Dropping in with a proper fit. Ryan Dunfee photo.
Sometimes the difference between crushing it and getting crushed is about how you and your bike come together. Pros have 'people' who worry about geometry, settings, modifications and so on, so it's all got to be worth something. I've wanted to dig into just how much those fine adjustments could mean to you and me for a while, so when Jason Fenton at Halter’s Cycles in Newoffered to give me a pro bike fit–with the goal of highlighting what expert tweaks can do–I gladly accepted. The things I do for your people.
Rumor has it our own Jon Desabris is from NJ, but that may or may not be true. GW photo.
After years of riding, my personal bike is set up pretty much the way I like it (I think). As a rule, the more you ride, the less you need adjustment. But I demo, review, and try about 10 bikes per year and, usually, adjust to whatever is there with a few tweaks to saddle and bars. But often I’ll wonder why my elbow, knee or hip hurts, or why I’m slower than I think I should be.
Jason is originally from Maine and took over ownership of Halter's Cycles in 2006. He's gone through impressive fit training and honed his process with years of experience (both as an owner and before). As he tells it, he fits most people, including new customers, before selling them a bike. It's his way of creating a relationship.
Jason Fenton, owner of Halter's Cycles, leveling a bike on the stand. GW photo.
I brought a couple bikes with me, including a review demo and my own cyclocross rig. What follows is Jason's process, and what you can take from it.
The stand and fit platform at Halter's. GW photo.
Jason begins by hooking your bike into a trainer on a nice professional platform in front of a mirror. Around the area are tools, lasers, plumb lines, parts and various fitting apparatus.
He essentially uses a “foundation up” process–starting with the feet and working north through all contact points–optimizing position and power on the bike at each phase. Of course, all things work in harmony, so he goes back and re-tweaks points and parts constantly during a fit.
1st Step: Feet, Cleats, and Pedals
Holy pronation, batman. GW photo
Jason first measures pronation or supination using some weird foot thing, and inserts wedge-shaped shims underneath your shoe’s cleats to cant your feet to match their natural position on the pedal. He's aligning your knee, shin and ankle into a straight line from your hip down to the pedal spindle, eliminating any rolling or in or outwards flexion.
The illustration on the box of shims seems a bit extreme, but you get the idea. GW photo
Aside from maximizing power, proper joint alignment eases pain and pressure created from driving muscular force into a pedal through your foot.
Jason believes moving cleats back toward the middle of your foot helps increase power. I've heard a lot of discussion about this and, while it makes perfect sense, I've had mine under the ball of my foot for so long that it's a tough change for me. But I went with it.
Moving cleats toward the middle of the foot recruits more quad and less of the smaller calf muscles. GW photo.
After shimming my shoe and adjusting cleats, he put me on the bike.
Regardless of cleat placement, he still checks initial alignment by dropping a plumb line from the back of your patella to the ball of your foot with the pedal at the 3 o'clock position. Jason notes that this is just a baseline position and your saddle may move fore or aft of this for power & comfort.
2nd Step: Saddle Height
Thirty degrees starting knee angle with your foot positioned at the bottom of its pedal stroke. GW photo
The next important major adjustment is saddle height. This gets you close to proper knee and hip angles. A 30º angle, measured precisely with a goniometer with your foot in its low (6 o’clock) position, is the optimum starting point. Fine adjustments are made to saddle height as the fit progresses, so you might not end up exactly at 30º.
Just one guy adjusting another guy's saddle–nothing to see here, move along. GW photo
Most folks ride with their saddle too low. According to Jason, proper height impacts “not so much anything at the bottom of the pedal-stroke, but it means less flexion on the kneecap and a less binding feeling over the top of your hip flexor at the top of the pedal stroke."
With regard to saddle height: “It’s all about the hip... as your bring your saddle up, your power increases, increases and increases, and then at some point it drastically falls off if you go too high.”
A low saddle, combined with binding at the hip, actively pushes your kneecap inwards or outwards at the top of the pedal stroke.
3rd Step: Knee Position
The laser alignment tool helping to align the knee throughout the pedal stroke. GW photo
Next, he focuses a laser light to bisect the second toe, shin and the center of your kneecap.
This one time, at my cousin's wedding... GW photo.
He attaches markers to your knee and has you pedal to determine how far off center it moves at the top of its stroke.
Tracking in or outward is caused not only by saddle height, but by hip alignment, different leg lengths, cleat placement, maladjustment of the bike or Q-factor (stance width) not being right for you.
Laser focus. Getting your stroke straight increases power, prevents injury and lessens fatigue. GW photo.
A variety of adjustments can be made based on how severely your knee tracks out of alignment. Cleats are moved in or out-board, spacers added to your pedals, either small washer-type or larger units. And raising or lowering the saddle in small increments.
Note the 2cm spacer on the end of my pedal spindle. GW photo.
An added benefit to this, if you’re riding clipless, is restoring equal float in either direction to your pedals. If you notice a faster release to the inside or outside of your pedal, you might be out of alignment.
