New Bike, New Fit
Much as everyone talks about the cyclists’ need for n+1 bikes (with n being the number currently owned), I’d gone a very long time without a new bike til the autumn of 2017.
My Giant TCR , my ‘go-to’ bike, had seen me through 90% of my riding in the past five years, and was looking, a little, well, tired. 60,000km of glorious mountain passes, grimy Kentish and Oxfordshire lanes, and more gurn-inducing turbo sessions than i dare contemplate had taken their toll on the old girl and she was past her best. The decision was made. NEW BIKE DAY required.
Through the course of autumn, I splashed a fair dollop of cash on building up a new bike, a project that blended a desire for the best, with my relatively low income. However, I am fortunate enough to work with Athlete Service bike shop, and so a few cheeky trade price deals were combined, with a few luxury purchases, and a couple of more conservative acquisitions.
Then, by November, she was complete. A feathery Felt FR1 climbing frame with various nice bits and pieces attached to it.
Having spent £xxx on this beautiful machine, i felt it stupid not to spend a bit more and get properly fitted to it. Whilst I was comfortable on my old bikes, I was prone to niggles and tightnesses, and I wanted to smooth these out as much as possible. I’d had a lot of help with an initial fitting on the Felt based on visual inspection and basic measures from Rob at Athlete Service, but I sort of wanted the reassurance that comes with the blend of science and art that is inherent to a full Retul bike fit, a school of bike fitting that utilises specialist software and motion-sensing technology to precisely feed back on a rider’s interaction with their machine.
I’d seen a lot of top level athletes and Elite teams saying nothing but good things about Vankru Performance Cycling, a Retul studio in the South of England, in recent months. These guys were known for not just applying a robotic numbers-based approach that some feel Retul is prone to. Instead, they were known to blend the objective data of Retul technology with the ‘art’ side of bike fitting, that is, the understanding of a rider’s biomechanics, their type of riding, and their muscle structures. The best of both worlds.
So, session booked, off I went on my merry way, to see Garth, founder of Vankru, ex-pro roadie, ‘master of retul’ and all round cycling guru.
Background – Massive Milage and a Micro-Adjuster.
Having spent so many thousands of hours on my old TCR, I knew that a change of bike was going to come as quite a shock to muscles that had become so used to it. The frame was arguably a bit too long for me, and when I was fit on it all those years ago, it had been a bit of a bodge to get to a suitable position, resulting in a bike that didn’t quite look ‘right’ for my body.
Whatsmore, my ever patient chiropractor buddy Laurence, owner of Henley Practice and fixer of various of my niggles, had assessed me as a ‘micro adjuster’. A micro-adjuster is a term coined by Phil Burt, bike fitting guru, in reference to those who are hugely sensitive to the slightest of changes in position and equipment; a term he coined in reference to Eddie Mercx’s famous neuroticisim over every aspect of his setup.
Given this familiarity with the TCR, and my sensitivity to changes, I went into the fit with Garth slightly apprehensive about what was to come, but with full trust of a man who had a reputation as big as my stores of peanut butter.
Getting a Granny into a Ferrari; Or, Fitting Me to my Felt.
The session with Garth was thorough to say the least, and fell into four main parts:
Firstly, Garth got to know me; the information you may find on a Pro Cycling Top Trump (only a lot less impressive).
Having established my rider ‘type’, the nature of competition and riding I do, sporting background and previous injuries, Garth asked all sorts of questions that I initially found quite surprising. Nothing about my views on Donald Trump or Brexit, but on topics including sleep quality and patterns, my diet and any intolerances, and familial health and background, all with a view to as finding as full a picture of me as possible and to detect even the slightest thing that may impact on the way I ride.
As I’m a delicate little flower, I’ve spent the past years nursing my way through various niggles, imbalances and weaknesses, notably:
- Ankle mobility issues (i.e, the amount of ‘flop’ up and down in my feet and ankle), which would occasionally become really tight and impact my pedal balance and style;
- An unhealthy left-right power balance; around 53% in favour of my right leg – something related to the above point, and which more than likely lead to an almost race-ending hip strain in the Haute Route Iron in summer 2017;
- Tight hips and relatively poor pelvic rotation – meaning that I got low on the bike through bending my back rather than twisting my hips forward and keeping my back straight. This is a common complaint of those attached to a laptop / keyboard most of the day, further proof that work is bad for you.
