Why does Chris Froome look so bad on a bike?
Over the past several years, there’s been endless talk about Chris Froome’s riding style and position on the bike. Froome himself admits he looks terrible — elbows out, head down, heels dropped. Ghastly.
You’d think after all these years at the highest level of cycling, someone, somewhere, somehow, would find a solution to make him look better, and more importantly, ride more economically on the bike. Well, in fact, you’re looking at it.
One of the world’s leading fit specialists, a consultant to several WorldTour teams, and an innovator of products for Specialized, Dr. Andy Pruitt, says it’s all a function of how the bike fit resembles the rider. Though he has never personally examined Froome, Pruitt is privy to Froome’s Retul data. Retul is a technological partner of the British team.
“Off the bike, I suspect Chris’s ambulation, gait, and posture are as ugly as they are on the bike.” In so many words, Pruitt has confirmation of this fact from the physiotherapist that worked for Team Sky and Froome for several years, Dan Guillemette. Because Guillemette has since moved to the Mitchelton-Scott team, he chose not to comment for this story.
According to Pruitt, he and Guillemette share the same fit philosophy: They use Retul technology for a full physiological assessment, then adjust the bike to suit Froome as best as possible.
“All of his [body measurement] data falls within normative ranges for WorldTour riders,” Pruitt said. “It doesn’t mean he’s pretty, that just means he’s within normal ranges.”
That said, Froome is constantly fiddling with his bike setup. Froome recently switched to an unmarked Specialized saddle — before the closing stages of the Giro after struggling with saddle sores.
According to Pruitt, his sacrum sits very upright on the saddle, so his pelvis is positioned almost as if he’s sitting up, and he gets much of his forward flexion from his mid-spine and thoracic spine. That creates a lot of pressure on his sit bones and leads to the widest separation of the sit bones as well.
Gary Blem, Froome’s mechanic on Team Sky, makes the many tweaks Froome asks for on a daily basis. According to Blem, Froome has made as many as 17 adjustments to his saddle position since the Tour began, mostly height, but also fore/aft. It sounds like a lot, but that’s better than last year when Blem said he made changes every single stage.
“He plays a lot with his saddle position — generally most days,” Blem said. “He’s playing with his position. And, yes, it has dropped. Some days he doesn’t feel great and the saddle drops and drops. We’ve actually managed to bring him up again. He has a really good position in general. Over the years it’s been coming down a little at a time. Now we’ve been able to get him to an optimum position. Okay, people say he’s sitting lower and we know that, but that is about comfort.”
Blem estimates the saddle height has dropped in the region of 1-1.4 centimeters in the past three years. He said it’s not that Froome has become less flexible, but rather it’s just a feeling the GC star gets.
“Chris comes down a half millimeter at a time,” Blem said. “I agree with what [Chris] says. Your body isn’t the same when you wake up. You’re a little taller in the morning than you are later in the day.”
So, how does this translate into Froome’s unattractive position on the bike? With his saddle far forward and relatively low, his knees tend to bow to the sides. It also leads to a short reach from the saddle to the handlebars. Froome’s long arms and spindly elbows, thus, jut to the sides.
“You can bring all the experts in and put him in the optimal position, but if he can’t hold that position then he simply can’t hold it,” Blem said. “It’s more important for the rider’s feeling to get them to the optimum position, and be comfortable, and not do anything too drastic.”
And why is he always looking down? Well, according to Froome, it’s not about fixating on his power meter but about breathing. Relaxing his neck, he says, allows air to flow easier.
“I’m not just staring at my power meter when my head goes down. My gaze is a little bit lower,” Froome told CyclingWeekly in 2015. “My neck gets tired. I’ve a very rounded upper back and I find my neck gets tired. I find it’s easier for me to breathe, I can get more oxygen when my head is lower down.”
Elbows-out and head-down, Froome is far from graceful. Nevertheless, there is no arguing how effective he has been on a bike in the past five years. That doesn’t surprise Pruitt. A rider’s position on the bike is just one component in a menu of items that makes someone a great cyclist, he said.
And Froome eats from a five-course menu.
Fred Dreier contributed to this report from the Tour de France.