When a Bike Fit "Fails"
Updated: Jan 18
Being a Sports & Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist I tend to see a lot of cyclists with a “failed” bike fit. They may have been fit elsewhere and are still uncomfortable on the bike. Often I’m asked to review their fit and work out why they have ongoing problems like pain, numbness or saddle sores. Sometimes their fit is appropriate. So why are they still having an issue?
In general there are two broad causes why you might be uncomfortable on the bike: either a position that is sub-optimal, or the rider’s musculoskeletal system is sub-optimal. The job of the bike fit is to ensure that the position is optimised for that individual cyclist and to eliminate the bike as the cause. If the rider still has problems then the cause lies in the rider themselves.
Let me give you a few examples from my clinic. A masters cyclist presented with persistent saddle sores for which he had purchased a very expensive bike whose geometry was too aggressive for his musculoskeletal abilities, and a $500-plus saddle whose ergonomic design placed it in an “average” category. (Side note: If you are thinking of buying a new bike come in for a pre-purchase assessment and let me help you choose a bike and components with the appropriate dimensions for your individual body. It’s much cheaper than buying the wrong frame, and more likely that you will be comfortable). Back to our masters cyclist…. With some adjustments his position could be improved, but his main issues were incredibly tight hamstrings, incredibly poor posture on the bike and marked torso weakness causing an excessive level of pelvic rocking. Rocking / wobbling your pelvis over ANY saddle causes friction and saddle sores, so it wasn’t really the sort of problem changing saddle or bikes could fix. Yet for some reason he didn’t want to know about improving his own body. This was a classic case of the rider having the problem but in his mind choosing to blame the bike. Spending more money on different saddles or fancier bikes won’t solve this sort of problem. Just as there are no shortcuts to becoming fitter there are no shortcuts to improving strength, stability and flexibility.
Contrast this with a young mountain bike racer with back pain during races. Great bike set-up. Issue again was similar: weak torso muscles causes lateral tilting of the pelvis when applying high intensity efforts on the bike. He worked hard on his strength and became pain-free within a month. A young female road and track cyclist with an identical problem “didn’t like strength work” and continued to have back pain until she could no longer ride. At which time a period off the bike doing strength work enabled her to gradually get back on the bike and gradually improve her time trial position.
Typically a “failed” bike fit is due to one or more of the following:
1. Poor planning: failure to get a pre-purchase fit to help select the appropriate frame dimensions (like stack and reach), or components (like cranks length or handlebar size) before you buy;
2. Not addressing the riders musculoskeletal issues that are causing the problem. You really need a Sports Physiotherapist who is experienced in cycling for this.
3. Lack of professional skills and training: seeing someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing and places the rider in a position that is far too aggressive for their body. This is always likely to cause problems.
4. The rider not actively working on their stability, strength and posture: the “I won’t do my homework” excuse (and believe me, I’ve heard all of the excuses!).
5. Failure to get treatment after a crash: when things are locked up, there is a knock-on effect when some parts of the body begin to compensate for the locked up parts, starting a chain reaction. Some months following your crash you might find sitting straight on the bike has become impossible, and you develop pain. Skilled manual therapy is the only treatment able to help here, not a bike fit. Seek care early in the first week whilst you are still bruised and grazed. It prevents lots of problems down the track from your crash, and requires only a fraction of the time for a Physiotherapist to sort out then is you present with the full-blown “whole body lock up” months later.
There are no short-cuts in cycling. Sort things out immediately after a crash, and do your “homework” when it comes to your own body if you want to feel better and perform better.