Riding to Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) with a backpack filled with spare clothing and sneakers to my first fit session in more than a decade, there was some trepidation, a little insecurity about my position on the bike. I didn’t think Happy Freedman would come out with a totally different position for me, but still, maybe I had gone off track somewhere years ago.
(if you haven’t seen it yet, read the introduction to this article here.)
I was excited to think about the possibility of being more comfortable, more efficient, and faster, but I didn’t know what that might entail, other than noticing that I wasn’t noticing. Wattage might shoot up, but I doubted that was possible; moving up a bit would be nice, A noticeable bump even better.
I hadn’t filled out, or had been given, the seven-page intake form, but after having several long conversations about the topic with Freedman, perhaps he figured out what he needed to know.
Starting at the lab
After riding there, I stopped, took off my cycling shoes, helped set up my bike on a trainer, and stood around enough to be back to zero.
As previously explained, when we met at his lab, there were two exercise physiologists present. Aaron Karp and Tiffany Shag.
Aaron and Tiffany worked with me first. They started by checking balance, flexibility, strength and range of motion. All things that might seem to matter more for day to day stuff, but also factor in to how one sits on the bike, holds oneself on the bike, and generates power. One worked close while the other was back a ways, observing. Quickly, they ascertained that I favor my left side. As I could see the same issues they saw, thanks to some right side wobbles when balancing on one foot, it made sense. I also pretty consistently favor the left side of my pedal stroke, according to my power meter. There was a concern that my arches were collapsing some, which, even though I have high arches and have been using custom insoles for over 20 years, was a bit worrying. It was suggested, “Try adding a scaphoid pad,” a cheaper, and home-executed solution, rather than suggesting completely new insoles. The bigger concern is what it means for long-term health as well as comfort and efficiency on the bike.
Freedman works with physiologists to get their input on what they see. He says, they’re “giving me targets to focus on and landmines to avoid. That is giving you the opportunity to make what we’re working on more effective.”
Getting on the bike
My position is one that has evolved, like everyone’s. It has certainly changed over the years, but is based on a fit from the early 2000s. I had Bill Peterson take a look in 2001 (the same person Freedman worked with), and a disciple of his took measure in 2004, and again, by a fitter from another school of thought in 2006. I went back to the Peterson-influenced position after that. I’ve tried to keep detailed records of my position, trying to keep it very, very close from bike to bike. I’m still using that basic position, but I’ve dropped my saddle almost 2cm from the highest point in 2004, and about 1cm from 2001, when I started keeping detailed records. The handlebar position relative to the bottom bracket has remained pretty close, mostly because the stem is nearly slammed on my main bike, though it hasn’t been dropped along with the saddle. The reach and drop of the bars have changed over time as well.
Peterson is the guy who got the cycling world into custom insoles. I have been using custom insoles designed and or built by him for over 20 years. Freedman worked with Peterson, initially as a “test dummy” for custom insoles, and the guiding insight from Peterson was “the foot is the foundation.” That is, stabilize the foot first, make sure the cleat is in the proper position, and then build the rest of the position from there. It’s a mindset many fitters use today.
Freedman used to do the same, but has moved on. He now feels, “look at the house before the foundation.” See how the person sits on the bike, generates power, breathes, finds comfort, and then take a look at what’s supporting that.
Freedman had my bike set up on a Kinetic Rock and Roll Trainer with their Turntable Riser Ring under my front wheel. This setup allows for the bike to sway laterally while attached to the trainer. It forces the rider to engage in partially balancing the bike while riding in place, a more road-like experience than many a stationary trainer—he leveled the trainer before setting up the bike to normalize the experience.
While he did have a phone camera going for a little bit, he generally eschews excessive data capture. Small videos can make a point, serve as reminders, but generating reams of data means lots of time to sift through and analyze the data set created. That time often confirms what Freedman has already learned, and arguably overshadows that which can’t be easily quantified. He showed me a brief video of my legs in motion, and that was that.
After I was warmed up and rolling smoothly and he had taken mental measure of me, he asked me to sit up while pedaling. He then found a spot on the side of my right gluteus, poked his finger there, asked me to hold my arms out a certain way, pinch my muscles in my mid back a bit, and then pivot off the spot he had located and reach for the bars. From there pedal as normal.
