Right Fit: Secret to faster and more comfortable cycling

Last October I was invited to participate in a triathlete workshop at the Athletes' Performance Center (APC) in Phoenix. Funny thing is, until the day before I was to arrive, I didn't even realize I was supposed to bring a bicycle.

"Are you just planning to watch," asked the incredulous voice on the other end of the line, "or do you actually want to participate?"

Percy Knox, director of strategic partnerships for APC, went on to explain that some fitting experts from the Bicycle Ranch in Scottsdale would be there to dial in my fit and he strongly recommend I tote along my bicycle.

Of course during 25 years of riding and racing, I'd been "fit" by numerous self-proclaimed experts and gurus and I certainly didn't expect to gain a whole lot from another "expert" fitter. After hanging up the phone with Percy, I figured I'd be meeting another one of the guys who'd simply tweak a few things here and there and I'd be on my way.

Boy was I wrong.

Instead of just measuring people and adapting them to standard fitting parameters, the folks at Bicycle Ranch take the approach that you must look at the biomechanics that are responsible for causing inefficiencies or discomfort.

Simply stated, besides taking basic measurements, they'll check flexibility and muscle imbalances to determine whether some specific stretching, yoga or Pilates might also help smooth out your pedal stroke and generate more power.

Not only was I intrigued by this approach, but it made a ton of sense. If your body's all out whack, no amount of precise measurements will sort you out. The key is to find somebody that can identify your unique physiology and adapt a program and fit to maximize your potential.

Paraic McGlynn

When I first met Paraic (pronounced "Poric") McGlynn, co-founder of Bicycle Ranch, Pulleyn one of their three resident fitting experts, I knew he wasn't the average self-proclaimed fitting guru. And it wasn't just because he had a bunch of nifty laser beams and video equipment. Nor was it the fact he fits all kinds of professional riders, including the U.S. Postal Service Masters team and members of the professional peloton such as Robbie Ventura U.S. Postal Service, Michael Creed Discovery Channel, Chris Baldwin Navigators, Kim Bruckner T-Mobile and Triathletes Jessi Stensland and Ryan Bolton.

It's because Paraic exudes confidence in a very soft-spoken, yet all-knowing manner. Better stated, when Paraic talks, you're inclined to listen.

A former Irish Category 1 road cyclist, Paraic has been coaching and fitting elite athletes in Europe since the early '90s. He's worked with male and female members of Irish World Championship teams, and has coached many national champions. He also has extensive knowledge of sports physiology, and since coming to the U.S. has continued his education by becoming a USCF coach, and by being certified as an Advanced Fitting Specialist by Serotta.

Within a minute of seeing me pedal on a wind trainer, he noticed I was shifting to the right side of my saddle because of tighter muscles on my right leg, which were essentially pulling my hips to the right.

Over the last couple of years, it amazed me that I just couldn't seem to find a comfortable saddle. I always felt like I had to shift positions while riding and the harder I rode, the more pronounced my problem. Nobody at any bike shop had ever noticed or recommended I do anything to help solve the problem.

And, more importantly, I'd paid for specific fittings from so-called experts and was still way off my ideal position for my body type and physiological condition.

So what did Paraic do for me?

He lowered my saddle significantly, extended my stem length an entire two centimeters and raised the stem angle so that I was in a better position to expand my lungs. My previous position had me too crunched and was constricting my diaphragm.

"Judging from your build, you're probably a good climber," explained Paraic. "You need to be able to open up your diaphragm and take advantage of your cardiovascular conditioning."

What's more, Paraic took before and after video of my position that not only showed a more relaxed upper body position, but he zeroed in on my pedal stroke, in super slow motion, and I could clearly see when my saddle was too high I wasn't generating enough power from the bottom of my pedal stroke.

"You'll notice a huge difference in your new position," Paraic continued. "You're going to hurt people."

Hmmmm. I liked the way Paraic was thinking. It's always better to be the hurter than the hurtee. There are already way too many people that do an excellent job of hurting me, so any chance to return the favors is always welcome.

No Equipment to Buy

The fact I didn't have to buy any lightweight, expensive equipment and could generate more power just by changing my position and working on flexibility was enough for me to rekindle my interest in riding fast.

After this initial visit and working with the physical therapists at Athletes' Performance Center, I spent a couple months getting comfortable with the new position and working on flexibility and core strengthening exercise I'd learned while at APC.

(Author's note: I will post a separate article on Athletes' Performance in March 2005 and what they're doing with professional team and endurance athletes and how it applies to amateur athletes. There will also be a link to the story from this article.)

In the interim couple of months in my new position, I could tell things were much better and many cyclists that know my style said I looked much better on the bike. And even though it was the off-season and I wasn't doing any racing or particularly painful, maximum-heart-rate accelerations with the boys, I could tell I'd be ready when I needed, or wanted, to dial up the pain threshold.

Yes, we cyclists are a diseased bunch always looking to push each other beyond normal limits. In theory it seems really nice to always ride easy, and I know I should be thinking that way as I'm climbing into my upper 40s. But for now, I need the adrenaline rush of pushing myself beyond my preconceived limits.

