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Bike Fit: 3 Common Problems Our Fitters See

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By Reid Beloni
CTS Senior Coach
Retül Level 1 Fit Technician

We perform a lot of bike fits at our CTS training centers, and we have the opportunity to see a lot of cyclists at events and camps. Bike fit is more than a collection of angles and distances, and before we start measuring or moving anything it’s important to talk with the athlete and examine the bike they brought in. Here are three common problems we’re looking for, and that you should consider for yourself.

Good Pain vs. Bad Pain

Pushing through the pain is an attitude cyclists are all-too-familiar with. Toughness is at the root of cycling culture, and you don’t have to look hard to find images of cyclists gritting it out in incredibly adverse conditions. Generally, that toughness is a good thing. It’s what pushes athletes to train hard and get the most out of their potential.

When you are physically at your limit, it’s normal to experience physical pain and the urge to quit (or at least slow down). However, not all pain experienced on the bike is good or normal, and it’s important to know how to differentiate between good pain and bad pain. A good rule of thumb is that you generally suffer with good pain, while you suffer from bad pain.

Further defined, good pain generally has a consistent sensation across an entire muscle group or groups of muscles; primarily the main movers, like your quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves. While suffering with good pain, if I asked you where it hurt, you would tell me everywhere. You can almost always stop good pain by going easier.

Bad pain is acute; it can be a stabbing pain in a joint, at a direct point in a muscle, or at a point of contact to the bike. When suffering from bad pain, if I asked you where it hurt, you could likely put a finger on it.  You usually can’t stop bad pain by going easier. You usually have to get off the bike, stretch, rest, ice, or take medication.

If you keep riding with good pain, prescribed appropriately and balanced with rest, you’ll get faster. If you keep riding with bad pain, a few things might happen. First, the quality of your training sessions will diminish. Perceived effort at a given intensity will increase. If you go harder and exacerbate bad pain, you will likely cut your workout short.

Next, the riding frequency will suffer. If every pedal stroke hurts, you’ll reach a point where you choose not get on your bike.  It’s a major red flag when you don’t want to ride because it’s going to hurt.

Lastly, bad pain won’t go away with determination and a tough guy (girl) attitude. It will likely get worse, or it’ll start to cause a cascade of other issues. When you compensate for pain in one area, you’ll start to overuse a different muscle or movement pattern, and then that will become a problem area.

Style over function

The next thing we see too much of is being more concerned about an image of what you should look like on a bike than what is actually right for you. I get it, looking the part is a part of the sport of cycling. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look like your favorite pro. But buy the team kit; don’t use their bike setups as inspiration for your own.

While some people choose bikes that are ideal for them, a lot of people are still making the major mistake of picking parts, accessories, and even fit based on a preconceived notion of what they want to look like. I see slammed stems on bikes with riders who have neck pain because they can’t reach the bars, and sore shoulders on riders whose bars are too wide because a friend said it would be better for their sprint. I see super cool custom saddles that color match the whole bike, and a rider who complains about their sex life. [Side note: pick a saddle that fits your anatomy, and your significant other will thank you.]

Worn-out and damaged gear

A lot of you out there are riding gear that should have been updated a long time ago.  Saddles break in, and then they break down. Personally, I’ve found there is a sweet spot for my favorite saddle model that starts a few months in and lasts 3-4 years. It starts a tad stiff, then we have a few good years together, but eventually it needs to be replaced.

As often as I see worn out saddles, I see straight-up damaged ones. I’ve done fits on people whose saddles have been bent from a crash a year earlier. Trust me, your pelvis does not like sitting with one side 5 mm lower than the other. My general advice would be to keep an eye on your equipment and take care of it.  Periodically check saddles, cleats, shoe insoles and outsoles, handlebars, bar tape and even hoods. Things that aren’t supposed to move sometimes do, and if it happens slowly you may not notice. When something doesn’t feel or look like it should, examine it, take it to a bike shop, and get it fixed or replaced.

