Thursday, April 4, 2013

Bike Fit, How Does It Work?

Springtime Seven
Preparing my roadbike for the first skinny tire ride of Spring, I realised it's now been over a year since I've had it. And, looking at the somewhat unsightly spacer poking out above the stem I realised something else: My road position hasn't changed over that time. That bit of steerer was left uncut in case the handlebars turned out to be too low for comfort, which did not happen. The spacer below the stem has remained in place as well. Considering that prior to a year ago my position was in constant flux, it's nice to finally feel settled in.

Alas, this has not given me any great insights into the topic of bike fit. I have seen huge variations in the positions of people I ride with, each of them apparently suiting the rider just fine. I have also been exposed to a number of fit philosophies - each yielding a different conclusion about the size and setup of the bike I ought to be riding. Seasoned cyclists often advise new riders to "have an expert fitting." But depending on which philosophy the fitter subscribes to, results will vary.

Since my bike is a Seven and Seven Cycles are known for their fit methodology, I am occasionally asked to describe the fit process I went through. While I don't think my experience was typical, this seems like a good occasion to share it, so here goes:

When I first tried a Seven demo bike two summers ago, they set it up to match the position of my own bicycle. At the time, I was riding a bike with a long top tube, short stem, handlebars slightly above saddle height, and saddle pushed back to slacken an already relaxed seat tube even further. Setting up the demo bike to match mine was contrary to what I had expected going into the test ride. But Seven's Rob Vandermark suggested I start from a point of familiarity. Set up in this manner, the Seven felt good, and with the fit already familiar I could focus on its ride quality and speed. But this was a long term demo, and when I began taking part in fast group rides that summer I found myself squirming around: bending my elbows dramatically and scooting forward in the saddle. When I communicated this to Rob, he suggested some small changes, including moving the saddle forward and lowering the bars. When this adjustment was made, it felt like a step in the right direction. Eventually I was riding the bike with a straight seatpost and the handlebars placed as low as the frame would allow. It still wasn't quite right, as the frame was simply too large. But it felt better than my previous position.

Later that Fall, I built up a small vintage racing frame with modern components, based on the ideas of fit I picked up from the summer's experience. This bike had a short top tube and long stem, and handlebars just below saddle height. Though I sensed it could still use some tweaking, overall I was now very pleased with my position. When I decided to buy a Seven for the coming spring, I came in with this bike and was measured again, as well as observed and asked questions while I rode on a trainer. The kind of things that were examined and discussed were: my cadence, where I keep my hands on the bars, how much time I spend out of the saddle, my back and shoulder position, the position of my feet on the pedals, and lots of other little things that I no doubt missed. Moreover, this was also the time I became involved with the Ride Studio Cafe cycling club (a Seven Cycles dealer) - taking part in their group rides and loitering in the shop. So my formal fit experience was no doubt supplemented by their getting to know me and my riding style. There is talk of a famous 50 page questionnaire that Seven customers fill out, but I have never seen such a document; I assume it was filled out on my behalf during and after the fitting session. I did sign off on a build form in the end, and hoped for the best.

When I got the new bike, it fit differently than anything I had ridden previously, but I was left with no doubt it was the "right" fit for me. There was a sense of everything falling into place. My hands knew where the hoods were and plopped right down; my legs felt integrated with the cranks and pedals. I didn't question any aspect of the positioning. Any other roadbike I've ridden since, I try to adjust to the same specs. Depending on a bike's size and geometry, it doesn't always work - but the closer I can get it, the better it feels to ride.

And by better, I don't mean abstract notions of "position X will make me faster/ more comfortable than position Y." Neither do I have a template in mind of what constitutes proper road fit or of what looks correct. Rather, I mean physically better - proven through personal experience to feel both more comfortable, more efficient and less fatiguing. I notice, for instance, that contrary to one popular narrative, my back hurts less with the handlebars set a bit lower. And contrary to another, my legs feel better with the saddle at a steeper, rather than a slacker angle over the bottom bracket. I don't presume that the same holds true for every rider and for every style of riding, but I can't ignore evidence of what works for me. No doubt in the future, my position on the bike will continue to evolve. At what point and in which direction I don't know yet. But for now it might be safe to cut down the extra bit of steerer - affectionately referred to as the "sternum puncher" by some of my riding friends.

