The Tour de France is under way again, and for some of us that might be enough to prompt us to brush the dust off the old bike and go for a ride. So consider this scenario for a moment, if you will: suppose you did something repetitively, like, really, really often: using the subway stairs could be a good example. It’s fair enough to expect that if your technique was sound, any equipment you used (eg. shoes) were in good shape and your body was up to the task, then you ought to be able to perform this activity almost ad infinitum. Conversely, if you performed this activity and something was out of kilter, be it either with your body or the equipment, it might not be long before something went awry.
Riding a bike, particularly for fitness, is like this. If you rode a few laps of Central Park, say twice a week, then headed up 9W on the weekend, as many of us do, you’d expect to be turning the pedals in the vicinity of 25,000 times a week! Even if you’re simply scooting the wrong way up a one-way street on a Citibike a couple of times a week, you’d still perform a few thousand pedal revolutions.
So getting the bike set up right is important. More important obviously if racking up the miles, but a consideration even for Citibike commutes to the pub (most people, at an absolute minimum, would adjust the seat height of the Citibike being heading off). Optimal bike setup means different things to different people. Racing, triathlon, mountain biking and commuting all have very different requirements. The relative strengths and weakness of the rider, minimizing resistive forces (the main one is drag from wind resistance) & maximizing propulsive forces are some of the things to be considered. Optimal bike setup also minimizes risk of injury.
Not considering injury due to crashes and falls, cyclists most commonly have problems with their backs, knees, necks, and also where they come into contact with the bike – hands/wrists, foot/ankle & the saddle region. This may be due to a problem, pre-existing or not, with the rider, or it could be due to the bike setup, especially if the problem only manifests while riding. Sometimes it’s a combination of both.
Fitting a rider to a bike means working out the attributes of the individual rider, then adjusting the bike to suit those traits. A comprehensive musculoskeletal screening from a physical therapist can not only filter out many of these traits, but can also take previous or current injury history into consideration when adjusting relevant parts of the bike. Out of this process can come the opportunity to commence a rehabilitation or corrective exercise program, should deficits be discovered during the screen.
There’s a bit of both Art and Science in fitting a bike. The science is in the measuring of both bike and rider and the application of a number of previously published formulae to come up with a ballpark approximation of where things ought to be. Thereafter follows the art – fine tuning adjustments based on feel & experience. Sometimes a recommended adjustment may not be appropriate given an individual’s injury history, for example.
There are a number of certified systems available to bike fitters – Retul, Serrotta, FitKit, F.I.S.T. Slowtwitch, and so forth – all of which have their strengths and weaknesses
Depending on the rider’s needs, adjustments can subsequently be gradually made to the bike to make things more streamlined and aerodynamic
The best way to ascertain what’s causing what is to get a professional bike fitting. If you’re serious about your riding
If you’ve just discovered cycling and looking to take things up a notch, and particularly if you have an injury history, then it’s worth considering get a professional bike fitting. The advantage of getting it done by a physical therapist is the ability to incorporate a musculoskeletal screening
Number of common presentations can be directly attributed to improper bike setup
Importance of musculoskeletal screening to determine strengths and weaknesses
Art vs science… Development of principles/guidelines/preferences (LeMond, Hamley, Holmes, etc) but ultimately about feel
Number of variables able to manipulated to achieve good fit body/bike interfaces – pedal/cleat/crank, saddle position (tilt/fore/aft/up/dn), handlebar (stem length/height/tilt)