Thinking Outside the Box is easier said than done. So it’s refreshing and noteworthy to witness a textbook example of the real thing.
Recently, I was explaining the process of obtaining an aModoMio, my new line of made-to-order bicycles, to Mike Z, a 37 y/o cyclist from California who was close to pulling the trigger on his decision to buy. We talked about the usual: the kind of riding he had been doing; what his cycling aspirations are; what kind of bike/s he had and what he liked (most everything) and didn’t like (not much, he was actually pretty happy); was he happy with the fit and feel of his position on the bike (pretty much no complaints). All the same, having heard that I’d been instrumental in the modern bike fitting movement, Mike asked if I’d consider rechecking his riding position that was last set by a well-trained technician at the shop where’d he purchased his current bike.
We agreed to meet in New York City so the next task was to organize the use of a high quality ‘bike fitting studio’ that would be receptive to my oversight. First on my list was to contact a long time colleague, Happy Freedman, who has spent much of the last 30 years working within NYC medical facilities developing a following within the orthopedics community, and in particular, orthotics and bike fitting. About a year ago, Freedman was invited to bring his base of operations into the Leon Root, MD, Motion Analysis Laboratory (LRMAL), a department within New York’s world-renowned Hospital for Special Surgery. In addition to working with many of the city’s elite, gifted athletes (who by the way do not come there by way of sponsorship, but rather HSS’s incomparable reputation), the HSS team proudly serves a diverse range of individuals with every imaginable physiological challenge brought on by accident, disease or genetics. As a rule, there is no rule, other than finding solutions for each individual. So it’s an environment where individual uniqueness and the unconventional are both considered normal and celebrated.
Happy was delighted to have the opportunity to show me the results of some of the research he’d been doing saying “I hope you don’t mind if there are a couple other people in the room with us…I am doing things a little differently now.” Continuing, he added, “a physical therapist or advanced trainer begins the process.” I thought that this was an intriguing development. Freedman had spent decades working alongside medical professionals and was more familiar with the anatomy of human movement than 99% of people in the bike-fitting field and more than capable of performing the normal core strength and flexibility review that is now a part of any quality bike fitting session. For our session Happy brought in the added services of Jeanne Williams (PT, DPT, OCS) and Brent Williams who is VP of the PBMA (Professional Bicycle Mechanics, Assoc.) and a trained bike-fitting specialist.
On the morning of the fitting, our small team gathered at the LRMAL facilities and we all immediately set to work in preparation for Mike Z’s arrival. As we worked, quietly Freedman began to explain his new approach. The more he revealed, the more it made sense. He reminded me of some simple truths that I’d touted years earlier:
- That cycling is about movement;
- Understanding how to approach bike fit had to start by understanding the movement parameters of each individual;
- Then discover how that individual will best perform positioned in a space bound only at their feet, ultimately transferring motion through the pedals.
Most bike fitting education programs start with this principle, but then in the process of developing a teachable, trainable format, devolve into prescribing a series of guidelines. And then from guidelines come measurements and from measurements, standardized rules of interpretation. With each step, the process is at risk of drifting from the individually derived analysis to a comparative analysis.
The potential for real innovation improves when a project is released from the shackles of standardization and the innovator is freed from the concerns of how the results might be viewed by anyone else, no less commercialized. HSS’s LRMAL facility provides the perfect setting for Freedman to explore. Freedman has revisited the fundamental premise that bike fit is based around an individual’s ability to work efficiently. His years spent within the orthopedic halls of NY hospitals have shaped his perspective in a significantly meaningful way that has changed his approach to his patient/client in a bike fit.
So added to the first three principles are Freedman’s New Rules:
- That every individual has opportunities for an improved experience / performance…. on a continuum. This means that ‘optimal’ is only a temporary condition. His job is to discover the opportunities for improvement and work with the individual to understand, prioritize and facilitate the same.
- Accommodation (as an approach) is the enemy of ongoing improvement.
- Move through the bike fit process by observing the total body. We are a complex system of lever points, skeletal structure, soft tissue and hard wired to handle movement and work as a connected system- its is impossible to change the load/position of one of our features without causing an effect on the rest of our system. Freedman uses his knowledge of this premise and understanding the principles of antagonistic muscle function and mobile adaptors to evolve a cyclist’s position.
- The bike fit process (once the patient/client is sitting on the bike) begins not at the foot, knee or hip as most other fitters do, but with the upper body. Finding the individual’s best posture for breathing deeply. Once stated, it seems so obvious, oxygen and the ability to inhale lots of it without restriction is key to cardio-vascular performance.