Funny thing: I know about half a dozen female roadcyclists who are almost identical to me in size and who all do similar types of riding. When we try each other's bikes, hilarity ensues: The fit is all wrong. Yet we each find our own positions comfortable. And all of us have had expert fittings.

As these things go, I sometimes get bike fit advice from strangers when I am out and about. It is split pretty much evenly between (a)"Your setup is way too aggressive," (b)"Your setup is not aggressive enough," and (c)"That bike is set up just right!" I have a feeling that no matter what my bike looked like, this distribution would remain about the same.

51 comments:

  1. Who else is a good Boston-area fitter (aside from Seven)?

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    1. I know that CycleLoft, Wheelworks and International are big on fittings. But no idea how they compare to Ride Studio Cafe (I had it done there, not at Seven).

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    2. Try Roy Cervantes at Grace Bicycles out in West Holliston, not far from ANT. Roy helped design my custom bike then a custom build of a Surly Cross Check. He once was the guy at Seven who took the numbers and turned it into a design. Rob V. or Roy can be more precise about what that means. Both of the bikes are great fits but different, given their uses. A friend recommended him and also Mark Vautour at Landry's in Boston. Both were great to work with and who I went with was decided by who I wanted to build the frame, and what I could afford. I would have been happy finishing with Mark as well as Roy.

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  2. Coincidentally, I had a bike fitting, for the first time in over 40 years of riding, this week. I'm glad I did it. My bike fitting addressed three real issues that I'd compensated for in less-than-optimal was: I have one leg a little longer than the other, which I'd compensated for by sitting slightly side-saddle. The bike fit addressed this better with a cleat spacer. The fit also moved me forward a little, so my weight is centered over the bottom bracket, so the bike handles better. And I was pressing too hard on the inside of my right foot, cutting off blood flow to my big toenail, which resulted in bruising and eventual loss of the toenail on long rides. The fit added an insole wedge to distribute the pressure on that foot more to the outside. The bike fit also adjusted my cleat position significantly.
    I understand there is a lot of reasonable variation in things like handlebar height that depend on personal preference -- how aggressive do you want to be. But bike fitting can also address real problems and increase comfort as well as efficiency. I think any serious rider should consider it, preferably with an expert with professional training, who is not simply trying to sell you a new bike.

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  3. Of course. You only get a decent position by riding lots. Last year you were still in hyper-analytic mode without this experience.

    One bike riders who are cheap and not influenced by the subjective preferences of others keep the steerer uncut.

    You know, because we've seen how life changes.

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    1. My Eric Estlund made quill stem isn't cheap, but at least is easily adjusted.

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  4. Another thing all those groups in your last paragraph have no idea what they're talking about art to how the bike functions for you.

    Talking aesthetics alone only c) is valid.

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  5. If one rides a bike daily for any reasonable amount of time, a fitting by a specialist is definitely recommended. Like many, I've ridden for years trusting my intuitive sense of what was best but, truthfully, was often blinded by vanity. Finally, after 30 years, I had my first custom built up and went to a fit specialist who extensively interviewed, measured, tested my flexibility, and finally put me on a machine where several adjustments were made until everything felt completely natural. I decided to keep my mouth shut and go with whatever this person said was ideal for my body and riding purposes. He spoke of efficiency and comfort, advances in scientific knowledge of our bodies and breathing and on and on....Then the results were given to the frame builder for her implementation of his numbers. The fitter was not the builder and all he cared about was my happiness and comfort on a bike and the builder, of course, was on the same page and created something perfect for my use. The results were more than I could have hoped for even though if I drew up a version of what I liked it would have looked quite different. It was totally worth the $300 and I learned to put my ego aside and trust the experts! There is literally no adjustment period, now, when I hop on the bike and no soreness even if I sneak in a few longer trips here and there. Just Perfect!

