By Andrew Hood
Considering that professional racers spend thousands of hours a year on their bikes, it’s surprisingly rare to find many who actually look comfortable on their steeds.
Everyone knows what a bad bike fit feels like and most pros seem to share the same menu of dull aches, pains and injuries encountered by the rest of us.
A few are blessed, like Fabian Cancellara, who seems genetically wired to ride a bicycle.
Cancellara’s piston-firing position is truly a gift from the cycling gods. Ask him if he stretches regularly to create his incredible high-wattage power output, he’ll laugh and say, “not very often.”
In fact, the Beijing Olympic time trial champ will readily admit he’s only been properly fitted for a bike once in his career, and that was nearly 10 years ago when he was starting out with the Mapei team.
Most pros find their position like the rest of us: they throw their leg of over the saddle and eventually settle on a position that – through feel, instinct, advice, comfort and following a few basic rules like dropping a plumb line below their knees at mid-stroke – feels pretty good.
This week, in a basement of a hotel in Mallorca’s Playa del Palma, the Saxo Bank squad is quietly taking a much more scientific approach to the question, embracing bike-fitting technology on a team-wide basis.
New bike sponsor Specialized convinced team owner Bjarne Riis that properly fitting bikes are just what his riders needed to win more races.
The Morgan Hill, Calif.-company introduced Riis to its innovative BG FIT (Body Geometry Fit Intergration Technology) bike fit system developed by Andy Pruitt, director of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and longtime bike-fit guru among U.S. pros.
Riis cautiously agreed and gave the green light for the “mass fitting” to commence this week.
“I always want to try new things and bring in new ideas,” Riis told VeloNews. “It already fits in with what we’re already doing on the team with our physical therapists. If it helps make our riders better, we want to do it.”
The bike-position project is a key component of a busy week at the Saxo Bank during the team’s January training camp.
There’s a flurry of activity as mechanics build new bikes and riders ply the narrow roads of Mallorca to undergo the season’s first long and difficult training rides.
An otherwise non-descript meeting room was turned into a sort of bike-fitters nerve center, with video cameras, computers, sensors, specialized software and a piles of stems, saddles, shoe platforms and other gadgets filling the room.
Leading the effort is Pruitt, who helped design and develop the BG FIT system for Specialized bikes. An avid cyclist and director of The Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, Pruitt harnessed his 30 years of experience of fitting bikes to formulate the BG FIT program.
“The bike needs to look like the rider, not the other way around,” Pruitt said. “With the right fit, we’re going to make these guys better.”
The ultimate goal makes for a more comfortable and efficient ride, but also increases power, extends durability and decreases the chance of injury.
“With a proper bike fit, at maximum effort, the heart rate is lower and time to exhaustion is longer,” Priutt said. “It can make a tremendous difference.”
Saxo Bank riders filtered in one-by-one to hone, tweak and sometimes radically alter their riding position in half-hour to one-hour sessions.
Riis, a stickler for detail and known for his bike acumen, certainly paid attention to what was going on. The Saxo Bank owner wanted to provide his input, especially when it came time to finesse the positions of the Schleck brothers.
“For some riders, it won’t make that much of a difference,” Riis said. “But for others, especially those who’ve had injuries or some other problems, it will be huge. It’s all part of making the team better.”
Helping Pruitt is Scott Holz, a 20-year industry veteran who began “bike fitting before there was a name for it.”
One of the nation’s top fitters, Holz came to Specialized about a year ago after working at such leading retail shops as Signature Bikes in New York City. He’s now the “Senior Fit Professor,” conducting Specialized’s BG FIT training classes for dealers and technicians to conduct the bike fits in stores across the globe.
Already more than 1500 students have attended a three-day course at the Specialized Bike Components University, representing stores in the United States, Europe and Asia.
Also providing first-hand experience and insights was the recently retired Bobby Julich, who is now working closely with Riis as Saxo Bank’s technical advisor.
Julich work with Pruitt throughout his professional career and was among the earlier pros that saw the benefits and advantages of properly fitting the bike for optimum performance.
Cancellara near perfect
In the second afternoon of fitting, Olympic time trial champion Cancellara lumbered into the room.
Pruitt put Cancellara through the motions; pulling, extending and stretching his legs, ankles, knees and back to test his strength, range of motion and look for any weaknesses.
The exam was part of a thorough, 18-item “physical assessment” that determines leg-length inconsistency and ankle, knee and back positions.
“We do a physical assessment off the bike to find out what the rider is capable of on the bike and to see if they have limitations,” Holz said. “If they can’t do it off the bike, then why should they be able to do it on the bike?”
Pruitt was impressed with the flexibility and raw power Cancellara’s big frame could produce.
“We’re seeing why Fabian is such a world-class time trialist,” he said. “With his range of motion, this guy was truly born to race a time trial bike.”
Cancellara then pedaled on his bike in what’s the meat and potatoes part of the bike fit.
Two fixed video cameras captured his front and side views to gauge knee, back and shoulder positions. Holz placed sensors on Cancellara’s kneecaps and the video later confirmed Cancellara’s superb riding position.
Using specially designed DATA capture software, Holz and Pruitt can track and compare such things as knee alignment, back and shoulder positioning as well as knee and leg angles between different adjustments and positions.
It’s an invaluable tool that allows them to quickly and accurately measure differences.
Next came detailed work with Cancellara’s time trial position, with Pruitt and Holz tinkering with seat height, saddle and pedal position to maximize Cancellara’s natural gift.
The hour-long session was a worthy investment for the self-styled “Spartacus.”
“Even the Olympic champion can make adjustments,” said Cancellara told VeloNews. “The way cycling works these days, every single thing that you can improve on is important to do better. This might help 0.001 percent, but we win bike races by meters, sometimes even millimeters.”
While Cancellara was near-perfect, Pruitt and Holz faced more interesting challenges with other Saxo Bank riders.
Some had relatively minor problems and used shoe platforms and slight adjustments in their saddle and handlebar heights to resolve a long-nagging problem.
Newcomer Michael Morkov, a chunky Dane who’s crossing over from the track, could barely touch his toes. That hamstring stiffness translated into an uneven riding position, corrected by raising his handlebars 2.5cm.
Alexandr Kolobnev, the muscle-bound Russian stage-hunter, is extremely flexible, but had major knee-tracking problems. New shoe platforms helped correct the tendency.
Another example of how a relatively minor change can have major impact was with Lars Bak. The tall, blonde Danish head-banger was overly stretched on his bike frame, which pushed up his back and shoulders and increased his drag.
Bak’s handlebars were raised by 1.5cm. The result? Bak’s head, shoulders and back all tucked in lower because Bak didn’t have to reach out so far and instead had flex in his handlebars.
“Bike fitting can sometimes be counter-intuitive,” Holz said. “We raised his handlebars and we immediately saw him before even more aerodynamic.”
Frank Schleck, holder of the yellow jersey in last year’s Tour de France, proved more complicated.
The Luxembourg climber has one of the most elegant pedaling styles in the peloton, but everyone agreed he seemed hunched up and sat too low in the saddle.
Pruitt’s exam also revealed weak ankles and wobbly knees that pushed his knees near the top tube as they swept up the pedal stroke, decreasing his ability to create power and potentially causing long-term injury.
After trying several positions and combinations, it was agreed that Schleck would raise his seat and shorten his stem to create a more balanced fit as well as work on strengthening his core to help alleviate his knee tracking problems.
With the possible exception of Cancellara, who proved to have an almost-perfect natural position on the bike, rider after rider was happy to discover the joys of what they were missing – a bike that fit their personal styles and bodies.