Festka bicycles are made from the combination of the best carbon and graphite industrial fibers used in the spacecraft industry, handcrafted with tube-to-tube connections, Ti drop-outs, and modern finishing materials. Festka produces state of the art bicycles in 24 different sizes as well as custom geometries and sizes.
BikeFit Podcast listeners receive custom geometry, a $340 value, for free! Just contact Festka via their website and be sure to mention the BikeFit Podcast!
BikeFit Training provides the tools to become a competent bike fitter or take fitting to the next level. See our upcoming training dates.
Ep. 6 What is Bike Fitting? A fitting conference within a conference at the Philadephia Bike Expo.
In Ep. 6, I was invited by renowned bike fitter Happy Freedman from the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City to join a talk with a group of fitters from around the country where he attempted to answer the question, “What is bike fitting?” In our conversation, some of the visiting fitters from New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Tennesee, Kansas received the opportunity to share their thoughts and ask Happy questions about fit. He describes the current state of bike fitting, where he feels the focus should be, and the future of fitting.
The episode occurred in a large atrium of the Pennsylvania Convention Center at the Philadelphia Bike Expo. It’s wonderful to see that the expo is supporting bike fitting through a few symposiums and also Happy requesting fitters around the country to help cyclists enjoy their ride more and meet their goals through bike fitting.
Happy provides some incredible insights into bike fitting from the wealth of knowledge he’s gained through over 40 years of experience.
The dive in Ep.6 by topic:
The definition of fitting
Bike Fitting as a real estate grab
Creating a history and definition of fitting prior to the point where a national certification exists
How to serve all communities with different types of fits
Teaching the skills of recognizing one’s own body in space and it’s application to bike fitting
The rider as a the dynamic source in the fitting
Fitting for a cockpit or range vs. a single spot on the bike
The goal of bike fitting: efficiency vs. watts
How cyclist history influences fitting
The role of airflow (elasticity of intercostals)
Aero vs. breathing
The future of bike fitting
The big picture: rider’s needs vs. bike needs
Fitting for an injury
Fitters can’t fix everything–referrals
Size Cycles in fitting
Coaching requirements vs. fitting requirements
A millimeter does not make that much of a difference
Fitter’s who asked questions or commented in the episode:
Happy Freedman is passionate about bicycling and creating a synergy between the cycling and medical communities, advancing the science and art of bike fit, to help riders of all abilities to achieve their performance goals. He has been instrumental in developing the first multi-disciplinary, hospital-based, state-of-the-art bike fitting program of its kind here at Hospital for Special Surgery, where he has worked in a range of capacities for over ten years. He works in close cooperation with physical therapists and investigators in the motion lab, and the new bike fit program will advance performance, clinical bike fit evaluations, and research.
Happy has presented on bike fitting at the International Cycle Fit Symposium in London and numerous events throughout the US. He is a founding faculty member of the Medicine of Cycling Conference held annually at USA Cycling in Colorado Springs, where he presents both on bike fitting and on medical emergencies in cycling. He is on the advisory committee of IBFI, the International Bike Fit Institute, and was formerly faculty at the Bike Fit school, established by Ben Serotta. He is an experienced cycling coach, including over ten years for the Columbia University D1 Cycling Team, as well as having been a certified coach and official for the United States Cycling Federation.
Happy focuses on fitting the cyclist, not the bike, to address the individual needs of the rider, and collaborates with staff in Performance Services to develop an evidence-based protocol for bike fitting.
The short answer to the title in this article: It depends. It’s impossible to place an “all-encompassing” practice such as bike fitting and apply it to the plethora of cycling disciplines and types of activities on a bike. That would be equivalent of seeing 1 doctor for every possible ailment. Beyond the general practitioner, there’s a specialist for almost every condition. Bike fitters also range in their experience, tools used, education and process. Therefore, what you should expect will vary but our mission is to help you find the individualized fit you need and to identify the most important elements. Although anyone can offer bike fitting, it may not necessarily meet your goals.
What is a Bike Fit?
1.) Adjusting the bicycle to fit the individual needs of the cyclist.
2.) Educating and aiding the cyclist to function best on their bicycle.
For this article, we are going to focus on part 1. The second part delves into the world of bike fitters, physical therapists, and coaches who provide riders with ways to improve strength, pedaling technique, flexibility, breathing, and other rider-specific exercises. This is certainly not saying that you didn’t receive a full fit if these missing from your fit session, but there are different types of fitters and finding one that meets your needs is imperative.
Let’s begin with the basic understanding of the definition of a bike fit: adjusting the bicycle to fit you. Other times we’ve defined this as customizing a symmetrical bicycle to an asymmetrical body. I hope no one is shocked by this nugget of truth but even the ridiculously beautiful people of the world whose eyes are perfectly spaced could have high arches, two different sized feet, or a leg length discrepancy. To take this a step further, we contacted renowned bike fit professional Jessica Bratus of Bike FitMi in Ann Arbor, MI to glean her definition of a bike fit, “It is a process in which every contact point of the bicycle, as well as the macro relationships between contact points, are optimized for that particular body.” Since we are seriously nailing this point home, the fit is about you, the individual, and your unique body (height, weight, flexibility, physical activity, injury, asymeetry…etc.).
Since we’ve established the individual and subjective nature of fit, it is imperative that before you seek out a fitter, you ask yourself 2 questions:
1.) What results do I want from a bike fit?
This will likely be synonymous with your goals. Most of these results fall into 2 categories: eliminate/reduce pain or increase performance. Here are a few examples:
Solve my issue with recurring pain on the back of my knees after each ride.
Reduce hand numbness that occurs after a few miles.
Find a position that will help increase aerodynamics for my next triathlon.
Optimize position for best power expenditure while racing.
There are a plethora of results you may desire but the important part of this puzzle is to recognize that a fitter is not a miracle worker. As a rider, we have to manage our expectations of the fit outcome. Many fitters provide an excellent experience but they are not going to change you from a beginning rider to a world-class athlete.
