When I left you last time I'd decided that I was going to get a professional bike fit and orthotics from Super Domestique in Shoreditch. In short, I'd decided to get a bike fit, mostly due to some sustained joint pain, but also just to see what all the fuss was about! It is fair to say that 100% of cyclists I know that have got a bike fit in the past have raved about it. Can it really make that much of a difference, or were they just waxing lyrical due to the sheer amount of money they'd spent? Well, let's find out...
Pre Bike Assessment
I arrive at Super Domestique a little unsure of what to expect. I assume that I will be strapped to a turbo and made to pedal, whilst the fitter takes notes and adjusts bits of my bike. I couldn't be more wrong! I am met by Elliott Richmond, owner and head fitter, who duly tells me that we won't be touching the bike for a good hour at least. This is the first indication that there might be more to this bike fit lark than I had thought. The first thing that Elliott is keen to stress is that a bike fit is a very personal and bespoke process, and that everyone gets something different out of it. Best to have an open mind then.
We sit down over coffee from Hex next door (part of the service) and discuss my entire cycling, sporting and injury history; as well as what I want to achieve from getting a bike fit and from cycling in general. Again Elliott stresses that there is no blueprint for this - it's about me and what my body is telling me, but also what I want to achieve from riding my bike. As I list all of the injuries I've sustained over the years I begin to wonder how I'm still upright; broken ankle and collarbone from riding motorbikes, patella damage from playing rugby - all of which, Elliott tells me, will be potentially having an effect on my cycling position, comfort and overall output. 'Surely you can't compensate for an ankle I broke 5 years ago', I think? Again, how wrong I am! Listening to me list all my past injuries, alongside any aches, pains and niggles I am experiencing on and off the bike at the moment, Elliott is formulating a picture in his head (you can pretty much see the cogs turning).
Still no sign of touching the bike yet. Elliott tells me we're going to start with my feet, and moulding the custom made orthotic footbeds. This is partly because they take time to mould and set to the shape of my foot, but also because making sure our feet are supported and have a solid base to push from is one of the most important things we can do when it comes to cycling. Elliott tells me that our feet (and our bodies in general, actually) haven't really evolved for cycling. Running and walking yes, but cycling, not so much. Orthotic footbeds are a heat moulded insole that is shaped to your foot, set hard, and then cut to fit into your existing shoes. The moulding process can be seen in the picture above.
"The orthotics bridge the gap between the sole of your shoe and your foot, essentially bringing the shoe up to your foot, making a rigid lever that is ideally needed for cycling" is how he puts it. He goes on to tell me that the orthotics also help to hold my foot in place; the less my foot moves around in my shoe, the less my knees have to move to compensate for the foot movement. This added stability to the leg serves to align my knees and feet, giving me a more natural pedal stroke. Orthotic footbeds improve efficiency and output, but more importantly help to control and limit the stress on the joints in the kinetic chain (foot, knee, hip etc). "One or two millimetres of movement in your shoe can easily become ten millimetres in your knees and even more in your hips, lower back etc. All the way up to pain in your upper back, neck, shoulders and even hands; often this is rooted in your feet not being secure and stable enough, so other body parts overcompensate." I think about the pins and needles I've been suffering in my hands on longer rides. Never in a million years would I have thought this could be due to me feet being unsupported! Elliott also tells me that many saddle complaints actually occur in the feet; so if you're having saddle issues, you might want to look to your shoes! You can see the difference in the photo below: the black insoles are the new orthotic footbeds, and the blue ones are the original insoles. The difference in contour and rigidity is huge.
Whilst the footbeds are setting, you'd think it would be time to jump on the bike and start measuring. Like me, you'd be wrong. At this point I really realise just how thorough Elliott is, and also just how complex this process is. Next is the physical assessment, where Elliott examines my posture, flexibility and range of motion; both standing and on the physio bed. Range of motion stretches tell Elliott pretty much everything he needs to know about how tight certain muscles and joints are, adding to the knowledge he's building up about my body, even before he's seen me spin one pedal rotation. In my case the tightness occurs in my hip flexors and IT band. More on this hip tightness later.
For his next magic trick, Elliott works out that my left leg is fractionally shorter than my right. Not a major problem I think, it's not like I'm walking around in circles, or have even noticed before: what's the big deal? Again I'm surprised to learn that is a pretty big deal, is having a massive effect on my cycling, and is actually quite common. Thinking about any pain I'm getting whilst riding, it becomes clear that it's all on my lefthand side. He then points out that the left hand side of my saddle is actually sagging a tiny bit where I've been leaning over to extend my left leg. How on earth have I not noticed this before?!
What can be done about having one shorter leg, I hear you ask? Nothing I would assume. Of course, I am wrong again. If you have SPD SL road pedals (clip in one one side) then Elliott can add a 'block' under your cleat to address the balance. If like me you have SPD pedals (mountain bike pedals, clip in on both sides) then a wedge can be added under the orthotic to the same effect. This balancing of the leg length serves to make the pedal stroke more natural and more circular, and should help to alleviate a lot of the pain I'd been suffering.
