March 26, 2013

Bike Fitting – An idiot’s guide

I’m Paul.  I’m a 39 year old cyclist.  I’ve been cycling for around 6 years and racing for the last 4 during which time I’ve progressed from a very unfit and overweight 4th Cat to a moderately fit and slightly overweight 2nd Cat!  I raced as a teenager and I have always loved cycling even though there was a 16 year gap where I only loved it from the sofa!

I was a very sedentary office worker for 11 years and then 5 years ago I trained to become a Personal Trainer and Cycle Coach at the same time as rekindling my passion for riding my bike. Over the past 6 years I have been suffering with pain in my left knee (and they said exercise was good for you!).  I have gradually had to give up activities that I enjoy, including weight training, jogging, snowboarding, golf, even walking around the shops (hang on that’s not such a bad thing) but luckily cycling only gives me moderate pain but it does hurt nonetheless.  MRI scans, CT scans and X-Rays refer to chondromalacia, patellofemoral pain and deterioration of articular cartilage;  all very fancy but my knee still hurts despite the various Physios, Osteos, Surgeons, Sports Doctors, Sports Physicians, Massage Therapists and even ‘Healers’ who I have paid to see.  Add to that the various creams, lotions, potions, pills (you know the drill, everyone tells you to take glucosamine sulphate and if they’re really flash they’ll throw in some chondroitin too – even just that at £1 a day would have equated to £2190 over 6 years had I continued taking it!).  I do my daily stretches, foam roller work, glute work, warm up well, cool down excellently (ok I’m getting a bit sarcastic now can you sense some frustration creeping in?!) , vmo stuff….all the normal remedies for maltracking of the patella and therefore rubbing and pain around and behind the kneecap.  Have I mentioned McConnell taping?  Well I’ve become an expert at that too!

In September 2010 I had a bike fit with Eric at the Specialized Concept Store in Ruislip.  Eric was knowledgeable, professional and helpful.  The knee pain didn’t go away but I made the mistake of getting fitted on my race bike and then spending the next 6 months on my winter bike!  Eric did give me a set of measurements from the bike fit to transfer to my winter bike but as he quite rightly pointed out it would have a different saddle, handlebars, brake hoods, crankset and therefore a lot of variables that, when added to the fact that it was me and not a specialist setting up the bike there was certainly scope for my winter position to differ by more than a few “mill” from my “fitted” bike.  The cold doesn’t help so going into the winter is never going to be an easy time to assess my knees.

In 2011 I got back on my race bike and had a pretty good season, things improving a little.  Maybe all the daily exercises that I had been doing religiously were at least allowing me to keep riding even if the knee wasn’t actually improving.  As long as I rested enough between training sessions or races it wasn’t getting worse.

I rode my race bike through the 2011/12 winter so that a) I could keep the position that was working and b) One day I would be ‘forced’ to buy a better bike!

This year, 2012, I decided I was ready to go for my 2nd Cat licence and had another pre-season bike fit with Alex, Eric’s twin brother (although it may well have been Eric!), once again at Specialized in Ruislip and once again he was knowledgeable, professional and helpful (that’s it I’m sure it was Eric).

My winter prep went well but I do feel that my knee trouble inhibits certain aspects of my training, namely:

–          I would like to do weight training in the winter

–          I would like to cross-train a little and do other sports, especially in the winter

–          I would like to do some “on bike” weight training and ride some climbs seated in a big gear to improve the force I am able to generate

–          I often have to avoid interval and sprint training sessions due to the pain (and just put up with it in a race as everything hurts anyway by then!)

–          I would like ride my bike more frequently but need to rest the old knees

–          The slightest wrong move and my knee hurts (e.g. demonstrating exercises to clients)

–          Socially it would be nice to partake in other activities (I’m not saying I’ve no social skills however;  Wiggo and I have a lot in common once we get off the bike and bring alcohol into the mix).

