also a whip smart physiotherapist - and pro cyclist - who is wrapping up her PhD. She lives in the Southwest now but takes appointments and travels all around.
The takeaways are pretty simple. You need a good bike fit because if you don't have one, all that pedaling can cause injuries. Getting a good bike fit won't just prevent injuries, it will also train you to ride on a properly fitted bike, knowledge you will take with you in the form of muscle memory (or maybe in some notes on a piece of paper) the next time you borrow or buy a new bike. It matters to you because it improves the ride considerably. You might want to think about getting a fit, particularly if you are having some pain, and feel (or look) ungainly on the bike in your usual riding position. The bottom line is that even if you think your position is pretty dialed, it can't hurt to spend a few bucks once in a while and get a fit - and on the other hand, it can definitely hurt not to.