Riding, Adjusting and Riding Some More!
Finally it is time to jump on the bike and let Elliott confirm his suspicions based on my history and range of motion. Nothing on the bike has been adjusted at this point and we've put the old insoles back into my shoes. This way Elliott can check that his assumptions are correct before starts to adjust the bike. He sticks small squares of tape to my ankles, knees and shoulder blade to help with filming and measuring. Elliott asks me to cycle for about 5 minutes at a decent tempo to replicate the stresses and movements my body goes through whilst cycling. When concentrating on body position, form and pedal stroke I can just about make it look like cycling - Elliott wants to see me when I'm out of breath, my form has fallen apart and I'm only thinking about breathing in and out, not my pedal stroke. I.e. my normal cycling form!
Whilst I'm on the bike Elliott is walking around me, looking at different angles and body parts, muttering under his breath and making notes. When I've got my breath back I ask him what he was looking at. "Everything" is the answer! He is looking at the movement of my feet, the extension of my ankles, the angle of my knees; how much side to side movement there is in my knees. The list goes on, but he notices everything; the tiniest movements are all incredibly important he tells me. We then analyse the video footage and measure the angles of my legs, ankles and back during the pedal stroke (see below). I ask Elliott if there's a perfect angle for all of the above. Yes and no, is the answer; again, it depends on what you want from the fit. A pro racer will have a very different desired angle to a social rider, because they want to get into a more aero position (and also because their body is likely to be more flexible and able to handle it). This I think is one of the most valuable things about getting a proper bike fit. There are plenty of youtube videos out there that tell you to set up your bike between X and Y angles (trust me, I've watched them all) - but a bespoke fit will ensure that your bike is set up to the angle that best suits you - not just somewhere within an acceptable range.
After analysing the angles Elliott adjusts my seat height, bar angle and hood/brake lever position. He also moves my cleats back in my shoes; this is to reduce the stretch that my foot is making on each pedal stroke. I have been getting achilles pain - this should not only prevent that, but also increase my power due to a more stable 'pushing' position. We put the newly moulded orthotics into my shoes and it's back on the bike for more measuring and testing. The difference in my feet is immediate! It feels weird at first, like I'm wearing new shoes (in reality they practically are, such is the difference). My feet feel so much more supported - the bottom of my foot touching the insole at all points, rather than just at the heel and ball of the foot as before. It's too early to tell if there's a material difference in my power/efficiency, but they are certainly a lot more comfortable. More adjustments followed by more peddling and measuring. This goes on for a while until Elliott is happy he's got everything just right. Again, there's no blueprint; it take's as long as it takes (although they rarely go over the suggested 3 hours, he says).
One of the best things about this whole process is just how much input I get. This is all about me, and Elliott goes to great length to ensure that I not only know what's going on at all times, but that I'm happy with all the adjustments. It's reassuring to know that he hasn't just set my bike to a certain angle and then kicked me out of the door. He also makes me pedal at really high resistance to ensure the new set up doesn't cause any immediate injury. Elliott describes the process as a "conversation, not a dictation." I think I was expecting to be dictated to, so it's a real relief to know that I have a big say in what we're doing. After all, it's me who'll be riding the bike everyday.
Another part of the 'conversation' that is my bike fit that really surprises me is how we decide to set my bike up in an 'aspirational' way, that will allow my body to develop and grow into the fit. By this I mean that we're giving me a chance to work on flexibility (specifically my tight hips, remember them), which will allow me to get into a more aero position and generally be more comfortable on the bike. Elliott could easily set me up for how my body is currently, but I want to improve my position, so after a conversation, we leave the bike set up with a bit of room to grow. Elliott tells me that this type of fit is great for newer cyclists, as their bodies are going to change loads as they start cycling more and more. If Elliott sets up a new cyclist to fit their body exactly as it is, they will be back in a few months because their body has changed a lot and the original fit is no longer correct. If he leaves a little bit of room to grow, it means that the body can develop into the bike fit, meaning they shouldn't need any additional adjustments for a lot longer.
If I'm not able to work on my hip tightness in the next couple of months, I'll go back in and Elliott will make the necessary changes. Part of Super Domestique's service is that if you notice any pain or discomfort right after the fit you can come back and they will make more adjustments until it's right, with no extra charge. Reassuring to know that I'm not stuck in an uncomfortable position if I start to feel any pain. As Elliott says, it sometimes takes a few weeks of riding a new fit, and a few more minor adjustments, before it's right.
Three hours has flown by! I feel like I've learnt loads, not only about my bike and riding position, but also about my body and also the mechanics of cycling itself - I genuinely feel like a better cyclist from having undergone the process. Now, time will tell if it does actually make me a better cyclist. After a couple of weeks of riding around on the new fit I will report back in part 3 of the Bike Fit Series, including more on Elliot's background and training.
If you think you need a fit, or just want to have a chat with Elliott about the process and what he can do for you, click the link below and request a call back. Remember that Dirty Wknd members get 15% off Bike Fit labour, 20% of workshop labour and 10% off any parts! Become a member - Click Here.
Request a call back from Super Domestique - Click Here.