Instead I have to keep my cadence high to take the pressure off the knee (that is where my similarities with Lance Armstrong end I hasten to add) and I will get out the saddle at the earliest opportunity as my knees are happier when they bend less and also I can throw my (considerable) weight over the pedals a bit more.  Not that it’s all bad news, I gained my 2nd Cat and had a great year last year but as my races got harder my knee got worse and by September I was getting really down about things.  I had read a book about Andy Pruitt who is based at the Boulder Centre somewhere in Colorado in the US who seems to be one of the world’s leading gurus in knees and cycling and I decided that enough was enough, if he thought it was appropriate I would jump on a plane to meet him and blow my 6 year glucosamine sulphate allowance in one day!  Andy developed the Serotta Bike Fitting system and then headed up the Specialized BG Fit that I’d had twice and as far as I understood what Andy didn’t know about knees and cycling wasn’t worth knowing.  That has been the problem really, people either know about cycling or knees but they don’t really know enough about both.  I had tried to contact Andy by phone and email several times over the past 2 years but I was beginning to wonder whether he, like Eric’s twin brother, really existed.  When I phoned The Boulder Centre this September maybe the receptionist sensed the desperation in my voice and the fact that my career and the only sport I can still partake in were in jeopardy as this time I left my number and a member of Andy’s team emailed me.  Progress!  He asked me when I could come in, not quite what I was looking for seeing as there was a small stretch of water called the Atlantic between us; I was kind of hoping for some email dialogue with Andy to ascertain whether the cost of the flight, the accommodation, the consultation and the time off work were all going to be justified.  Andy did subsequently (very kindly) email me and said that he may know someone in south east England that he trusts to save me a trip.  This is when I received an email from Mark Murphy of Specialized HQ in Chessington, Surrey.  Mark trains the Specialized fitters and I was already aware that was a bit of a “fitting guru” so when he contacted me I was very pleased, even more so when he offered me a free bike fit as a “goodwill gesture to an injured cyclist” on Friday 7th December 2012.

A friendly Receptionist greeted me and then Mark arrived and we headed off to a clean, smart and spacious fitting room where my bike was put onto a turbo trainer with cameras filming both the front and side views.

Due to the nature of this fit (“civilians” don’t normally get fitted at HQ and not by Mark either) I sensed that no stone would be left unturned and the main objective was to establish whether my pain was “fit-related” or whether it was just my knee full stop and therefore an arthroscopic (keyhole/camera) investigation may well be my next logical step.  To put it another way, they weren’t going to work miracles, this would simply be my final chance to rule out the possibility that my position on the bike was causing my pain.

I explained my story to date to Mark along with his colleague Dave Alexander who I think was brought in as he seemed to have a fantastic knowledge of anatomy so we really were getting the platinum service here.  I also explained that I have had a disappointing Serotta fit at Cyclefit in Covent Garden, a dreadful and pointless fit at The Walled Garden in Hildenborough and a Retul fit where, although interesting and carried out by someone I respect I did feel that the end position was derived “because the computer said so”.

After asking me all about me the chaps measured my flexibility and made a note of my current bike measurements so we could always come back to these if need be.  They then filmed me on my bike to establish a starting point and I could see already that the outcome would come from an interesting blend of technology, feedback, feel, experience and science.

They assessed whether my legs were of equal length, whether my toes pointed in or out and if I had any other discrepancies or imbalances as a bike fit is largely about fitting the bike to the rider.  Fitting the rider to the bike is a much longer process with no certain outcome anyway (such as starting a flexibility program in order to be able get lower and more aerodynamic in the future).

Whilst measuring my flexibility I noticed that on a couple of occasions Mark measured my right side and Dave measured my left.  As a Personal Trainer I would have stuck with one person here as two people might have different opinions of where and when a muscle tightens (or had them both measure both sides).  They also asked me to walk up and down and then stop suddenly so they could see what angle my feet were facing (as very rarely do people stand with their feet exactly parallel).  They asked me to do this once and my left foot pointed outwards by a considerable margin.  Had it been me I think I would have done that 2 or 3 times and taken an average as a lot was derived from that standing position.  Other than those 2 very minor observations I genuinely couldn’t criticise anything that came before or afterwards.  Truly impressive attention to detail.

The rest of the session was with me on my bike and the cameras were set up to see, amongst other things, if my knees were tracking vertically, if I was rocking about and to measure my knee bend as I was actually moving (a nice touch – when you stop pedalling you always wonder if the measurements they’re taking actually reflect what happens when you’re riding).

So what changes did they make?:

Their first observation was that the left side of my saddle had softened and therefore lowered by quite a margin.  Mark and Dave did identify that my right hip rotates forward and my left backwards so I drop to the left as I pedal.  It may have been the pressure or the age of the saddle or a bit of both but anyway we put on a Specialized Romin Evo saddle.  Before doing that though you have to sit on this platform and your sit bones make an indentation in the padding.  From this indentation the guys were able to tell me what size saddle (from a choice a 4 widths I believe) would support me the best as the padding would be directly under the sit bone – clever. It doesn’t end there though; the saddle is designed to rotate the hips slightly forward so you can easily get a bit lower at the front end for racing.  Then there’s the slit down the middle.  There is a hole of over a centimetre wide running from the back to the front, down the middle, three-quarters of the way along the saddle.  This cut-out or groove takes pressure off the arteries and soft tissue for improved blood flow or comfort.  Something about not putting pressure on the perennial nerve which could otherwise lead to penile disfunction; basically sitting on a saddle a lot is supposed to stop you getting it up.  If that were always the case then Bradley Wiggins wouldn’t have kids but offered with the choice, it was a no-brainer so I wasn’t going to take any risks!  A different saddle could be higher or lower, something else that they took into account when switching it.  In this case it dropped the height by the smallest amount and, as I was already pretty high we ran with it for the moment.

