From the pages of Velo: The story of Andy Pruitt’s remarkable cycling ascent
Editor’s Note: This story originally ran in the February 2012 issue of Velo magazine, a special issue dedicated to some of the most compelling personalities in cycling.
As the founder of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, Andy Pruitt has helped scores of amateur and pro cyclists hone their riding positions, including Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen, Alberto Contador and the Schleck brothers — as well as several members of the Velo editorial staff. And whether it’s a Tour de France contender or a mid-pack age grouper, Pruitt applies the same careful eye for detail, combined with 40 years of experience, enabling him to pinpoint an athlete’s problem often after only a brief glance.
Dialing in Cancellara’s time trial position is a perfect example. In 2009, when Saxo Bank moved from Cervélo to Specialized, Pruitt, a Specialized consultant, convinced the reigning Olympic champion to try a more upright TT position. Raised in the old-school European mentality that lower is always better, the Swiss champion resisted, but reluctantly agreed.
“After measuring his hamstring flexibility, I spent a lot of time talking with him about the maximum hip flexion that was allowable,” Pruitt said. “The old-school theory was lower in front is faster, but it’s not true. You can go too low, and lose power.”
Cancellara seemed happy with the new position; he started out his 2009 season with a prologue win at the Amgen Tour of California. But when Pruitt saw Cancellara riding the opening stage of the Tour of Romandie, he immediately knew something was wrong. “I’m watching it live on TV, and I’m watching his hips rock too much and I know he’s lowered his position,” Pruitt said. “I could see in his body it was way too low. I sent a text to my team contact, asking, ‘What’s going on? I’m watching this live, his position is awful.’”
Cancellara finished 11th in the Romandie prologue. Afterwards, he admitted to Pruitt that he’d caved in to old habits and lowered his cockpit by 4cm. “He told me that he had crotch pain, he had back pain, and more importantly, he went slower,” Pruitt said. “The bottom line is that he’d gone too far. Even a guy like Cancellara can go beyond his physiological capabilities. He raised it back up and won time trials that year at Tour de Suisse, Tour de France, the Vuelta a España and the world championship.” Over the past few years, the often outspoken and tenacious Pruitt has become perhaps the most sought-after biomechanist in pro cycling. He’s also medaled at the U.S. disabled ski championships and is a two-time world champion in disabled cycling. However, the road to the top, both professionally and athletically, was anything but smooth.
The early years
Pruitt was born in June of 1950, the youngest of three sons of a country chiropractor in Henderson, Kentucky. His father went on to become the executive director of the American Chiropractic Association, located in Webster City, Iowa, and the family relocated when Pruitt was a young boy. It was in rural Iowa that Pruitt’s interest in athletics was born. He played sports throughout his youth, despite his parents’ lack of interest. He recalls buying his first bike, a Schwinn Typhoon, at 12 years old, with the proceeds from a paper route. Despite an early interest in cycling, his first bike race wouldn’t come for nearly two decades.
At the age of 14, Pruitt was accidentally shot in the lower part of his right leg while hunting in an Iowa cornfield. He recalls being on the operating table listening to the orthopedist on the phone with another doctor from the big city asking what to do. Pruitt knew there was no saving the leg. “My foot was in another county,” he said.
He remembers vividly the first two questions he asked his parents and the doctor upon waking up from the amputation: “Will my new foot have toes?” and “When will I run?” They answered, “No” and “Never again.” That turning point ignited in him a desire not only to run again, but also to be “more normal than normal, and to do anything I could to prove those people wrong.”
Despite the loss of part of his leg, Pruitt continued wrestling in high school (he would remove the prosthetic and wrestle without it.) At age 15, the football coach of his high school saw in Pruitt a keen interest in both science and sport and he suggested that he take a course that was being offered in athletic training, sponsored by the Cramer Chemical Company; he agreed and the coach paid for it. Pruitt completed the course and became the athletic trainer for his high school. He worked with the football, basketball, baseball and wrestling teams. His career in sports medicine had begun.
After earning a degree in anatomy from Iowa State in 1972, Pruitt took a position as an anatomy teacher and athletic trainer at Mercer County College in New Jersey. He had enormous autonomy in his position, essentially establishing an entire sports medicine department on his own, months out of college.
It was then that he got a call from the University of Colorado. He took a position as assistant athletic trainer in 1973 and has lived in Boulder ever since. He worked as a trainer with all of the sports teams at CU until 1985. After the passage of Title IX, and despite considerable resistance from the University establishment, Pruitt was one of the first in the U.S. to incorporate women in the training room and on the sidelines in the capacity as athletic trainers.
It was during his time as a trainer that his interest in cycling was rekindled; he started riding again and began to develop a keen interest in non-traditional sports injuries. The atypical, repetitive-use injuries of runners, Nordic skiers, and cyclists were a perplexing puzzle that intrigued him.
After Pruitt completed his physician’s assistant program, Dr. Jim Holmes, the University of Colorado’s team orthopedist, approached him with the idea of moving into private practice. Such an offer came at the right time,
as Pruitt’s interest in endurance athletes was beginning to conflict with his duties with the CU football team. The university essentially welcomed his departure, which, after so many years of dedicated service, bothered Pruitt. His subsequent success has proven to be something of a salve, however.
“When I left CU, making $24,000 a year as head of the department, they couldn’t get me out the door fast enough,” Pruitt said. “They treated me like shit after a decade of service. Now they call me all the time asking me to donate to the program. They couldn’t be bothered with me then, but now when they ask me for money, I think to myself, ‘How do you like me now CU?’”
