Getting comfortable: what’s a bike fit and should I get one?

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What’s the first thing you do when you’re getting ready to drive a car that isn’t yours –be it a rental car or that of a friend’s? You move the seat, change the mirrors and generally make sure you’re comfortable and safe, right?

Well, a bike isn’t all that different.

A bike is a very personal thing, and the saddle, reach and handlebar width should all be adjusted to you, your position on the bike and your riding style to ensure maximum comfort, safety and efficiency.

Yet when most people get a bike and simply hop on and ride it, taking whatever discomfort comes with it as part of cycling. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Stiff neck? Knee pains? Aching back? These could all be prevented with a proper fit. So whether you’ve just bought a new bike or you’re experiencing some aches and pains from riding, it may be time to take a closer look at your bike and get fitted.

The “jig” – a bike fitting tool that allows the fitter to make quick adjustments.
Photo by Anna Brady

What’s a bike fit?

A bike fit is a service in which a bike fit expert, though in-depth measurements and careful observations, helps you find a position on the bike that allows you to be as comfortable and efficient as possible.

But didn’t they do that at the store?

As the industry is getting better at identifying size- and gender-specific needs, bikes are becoming increasingly more ‘ready-to-ride’ with touch-points such handlebar widths, crank arm lengths and saddles spec’d according to frame model and size.

Additionally, a good sales person will look at your saddle height and reach – the distance you reach from your saddle to your handlebars.

This is a great start to ensure that you’re at least on the right size frame. A proper bike for, however, will go far beyond that as the expert will look at everything from your sitbones to the arches of your feet to customize your bike and your bike fit.

What to expect at a bike fitting session

There are many different bike fitting services, each with their own approaches, philosophies and tools. But here’s what you can expect, and how to come prepared.

A quick overview:
– The “Interview”: The session will likely start with the fitter asking you detailed questions about any discomfort and (past) injuries as well as your riding style and riding goals.

– A physical assessment: The expert will look at physical characteristics, measuring your height, shoulder and hip width and sitbones as well as test you flexibility.

– Gear assessment: This is where your expert will take a look at your current bike set-up, your saddle and your shoes and cleats.

– The shoes, cleats and insoles: Your shoes, cleat positions and insoles have a huge impact on the strain that’s put on your knees and hips while riding, and thus a significant portion of your bike fit session is likely spent on them.

– The saddle: the saddle is the most personal part of a bike and hugely important in terms of comfort and hip position. The bike fitter will likely ask you about any saddle issues and measure your sitbones to make sure your saddle is the appropriate width. They may even have you try a different saddle.

– Observations: From lazers to video to that bike-like machine, this is where all the tools and gadgets come in. You’ll be asked to ride and go through a series of motions while the expert looks at your position and posture from all angles. Just relax and ride as you normally would.

– Adjustments: This is the trial and error portion of the session. Your fitter will likely made tiny adjustments to your saddle height, handlebar width, stem length, saddle, cleat position, etc and ask you to get back on the bike for further observation. Bit by bit small adjustments will be made until the perfect position is found. It’s important that you communicate openly with your fitter if something doesn’t feel right or if you have any concerns.

– Analysis: In addition to observing your position and adjusting your set-up, an in-depth bike may include a pedal stroke and video analysis to look at your efficiency when on the bike.

– New fit, report and homework: At the end of the bike fit, adjustments will have been made to your bike and your position, and you may be provided with a report detailing the measurements and changes made. This is useful for future bike fits and/or to replicate the fit on other bikes. A new fit can take some getting used to, so your fitter might ask you to ease into the new fit –i.e: don’t start off by doing a 4-hour ride in the new position. Additionally, the fitter might advise you on better pedalling techniques, posture exercises and other beneficial riding tips.

How to come prepared:

– Make time: A good session can take up to 3 hours

– Wear your riding clothes: wear what you would wear riding, from lycra to your helmet.

– Bring a clean bike: They’ll be handling your bike so it’s always nice to have a somewhat clean bike.

– Be open to change: The fitter will likely make changes to your bike as well as your form and technique on the bike so be open to suggestions

– Be aware that you may end up buying new parts like a stem, saddle or handlebars

Where can I get a bike fit?

A lot of bike shops will have bike experts in-house so check with your local bike shop. Also , if you’re injured or experiencing serious discomfort, your insurance may cover the cost of a bike fit if it’s done by a physical therapist, so be sure to check with your healthcare provider and/or insurance company as well.

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