2.) What type of riding or rides will I do in the future?
This is where the “need” or goal of the individual plays an important role in the fit process. To understand what we mean by “need”, think of the results or goals you want to attain combine it with your type of riding. Here are a few examples:
Within these examples, there may be some variability of your needs based on the distance, the amount you’ll ride, and competitively, your expectations. For example, it’s one goal to finish a Gran Fondo and another to be competitive in the top times in your age group. It’s also noteworthy to mention that the more time you spend on the bike will dictate how much more important a quality, comprehensive fit will help you. Pain is intensified by duration. If your aspirations are much simpler like riding at the beach once in a while, you may benefit from proper setup but the full fit experience will be focused on your intensity, duration, and type of riding.
Bike Fitting vs. Bike Sizing
Now that you’ve established what you want from a fit, let’s explore some common misnomers in fitting. Bike fitting is an odd and confusing concept in cycling, but it’s even more profound compared to other products and industries using the term “fit.” What does it mean to find the right fitting shoes, pants, dress, hat…etc.? If I take the following measurements of my body, this particular article of clothing will supposedly fit (unless you’re a body builder, speed skater, sprinter or track cyclist). To apply this same sizing logic to cycling: we assume that if you are a certain height and have a specific inseam, this amazing new bike is going to “fit.” There are even some systems in bike shops where the body is scanned or medieval torture instruments are used to take measurements which in turn place you on the “perfect fitting bike.” It may be the correct size, but it’s unlikely that it will “fit” based on the definition we described previously without adjustments or corrections. Consequently, it’s important to understand the definition because the terms bike fitting and bike sizing are often confused even by professionals and bike shops.
Without going into excessive detail on the differences between them (we delve into this in another article), bike sizing happens prior to purchasing a bike. The process involves taking measurements of an individual and applying those specific measurements to match a person to the correctly sized bike frame. Most competent fitters will perform both bike sizing and bike fitting and will understand the relationship between the two.
The Main Components of a Bike Fit
Although there may be a few other processes that some fitters use, most professional bike fits will have the following: An interview, an assessment, adjustments of the 3 main contact points, testing, and a report.
Before you sign up for your first fit, we strongly recommend contacting a fitter to discuss your goals and type of riding. It’s possible that you’re a mountain biker and the fitter you contacted has only worked with road and triathlon bikes. If that’s the case, it may not be a good fit. This is also significant if you have an injury (recent or past) that may need the attention of a physical therapy-based fitter. A quality fitter will tell you about their experience level, whether they’ve helped cyclists attain similar goals, or will inform you if this is outside of their general practice. If that’s the case, they should refer you to another local professional with the experience to best serve you.
Assuming you’ve found the right match, a knowledgeable fitter will interview you either prior or during the fit to glean as much relevant information as possible. Here are some examples of what they may ask:
Goals or objectives for the fit
Current type of riding (how much and how often)
Injury history including current issues
Areas of discomfort
Previous fitting information (have you had a fit prior to address the concerns)
There are fitters who may ask more detailed or follow up questions based on their training and comfort. These are some of the basic ones that every fitter should ask.
This varies significantly across the spectrum from fitter to fitter. If you receive a fit from a medical professional fitter, they will likely perform an off-bike structural assessment or flexibility assessment as part of the fit. This is not a requirement of a bike fit. Unfortunately, there are many fitters who are not qualified to assess your flexibility by grabbing your leg and checking its range of motion. If a fitter does incorporate off-bike assessments, they should explain to you the purpose and how it affects the fit. The qualified ones will be forthcoming and assure you are completely comfortable during the process. If you’re not, inform them immediately.
For those who do not perform an off-bike physical assessment, they will likely start their assessment process by observing your pedaling motion and body movement during the warm-up phase of the fit.
Adjustment: Fitting Should Focus on the 3 Contact Points
The founder of BikeFit, Paul Swift, popularized the term, “making the bike disappear.” The idea that you are literally in space fully functioning in whatever activity or event that’s occurring and the only resistance you encounter is the wind, the mountain, the rocks, your muscles screaming or on a rare occasion, an ostrich chase. Unfortunately for many riders, you are keenly aware of the presence of your bike including discomfort or pain in the three contact points: feet, hands, and rear end.
Regardless of your goal, style of riding, or reason for getting a fit, you can expect a competent fitter will aptly examine and potentially adjust all 3 main contact points. We’ll argue that even a fit for a flat pedal (as opposed to clipless pedals), while it may require less attention, should still properly examine and correct at the feet. As Jessica mentioned earlier, every fit should focus on these contact points and the relationship between them. Unfortunately, there are countless stories of riders who invested significantly into professional fits that ignored one of these three areas or only barely scraped the surface. Although we won’t to delve into the extent of how each area should be examined in this article, you should expect a fitter to be equipped with the knowledge and tools to adjust all points thoroughly. When this doesn’t happen, you get a case like one of our customers:
Mark set a goal to complete in a 170 mile, 3-day ride across Florida. Unfortunately, after every ride, he experienced significant knee pain–the longer the ride, the worse the pain. Mark went to 5 different bike fitters in 7 years and although they examined him using some state of the art equipment and 3d motion capturing, they failed to fully examine the foot/pedal interface and offer solutions that could have reduced his pain. In the end, he ended up solving the issue by visiting a BikeFit Pro who extensively focused on his feet and fitting him for Cleat Wedges.
Although this may be an extreme example, if a fitter does not spend ample time on each contact point, you did not receive a full fit. In our experience, it seems that the feet are the contact point that is ignored most often, although arguably it’s the most important. For most riders, you can ride without your hands on the handlebar or you can ride out of the saddle but the contact point that’s always connected is the feet, except if you attempting to superman on the bike. BikeFit’s legal team advises that no one should attempt to superman on their bike.
