Little shifts make big differences with bikes
Jay Petervary measures the stem on columnist Molly Absolonís bicycle to ensure the best fit for comfort and efficiency. MOLLY ABSOLONView our entire photo gallery >>
By Molly Absolon, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
March 27, 2013
Last week I had one of those ski days. The snow was wet and gloppy and stuck to the top and bottom of my skis, transforming them into anchors. I skied terribly. My fancy new fat skis felt like they weighed more than I did. I couldn’t move them to make a turn. I couldn’t lift them to ascend the skin track. All of a sudden I was over it.
I know there’s still good skiing to be had, and I haven’t literally hung up my skis for the season, but I have begun thinking about other things, specifically biking. I’m not a winter biker, so when I start thinking about biking I’m envisioning sunshine, warm temperatures and dry roads or trails. Those conditions aren’t here yet, but I’m dreaming, and I’ve started to pull out my gear to make sure it’s in order.
For Christmas my husband gave me a bike fitting. I’ve had my road bike for six years now and don’t have any big complaints. My shoulders get sore, and my hands and feet sometimes tingle, but I always figured that was part of the game. You stay in one basic position for hours on end and you’re going to be stiff and sore, at least that was what I always thought. But apparently there are some subtle adjustments to bike fit that will make a world of difference in your overall comfort. And I am talking subtle: The shifts can be just a centimeter or a degree or two here and there, but that modification can alter your weight distribution, how your joints move and what kind of efficiency you get out of your pedal strokes. At least that’s the sales pitch.
I went in last week for my fitting with Jay Petervary at Fitzgerald’s Bicycles in Victor, Idaho. Jay told me to come in bike shorts with my shoes and to plan to be there for two hours. I was a bit skeptical we could spend two hours adjusting a bike I’d been riding without any big problems for six years, but that skepticism was misplaced.
We started off with an interview that included the obvious questions: How much do you ride and how far? Are you a spinner or a masher? A climber or a downhiller? But then we ventured into more detail, including injuries and goals. After that we got into measurements. Jay had me bend over with a flat back to determine my hamstring flexibility. I stepped over a spring-loaded tool that recorded my inseam, and then we measured the distance between the outside of my shoulders. Jay wrote everything down and then took more measurements on my bike.
Right away, the first red flag went up. My shoulders measured roughly 36 centimeters from side to side, and my handlebars were 43 centimeters across. That difference, Jay explained, would spread my hands out and away from my shoulder joints. Ideally you want them to line up perfectly so your body is supported. Wider handlebars are supposed to have some benefits for stability, but Jay convinced me that on a road bike that isn’t so much of an issue. What we were going for was comfort, and he recommended I try narrower handlebars.
Next Jay measured my feet — both sitting and standing — locating the boney bumps behind my big toes and marking them on the outside of my shoes. He bent the shoes, looking for stiffness. Ideally, he said, you want to minimize the flex and movement of your foot in the shoe to prevent fatigue and stress. The goal is to transfer the power of your leg stroke through your foot without asking the foot to do much work. My shoes fit fine and were stiff enough, but Jay moved the cleats to ensure the pedal was attached to my foot in the correct spot.
Finally, after switching out my handlebars for a smaller set, Jay got me on the bike. Mounted on a trainer, I started pedaling, feeling a bit uncomfortable as he sat by and watched me work. He was looking for jerks, odd posture or funny twitches in my form. Suddenly I became very aware of every aspect of my riding.
I haven’t been on my bike since October and could definitely feel the effects. My pedal stroke seemed uneven and a bit choppy. I was stronger on the downstroke (good quads from lots of turns), while my upstroke was rather lame. Jay assured me that biking on the trainer exaggerated that feeling, but it was an odd sensation I probably wouldn’t have noticed if we weren’t tearing apart everything about my riding and my bike.
For the next hour I spun, stopped, spun and stopped. Jay tweaked my seat forward and back, up and down. Once we got the backp art of the bike settled, he moved to my hands, raising the handlebars, tilting them, moving them forward and back. At times I felt like I was in the eye doctor’s office, where you have to determine which view of a line of letters is better. Sometimes the differences were obvious; other times I couldn’t really tell. It was less about a pronounced change in position and more about a subtle shift in my awareness. Changing the angle of the handlebars a few degrees made me home in on my elbows one time, while another shift moved that concentration to my hands. Sometimes I’d become more sensitive to the feeling in the front of my abdomen. Sometimes that focus was between my shoulder blades. Jay listened and tinkered with the angles, moving things here and there and then having me ride again and again.
In the end, he had moved my seat and cleats and replaced my handlebars and stem. It felt good, but of course I hadn’t ridden anywhere. My discomfort usually doesn’t kick in until mile 25 or so, and then I typically get a kink in my neck and a tingling in my feet, and I feel like I need to stand up and wiggle around. So I’m not sure what fitting will really do until I get to that point in a ride.
As I write, the snow is coming down, so I’m afraid my first bike ride may still be a few weeks away. In the meantime, the jury is out, but getting a fitting was a fascinating way to spend three hours with a man who really knows bikes.
Molly Absolon, a News&Guide copy editor, started backcountry skiing in the Tetons and Absarokas 20 years ago, wearing leather boots and using three-pin bindings. Her column runs in this space every other week through March.