Saturday, August 09, 2014

Miracle of a Proper Bike Fit

What's the best $100 I ever spent? The $100 I paid to have a professional bike fitting. No other investment has made such a positive impact on my ability to ride, without aches, for hours on end. A year and 1000+ miles later I can confirm the benefits.

Life Magazine

Here's what led me to get a fitting in the first place: I'd been riding the same Kona Dew Deluxe hybrid for 5 years. On paper, the bike was the right size, a 56cm frame for my 5' 10" build, and a seating position that allowed me to sit upright enough to easily see the flow of NYC traffic, but not so upright that the bike was sluggish.

Yet I'd always had difficulty maintaining speed as I rode, and I couldn't crank with gusto for long. On rides greater than 10 miles I'd become generally uncomfortable, to the point where I figured I’d grown old or was perpetually out of shape.  My dream had been to ride the New York Century.  I doubted, however, that I'd make 30 miles, let alone 100.  And, strangest of all, I’d run through half a dozen saddles but could never find a seat that fit. The lower edges of my butt would tighten during a ride. The discomfort would persist well after I'd dismounted. 

On a trip to a local bike shop, Bicycle Habitat in Park Slope, Brooklyn, I discussed my saddle woes and riding discontent.  The idea of a fitting was floated and, although I was skeptical, I agreed to make an appointment and the aforementioned $100 commitment. If I didn’t at least try to get the bike to work for me, I’d likely end up selling it.

Two weeks later I met with Emily, a Bicycle Habitat manager, at the shop for the fitting.  By that time I’d reached the end of my patience with the bike, and walked in with a “do with my bike what you will” attitude, which is an unusual state of mind given that I'm normally finicky about bike setup.  Letting someone else mess with my bike required a leap of faith. Or of last ditch desperation.

Emily began by removing the Deluxe’s handlebar stem and bolting on an infinitely adjustable fitting stem in its place.  As she did this, I sat to the side on a cushioned pad that measured the width of my hind quarters.  The result of that test was that my tail was normal, and not somehow predisposed to cycling pain.

Emily removed the front wheel, mounted the bike into a trainer and had me start pedaling. Over the next half hour we worked through a variety of combinations of seat positioning and handlebar height and reach. She pulled out a string with a weight tied to the end and used it to check the alignment of knee over pedal at the front of the pedal stroke, thereby setting my fore/aft placement. 

The big surprise: I’d been sitting too far back on the bike, a position that not only sapped power but also put my knees at risk. My knees, by the way, had previously gone under the knife for patellar cartilage wear, the result of long-ago years of BMX racing on bikes with ridiculously long cranks.  On BMX bikes I’d always gotten way over the back of the bike to kick ass.  As it turned out, that strategy doesn’t translate to full sized adult bikes, where the knee-to-pedal relationship is to be respected.  

1983 GT Pro, prior to cleanup
Emily ultimately switched out the stock Kona seatpost, which had a rearward offset, for a totally straight post. She installed a 100mm long stem to replace the original 90mm component.  Essentially, she shifted my whole body maybe 2/3 inch forward on the bike.  I was now properly oriented over the pedals, and rode slightly more bent forward than before.

Cosmetically the changes were unnoticeable. But I felt as though I were riding a completely different bike with a more athletic character. The Kona now felt much more like a road bike, with sharper handling and immediate power to the back wheel.  Whereas two laps had been the most I'd cared to ride around Brooklyn's 3.5 mile Prospect Park loop before the fitting, soon after the fitting I'd worked up to four laps without any pain in my legs or back.  Even better, I got an immediate ~1 mile per hour speed boost without added effort, and my creaky knees felt great.  And I crushed hills. 

Post transformation: Early morning somewhere in the Berkshires, August 2013
Why does the morning dew turn the Dew's black forks gray?

In September I entered my first New York Century.  I signed up for the 35 mile route, a little worried that I’d be able to make the distance. On the day of the ride I decided to go for it and took the 55 mile option. A missed turn and I found myself on the 75 mile circuit.  I finished the ride with no pain or discomfort. The next morning I got out of bed as if nothing had happened.

Adding to this new found riding joy, I turned my once bummer bike into a fabulous ride with a $100 cash outlay, plus another $50 in new stem and seatpost, so much cheaper than a new bike.