Like many lower category strugglers, I see pictures of myself and my immediate thought isn’t “I look so pro I’m going to slay all before me with resounding swiftness.” Rather, I've suspected that improving my position would help me ride stronger, more comfortably, and faster. I've also thought that improving my positon would help me recover faster and be less tired, since while I don't have any catastrophic "ouch" pain (although it turns out I did, more later), stresses place on other ancillary muscles will direct the body's mechanisms towards them and away from my legs. While I’m riding my bike, my chest is still going sailing. My profile looks like an angry cat with a wicked arched back, and my right knee has this alarming tendency to go fishing for something outside my right elbow. Not knowing which is the chicken or the egg, I look at pictures of guys in the higher categories and they don’t look like me. One way or another, whether it’s the good position that helps you into the higher categories or getting into the higher categories that forces you to get a good position (and I strongly suspect it’s the former), I wanted to get a better position.
I’ve been fortunate enough to get a lot of help from knowledgeable and experienced team mates, but there were a couple of reasons why I wanted to do a formal fitting with a professional fitter. BJ Basham has always seemed to have a good grip on the many varied aspects of cycling, so I started by talking to him and ended my search there. He had me read a bunch of stuff to become familiar with the Wobble Naught system that he uses, then I brought my game to his house to get checked out.
The measuring part of the fit takes most of the time. Fortunately, I’m not a huge pudge ball and he found the requisite knobs and hinges with relative ease. Be prepared to come home covered in marker dots when you do a fit with BJ. He then sets your bike up on a trainer and does a bunch of laser sighting to find various angles and stuff. After the measurements are taken, you relax while BJ puts the numbers into the computer, which then spits out a sheet showing a bunch of critical measurements.
If the suggested numbers show a significant variance to what’s on your bike now, BJ has you get on your bike to make sure that you aren’t some outlier to the program, and that he agrees with what the program is saying. In my case this happened once, as my seat went up a not insignificant (nor huge) amount.
The parts and pieces of the puzzle become easy to put together at that point. Adjustments are made wherever possible with your current equipment, and you get back on the bike and adjust to these new contact points. Mine was a case of being pretty close to start with in terms of components and their position. My cleat position was nearly dead spot on. The saddle moved up 9mm and forward a few mm. The biggest recommended change was to my stem length and rise, which couldn’t be accomplished with the stuff I had on the bike. My stem is supposed to get 11mm shorter and my saddle to bar drop should be reduced as well. Basically, in my quest to get that pro looking flat back stretched out super fly position, I’d put myself in a really unstable position that was counterproductive to the accomplishment of the profile I want. With my bars so far forward, I was opening my arms into a weak position, which made me recoil into the angry cat in order to take strain off of my arms and shoulders. Fortunately, I have an old stem which has the right combination of length and angle to put my bars where BJ wants them. I’ve also been using bars that are too wide, which I’m going to change today. I’m nearly 6’1” and I need to use a 40cm wide bar – my shoulders measure 39cm wide.
Next, we went over how to sit on the bike. Fundamentally, the difference between how I was sitting on the bike and how I’m supposed to is the difference between slumping in a chair and having good seated posture. It’s just a more disciplined position. When we got as close to my correct position as we could without changing my stem, I looked at my profile in the mirror. H-O-L-Y S-H-I-T. I looked like Bennati or Ballan or some other Italian badass. It was like an episode of Sesame Street – “okay Jimmie, which of this is faster and more aerodynamic – the sunflower or the fighter jet?” Unfortunately, I have no muscle memory of this position, and will have to burn it into myself by doing some mellow miles with regular “resets.” There’s a real easy way to check your position by standing with your pedals level.
The other MAJOR thing that went on was reconsidering how my ankles move during my pedal stroke. I have had a pretty pronounced “toe down” pedaling style. This is a big reason why my calves are freakishly developed while the rest of my legs, well, not so much. I can’t describe the change made, but I can produce it, which is what’s important.
Cycling has never been painful for me, but I do have some chronic pain. My much complained about ear pain and some neck pain. Without really being aware of it, I must tilt my head back and forth and crack my neck 100 times a day. The latter is unquestionably caused by my old position, the former is quite likely caused by it. It should be more natural and comfortable for me to ride with my head up now, which is great.
Maybe I was expecting to walk out of there and have this automatic shining beacon of a perfect position. While that didn’t happen, I’ve seen that I can achieve a perfect position, which I’ve never before seen. The part that’s going to take discipline is playing the roles of both Enry Iggins and Eliza Doolittle in adopting the new position. But after the rain in Spain falls on the plain for a while, I should be riding more powerfully with less effort and pain, and much faster from the aero benefits. And you should be able to look at a picture of me and say “damn – that guy racing on an Italian license?”