My back felt straighter and longer, my shoulders more squared. I found myself thinking of Steven Kruijswijk’s climbing form. The result on the bike was my breathing a bit easier, and my cadence went up a bit—the leg muscles seemed to engage a bit differently as well. He then put his forearms on my handlebars as if they were forward-pointing extensions, ala Van Schip and asked if I could grasp his forearms. Could I tell a difference? I didn’t think I could. But it wasn’t constraining.
After more watching, he suggested I tilt my head and hold my jaw in a certain way. He didn’t say it, but it was hard not to think of Tour de France champ Chris Froome with this. Froome’s position looks awkward on the bike, and it appears that he’s staring at his stem, but he might well hold his torso and head as he does to gulp more air per breath. Every little bit can help.
After working on this for a while, I slowed down and got off the bike. He had no suggestions for any position changes at the moment. It was within what he thought was a useful range in relation to the pedals. If I worked on the exercises and stretching Aaron and Tiffany were going to suggest, I might benefit from moving my saddle back a bit. But overall, when he sees a position that has been used successfully for a long time and largely works, he sees his role more about making it more efficient rather than making big changes. Kind of wished I had my bike computer recording during the session, to comb through my own data to determine if I could “see” anything different.
That was it?
In person, largely, yes. But…
I rode home, thinking about the position he suggested I find the whole way. Even with a large backpack on, I could find it fairly easily. I wished I had watched my heart rate monitor and power meter during the session. When I got into the park, I found the position and chased down a rider who had zoomed by me upon my entry.
The next day, he called to check in. Asked me about the ride home. I shared the above. We talked some more about what he thought made a good fitter. Follow-up is one thing. Another is if the fitter is doing work “after school,” another way of saying whether or not the person is continuing education on fitting; seminars, classes, certifications, etc.
Shortly thereafter, Karp emailed me two documents. The first was a seven-page summary of his fitness assessment, along with recommendations of what to do in light of the knowledge gained. Basically, I could use greater strength in my glutes for more power, do more stretching of quads and hip flexors for more flexibility, and improve core strength to get into a more aero position for longer and for greater on-bike stability. The second document was six pages of exercise and stretching suggestions, with the only equipment needed being anything that can be used as a block, exercise rubber bands, and a foam roller. I started doing them.
Freedman continued to check in periodically to see how things were going. On the road, I was trying to find that place on the tops, hoods, and drops. When I found it, it seemed that my cadence went up a bit, as did my power, with no apparent increase in effort. Freedman thinks that there’s a chance power might even seem to drop while speed increases as greater efficiency is found. Seems reasonable.
To me, on the bike, his positioning advice was like having a mantra. Think about where my back should pivot, straightening the back, squaring the shoulders, think about the air moving more easily in and out. As time has gone on, I’ve been able to hold it for longer. All the same, I tend to feel more pressure on my hands when I think I’ve been holding the position for a longer time. When I expressed this in a call with Freedman (that he initiated), he opined that it’s a sign of insufficient core strength.
I’ve been thinking about the other possible courses of action for a bike fit. Part of me thinks that just getting rid of discomfort is enough; but then I think that that could mean forever lowering the saddle and raising the bars and it seems like the ‘perfect’ position might always be at least one step behind the body. Part of me wonders if by reducing overall reach the occasional lower back discomfort would go away; but then I think of the times I’ve reduced reach and the position on the hoods and drops felt pretty good when I was going slow, but felt too short when I was going hard. While Freedman’s method of fitting, mixing both position on the bike with exercises off seems a bit abstract at times, years of neglect when it comes to certain muscles (seen benignly as wasting away because they’re not seemingly needed) means those muscles probably should be strengthened regardless, and that they might improve riding is all the better as it gives me an excuse to the off-bike workouts I’ve been avoiding for years.
As I started integrating the exercises into my weekly routine, they were easy until I got used to them, then they got hard. Once I think I figured them out, went slower, used better form, I’d feel fine afterwards, but really feel it the next day. It’s mostly core-muscle soreness, most notably in the muscles connecting the torso to the legs. While it’s obviously frustrating to feel soreness not derived from pounding the pedals, overall, it strikes me as a good thing. I’m sore because those muscles probably aren’t strong enough. The exercises might end up being as important as the fit itself in the long run, for they should make it easier to generate power, reach the bars, and pedal hard with less discomfort.
And therein lies the alchemy of bike fit. Seeing where a body should be, what it takes to get there, and what it takes to stay there.
Happy Freedman can be found at Hospital for Special Surgery. Belaire Building, Ground Floor, 525 East 71st Street,
New York, NY 10021, Tel: 646.797.8005, Fax: 212.774.2089