Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Shopping for a Bike Fitter?


The best article I have ever read on this subject is this one by Dan Empfield.  In an article published in the "early days" of Slowtwitch, he succinctly describes all the "hallmarks of a good tri bike fitter."   I agree with him, and the article could equality hold for a good road bike fitter by substituting "road" for "tri" throughout the article.

Now, he's biased of course. How? Because he's a fitter and the characteristics he describes are his own. But that said, he is generally acknowledged to be a pretty damn good fitter, and the fact he regularly packs his California 'compound' with fitters and bike manufacturers wanting to learn from him attests to that fact. He most definitely knows whereof he speaks.

So with that, in full disclosure, I am also a fitter, and the tips I describe below do suspiciously sound like things I do, and qualifications I have, but I think they would pass an external test of a higher order.

I  started working in bike shops in Canada over 30 years ago, even before I was legally permitted to work, which led me to a job at the best shop in town when I turned 16.  This is also around when I started to race bikes.

The consummate bike geek, I loved bikes so much I thought I might do an education in engineering.  Though when I graduated, iconic Canadian brands like Cervelo and Race Face had not yet appeared, and I was content working in aviation between bike shop jobs, which conveniently draws on the same knowledge base, namely ergonomics (the fitting of humans to machines), aerodynamics, and lightweight materials and structures.

I've worked at some of the best bike shops in Canada, and more recently in Hong Kong, developing a comprehensive understanding of bicycle frame geometry and design principles, and a deep knowledge of component and equipment selection. I continue in my passion for cycling as a Retul and FIST-certified bike fitter at the Hong Kong-based Bike Energy Lab, and still continue to race in local cycling and triathlon events.

Coach and Fitter Matt Steinmetz of 51 Speedshop

How to Chose a Bike Fitter

Thanks to growing awareness of the benefits of fitness, increased increased cycling, and excellent performances by Asian athletes at international cycling events, cycling and triathlon are experiencing rapid growth in Asia and Hong Kong. I am amazed when I go to a race at just how many people are riding awesome equipment, and just how much people are willing to spend on their bikes. However, there are certainly some fairly sub-optimal, potentially dangerous, and simply odd positions out there. Some cyclists ignore the fact that with an expense of only a very small fraction of what they have spent on their bike, they could go significantly faster, for less effort, in more comfort. Thankfully, with the growth of the sport has come the growth of the discipline of bike fitting. Five years ago, the popular triathlon website Slowtwitch.com listed only four fitters in Australasia. It now lists 14.

Finding a fitter can be difficult, or it can be easy. It can almost always be said that any fitting is better than none, but why not ensure that your time and money is well spent? Here are few easy questions to ask a prospective fitter before choosing to give him or her your hard-earned time and money.

1. How much does it cost?

A bike fitter needs to be supported by tools. These include not only a large complement of bicycle repair tools, but also highly specialized fitting tools. A full Retul motion capture system can cost upwards of $14,000 USD, while a fitting bike might cost an additional $6,000 to $12,000. That investment is reflected in the price of a fitting. Depending on the time and degree of precision involved, bike fits typically range in price from $150 to $400 USD. 



2. What's your background?

Most fitters these days tend to have a background either in engineering or the health sciences, such as a fitness trainer or coach, exercise physiologist, physical therapist, chiropractor, or sports medicine practitioner.

Although a university-level education is not the only way to achieve this knowledge and discipline, it certainly is one way, and a degree (or two) in a related subject certainly demonstrates some depth of knowledge and familiarity with the scientific process. Science is important because without it, we don't have the justification needed to place a cyclist in one position versus another. Without it, a recommendation to make a positional change is just one person's opinion.

Since you probably don't train like people did in the early 1900s, why should you be fitted by a fitter who uses trial and error methods from that era? What distinguishes modern bike fitting from old-school fitting is science, and I strongly feel that a passion for science, and learning about the newest technologies and methods, is essential.

Red Flag: watch out for a fitter who hides behind science. Although science gives us beautifully precise terms to explain various bio-mechanical conditions, make sure he or she can explain things in terms you understand. For example, if your prospective fitter asks you something like: "Are you femorally rotated? Are you seeking athletic ambidexterity and would you like me to correct that pelvic obliquity?" and you have no idea what he or she is taking about, ask him or her to speak your language.


3. What certifications do you have?

There are many individuals and bike shops conducting bike fits these days. Some are better than others, some have certifications, and some don't. Some have certifications from bike manufacturers, some from independent fitting organizations or schools. Some of these certifications require the fitter to pass a knowledge test, some don't. Some require that a continuing education or re-certification program be followed to ensure continued competency, others are granted for life. Suffice to say that not all certifications are equal, and it would be difficult for the average cyclist or triathlete consumer to easily distinguish the benefits of one from the other.

As a rule of thumb, I recommend that your prospective fitter have at least one or two certifications. Also, no more than one of these should be from a manufacturer, since a manufacturer's protocol will obviously tend to focus on and favour a specific manufacturer's bikes (one example is the BG Fit certification from Specialized).