4th Step: Adjusting Your Saddle Fore or Aft
Sitz bones, when seated tall, in relation to saddle angle. GW photo
Jason will then go to work on the saddle’s fore/aft position. For roadies, saddle is super critical as they are seated for hours without popping off to pedal, jump or descend the way mountain bikers are. Regardless, if your saddle is right, climbing and sprinting on the trail get much easier. You want your sit bones to naturally come down onto the rear of the saddle without having to move around or think about it.
Riding more ‘high heel’ or ‘heel down’ can affect knee angle and saddle height as well.
So inappropriate. Your ischial tuberosity resting on the back of the saddle. GW photo.
The sitz/saddle interface is optimized for leaning forward and mashing, not sitting up tall like Pee-Wee Herman, by tilting the nose down. Jason also recommends a sloped saddle. He's looking out for your 'grundle,' or taint.
For me, one of the most impressive benefits of all these adjustments was the alleviation of left hip pain and misalignment over the course of a ride.
Once saddle is dialed, he'll go to work on your forward cockpit.
5th-8th Step: Cockpit Adjustment
90 degrees shoulder flexion (torso-to-arms) while seated. GW photo.
You want to properly stack and lengthen your vertebrae to avoid a hunch-backed position, which optimizes breath and efficient energy transfer. On mountain bikes, Jason feels handlebar, brakes and shifters are the key touch points.
No hunching. You want your back straight and neck aligned. GW photo.
He’ll first rotate handlebars so the sweep points back and up at your chest. This helps create a proper 90-degree angle between your torso and upper arms (while seated, of course).
The brakes and shifters rotated and moved inwards. GW photo.
Brake and shifter positions are adjusted so wrists are straight and still comfortable when off the back of the bike. Brakes should be inboard enough to be operated by only one finger while the hands rest in the middle of the grips. I tend to rest my last knuckle and pinky off the end of the bars, which is bad.
Riding with hands too far out can have consequences. GW photo.
Finally, proper stem length. Jason swapped my stem because it was too short. He went off a little about how stupid it was that today's stem lengths are all about fashion.
Each person's stem needs to be a different length based upon their own measurements, rather than a 50mm because it’s cool. It's not reasonable that one stem length is ideal for all riders. Of course wider handlebars (also trendy now, but I happen to like them) require a shorter stem for any given person. Regardless, your own reach should dictate the exact length and width of both those items.
You want to end up balanced over the middle of the bike, not too far forward or back.
As different adjustments get dialed, go back and make sure all other ones are still solid. GW photo.
After he moves through each one of these steps, he goes back to confirm previous adjustments are still optimum, tweaking as necessary. Sometimes a movement on stem length will require slightly repositioning the saddle or something.
Aside from best practices, Jason makes a point of honoring the feedback that’s given to him. If you go for a pro fit, make sure you are being listened to and it is a conversation rather than a rigid protocol.
At Halter’s Cycles, and many good shops I’ve been at, a bike fit is free if you buy a bike over a certain price point. Mountain bikers can get away with more play than a roadie or cyclocross rider, but still, make smart choices. The right fit will make a difference in certain situations.
How Much Did It All Matter?
Taking a back-of-the-shop test run. GW photo.
Jason shimmed my cleats for the way I pronate and moved them back farther on my foot and inboard to place my feet farther out. He added a 2 cm spacer on my left pedal, raised my saddle and slid it back a bit. He added a longer stem and moved my brakes and shifters inboard.
The first ride was incredibly weird and alien. I couldn’t help but focus on the new positions every part of my body was adapting to. However, the reduction of hip tightness was welcome and my pedaling efficiency (especially climbing) noticeably improved.
For the second and subsequent rides, I took note of where the adjustments were, undid many of them, and added them back over several days. It was just easier to integrate them one at at time. I ended up with the saddle a bit lower than we had gotten to at the fitting, but the rest of the stuff was fine. You really start to notice the benefits after an hour or so and then exponentially after that. For longer rides and races, fitting makes a big impact.
The Bottom Line
Jason is obviously super comfortable on his bike. He is an avid surfer and snowboarder and notes that while he lives in NJ, he makes the best of it (his words) by traveling to clear his mind and body.
A precise fit on a mountain bike is not as important as on a road bike, but it can make a difference with balance, pain and power transfer.
If you’re buying a new bike and spending decent money, have the shop make sure you’re feeling good and everything is properly adjusted. Yes, there is an app for this, although I haven't tried it. In my opinion, the most valuable part of a bike fit is the professional doing the fitting. Experience counts. If you want to get a professional bike fit, look for someone who does 10-20 fittings a week and ask for references. A good fit should take well over an hour.
There are computerized fittings that use a machine to take measurements and a technician guiding the process. Again, those might be good, but probably only as much as the person you are working with.
Keep in mind that a refitting may be a yearly thing. Our bodies constantly change as we go through life.
Listen to your body; if something hurts or is not quite right, bring it up during the fitting.
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