Every summer, I watch the Tour de France and I'm inspired to get on my road bike again. I sprint hard, attack climbs, and begin to imagine myself flying across the French countryside alongside the world’s best racers.
Historically, I’ve tweaked my own bike fit and adjusted the riding position of my road bikes to emulate the low, aggressive stance I often see pros ride in the Tour. But in recent years this hasn't worked so well for me. My back's been hurting, my hands have been going numb, and I simply don't feel as fast anymore. I know my bike fit needs to change, but I need a little push to do it.
It got me wondering how pros racing in the Tour de France can do it. They’re on their low, aggressive race bikes for three weeks riding over 100 miles a day. Does a professional bike fit make that much of a difference? Are their bodies just different than mine? And what can an average Joe like me learn from how they fit their bikes?
To answer my questions, I talked to Andy Pruitt, one of the world’s foremost cycling fit experts. Pruitt has worked extensively with numerous pro riders and teams dialing in their bike fits. He is the founder of the CU Sports Medicine and Performance Center, has been a sports medicine expert for 40 years.
The Pro's Closet: Tell me a bit about your bike fitting career.
Andy Pruitt: My fit career started in the late ‘70s with the elite riders like Connie Carpenter, Davis Phinney, Greg Lemond, and Benard Hinault. That’s where I got started. That’s who was seeking university-based medical help at the time. The fit philosophies back in the ‘70s were Euro-based, and they were all on an X/Y-plane. You viewed reach and saddle height purely from the side view. Nobody thought about the frontal view of the Z-plane until we were well into the ‘80s.
Over 10 years ago, pro teams didn’t have dedicated fit consultants yet. Bjarne Riis invited us into his web of influence. I went to a camp to help riders size shoes, and pick footbeds, and I looked at a couple of his riders and thought, “Wow, we could really harness their potential.” They had some biomechanical issues that we addressed with the foot-pedal interface. We made changes to the hip-knee-foot alignment that were huge for those riders, and after that Bjarne asked us to come back to do a full bike fit for the whole team.
TPC: So what is it about pro riders that makes them different? How do they compare to normal riders when it comes to bike fit?
AP: Well obviously, they have a different motor than your average Joe. That aspect of their physiology is what really sets them apart. And there are many pros who have succeeded despite their biomechanical disadvantages.
Peter Sagan, for example, came out flying as a young rider, winning races, king of the world, and it wasn’t until four or five years ago that some biomechanical issues began to catch up with him. His team sought me out. The team owner wasn’t happy, and Peter was putting a lot of pressure on himself and training hard, but he hadn’t won all year. I can’t share the details, but we resolved a few issues with fit, and three days later he won the Tour of California. When you have a giant motor like many pros do, and if you can properly support all the biomechanical deficiencies and issues, you create a winning combination.
So when you ask, “How are the pros different,” they’re really not, physiology aside. They have flat feet, knock knees, bow legs, tight hamstrings, and leg length inequalities. All the things normal people suffer with, they have it too.
TPC: That’s kind of nice to hear.
AP: Well, they are human. Their physiology is from a different planet, but their struggles with bike fit are no different than anyone else’s. The time we spend with them in bike fitting is just like a retail customer.
TPC: I tend to think I'm faster on my bike, or at least I feel faster, with more saddle to bar drop, and a long, slammed stem because that’s how I see a number of pros riding their bikes. Am I right in thinking that?
AP: Let me tell you, the first time I took a staff of people to Bjarne Riis’ team camp in the fall, they’d all just been issued their new bikes. They were getting ready to go for their morning ride and all of their bikes were leaned up perfectly against the team bus. The first thing I noticed is that every steerer tube had been cut off and every stem was slammed.
The thought was that they would be more aero if they were lower in the front. The guys just tolerated the back pain, the numb crotch, and the heavy hands, because in those days it was just, “here’s your bike, go ride.” And the geometry of the team-issue frames had shorter headtubes than the standard-geometry frames sold to the public which made it even worse. It wasn’t talked about much but everybody did it.
But when we started doing bike fits, I would say we replaced two-thirds of the forks that year to get an uncut steerer tube. We had to prove to Bjarne that locked elbows and a really low front end were actually more detrimental than having elbows bent. Bringing the handlebars up a bit actually allows you to relax your elbows, which is not only more comfortable, but it can also be more aero.
TPC: Wait, how can higher bars be more aero?
AP: A great example is this rider Lars Bak. He’s one of those guys whose job is to just sit at the front, rip everybody’s legs off, and let the Fabian Cancellaras of the world sit out of the wind. He had some numbness and hand pain, all the complaints of a bar being too low. We had to show the team that, in his case, raising the handlebars two centimeters actually lowered his back angle four centimeters because he could relax into the front end of the bike.