As we mentioned before, a fitter is not a miracle worker and small changes can make great differences but not necessarily immediate. It’s important that after the accommodations and changes are complete, you test out this new position outside of the environment of the fit studio. Usually, you aren’t fit while climbing hills, descending treacherous trails, or pushing for your best 1 hour time. Consequently, the changes made by the fitter may feel odd at first . That doesn’t mean the fit was a failure but the body, in some cases, takes time to adapt. For some individual, the benefits are immediately apparent, especially for those who previously experienced pain. Some fits allow a cyclist to ride more efficiently over the same distance at a lower heart rate, since they are not using their joints an muscles to stabilize the bike but rather they’ve become 1 hybrid of bicycle and human: a buman or a hike (buman is much better). Most fitters will offer you the opportunity to return within a realistic period of time to reassess if you are experiencing anything negative, lingering effects from the fit. If a fitter doesn’t offer this service, they are putting their business in jeopardy.
Reporting or Measurement Sharing
Throughout the fit, professional fitters have different methods of note-taking to document the bike and body changes. This is a crucial part of the fit and information that, in our opinion, must be provided to the cyclist at the conclusion of the session. Some fitters will use a program that creates a report like the BikeFit Pro App.
Other fitters may use a word document, a full readout of numbers and measurements from a fit bike, or pen and paper. There isn’t a “right or wrong” way to provide you with measurements but is it wrong if they are not supplied at the conclusion of the fit.
While the goal of the fit is to provide the cyclist with their desired results, sometimes this is not the case. If for some reason your fit does not help you meet your original goals, we always recommend going back to the fitter to inform them that there is an issue. Just like any other product or service, you would return if the results were not what you expected. If you visit the doctor initially and your symptoms persist, you’re going to call the doctor back. Professional bike fitter Tom Wiseman of Cycling Solutions mentioned in an interview recently, “I want customers to come back to me if they are not satisfied. The only way to learn how to solve the problem is to know there is one.” Jerry Gerlich, a professional fitter from Castle Hill Fitness, guarantees his work, “Everyone is a different ball of wax and if you guarantee your work, that really gets you to focus on what’s going on to solve the problem.” Although it’s difficult lesson, it goes to show that if you are in some way unsatisfied or especially still in pain, you should return to your fitter.
Final Fitting Thoughts
Although it’s part of the expectations, we did not go into detail on the techniques, tools, technology or specific biomechanics of a fit. The reason is that this varies widely from fitter to fitter and the main aspects of every fit should be the same. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Happy Freedman, Professional Fitter from the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York says, “Not all fitters are created equal but a great fitter will adjust to your needs.” This is true of any profession in the world where, for example, there are great teachers and there are not-so-great teachers but experience does not always correlate with excellence. The second part of Happy’s statement is the one that’s the most important. Is the fitter attempting to meet your goals and needs or trying to force you into a position dictated by a machine? This isn’t technology slander, since we use it daily as part of our fitting and fit training, but we don’t rely on it solely.
Paul Swift described it like this, “The less you know about bike fitting, the more you look at a number to dictate the fit. The more you know and look at bike fitting, the more you look at the overall picture.”
Our advice: contact the fitter and ask them about the expectations delineated in this blog, explain your goals to them, learn about their experience and process, find out if they’ve solved problems or attained goals for cyclists with similar ambitions, and how they address the main contact points. If you want to know what to expect in a bike fit, ask a competent fitter.
You may already know that BikeFit sells the most amazing saddle fitting and sales tool on the planet. Yet, many potential customers ask us the same thing, do you mount the Saddle Changer directly to the customer’s bike?
The answer is yes and no.
You can mount the Saddle Changer to a customer’s bike and we do have many successful clients who’ve used this methodology with fabulous results. The problem: stack height is a considerable factor since the Saddle Changer adds 9cm, and you have to adjust the seat post to the original position after fitting. This works (although it adds time) if you are doing a bike fitting, but the Saddle Changer provides a perfect opportunity for customers to demo multiple saddles in seconds. Why utilize it only for fits when you can display and use it daily?
Therefore it works great for fitting, but we’ve found that customers find much more lucrative and less tedious applications.
Super Ingenious Saddle Changer Mounting Methods
Method 1: The Indoor Cycle
Indoor cycles are ubiquitous in the industry and if you are looking to save some money, there are used ones floating through cycling message boards. If you want to go Cadallic, high-level indoor bikes measure power while the customer searches for that elusive perfect saddle. Bonus points for the pro touch–matching your indoor bike knobs to your tool chest (see pic above) satisfies the detail-oriented personality of the fitter.
Method 2: The Fit Bike
You already made an investment in a fancy fit bike, why not capitalize on it as a sales tool? Although a fit is a perfect time to discover saddle bliss, a fit bike with the Saddle Changer attached and strategically placed in front of a plethora of seats provides customers with a custom saddle-testing experience!
Long of the short, there are many applications for mounting the Saddle Changer and there’s technically not a “wrong answer.” This article is meant to help you obtain the most out of your investment.
Feel free to send us your Saddle Changer photos (e-mail [email protected]) and we’ll post them on social media!
Team Africa Rising is Team Rwanda. An initiative formed in 2006, the founders, management, and coaches have elevated some members of the program of 25 riders to the international level of competition. Their objective, from the Team Africa Rising website: “Our mission has been to not only recruit, train, and compete in cycling, but also to teach and train the next generation of coaches, mechanics, nutritionists, etc. for the program by modeling the necessary infrastructure of running a first-world cycling program.”
Team Rwanda recently competed in the Cascade Cycling Classic and we were honored to connect with their dynamic and influential Coach, Sterling Magnell, while the team visited the U.S to discuss the rise of Team Rwanda and how BikeFit powers them.
BikeFit: Tell a little bit about yourself and Team Rwanda.
Sterling Magnell: I coach the National Cycling Team of Rwanda. We strive to cultivate our young riders into the best ambassadors and sports men and women they can be. Ultimately, turning professional and riding in the international peloton.
BF: What is your main goal with the team and where are you in your process of reaching it?
