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The Noob’s Guide to Cycling: Why a Good Bike Fitting is so Important

September 2014
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Cycling is a funny sport. Anyone can learn to ride a bike and become a cyclist. Anyone.

However, not everyone can be fast. Cycling with any kind of speed hurts. It hurts the lungs and muscles a lot and there is only one trick that makes a big difference between an 18 and a 22 mph average. Sure, the bike matters, the wheels and hubs, shoes and melon protector – they all make a little bit if a difference. None of those are a game changer. Nope, top of the line everything will maybe add a mile an hour over mid-range equipment, maybe two over entry-level stuff. Bike fit though, that’s big. Don’t take my word for it, have a look:

To set this up, Tuesday is my big evening ride, my hardest effort of the week and the one ride a week I always reserve my best effort for… I’ve never taken it easy on a Tuesday night so what you’re about to see, the two ride overviews, are equal efforts.

This one is from last night:

IMG_4954-0.PNG
Not bad of I do say so myself (and I do). That was a personal best for me by a full half mile an hour average.  Now this is on open roads so we have to slow down and stop for traffic signs.  5 of the first 20 miles were slower than 22 mph and 5 were faster than 24 mph – two of those 5 were north of 26.  After that first 20, a group of three of us broke off and tried to wait for a couple on a tandem to catch up so we took it easy for a mile or two before letting them ride it back at their own pace.  After that we picked up the pace and kept it between 20 and 24 mph for the last ten.  It was a good ride.

Here’s last week’s effort where I worked just as hard:

IMG_4955-0.PNG

That’s, in case you missed it, a difference of four miles per hour – and I was able to sprint off the front at 28 mph in the last half-mile last night.  A sprint finish was all but impossible last week.  Now, I went into both rides just as rested, I was well fed and ready to go in both instances.  There was, however, one significant difference between the two rides:  Group size.  Last week’s group was five to seven cyclists.  Last night’s group was much larger, probably 30 cyclists strong before we broke into a smaller group at mile 20…  That said, I struggled just a week before that with a larger group at an easier pace (I didn’t track that ride) and I had a tough time later that week on a weekend 60 mile training ride that ended with an 18.6 mph average and it felt like 21.  Add to that my bonk at the Assenmacher 100 where the pace was slower and the group was bigger and the before and after correlation is undeniable…  I was struggling because my saddle, after switching to an older model of the exact same saddle, was off.

Seven millimeters is all that we’re talking about.  Just seven millimeters too far forward was the difference between kicking ass and getting spit off the back.  If you don’t know how much that is, take your thumb and forefinger and do the “missed it by that much” thing…  That’s about seven millimeters, or in other words, not much.  Thus the importance of getting a bike fit.  I’ve had three of mine fitted and I’ve demonstrated how much it matters.  Just a simple rush job switching out a saddle had me scratching my head, wondering what went wrong.  What makes this really troubling is that I actually know what I’m doing (or not, depending on how you want to spin it).  I’ve got tens of thousands of miles in on expertly fitted bikes and I still couldn’t manage to get mine right by eyeballing it and then adjusting it by “feel”.  There are tricks to getting the setup right, which is how I found, and eventually corrected, my error, but I probably wouldn’t have gotten there without having gone through the process with a pro, first for a couple of reasons:

1)  When we’re kids, we pretty much set the saddle where we think it feels good and leave it there.  Why would that be any different now that I’m older?
2)  How can an inch here or there possibly matter?  It’s just a bike!

These two thoughts are engrained in us from our first bike.  There are dozens of reasons for this and to examine them all would be time consuming for no good reason, simply because when you’re talking about real cycling, riding a bike for a workout, race or simply to be fast, setup is everything.  Without the proper setup to the bike, to fit the cyclist, speed is restricted exponentially.  The two photos above show this beyond a shadow of a doubt.

