The Bike List

A simple bike fit might be all you need to stop the pain and start enjoying the ride

Pushing down hard on the pedals, ignoring the thigh burn, heaving in as much air as I can, I'm on for a record time home on my commute back from work. I've got loads of energy, motivation from a recent "So and so has stolen your best time on this climb!" email from Strava, and I'm psyched for the competition. I want to feel like I'm flying, but something's wrong. After a cumulative two hours round trip bent over my bike, giving it my all today, that beastly back pain is back. Searing pain shoots down my right side on every down stroke of the pedal. This always happens after two to three hours of cycling, putting my long distance goals on hold and making my cycle to work a chore to dread rather than a fun wake up training ride way to start the day. So I decided to get it sorted out once and for all. Where to start? If you only experience the pain during riding, rather than a trip to the physio, the first thing to consider is the set up of your bike.

I went to Greenwheels cycle store in Peterborough for a 90min bike fit with Dan Read who this May came 1st in the Peterborough Tour Series Time Trial. Surprisingly, Dan has only been riding for four years, slimming down from 18 stone, weight piled on after breaking his back a decade ago in a motorbike accident, and a move away from his university passion of basketball. Now, with the recent boom around cycling Dan is fascinated by the science of bike fitting and the biomechanics of riding. Not only does he fit your bike right for your body, he dishes out tonnes of advice on how to ride to get the most efficient power transfer.

"Most people who come for a bike fit tell us they can't believe the difference it makes,"  says Dan as I spin along on the fixed bike stand. "The most common complaints we solve with a bike fit are back, shoulder and neck ache, and numbness or pins and needles in the hands."

He measures my leg and holds a plumb line to check the angle of my knee and ankle as I spin and I'm surprised that Dan concludes that my saddle is too high and far forward. "I always thought your leg should be fully extended on the down stroke," I said as I hopped off the bike to allow a be-tooled Dan to make the adjustments. Dan replied, "This is very common, saddle too high or low. If the saddle is too low the thighs have to work harder than necessary, but get it too high and you start to lose precious power tilting from side to side to push down on the pedals. What I'm looking for is no power-sapping pelvis tilt and ankle extension as you ride. That shows that you are over reaching to push the pedals round. I can guarantee that it's all this extra movement that's causing your back pain."

Dan lowered my saddle by just half a centimetre, slid the saddle back by 13mm and adjusted my shoe cleats so the balls of my feet were directly over the pedals. "Ideally you'd have a frame size bigger but we can put the saddle back to accommodate this. Once your body adapts to this slightly altered riding position you might want to do a re-fit and get a slightly longer stem, but this will be fine for the moment."

Now the bike was set up perfectly, Dan started to instruct me on the best way to ride to get the most efficient power transfer. "It's not just the bike set up, it's what you do on it that counts," he explained. "It's more important to ride correctly to get the maximum power output, and most people don't even consider this."

Dan's top tips for all riders are:

  1. Keep your heels relatively flat, pushing through your heels not the balls of your feet. Every time you point the foot downwards to complete the full pedal revolution you lose power through the ankle. If you're doing this there's a good chance your saddle is too high.
  2. Don't rock left to right at the pelvis as this absorbs power. If you need to do this to complete the whole pedal movement your saddle is too high.
  3. Keep your upper body relaxed and hold the handlebar hoods with arms bent through about 135 degrees so you can see the insides of your elbows, rather than with straight arms. This absorbs road buzz much better and prevents your body from taking a battering.
  4. To do the above you need to engage your core muscles. While leaning forward, hands on the hoods, you should be able to switch hand position without moving your body. 75-80% of people don't have a strong enough core to do this, but if you practice using this arm position you will have to engage it, and then you will find you have much more power to the legs, especially climbing.
  5. When climbing, try to keep as straight as possible to avoid rocking from side to side and wasting power. The best way to do this is to engage your core and think about keeping your nose in line with the front wheel as much as you can. Do this and you'll be amazed how much more power you can put down on the climbs.

I took my 'new' bike out for a spin as soon as I could, keen to try the new set up and tips 1-5. The first thing I noticed was the lowered saddle, which definitely felt odd, but I soon got used to it, and it actually made me push down with my heels now that I wasn't pointing my toes to complete the revolution. It was strange not to be so high in the saddle on the uphills, but I put tips 1-5 into practice, soft arms, engaged core, nose in line with wheel, and dare I say it, I felt a bit Chris Hoy with my new more powerful legs. Engaging my core was much more tiring, especially on the downhills, and I must admit to a sneaky straightening of the arms every 10 mins or so, but Dan had warned me about this so I wasn't surprised. And, the conclusion you're all waiting for…nope I didn't get any back pain. None whatsoever. So that's one happy rider who can't believe the difference a bike fit can make. Try one. You won't regret it.

Update 3 months later:

Dan from Greenwheels did warn me that I would feel different muscles working harder as a result of my changed position after the bike fit. This was definitely true! The first time I rode uphill in my new position, the slightly lower saddle made my quads and glutes work harder so they were burning and I was out of breath!

I almost cracked and reset the seat post, but then I remembered Dan's advice on being biomechanically efficient while riding.

I started concentrating on getting my heels down, power through the leg straight from the pelvis, core engaged, arms soft and nose over the line of the wheel, not waggling my body from side to side. That helped immediately. I persevered over the next couple of months. My legs got stronger. I started to feel like a Chris Hoy power house on my bike as I drove my heel down straight from my hips, no wasted energy on pelvis rotation or ankle movement (from pointing the toe). The result? I knocked 5 minutes of my usual 60 min commute to work and feel very powerful. It's great!

My back did still hurt, but much less so due to the changed angle on the bike. However something still niggled so I went for three physio sessions to sort that out. For me my back pain was ultimately something physically wrong that a physio had to solve, but the bike fit certainly helped reduce the acute pain. However, the bottom line is, now my back doesn't hurt, AND I'm faster. Thanks Dan!