Pruitt entered private practice with Holmes at Western Orthopedics in Denver, working exclusively in sports medicine orthopedics. He spent 11 years working closely with Holmes, in the operating room twice a week for 12 hours. “I thought I knew anatomy,” he said. “But after 11 years in the operating room, you really learn what sports anatomy is all about.”
It was during the 1980s that he also took a pair of world titles at the world disabled cycling championships. He won rainbow jerseys in 1985 and 1987; he was third in 1986, but found himself marked out of the win at the 1988 Paralympics, finishing sixth.
During the years at Western Orthopedics, Pruitt started working extensively with cyclists and became medical director for both the Tour de Trump and Tour DuPont. It was Pruitt’s job to survey the racecourse to ensure rider safety. He saw a 120-mile course as a rather daunting obstacle for urgent medical needs. Never dissuaded from a challenge, however, he approached Mike Plant, head of Medalist Sports, and pitched the idea of something he called a rolling medical enclosure. Plant was skeptical, but Pruitt stood firm, telling him, “I need a motorcycle to go with any break of a minute or more, another to stay with the main field, and the car would cover anyone off the back. The motorhome, which was a traveling medical clinic, would travel at the end of the caravan and leap frog.”
Plant eventually acquiesced. A few years later Pruitt, as medical director for cycling at the 1996 Atlanta Games, used the same strategy during the Olympic road race; his invention has since become the standard in professional racing around the world.
In the mid-1990s, Pruitt began to study bike fit in a way no one had before: in three dimensions. Gideon Ariel, an Israeli biomechanist whom Pruitt met through Olympic marathon champion Frank Shorter, sent Pruitt a 3D videotape of Shorter running. Pruitt noticed the inefficiencies in Shorter’s stride, and he and Ariel then developed a rehabilitation program for Shorter. Ariel later asked Pruitt if he would be able to use this technology on cyclists. He could — and would.
The original lenses for the 3D cameras Pruitt used were so large his team had to rent hotel ballrooms in order to film around the athlete on the bike. Three VCR tapes had to subsequently be hand-digitized and edited, and then put into a synchronizer that would result in a 3D stick figure on the bike. It took eight hours to do an analysis that today takes 10 minutes.
There was no marketing effort for 3D fit; nothing but word-of-mouth brought this technology to the cycling world. Pruitt’s first 3D subject was Ron Kiefel from the famed 7-Eleven team, and from there it spread. “With a guy like that as your first patient, word spreads fast,” Pruitt said. He believed that if he did his work and got the results, the world would find out.
During the winter of 1995, Pruitt began discussions with Boulder Community Hospital management about the possibility of opening a sports medicine division of the hospital. Pruitt’s proposal was for a replica of an Olympic training center, a pure sports medicine facility open to the public. He convinced them that such an idea would “fly in Boulder, but not many other places.” After resigning from Western Orthopedics in the spring of 1996, Pruitt opened the 10,000 square-foot Boulder Center for Sports Medicine facility in January 1998. It remains one of the premier sports medicine centers in the world, drawing in elite athletes from around the globe.
Over the course of his long career, Pruitt had struck several consulting agreements with cycling companies including Litespeed, Pearl Izumi, and Wave-Flo. It wasn’t until the late 1990s, however, that one of these agreements would prove instrumental in his career.
In 1999, Dr. Roger Minkow, inventor of Specialized’s Body Geometry saddle line, approached Pruitt with an idea for doing a line of shoes. Pruitt’s years of experience with designing custom orthotics landed him the job. He recalls sitting down at a burrito joint with Specialized product managers to talk design features. “The design for the first Body Geometry shoe was drawn up on a greasy burrito napkin,” he said. “I wish I still had it.”
Pruitt signed an exclusivity deal with Specialized for cycling products, a decision he doesn’t regret, or view as a sellout. “They listen, they’re not afraid to be off the front, not that they haven’t taken a couple of wrong turns, but they like being off the front,” he said. “Yes they pay me, but I look at it this way: I can either sit in my office and see 20 patients a day, or I can touch several hundred thousand riders a year with my BG shoe design.”
The Specialized BG Fit Project is an extension of that impulse, and has brought Pruitt prestige throughout the cycling world. He not only works with the best riders in the world, his fit philosophy and techniques are used globally by Specialized dealers. “We’ve now trained 2,000 retail bike fitters around the world,” he said. “That’s my passion at the moment; bringing more people, comfortably, safely, into cycling.”
Pruitt still rides regularly and races local time trials and hill climbs. “I think it’s so important that I walk the walk when I attend team camps,” he said. “So when I talk about pelvic rocking, people believe me. I’m not some fat guy that studied this in the lab, I’m the real deal. I think it’s important to my patients that I ski, I ride, that I know what their sport is and have done it myself.”
Alhough his list of accomplishments is long and varied, and though he’s worked with the biggest names in the sport, Pruitt says he is most satisfied by helping ordinary people.
“The guys who are famous could have achieved their fame and fortune without me,” he said. “They were going to do that regardless. But I am most fulfilled by saving a lifestyle, helping the average guy, the guy that wanted to be a runner but his biomechanics would not allow it. Introducing someone like that to the sport of cycling is far more rewarding. It’s so gratifying to get a letter from someone that says ‘you’ve changed my life.’ I’m old enough to retire, but that’s what keeps me going.”
Andy Pruitt is the author of “Andy Pruitt’s Complete Medical Guide for Cyclists,” published by VeloPress. Velo and VeloPress operate under the same parent company, Competitor Group, Inc.