Wait, what? I already do two to three workouts everyday and adhere to a mostly meat and lettuce diet. (Maybe meat, lettuce, and chocolate.) Oh . . not that kind of fit. I meant a bike fit. You see, I’ve been kind of down on cycling this year. I’ve used the excuse that I enjoy running more but since signing up for my first Ironman back in 2013 and increasing bike mileage dramatically, I’ve dealt with on-going back and neck issues. First I blamed work ergonomics, then I blamed old age, then I blamed my wife, Obamacare, and global warming. But after cutting my bike mileage way back this year to get ready for Boston I began to notice the back and neck pain started to disappear. Interesting.
So the question naturally arose, was it the biking in general or something else? My first thought was that perhaps my twisted spine just didn’t want to play nicely after hours of pedaling. It couldn’t be my bike fit could it? I had gone to supposedly one of the best bike fitters in the area when I bought my bike and had purchased a product that fit on his advice. I reached out to my cycling, running, and triathlon friends on social media for advice. Read that as: I whined like a school girl about not wanting to cycle any more.
Karen Faber mentioned something I had heard her say before. “You need to go see Stu Waring at Parvilla Cycles in Annapolis, MD”. This resonated with me. Karen had mentioned him before, and I’d heard his name in other circles as well. I referred to another expert, googling Stu and Parvilla to see what I could learn.
Stu Waring, it seems, is a bit of a fitting legend. He subscribes to the Retul methodology and uses both the Retul Vantage 3d capture system and a Guru DFU unit in the process. Stu is a bit obsessive about fitting and works hard to keep his technology and knowledge up-to-date. You can read more about the Parvilla Cycles fit methodology here.
As mentioned, I’d had a “bike fit” before when I decided to purchase my first Tri bike. I was willing to shell out the bucks up front to get the fitting and make sure my new bike was the right size. In fact, prior to that I’d done another fitting on my road bike due to ongoing issues with back pain after my first Half-Ironman at Eagleman. In hindsight, those “fittings” were nothing more than a few measurements with a fancy yard stick and an old TV antenna.
Some voodoo was done with calculations on a clipboard and the bike size and component changes determined. Move the seat a few millimeters, change a stem. Voila! The bike should fit. In both cases the whole thing took less than an hour.
With nothing to lose but back pain and giving up cycling and triathlon, I booked an appointment with Stu and made the 2.5 trip to his studio in Edgewater, Maryland. We were greeted upon entry by Sarah whom I’d booked the appointment with and who may have been the brains of the retail shop. She took my bike and we rounded the back wall and met Stu.
After a chat, Stu handed me a clipboard with some paperwork and questions. Essentially, a body-part by body-part listing of where I was specifically having trouble along with age, medical conditions, etc. Meanwhile Stu went to work measuring my bike and preparing the DFU to match. I finished the paperwork, changed into cycling clothes but Stu stopped me when I started to put my bike shoes on. “We are a long way from that”.
We spent the next 90 minutes or so getting various body measurements and checking my range of motion. It started with the butt-o-meter (my name for a pressure based seat that measures your sit bones), then used another device to measure foot pressure, and then continued through various physical therapy assessment type of exercises so that Stu could understand my body’s flexibility (or lack thereof) and movement. Naturally he was intrigued and I think a little worried about my severely curved, and twisted spine. I only base this on his comment that, after seeing the X-Ray, he was surprised I was alive and walking. To say Stu is knowledgeable about what various body restrictions do to one’s ability to sit on and pedal a bike is an understatement. Every movement of every joint and muscle has an effect on what we can and can’t do and he understands them all.
After the range of motion assessment we were finally ready to mount the DFU and begin figuring out actual bike fit. The first thing Stu did was take the seat off my bike and mount it on the DFU making it clear in no uncertain terms that it wouldn’t be going back on my bike. You should picture someone holding out something really stinky here with only their finger tips and at arms length while making an unpleasant crinkly face. So saddle selection was the first step. The DFU makes this really easy. It was all set for my current bike position with my current saddle, but it features a quick release clamp so the saddle can be swapped out in the blink of an eye. Stu had a shortlist for me to try.