    I think many give up on riding when the bike they use is poorly designed for their purpose, or the fit is off. I want people on bikes, not off, and I hope for them to enjoy the physical and mental benefits which have certainly offered sustenance and joy to me through the ups and downs of life.

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  6. My various bikes set-ups are all over the map now after years of trying to come up with a general approach that would let me maintain some consistency among the herd. I'm much happier now. I'm not sure why I was trying so hard to create some universal scheme, maybe I watched "A Sunday in Hell" too many times with Eddy Merckx futzing around with the saddle and bars on his Paris Roubaix bikes.

    My MTB has gone from super long stem with flat bars to a short stem with riser bars as fashion changed, the first time I showed up with the current longish stem with riser bars my friend Ken gave me the same look I get from my wife when she catches me pouring applesauce from the jar into my mouth. What the heck do they care? It's my dang handlebar/stem/applesauce and just cuz' they do it different I gotta get a lecture, blah blah blah, "long stems slow down steering response, riser bars raise your center of gravity too high if you push the bars that far forward, use a spoon and you wont get applesauce down your frock." Puleeze.

    I'm so past caring about that, as long as my back is still bendy at the end of the day and I don't break a tooth on the jar I'm golden.

    Spindizzy

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    1. Well at least you don't pour the apple sauce back (I hope)

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  7. They say the most comfortable bike is the one you have been riding for the last week.

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  8. I had a bike fitting and it was a disaster...the guy was a notorious obnoxious jerk, he never even finished the fitting. He gave me all these grand recommendations on how he'd built up the bike I bought...but when I picked it up, the bike was almost opposite to what we had talked about. I was so exasperated that I took the bike home and made my own adjustments.
    I have also witnessed 'bike fittings' in bike shops and been appalled. One day I saw an older senior gentleman in good shape bringing in his beautiful lugged high end road bike which he likely had for years.
    He was having trouble reaching the drops. All he needed were some moustache bars, or slightly upright bars for comfort. But the young bike shop dude was like oh nothing we can do...and tried to sell the man a new icky comfort bike!! I felt badly for the man and suggested he just try some different handlebars if he wants to keep riding his beloved bike. I had looked up some info on the Jack Taylor bicycle building brothers who worked together for their whole lives. As they got older, their handlebars just went up, and then switched to upright bars and kept riding into their 80's.

    So, while I would love to have a good bike fitting, being a petite person there are loads of issues with frames not being designed properly with little people in mind. And loads of contrary advise on small bikes. Oh to be normal sized and have loads of choices to try out!

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    1. Heck, even swapping out for shallow modern drop bars could have helped.

      Based on the feedback I hear, expert bike fittings are indeed a mixed bag.

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  9. If I have learned nothing else in my career as an architect, it is that people are extremely adaptable to the world around them - mentally, emotionally, and physically. A fitting addresses all three at a single moment in time, and those who lack the means to avail themselves of a a good (aka exceptional) fitting should remember that what they are riding is after all only a bike. Raise the saddle. Shift it forward. Drop the bars. If you need help from a bike shop, go ahead and get them to do a few of the harder parts. Then live with the changes you made for a little while and see if you are having more fun. A professional fitting may be a shortcut to more fun, but it is possible to get there on your own.

    and to Jon: one leg is not shorter. your pelvis is twisted. find a new chiro
    Ask me how I know........

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    1. I know... but it doesn't bother me. A cleat wedge is a simple solution.

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  10. BTW the sternum puncher -- it's a dumb name for something that would do equal damage if it sat more flush. The stem mushrooms up and leaves the cap up, even when the stem is fully raised.

    It's scary looking, but dumb to cut just because of that and dumb to cut because other people don't like its aesthetics. Cut it if it bugs you.

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    1. Knowing me, I will probably keep it; I'm conservative and it's small to my eye anyway.

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    2. If you get a a bit sore in the back, want to take some weight off an injured wrist, coming off a winter weight gain it's good to have wiggle room.

      To my eye it says "pro" more than a flush steerer. Not so much pro, but more like "this rider knows what she's doing".

