Posted On:
Tuesday, May 31, 2022
Updated On:
Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Coach Tip Tuesday: What is a Bike Fit?

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A photo of a happy cyclist who is feeling great on her bike after having a bike fit!

Everyone who rides a bicycle should be comfortable while riding said bicycle.  Yes, EVERYONE who rides a bicycle should be comfortable.  This means that whether you’re riding a beach cruiser, a hybrid  bike with your kids, a time trial bike in a triathlon, or a mountain bike on the trails, you should be comfortable. 

You may be surprised to read this.  In my 12+ years in the endurance sports industry, I’ve heard so many people say that they didn’t realize that feeling uncomfortable during or after their rides is not what should be happening.  I actually didn’t know this myself when I first got started!  But nope, your butt shouldn’t be chafed, your hands shouldn't be aching, your back shouldn’t be seizing up, and your feet shouldn’t be numb.

So how does one get comfortable on a bike? By getting a Bike Fit from a trained and knowledgeable bike fitter.

I became a certified bike fitter in 2017. I was trained by Master Fitter Adam Sczech, who has completed over 8,000 bike fits in his 20+ year bike fitting career and who developed the Veritas Fit System. I chose to learn from Master Fitter Adam not only because he was the smartest Bike Fitter I ever interacted with, but because his bike fitting philosophy focused on knowledge, rather than gimmicks or “tangibles”. The main cornerstone of his fitting philosophy is Epicurean in nature and focuses on “Ride the bike, don’t fight the bike.”

A lot of bike shops and fitters focus on the system that they are using to complete a Bike Fit.  Often, these systems are marketed to athletes claiming that they can save a certain number of watts over a certain distance or that they can make the rider a certain percentage more aerodynamic.  They often look fancy and complex.  While I won’t say that these systems are completely ineffective, I will say that complexity is what sells, and companies know this.  Foundational principles are not as sexy or glamourous, yet those are the things that (time and time again) actually do work.

The numbers make the system sound fancy and like it must “work” as a result of that fanciness or complexity.  However, after being in this industry so long and after conducting dozens of bike fits on so many different athletes each year, I can tell you that bike fitting is much more about the fitter’s knowledge of the human body, observational skills when working with an rider, factoring in how the person is riding the bike, and using all of that knowledge collectively to make the rider comfortable.  

Comfort is King.  Not only is it important to not be in pain, but comfort will lead to greater efficiency and speed gains over time than any algorithm, laser, funny-looking dots, or cameras can.

There are three places where the human body makes contact with a bicycle:

  1. The hands (or arms, depending on the style of bike)
  2. The butt
  3. The feet

Alter any one of these three areas (i.e. raising or lowering the saddle), and you have effectively altered at least 33% of your bike fit.  That is a lot.  Each of these contact points plays into the other contact points, so altering one (even if it seems like a “small” change at face value) can actually effectively be altering your bike fit by more than 33%.  

A trained and knowledgeable fitter is going to know which changes to make and in what sequence to make them.  (Yes, there actually is a sequence to making changes to a bike fit!)  It is important to get this right.  They will also have a wealth of knowledge accumulated from their experience, and it’s this knowledge and experience that makes working with a bike fitter especially valuable.

A Bike Fit starts out with the fitter getting information from the rider about their riding history, what they’re currently doing as far as riding goes, and a movement assessment (which usually includes a flexibility assessment).  While a Bike Fit can be conducted indoors or outdoors, they are often conducted indoors on a stationary bike trainer.  Using an indoor bike trainer makes it a bit easier for the fitter to make changes to the bike itself and to get real-time feedback from the rider throughout the fitting process.

While the fitter can/will certainly make changes to the bicycle to help make a rider comfortable, they should also recommend exercises and mobility work that help the rider sustain their bike fit position.  There are two parts of a Bike Fit:

  1. The person riding the bicycle (meaning the rider’s unique physiology, to include strength and flexibility)
  2. Adjusting the bicycle so that the rider naturally falls into a comfortable position.

BOTH of these things must be accounted for if the rider is going to be able to be comfortable on the bike.  Setting up the bike by numbers alone without accounting for the athlete themselves is a recipe for discomfort, pain, and fear.

If you go for a bike fit, be sure to bring EVERYTHING that you would normally use or wear when riding your bicycle. Being able to observe exactly what you do and what you wear/use when you ride your bicycle helps the fitter make the best recommendations and adjustments for you to help get you comfortable. Some of these recommendations may include different parts for the bicycle (such as a new saddle, handlebars, riser bars, pedal extensions, pedal styles, and more!).

In total, an initial Bike Fit often takes at least 90 minutes to complete.  It’s a thorough and complete process!  This being said, it’s impossible to get a fit exactly right on the first visit to a bike fitter.  Read that again: IMPOSSIBLE.  When you leave your initial fit, it’s important to view the fit as a work in progress and that version of your bike fit as your starting point.  It’s necessary to get out and ride the bike and test the position for at least ten hours.  At that point, checking back in with the bike fitter is useful, as additional adjustments can be made to help make the rider even more comfortable over time.  It is for this reason that six months of Fit Checks are included with every Bike Fit that I complete.

One’s bike fit is dynamic - just like you are when you ride your bicycle.  This means that your fit will (and should!) change over time.  If you ride a lot, it’s a good idea to get a Bike Fit at least every 1-2 years to make sure you’re optimizing your comfort and efficiency.  Changes in body composition, fitness level, and/or style of riding necessitate a new Bike Fit for maximum comfort.  One of the most important things to bear in mind is that a body weight change of +/- 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) warrants a new Bike Fit.  (This is the most common reason I see for changes in comfort on a bicycle; if you are uncomfortable in a bike fit position that was previously comfortable for you, this may very well be the reason you are currently experiencing that discomfort.)

No matter how or what you ride, you deserve to be comfortable on a bicycle. A Bike Fit is NOT just for people who are participating in races or riding extremely long distances. Reach out to a quality Bike Fitter in your area to keep your body comfortable and happy as you pedal along to wherever the road or trail takes you!

About

Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at laura@fullcircleendurance.com.

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