. . . and why you should do a bike fit.
I’ve been struggling with my lower back for a little over a year now, and it's been a frustrating process. Like, "I'm switching sports," frustrating. It all started on a relatively easy ride in the North Carolina mountains, where my "back" seized up right on top of my left kidney area, and it's never been the same since. I could sort of feel it building, but when it seized, I could barely breathe, much less pedal. What should have been 20 more minutes of riding up a gentle climb, turned into a 90 minute struggle to get home.
I wish I could pinpoint the cause of something that has caused me to almost quit riding, but I can't. It might have a been a very minor crash where I landed on my left hip/side, or it could simply be that my right quadricep (rectus femoris) has been a little overactive and constantly tight for the last few years. It's probably a bit of both, and they have combined to cause a chain reaction where my quadratus lumborum tightens up. If you aren't familiar with that muscle, it runs from the top of your pelvis to your lower ribs and spine. It's a stabilizer muscle for your spine, and when you have a hip imbalance due to maybe tight psoas muscles or a weak core in general, it can take a beating in an effort to stabilize your spine.
A neuro doc friend got me scheduled for an MRI and after review, I don't have any disc issues, so I know for certain it’s just muscle imbalances. I've been working diligently on that, with about about 1.5 hours a day doing strength and stretching. I'm finally doing all the exercises that every trainer, PT specialist, and cycling article tells you to do. It's helped a lot, and I've enjoyed actually feeling strong again. Not on-the-bike strong, but healthy off-the-bike strong.
But to the point of this all this babbling . . . I also threw out everything I thought I knew about my position, and what stack and reach I needed. It seemed wise to start from scratch, see what my ideal position really is, and then select a bike from there, so I made an appointment with Adam Baskin at The Fit Lab to do a “fit bike" fit on their Retul Muve. I’d actually never done that before. I have always started with a bike that I “knew was the right size,” based on previous bikes, and then massaged the fit from there; which is what 99% of the people buying a bike do.
The great thing about a "fit bike fit" is there are no limitations. It's a virtual bike that can be adjusted on the fly for almost any setup. You use your pedals and seat, but everything else can be varied to get you into that ideal position. Is that ideal position the most aero? Is it the most "pro" looking? Possibly not. But for many of us, that position has to be sacrificed because of physical limitations. Maybe those limitations are because of an injury or maybe because of declining flexibility. For me, it's weak and tight hamstrings. When your hamstrings are tight, your pelvis can't rotate past a certain point. And if your bars are too low, your pelvis stops, and your back bends. Guess what that does to those muscles in your lower back? Yeah. Well, I don't have to guess any more — I know.
The fit result for me:
- Bars 3 cm higher than my soon-to-be previous setup,
- Seat 1 cm higher,
- Seat 1 cm further back,
- Oh, and stem 1 cm longer.
I had a tough time wrapping my head around the massive change in stack and reach. It essentially bumped me up a frame size. I never would have bought a size larger than what I've always ridden, and wouldn't expect most people to do that either. Luckily, we had a Factor Ostro in the store that just barely matched the measurements Adam said I needed. The bars were right where they needed to be and it was ready to ride with just a seat swap, so I gave it a try. I had actually built and spent some time on an Ostro over the summer, but didn’t gel with it because it felt rough up front and the handling felt odd. I just couldn't get comfortable. Surprisingly, with the bike setup per my new norm, I LOVE that bike, now. On my first go 'round, I was simply too far forward, too low, and that had too much weight on the front. With the correct fit and proper weight balance for both me and the bike, I LOVE it.
So, the point of all this is: Do yourself a favor before you spend what's more and more likely to be $3500, at the least on a frame, and get a pre-purchase fit bike fit. That bike you want or think you need, may not be the bike for you. And that can change with age, inactivity, or injury. Worst case, you confirm that you are actually buying the right size. Best case, it saves you from either the wrong size, or setting it up wrong.
With a lot of these newer integrated setups, simply changing bar height or stem length might cost you $600-1000 for new bars or a new fork. So, $300 for a fit?? We will let you do the math.