Some independent fitting protocols with certified fitters in Asia include FIST/Slowtwich, Bikefit Systems, and Retul (which actually has just been acquired by bike manufacturer Specialized, but it for now works independently from the Specialized BG Fit certification process).



4. Do you ride?

The only way your fitter will have any empathy for how you feel at the end of a five hour ride is if the fitter knows what it's like to ride for five hours! Just as you'd only hire a coach with a solid background and appreciation for the sport, best stick with a fitter who has put some solid hours in the saddle, just like you have (or will).


Photo Credit: Chi Fai Lam

5. What if I don't like how it feels? Do you have a warranty?

Luckily, most fits will result in a position that is (hopefully) better than the one you had. Realistically, it is doubtful that a fitter will have a money-back guarantee. All fittings involve an exchange of information and it is reasonable that the fitter will want to be properly compensated for providing the service and consultation. Do make sure that your fitter is receptive to a post-fit consultation and working with you with issues that might materialize outside of the fit studio. Indeed, despite what some fitters might tell you, it is impossible to duplicate a long and hard outdoor session in a studio.

Red Flag: Beware of any power guarantees. Any fitter who promises that a fitting will turn you into a 20% more powerful cyclist doesn't understand how cycling works. Most of the power produced by a cyclist is used to overcome aerodynamic drag. It is quite easy for a fitter to give a client a more powerful position, but if the effect that this position has on aerodynamic drag is not considered in detail, it will not make you faster. In fact, that "more-powerful" position might just make you a lot slower! Unless your prospective fitter has a wind tunnel, don't believe any spurious claims.



6. Do you have bike shop experience? 

If you value your bike, you'll appreciate a bike fitter who knows his or her way around a bike intimately. In the past few years we have seen the introduction of a plethora of new standards in bike design; things like completely new bottom bracket standards, integrated headset/stem designs, and complex electronic shifting systems. Ideally, a fitter will have experience working as a mechanic in a shop and will know how to property tighten a bolt to the proper torque specification, and how to gingerly move those Di2 electronic shifter cables out of the way to replace your aerobar without causing any damage. Having significant experience with lightweight bike parts and frames is critical, or you may end up walking out of the fitting with a broken bike part, or worse, a cracked frame! Make sure your fitter uses a torque wrench when tightening any critical fastener.

A fitter with solid shop experience will also be able to accomplish the job faster and with more safety as far as the bike is concerned.

7. Do you work in a bike shop or are you independent?

While some bike shops view fitting as an impediment to a quick sale (since they might actually have to find you a bike that fits, whether or not they have it in stock), some manufacturers have unabashedly resorted to using bike fitting as a marketing tool. While I think this is generally a positive development, it also tends to result in recommendations towards a bike from that manufacturer, so there is an inherent conflict of interest.

One definite advantage of working with a fitter in a big bike shop is the easy availability of mechanics, parts and tools. One disadvantage is that the fitter may be under some pressure to upsell you parts you may not really need, and he or she might want to push on you a bike or parts that happen to be in stock, to keep that inventory moving. An independent fitter is well placed to give advice and recommendations tailored only to your needs regardless of stock availability, or your ability to afford them. However, do make sure that an independent fitter has a reasonable selection of specialized bike tools and equipment.

8. How long have you been fitting? How many fits have you done?

Perhaps more important than any other factor discussed above is a fitter's experience fitting people to bikes. A good experienced fitter doesn't need to rely on his or her bike fitting tools even though he has them. An experience fitter will have an internal database of bike fit problems and corrections, because he or she has seen many similar issues before. Ensure that you are truly comfortable with any prospective fitter's level of experience. In this case, the more the better.

Red Flag: Beware of the "Bike Whisperer"-type who has all the answers. Bikes aren't animals and you can't whisper at them to make them fit properly. Also, no two customers are alike, and even the most experienced fitter hasn't solved all the world's bike fit problems. A good fit is the result of a collaborative process. Sometimes solutions to fit problems require a significant amount of investigation and iteration. You may need to trial a new position over a few days, and give some feedback to your fitter so that he or she can improve it. Make sure any prospective fitter is willing to work with your specific needs and idiosyncrasies, and won't simply fit you into a template. If your prospective fitter's motto is "my way or the wrong way," best steer away.

A thorough post-fit report is essential.

So ask these questions before going to that bike fitting. They will help ensure that whatever fitter you chose is someone you feel you can trust, someone you feel has your best interests at heart, and someone who can communicate with you in your language. The outcome will likely be a bike that fits better, and the knowledge that on that bike, you are as comfortable and fast as you can be.

2 comments:

  1. OK so your blog is about science, technology and cool bike toys...

    I'm covering all three in one fell swoop!

    What do you think about Backtracker - its a new bicycle radar device, that allows cyclists to "see" 150 yards behind them.

    Would love to know what you think: http://crowd.backtracker.io

    ReplyDelete
  2. Very cool, seems much more effective than the stiffening of the hairs on the back of my neck. Getting one! Good luck with the crowdfunding.

    ReplyDelete