Good bike fit seems like alchemy. When you think you have it, everything feels natural, normal, and the bike is an extension of the body; the only issue is how hard you can push yourself. When you don’t, pain and limitations dominate your mind.
Forever curious about the art of finding the ideal place for the saddle and handlebars in relation to the pedals; I enjoy talking to fitters, thinking they see things most people don’t. One such person is Happy Freedman.
The suggestion was too tantalizing to ignore.
I was chatting with Freedman at the Bike New York Expo earlier this year. We were talking road bike handlebar widths. Specifically, the bars of Dutch pro Jan-Willem van Schip, who races 32cm wide handlebars not only on the road, but in races with cobblestones. He’s a big rider, well over six feet tall, and even kids typically ride wider drop handlebars. I wondered aloud if he could be comfortable on those bars. Freedman tossed me an easy question. “How is handlebar width determined for a rider?”
This was a setup; perhaps he thought I’d fall for it. “I know it isn’t based on the traditional claim of shoulder width.” He smiled a bit; I felt I had cleared a low hurdle. He then told me, “I know how to figure it out.” and gave a bigger smile.
Of course, I wanted to know.
I asked how does he do it.
“I’ll have to show you.”
Music to my ears.
I had been to Freedman’s lab a year earlier. It was the most impressive fitting studio I had ever seen. Not only did he have every fitting tool I had seen before, and many I hadn’t, but he had saddles and bars galore, as well as means to test, scan, measure just about any physical activity. They had the means to analyze running form, pitching motions, tennis strokes, golf swings. Freedman isn’t an ordinary fitter, either. Not only had he been in the bike business for thirty plus years, and had worked with fitters like Bill Peterson, who turned the bike world onto custom insoles in cycling shoes, and Ben Serotta, who, besides being a frame builder had a fit school to teach fitting techniques,
Freedman works in the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS). HSS specializes in things like joint replacement and sports medicine; you’ve probably heard of it, it has a national profile. Freedman has been working with HSS for 20 years. Freedman has the experience of not only being the subject and teaching the subject, but working with elite athletes looking to maximize comfort and efficiency, and people whose issues were such that the challenge was just to get their bodies to interact with a bicycle. He’s more of the fitting bicycles to people, not people to bicycles, kind of person.
Talking with Freedman before visiting,
I knew a bit of what to expect.
He’s not a fan of fitting systems and fitters that rigidly rely on numbers calculated from various body dimensions. “You’re interested in the surgeon, not the scalpel.” He’s quite content to opine on philosophy and methodology and believes any decent fitter should be happy to have a conversation on the topic before meeting for a fit.
A rider should have that conversation before going with any fitter.
You can bring him a printout or chart of whatever a previous fitter recommended, but he doesn’t think it’s terribly useful. He thinks the numbers can be disregarded. ‘Your body changes. You don’t have the body you had then.’ To compare a lab-derived rigid system to the real world, he points to pro bike racers, who, in the middle of the race, can break their bike in a crash, take a teammate’s bike, and get back in the race because they can find their position on the strange bike.
He thinks too much precision can be a bad thing. ‘You’re one to four centimeters taller in the morning than you are in the evening. The fit has to accommodate your body at all times.’ Though he claims to be happy to fit you for a specific time of day, if that’s what you think you really need; seems like sarcasm.
He’ll generate numbers to create a position for new riders, but for experienced riders, he doesn’t feel it’s important.
He thinks the key is finding where a person’s body should be in space and then translating that to points on a bicycle. To do this, he thinks fitters should have an understanding of anatomy, and how muscles generate power as well as work to stabilize the body.
He thinks any fit that’s done, any position on the bike, should be seen as a snapshot. It doesn’t tell you what happened before and after the image was taken. Maybe it worked for you at the time of the snapshot, but now is not then.
He believes that newer riders might have created a position that doesn’t work for them and can be remedied, while experienced riders have probably found something that works at least reasonably well for them and can be refined. For experienced riders, it’s about improving what is already going on, counteracting weaknesses, finding ways for them to gulp more air per breath; improving efficiency. The more efficient one is, the less hard that body works for a given effort.
He wants to teach people how they can find their position on any bike. “Always look to see how you’re breathing.” Always think in terms of efficiency. Extra air is essential to greater efficiency; the more air per gulp, the heart rate drops, and it takes longer to go anaerobic.
He thinks that good fit is worth more than weight reduction and aerodynamics. Obviously, he’s got an interest in it, but he watches pro riders and thinks some of the fastest time trialists have been raising their position a bit in recent years to get more air and power.
He believes people should expect to move around some in the saddle while riding. “You don’t sprint on your ass.”
Bikes are fit for purpose. But, in most cases, there aren’t a single set of conditions.
He sees ankle movement as important. This is something that has been discussed endlessly in bike circles; whether the ankle should be locked or not. Freedman is not a fan of the extreme rearward cleat position, which generally locks the ankle in one place, something that is gaining popularity at the moment. He feels the calf works as a pump to help move blood to the rest of the body.
Even if you ride to see him, he wants you to cool down before seeing you ride. If people can loosen up, they also will tighten up, and as such, knowing what they look like when they get on the bike cold has value.
He works with exercise physiologists. This is an obvious benefit for people who need rehabilitation help, but isn’t always seen as important for healthy cyclists. For Freedman, it’s extra eyes, as well as help in determining a body’s strengths and weaknesses.
He maintains an open door policy with shops, fitters, and frame builders. In New York City and the surrounding region, perhaps a good bit beyond, many have come to him for advice, consulted with him, worked with him as a sounding board. If you’ve had a fit in the area or a custom frame built, the person you worked with might well have incorporated some of Freedman’s insights into what you have.
To see it all in action, the next article details the fitting experience. Find it here.