TPC: But in general, are pro riders typically lower on their bikes?
AP: So that might be one place where typically, yes, their back angle is greater than the general public. But the general public isn’t 22 years old, and hasn’t been riding their bike since they were 10, and adapted to the race position. Pros are definitely different in that respect.
So when we look at the pros you have to remember who they are. They’re young, incredibly fit, and have been in that sort of position since they were 10-years-old. Their fit is outside the bell-shaped curve of the masses.
TPC: So being young and fit is the secret?
AP: Ha-ha, it helps. But my philosophy over the years has been that the bike needs to look like the rider. So hamstring length, lower back flexibility, and arm length, all those things are taken into account in the reach and drop of a bike fit. I can only attest to those we have responsibility for, but for everyone we’re responsible for, I can guarantee that their bike looks like them, and if they have an aggressive drop from the top of the saddle to the top of the bar, it’s because they have the hamstring flexibility, the lower back flexibility, and core strength to adapt to and comfortably ride that position.
I will say though the hardest people to fit in my experience are the masters guys. They come in with excruciating back pain but don’t want to do to their bike what it would take to get rid of that back pain. They’re more interested in what their bike looks like leaning against the glass at the coffee shop. It’s so drilled in their mind what they want it to look like. The reality is sometimes you have to mourn the person you used to be.
TPC: That hits close to home. As a new father, I’ve already noticed my fitness degrading and my current position on the bike is becoming less comfortable. I’m thinking about changing it to make it more upright, but I’m really reluctant.
AP: Let me tell you about my bike position. When I was a young 20-to-30-something racer, I had eight centimeters of drop, narrow bars, a little frame — all of the things. Then, of course, I started to age, get a family, a career. I never stopped riding or racing, but my position migrated to a place where I ended up going to Mike Sinyard (founder of Specialized) with some ideas that helped bring about the Roubaix.
The endurance position with higher bars and suspension built into the frame launched a whole new category of bike. That was mid-career for me. Now I’m semi-retired; I have more time to work on my core, and my position is almost back to where it was when I was 30. There are cycles in life, where your bike position should change if your body has changed.
TPC: You mention there are pro riders that have succeeded despite biomechanical issues or deficiencies. I wonder do you ever fit pro riders to maximize performance and sacrifice comfort for speed.
AP: Well, time trialing or aerodynamics are good examples. We have the science now to blend aerodynamics with metabolics. Let’s go back a few years. We were looking for the most aerodynamic position in the wind tunnel, and that could be outside of what our examination told us a rider could do comfortably. But the wind tunnel said that position was the most aero. Then we would take them to the velodrome to see if it was sustainable and it wasn’t.
Rarely is the most aerodynamic position sustainable. So their position would have to creep upward and get more comfortable to be more sustainable. The key to aerodynamics is to have your aerodynamic gains be greater than your metabolic loss. If you lose 10% in output but gain 15% in aerodynamics, that’s a good tradeoff.
So we’re using science now to find that sweet spot. From a bike fitter’s perspective, what’s been really cool is that it’s usually the more comfortable position that gives the best combination of aerodynamics and metabolics. It’s quite rewarding as someone who’s been preaching that comfort helps you go faster. If you’re more comfortable you’re going to be able to go faster and harder for longer, rather than fighting to stay in some aerodynamic position.
TPC: Wow, that might be just the push I need to get into a more upright position! To close things out, I know you're probably biased, but would you say that a professional bike fit is worth investing in for your average rider?
AP: Absolutely. How many times have you heard someone say, "I have a bike, but I don't ride it because it's not very comfortable." Had they started with the right saddle and the right bar with the right drop, it could have made cycling so comfortable that there would be no reason not to do it.
That said, what I've developed over the years is this high-level, medically based bike position. I was training fitters globally, and pushing, pushing, pushing, and when we finally counted the numbers we found we were reaching maybe seven percent of riders. That leaves out over 90 percent.
So I've backed off. I still provide that high-level service but have tried to put into retail some basic things. If you leave retail with the correct saddle in the correct place, you've gone a long way in creating a comfortable ride. Fitters should look at helping riders staring at the glove wall too. The thick, padded glove is a symptom of bad bike fit.
Everybody deserves a bike that fits. I don't care if it's a beach cruiser or a WorldTour rider. Everybody should be fit on a bicycle to avoid back pain, crotch pain, knee pain, hand pain, and all the discomforts that could arise from riding an ill-fitting bicycle.