April 27, 2010

Getting Fit

I hesitated to even write this, and perhaps its another case of the dude thinkin' too much - but, I want to be abundantly clear about this before going any further. Many blog posts and reviews can come under easy fire and criticism if there are affiliations between the product/service and the reviewer. You'll see a lot of reviews that start with "I don't work for..." , "no-one paid me to say this", etc. So, before you read this, know that I *do* work part-time for BikeSource, and am therefore sorta affiliated with Specialized, and the Specialized BG Fit that I received yesterday. I was not paid to get the fit, and was not paid during the fit, and it wasn't mandatory for employees. I signed up voluntarily, just to see what the big deal was, really, and kinda selfishly to try and get personal confirmation that I had set myself up the right way all along.

Next, here's some reasons why the above is probably completely irrelevant with regards to what you're about to read below, and why I feel this still qualifies as an un-biased review of a service. I do not perform fits, and am not fit-trained. I work as a mechanic, part-time, at BikeSource, and am generally not in a position to sell or discuss bike fits. I can SIZE you to a bike, which means I can generally recommend a frame size and seatpost height based on loose measurements and random assumptions. Sizing and fitting are NOT the same thing. There are many shops in the KC Metro that provide fits. There are many sports medicine organizations that provide physical assessments to prevent or solve issues that could lead to injury. There are many Specialized BG-Fit certified shops in the country. BG-Fit is a indeed a brand, and it is specifically available in Specialized-affiliated shops, but the physical theories that are contained there-in are based on physiology and actual science, not on Specialized product or Specialized-branded or proprietary methods. My opinions and experiences outlined below are not intended to drive business to BikeSource or any other shop, recommend any specific fit method or thinking, but instead are intended simply to outline my personal experience, and highlight how the thinking with regards to bike fit has dramatically changed in a short period of time, and what is now readily available for utilization by the "average" cyclist.

Ok. I'm a knuckle-dragger. I'm a cave-man. I'm a hard-liner. My cleat position on my shoes and sandals has not changed since I "got it right" back in 2001. My seat height was derived by jamming an 18 inch long hunk of 2x4 stud into my - uh - region, while standing back-flat against a wall, balancing a magic marker and marking the wall behind me, then measuring and multiplying by the mean distance between the moon and the earth. My knee position was derived by fiddling with my saddle angle and fore-aft position a millimeter at a time until I could tolerate the pain for 200 miles. I run tan sidewall tires. I run fenders. I run bar-end shifters. I'm not a racer, I don't follow Euro trends with regards to fit and position, and my handlebars are level with my saddle. After four years of tinkering with my position on the bike, the saddle height, the brake hood location, and everything else that can be adjusted, well... you might as well weld those parts in place.

As an ultra-distance rider, an endurance nut, a randonneur, it must be said that there is a certain amount of pain and discomfort that simply comes with the activity. In even the shortest randonneuring distance, on your fastest day, you're in the saddle for seven hours, minimum. At the 600 kilometer level, you're in the seat for the better part of 30 hours, or more. Fatigue, saddle sores, pain, .... lingering pain. It's something that time and distance has taught riders like me to simply put out of my head. Rise above. The bike is fine, and nothing will change the fact that you're going to be sore after 200 miles. Period. Don't. Change. Anything.

So, how can someone like me even benefit from purposefully taking myself and my bike to someone that will scan and probe and look for excuses to change things like saddle height? WHAT??? Not only "no", but .. well, you know. Don't. Change. Anything. We use paint marks. We take perfectly pristine seatposts and etch tiny markings on the back of them with jeweler's tools, and then we examine and critique the position of those marks after every pot-hole and pavement joint to make sure our saddle height didn't change. I'm the worst possible example of this. I can see a millimeter of "off-center" from 30 paces. And it BUGS me.