SM: My ultimate goal is to replicate myself in terms of knowledgeable coaches and directors that can grow the sport on every level, understand, train and look after the athletes from juniors to young riders navigating their first years on pro teams. I’m making good progress. I have coaches that are able to do many of the things I normally do, so I’m at the point where I can delegate. We still have a long way to go when it comes to understanding international nuances and the finer sciences of cycling and training. Bike fit is a big component.
BF: How is the team doing this year? What are your goals for the rest of 2017 and 2018?
SM: The team has had a ground breaking year. We medaled in the TTT at the African Continental Championships. That was a first for us! Rwanda will host in 2018; our goal there is to take gold. We also finished 2nd overall in GC at the tour of Eritrea. No small feat and our best showing ever. That result reflected our riders beginning to understand how to use their strengths tactically and a willingness to follow instruction.
BF: You mentioned bike fit before as a big component in the science of cycling and training. How does BikeFit help the team?
SM: BikeFit is at the core of every single bike fit I do. So every single rider on the national team, juniors, women, and men has been in my shop. We ride Sidi shoes with LOOK pedals, so everybody gets a proper fit and I keep their numbers and notes on file. Some riders just benefit from a proper fitting bike. But more than a few riders have overcome strange or serious biomechanics to go from good to serious contenders.
BF: In your opinion, how does bike fitting affect performance?
SM: My belief is that in terms of physicality, mechanics, and power, it’s absolutely foundational. Going from bad mechanics to properly compensated balanced mechanics can add up to 5% to an already elite rider’s top end. For a new athlete working from the ground up, the difference is more or less immeasurable.
SM: So far I’ve found everything I need in the products that BikeFit currently ships. The wedges allow for every augmentation I’ve needed to make. I especially like the ability to custom build small changes to insoles to relieve pressure points. Many riders are coming from a village life where they grow up typically wearing sandals and their feet have a few nuances or maybe injuries that when accounted for, really increases the comfort of that kid as a professional athlete.
The wedges also allow for the body to line up with the machine. Riding a bike isn’t a natural action to perform physically, at least not strictly speaking. The body is a series of levers, all of our muscles pull not push. So when the body is locked into a fixed machine, allowing the body to be fixed to that machine in a way that the natural movement of those levers following smooth, straight, efficient pathways is essential. On top of that, when you take into consideration that a week of training for a professional bike racer includes upwards of 100,000 pedals strokes. Even a small imbalance, repeated that many times makes a huge difference.
BF: Can you tell me a story about how some of the bike fitting changes impacted an individual rider?
SM: My favorite story to date is Joseph Areruya. His heels were hitting the cranks and his left knee would shoot over the top tube when we first started working together. He’s a super powerful rider that is time trialing and climbing often well in excess of 400 watts. He has an unusual physiology for cycling with wide frame and stance, so he needed a few more wedges than your average rider. But once he got his foundation built up and he wasn’t losing power, he’s been able to forge ahead. He just recently won stage 4 of the Baby Giro d’Italia. The first UCI Europe win for a Rwandese rider.
As a cyclist, it’s imperative to familiarize yourself with the differences between bike fitting and bike sizing. These terms are used by bike shops and professional fitters for the following reasons:
New bike purchase
Pain or discomfort
Desire to increase power and efficiency
Often bike fitting and bike sizing become intertwined, but they are completely different. With that said, fitting a road bicycle works best when you start with the right size bike or at a minimum, a bicycle that is close enough to your right size. As a result, both contribute to a comfortable, powerful and efficient ride.
Sizing a bicycle is not as complicated as you may have been led to believe, in part due to the reality that a good bike fit actually has little to do with the bicycle per se. Yet, we will touch on that part more in the fitting section.
Bike sizing is the process of taking the measurements of an individual and applying those specific measurements to match a person to the correctly sized bike frame. Depending on where you go to get measured (or if you are doing this at home), you may find that shops, fitters, or a multitude of websites provide you with numerous ways to discover the correct bike size. One of the earliest methods was a formula applied by French Coach and former pro cyclist, Cyrille Guimard based on the inseam. Greg Lemond later used and popularized this method of multiplying the inseam measurement by .883 to determine saddle height and frame size.
A similar methodology remains in use today by some bike shops who will measure your inseam and have you stand over a bicycle top tube to obtain the proper frame size. If you use the ubiquitous Google search method, you’ll likely find a chart that suggests the best size for you based on a few measurements like you were purchasing a t-shirt or a hat (you are less likely to experience an injury from hat or t-shirt which is why bike fitting is vital).
Other sizing resources or formulas will use multiple measurements (see the image to the right) to match you with the perfect frame. Considering the plethora of options with seat posts, stem lengths, riding positions and cycling disciplines, it’s vital that the shop or fitter ask you about what type of riding you’ll be doing to pick out the correct frame. This goes without saying that this process should be completed in order to ascertain your frame size before fitting.
Bike sizing has also become much more elaborate than the early methods of formulas and measurements. Some companies use specially designed tools to establish body measurements via a sizing cycle or a laser system. Yet, even these advanced systems don’t always account for intricacies of the human body. Renowned expert fitter, Happy Freedman, reminds us in his talks that the human spine compresses throughout the day. Consequently, you may be a different height in the morning vs. the evening.
Finally, there are numerous body types in the world. Bikes are beautiful and incredibly symmetrical; the human body is not. Someone may have a short inseam and a long torso or vice versa. Therefore a person who is 5’10” could ride a frame size ranging from 52 to 58 (S-XL depending on the brand), in theory. These human differences need to be taken into account in a good sizing and fitting process.
Once you’ve completed the sizing process, fitting a bicycle comes down to the contact or connection points between the cyclist and their bicycle and adjusting those moving parts on the chosen bicycle. These five connection points (9 on a time trial or triathlon bike) are the right and left foot, the pelvis, and right and left hands. Even if your bike is not the correct “size,” as long as you get the connection points in the ideal place, you can still achieve a good and comfortable bike fit. That being said (as we mentioned previously), we do recommend starting some of the ideas above in the sizing section before fitting.
