For most triathletes, the most amount of time you’ll be spending during training and racing is on-board the bike. I say most in the above sentence because some of us have had the experience of a “run” lasting nearly as long, or longer than their bike during a race. This means that it is absolutely imperative for you to be as comfortable as you can be on board your bicycle. So why do so many of us suffer on board?
Much of this has to do with what our expectation of comfortable comes to be. Let’s be honest: being in the aero position for hours at a time is never going to be as comfortable as popping your feet up in the La-Z-Boy on a Saturday morning. That being said, you should be able to feel like you can hold your aero position consistently over time throughout the course of the day.
I’ve been relatively blessed over the years to have not needed much help in the bike fit department. I’ve been comfortable, (allegedly) pretty aerodynamic, and the results have shown off on the course.:
And then I fractured my spine while training in 2014 (actually, a scant six weeks after Kelly had her crash at Challenge AC). I had anterior body compression fractures of T5 through T7, whiplash at C4 through C6, and compressed the discs between those sets of vertebrae to less than 50% of their original height. The basic thought is that my spine broke because my collarbone didn’t. I would have gladly taken the collarbone, as you could probably imagine.
I rode my bike maybe 20 times in 2015. Three of those times were in races (two 70.3s, one sprint). Another eight times were with group rides known as the Tuesday Night World Championships (25 miles, one hour, go like hell). One time was a ride on the “fun” known as the Raymond Hill Loop. And then a good block around Lake Placid last year.
Why so few bike rides? To put it mildly: I simply wasn’t comfortable anymore. On the road bike, anything longer than an hour caused my lower back to seize up. On the tri rig, it was my neck and shoulders that wouldn’t be able to tolerate the position. At Challenge Atlantic City, I was in tears the last few miles of the bike because my neck hurt so much; I couldn’t hold my head in position with the aero helmet I had on.
After Challenge Maine, I have not ridden the bike since. The seat cover from the race is still on. I love the feel of riding, the child-like amazement of pushing your legs on the pedals as hard as you can. But I couldn’t tolerate the pain in my back anymore. This is supposed to be a fun part of my life and it simply was making me miserable for hours at a time following a ride.
When I discovered that Slowtwitch’s Road Show program would be coming through Connecticut, I looked at the dates on the calendar and got excited. Dan Empfield is one of the leaders in the industry: founding Quintana Roo, bringing about tri-specific geometry to bikes, inventing the triathlon wetsuit, creating the F.I.S.T (Fit Institute Slowtwitch) method of bike fitting, among others. Dan would be leading the two Road Show dates in Connecticut.
Of the two dates, only one offered a proper fit bike: Pacific Cycling & Triathlon in Stamford, Connecticut. This is one of the first keys to the overall experience that you should expect: if your fitting is no more than you bringing your existing bike in to take a look at things, you’re not getting a true “fitting” experience. In that instance, you are fitting your existing bike to you, rather than getting your position set, and then figuring out how to make that work on any series of bicycles. A fit bike, then, allows you to look to set your position first and foremost, then worry about what bike to fit under that position.
To that extent, think about when you are riding a bike: there are really only a couple of primary contact points. When in aero position, you have your arms on the aerobars and extensions; your saddle, and your feet in the pedals. That’s it. No other part of your body is touching the bike. So, depending on what a couple of components are, you try to figure out what your position is first. Then it’s simply a matter of some math, spacers, and stem choices. Voila! You have bike choices!
Need an example? Look back up at the top of the page with the two bike examples. The positions are the same: my saddleheight was the same, measured from the bottom bracket to the middle of the saddle. My aerobars were positioned the same distance from the saddle, with the same amount of drop. So what changed to let me ride a Medium-Large Blue Triad EX versus a Large Trek Speed Concept 7.5? The number of spacers under the handlebars and the length of the stem. The key with a fit like this is to determine (a) the component touchpoints and (b) the distances between those points; then you look to see what bikes you can ride that would give you predictable handling and not too many spacers and odd stem choices.