Overall, if you have a poorly calibrated pain scale, let’s fix that first.  Figure out what should hurt, and what shouldn’t hurt. If it turns out that you have been dealing with bad pain, then get a professional bike fit. If you need some help with the good pain side of things, go do some PowerIntervals or schedule a free consultation with a coach! Then, when you do go in for a bike fit, have a meaningful conversation with a professional fitter and trust that he or she is going to fit you based on your riding goals, not an image of what you want to look like. And before and after your bike fit, keep an eye on your equipment.


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Comments 24

  1. Sadly, professional bike fits don’t always work that well. I’ve had four professional fits done in the last five years, all by experienced and trained fitters. There are a lot of fitters who just “go by the numbers” which doesn’t necessarily work. None of the fits worked very well. Every one of them wanted to raise my saddle, which only hurt and then hurt worse if I kept riding that way when I tried to “get used to it”.

    They also didn’t take into account things like front-center, which is really important if you have big feet but shorter height as I do. Not one of them thought to experiment with a wider foot-stance until I finally requested that one of them do knee tracking videography. If your knees feel great on your MTB but terrible on your road bike, this could be why. Now I use Speedplay pedals with the extra-long axles, that has been a game-changer.

    I’ve also tried renting 10-15 bike saddles, that was also a game-changer. And counter-intuitive experimentation including trying a longer stem when most fitters will suggest a shorter stem, and I tried both wider and narrower handlebars. So in summary, I’ve learned to do my own “un-professional” fit through paying attention to everything I’ve learned from all the pro fits I’ve had done and what didn’t work. Now my position feels pretty comfortable, though I think it could still be improved. At this point though I don’t trust fitters enough to try another pro fit.

    So, I guess I’m suggesting, don’t set your expectations too high when getting a professional fit. You may have to do more than one, and it’s expensive. And find one who can do saddle pressure mapping and knee tracking videography if at all possible. If the fit doesn’t help, use what you learned and do some experimentation. And if it hurts, don’t ride in that position — you won’t “get used to it”!

    1. North,
      I agree with you that a fit shouldn’t be “by the numbers” and that the fitter and athlete need to communicate about what feels good and bad. Which is why so much of this article was about putting your ego aside and listening to what your body needs. I spoke about paying attention to different signals your body is giving you, and taking action to address the negative ones. I think every athlete can do a better job at that and is a huge first step. But once you identify something isn’t right you need to take action. You have figured out for yourself what some of those actions are. Other people might be stuck at “I know something is wrong, I don’t know what to do.” For those people I am advocating that they seek professional help. I’m sorry you had such a negative fit experience, but it sounds like you are taking the right steps to self evaluate and take action, keep doing that!
      -CTS Coach Reid

  2. Any thoughts on HOT FOOT? I have tried all kinds of fixes: fittings, taking pressure of by way of wide shoes, sliding cleats back, using carbon fiber insoles, raising my stem, using an AEOLUS saddle, etc.

    My problem is only on my left foot, do you think going down a half or full shoe size can help?

    1. I suffered with hot spots under the balls of my feet also. Typically, more common on one foot than the other but would occur on both. I suggest two things: try a wider pedal (I went from speed play, a relatively small surface) to shimano with wider surface area contact. As well, experiment with different tightness on your shoe bindings. Loosen a little. Next ride tighten a little and see which, if either direction shows results? I cured my hot-spot prone problem and you will also! Good luck!

  3. Excellent article – thank you! As has been pointed out, a bike fit needs to take into account the unique properties of each body. At 71, mine is a conglomeration of a lifetime of minor injuries and insults. The best answer for me was to seek out a bike fitter who was also an expert physical therapist, who I found via http://www.bikept.com. The healing of my upper back/shoulder/upper arm bad pain is an ongoing process involving bike fit, hands-on therapy, and prescribed exercises. It’s not a “quick fix”, but we’re making progress, and I’m optimistic for the future.

    1. Mike,
      We get wrinkles on the inside! I have often collaborated with physical therapists on bike fits. Sometimes the issue presents on the bike but its cause is beyond the scope of a bike fit and requires some medical or physical therapist intervention. If the fitter and others can communicate and collaborate, the athlete will have a much higher success rate at fixing their problems and riding pain free. It is also worth acknowledging that becoming pain free might not have an instant fix, if only it was that easy! The process might take visits to a few professionals and hard work from the athlete. But getting ready for an epic cycling event also takes hard work!
      -CTS Coach Reid

  4. I think I need to visit Reid. I bought a gravel bike earlier this year and that bike fit perfect literally right off the shelf. It fits so perfect it’s made me realize how poor my road bikes are setup. Now I can’t seem to get my road bike fit dialed in. I live about 4 hours from Brevard but usually take a long summer vacation in the Brevard area every year.