A proper bike fit has more to do with the saddle, handlebars, brake levers and hoods, stem and, most importantly, shoes, cleats, and pedals.
Although we mentioned earlier that these two processes are completely different, bike sizing and bike fitting are both crucial aspects of cycling comfort. First, start with sizing and then move to fitting. Below is a quick reference chart describing both.
The art of determining the most appropriate size frame for the cyclist:
stand-over and height
compare to their old bicycle
The art and science of adjusting the moveable parts of a bicycle to fit the individual needs of the cyclist:
BikeFit, the worldwide leader in bicycle fitting products, now offers BikeFit Pro education exclusively through CyclePoint.
Although closely tied with Cycle Point, BikeFit no longer provides educational training to become a bike fitter. We now focus exclusively on providing products and knowledge to increase riding comfort, efficiency, and power. In addition to our amazing line of bike fitting products, we recently developed a Walkable Screw Kit, updates and changes to our iPad/iPhone Fitter App, and the free Foot Fit Calculator Android app. The new app will help cyclists identify foot tilt, decipher the number of wedges they may need, and allow the to directly purchases the wedges they need or connect them to local BikeFit Pros and dealers.
What is Cycle Point?
Paul Swift, founder and CEO of CyclePoint, created the company prior to BikeFit, but it primarily functioned as a product design company. Many of those designs include BikeFit products. CyclePoint now organizes, conducts, and operates all BikeFit Pro training. Recent and upcoming training includes California, Georgia, Washington, Oregon, Texas, and Canada! If you would like to find out more, visit the CyclePoint website.
We are excited for what these changes mean for the future of BikeFit and CyclePoint! With our companies combined, we can do more for numerous cyclists! Our goals are similar: aid cyclists in reducing pain, increasing power and efficiency, and in turn, make cycling more enjoyable. We hope you look forward to the future of bike fitting!
This article focuses on triathlon bike (TB) and time trial (TT) bike fitting. It is not intended to be a resource for bike sizing. Often these two descriptions become intertwined. However, anyone with interest in bike fitting or sizing should understand the differences. With that said, fitting a time trial bike works best when you start with the right size bicycle frame. At a minimum, a frame should be close enough to your correct size.
The position on the time trial bike we will discuss most will be the aero position–forearms sitting on the armrest with hands at the end of the aero bars/extensions. This term is referred to as “in the aero bars.” This does not render fit on the base bar or cow horn section of the bars unnecessary. On the contrary, consideration should focus here because it is the connection for starts, climbing, cornering, and where most brake levers are found. We want to help guide you to a position that you will ride almost all of the time in the aero bars. If you are not able to ride in this position comfortably, we suggest a change to the bike fit.
Illustration 1 – Tri-Bike with the “target” connection points highlighted.
Triathlon or time trial vs. road bike and considerations
One thing we will not focus on in this article is whether you should be riding a triathlon bike vs. a road bike. For many, a road bike may better serve you and there is nothing wrong with riding a road bike in a triathlon. When necessary, we will specify TB (triathlon bike) or TT (time trial bike) for distinct or modality specific descriptions/reasons. Most of the time we will use “TB.” Like all cyclists, athletes who participate in triathlons, duathlons, and time trials desire comfort while riding. However, unlike many road cyclists, the triathletes and time-trialists are rarely seen sitting up and relaxing. The geometry, and thus positioning, on a time trial bike is often quite different from a road bike.
At BikeFit, we’ve developed our bike fitting curriculum to address a duathlete’s and triathlete’s specific needs. We do incorporate some of the protocols, especially with regards to hip angle, developed by Dan Empfield at SlowTwitch/F.I.S.T. This is, of course, in addition to what we perform during a typical fit (foot/pedal interface, seat height, stance width, front view, side view, etc.).
The history of “aero”
During the 1984 Olympics and around the Olympic Training Center, many people started to notice “funny bikes,: This was, of course, prior to the advent of “aero bars.” Race Across American (RAAM) then showed perhaps the first version of an “aero bar.” The RAAM guys kick-started this aero bar craze, not the triathletes as many believe. Several morphologies occurred as the triathletes attempted aero positioning. Shortly thereafter, a Boone Lennon built a set of “aero” bars for a Tour de France racer. This publicity increased the “aero bar’s” positive reception by ALL cyclists, not just the crazy long distance guys and the early triathletes. Then John Cobb helped BikeFit founder, Paul Swift, compose what may have been the first published bike fitting manual for time trial bikes and triathlon bikes in the 1990s: “The Bicycle Fitting System,” co-authored with Vint Schoenfeldt, PT.
Today, Paul Swift now also teaches at SlowTwitch, a fabulous bike fit education program run by Dan Empfield. He is a man who has taken the side view and put it into a much easier to digest format. Dan invested more time into time trial bike and tri bike fitting than anyone on the planet. It is important to note, Dan focuses on the side view perspective but also does a great job with helping fitters generate the best size frame (bike sizing) for their clients. Together SlowTwitch and BikeFit offer the most comprehensive triathlon bike fit in the world. Bike fitting that considers only the side view is like building a house and setting it on the ground without regard to the foundation. Fitting only the feet is like building the foundation but stopping before putting up the walls and roof.
The illustration above is an early version of a time trial position. This is also fairly indicative of triathlon bikes at the time that focused on the aero position. This photo shows Chris Kostman of Adventure Corps- www.adventurecorps.com. Chris is the promoter of the Furnace Creek 508 and an excellent BikeFit Pro. He certainly does not fit people like this today.
The differences between early time trial/triathlon bike fits and today
What are some of the differences with Chris’s fit and a triathlon or time trial bike fit today? Fittings at this point occurred before we started with the foot-pedal interface. Chris would point out he was at the forefront of setting the cleat further back on the shoe than most prescribed. We would argue he did it before shoes were ready for that change. With the advances in cycling shoe technology, indeed cleat position changed (foot-pedal interface information).