From a previous bike fit I had a 1.5 mm spacer under my left cleat as we thought my left leg was shorter.  Physiotherapists will tell you that the only way to ascertain a true leg length discrepancy is via an X-ray.  The reason for this is a bone might appear shorter if the muscles around it have tightened on that side.  Whether the bone is shorter or the muscle is tighter if one foot is further away from the pedal then it’s worth noting.  What Dave did notice was that the more I sat forward (i.e. when I ride my bike) the more the legs seemed to be the same length so we tried taking the spacer out from the left cleat.  It’s possible that all the flexibility work I’d been doing was actually working too!

This would also mean that my knee wouldn’t bend (or flex) quite as much at the top of the pedal stroke.  This gave us 2 big advantages:  1) Less force through the joint and 2) My knee tends to point outwards at the top of the pedal stroke so this would reduce the amount it would point out and help my general knee alignment.

Whilst my shoes were off we decided to replace the inner-soles or footbeds.  I was measured to see whether my arches collapsed during riding and how much (how high) support I needed.  They have various sizes of inner-soles to accommodate and I was wearing the right ones from my last fit so we simply replaced like-for-like as these tend to wear out after a season and therefore don’t provide the same support any more.

The whole time I would jump back on the bike between each adjustment and we would have a look at how close my knees tracked a vertical line drawn on the screen.  The idea behind tracking a line is twofold.  Firstly injuries occur if the knee is pulled inwards and outwards during the pedal stroke.  Secondly imagine how much power and energy is lost each time the knee moves side to side instead of simply moving up and down 80-100 times a minute for hours on end.

Next they noticed that my right knee drifted inside the line a little.  I have a 1.5 degree wedge inside my shoes (under my innersoles).  Off the bike again I was asked to sit on the edge of the table (that was high enough that my feet couldn’t touch the floor) and we observed that my feet hang with the inside of the feet higher than the outside.  As I leant forward (to adopt more of a racing position) this was still the case.  They could build up the inside of the cleat (which would have tilted the whole of my right foot to the right) but instead they build up the inside of the shoe in the cleat area as they only wanted to raise the inside of the front of my right foot.  How precise is that?!

This seemed to do the trick and gradually my knees were tracking better but they did also notice that my left knee was a about twice as far from the top tube as my right knee.

I must mention at this stage that it wasn’t all about “lining me up”.  Throughout the fitting Mark and Dave were constantly asking me how I felt, gaining my feedback, to help them assess and suggest the next step.

Next we identified that my right hip tended to twist forward and my left backwards.  I do at times feel like I am reaching for the left pedal, especially as I thought my left leg was a bit shorter.  Now that I knew my legs were likely to be the same length, it was all beginning to make sense.  Dave held me and twisted my hips while I was riding, bringing my left side forwards and so that I was riding square on.  I felt like I was facing right when in fact I was straight for the first time in ages!  What’s more my knees were equidistant from the top tube!  Unfortunately it would not be possible to hold this position unless Dave rode everywhere with me, with his hands on my waist and neither Dave nor I were prepared to let that happen!!  They still thought of a potential solution though; an ever so slightly wider saddle might get in the way and stop me twisting.  We put it on and, although it didn’t stop it, it reduced it.

Following my last Specialized bike fit I put a 2mm washer on the left pedal axle, meaning that the left pedal was 2mm further away from the bottom bracket.   One of the possible reasons for my knee pain is maltracking of the patella i.e. when I cycle the kneecap is pulled laterally (or towards the outside).  This could be caused by a tight ITB or iliotibial band, the connective tissue that runs from the hip bone down the outside of the thigh to the shin bone.  Anyone who has lied on a tight ITB on a foam roller will tell you that you don’t forget that sensation for a very long time!  The wider your feet are apart, the less the ITB is being pulled, hence my decision to try the washer.  The chaps went with my logic and this time gave in to my request to put a washer on the right pedal axle too increasing the space between my feet by a further 2mm.  Why 2mm?  Well, I use Look Keo pedals and it is the maximum amount that experts believe you can shorten the pedal spindle by without the risk of it shearing off (ouch!).  You could always buy longer axles, axle extenders or consider Speedplay pedals as they sell different axle lengths if you wanted to try a wider stance still.  This is something I might consider in the future if I need further investigations but for now the guys didn’t feel it was necessary at this stage.

As you can see, a great deal of the bike fit centres around the shoe/pedal/cleat interface, no surprise really as this is where we are joined to our bikes.

