Step 1 of 11 – Pre-fit: Pursuit of Performance vs Seeking Dysfunction

There will be a short video to accompany the finalized blog, but step 1 is mostly non visual. Consider this a pre-release:

Let’s get the controversial stuff out of the way first. Most of these blog/videos will be short and sweet, with little chance of pissing anyone off. Not this. This will piss off a lot of bike fitters. (Hopefully some bike fit clients too)

The premise: You can probably do this. “This” being ride a bike in a position similar to world class bike riders. “Probably” meaning that sufficient athleticism is possessed by over 80% of the general population to be optimized on most styles of bikes, and over 70% for triathlon or time trial bikes. It is not too hard to achieve the position, and only slightly more athleticism is required for bikes with aerobars.

We are not talking about achieving world class speed. We are separating the chassis required from the motor required. Why do I think you can do this? Because riding a bike is easy. Fundamentally there are only three simple steps.

The 1st step to riding a bike is sitting down. You may not be sitting on the most comfortable thing, but there are a wide variety of different things you can choose to sit on. A few of them should be tolerable.

The 2nd step to riding a bike is to bend over. Not a lot, just a bit. This is where the flexibility fable rears its’ head. “But I’ve heard I need to be really flexible to ride a triathlon bike?” Bullshit. You can have pretty bad flexibility and still ride a world class position. Toe touching is not required. With straight legs, if you can bend over and touch just below your knees / upper shin, you are good to go.

The 3rd step to riding a bike is to alternate extending your legs. No circles, they are automatic. No pulling or scraping, as that is less efficient. I will not get into the plethora of science supporting these assertions beyond pointing out that there is indeed such a plethora. The Korff studies (1) are a good place to begin. Or just trust me. Push, push, push, push, left, right, left, right…. The bicycle is the circle.

And that’s it, 3 steps to riding a bike: Sit, Bend, Extend. This is easy. Going fast is athletic. Going fast involves extending with greater force, many times over. Sitting on the bike in a proper world class position is not, in and of itself, very athletic.

What do we really need to assess before we get onto the fit bike? I like to see you walk in the door without a limp and be generally standing up straight when you do it. If I notice what I think is more than 20 or so lbs. of excess weight around the midsection, I am mentally raising your handlebars, commensurate with those extra lbs. I could stop there, but I might have you do a basic toe touch, raise your hands over your head like a streamlining swimmer, and walk back and forth 20 feet to get a visual on foot alignment. That’s it. Takes two minutes, and if I skipped the whole thing your bike fit would likely go just as well. Now we get on the fit bike and pursue performance.

The alternative to this approach involves seeking dysfunction. Many bike fitters seek dysfunction, particularly those primarily trained as physical therapists, with only a secondary or tertiary education in bike fitting. The dysfunction seeking approach involves assessing the body with a full battery of flexibility, mobility, strength, and balance tests. I will readily admit there can be much generally useful information to be gained from such assessments. However, virtually none of that information means anything in regard to proper bike fitting, because…. Sit, Bend, Extend. This is easy.

Dysfunction seeking bike fitters often combine their superfluous assessments with misunderstanding the simplicity of riding and the perfection of bicycle design. They find an authentic limitation in the body and incorrectly assume that this will limit the position that can be achieved, because they do not understand: This Is Easy.

What of the 20-30% who can’t achieve world class positions? What stops them? Two things address nearly all of them, with the first thing being the far bigger culprit. 1. Body weight, specifically excess lbs. around the waistline. This will physically get in the way long before flexibility. 2. Neck discomfort, particular to the tri bike, but an issue on many performance (and recreational) bicycling positions. The arms support the torso, but the neck supports the head, and this can lead to discomfort, and sometimes outright pain to a degree that the position must be modified.

How do I come to believe these things and why should you believe me? First, these are largely not my ideas. There’s a guy who invented the triathlon bike and later, the most successful process for properly fitting riders to those bikes he invented (2). He taught me many of these things, and I have seen them in practice in over 3000 fits. I’ve also been trained on numerous occasions by “body experts”. Nothing I was taught about body assessments was incorrect as far as I could tell, but none of those experts ever presented one concrete example of an ambiguous flexibility, mobility, or strength deficiency limiting a fit. Not once have I seen a physical assessment inform a bike fit in a manner that the actual bike fit itself did not reveal.

1 – Med Science Sports Exercise 2007 Jun;39(6):991-5. Effect of pedaling technique on mechanical effectiveness and efficiency in cyclists. (Korff T, Romer LM, Mayhew I, Martin JC)

European Journal of Applied Physiology 2011 Jun;111(6):1177-86. doi: 10.1007/s00421-010-1745-7. Epub 2010 Dec 3. Effect of "Pose" cycling on efficiency and pedaling mechanics. (Korff T, Fletcher G, Brown D, Romer LM)

2 – Dan Empfield, aka “Slowman”, inventor of triathlon bike geometry, the 1st triathlon bike and the original and most prolific and copied process of fitting athletes to those bikes, the F.I.S.T. system.