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  11. I bought my first road bike last fall - a Specialized Ruby. I rode about 20 different bikes before I bought one, and this was the one that just felt "right" to me.

    But I didn't take the clipless leap until about a month ago, at which point I forked over the dough for a professional fitting. And I have to say it made a HUGE difference.

    The fellow had to put a shim in one shoe to get my knees both pointing straight, and measured every conceivable section of my body. But I also got to see myself riding from various different angles, and that combined with a few pointers from the fitter really helped me sort out some posture issues I was having.

    The end result: before the fitting I was getting saddle sores on any ride over 20 miles, and my feet would go numb (which could have been from bad shoes.) After the fitting, no more saddle sores, and my feet feel great! It also just seems like it's easier/more efficient - though I'm sure some of that is the pedals.

    Anyhow, it was a worthwhile investment for me.

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    1. I am with you. Surprising that when people discuss whether to go clipless, comfort is seldom mentioned. It's usually about power transfer vs the shoes ruse. For me, clipless shoes improved my comfort on the bike enormously and that's my #1 reason for preferring them.

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  12. "Funny thing: I know about half a dozen female roadcyclists who are almost identical to me in size and who all do similar types of riding. When we try each other's bikes, hilarity ensues: The fit is all wrong. Yet we each find our own positions comfortable. And all of us have had expert fittings"

    I really don't think this is unusual at all. I'm waiting for a professional bike fitter to chime in......

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  13. Can you elaborate on your statement that you've been exposed to a number of different fit philosophies....? Were these all by professionals? Were they involving your customs?

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    1. I only have one custom roadbike. But I've had the fortune to talk to numerous framebuilders, manufacturers, bike shop owners/ employees, coaches, and racers. There also used to be a bike fit expert who advertised here (KGS Bikes), and we've had some interesting conversations.

      I am not sure that you're asking me to list the specific bike philosophies I've been exposed to; that topic is too big to casually discuss in a comment.

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    2. Sorry, I thought you had a couple mixte bikes made as well as a fixie and at least one 650B and assumed they were designed to your fit you and your needs. I'm just curious as to how folks can find the right bike and what philosophies are out there, not just for road/fast bikes. I spoke to three different fitters, all in different parts of the country, who all seemed to know each other and suggested they would come up with roughly the same conclusions.

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    3. If a bike is poorly designed it will sit, if properly designed it will integrate itself into your life and enhance it in unexpected ways. If one makes the choice of getting a custom bike, proper fit for the use seems top priority, unless the motives are elsewhere.

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    4. Right you are; I was tired when I wrote that.

      The first mixte was a custom, and the builder did measure me. It seems that he used modern road/race fit, and for a bike with swept-back handlebars the result was a tad too small for me in retrospect (but the size would have been perfect for a roadbike with drop bars). The second mixte was my own design rather than a custom, so I was my own fit "expert."

      The Mercian fixed gear was interesting. I was asked the size of bike I wanted (defined by seat tube length) and did not go through a fit procedure. I told them "52cm and no TCO please" that was that. The later 650B frame was built based on my own specs, so again no custom fit.

      As far as what fit philosophies are out there... In very broad terms and limiting it to road bikes, one could say there is modern road/race fit, classic (ie vintage or Eddy) road/race fit, French fit, Rivendellian fit... Some also refer to Italian and English fits, which seem to be less well defined. There are also more focused areas of disagreement, such as KOPS (has to do with seat tube angle), the so-called "women specific fit," stem length and saddle tilt angle.

      Upright bikes with swept back bars call for a still different fit approach, as do other types of bicycles (mountain, time trial) with which I have zero familiarity.

      I've tried to find a source that talks about all of this comprehensively, but can't seem to do so. Maybe a topic for a future post!

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    5. PS: here, this seems like a good general description of some fit philosophies

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    6. As a filler, the best fitters integrate the best ideas, whether they're codified in a particular philosophy or not, and may or may not be well read on all of them. It's not rocket science with the right tools, but it helps tremendously if that person has a deep grounding/degree in exercise physiology.

      Best to find that guy/gal.

