November 25, 2004

Does the Bike Fit the Body?


Cycling should not require contorting into unnatural positions, and experts can help make a match between you and yours

They say you never forget how to ride a bike, but bicycle fitting specialists around Tucson think you probably should.

Too many people think riding involves contorting themselves into an unnatural position, according to fitting specialist Maxim Flake, and the result can be back, knee, neck or butt pain.

Flake, 45, an employee at Supergo Bike Shop at 3302 E. Speedway, says he's charged with "dispelling the myth that we have to fit the rider to the bike," and so he spends his days fitting the bike to the rider. Cyclists of all shapes and sizes can benefit from a "unified fitting where the person comes first," he says.

While there's an ideal position for every kind of bike, the majority of fitting customers come in with their road bikes - the svelte, skinny-tire machines with handlebars that drop, rather than rise. Road bikes are designed for speed and efficiency, and a fit rider can ride one more than a hundred miles a day. As such, road bikes are less forgiving of poor position, and even small changes can make a big difference in comfort and power, according to fitting specialist Jason Woznick.

"The typical client is a recreational rider, who has a nice bike and is starting to spend a lot of time on it," said Woznick, an employee at Fair Wheel Bikes, 1110 E. Sixth St. Serious racers, he says, are often too set in their ways to consider a fitting, despite the benefits it might bring.

In particular, Woznick, 31, says he sees an increase in fittings in the months leading up to El Tour de Tucson, when a rider finds that training is starting to cause some aches and pains.

A fitting can fix much of that, but not overnight. Both Woznick and Flake advise against trying to change your riding position too much right before a big ride like El Tour.

Over the course of 90 minutes, with a tape measure and allen wrenches, a good fit specialist works with rider and bike in a manner that's equal parts tailor, doctor and mechanic. A basic fitting costs $35-$75, depending on the shop and the complexity of the fitting. This often includes follow-up appointments, several weeks later. If you need help with your cleats, it could cost extra.

"Do you have any problems with your lower back?" he asks, while measuring the shoulder width of cyclist Matt Rotando, 33, an avid rider who's been riding for about a year and hopes to ride his first El Tour de Tucson today.

After plugging in a range of measurements of both bike and rider into a computer, Flake scans the results it spits out, using them as a starting point before addressing each rider's unique concerns. Age, flexibility, style of riding and personal goals are all part of the equation, he says.

Unfortunately, marketing dictates that many bikes that roll out the door are set up as if they'll be raced by hyper-flexible young men, hunkered down in an insatiable quest for speed. If that's you, fine - Flake will help you get there faster.

Chances are, though, you have a different agenda, such as Rotando, who's finding that his hands tingle and back hurts during longer rides.

Flake has him climb aboard his bike, which is held steady on a stationary trainer, and has him pedal for a bit to find his regular form.

Then, working from Rotando's feet up, with a handful of measuring devices, Flake checks to see that Rotando's cycling shoes lock into the pedals at the proper position and that his knees have the correct bend.

He determines that Rotando's lower body is pretty well set up. With an eye trained by years of figure drawing, however, Flake quickly sees problems with the positioning of Rotando's upper body.

Reaching forward to the handlebars, Rotando is locking his elbows, depriving himself of what Flake calls his "front suspension." This has the double-whammy effect of sending road vibrations straight up his arms to his shoulders, and forcing much of his upper body weight down onto his hands. The solution involves a quick change of parts to bring his handlebars higher and closer, though only by a mere 1.5 centimeters.

The change, while small, seems to have a profound effect on Rotando, who after a quick spin outside, returns to the store with a grin.

"It's a big difference," he says. "There's a lot less pressure on my hands, and it feels like I'm relaxed in a way I never was before."

Flake is pleased, but he knows that this is just the beginning. A new position involves a certain amount of re-training of the body, he explains. He suggests backing off on his mileage, which equaled about 3,100 miles in his first year of riding. He also gives Rotando "homework," or adjustments to his riding form that he should concentrate on for a month or so, when he'll have him come back for a "tune-up."

"Form comes first, fitness will follow," Flake says with a satisfied smile.

If you go

* What: El Tour de Tucson

* When: Today. 7 a.m. start for 109-mile event; 8 a.m. start for the TMC Kids Fun Ride; 9 a.m. for the 81-mile event; 10:30 a.m. for the 66-mile event; 12:30 p.m. for the 35-mile event.

* Where: The 109-miler and the TMC Kids Fun Ride begin Downtown on Granada Avenue south of West Congress Street; the 81-mile starts at Pima Community College East Campus, 8181 E. Irvington Road; the 66-mile event starts at Tanque Verde Road east of Sabino Canyon Road; the 35-mile event starts at Wilson K-8 School, 2330 W. Glover Road, west of North La Cholla Boulevard.

Where to get a fit

While most full-service bike shops will make sure you fit reasonably well on a bike before you roll out the door, several offer the next level of adjustment, often called a full-body or comprehensive fitting. Call ahead to schedule an appointment.

Cost and time involved varies, depending on the complexity of your particular fitting. You'll need to bring your bike as well as the shoes and clothes you typically ride in. Here are some places to find a fit:

* Arizona Bicycle Experts 2520 E. Sixth St. 881-2279 Cost: $35- $70

* Bicycles West 3801 N. Oracle Road 887-7770 Cost: $25; military and public servants get a 15 percent discount.

* Broadway Bicycles 140 S. Sarnoff Drive 296-7819 Cost: $50 for a body fitting, and $25 for a pedal and cleat fitting.

* Fair Wheel Bikes 1110 E. Sixth St. 884-9018 Cost: $45-$50

* R&R Bicycle Super Store 3757 W. Ina Road 579-7829 Cost: $15- $25 for a road bike, free for a mountain bike.

* Supergo Bike Shop 3302 E. Speedway 327-3232 Cost: $75 for a body fitting, $35 for pedal and cleat fitting.

* Tucson Bicycles 4743 E. Sunrise Drive 577-7374 Cost: $50

* Contact Chris Richards at [email protected]