Getting a proper bike fit has been on my mind since last year’s Wildflower Training Weekend, when I was surrounded by more-experienced triathletes raving about what a difference it had made for them. I couldn’t make it make sense for me then — a first year in triathlons is spendy enough, and anyway, what if I decided I didn’t want to ride my bike again? — but I put it on the list for year two. And when this year rolled around, and I was still riding my bike, I decided to go for it.
I could write a bunch about what led me to pick my fit and fitter, but it wouldn’t be that useful to anyone not in San Francisco and deeply interested in working out the pros and cons of different places, so if you’re that person, email me. In brief, I learned that I wanted to do a video or motion-capture fit (either Specialized BG Fit or Retul), that I wanted my fitter to be well-regarded (tools are only as good as the person using them), and that $250-$300 for the fit seemed to be the local price range but that I should brace myself for buying new parts and accessories on top of that. I initially wanted to be at a bike shop instead of a fit studio, thinking that it would be cheaper to swap out accessories at a place that sold more things, but that didn’t work out and I’m not convinced it would have made much difference. I short-listed Studio Velo in Mill Valley, Mike’s Bikes in either San Francisco or San Rafael, 3D Bike Fit in San Francisco, and Echelon and NorCal in Santa Rosa. I then pestered a handful of them via email and ended up choosing 3D Bike Fit — largely because of location and a few recommendations from my tri group.
I made an appointment for last week and was told to bring a regular cycling outfit, my bike and shoes, and a snack, because we’d be there up to four hours. Ryan, my fitter, greeted me when I walked in and started the session with a chat about my riding history and goals. I’d actually been a little nervous about this conversation; I’m still overwhelmed by the amount of gear and technical information that comes into play with cycling. I wanted to lay it out like: Look, I’m new to riding, and I want to get better on the bike and ride longer and be happy, but I also need to be psychologically comfortable with whatever happens, because otherwise I just won’t ride at all. (I basically said all those words, but with more babbling.) We also talked about how much and how far I ride and any problems I’ve encountered — my right IT band getting tight after longer rides, trouble reaching the brakes from the handlebar hoods, a general feeling of lacking power, etc.
After the interview, Ryan took me through a bunch of exercises to measure my flexibility. (The most notable, for me, was when he got excited about my hamstring flexibility — which I tend to think of as “fair to middling” — and said something about how the rest of the fitting was going to be fun.) And then it was time to get on the bike.
Ryan put sticky dots on my ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders, then had me ride in my existing setup until I was at 150 watts of power. Once there, he turned the cameras on and took a few seconds of video from the front and one side, then spun the whole platform around to capture footage of me riding from the back and the opposite side. The fit software let Ryan slow down the video, pause it when I was in certain positions, and draw lines between the dots to figure out whether my feet/knees/shoulders/back were aligning at optimal angles (spoiler alert: they weren’t).
That was basically hour one of the fitting. The next three hours were full of tweaks, another burst of riding, more tweaks, more riding, more video, more angles, more tweaks, a break to eat brownies, more tweaks, more video. The biggest moves came first: a new saddle, a much higher seat height that wigged me out if I thought about it too much, a longer stem, inserts in my shoes, tweaks to my handlebars that moved the hoods closer to me and changed their angle. I noticed fairly quickly that 150 watts felt far easier to hit in the basic new position than it had in my old one. And somehow, my reach instantly felt more comfortable, even though longer stem + higher seat + further-back seat would have made me expect a longer reach. Physics, man.
After each set of tweaks, Ryan would take another few seconds of video and compare shots. The first adjustments were in centimeters, and I could feel major changes right away, but by the time we got to millimeters, it was like the part of the eye exam where the doctor says “A or B?” and I say “B … no, A … no, they’re the same. Wait, they both suck. Can I have a cookie?” A few times, I actually could feel that we’d gone a step too far — I was wobbly or pushing too hard or doing something unnatural to try to keep the pedals going. But mostly, I trusted Ryan’s eye, especially once all the measurements started hitting the same numbers every time.
After a little more than 3 hours, I’d basically gone from the rider on the left in the video below to the rider on the right.
Of course, it wasn’t all victorious waltzing out and riding a bazillion miles in blissful comfort, because it’s me and bikes. To actually ride, like outside and not on the trainer, I’d have to get up on that new seat. “Yeah, what’s the big —” Remember, learning how to stop and start off the saddle was a 2013 goal of mine, then still unaccomplished. And all of a sudden, with my seat so much higher, I couldn’t haul up there any other way. Or maybe I could. I wasn’t sure. But I couldn’t really find out without trying, and “trying” very quickly turned to “certain falling and bloody disaster” in my brain, and what happens when that happens is that I freak out. So I freaked out. In the fit studio. Without going into every detail, I will just say that Ryan was an absolute gem of a human while I was busy being a 31-year-old woman who’d forgotten how to mount a bike. And the next morning, Pete was also a complete gem of a human who took me to the park and taught me how to stop off the saddle while I pitched a fit and scared at least one six-year-old biking to school with her dad. Sorry, kid. (And, as it turns out, I can still get to the ground even from the saddle, if I have to, but I’ve mostly figured out how to stop the big-girl way. Starting is still a mess but less of a big deal, for whatever reason.)
I’ve only ridden once with the new fit, during Saturday’s workout at Paradise Loop. The first thing I noticed out on real roads was how much smoother I felt; my legs finally had room to move all the way through the pedal stroke. I was also more comfortable in the hoods, even descending (though still not when coming to a complete stop), and I felt more in control of the ride. And while I don’t have exact archived data, I’m quite sure that the last time I rode Paradise Loop I averaged 12-something miles per hour, compared to Saturday’s 14-something, so there’s that.
There are still some things to be worked out; my left foot and right pinkie both went numb on the ride (per my pre-fit usual), and I’m not sure about the saddle, though I’m reserving judgment until I ride a slightly less bumpy route than the rutted mess Paradise Loop is right now. But I’m happy to have started down this path, which I hope is a gateway to quality riding for years to come.