Two major things stand out when we look at Chris: hip angle and shoulder angle. The saddle is further back than most tri bike fits today. This results in a more acute hip angle which is exacerbated by the extra-long reach to the bar. Notice the shoulder angle; this is WELL beyond the typical 90 degrees or so we like today. Lucky for most of you, this position disappeared years ago. People ahead of you suffered so that you can achieve comfort and efficiency. A good time trial bike fit should be comfortable for the duration of your bike ride or race. You will also generate more power and increase efficiency with a quality, comfortable bike fit.
Tri(triathlon) or time trial bike position vs. road position?
From Dan Empfield www.Slowtwitch.com “The forward position places the rider over the cranks further and puts him/her in an aerodynamically sleek position. The position also saves key muscles for running. Road bike seat tube geometry is geared toward making efficient use of all leg muscles, especially the hamstrings, which is an important muscle to save for the run. Tri-geometry makes more use of the quads to generate power.”
We do believe most everyone agrees with Dan’s first statement–this forward position “places the rider…in an aerodynamically sleek position.” It is Dan’s second statement that conjures disagreement among professionals. Some studies indicated little to no noticeable change in physiological measures between a shallow seat tube angle and a steep seat tube angle. Ben Reuter and David Pascoe completed this study and published it in 2006 ‘Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise.’ Referring back to Dan’s statement, is that the same as saying “key muscles?” You can decide. We think most professionals agree with the use of the forward (aero) position. However, all are not in agreement as to its exact benefits.
Position and comfort in triathlons
Before we get to cycling part of your triathlon (the third event), a good tri bike position should also be comfortable for someone just getting out of the water and onto the bike–this is rarely discussed. The majority focuses on transitioning to the run. While this factor is crucial, the run is far away from when you get on the bike and commence the highest speed section of your race. Let’s endeavor to place the athlete in the most comfortable aerodynamic position. In the end, what is the point of improved aerodynamics if you are unable to generate an ounce of power? We suggest when getting a triathlon bike fit, swim as close as possible or just prior to your bike fit. A few places on the planet will set this up for you. Ask if this is an interest, but places like this are few and far between.
The triathlon position tends to be more static than a road position. In other words, the cyclist spends less time adjusting or altering their body position while riding. So the main focus is, for the most part, pinpointing one position on the bike. Dialing in this single position actually becomes a bit easier than a road fit. Yet, people sometimes suggest a tri-fit is more difficult.
Sizing a tri bike is also not as complicated as suggested by some. However, sizing takes a slightly different trained eye than road bike sizing. Fitting a triathlon bike comes down to the contact points (connection points) between the cyclist and the bicycle. These NINE contact points (yes there are nine places you touch a triathlon bike): right and left pedals (1,2), the saddle (3), right and left forearms (4, 5), right and left extensions (6, 7), when in the aero position, and right and left hands (8, 9), when upright in the base bar or cow horns.
Illustration 3 – Tri Bike with the “target” connection points highlighted.
Sizing on a TB, however, probably needs to be more precise than sizing on a road bike. The choices, although many in triathlon bike accessories, can be a bit more limiting in adjustability. A proper bike fit has more to do with the saddle, handlebars, brake levers and hoods, stem and, most importantly, shoes, cleats, and pedals than the actual frame. As long as you get the equipment within the target range, you can achieve a proper and efficient bicycle fit.
Selling bicycles is the business of a bike or tri shop, and their focus is typically on the bicycle and bicycle frame. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes bias can enter the picture and hopefully, this does not negatively influence the bike fit. If the shop you choose to purchase your from is not well versed in fitting (or positioning), we strongly suggest you connect with someone with fitting expertise before your purchase. A good fitting bike may reduce more time in your triathlon than any other adjustment you make (proper training notwithstanding).
Unlike the human body, bicycles are symmetrical (other than one crank sometimes being a little wider from center than the other). That means getting the connection points into the target range is only a start to the bike fit. Not only do these points need to be in the correct area, but you need to fine tune each specific connection. Assessing and fine-tuning the location of the bike part as it meets your body is imperative. For example at the hands, just because you may have the correct length and angled stem does not mean you have the right shape and size of base-bar or elbow rest and extensions, the proper bar tilt/rotation, and/or brake levers and their location on the handlebars. Simply because you set the cleat fore/aft position does not mean its rotation, tilt, and stance width are also correct (foot adjustment). The ultimate result between the bike and your connection to it–the bicycle basically disappears. Once you no longer notice the bike and your focus exists solely on the ride, the scenery and/or company, you achieved a proficient bike fit. Similarly, while a triathlete may not care about the scenery, their concern is speed. When a triathlete no longer notices their bike, they are experiencing a great bike fit. Don’t fight with your bike! Use your motor to tear up the course. I guarantee you if your bike “disappears” during your triathlon, the transition to the run will go much more smoothly.
Getting Started with Fit (Contact Points)
As previously mentioned, the cyclist’s body contacts the bicycle at 9 points: hands (4), forearms (2), pelvis (1), and feet (2). The location of the feet, pelvis, forearms and hands dramatically impacts comfort and efficiency on the bicycle. Several pieces of equipment on a bicycle are adjusted to find your ideal position on your bike:
Pelvis – saddle selection, height, fore/aft, tilt and sometimes cycling shorts.
Hand and forearms – base bar, forearm pads, extensions, brake levers and shift levers (all connected to the stem).
Feet – pedals, cleats, cycling shoes and occasionally crank arm length
Our next 2 articles provide detailed explanations on contact points.
Learn More About Triathlon and Time Trial Bike Fitting
Rarely do bicycle fitting articles mention saddle selection. Reality: this should be the first step before making any adjustment to the seat height, tilt, or fore/aft position. Riding with the wrong saddle can compromise your comfort and ideal cycling position dramatically.
