When we put somebody on a bike, we put their dynamic body full of quirks, old injuries, and asymmetries onto a static or fixed machine, then expect that dynamic body to fit perfectly. This is an unrealistic view. Everything you note when you evaluate yourself, or when a fitting pro looks at you, should be accounted for as you set your bike up for pain-free and high-performance riding.
Getting started off the bike.
Check-in with yourself by doing simple toe touches, deep squats, small pistol squats, and overhead reaches. Look at the way you stand at rest. Do this barefoot and watch how your feet and especially the toes react and compensate. This is also great to do in a mirror, or video yourself. There are a ton of clues here, showing you what position your body currently feels comfortable in.
Note at what point you begin to reach your “first limit” in moving a joint.
If you have a hard time “lengthening the body” with an overhead reach, how is that going to feel if you try to ride in a position that has a lot of “ reach” and will require you to pedal hard while holding a higher angle hip position?
If you deep squat and you struggle with “ getting around the hip” and getting deep, how might that play out with a higher hip angle or narrower cleat position? What position do your feet end up in during this? Everyone has a slightly different shape to their hip capsule, both structurally and effectively.
When you see yourself standing at rest, what are your feet doing? Is one or both of them splayed out or in? This is very common, there’s not one good way to stand! How might this affect your cleat angle to accommodate your natural stance?
In a shallow pistol squat, how stable are you? What are your feet doing? Could they be better supported?
On the bike
What pains are you getting when riding and what rides are causing them? Think about when the pain shows up and make a note of what position your body is in.
Start your check-in from your feet, and look at where the feet are ending up over the pedal spindle if you are riding flats, or the pressure inside the shoes if riding clipless. You want to create a nice oval of pressure right at or behind the MTP joints, and no pressure or pain to the outside or inside of the foot. Your foot should feel well-supported, and you really shouldn’t think much about them.
“Not thinking about X “ in general is a hallmark of a good fit and economic movement in most sports. Pain is not a normal part of cycling.
Knees & Hips:
Moving up the body, what’s happening with the knees and hips? Do you notice a regular pain to the inside or outside of the knee? Do you notice a trend for a knee to “dip in” or “pop-out” during the pedal stroke? Does that change with the type of riding you are doing?
It’s more normal to see a rider “ getting all over the bike” as they get more tired and the effort level goes up, perhaps, on the last climb of a hard race or ride. Think about “stacking the joints” from the 2nd toe through the ankle, through the knee, the iliac crest, and the AC joint. This is a great one to see in a video on a trainer or have a friend video you from the front. Just don’t hit them with your bike at 25 mph, as an old teammate of mine did, and end up in the hospital for a couple of days.
How is your balance fore and aft? Where is your weight centered? What’s the percentage of weight on your hands, as opposed to on your sit bones?
This optimal percentage changes with the type of riding or racing we are doing, with a general rule of thumb more weight on the saddle, as the terrain gets looser and we want the “front of the bike to go where it wants” and we “steer with our hips”. Small changes in the saddle position and angle can make a big difference in your experience a couple of hours into a ride! What are you doing with your pelvis? Are you tilting it forward a few degrees or rolling it under you as you pedal?
Moving into the hands and upper body, how relaxed are the hands?
They should drape over the controls, not stretch for them. The wrists should be neutral with a slight bend in the elbows.
Are the bars the right width for you?
Often narrow shoulders are being forced into wide positions. While this changes from bike to bike ( think new geometry mountain bikes with short stems and wide bars)we want this again to feel effortless, not stretched, or cramped.
Head & Neck:
Finally, let’s check in with our head position while riding.
Is the cervical spine neutral and relaxed? What could we do around this to improve things? While some specific types of racing demand a very aerodynamic position and kind of “peering under the brows “ or visor.
We’ve made our observations and made changes, now what?
Realize this self-assessment is only a snapshot of where your body is currently at. Becoming aware is a long process, so take a few minutes every week to step back to take a look at where things are at. Getting great physical therapy to address the issues that are chronic and causing pain is often the first step. Following PT with a regular recovery practice like yoga or targeted mobility and flexibility will make long-term changes in body position both on and off the bike.
Getting a high-quality bike fit and then re-checking it on an annual or bi-annual basis will help stay on top of any changes. A good fitter should be happy to work with you on this basis and track changes in position, making sure the bike is fitted to your current body, and not the other way around.