New location

Come on over to my new site:

Going to be posting regularly there.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Retul Bike fits

If you've read my blog before you know that I use the Retul system of motion capture ( I get a lot of questions about it -- and a lot of business frankly.

I often hear,

"Wow, that must really make the fittings easier, huh?"

After using the system for a while now I finally have an answer to that. Does it make the fittings easier? The short answer is "No", unequivocally, it does not make the process simpler.

Blasphemy, right? Retul is definitely the most influential technology to come into bike fitting in, well, maybe forever, and here I am dissing it?

Well, I don't think it is a "knock" on the system because it doesn't make bike fits easier. People and companies (i.e. Specialized) have been taking a reductionist approach to bike fitting and it has done nothing positive to the process. The *Fit Kit", *BG Fit*, *Wobblenaught* among others have tried to take this very complex process and turn it into a nice neat, packaged "revenue driver" that every bike shop in the world can become an expert in.

I think it is actually a tribute to the system that it doesn't "dumb down" the process. It in no way tells you what you should do to take corrective action for the cyclist - it just provides a lot of very accurate data about the cyclist's mechanics.

For each of the parameters it measures -- for instance the frontal angle a rider's knee tracks at relative to the vertical, called Knee Travel Tilt -- Retul provides a range of normal limits that each one, in an ideal situation, should stay within.

The difficulty lies in the shear amount of data. If you focus on one measurement and make changes to the rider's position to "fix" just that one measurement, often other measurements that are also a problem, don't change or get worse.

So, no, my bike fitting process has not gotten simpler. But I'm not the least bit disappointed. Actually this has been the most productive and fun year for me with bike fittings (in my 12 years as a physical therapist).

My bike fittings have gotten better, and that's the important part. The Retul system has allowed a level of accuracy and confidence that is hard to beat. Plus when it comes to bike fitting, "simple" isn't always the best solution.

But "better" is.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Musings about credentials for bike fitting

I get asked a lot by people out of state, My next trip to Colorado, I'm going to come in for a fitting. But do you know anyone in my area that can do a good bike fitting?

That's a hard one. I don't have a lot of names that I trust implicitly to do a comprehensive bike fitting. I think by endorsing someone, I am putting my reputation in their hands. Not many people out there I would do that for. There are a few, and if you live in their territory I will let you know who they are.

I am pretty particular about my fitting process, and I think too many shops out there are relying on the WOW factor of their gadgets, and their client's....I don't want to say ignorance, because that seems harsh -- after all, bike shops should know bikes, and many riders just don't have the inclination to learn about their bike and that's just fine. That's why you have a bike shop! But many clients do trust that their bike shop knows all things bike. Bike fit included.

Unfortunately that is just not the case. Most bike shops know bikes. They should. "The bike" is the easy part in the equation of bike fitting. Truly, anyone with a little time and motivation can learn enough in a short time to WORK in a bike shop. Every year thousands of high school and college age kids begin working at a bike shop and in pretty short order they are assembling and repairing bikes right alongside the "career mechanic." There are bike mechanic schools out there, but very few people building bikes in the United States are attending them. I think that's a shame. It doesn't say much for the person who is a career mechanic and it certainly doesn't help them earn a better living. When you have a profession that is unregulated, unlicensed, and requires no formal training, then you just don't have to pay those people that much. (and by "you" I mean the market in general).

Side note: A very experienced and skilled bike mechanic is an amazing thing. They are such a wealth of bike knowledge that at times is indispensable. I want to be clear how much I respect the true experts of this discipline. My point is that you likely won't go to you bike mechanic for a bike fitting just as you wouldn't go to your bike fitter for a question about derailleur actuation ratios or air chamber pressures on your rear shock.

So to get back to my point, the bike is the easy part to learn about. The variables are few and relatively fixed.

