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Of Man and Machine

If the Bike Don’t Fit, You Will Get Bit


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Trying to ride a bike that’s not properly fitted is a bit like listening to someone play an out-of-tune violin. In both instances, pain ensues. I learned this the hard way. In recent months I fussed and fidgeted with my ancient (but form-fitted) road bike, changing saddles, seat posts, and cleated bike shoes, all in short order. In the process, I heedlessly messed up a carefully calibrated ecosystem of ergonomic geometry. Before long, the constellation of muscles around my right hip and hamstring became an aching ball of chronic pain. Adding a dash of humiliation to this excruciation, people twice my age — and three times my body mass — were now passing me by without breaking a sweat (not that I’m the least bit competitive). I sought to re-adjust my cleats. What was bad just got worse. A ferocious charley horse attacked my left calf and wouldn’t let ago. As a weekend road warrior and hard-core bicycle commuter, this approximated an existential crisis in the first degree. I was a gimp.

First, I visited the friendly neighborhood bone cracker. But $50 later, the aches remained. That’s when I decided it was time to succumb to a bona fide bicycle fitting, something I’d never done in all my years in the saddle. Fitting, I had thought, was for princess-and-the-pea, bipedal prima donnas. Real riders, such as myself, intuitively knew how to become one with their machine. Wrong.

Bruce davis from Hazard's Cyclesport
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

Bruce davis from Hazard’s Cyclesport

There are many qualified fitters in town. But a couple of serious riders I know swore by Bruce Davis, the owner of Hazard’s Cyclesport. Hazard’s, open since 1914, is easily the oldest bike shop in town. And Davis, who bought the shop in 1994, has been fitting Santa Barbara riders the longest. A certified Santa Barbaran, Davis grew up attending Peabody grade school, La Colina Junior High School, and San Marcos High School; his father, a cabinetmaker, built the bars for such iconic watering holes as Harry’s, Joe’s, and the Montecito Country Club. As a kid, Davis rode his Sting-Ray to school. By the early ’80s, he was racing mountain bikes. By the late ’80s, he’d been bit by the triathlon bug. Like many triathletes, Davis found himself endlessly tweaking his bicycle adjustments to maximize performance. What angles allowed for optimum energy output, but with the lowest possible heartbeat?

The bike fitters’ bibles in those days dated back to the 1940s and 1950s, when the rules — ruthlessly dogmatic — were based on 22-year-old Italian males in peak physical condition. It didn’t take Davis long to figure that the one-size-fits-all maxims did not work. He also discovered that what produced maximum results “in the lab” did not necessarily apply on the road. Instead, he would eventually conclude, it was all about comfort. “I discovered that comfort equals speed equals efficiency,” he said. “Most importantly, it’s crucial to wanting to ride your bike.”

While this formulation is perhaps not as earth-shattering as Einstein’s e=mc2, it proved — for me anyway — more immediately applicable and beneficial. At the shop, Davis hooked my bike into a stationary riding machine. Then he had me hop on top and commence spinning. For a while, he just observed my motion from a range of different angles. For Davis, the three key points of the human triangle are the feet, the butt, and the hands. How they line up — or don’t — makes all the difference between pain or pleasure. If the seat post is too high, for example, the knees become overextended and susceptible to stress injury. If it’s too short, the hip flexors will feel the crunch.

Then he pulled out a series of diagnostic measuring tools from a foam-padded stainless steel briefcase. Ideally, the lower leg (from the knee down) should be at a 30-degree angle to the upper leg (from the knee up). To measure this, he uses something called a goniometer, which looks a bit like a giant compass. Ideally, your knee should be directly over the pedal’s central crank post. To measure this, Davis pulled out a string with a plumb bob attached. And to make sure the front of the seat post is the right distance from the handlebar stem, he used a simple tape measure calibrated in millimeters and centimeters.

After much measuring and plumb-bobbing, Davis discovered I was off more than a little bit in a lot of different and important ways. My saddle was about 1.5 centimeters too low. It was also set too far back by about the same distance. All this reduced the power of my stroke and contributed to my hip pain. The basic tilt of my saddle was also off by a few degrees. And my cleat adjustment was a total mess.

Getting the right fit is a matter of a thousand incremental adjustments. It can take up to a couple of hours to get everything right. Davis, an enthusiastic and garrulous guy, likes to talk and has all kinds of stories to tell — like how the shop’s original owner Henry “Hap” Hazard used to keep a bear in a cage behind the shop to practice wrestling with. Time there has a habit of flying by. Included in the deal is at least one follow-up visit. During mine — a week after the first — Davis discovered that my seat had slid back a few centimeters even though all the bolts were screwed down tight. Maybe a new seat post would be required. We would see.

All this costs $125. I could easily have spent that much on doctors, medications, chiropractors, or massages and not gotten any lasting results. For me, the relief provided by the fitting was almost immediate. Two weeks after, there’s still some ache. But it’s a shadow of what it was. I don’t wince at the thought of riding. In fact, I don’t think twice about it. It’s back to being fun. Some things haven’t changed, however. I still get passed routinely by other riders. But then, I was never that competitive to begin with.