For those who don’t know, there are a couple of simple ways to get your bike close on your own.  First we adjust the saddle height:  Place your heels directly over the pedal spindles and pedal backwards (either support yourself in a doorway or, ideally, do this with your bike hooked up to a trainer or have a friend hold the bike upright).  Your legs should just barely, without rocking your hips, end up perfectly straight at the bottom of the pedal stroke.  If you do this correctly, when your leg straightens there will be a slight pause in the ability to pedal.  Remember, you cannot rock your hips to do this.  If your hips rock or you cannot keep your heel on the pedal, the saddle is too high.  If your legs don’t straighten, it’s too low.  Now, many people have a longer leg – one is longer than the other…  You set the saddle to the shorter leg or get your cleat shimmed and set it to the longer (this latter method is preferable).  Next comes the fore and aft positioning.  Either in a door way, with a friend holding you up or on a trainer, get your butt on the proper part of the saddle (where you normally ride comfortably).  Then, pedal backwards until your pedals are parallel to the ground…  Take a 4′ level and place one edge against the outside of your knee and the other against the extended crank arm.  That should be perfectly plumb…  If not, adjust the saddle forward or back until it is.  Another way is to use a plumb bob.  For that, you have a small protruding bone directly under your knee cap – the string goes there and you let the bob dangle over the pedal…  It should point directly to the center of the pedal spindle.  Again, adjust forward or back until it does.  Then, once that’s set, recheck your saddle height…  If you moved the saddle forward you’ll have to raise the saddle a bit.  If you moved it back, you’ll have to lower it.

Bob’s your uncle (that means you’re done).

That’s not the end of the story though.  After that there’s reach.  Specifically how far you have to reach to grab the handlebar on the hoods (brake levers for a road bike or grips for a mountain bike but the rest is a little above my pay grade.

Ride safe – and comfortably, get a fitting done, it’s worth it.

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12 Comments

  1. Sue Slaght says:

    Appreciate the tip on having the heels directly over the pedal spindles for this test. I have done it but always stayed clipped in.

    • bgddyjim says:

      You’re probably too high then – that will effect your power BIG TIME. You lose a lot at the bottom of the pedal stroke which is a weak spot anyway… Redo the check with your heals and you’ll probably have to drop the saddle 2-4 mm… It should make a huge difference.

      • Sue Slaght says:

        I will definitely check this. Maybe you could start a series of posts on Tips for New Cyclists. I think it could be a very helpful post that could get lots of traffic to your blog. Check what words come up best when searching in Google. I’m thinking most new or less experienced cyclists won’t be using the word ‘noob’ when searching for tips on cycling. 🙂

      • bgddyjim says:

        Point taken, thanks.

  2. Great post, thanks for sharing!

    Just getting into cycling and triathlon, so this is so helpful. Gonna go and adjust my set up now!

    Cheers
    Luke

    • bgddyjim says:

      Cool man, enjoy… Check out my “Noob’s Guide to Cycling” page too – I’ve got a TON of posts on that page that’ll help you through some of the rough patches. Good luck and pedal hard brother.

  3. fastk9dad says:

    That is some hella flat terrain you’ve got there!

    Also regarding KOPS (knee over pedal spindle) it’s a great starting point but it’s not 100% absolute as the actual position will vary with leg length and positioning. Bike fit is all about compromises.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Exactly right and that’s exactly why I wrote “that will get you close”. There is now doubt that a professional fitting is best. As to the terrain, the GPS reading on those photos are not correct. I’ve got dozens of other rides on that same track that show between 350&400 feet of ascent. Still flat by many standards (such is southeastern Michigan), but it’s not as flat as those readings show. If I had to guess it’s the battery saving mode.

      • fastk9dad says:

        Oops, I missed the “get you close”. That’s what I get for not having a cup of coffee first. 1500′ over 30 miles here would be considered a “flat” ride. lol

      • bgddyjim says:

        I know and believe me, I’m jealous. I love the hills and we only have three decent ones on that 30 mile loop – well, decent by our standards, I still climb them all in the big ring.

      • dagowop says:

        I’m in the same boat in Florida. I used to live in the Rockies in Colorado – a cyclist’s wet dream.

  4. […] GT, I did mine earlier in the week and had a record time to work the next day.  Thanks Jim over at Fit Recovery.  Mine was just half inch too short. […]

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