The human body, however, is exactly the opposite. It's not likely that you are going to be able to "apprentice" with a doctor, or a PT, or an exercise physiologist, and learn their trade in a few weeks or months. There are too many variables, and what's more, often these variables are hidden under layers of skin, muscle and fascia, so an intimate knowledge of their location, function, and physiology is necessary. (Again, in contrast, most of a bike's parts are easily seen and quantified.)

So you can see how it would be easy for a bike shop to alter your bike for you, but difficult for them to explain to you why you need it changed.

Some bike shops will say that they have been doing bike fits long enough that they know the 10 most common syndromes associated with ill-fitting bikes, and that that covers them for most cyclists. I don't know about you, but I don't want to pay someone hundreds of dollars in a fitting fee and more money for new equipment if they don't KNOW that it is going to help. In the last ten years I have done more fittings than most bike shops in the country, and I would estimate that fully 25-35% had some combination of mechanical issues that manifested themselves on the bike in a way I had not seen before, and about 50% fell outside of what I would consider to be the "10 most common bike fit issues". In these situations I had to rely on my education and experience with the biomechanics of the human body. 

To understand all these differences it takes time and lots and lots of clients -- I call it the "Malcolm Gladwell Effect".  In his fantastic book Outliers: The Story of Success, he explains that thorough research has come up with a metric for understanding why some people become experts at the top of the field, and the general threshold for this is 10,000 hours of practice.  Bill Gates began programming as a "tween" at  a time when only a handful of people on the planet even had access to a computer to program on.  Michael Jordan out-worked all his competitors by spending hours and hours EVERY single day to improve his skills. 

Similarly, a bike fitter only gets to be an expert when they spend every day working their diagnostic muscles.  This is where physical therapists and other clinicians have a huge advantage over bike shop employees and other fitters -- we get to practice and flex those same mental muscles every day, even outside of our bike fittings as we treat 5, 10, 15 clients a day.  The treatments are different but the "work" and knowledge gained and reinforced is the same.  Typically even a busy bike fitter may see 5-10 clients a week -- this would be an awfully slow way to learn the craft.

This also brings up a point that bike shops are in the business of selling bikes and bike parts. Unfortunately with the boom in the number of shops offering "fitting services" many did so because their industry advisors were telling them how many replacement parts and accessories they could sell.

I'm not trying to make people paranoid or distrustful of their LBS. Fact is I think there are plenty of shops out there TRYING to do the right thing. I just think that they in over their head with the complexity of many bike fits.

The difficulty lies in the fact that many people experience discomfort or a decrease in power and if you just LOOK at them, they appear to be set up in a very typical road position.

I had a client recently come in for a fitting on a bike she had bought a few months before. She hadn't ridden it much because she bought at the end of the fall and she was not a cold weather rider. She got a "good deal" on the bike. The young salesperson helping her helped her find the bike, they set her up on a trainer and she pedaled the bike for 2 or 3 minutes. It felt "Okay" (her words) while she was on the trainer, but to be sure, they stopped the lone "bike fit guru" (who is also the head mechanic and part owner) as he was rushing across the shop in search of a part for another client, to have a look. He watched her sit on the bike and pedal for 5 or 6 pedal strokes and declared, "Looks good." And he rushed off. Sometimes the shop (but really the client) might get lucky and everything might actually BE good.

In this case, however, once she spent more than 5 or 10 minutes on the bike it was clear she wasn't comfortable. So they came to see me, and this is when she had her second chance to get lucky -- the bike could be the right size but just need some adjustments - maybe we could "make it work". Unfortunately, the frame was the wrong size and to have an appropriate reach on the bike she'd need to have the seat all the way forward on the rails (with a 0 degree setback post) and a 60 mm stem -- definitely not ideal.

So what is the lesson with that story? Again, not that you should distrust your LBS, because I think this shop was TRYING to do the right thing (admittedly a bit half a**ed). They are just not very good at it.

Luckily there are more and more bike fitters that have education in anatomy, biomechanics etc. AND have years of experience applying this knowledge. These two things are incredibly important and you should do some digging to find out about any bike fitter you intend to visit.