So, what’s the process shake-out as?
Required Equipment and Knowledge:
- Your cycling shoes
- A good analogue for the kit you’ll be wearing frequently while riding
- Know what saddle you ride
- Know what pedal type you use
- If you like your current aerobar, know what aerobar and pad combination you use
- Know what length crank you ride
- Current bike fit coordinates, particularly saddle height and handlebar stack and reach
The first step of the process begins with the knowledge points so as to set-up the fit bike. Dan asked me what saddle I road, my pedal type, and what length crank to be able to get the bike squared away while I was changing into my gear. I also provided him with my old fit data, which he programmed into the bike.
I hopped on the bike and started pedaling away. Immediately, I could tell that the new cockpit on board the fit bike (3T’s Aura with ski-bend extensions) was far superior to my old ride (Profile Design’s Prosvet and T2 extensions). The saddle, as always, felt awesome. If you were uncomfortable with your saddle, this is where you’d start testing them out. Pacific had a wide range of saddles available: ISM, Cobb Cycling, Fizik, Prologo…if you couldn’t find a comfortable saddle out of their selection, you were in trouble. I didn’t bother testing saddles out, as I love my current choice. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it till it is.
However, it was clear many other things were broken. Dan’s comment was something along the lines of, “OK, now let’s go to work fixing this.” The contact points, independently, were comfortable. But their position in space was not. We needed to move things around.
This is where a fitter is really worth their salt. This experience is about you, the person being fit, not the person controlling the bike. We started making small modifications. Each time, Dan would ask whether things felt better or worse; the decision was mine to make. First, we angled the extensions slightly, relaxing my shoulders a bit (the area where I fractured my spine puts a lot of hurt on where the ribs and shoulder blade come together; the less pressure on there, the better off I am). We then looked to pull back on some of the reach, bringing the overall package in. Lastly, we raised me up somewhat. But each change would get feedback. The control was mine; I asked to have the bars extended away from me, then brought back when I discovered it was less comfortable.
In all, we reduced the amount of drop by 5.5 centimeters over my old bike fit and reduced the reach by about three centimeters. Now, although a big change, it was still only removing about 20% of my old drop number. That is to say: I was very low before. Post spine-fx, I can’t get to that same position and hold it. So we had to make adjustments to give me a position I could hold while still putting me in a good aero position. The result to the left is pretty promising: my back didn’t hurt at all the following day, which is the first time I could say that riding a bike since July 29th, 2014 (the day after my last ride before I crashed).
Now, once we got the numbers thrown together, it was time to start to go bike shopping. AKA: the fun part! Dan and I sat down to start crunching the numbers out. Remember, once the position is sorted, now you’re just putting some basic trigonometry together to get the best frame underneath you. There were a lot of options. I self-eliminated two of them (I find the Felt IA to be the ugliest bike on the face of the planet, and the lack of a seatpost on the Dimond is beyond terrifying to me). To that end, we’ve narrowed the field to a select few bikes and sizes:
- Argon 18 E-119 Size Large: (shameless plug for a Maverick sponsor). The only issue here is that the bike has a proprietary handlebar and aerobar combination. In general, I am a little leery of bike manufacturers getting into the aerobar game and spec’ing it.
- Quintana Roo PR5 size 56: The PR-series bikes appeal to me on a lot of levels: aero, easy to work on. I like the 5 because we can slap a traditional stem and bar combination on it, as opposed to the proprietary stem of the PR6.
- Orbea Ordu M20i in XL: Also known as “the Starky bike,” I really like the way that Orbea pieced this thing together.
So what will I wind up riding? Not quite sure yet. And naturally, I wasn’t the only one getting a bike fit at Pacific:
In sum, if you have a Slowtwitch Road Show coming near you, sign-up for one of the bike fits. You won’t be disappointed.