As simple as it sounds, the best way to find the most comfortable bike seat is to sit on it. The problem lies in the fact that switching saddles is both time-consuming and difficult. Changing a saddle can take up to 15 minutes per seat which means most people select a seat by pressing a finger into it to test its firmness or softness. Another option is simply choosing a saddle based on advertisements. Some saddle manufacturers have done a nice job with their design and a fabulous job with their marketing. Unfortunately, this still doesn’t help you procure the ideal saddle. Fortunately, we solved this problem. At BikeFit we built a saddle fitting tool called the SwitchIt™ that quickly and easily allows you to test as many saddles as you’d like by sitting on them:
Not all shops carry the SwitchIt so you’ll need to ask for it or find another bike shop that does. When you find a shop with a SwitchIt, try to set the position on their sizing bike or stationary bike that has it mounted it to a similar position as your triathlon bike. Try as many saddles as you like until you find the one that fits best before you make your purchase. It may come as a surprise that the seat you currently ride is not the best saddle for you. Let your tush be the judge!
Saddle Selection Misnomer
Beware of other ways a bicycle dealer may guide you with saddle fitting and saddle choices. Some bike shops may have you sit on a device that takes an impression of the width of your sit bones. If this device actually works, the best information it “suggests” is how wide or narrow of a saddle you “might” like. Unfortunately, we can share with you story after story where this device does not provide information for a comfortable saddle choice.
Illustrations 4 – As you can see sitting on bike is not like sitting on a box
As mentioned, the incorrect saddle can compromise your position on the bike and, of course, feel uncomfortable.
As you try to find the right saddle, keep an open mind. Some shops may start you down a saddle choice path by pointing out saddles designed for a triathlon or for men or women specifically. However, some triathletes find a road saddle more comfortable and some men may find women’s specific saddles more comfortable or the other way around. Either way, please be ready and willing to try ALL kinds of saddles.
Are seats with a cutout good? It seems that in the past some seat manufacturers added a cutout to make up for their less-than-ideal saddle design. Many saddles did not offer the ideal support in the right area. A good-fitting saddle may not need a cutout if the support is in the ideal area for you. Where is the ideal area? It varies from person to person. In general, for most of us (male or female) it means not too much pressure in the front or in the center of the saddle. For some, sitting slightly off to one side may be the answer. Bike fitter extraordinaire John Cobb often recommends positioning the nose of the saddle to one side.
Illustration 5– tip of saddle rotated to the right. More information can be found about Cobb Saddles.
Ultimately a cutout seat may prove the most comfortable, but don’t discount those saddles without a cutout before trying them first. You may surprise yourself as to which feels best.
Is a level saddle the best position for you? It may be ideal for some but probably not for every triathlete. Numerous people tilt the saddle nose down thinking it will increase comfort. If you must tilt the nose down more than a few degrees, you may not have the right saddle and/or the overall bike fit is likely too far off. Too much downward tilt usually results in your pelvis sliding forward. This leads to hand, elbow, forearm, triceps and shoulder discomfort or pain. You may find yourself pushing your pelvis back from the bars several times in a ride. Some people will also feel like they are pedaling more with the tops of their quads (just above the knee). While not as common, some saddles feel better with a slightly upward tilting nose. The best adjustment for your saddle really depends on you and on the saddle itself. So don’t get hung up by someone saying it is “supposed to level” or “tilt” this way or that way. Rather, adjust to what feels best.
The starting point for most do-it-yourself bike fits is typically saddle height. Sit on the saddle with one leg hanging free and your pelvis level—not one hip tilted higher or lower. Your hanging leg’s heel should just scrape or touch the pedal when the pedal is at the very bottom (6 o’clock). Once you slide your foot back to bring the ball of your foot to the center of the pedal you should have a slight bend in your knee.
Illustration 6 – Heel Scrape
In our experience, the properly bent knee resides between 27 and 37 degrees of flexion from a straight leg. Typically, most people have greater than 30 degrees of knee bend at the bottom of the pedal stroke. The Empfield – F.I.S.T guide suggests an even lower saddle height range. Collectively we feel that you will almost never see someone needing to be taller than our ranges. Occasionally you might rarely see someone lower. If your hips rock a little when you pedal, lower the saddle a couple millimeters and test again. Repeat as necessary until you eliminate this rocking. You may be someone that just rocks. Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger; you are not alone. At this point, you may want to consider shorter cranks. If you are on a fit bike with adjustable cranks, shorten them and observe the changes.
While there are formulas that take into account your inseam measurement, they generally do not produce any better result than this heel scrape method.
We recommend using a Goniometer to accurately measure knee bend. Take a look at the goniometer checking knee flexion or the bend in the knee at the bottom of the stroke:
Can saddle height be set to the exact millimeter? Saddle height is never the same even for the same person. What do we mean by this? What happens if they wear a different pair of cycling shorts? That precise measurement is now not so precise. Does the “millimeter measurement” account for the wear and tear of a saddle that has been ridden for a long period of time? What if the rider feels tight one day, rested the next day, or they wear additional clothing to accommodate for cold weather? The list is nearly endless. Bottom line: the millimeter adjustment is not as important as you might believe.
Saddle Fore/Aft Position
For years common thinking for saddle fore-aft positioning was determined by the knee over pedal spindle (KOPS) positioning. The KOPS fit process: place one foot forward (3 o’clock) with your crank arms parallel to the ground and then ensure that the forward knee cap is just over the center of the pedal (see picture below). For some riders, this method will work well enough for a road or mountain bike fit but that is a “maybe” at best.
Illustration 8 – Knee over Pedal Spindle alignment
Many people use a plumb bob for this measurement (we did at one time). We found a laser or the BikeFit Pro App to be easier and far more precise. While the right leg in the photo above is closest, the rider can spin the other leg forward and check the fore/aft on the far leg as well without moving the laser. We also refer to this as a “hands-free” technique. With a laser, the fitter is able to make an adjustment or simply step back and take a look. This is not possible with a weighted string hanging from the knee. Today we use this more to see if one knee is further forward than the other but NOT to check the actual saddle fore-aft position (especially on a triathlon bike fit).