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    7. Cool. Never really thought of it before, but per the fit philosophy link, my Kellogg 30th Anniversary is an Eddy fit bike.

      Which kind of makes sense, given 30 years ago Kellogg was making bikes for people who raced with Eddy.

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    8. Indeed, I found that the guy who helped me to be quite nimble with his knowledge and experience. His agenda was for comfortable, pain free, riding on a daily and sustained basis. That's all he was selling and his lack of ego and general level of humility despite his impressive credentials helped me to put my trust in his judgement and recommendations.

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  14. My experience is that posture on the bike is somewhat independent from the relative position of the bars, saddle and pedals. Even with a perfect fit, it is still possible to ride hunched over with an unhealthy curved spine, causing discomfort and injury. Only some fitting experts seem to agree with this point which may be one reason why so many cyclists seem to complain of back and neck pain.

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  15. I've definitely gone through a phase in which bike fit was something I studied with almost academic precision. It seems to me that many people that are attracted to cycling develop an exacting, perfectionist, mentality the more they experiment and develop their interest. For me, this attitude led to me measuring my seat height to the millimeter and making sure my knee was perfectly parallel to the pedal when it was the 3 O'clock position on every bike I owned. Over time I realized that all this was over the top and silly. Sure, some measure of bike fit is necessary, but so long as you're within a reasonable range your body will adapt to small differences in stem length or seat position. Now I can jump on a 56, 58, or a 60 frame bike, make a few tweaks here and there with a multitool, and be happy with the way it feels after a few miles of getting used to it.

    --Duran

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  16. Seems bike fit is a function of many things...

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  17. Fatbirds in Hunstanton are the best. I went in knowing I wanted a Van Nick Yukon. I always thought I was a 54cm. Well they didn't have a 54 or 52 but they measured me up and told me to go with a 52. They ordered the bike up. They setup the brakes on the sides I wanted. They left the steering tube uncut until I decided on the correct height. When everything was done the bike fit like a glove. They basically bent over backwards to ensure the fit was right and I was completely happy. Great customer service. Really if your going to spend your hard earned money you should expect nothing less.

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  18. Perhaps fit is a poorly posed question. Our bodies, riding styles and preferences change over time.

    From a perspective of physics, there are probably optimal efficiency points of aerodynamics and body mechanics. From a point of comfort is hard to see that there is any one "solution" for any one person. Even if true, stasis at "perfection" may have disadvantages.

    It may be that flexibility within certain parameters is the best choice. I wonder where and how this is maximized ?

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    1. Efficiency via measurement of power output hooked up to sensors and a computer can give the fitter an idea of what is most efficient for you, but must be cross-referenced to duration in the saddle/type of riding you are doing/what your goals are.

      There is, of course, a lot of trial and error involved.

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  19. I've been reading your blog for some time. I'd never have imagined this post a few years back. That said, I'm loving reading your plain spoken thoughts on the less utilitarian veins of the cyclist world. Good on you for not getting caught up in the bullshit (of which there is lots in the road bike world). I hope to continue to read about your journey through the vast world of cycling for many more years(cough cough gorideinthewoodsometime).

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  20. Curious how you have setup the frame you constructed?

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  21. The theory of bike fit seems to rest on some very fragile axioms.
    * There is one and only one 'correct' fit for a given individual.
    * That fit will not change over time with variations in body fat, fitness, suppleness, muscle tone...
    * That fit will not vary with purpose (racing, long-distance, commuting, touring).
    * That fit will not vary with mood.
    * That fit will not vary with the weather or the time of year.
    * That fit will not vary with the influence of riding companions.
    * ...and so on.

    I've been fitted, I've chatted with many who've been fitted. I've never heard of a fitter touching on more than a small fraction of these variables.

    In my experience, the more experienced a cyclist, the less impressed they are by 'professional' bike fitters. It may be that beginners are more likely to have a very inappropriate position and therefore a fitting will correct particularly obvious problems.

    My working hypothesis is that the majority of ideas around bike fitting are based more on fashion or religion than scientific principles and there's no substitute for doing the miles and figuring out what works best for you.