GETTING to that point is what is important here. I have said it before about riding in general, and especially long-distance riding: fit IS everything. It's the difference between being appropriately sore after a 300K, and not being able to walk after a 300K, or when you're older. So, in my case, once it's "right" I am extremely hesitant to change anything, even under the guise of improvement.

The first part of the bike fit didn't even involve the bike. Looking for things like range of motion, flexibility, leg-length discrepancies, the way my feet naturally hang, and taking all of that information in. Questions are asked, and answered. Does this hurt? Does that? How much? Nothing is mystified. Every question is qualified, explained. Things are demonstrated. Measurements are taken. Nothing witch-doctory. This bone is here, this tuberosity is here, this metatarsal is here.

Then, the bike is locked into a REALLY expensive Compu-Trainer, leveled, and everything is measured AS-IS, before any riding or changing begins. So, if captain-hardliner-nut-job (read: ME) wants to put everything back exactly where it was, he can.
The position of key points on the body are marked, and I mount up to ride a portion of a basic road course to warm up and loosen up - so I am accurately represented on the bike. It helped that I rode to the shop, and was basically able to drop right back into my riding posture after a few minutes. As I was riding along, cameras positioned around the fit area were taking video of my ride. This is high-tech stuff, seriously, all the data being jammed into a computer while I pedaled along. Watts. Power distribution between each leg. Angles. Etc., etc., etc.
That's the "before" ride. I dismount, we check a LOT of data from the ride. Lines are drawn, angles taken, comparisons made, patterns emerge, and my memory is jogged. "OH YEAH... that's why my cleats were there..." remembering my first road shoes, and the struggles I'd had back in '99.

Then, the changes. If this is doing that, and you are feeling this, then maybe we change that, and try again?

Hesitation... "okay, we can always go back..."

Three solid, dedicated, patient hours are spent. It's you and the fit technician. Talking. Discussing. Observing yourself riding the bike, under load, freeze-framing, showing before and after, back and forth - like at the eye doctor... one... or two? one... or two? How about three? THOROUGH.

I've been through "fits" before, mind you. Just in the last two years, however, this level of technology, integration, putting physiology in place of those old "wives tales" like, the bars should be "xx" below the saddle, your knee should be here, saddle here, hoods here, you shouldn't be able to see the front axle when you look down, your heel should brush the pedal here - but just barely: good starting places, all good theories that saw a lot of champions ride to glory, lots of riders Race Across America, lots of MS-150 rides with no pain afterwards, a lot of bike-trail weekends pain-free and happy, yes, true. But, taking the video, marking the knees, the ankles, seeing it happen in real-time, under load, being able to juxtapose the images and analysis; this is stuff that (hate to even mention - trite-alert) Lance was using in a sports lab back in 2000. Doctors pioneered this stuff, long-time riders, racers, coaches, all realizing that the same theories and practices that squeeze every last watt and %efficiency out of an elite athlete at the top of his sport can ALSO benefit someone that just wants to ride XX miles with his or her friends and not be hitting the Advil for three days afterwards. The club rider that just wants to climb better, the tri-gal that wants to time-trial better, the mountain bike rider that is sick and tired of his sore shoulders, even the bike trail rider that just doesn't want to hurt... and who doesn't deserve to enjoy a sport that is meant to be enjoyed, at whatever level? This is trickle-down technology in a terrific form.

After the recommendations are carefully thought out, things begin to happen:
For me, let's go back a couple years again. I didn't really have many "complaints" in 2003. I refer to that as my "title year", culminating at the Mississippi Valley 24-Hour race. My speed and performance - while not race-winning - were darn good for me, and have been hard to replicate since. I was "comfortable" enough, and had roadside hand-ups and support, and my foot didn't unclip from the pedals until mile 166. I remember the ride, I don't remember pain. Over time, I retired that particular bike, and stumbled around with translating measurements myself from that bike to its replacement, and then to another replacement, and another, and another, and another, and finally to the bike that I primarily ride today. Over time, the only thing that has remained the same has been my saddle and my pedals. Frame geometries, handlebars, brake hood brands, where the shifters are, and even HOW I measure things has changed. So, whether I realized it or not (more likely not), my own personal fit was changing each time, very slightly. My body adapted, and whatever pain resulted from those minute changes was absorbed again. Mileage went up, pain went up - naturally. Mentally, as I matured as a rider, my tolerances for those pains increased all while I kept looking for tweaks, and getting new frames. If anything was really changing, I wasn't noticing.

