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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

To be or not to be....(on the fit-bike)

A fit-bike or fit-cycle is a stationary bike that can be adjusted in just about any direction so that it can assume the position for a rider that's 6'6" or one that's 4'6".  

A fit-bike can be a useful tool to have as a bike fitter -- the "tubes" of the bike can be adjusted to almost any length to create a mock-up of a certain bike frame.   I've had one for about 7 or 8 years now and I use it often.  Mainly when I am helping someone find the right size bike to buy when they don't own a bike (I can mock-up a bike frame they're interested in to see if their optimal position is possible on it) or when I'm building a custom bike for someone (in which case we can craft the frame geometry to exact measurements that match their riding position perfectly).  Aside from these situations, my fit-bike remains off to the side collecting dust, because most of the 200 or so bike fits I do every year, are performed with the client's bike hooked up to a stationary trainer so we can make changes, big and very small, to the actual bike and components that the person will be riding every day.
Adjustable seat tube

adjustable top tube

Some bike shops have begun to use their fit-bikes to fit all their clients -- even those that are getting a fit on their current bike.  So rather than putting the client's own bike up on a stationary trainer and making changes to it, the shop will set up the client on the fit-bike and change the set up (remember they're infinitely adjustable) until the shops deems the new position correct (how they do this and what knowledge/experience they bring to the table to make this determination is an article unto itself)

On the surface it seems like it might be a good way obtain the ideal, the best, the most efficient, most comfortable position for the client on a bike (assuming the fitter knows what they're doing).

But this method of fitting falls short on a number of fronts.

First, their bike may not be able to attain this "ideal" position, so while the new position is great, it bears no usefulness to them in he real world -- hence, why I use the fit cycle only when the client is intent on getting a new bike. 

By far the biggest negative to doing all fittings on a fit cycle is that the client won't have exactly the same contact points (saddle, bars/hoods, pedals/cranks) as on the bike they're actually going to ride.  Good bike fitting comes down to changes millimeters at a time often -- ask any of the hundreds of clients I see that have only very small modifications done to their bike with dramatic effect, and they'll tell you that even very small differences can have a monumental effect.  Now take a fit cycle that has a different saddle on it than the one you're riding and you're setting yourself up for trouble.  Even if a very conscientious fitter puts your saddle on there, you have to ask, what about the bar?  What about the hoods?  Are they the same shifter hoods exactly?  The difference between SRAM, Shimano, and Campagnolo in ergonomics and form are enough different that fitting you on one and then trying to match those measurements to your existing bike (with different shifters) is a losing battle.  Then you have to ask about the position of the hoods on the bars -- even a small difference here changes the angle your wrist and hand will rest at, not to mention how the handlebar is constructed (traditional, anatomic, semi-anatomic, short and shallow??...)

I see bike fit as the most important aspect of our relationship with our bikes.  It's the best way to make sure a client is happy on the bike, and therefore makes it more likely that they'll continue to ride their bike -- which is the point.  There is a significant level of trust that I have with my clients.  They have to trust that I'm going to use all of my background as a practicing physical therapist and 16 years experience doing this work with cyclists to make the right decisions to make them as comfortable and efficient as possible on their bike -- trust that I won't frivolously add in new parts that I deem "necessary".  I could recommend a lot of add-ons and pad their bill -- I probably have enough trust with my clients where they wouldn't question me if I did, but I couldn't sleep well if I operated that way.

Many shops (at the urging of bike industry financial advisors) get into bike fitting because it can be a significant revenue stream.  I see it differently.  My clients aren't portals for parts and accessories I can sell them, I see them as a referral engines as they tell friends and family of the effective, efficient, and well reasoned bike fit they received. 

The benefit of doing fittings on a fit-cycle rather than on the client's own bike, benefits mostly the shop and not the client because it puts more emphasis on new equipment and less emphasis on the careful attention to the position of their contact points.  By purposely putting the client on a different saddle, handlebar, seatpost, stem, etc it becomes easy to reinforce the "need" to change these parts (and therefore sell more stuff). 

As an example, let's take a look at the saddle.  Assume that a client is placed on a fit cycle in a new position and they have a saddle that differs from the one on their existing bike.  The new position (on the fit cycle), and by extension the saddle, may be more comfortable and/or efficient (or at least it should be) so it becomes easy to convince a trusting client that they need this new saddle.


It sounds reasonable enough too -- the client is more comfortable so it makes sense to have their bike set up differently and to put this saddle under them, right?  But remember there are at least two changes that occurred here -- the saddle (or handlebars or shifter hoods or pedals/cleats) is positioned differently, AND the saddle is a new model.  Speaking specifically about saddles, about 75% of the time the saddle itself isn't the problem (nor the solution).  Rather its the position of the saddle that ends up fixing the problem.  This fact is easy to obscure from a client when doing a fit on a fit cycle though and often they can easily be talked into buying the new saddle even when just applying this new position to their existing bike (and leaving the new saddle on the shelf) would do the trick.  This same method can be applied to other components on the bike to convince a client they need new stuff.  Not cool.

This trickery aside, my main point that its impossible to accurately fit someone on components that don't match the ones on their bike, is the main limitation to the "fit-cycle bike fit".  All those minute and millimetric variations make a difference and limit the effectiveness of a fit this way.

Now you know why its best to get fit for your bike....while on your bike!