    1. Come on up Scott! Bring both bikes, we will look at what is working on the gravel bike and replicate that on the road bike.

  5. What resources are available to first select a bike that will be in the sweet spot of a person’s “fit range”? Locally we have very limited bikes to test ride. It would be extremely helpful to know if we have to order a bike that isn’t available locally.

    1. Lance,
      There is a “fit first” philosophy that may benefit you. This is where you get fit on an existing bike that you feel pretty good about, or get fit on a “fit bike” which is an infinity adjustable bike. From either of those you can take the coordinates and plug them into a calculator which will give you the closest matching bikes. When that new bike shows up you already know where to set the saddle height etc. so you likely won’t need another full fitting, just some small tweaks.
      -CTS Coach Reid

  6. I highly recommend getting a Retul bike fit. I live 2 1/2 hours from the Brevard location, so I had Reid do the fitting last year. He made a lot of changes and said I would need to come back in a year for a follow up fit. I was 1 mph faster and had a great triathlon season last year. This past January, the fit wasn’t working for me any longer. I went back to CTS in February and Reid lowered the handlebars and raised the saddle. I felt much better and have gained some speed. It is well worth the time and money to have a Retul bike fit.

    1. Thanks Carol! It’s been a pleasure to help you over the years. Fit often isn’t once and done, you’re an example of that. We started with some big changes, and then as your body adapted and got stronger from training we made some small tweaks. Glad your journey continues onward and upward!

      -CTS Coach Reid

  7. Pingback: Bike Fit: 3 Overlooked Signs You Need a Bike Fit - Reid Beloni

  8. It also benefited riders in a group to have a coach analyze the riding style to halt pinpoint problem areas before they develop.

    1. Post
      Author

      We have one training center in California, in Santa Ynez. It’s a bit of a drive from Orange County, but we’d love to have you come up and make a day of it (or more). Perhaps go for a great ride in the Santa Ynez Valley, get a bike fit and maybe some physiological testing done, and enjoy a great meal or wine tasting at a local vineyard… – CTS Santa Ynez

  9. Been having knee pains on bike and skiis from bow legged knee. Met a Park City ski boot podiatrist whose analysis led to a 1.5° cant on my boot and custom footbed. Viola, no knee pain. So I added a cant strip to bike shoes and use the ski boot custom footbed for “off season ” bike rides. Your bike fit should start with your foot alignment.

    1. George,

      A lot of cycling shoe fit technology has come from the ski world. And you’re right, saddle and shoes are the foundation of a good fit.

      -CTS Coach Reid

  10. I had a Retul fit performed at a bike shop approx. 1 hour drive. Beware of questions, for example, what do you do? My typical response is “I’ll tell you what I do when you show me your W-2.” I found some of the fits are motivated to sell you not just the fit. Research an independent, 3rd party fit removing any add’l monetary gain on their behalf. Shook out in the end, I’d like to believe, but a CTS location is probably one place to have it done, in complete candor.

    1. Fredrick,

      Certainly, you don’t want someone recommending every part in the box for the sake of upping their margin. But “what do you do?” is a very valid question that relates to bike fit. Are you on your feet all day or sedentary gives me some useful background of the athlete is quite important to how they move on the bike.

      -CTS Coach Reid

  11. I do think that those who have pain from long ago injuries may not fully benefit from a fitting that is based on a typical (?)body. In other words they may require nonstandard settings to alleviate pressure on vulnerable areas.

    1. Hi Maria,

      A fit is not about trying to make anyone fit into the mold of a “typical” person. A good bike fit will take into account the individualities of the person being fit and that the whole point of getting a bike fit done would be to have a fully custom and individualized solution.

      -CTS Coach Reid

  12. Great description of good pain vs bad pain!

    Section on when to replace damaged gear helpful. I often wonder about that.

    Thanks for the article!

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