Cut to two years ago, on the newly built-up Trek 450 "Warbird", I roll into BikeSource for the "old" fit method, pre-technology. I entered in with the same hesitation that I brought in yesterday. "We're not going to need to change anything... I transfered my fit from my 2003 bike..." I went away having discovered that my seat was too high, and my bars too far away. Rotated up the bars, adjusted the saddle, and I raised my eyebrows a little. Am I getting older? (No... you'd managed to dork up your own "fit" by switching bikes six times.) I continued that trend by riding the Trek home, and immediately "transferring" that new fit to the Kogswell. Was it exact? Probably not. This is largely impossible in practice because of the differences in the frames, some of the angles, etc., I'd come to find - but it DID get me closer to where I should have been, and that is the fit that stayed locked into the Kogswell, and got me things like my first 600K finish, and my first R-12 finish, without any significant pains. That's the fit that I rolled into the shop yesterday.

Though I was closer to where my body wanted to be, there were still small opportunities. While my body was adapting, and I didn't really have any nagging pains that I THOUGHT were connected to the bike, it was remarkable how the tiny alterations made larger changes to how my body looked on the bike in the videos. Where my knee was over the pedal, where my cleats were in relation to my foot, how telling my shoe's foot-bed was - examining the big toe, heel and arch markings pressed and rubbed into the foot-bed of the shoe was like a scene from CSI, and I was able to see clear images that explained why my big toes' nails hurt so much after long rides, for example. Pain that I'd learned to block out. I did my best the entire time to be my own best control. At the initial interview, I'd gone right down the checklist: does this hurt? No. Does that? No. At the time, I really didn't have any complaints... but as the data came out, and evidence was brushed off, things like my toenails, my shoulders, how I land on the saddle after I've been climbing OUT of the saddle, came to light in my head. Why, in the last two hours of a 200K do I keep having to slide backwards on the seat every few miles? As the process continued, I found myself changing a lot of my initial answers to the "does this hurt?" questions from "no", to "well, it could be better..." I wasn't prompted in that direction, to be clear - but the dialog in my head that played out as I watched the videos and listened to the measurements, things popped into my head like "man, I'm pretty stretched out...", and eventually I'd admit that, yes, such and such does tend to feel weird after XX miles.

One result, basically, the saddle simply wasn't where it should have been. Height? Perfect. I was happy with myself there. Angle? No problem. Fore/Aft? uhhhh.....not supposed to mess with that, right? Well, right... knees can be placed at risk. But, looking at the total picture, my knees were not exactly where they should have been in relationship to the pedal axles, either. Looking to my feet - and I was surprised how much attention was paid to my shoes and feet in this process - my cleats were also not where they should have been. I'd been spending years basically pedaling with my toes. Small movements, but with each tweak and subsequent session back on the trainer, back on the video feed, the small changes began to reveal changes in other areas, in a positive fashion. All the while, concerns about moving the saddle forward and somehow tossing the knees out of whack were alleviated instantly by confirmation of proper angles and alignments because of the movement of the cleats. My shoulders relaxed in the video. My knees lined up better than before - very slight, but there. My elbows looked more neutral, relaxed. The dizzying amount of angles, data, axes of motion captured could satisfy the most analytical theorist, and the data can be used to tailor whatever you like: more power, more comfort, and of course a balance of both. Generally, however, the goal isn't "low and aero" like some of the old thinking used to dictate... it's remarkable that really, there is only one goal in the "fit", and that's to get the best possible position so you CAN have both power AND comfort. Heck, look at any pro-peloton race this spring, and then watch a video from the 80's. The thinking HAS changed. Sure, you won't be positioned as low as a feather-weight pro-racer -- you don't have his flexibility -- but you can see over a span of 20 years of pro racers, the positions have changed. No-one used to pay that close of attention. Fatigue as a multiplier, one really does lend itself to the other... the body simply won't produce power if it's not lined up right, and that means comfort, almost automatically. The science works, and its been echoed in far more places than this shop or this method, in recent years.