Visit to Bicycle Ranch

Fast forward to late December and a concocted plan to visit the Bicycle Ranch -- a perfect excuse to escape my in-laws who were visiting over the holidays.

Paraic takes a look at Dave Easa
Dave Easa, our database administrator at Active.com and top age group triathlete, asked to come along and, naturally, we picked one of the rainiest days the desert has ever seen to make the 5-hour trek from San Diego to Phoenix.

I knew that Bicycle Ranch had opened a new facility for their headquarters that incorporates a fitness facility aimed at endurance athletes in addition to the Scottsdale shop and wanted to see first-hand the bike shop and all the fitting equipment.

My purpose was to see how my position was now that I'd been incorporating more stretching and strength building exercises into my routine. Easa, being the overzealous triathlete he is, wanted to meet Paraic and see what I'd been raving about since my initial visit to Phoenix.

What was really helpful at the Bicycle Ranch, as opposed to when I was fit at the Athletes' Performance Center, were the mirrors that allowed me to see the laser beam on my knee and how my right knee wasn't tracking straight.

Paraic went on to explain this is why I occasionally feel tenderness in my right knee and that I could also probably benefit from moving from my conventional Speedplay pedals to the Speedplay Zeros, which would allow me to restrict some of the inner movement of my right heel.

"An orthotic with more of a built-up arch will also help you track better," explained Paraic. "And you'll also need to work on loosening your IT band as its tightness is also contributing to the problem."

Jeeeez, I felt like a royal mess. Good thing Paraic couldn't diagnose my emotional and mental issues.

A Few More Tweaks

With a few more tweaks to my position, I started pedaling again and could already see improvement in how my knee was tracking a straighter line against the laser beam.

This instant feedback, which I'd never seen, was amazingly helpful. I could clearly see why my one knee was giving me problems every now and then. Fortunately it hasn't been anything serious but at age 45, it's obvious that I need to rectify this problem soon if I want to continue riding comfortably into my later years.

Easa also came away extremely impressed after Paraic made some fairly substantial changes to his position on his triathlon time trial bike.

Of course I'm not sure I really want Easa to get much faster than he already is since I have to ride home from work with him at least three days a week. But Paraic basically told me "too bad, I'm going to make him faster."

Probably the most interesting conclusion I came to, especially after seeing Easa was just as jacked up, if not more, than me originally, was the fact as much as we all may think we're perfectly dialed into our bikes, most likely that's not the case.

So I didn't need to feel like a total loser for having ridden fairly seriously for 25 years and still not being positioned correctly on the bike.

I asked Paraic if he'd ever had anybody come in that was just perfectly aligned and fit and didn't need any help.

"I think maybe one in a thousand," said Paraic. "You'd be amazed how many professional riders could significantly improve their power and efficiency. They get away with a sub optimal position because of their extraordinary talent and genetics. But with a little help, they can be even faster."

The Morning Class

Bicycle Ranch's new fitness facility
Paraic also toured us through the new fitness and rehab facility, designed mostly for cyclists and triathletes. In fact, he did more than just give us a tour, he invited us for a morning exercise class of "very difficult strength and flexibility exercises."

Of course, I didn't heed Paraic's warning well enough and took advantage of the plentiful and complimentary breakfast at the Country Inn Suites and by two minutes into this one-hour extreme combination of Pilates, Yoga and strength conditioning exercises, I was ready to barf.

What part of "enjoyable trek to Phoenix" was I missing?

The idea behind these conditioning classes is to improve the strength and flexibility necessary to maintain a good position on the bike and stay injury free. Think of it as yoga and Pilates for cyclists and runners.

What I like about the Bicycle Ranch guys is they understand that being fit to a bicycle correctly doesn't happen with standard measurements and criteria in a laboratory environment. There are many physiological factors that need to be taken into consideration.

Paraic has a staff of highly qualified fitting specialists with the experience of hundreds of fittings and decades of cycling experience. "I'm really lucky to have such great fitters as part of our team. Chris and Jason are following the methodology that we have developed here over the past five years and over 4,000 fittings. We all follow the same system and apply the same methodology every time."

And their insistence on working on core strength and flexibility in order to maximize one's ideal position on a bicycle is why people come to Scottsdale from all over the country, just to be fit by the fitting experts at Bicycle Ranch.

Yes, expert is such an easy term to throw around. Pass a 2-week course and you're an expert. But take it from me and Dave Easa, Paraic and his boys know what they're doing and thus I have no problem applying the "expert" label.

Fittings will set you back $90 for a standard fit, $150 for an advanced fit and $300 for an advanced medical professional fitting. When you consider what people spend on the latest and lightest carbon fiber wheelset or gizmos in the interest of riding faster, there's no better investment in my mind to not only ride faster but to be more comfortable and efficient in the process.

For those interested in learning more about Bicycle Ranch in Scottsdale, you may visit their Web site at www.bicycleranch.com or call (480) 614-8300.

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