    It's fashionable for professional bike fitters to claim their practices are scientific. Before engaging one, ask them to cite a peer-reviewed study that has influenced their work and see how far you get.

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    1. I find myself disagreeing with most thing you say.....all based on my experiences.

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  22. I prefer people to not get fitted by a "pro" fitter. There are some exceptions to this, but for the most part pro fitters tend to fit people in a very "efficient" racing position, which is very uncomfortable. The science in fitting only goes so far, really just gets you to a starting point for "you" to decide what works for you at that moment in your cycling development.

    antbikemike

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    1. The last sentence I agree with, but it isn't at the expense of a "pro" fitter.

      I was fit by a guy who does pro fits, as in real pros - RadioShack, Garmin. He asked me my type of riding, goals, adjusted for it.

      Maybe pro fit means something else where you are, but here fit and needs are perhaps more evolved.

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    2. My experience was the same as GR Jim's. My fitter set up a bike with the fit he proposed and gave it to me for a month to test the theory. I use that same fit 6 years later but I'm sure it will evolve as I evolve. And it wasn't a racing fit although it did involve efficiency and power output.

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    3. I'm with Mike on this one.
      The proprietor of my LBS had a role in creating the original FitKit. He's been on the team for other proprietary systems. He no longer does fittings. People offer him money for fittings. He could use the money. He doesn't take the money. Says fitting is seldom a satisfying process for either the fitted or the fitter. Says clients have expectations that do not connect with reality. Want to buy things that can't be sold. Don't do the part of the fitting where they get to listen. Don't do what they're told and act surprised when doing what they were already doing is not suddenly somehow different.
      Riding a bike is dynamic and personal. It does not digitize easily. I have a brother seven years younger than me and all our lives we've been mistaken for twins. I've logged more miles than him. His racing career was (ahem) rather more significant than mine. Any fitter would set us up identically. I don't like riding his bikes. He won't ride mine. If the fitter threw out the software and went for a bike ride with us he might get the job done that way, by the numbers just no chance.

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    4. So I'm curious, antbikemike, when someone comes to you for a bike what process do you employ for finding the right bike and fit?

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  23. I think this article and the comments attest to the difficulty of getting a proper fit, for you. IMHO you don't want to get a custom bike until you have had a few years of riding and trying different configurations. Buy a good used frame and move your parts from one frame to another until you begin to understand how you feel on different combinations.
    You an waste a lot of money buying custom frames until you understand what you want and need.

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  24. the idea of a "perfect" fit is completely foreign to me. even on the same bike, my stem length, pedal type, and seat position cycle seasonally.

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  25. I just finished reading the magazine Ride On, published by Bicycle Victoria in Australia. One of the columnists had 4 bike fits over a short period of time and they were all carried out by supposed experts (I will refrain from using the word professional in it's usual faulty way) including methods pushed by a major manufacturer as the all singing, all dancing path to bike fit nirvana.

    Results: All of the bike fits varied considerably and the most expensive was the most uncomfortable.

    Draw your own conclusions, plenty of ammunition for the skeptics or perhaps the realists.

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  26. I've come to think that bike fit is like an opinion - everyone has one and they don't always agree. I've discovered that for me personally, having my hands a little higher works better than having thme lower - I run into issues of back pain and other nonsense. I've read a lot of different commentary about this and it seems to me that the only way to iron out what works is to ride lots and pay attention to what your body says.

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    1. An old former racer once looked me over as I was riding next to him and suggested that if I want to rest on longer rides, to move to the drops rather than sit up. "You are one of those people who needs to stretch, not compress their back, I can tell." This goes against conventional wisdom re what feels good on long rides. But I tried that and he was right; works wonders for me. It really is a matter of "to each their own."

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    2. My fitter asked detailed questions about what kinds of pains I feel on the bike while also guiding me through various flexibility exercises and talking about all the possible options. It was a conversation where he had the gift of being able to see. We all have a optimal place on our chosen bike and finding it is the key. Some of us have the luxury of getting the bike made for us, others make do and adjust to the one they have. Comfort is key to confidence and enjoyment.

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