ATC: What are the most common problems you see when performing a bike fit?

There are several common problems I see when performing a bike fit, some of the most common include; incorrect cleat alignment, saddle positioning, and handlebar height. This article covers these common mistakes and how they are corrected.

There are several.

Cleat Alignment

The first most common problem I see in a bike analysis is bad cleat alignment. A clear indication is when a cyclist has their knees pointing at an angle at the top of the pedal stroke. This is inefficient and damaging to the knees because you are not only over-stretching Lateral collateral ligament (ligaments on the knee cap ) but it also puts extra pressure on the Lateral condyle and Lateral meniscus, which will only cause knee pain later in life. This is usually experienced by cyclists with wider hips that have had their cleats positioned too far to the outside (i.e., shoes positioned too close to the crank arms).It is advantageous to add even more width to the cyclist stance by moving the entire pedal further out. This can be done using 1-2 pedal washers or even using pedal axle extenders.

Another problem I see with bad cleat alignment is when the toe-in/toe-out is not setup correctly causing additional stress to the knees. A good cleat placement has the metatarsals directly over the pedal spindle so that when you are in your 3 o’clock power stroke, your feet are positioned to be able to help provide the maximum force to the pedals. A good bike fitter will have your knees going straight up and down during the first visit.

Saddle Positioning

The second problem I see is a combination of incorrect saddle height and fore-aft positioning. Most cyclists are either too high or too low in the saddle, as well as either too far back or too far forward. Being too high can cause the knee to be hyperextended which causes pain at the rear of the knee, and being too low in the saddle can cause the knee to be hyper-flexed which can overstretch the Cruciate ligaments. These ligaments are the major stabilizing ligaments in the knee and can be more easily damaged in those cyclists who produce more power. Correct saddle height allows the cyclist to pedal with force midway between these 2 endpoints which allows the cyclist to generate the most power without damaging the knees.

The other saddle issue is fore-aft positioning. Many bike shop employees and even some bike fitters will use the saddle fore-aft to adjust the riders reach and comfort to the bars. This adjustment is for placing the knees over the pedal spindles and should not be used to adjust the reach to the bars. The real reason this positioning is critical is that when done correctly, the knees are placed directly over the pedal spindles so that when the cyclist is generating their highest power and pushing the hardest on the pedals, their knees are pushing straight down and not forward or backward. While there is some leeway in this adjustment, the closer the cyclist is to this correct measurement, the less stress there is on the knees.

Handlebar Height

The third problem I see is that the handlebars are too low. Many cyclists like that ‘pro-racer’ look but, to be honest, most cyclists lack the flexibility and core strength to support this aggressive position. This ‘too-low’ position causes overstretching of the hamstrings which not only robs a lot of power but also causes a sore low back. Correctly fit, your back should be flat and you should not have any lower back pain. Again, a good bike fitter can fix these items. Our bodies give us precise feedback as to how it is adapting to the bicycle. The real problem in riding a bicycle is the fact that you are coupling an asymmetric machine (human body) to a symmetric machine (bicycle). People aren’t symmetric from left to right but a bicycle is and that’s where the problem is.

I will also argue that there are 9 touch points between the body and the bicycle. 2 for the feet, 2 for the hands, 2 for the sit bones, 2 for the pubic rami and 1 for the soft tissue. They all work together to support the body. Correct alignment is absolutely critical to maximize power and minimize injury. Since your feet are locked into a fixed position and your hips are a fixed width, your knees are the only items left to take up any slack on a misaligned body-to-bike fit. If this interface is out of alignment, then the rest of the body will compensate for this misalignment by heels moving side to side, knees diving in and out, hips and buttocks twisting in the saddle. And that’s just one pedal stroke. Multiply that by 10,800 pedal strokes during a 2-hour ride and you quickly have the makings for a major repetitive injury.

Other asymmetrical properties to consider are Leg Length Discrepancy – legs of different length (not uncommon), Scoliosis – spine curvature (also not uncommon), one side of the body stronger than the other, etc. Again, this misalignment can take the form of discomfort, pain and/or injury. To go even further, there are even more items that further compound this problem, incorrect saddle width, seat post too low/high, stem too short/long, even the wrong size frame.

So, what do you do?

1) Start off with a quality bike sizing BEFORE you purchase your new bicycle. Make sure to deal directly with a bike fitter or shop fitter trained and certified in bike sizing. This is the most important step in the process. With a frame that doesn’t fit you, a bike fitter can only do so much to accommodate you. For your preferred frame, a qualified bike-sizer will be able to tell you your exact frame size, crank length, best pedal options, stem length, best saddle(s), best handlebar width and even the number of spacers that will ultimately be placed between the stem and headset. Other items to discuss are elliptical rings, wheel options, and power meters.

2) Once you get your new bike, go directly back to the fitter to get a thorough bike fit where all of these mentioned items will be fine-tuned to fit you perfectly.

3) If you want to enjoy cycling more, seek out a USAC certified coach who will help you by optimizing your pedaling and give you drills that will increase your power and stamina. Make sure to choose a coach who is certified in power based training. After 6-8 weeks you will be able to stay up with your favorite group ride. In summary, most, if not all of these injury-causing misalignments, can be fixed by a fitter who works closely with a Physical Therapist. Depending on the ailment, the bike fitter might only be able to go so far in the initial fit. A good bike fitter will discuss with you the need for a physical therapist to look and possibly treat a given issue. After treatment, the bike fit can be continued to a successful and injury free conclusion.

Want more of the bike coach treatment? Visit Bike Fitness Coaching for more from Coach Rick Schultz.

Rick Schultz, DBA

USAC Certified Cycling Coach, CPBT, CSI

Rick earned a BS in Computer Science and began his career in that field. Continuing with his education, Rick then earned an MBA and eventually his DBA in organizational theory. After retiring from a career in business and as an entrepreneur, Rick’s love of bicycling led him to become a USA Cycling certified coach specializing in power-based trainer and a basic bike handling skills instructor. Rick specializes in coaching cyclists so that they can achieve their best. He is also a certified bike fitter and author of Bike Fit 101: Your Toolset for a Great Bike Fit − A Step-by-Step Self-Fit Manual That Also Shows You How to Find and Work With a Professional Fitter. He has created his own bike fitting educational processes and teaches skills and handling through his workshops.

Rick also owns and operates, where he tests and evaluates products for bicycling companies.

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