The Art vs. Science of Bike Fitting

Professional triathlete and bike fitter Ben Hammond debates the idea that science isn’t everything when fitting a bike

Bike fitting – two little words that always ignite much debate, discussion and interest from everyone on two wheels and a topic that is rapidly gaining awareness as the first necessity of any new bike purchase.

For most of us, our bike fitting experience will begin with the purchase of a new bike from your local bike shop. This process usually takes the following course; a quick inseam measurement and multiplication to get an approximate saddle height, jump on the bike, and in some cases a stem change depending on how it looks. Now I want to begin by saying that quite simply, this does not count as a fitting. With that out of the way I want to start by exploring the world of bike fitting and the different interpretations that exist.

Firstly, as athletes we all have different goals, whether we are aiming to win Olympic Gold, beat a friend at your local sprint distance event or set a personal best over the iron-distance. With this in mind, I don’t believe that we can set definitive parameters on a ‘perfect’ position, nor can a particular fitting ‘system’ be too closely aligned to any brand without welcoming the opportunity for bias as this ultimately leads to very sales-oriented.

Stemming from the evolution and growth of the bike fitting industry, two styles of fitting have emerged. The first of which is often referred to by science-type words including protocols or systems. The “science” behind bike fitting is often a marketing term used by those who create these protocols in order to share that particular persons idea of what a bike fitting should look like and sometimes this can be at the expense of the end result. The word science implies a degree of certainty and an end result that can be defined by numbers or formulas. It suggests that we can manipulate the body into a particular set of angles and then we have our fitting.

In science, we know that if we put ‘Chemical A’ + ‘Chemical B’ + ‘Chemical C’ into a test tube then we will get ‘Result D’. This interpretation is one that may work for the textbook human being with the riding goals of those who penned the particular set of protocols. But for the masses this is unreliable, inflexible and excludes a rider’s history and goals, let alone even beginning to address the differences between a ‘Cycling Fit’ and a ‘Triathlon Fit’. This ‘science’ based approach does have its benefits though. It helps to remove human error of measurement (albeit not entirely), speed up what can sometimes be a slow, labour intensive process and provide a very professional looking service. The major flaw of this style of fitting is that it can lead the fitter into adjustments purely based on the numbers, rather than leaving the fitter in control.

In contrast to this ‘science’ based fitting, there is another way we can view bike fitting. I prefer to define bike fitting as ‘art’, a product that requires finesse, experience and a certain “eye”. It takes years of practice and hours upon hours of reflection and thought on what particular adjustments are going to cause the desired outcome and how each and every aspect of both body and bike will integrate. Bike fitting, like art, evolves. It must adapt and will always change depending on the inspirations, motivations and history of the bike owner. The bike fitter needs to have countless hours of both fitting and riding experience in order to understand the mindset of the rider and to be able to paint a mental sketch of how this rider is going to look, prior to even the first measurement. This vision is what separates the better fitters in the world, from those who rely on a pre-determined set of numbers.

I recently read an interview with Mat Steinmetz, fitter of a number of professional triathletes including Craig Alexander and Miranda Carfrae as well as someone who I have learnt an awful lot from and one particular quote stands out. “First off, the fitter is king. Fit tools, systems, protocols all help/aid the fitter, but are not substitutes for the eye of a good fitter.” (Slowtwitch.com) This philosophy resonates with the ‘art’ theory of bike fitting and helps to explain that, while the ‘science’ side has its place and can help us achieve our end product, it takes that personal interpretation and thought process of a good fitter to manipulate the bike in a way that will maximise the bikes potential to assist the rider in achieving their two wheeled goals.

As a final point, if you are a triathlete that is going to get a fitting, I cannot stress how important it is to get your fitting from someone who has actually done a triathlon. Now just to provide an example, within my own studio, despite numerous requests, I will not fit a mountain bike. Why? Because I have never ridden a mountain bike, I don’t know what it feels like to ride off road and I don’t know what different positions in the studio are going to convert to on the trails. Sure, I know what some of the ‘protocols’ suggest and I could work towards those targets but ultimately I could not send someone out with absolute certainty that the position I have provided them is going to maximise the bikes potential to achieve that individuals goals. And with that philosophy, I believe the same rule should apply to those seeking a “Triathlon” fit.

In the next edition I am going to introduce you to the foundation of bike fitting and how to unlock the key to achieving the position that will suit you.

 

Keep an eye out for more of Ben’s blogs or follow him on Twitter @BennyHTri

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