I became involved with road cycling shortly after receiving my degree in Physical Therapy more than 25 years ago. My awareness of the sport was heavily influenced by campus life. Indiana University, my alma mater, boasts about holding The World’s Greatest College Weekend, which is the Little 500 bike race. My interest and involvement in cycling grew over the years and I have continued to look for ways to make it more enjoyable, effective and efficient. For the past two years I’ve coached a local cycling team, the JDRF Ride to Cure Diabetes, and I personally ride once or twice a week, 30-50 miles per ride.
Feeling comfortable and at ease is a big component of enjoying any fitness or athletic activity, as well as optimizing performance and avoiding injury. However, in cycling, the interaction between person and machine is rarely emphasized. Typically, riders just jump on their bike with only the slightest of attention paid to their posture and position on the bike and that’s usually only to adjust the seat up or down.
When riding a bike, there are a few key points of contact that require your attention:
- The position of your hands on the handle bar
- The placement of your feet on the foot pedal interface
- Your posture when seated on the saddle
Each contact point has a range of influences. For example, if you raise the handle bar so that the contact point of your hands is higher, that will also influence your center of balance and the angle of your hips and trunk. In professional bike fitting, we refer to the tilt, height, and forward and backward position of the handlebars as the cockpit, while the saddle height, forward and backward position of the saddle, and the angle at which your foot makes contact with the pedal, is the power plant. A good bike fit involves multiple interactions of all these things.
Proper bike fit is largely dictated by the goals of the cyclist, so it’s important to know what you want to get out of your riding. Are you looking to complete a road race, take a long bike tour, speed through the bike leg of a triathlon, or use your bike for commuting or riding around your neighborhood? A road biker, who needs to ride for long distances, will generally be looking for a 30 degree bend at the elbow, and a 25 degree bend at the bottom of the pedal stroke. On the other hand, a racer who is looking to go short distances at a higher intensity needs to be bent much further over the bike, creating more of an aerodynamic profile. For road touring, like taking a trip through wine country or along the coast, you want a more relaxed posture so that you can endure longer periods of time in the seat, which means adjusting the length of the bike stem. Recreational riding, like taking a few spins around your local park, should be ultra relaxed, and requires the proper saddle height adjustment. The most common mistake I come across in this class of rider is having the saddle too low, putting too much force on their knees.
As you can see, each component has to be adjusted to meet your body requirements to ensure that you and your bike are well matched. No other sport has this kind of variable. Your height, flexibility, joint mechanics, and posture can affect your comfort and efficiency when riding your bike; therefore, it is important to make the necessary adjustments prior to your first ride.
Whether you are a recreational or competitive cyclist, it is important to pay as much attention to how you are matched to your bike as it is how many miles you ride or the intensity of your training program. Consult with a local bike shop in your area to have the proper adjustments made to your bike to ensure you have a fun and safe ride.
Rett Talbot is a Physical Therapist. An avid cyclist and coach of a local JDRF’s Ride to Cure team, Rett has specialized training in bike fitting learned from the leading specialist in the arena, Paul Swift of BikeFit.com. A Level 1 BikeFit Pro, Rett, has been doing bike fitting for more than 8 years. He uses his 20+ years of experience as a Physical Therapist with clinical specialization in Sports Physical Therapy to complement the process of getting you properly fitted for your bike’s power plant, cockpit, and foot pedal interface.