By John Higgins
In late 2018 I attended the International Symposium on Cycling Optimization held in Munster, Germany. In essence it was a conference focused on bike fitting, which sits at the crossroads of advancements in cycling technical products and gains in human performance.
The conference drew attendees from all curvatures of the earth, with representatives from Southern Hemisphere counties; Asia; North America and given the location; a strong contingent of European’s. Presenters included sports scientists, physical therapists, bio-mechanists, coaches, and practicing bike fitters. While of the presenters have worked with or are actively involved with elite level triathletes and pro cycling teams including Daniela Sammler, Team Sky, Bora Hansgrohe, (Peter Sagan), and Trek-Segafredo, the experience, lessons and information presented readily translate across to non-televised and unpaid cyclists.
Cycling optimization is not just for the 1%, it’s for anyone riding a bike. If your toes or undercarriage are going numb, your cycling experience is not optimized, regardless of whether you are a pro or a weekend Joe. And if you are hunting for podiums and medals, then marginal gains in positioning and aerodynamics can make a significant difference in performance and results.
So how can you optimize your cycling? As one of only a single handful of professional bike fitters to attend from the USA, I’m not going to give away the secret sauce recipes, but here are a few tasty samples to contemplate.
Feet issues are common in cyclists. Lashing a flexible foot into a rigid soled shoe and then fixing that to a rotating lever may be met with periodic uprisings of resistance. Having said that, foot pain or numbness while riding a bike is not considered normal. The resolution is usually multi-factorial and requires the right shoe, right insole, right cleat placement and sometimes other external adjustments like wedges. All of these factors have to be aligned to quell any issues, but it starts with the shoe selection. A common fault is to upsize to get a comfortable width. Don’t do it. Get the right size in the appropriate width, which may be a different make/model, or a wide last. Also, the insoles that come in a new pair of cycling shoes are just fillers which are intended to be thrown out and replaced with something that will do a respectable job of supporting your foot and distributing pressure. Show your feet some love.
Saddle issues are even more common. However thanks to advances in saddle design and bike fitting, gone are the days when suffering pain, numbness or other discomforts were an expected and accepted part of cycling. Or those days should be gone. You don’t have to suck it up and put up with it. That’s not to say saddle issues are always easily solved and resolved. Some are particularly tricky, and again there are often multifactorial causative factors that can include: skin hygiene, chamois shape and padding (more is not always better), chamois cream, the saddle profile, the saddle position (height, setback, angle), handlebar/aeropad position (which changes your pelvic rotation), and the biggest variable of all – your own personal anatomical shape. Humans are similar but generally not identical, and so your best friends dream saddle could be easily be your worst nightmare saddle. Which is why resolving saddle issues requires evaluation not opinion (other than your own). Let’s just restate that it is not normal nor expected that you experience sit bone pain or genital numbness, swelling or chaffing while riding a bike.
One of the presenters was none other than Dr Jim Martin from the Neuromuscular Function Lab at the University of Utah. Jim’s 77 page PowerPoint presentation on crank length, power production and aerodynamics can be distilled down to this: “you can ride any crank length you like without compromising performance, but there may be benefits to a “shorter” crank length to achieve other criteria.” Other criteria can include injury or mobility issues, and getting low to reduce aero drag without compromising power generation and pedaling smoothness.
Looking for marginal gains? If you are a triathlete, time trialist or breakaway specialist, being aero matters. At race speeds 90% of the resistance to forward progress is due to aero drag, and 70% of that is due to your body. Spend all you like on wheels, ceramic bearings, oversized pulley wheels and special chain treatments but none of it will add up to the gains that can be had from a good body position. An aero position has to be both comfortable and stable. Comfortable so you can maintain it for long periods, and stable to reduce airflow turbulence. Stability starts with the pelvis, and being rock solid on your saddle.
If you are a serious athlete or have serious goals, how carefully have you assembled your support team of professional advisors?
Hi level pro’s will have a supervisor for oversight of all the ingredient for success who co-ordinate the input of specialist advisors for the athlete. As an unpaid professional you will most likely have to fulfil that role yourself. Specialist advisors specialize. They don’t try to fulfil all the roles needed for athletic success, but bring laser focus, training, and experience to one key aspect.
BRINGING IT TOGETHER
You may invest in training. Maybe you pay for a coach or an online training program to get stronger and faster. You may invest in equipment. But more important than how many nanograms your frame weighs, what type of brakes it has, and what brand name is on the wheels, are your shoes and saddle and handlebars because this is where your body meets the bike.
Gains in either products or training don’t automatically translate to benefits unless the interaction of the person and the bike is optimized for performance, and the role of a bike fitter is to focus on that interaction. And gains in performance usually result from gains in sustainable comfort. Going longer and riding harder, but having an easier time of it. That’s cycling optimization.