The role of the PT (of which HSS has a deep bench in both trainers and therapists) is to highlight and reveal each individual’s strength, range of motion and flexibility by actually doing activities in the lab instead of lying on a table and being measured. Rather than calling these strengths and weaknesses, they are referred to as a client’s reality, in of itself, a refreshing brush with meaningful honesty.
Although by now Freedman could himself place an athlete through the same range of assessments, he finds it much more valuable to be free to observe and ask questions. And as I watched Mike Z move through a 45-minute series of ‘tests’ I saw the clear logic.
Once on the bike, the goal is to define the correct fit zone. What I mean is that during normal riding, depending on many variables like headwind, incline (up or down), % of maximum effort, etc., a cyclist, even on the best-fitting equipment, will subconsciously move around to adjust to the moment. That’s what we call the fit zone. The bike fitter’s and bike designer’s job is to make sure that your equipment allows you a full range of these small positional changes without impeding your effort
In finding the fit zone, there are four interrelated factors that are weighted more or less evenly. They are:
- Oxygen is a vital fuel!
- Core strength and endurance
- How long a cyclist can sustain a given position is more important than maximum core strength
- Being able to occasionally access maximum power potential for short bursts vs sustainable levels of power output (which is far more important for the endurance athlete and every day cycling).
- Fluidity of movement or velo-suplesse.
- Finding a position where cycling efficiency is natural and sustainable.
Throughout the process, from the PT phase through the entire fitting, ‘the fit’ is driven almost exclusively by observations rather than by measurements. Measurements do come in at the very end however, to document the final position so that it can be utilized by someone like me, who will design the bike around center of gravity, handling and many other considerations as well as for replication on other bikes that may already be a part of a client’s bicycle stable.
When we’d finished, some two hours later, Mike Z was heading home with a new position along with an action plan targeted to improve a few minor “issues” and I had great information for designing his new bicycle.
Sometimes positional changes can take a while to adjust to. In fact, making significant changes suddenly just before a ‘big’ ride can cause new pain and injury. Mike’s bike is not due to be built until August, so I’ve had the opportunity to follow up with him every couple of weeks since the fitting to see how his modified position was working out. Each time he has reported improved power and improved comfort across both short and longer distances and yes, he had also been following the PT’s recommendations as part of his daily routine. Success.
What I’d observed at the lab was a fresh reminder that the pathways and processes of ongoing improvement are not always linear. The best discoveries are often made by researchers bold enough to question and challenge convention, willing to risk failure and patient enough to take a few steps back before pushing into a less convenient thicket in hopes of finding a better path forward. I’d just witnessed a textbook example of this in the evolving practice of improving the cycling experience.
In a recent meeting with Happy Freedman, Andrew Kraszewski, PHD & senior research engineer and Howard J. Hillstrom, PHD and Director of the Leon Root, MD Motion Analysis Laboratory at HSS, I reported the results of my Mike Z’s fitting. The trio, not the least surprised, exhibited the look of confident satisfaction that only comes to those who have been down the road of successful treatment many times before. Wrapping up our meeting, Hillstrom simply said, “look, people just deserve the best we can give them. Here, we are scientists, researchers and practitioners and our goal is to make sure that our best keeps getting better.”
If you’d like to know more about the LRMAL go to: HSS Leon Root, MD, Motion Analysis Lab
The study of a cyclist’s position relative to performance began in the first golden age of bicycle racing more than 100 years ago.
Then, as the Western world’s love affair with the automobile blossomed, advancements in cycling slid into a period of relative and prolonged dormancy until the 1970’s when cycling slowly began to reemerge as an activity that was more than a novel thing to do, reviving a spirit of innovation. The Italian Olympic Cycling Committee (CONI) took to the front, followed by the New England Cycling Academy then the Serotta International Cycling Institute each in turn leading the way into the modern era of cycling science. Today, through more than a dozen formal programs, thousands of participants have completed skills courses (usually 2-4 days each) in the art and science of bicycle fitting. As a result of these efforts, many bicycle companies have started producing bicycles that fit most cyclists better than ever before while hundreds of thousands of cyclists have had personalized bike fits most of whom have gained a better cycling experience because of it. As with any profession, training is just the beginning. Experience matters, a lot… as does the commitment to professionalism and a process of improvement, so in truth, competency and proficiency can vary widely. Just as you’d look for recommendations before choosing a car mechanic or doctor, always ask for references. The purpose of this essay is to highlight one of today’s most experienced pioneers in this field who has had remarkable results.