Unlike road or mountain bikes, KOPS is NOT a starting point for triathlon bike fit. The modern method we subscribe to is a modified (but fairly close) Dan Empfield or Slowtwich approach. As mentioned above, my early influences come separate of Dan, having lived at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs when funny bikes were first being made. I was also influenced by working with aerodynamic guru John Cobb. We put a lot of John’s information in our first bicycle fitting manual, possibly the first fitting manual on tri bike fit. It is not that tri bike fitting was not talked about, but finding a manual for one was next to impossible.
Illustration 9 – A bike that may have been used in the 1984 Olympics – notice the small wheels
UCI Exceptions: Saddle Fore-Aft
There is an exception to the fore-aft saddle position for time trial bike fitting or for any bike that needs to be UCI legal. Because of this, it is actually easier to fit a time trial bike than it is a triathlon bike–one of the driving aspects or fit parameters is automatically set for you. We are not saying this is a good thing but rather an easier thing.
Illustration 10 – saddle set at 5cm behind the center of the BB
For USAC or UCI races or time trials, set the saddle height and put the nose of the saddle 5cm behind the BB and “Voila” you have your seat position for a time-trial bike. There are other parameters to follow. Just to make things more complicated, the UCI has a jig and your bike needs to be set up within the guideline of this jig (or template). This resembles a template for a stock car.
To see what this jig looks like, here is a bike that is set up illegally for UCI/USAC racing.
Illustration 11 – Saddle too far forward for UCI and USAC racing.
Illustration 12 – UCI bike requirements.
Additionally, not shown in this illustration are several angles and positions of the cyclist on the bike that must adhere to UCI guidelines.
The upper body is driven by two angles: the hip angle and the shoulder angle. Pinpoint these to angles and most people will feel comfortable in a triathlon bike position. Your 3 landmarks for measuring hip angle are the (1) center of the bottom bracket (BB), (2) greater trochanter, and the (3) acromion process (AC Joint).
Illustration 13 – Hip Angle on a Triathlon Bike
If you are not sure where the AC joint is located, Arland Macasieb, a top triathlete and Red Level BikeFit Pro, points it out on the image below:
Illustration 14 – Notice the extension arm of the goniometer tool is in-line with Arland’s finger. To see more about Arland go here: www.arlandmac.com
On the left, the triathlete demonstrates a hip angle above 100° and a shoulder angle greater than 90°. On the right (post-adjustment) you see a hip angle closer to 100° and a shoulder angle closer to 90°. We achieved this by moving the saddle forward (also raising it a few millimeters to compensate for the forward movement. Anytime you move the saddle forward, you are also lowering or decreasing the distance to the pedals). We lowered and shortened the stem and slightly decreased the reach on the extensions. This took a few adjustments to the saddle, a couple at the stem, and one at the extensions.
This fit did not require a different set of bars; the only new piece of equipment needed was a stem. Of course, we used a sizing stem to help us get to this position. A sizing stem is a MUST when performing ALL bike fitting. If your fitter is not using a sizing bike, request a sizing stem for your fit. Even though we did not change the bars in this particular fit, you may need to in order to achieve these angles. The bar change may include the base bar and the extensions along with forearm pads.
Another way to look at upper body fitting is to think of setting the 100 and 90 angles. Once completed, you simply rotate the entire upper body forward or backward. Perhaps this is one aspect where a fit bike like the Exit Bike may make this easier.
Illustration 17 – Rotating the entire body in unison on the bike
But wait! Empfield says the shoulder angle should be close to 80°. This is true–however, the protocols of F.I.S.T use different landmarks when measuring shoulder angle. So yes, Slowtwitchers tend to look for 80°, but at BikeFit we use 90° for most bike fits. Road, mountain, and triathlon remain consistent with our shoulder angle measurement, using the same landmarks. We do not change our number and landmarks for any single style of fit. The shoulder angle is basically the same. In other words, we completely agree with each other.
Before doing all of the above, you need to select a base bar for your triathlon bike. The base bar used to be referred to as pursuit bars or cow horns. In case you haven’t noticed, we use a base bar or cow horns most of this time in this article.
Base Bar Width (Cow Horns)
The easiest way to select the handlebar’s width is to pick up different width bars in a bike shop and grab hold of them. Place your hands on each of the forward “reach” areas. Try both narrow and wide bars. Once you have the bars in hand, move them down near your waist, straight out in front of you, and then bring them toward your chest. Do this with a few bars and usually you’ll find one that feels better than the others. It may sound awkward, but it’s a great guide. If you are still unsure between two widths, put the bars up to your armpits and choose the ones that are most closely aligned.
The new BikeFit manual “When the Foot Meets the Pedal” is the foundation for every good bicycle fit. This comprehensive manual teaches you the foot/pedal interface and beyond through rich content and descriptive graphics. This is a “must have” for any fitter regardless of their education or history in bike fitting.
From Max Testa, MD:
Over 30 years ago during my Sports Medicine Fellowship, I was told that you cannot assess a cyclist’s performance or injury without looking at the bike fit. Since then, I have rarely evaluated a cyclist in clinic without checking her/his position on the bike. With practice, I also learned that the foot-pedal interface is a key factor for a successful bike fit.
With their new BikeFit Manual, “When the Foot Meets the Pedal,” established bike fit experts Paul Swift and Dr. Katrina Vogel have completed another step in their effort to educate on the applied science of bike fitting. This easy-to-read, well-illustrated book condenses a lot of information about the proper assessment of the cleat’s positioning and alignment. The readers, from bike fit professionals to the more serious cyclists, will find a lot of valuable and practical information, supported by great illustrations that take them step-by-step from the basics to the advanced understanding of the topic.
I strongly recommend the reading of this book. It will be a fun and productive experience.”
Max Testa, M.D. Intermountain LiveWell & Sport Performance Ctr, Salt Lake City, UT Chief Medical Official, BMC Racing professional cycling team, USA The manual is a standard component in the BikeFit Bicycle Fitting System™
Click here to get your copy of the BikeFit Manual today!