Becoming A Better Cyclist — Part 1: Proper Bike Fit

MTBBW1We all want to be better cyclists.  We want to be the first to the top of the hill.  We want to out-sprint our buddies to the city limits sign.  We want to look smooth and effortless cruising at 25 mph at the front of the pack.  But, how do we achieve the distinction of being good cyclists?

There are countless pundits who claim to have the ‘secret formula’ for transforming you into a super cyclist.  Former professional bicycle racers, coaches, self-proclaimed cycling gurus, hypnotherapists, exercise physiologists — they all have their own recipes for endowing regular folks with cycling superpowers.

The resurgent popularity of the sport in the post-Lance Armstrong cycling world has spawned an entire industry of personal coaching that relies on science and technology to help people achieve athletic success.  This industry uses advanced algorithms, electronic monitoring systems, and performance-based metrics to provide an individualized training plan for every paying customer.  Is this a bad thing?  No, not really.  Does this approach work for everyone?  No, it doesn’t.

There are common ingredients (periodization, nutrition, and motivation) in every training approach.  But, these features rely on a set of basic elements that create the foundation upon which all cycling performance is built.  To use a recipe analogy, the training plan is merely the frosting on the cycling cake.  Without the cake — or the basic foundational elements of cycling — all you have is a big blob of frosting.  Yuck.

Before a cyclist can begin to build his or her on-the-bike fitness by following a training plan, there are three essential ingredients — or foundational elements — needed to help ensure that athletic progress is possible, achievable, and sustainable.  These ingredients are proper bike fit, efficient pedaling technique, and the will to achieve.

Proper Bike Fit

Proper bike fit is the one foundational element that dictates how much athletic progress can be made by a cyclist.  A cyclist who is not comfortable and well-placed on his or her bike will expend vast amounts of energy in wasted and counterproductive movement.  No matter how fit the cyclist is, riding with an improper position will cripple the cyclist’s ability to make efficient use of their energy in pedaling, steering, and braking.  In the short-term, improper bike fit will rob a cyclist of the enjoyment he or she receives from riding a bike as they struggle to complete even the shortest of rides.  Over time, the cyclist that is not properly fit on his or her bike will risk serious injury while experiencing a variety of repetitive stress injuries like lower back problems, neck and shoulder soreness, hip and knee pain, and tendinitis (just to name a few).

There is no common formula for proper bike fit.  Consider that no two human bodies are alike.  Arm length, leg length, overall body flexibility, hip width, and foot pronation are just a few of the factors that contribute to bike fit.  Riding a bike transcends physiology and enters the realm of biomechanics.  At its core, proper bike fit is about biomechanics — how our bodies’ motions and processes adapt to performing in a relatively fixed position.

Before services like the “Fit Kit” became available, bike fit was done over the course of weeks and months.  Starting with a new bike, the cyclist would use rudimentary measurements taken from the old bike and adjust the saddle height and fore/aft position, and raise or lower the stem.  After a few rides, the stem would be replaced with a longer or shorter version and other small adjustments would be made.  When clipless pedals became available, cleats would be adjusted from ride to ride until knees and/or feet no longer hurt.  Only a select few bike shop owners, bike team managers, and bicycle mechanics had the experience required to properly fit a cyclist a new bike.

Today, any bike shop with a “Fit Kit” system will be able provide a cyclist with proper bike fit for around $200.  This recent technological development has its roots in the study of human motion: biomechanics.  Using body measurements, ratios and percentages, and simple formulas, modern bike fitting systems take a process that used to occur over weeks and months and reduce it down to one hour.

There are several easy-to-identify indicators of proper bike fit.  While these facets may differ slightly from cyclist to cyclist given a wide range of variables mentioned earlier, following are indicators of proper bike fit:

Slightly bent arms — The arms should be slightly bent when the hands are on the handlebar top and the brake hoods.  Straight arms with locked elbows transmit road shock directly to the upper body, cause the shoulders to rise and tense, and inhibit the natural fore/aft movement of the body on the saddle.

No upper body movement — The upper body should remain mostly still with only very slight movement when pedaling.  Upper body movement contributes to instability on the bike and is an indicator of improper seat height.

No lateral knee movement — When pedaling, the knee should remain in-line or planar with the ankle.  As the muscles in the legs generate and transmit force most effectively along almost straight lines, any lateral knee movement disrupts the plane along which the force generated in the lower back and thighs is transmitted through the calves and into the feet.

Flat feet — The heel should be almost parallel to the ground when the cyclist is seated and the foot is at the bottom of the pedal stroke.  Any significant rise in the heel at the bottom of the pedal stroke indicates that the leg is not extending to its proper (or biomechanically efficient) length.

As mentioned earlier, it is important to note that these are general guidelines.  Since our bodies are fraught with imperfections (different sized feet, leg length discrepancies, joints with limited range of motion, etc.) it is to be expected that what is described here will be a rare occurrence — a cyclist that rides with slightly bent elbows, no upper body movement no lateral knee movement, and flat feet.  These are merely guidelines that are to help cyclists identify proper bike fit.

In Part 2 of “Becoming A Better Cyclist” we will discuss the next foundational element: efficient pedaling technique.

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