But, the technology makes a huge difference. The video capture is brilliant, repeatable, overlay-able, measurable -- compared to me, on a trainer in my garage dangling some excuse for a plumb-line from my own knee and trying to figure out things on my own, or back to standing barefoot against that wall in the garage with the 2x4 jammed up into myself and a calculator. Trying to be objective enough on the bike to determine whether or not my own hips are rocking. Again, I don't do "fits". I can tell if a bike is the right size for me, or someone else, but I was only barely in the neighborhood of understanding.

So, clearly, this will require a follow-up post in a few months. On the ride home last night, things DID feel better. Some of my initial complaints seemed to dissolve. When I stood up to climb, and then naturally dropped back down, the saddle was there to meet me and I didn't have to readjust. Last night, my legs were a little sore, maybe more fatigued than normal - expected: the changes, while small, are still changes. I'll need to give it the rest of the week in commutes at least before I "forget" and let my body tell the tale, let things settle in. In a few more weeks, the 600K looms... but perhaps that's too lofty, even after minor changes. There is a 200K that same day, and that might be more appropriate. Only then, after 8+ hours, will I know for sure if there is any net gain - be it in speed, fatigue, or perception of pain. If I was able to simply take the pain and discard it on last month's 300K, then certainly, physically and physiologically, the improvements (and I have no doubt that improvements were made yesterday) should net less pain to discard, which might equate to stronger finishes.

So, for now - I'm impressed. As part of the review, I have to ask myself - would I recommend this to others? Well, I can't direct you to a specific location, but I would indeed recommend this kind of approach to fit. It's not a new statement for me - when it comes to performance, endurance, being pain-free, FIT is everything. What I've been able to do for myself over the years has afforded me a lot of long-distance finishes, and day-after-day commutes without injury. Can you do it for yourself, in your garage, using existing methods and the traditional thinking? Absolutely. Is it worth it to save a few years (in my case) of tinkering to get real data, real images, measurements done two different ways, and the level of expertise that comes from someone that spent a good amount of time and money getting trained by professionals? I am convinced, yes. If I had the opportunity to do it over again, had this level of technology been available in a retail bike store back when I was doing my own rotation of "tweak-ride-hurt-tweak-ride-hurt less-tweak-ride-repeat", I would have done it and saved myself a lot of trouble, pain, and would have just enjoyed riding from the get-go. Instead of my flawed measurements and half-handed attempts to move those measurements from bike to bike, I would have opted to enjoy one of the end results of yesterday's process, which is a data-sheet with repeatable measurements, before and after, that can then be transfered to other bikes in your stable, or that new bike you've been eyeing.

So, should you get a professional bike fit? If you've got some issues, pains on your existing bike - absolutely. And, yes, even in my case where I went in without a single complaint and a fair amount of skepticism, ANYTHING can be improved. I was never forced, falsely encouraged, there was no product placement involved, nor was I cornered into changing something just for the sake of changing something. I was informed, reassured it was reversible, and given unbiased, clear data and images of my own body in motion, not compared to any control or example, and allowed to make an intelligent choice. If you love riding, regardless of distance, yes: I'd recommend getting a real, true fit. It doesn't matter where: but ask the questions, call them, ask what you get for your dollar and time, ask where and how they were trained, how do they think about the process, what's their goal for you? Then decide.

I'll report back after the next long ride, and then I'll know more.

Keep riding, and thanks for reading!

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