Apart from the materials they’re made of—carbon-fiber, titanium, aluminum, steel, synthetic rubber, vinyl, Teflon—today’s bicycles are strangely unchanged from those of a century ago.
If you doubt it, consider the picture of the 1899 Quad Stay Eagle on this page: Didn’t someone pass you on that thing last weekend at Carrier Park?
The human body, too, is more or less the same as it was back when women wore petticoats and men sported mustache wax. We may be taller and heavier, on average, than our Edwardian counterparts, but human beings haven’t added any new joints or appendages over the last century.
What has changed is our depth of knowledge about how the human body works—and how it interacts with mechanical objects. This discipline, called ergonomics, now colors many aspects of our lives, from the setup of our work stations to the design of the drink holders in our cars.
Until a couple of decades ago, though, precious little thought was given to bicycle fit. In most cases, riders were advised to leave an inch or two of clearance between their bike’s top tube and their own tender bits. And while this was good advice in terms of personal safety, it didn’t address the hundreds of other variables that arise when a “typical” rider—100 or more pounds of bone, brains and soft tissue—climbs aboard and begins pedaling.
As cyclists, “We’re performing hundreds of thousands of repetitions of a specific movement over a long period of time,” says Asheville physical therapist Thomas Minton, a USA Cycling-trained bike-fit specialist. “From a health standpoint, that can lead to some pretty pronounced injuries.”
Across the miles, even the faintest twinge can become a chronic source of pain. But in some cases, says Minton, simply adjusting the way a bike fits the body can heal an injury in short order. Beyond comfort and long-term health, a proper bike fit can also increase a rider’s power output by better aligning the muscles and connective tissue.
The human organism is a complex entity, and the static nature of cycling can put it into a number of unnatural contortions. Expecting your body to adapt to a bike—an all-too-common approach—is asking too much of it, Minton maintains. “I look at the human body and I try to adjust the bike to it, rather than the other way around,” he says, speaking from both his years of practicing physical therapy and his personal experience as a competitive cyclist.
Working upward from the pedals, Minton adjusts a rider’s cleat position—forward and backward, as well as its rotational aspect. Then he considers the way the rider’s knee falls in relation to the pedal. Saddle adjustments come next, including how far forward or backward the saddle is, as well as its angle and height.
“You can change the amount of power that someone is capable of just by changing the saddle position,” Minton reveals. A common complaint of cyclists, iliotibial band syndrome—an inflammation of a band of tissue that runs from the hip to the knee—is almost always due to incorrect saddle position, he says.
Once a proper seat position has been established, Minton moves into the bike’s “cockpit,” adjusting the handlebars, stem length and stem rise, as well as grips and brake levers, if required. Handlebar adjustments, along with the forward/backward saddle positioning, go a long way toward establishing how “aggressive” a rider’s posture is—a key determination that depends on what style of riding a person plans on doing.
Minton’s tool kit runs from the high-tech to the stubbornly low-tech. The former category includes a laser level (used to check frame alignment) and a goneometer (a plastic grid that measures the bend of a rider’s knee). More rudimentary are Allen wrenches (for adjusting the bike) and a plumb bob (to gauge a rider’s knee-to-pedal alignment). During Minton’s fitting sessions, the bike is placed on a training stand, the rider climbs aboard, and the process begins.
Along the way, Minton makes suggestions about posture, encouraging cyclists to find a sort of “home” position where the back falls comfortably somewhere between rigid and slumped. As the session progresses, riders move forward and back on the saddle and try out a variety of hand positions.
“The thing I really feel strongly about is that there’s no such thing as one ‘position’ on a bike,” says Minton. “It’s a dynamic thing. There’s a range of movements and positions that we go for. So I try to get someone into a fit where they can move comfortably through the range of motions—from the nose of the saddle to the back of the saddle—keeping a good position with the trunk, as well as the full range of handlebar positions.”
Minton says a rider’s comfort is his first concern. Then comes power. Third on his checklist is aerodynamics. “If someone’s not comfortable, then they can’t perform well over longer distances,” he explains. “And if they lose power, it doesn’t really matter how aerodynamic they are, because they’re wasting energy just keeping things moving along.”
If you’re anything like this writer, chances are that neither your bike nor your body is perfect. But with some careful attention—and some qualified help—they can work together beautifully.