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Bike Fit Myth Busting

Some Bike-Fit myths and popular misconceptions explained/exploded, giving you, the rider some more meaty explanations for why we get you in the position we do and give the advice we give    

An automated system is more accurate: A lot of Bike-Fitting systems rely on the parameters of a system that’s based on ranges that all riders should fit into. For example, everyone should have a knee joint angle of anywhere between 20 and 35 degrees at the bottom of the pedal stroke, depending on whos article, study or forum you happen to stumble apon.

The Truth: Each individual will be more or less efficient and be able to develop power at different points in their range of movement. Of course, as a generic measure it can be good to aim somewhere near 25as a starting point. But there are so many occasions where a persons sports or injury history has an impact on which muscle groups they predominantly use and they will make the most of the pedalling action. A good example of this is people who swap Running for Cycling later in life, especially those who’ve adopted a mid/forefoot running gait in the past, are often much more dependant on their calf muscles than people who heel-strike or have never run. They will all vary on the best saddle height and hence levels of knee extension during the pedal stroke. It is also key that depending on where you start from, the computer might suggest different saddle height. If you are riding too high and your knee extension too great, then it will be the right thing to do to drop the saddle height, but as soon as the system confirms your knee is in the right “bracket” it will say that the saddle height is correct, when in reality there are lots of reasons why your mechanics might improve with more adjustment. Being able to really see what muscle groups a rider is recruiting and when allows a much more accurate final saddle height.

Raising the handlebars will help lower-back pain: This is something that a lot of people try, and to be fair it can often result in a short-term improvement of their symptoms. 

The Truth: Unfortunately it’s a vicious cycle of issues that never really get to the root of the problem. Lifting the handlebars will initially off-load some of the muscles in the lumbar region, but it will promote more muscles to get progressively more “lazy” and cause the rider to slouch more on the bike rather than helping them gain better trunk control and improve their posture and position on the bike. 

Eventually the rider ends up relying solely on the passive parts of their spine (discs, ligaments, bones) to support their body on the bike. Inevitably, these parts of the back are the ones that can’t help but wear out as we get older rather than get stronger which muscle will, so it’s a no brainer in our opinion, get your trunk and musculature working properly for you and you can achieve a better position on the bike whilst protecting your spine as much as possible. Added to this, when your trunk is too relaxed (or slouching) the reach of any bike will seem a lot longer as you use shoulder protraction a lot more to get to the bars or levers. You will also be relying a lot more on your arms, neck and shoulders to bear your weight on the handlebars feeling like you have more pressure on your hands and simultaneously more weight on your bottom too since the bottom of your torso slumps onto the saddle rather than being part of the support mechanism for the body. The final benefit of getting your trunk more active is for power. A more engaged torso will result in better power transfer. Think of it like a car engine, if your legs are the pistons, driving the drivetrain, your torso is the chassis and engine mounts from which that power is harnessed.

Leg length shims are a cure to all pelvic/back problems: I have seen a lot of leg-length shims and wedges being used for people who shouldn’t need to use them and are simply creating more in-grained issues as a result. 

The Truth:  Of course, there are certain circumstances when an anatomical leg length difference needs the help of a shim or spacer to allow the rider to achieve a neutral pelvic position and stabilise their hips. From years of experience however, this is very much the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of leg-length-discrepancies (LLD’s) are functional. That means that there is another reason for the pelvis to not be working correctly and for the appearance of a difference in leg lengths to be apparent in certain positions/activities. Hip/Pelvic instability can have been caused for a number of reasons and it is essential to understand what the dysfunction is, how it manifests on the bike and the symptoms it gives when or after riding to really be able to give the best solution for the rider long term. It could be that a different shape saddle would help, it may be that an old hip injury has caused tightness in one side and excess movement in the other, or it could be simply the riders work life or lifestyle (driving excessive distances, twisted at a desk etc) has resulted in part of the pelvis becoming unstable. All these things can be helped but might require different approaches!

Saddle width is the most important measurement for saddle choice: Another thing that often confuses people is when they are told that simply by sitting on a gel pad on a stool, this will give them the optimum saddle choice for their riding.

The Truth: Unfortunately it’s just not that simple. Saddle width is certainly one aspect of what will make a saddle more comfortable for one rider compared to another, but more often than not, a rider who gets on with a “143mm width” saddle would still be comfortable on the slightly wider version and vice-versa. The reasons that saddle work for a rider are a lot more about the shape of the saddle when looking from above, and it’s profile when looking from behind and side-on, as well as other things like length of the saddle, inclusion or lack of pressure relief channel and even the material used on the surface from a friction point of view. In reality, the best approach takes all facets of both saddles and body-types in order to get the right saddle.Pressure mapping can help in circumstances where a rider has been having real difficulty getting comfortable, and we are in the process of doing a lot of research into helping women in particular get more comfortable on the saddle (watch this space for a blog post specific to this soon!). In more fundamental terms, if you can take things holistically rather than just one criteria you stand a much better chance. So, we look at a riders flexibility, the sitbone width, the pelvic stability, the way they ride both the bike and position on the saddle, and hopefully guide them to the most comfortable option for them. Something as simple as having a saddle that is flatter across the back from side to side instead of “domed” like many classic saddles can make a huge difference to keeping the pelvis stable and pressure off the important soft tissues.

If you want to get stronger on the bike, just ride more: This is partly true, I have to admit, getting the miles in and getting some specificity and structure to your riding and training will help you achieve better gains than doing less, but I also want to point out that there is much more to being a better machine that rides the machine.

The Truth: So many riders could benefit hugely from trading in one of their turbo or riding sessions in a week (especially through the winter months) for a more global-body approach to Strength and Conditioning. From a perspective of injury prevention, efficiency and performance on the bike, a good strength session will be worth its weight (pardon the pun) in gold. It allows a rider to focus on gaining strength and providing activation of a whole load of muscle groups that we, as cyclists, neglect on a wholesale basis as we push the pedals round on our favourite hills, lanes or garages. Working out your hamstrings for example (which will seem much harder than you think at first, trust me, I’ve been there), will mean that you achieve a much better quad/hamstring ratio, allowing the pelvis to stay much more neutral rather than being pulled into a rotated position and greatly reducing the possibility of debilitating, weakness induced lower back pain. Doing some pulling and pushing exercises will aid shoulder muscles, huge groups of back muscles and triceps meaning your will feel stronger for longer on the bike especially during the business end of a race or challenge. Even stuff like using weights to improve a riders resistance to rotational loads will help make them be able to put every ounce of power through the pedals rather than losing some to what we would term “background noise movements”. On top of this, training like this also has the ability to help keep the body in a much more stable position on the saddle to reduce discomfort there (see point 4!) and trunk control as the body reaches across to the bars (see point 1!).

We really hope this short article has helped you think a little more about your bike fit, the position you hold on the bike and the value you may be able to extract from your riding in terms of comfort, power and injury prevention but taking a fresh approach to your bike fit. If you would like any more information, have any questions or want to visit us, head for our website or give us an email on info@pedalprecision.comand we will do everything we can to help you “Ride Better”.