£175 to tell customers which £3,500 will fit them best: is bike fit science or the bike trade’s homeopathy? To find out, Carlton Reid attends the first European Cycle Fit School...

CYCLE FIT: A fitting way to profit?

It’s standard practice for a customer to straddle a bike, maybe take it for a little test ride and then, when mind made up, plonk down the cash. Okay, good, money in the till. But where’s the cash for a pre-purchase cycle fit? In the US, cycle fit is a growing part of a bike shop’s repertoire. There are many methodologies available. It’s hard to ask for £175 for the ‘eye’, no matter how expert. Clients now expect to be measured, scanned, and videoed.

Wielding an allen key to raise or lower a saddle, or adjust a stem, is one way to approximate a bike fit, but it’s not making you money. And bike fit experts say it’s not good for your customer either.

Two years ago I had a professional bike fit. It alleviated some nagging back pain when I rode, and it was (sort of) fun to watch my pedalling motion on video playback and to hear, for the first time, buzz bike fit phrases such as "the body’s
kinetic chain of responses." I was also fitted with some shims for my cycling shoes, which made my pedalling less painful on one side. This fit was done by Phil Cavell of London’s Cycle Fit, opened in 2002.

Cavell and business partner Julian Wall use the fitting methodology developed by the Serotta International Cycling Institute of New York state. SICI is an offshoot of custom bike builder Serotta.

UK customers who want a SICI bike fit have, until now, had to visit CycleFit’s Covent Garden shop. However, thanks to the staging of the first European Bike Fit School in December 2008, there are now other SICI-trained bike fitters out there, and listed on the SICI website. This will boost the level of recognition of cycle fitting in the UK. Future classes are planned and Cavell wants more bike shops to take part.

The December school took place over three days of intensive study. Sessions covered included functional anatomy, flexibility, cycling biomechanics, cycling injuries and niggles, cleat-position, foot-structure, frame geometry and fit, tri and
time trial position and theories of aerodynamics, as well as fit business fundamentals.

Pro cycle trainer Adrian Timmis was one of the six students on the first course. Tutors included Dr David Hulse, sports physician to the Tour of Britain; a former orthopedic surgeon; an expert in taking knees apart (and putting them
back together); and Paraic McGlynn, SICI’s Director of Applied Cycling Science. McGlynn is based in the US but comes from Dublin.

I asked McGlynn whether bike fitting was all smoke and mirrors, a pseudo-science.

"That’s a common reaction when people have no knowledge or understanding of what they’re criticising. US stores had a similiar reaction but since they started to hear about happy clients, that’s all changed. Bike fit is something bike shops need to offer.

“There is a bona fide science behind it. There are thousands of happy cycle fit clients out there. The techology and methodology is sound."

CycleFit’s Phil Cavell agrees that bike fitting isn’t an alternative therapy.

“It’s not homeopathy. It’s a marriage of applied science, biomechanics, and physics. However, there’s definitely a subjective element, an empathic element. This is because everybody’s body is different.

"Bike fitting is now on a radar in the UK," said Cavell. "Competitive cyclists are
asking, should I have one?’ In the US, it’s not a question any more, if you love cycling, if it’s part of your life, you’ll have a fitting.

"Every serious bike shop will have a fit methodology.

"Customers like it because they’re having a light shone on them, and cycling is probably their favourite subject. You can take a bike fitting forward for a lifetime. It’s not cheap, but it’s not expensive. Spending money and taking time to investigate your body’s interface with a machine is a good thing."

For McGlynn, the cost of a bike fit is a technological investment.

"In every other sport, people are used to paying money to do it better. The golf industry has expensive swing analysis. Cycling is late to the table. You don’t
just get on a bike and pedal any more. This is the right way to buy a bike."

And if the US bike industry is relatively late to the table, what about the UK?

CycleFit’s Julian Wall said: “Bike fitting is a relatively new phenomenon in the UK, similar to where the US was ten years ago. Many UK bike shops, even at the high-end of the market, take a somewhat haphazard approach to the vital task of fitting their clients on their bikes. This can lead to cycling losing valued participants or, worse, give a perception that our industry is uncaring or lacks professionalism."

In the US, bike fit has been taken to an extremely high level by IBD superstars such as Paul Levine of Signature Cycles, New York. Levine uses the SICI system, as well as a blend of his own techniques. Signature Cycles is a destination retailer, with customers flying in from all over the US to pay to be fitted. Last year Levine was the winner of the inaugural Bicycling magazine’s ‘Excellence in Applied Science’ award.

This award "recognises bicycle industry retailers and innovators who provide exceptional service and education in the area of integrating the human machine with the quintessential human-invented machine: the bicycle."

Bicycling marketing director Zack Grice said: "Passionate cyclists go to obsessive lengths in the chase for optimum performance and know how important a properly-fitted bike is to the experience. High-end riders today are more demanding of their bikes than ever before – they train hard, eat right and balance busy schedules to get the most out of the sport, and they expect their bikes to help translate this dedication into power, speed and control.

“We’re proud to honour shops that show this same obsessive dedication to helping their customers ride faster and farther by fitting them to bikes that perform as extensions of their bodies, and we hope that these awards will inspire all cycling retailers to deliver the best customer service possible to help the sport grow."

Wheat Ridge Cyclery near Denver, is another destination bike fitting retailer. Marketing director Matt Boyer said bike fitting wouldn’t be impacted by the down economy: “If you’re a $15,000 customer, the recession isn’t going to stop you getting a bike fit if you really want one."

Need to Know: Bike Fit Tech
During a professional bike fitting, minute adjustments are made to the sitting position, adjustments measured in millimetres. ‘Cycling biodynamics’ can increase comfort, enhance pedalling efficiency, increase power output, and lower the risk of repetitive-use injury. Appointments typically take two hours for an initial
assessment and can cost £175+. Follow-up sessions (half hour or more) are recommended.

The most up-to-date ‘bike fit labs’ use lasers, video cameras, and 3D computer imagery to show a client how to sit properly. Retül 3D motion-capture technology, for instance, uses light-emitting diodes placed at various key points on a cyclist’s
body. Lance Armstrong’s trainer Chris Carmichael uses the Retül system. Others use the Dartfish video motion system.

Bike Pain: A Study
A bicycle isn’t an instrument of torture, but sit on it for a long time in a less than optimum position and pain will result. Typical complaints are bum soreness,
tingling toes, hand numbness, lower back pain, and hamstring discomfort. Knee pain is often alleviated by moving the saddle fore or aft. Neck discomfort can be resolved by moving up the handlebars, or even fitting different sports glasses or
removing a helmet visor. Lower-back pain can be lessened by lowering the
saddle, or cycling with the spine in a ‘neutral position’, in other words not slumped. Saddle soreness is alleviated by getting out of the thing frequently when riding.

But bike fitting isn’t just about pain, it’s also about performance. Use of power meters in the bike fit lab can show how a change in position can alter performance. However, cynics point out this could be due to muscles being used in a different way, hence some initial improvement. Once muscles are conditioned into the new position, the power output goes back to the norm.

Nevertheless, serious cyclists are becoming happier and happier to spend money on bike fits. IBDs who invest time, effort, money and training on becoming a local specialist could carve out quite a profitable niche. The bike fit session costs money, and the technician may be able to direct the customer to buy shims and bike parts sold by the shop.

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