Some adjustments still needed to be made to the saddle however.  To determine how far forward or backwards the saddle should sit (known as the fore/aft position) the most common method is to have the rider stop pedalling with one foot in the 3 o’clock position.  The fitter then drops a plum line from behind the kneecap and sets up the saddle so that this line runs down through the middle of the pedal axle.  This is exactly what was done and due to my ‘twisted hips’ this put my right knee over the front of the axle and my left knee behind it!  This could be solved by a ‘cheat’ of moving the cleats but ideally the cleats would put the ball of your foot over the pedal axle and we didn’t really want to tamper with that.  We just accepted therefore that we had found a happy medium.

It was at this point that I tried to get an answer to a question I have wondered about for many years:  If Chris Hoy has his saddle forward for a 200m sprint and so does Bradley Wiggins for a 1 hour time trial and they both sit right on the nose for their events, why is my saddle being set up (comparatively) much further back?  After all, my races last an hour or more and I have to put in loads of efforts short (around 200m) efforts during my races.  Well their answer was that I was being set up in a position that is suitable for all types of riding; I assume they mean a “neutral” mix of comfort, speed and aerodynamics.  I can sit on the nose of the saddle when the hammer goes down and sit at the back when I ride a long climb.  Mark then told me that he was talking to Mark Cavendish earlier that week and that Cav isn’t so bothered about comfort, he just wants his bike set up to be fast i.e. the saddle is forward and the handlebars are low.  In fact I read a quote from a member of Team Sky’s support team that said “we pay our riders too much money to be comfortable!!”.  Specialized are happy to put a customer in a more aggressive position.  I for one will be looking to tweak this when we reach the racing season (and my miles go down and my speed goes up).  He did also mention that on mountain stages or races (when he isn’t in contention) Cav will ride with his handlebars higher, showing that even the pros do choose comfort when they can.

We didn’t touch my handlebars by the way, we all felt that the reach and height was spot on.  Looking at the live screen I certainly didn’t think I looked too cramped or too stretched.  Had time permitted it may have been worth having a look at a slightly lower front end to see if I was flexible enough to warrant it but inconveniently we weren’t in a wind tunnel, didn’t have a power meter and they were experts so their opinion counted for a lot anyway!

Time to wrap things up; 3 hours and 20 minutes after I arrived, so I packed up my kit, eager to try out these changes on the road, the only real way to test my new set up.

My Feedback

Saturday 8th December 2012 (the following day):

2 hours 50 mins steady ride, Kent.  Quite windy, one major (seated) climb.  Both hamstrings felt unusually tight but I put this down to adjusting to my new position.  Saddle was comfortable and I enjoyed the firmness.  Once my hamstrings settled down I felt really strong and for the first ride in 4 months my left knee didn’t hurt AT ALL!  My right knee was still a lot closer to the top tube than the left however.

The next day my calves were really tight and I still feel like I’d like to be wider in my stance but I won’t be making any changes for at least a few more rides and then only after liaising with Mark.  What’s more my knee only ached ever so slightly.

Wednesday 12th December:

3 hours steady.  Although my knee didn’t hurt for the first hour as we headed further into Kent it dropped to minus 1.5 degrees which couldn’t have helped and by the end of the ride I scored my pain at 5 out of 10.  I did press on in the saddle (I just feel so much stronger in the saddle now, I think the stiffer saddle gives me more power).  Even though I’m still on the wider saddle I still feel like I’m dropping away to the left.  My hamstrings and calves don’t feel so tight, as if I’m getting used to the new position.

Sunday 15th December:

2.5 hours: 1 hour easy, 1.5 hours hard.  Heatwave today; 9 degrees!  I tried to set my hips up straight whist riding i.e. I twisted my hips so they felt like they were facing to the right.  Subsequently I noticed a few things:

– I was able to do this easier than I thought!

– I wasn’t dropping off the saddle to the left

– My knees we equidistant to the top tube

– I was very strong in the saddle

– My knee hardly hurt at all (normally after pressing on over the hills in the saddle it hurts more)

– My hamstrings did get tight again.

So, where do we go from here?  I’m not sure if 3 rides (one of which caused me pain) give me enough info to decide whether I need a knee op but I’ll tell you what, I am:

–          In either less or the same pain on each ride

–          Feeling more powerful and aligned than ever before

–          Enjoying the new saddle (especially the potential long-term benefits!)

–          Above all, EXCEPTIONALLY GRATEFUL to Mark Murphy and Dave Alexander at Specialized.  I can’t promise they’ll start fitting the general public in future but I’d thoroughly recommend their bike fitting process and seeing as they train the Fitters to their same exceptionally high standard, well what are you waiting for?  Click here to book yourself a bike fit:





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