All of the above, plus a few smaller ailments, led to inefficiencies, aches, and, more importantly, me having all the panache and souplesse of Chris Froome x Fabio Aru x your nan on a bike.
Next up was a BodyWatch screening, a session that analyses the way you move, and picks up on any weaknesses or imbalances in your body. Essentially, this involved me performing a range of movements such as double and single-leg squats, leg raises, and neck bends in front of a motion sensing camera tracking the patterns and angles of my limbs, which fed back to Garth’s laptop.
This was definitely the most embarrassing but possibly the most intriguing part of the session. As well as making me realise just how poor my stability and balance was, the computer software produced a huge report with enough information to blow the minds of Team Sky’s Kerrison, Ellingworth, et al. I won’t bore you with it all as the numbers take a little explaining, but it’s safe to say that in general movement, my calves and hamstrings need to pull their fingers out and do some work, and my hips and thighs need to chill out and let some other muscles take a turn.
General Physical Assessment
Following that, it was onto a physio’s bench where Garth pushed, pulled, yanked, and stretched me in various directions to assess my flexibility and ranges of motion, and was able to gauge the indiscrepancies in my leg length, hip alignment, and uncover the real reason why I stand like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This all went into a satisfyingly chunky (and enlightening) report that was shared with me in later days.
The Retul Session
Then the moment of truth, and the point at which the Retul technology came to the fore. I clambered onto the bike in its rough initial position, and was rigged up with movement sensing pads around key points of my body (ankles, knees, hips, wrist, elbows etc) that all fed back to Garth’s Retul software. A few short efforts at various intensities and a bit of data nerding followed. The software showed my pedal stroke and position on the bike, and was able to detect more measures and angles relevant than Pythagoras’ protractor.
With that, the initial assessment was done. Time for me to have a brew and to let Garth do his thang. Using all the data he’d captured, the understanding he’d gained of my body from the various assessments, and perhaps most importantly, his experience and judgement, Garth undertook the fine art of bike fitting.
The Evolution of a Position
I jumped on and off the bike for numerous test spins whilst Garth tweaked, adjusted and analysed away, listening to my feedback throughout. Some people assume Retul to be a purely objective and science-lead approach, but without the art and experience of someone who knows their stuff, it’s meaningless. The ability to bring together the science of analytical software and computer systems with the art of understanding a rider’s body and what the rider needs from a bike is what makes Garth more than just a Retul boffin. As that process of test and assess, test and asses, the bike slowly evolved to where it is now.
Prior to the session, I’d slightly overlooked the level of detail that would be assessed. Things as obvious as the saddle fore-aft and height were adjusted, but tweaks as minor as the exact angle and height of each brake hood were also made. It’s remarkable how the smallest movement can improve ride feel – for example how the tiniest shift of the hoods impacts not just the stress on your hands but also your whole torso and core – and is a great testament to how far your fit can be assessed and improved when in the right hands.
When we were done and I was as happy as I could feel at that stage, I was delighted to find myself with a longer stem and lower stack via the removal of a few headset spacers; initially my bike had looked a bit like an old man’s tourer, with a fairly high and blunt stem area. The new front end was far from slammed in the vein of Adam Hansen’s mad 150mm, -17 degree stem; my new 90mm stem and small stack underneath is still fairly conservative – but at least it made the bike feel a bit more lean and mean, and most importantly, made her look more badass.
Prior to the fit, the underneath of my shoes looked a little like a building project or piece of modern art. Turning them upside down would reveal a number of shims and wedges beneath the cleats – all intended to balance out a previously diagnosed leg length discrepancy (I stand like the leaning tower of pisa, remember?).
Garth’s analysis showed that the previous cleat scaffolding was more or less correct (thankfully i’d not been riding with a totally inappropriate setup for years on end!), but also detected that my feet tend to be ‘windswept’, that is, one foot rolling inwards towards the big toe, and the other foot rolling outwards, towards the little toe. As such, some fine adjustments to cleat position were made, wedges were inserted inside the shoe at the heel, to help keep me stable and level out power transfer, and some extra stack was added underneath my left cleat (results below).
