Knee pain dragging you down? Lower back aching after an hour in the saddle? Get set up right by a professional bike fitter, and enjoy many pain-free miles on the road. Getting a proper fit can make you faster, give you better control, and help you find that optimal position for both power and comfort. But be prepared to possibly sacrifice some of your aesthetic ideals in the name of a smooth ride.
This weekend, I finally accepted the fact that aero bars will be a part of my road bike future, and with the heavy discount on bike fits I could get through the tri team, I was almost obliged to get a fully customized position. It was time to move beyond the simple plumb-bob at the kneecap, set the saddle straight, and head out the door fit I’d been riding. Armed with the new Bontrager Race Xlite Carbon Bars, and my road and tri shoes, I marched into my LBS to get a professional setup.
The pro started by moving my cleats all the way back until they sat under the balls of my feet. He measured my feat, made me stand on a box and marked my shoe, checked the strength of my arches, and made sure my legs were the same length. We spent nearly an hour working to get my shoes at the correct angles, levels, and positions to correct the pain just below my kneecap. When I finally climbed back on my bike and clipped in, I was astounded. Pedaling was smoother, painless. I felt at one with the cranks. I felt in control of the pedal stroke. I felt power.
Next, he shot laser beams at different angles of the pedal stroke, moved my saddle forward, and pulled out some mathematical-looking contraptions. When everything looked right, he moved on to the stem and handlebars. After a few measurements to check for flexibility, shoulder width, and such, he swapped out my too narrow handlebars with a wider pair. Going from a 36 cm to a 38 cm made a huge difference. Those two tiny centimeters kept me from slouching and fatiguing my shoulders.
My excitement at a more comfortable handlebar began to fade as I awoke to the reality that my aggressively-cut steerer tube would soon carry a stem with a 25-30 degree rise. Oh how the bike snob in me cringed at the thought. How would I show my face on group rides? “Comfort always equals faster,” the pro said. “Spend more time in the saddle, and you can swap it for a lower stem.” Not only did the new stem cut me to the heart, but my pride also flopped to the ground kicking and screaming–more time in the saddle?!? Me?!?! I am a cyclist!!!
Eventually, the idea sank in. I ignored the tantrum my pride was throwing, and realized that more time in the saddle shouldn’t come off as a punishment. Isn’t cycling my favorite thing to do? So, I realigned my priorities, and now I have a new goal: get my old stem back.
The next day, I took my new setup out for a 25-mile test ride. I gained two miles per hour over my old average speed. Now if that isn’t reason enough to ignore your sense of aesthetics, I don’t know what will convince you.
But I’m still gonna swap out that stem…
Gonna get a pro fit? Here are a few things to remember:
- Prepare to spend a large part of your day at the bike shop (never a bad thing, right?). My fit took three hours, and then he kept my bike for two more hours to finish it up.
- Realize that you may need to buy different parts. New handlebars, stem, or bar tape might not be included in the fit. Some shops may just swap your parts for theirs (depending on use, etc.), but be sure to ask first.
- Wear your bibs! Cycling shorts and socks will make a huge difference while you’re pedaling away.
- Remember to bring all the gear you might need them to adjust. For instance, if you have both training and race-day shoes, bring them both. Or, let them know if you want to add aero bars, etc.
- Watch out for extra installs that might raise the price as well. Be mindful that you may get talked into a new gadget or prettier chainrings. For instance, I added the K-Edge Computer Mount in order to fit my Garmin between the aero bars. Not a bad purchase, but don’t forget you have to pay for all the fancy stuff they put on your bike.
Looking for a pro bike fitter here in SLO? I recommend Josh at Foothill Cyclery. The man knows his stuff! If you do go, let me know how it goes for you. Maybe you’ll get a faster race position than I. 😉
Update: This was one of the first articles I ever wrote for SLO Cyclist back in 2013. You’ll be stoked to know that these days, my aggressive stem is back on the bike. And I earned every bit of those degrees back. Oh, and my knees and back are still pain free.