First up was a Cobb. I saw it on the bench and though. “I’ll bet that is the one I’ll like”. He clamped it in to place and I settled on to it. Nice. Stu talked for a moment. Hmm. Maybe not nice. A minute more. Ouch! Get me off this thing! I was surprised but as my body settled in to the memory foam it became far worse for me than my old saddle.
Next up was a Specialized Sitero which is one of the cheaper options. It was plain-jane looking and comes on most Specialized TT bikes. Stu clamped it in place. “Hey. I like this”. I sat for a bit. “I REALLY, REALLY like this”. We tried a third saddle (sorry . . my brain can’t remember more than two things) but it wasn’t nearly as good as the Sitero so the Specialized it was.
Next Stu began sticking little velcro dots all over my body. Specifically, to each joint, and my feet. To these dots he stuck sensors that are read by the Retul system via LED. The result is displayed on video screens. The Retul system sort of turns you in to a stick figure and measures all the crucial angles in you body and pedal stroke.
The output could be a bit mind-blowing if you aren’t Stu. Each reading reveals pages of measurements and numbers. Screen after screen and Stu understands them all and knows how to tweak the bike fit for anything that is a red flag. We went through several iterations of tweaks and changes, measuring the effect on both left and right sides. The DFU is mounted on a turntable so that the rider can be measured by Retul from both sides. Throughout the process, Stu saved several iterations of data and pictures of my position.
Of course, riding isn’t all about the bike. The rider bears some responsibility too. In my case, I have very tight hamstrings which limits the ability to achieve a really low position on the bike. This is partially evidenced by the inability to touch your toes or in my case barely my knees. I had also adapted to what was turning out to be a very poor initial fit and a bad saddle. My twisted, bent spine had some influence here too but not nearly as much as expected. During the fit Stu talked me through how to reset my position while riding. Between this reset, and the position we worked toward with the DFU I suddenly had that magical moment where the clouds parted, heavenly music played, and I realized I was in a position that is completely comfortable and I could ride fast for hours.
Stu took a picture and showed me the before and after shots. (I’m hoping to get a copy of these to share later.) The difference is dramatic and amazing. In addition to the new saddle, we had raised the seat significantly, raised the pads and bars, and moved them back. My back was flat, I was resting on my elbows, and my spine was not arched into a C. I no longer looked like a hunch-backed Superman. We had found my best, current position.
So now the trick was to move that position from the DFU to my bike. The new saddle and seat height was easy. Then we got to the bars and pads. Stu looked perplexed. My bike is a 2011 Felt B10 with the old bayonet style extensions and fairly fixed pads. Adjustability was limited and maxed out. The frame was also a bit smaller than it really should be. Internally, I got a bit angry. I had thought I had made good decisions when purchasing my bike. It hadn’t been cheap and I was willing to pay for a fitting up front to get it right. Now, it seems, I had been “sold” a fit based on shop inventory. I regretted that I didn’t know about Stu and Parvilla Cycles at the time. It is a long ride from home but knowing what I know now, I’d have made the trip.
Stu did what he could. We swapped the stem which got us a lot closer but still off in pad height by more than an inch which is significant. But we had raised the seat. We changed saddles and learned some new bike positioning all of which would help greatly. We decided I’d give it a few weeks and see how things felt and then potentially get back together if needed. I would focus on bike position and work on loosening up my hamstrings. If more change was needed, the next steps would either be new bars, or new frame and bars. Both would be more expensive than tweaking a stem but less than a new bike and, mentally, cheaper than giving up two sports I’ve come to enjoy.
I checked out with Sarah and left the studio after 5 1/2 hours of intense work with Stu. I walked out a bit poorer financially but much more positive about my cycling future.
That’s an impressive fitting regimen! I’m sure it will help. Fingers crossed (and spines as straight as possible)!
Finding a good Retul fitter is a godsend. Despite living in a small city, I’m so glad that there was a great fitter less than 1km form my house. He’s now moved his studio and I’ve also moved house but I would travel for miles to see him.