Shortly after the session, Garth sent me both the BodyWatch report (see snippet above), and of course, a full Retul report. The latter included every measurement and angle of the new set up that you could imagine, all captured to the nearest millimetre via a set of lasers feeding back to his software. Having this detailed record is imperative for setting up the bike after travelling, or for applying to another bike when that inevitable allure of N+1 comes over me.
However, whilst the fine details, measures and angles are essential outputs of a bike fit, there’s more to it than just analysing and assessing your position on a bike. Changing the set up of a bike can be a means of curing and lessening issues that arise as a result of your imbalances and weaknesses in your physique and biomechanics. So, these are to some extent, coping measures to address a weakness as it manifests itself.
However, Garth also looks to help you treat and prevent any biomechanical issues that you have before they cause issues in the first place, something that is almost as important to injury-prevention as any tweak of saddle height and adjustment of cleats. After the session, I was sent a range of exercises and stretches aimed at getting my glutes firing, getting my hips loose, and opening out my shoulders. Obviously it’s all well and good being given these, but they have to be practiced. So in they go to the weekly routine; I’m aiming for two to three sessions a week of around 40 minutes, some quality time spent rolling around on the floor watching GCN videos and dreaming of riding up a mountain.
Unfortunately, a bike fit isn’t going to instantly give you 10% more watts and make you feel like you’re riding on a cloud, especially for someone like me who had put in so many thousands of hours on one machine, in one position. My muscles had become very used to that one particular pedalling motion and bodily position of riding my old Giant, and needed to be carefully unravelled out of it. To manage this adaption, Garth told me that the first 10-15 rides on the Felt had to be steady to mid-paced rides, no burying myself doing intervals or epic wintery slogs. Whilst this was a nice excuse for me to not feel my usual dazed and confused self for a week or so, it was a little frustrating at first, as the desire to really put the bike to the test kicked in. However, to engage in a series of sometimes tedious but occasionally wonderfully zen-like zone two trainer rides was actually probably a good thing in January (‘base miles summer smiles’ blah blah).
Now, two weeks after the initial fit, I’m about 12 rides into the adaption process, and have started dipping a toe into a little more intensity. The bike is starting to feel ‘normal’ beneath me, as if the many miles on the TCR are starting to be flushed out of my legs. I’m not abandoning the trusty old bike altogether of course, she’s now saved for the most filthy wintery rides or if I decide to dabble in any road / crit racing.
The Felt feels fast, and I feel faster on it. Being a little lower and more stretched out feels good, and the slightly more aggressive feel isn’t detracting from comfort, as far as I can tell from a couple of longer rides. I’d guess that my power output is about 3-5% down on the new bike compared to my old Giant at this stage; for the two outputs to be so relatively close after only two weeks is a far better result than I’d expected (or feared). I’m confident that with time I’ll be back to where I was on the Giant power-wise, leaving the speed and stiffness of the new bike to propel me to greater things than I may have achieved previously. I’ve not been able to take her on the road much yet, as the January weather is being it’s usual filthy self. However, a trip to Spain beckons in mid-February, and I’m gagging to unleash her.
As part of Garth’s service, he offers a free follow up session after the adaption phase of his initial fit. Perfecting your position isn’t something that comes immediately, and can involve a bit of trial and error, and this follow up session is designed to help with that. I’m hoping to get down to see the magician again soon, but time constraints and the distance to his Winchester base is proving prohibitive.
For now, however, I’m feeling very happy, and feel that if any tweaks are required they’ll be minor.
The session with Garth was a really enlightening experience; I feel like i gained a lot from it beyond a bike that fitted me better and worked better for me as a rider. I learnt about my body and the way it moves, and has made me more aware of how I hold myself – something that will hopefully help me to iron out some of the niggles I’ve collected in previous years. If you live in the South of England and need a bike fit, go to the best. Go see Vankru.
Now I’ve flung money at the problem of being a very average cyclist via a new bike and a full fitting, I guess I’d better get training and do it all some justice. There’s only so much polishing you can do to a turd. Time to become a little less turd.
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Want to know more, or want to contact Vankru? Check out vankru.com