The expectations of a bike fit can vary depending on what you need and where you are fitted. BikeFit breaks down the definition of bike fitting and some realistic expectations for a quality fit.
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:
- Gran Fondo
- Local time trial
- Club rides every weekend
- Charity rides like Bike MS
- Commuting to work
- MTB (downhill, enduro, xc…etc.)
- Gravel Riding
- Racing (any discipline)
- Fat Bike Adventures
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
- Cycling goals
- Current type of riding (how much and how often)
- Injury history including current issues
- Medical conditions
- 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.