You’ve dropped a few grand for your bike and another grand to upgrade the wheels and maybe a few hundred more for a “professional” fit so your bike is fast, right? Maybe and maybe not. How the bike fits the rider is more important than the weight, the frame materials or the cost of the components in determining how fast it will carry you through a Fondo or training ride. There are three essential things when optimizing position on a road bike: It has to be comfortable for five hours plus, it has to let you use your muscles in an efficient range of motion so you can make plenty of power, and it has to let you achieve good aerodynamics without compromising the other comfort or power. The “fitting” done in a few minutes at the shop when you buy a bike is unlikely to optimize these factors. Even some expensive but formula or computer driven professional fits do a poor job of balancing them. Dialing in a bike fit for years of fast, injury-free riding takes a high level of body awareness on the part of the rider, or a very good eye on the part of the fitter, no matter what fitting tools are used.
To be fast, you need to be able to ride a low, aerodynamic position with good comfort and power for hours at a time. Interestingly, aerodynamics, power and comfort on long rides go together. If a position makes your leg muscles sore, those muscles won’t be producing power very effectively once the soreness kicks in. If riding low in the drops with elbows bent makes your back tight or puts pressure on the nose of the saddle, you won’t be riding in that low, aerodynamic position for long.
If your bike fit is good, you will feel that you are draped across your bike. Muscles are relaxed except the ones that push the pedals. You can breath deeply and pedal smoothly, engaging muscles to drive the pedals around in all parts of the pedal stroke. Nothing should hurt on a long ride. In particular, if the bike fit is good:
- Hands never get sore or numb even without thickly padded bar tape or gloves
- Neck and shoulders don’t get sore or tight
- Genitals are not painful or numb
- You have no knee pain if don’t mash big gears and do keep knees warm
- Feet don’t have hot spots or go numb on long rides
- There is no pain below or between the shoulder blades
- No one muscle gets tired or cramps long before others
- Low back doesn’t tighten up and there is no feeling of “pull” in the armpits
- You can ride the drops all day you don’t need to keep repositioning yourself on the saddle.
If you have any of these problems, your bike fit is off. Notice that “sore butt” was not on the list. A bad bike fit can cause a sore butt, but so can riding too slowly on a long ride. There are several causes of each of the listed problems. I’ll explain some of the most common ones in case you want to attempt your own adjustments. If you continue to have trouble, engage a bike fitter with several years of experience and who comes recommended by fellow riders.
- Hands get sore or numb if there is too much weight on them. This can often be corrected by moving the saddle back or tilting the nose up. If the fit is good, you can switch from drops to tops and back, both hands together. If you can’t get the saddle far enough back, you may need a different seat post.
- Tight neck or tops of shoulders usually mean that the bars are too low, but occasionally that the stem is too short. Raise the stem until you can see down the road while riding the drops with no neck tension.
- Pain or numbness in the genital region usually relates to saddle tilt. Contrary to what you might think, the problem is often the saddle nose being too low, so the pelvis rolls forward until there is pressure on the nose of the saddle. If you are suffering from pressure on the nose of the saddle, try tilting it up a degree or two first. If that makes things better, keep going in small increments until comfort is optimized. If it makes things worse, go the other way, lowering the nose a degree or two until comfort is optimized. Many people can’t get comfortable on deeply scooped saddles. If there seems to be no saddle tilt that relieves saddle nose pressure, consider replacing the saddle with one that is flatter and possibly wider.
- Most often, pain on the front of the knee means the saddle is too low. Pain on the back of the knee means the saddle is too high. Pain to one side of the knee or the other indicates a need for a cleat adjustment or some wedging or arch support. Sitting off to one side of the saddle often also means the seat is too high. If you adjust saddle height, do it in increments of perhaps 2-3 mm at a time. The ideal position is the highest position that allows smooth, powerful pedaling through the bottom of the stroke. That will happen at different percentages of inseam length and different knee, hip and ankle angles depending on rider geometry, flexibility and strength in different muscles.
- Hot spots or numb areas on feet may mean that shoes don’t fit, but equally often can be corrected by moving the cleats back so the feet can relax while pedaling.
- Pain below or between shoulder blades often means the bars are too wide.
- Tight low back or pull in the armpits means the bars are too far from the saddle. A shorter or higher stem will help.
A mid-priced bike with the fit dialed in will be faster and more comfortable than a more expensive but poorly adjusted bike. If you’ve got a bike that ought to be fast and a body that ought to be fast but you aren’t going fast, taking the time to optimize the fit of the bike to the rider may well be the missing piece.
(This article originally appeared at GranFondo.com)