Dialing in the bike

I could go on and on about dialing it in. Start out conservative, get a feel for the terrain and route. Listen to your body and know when to engage and when not to. My training partners and I do a lot of “dialing in”- especially when we do hill repeats and k-repeats on the track. My old cross country coach used to heed us warning with Lahti repeats: “Just dial the first one in … (and give’r on the last five)”.

But today, I’m talking about a different kind of dialing: Dialing in the bike. I know only a little about sports physiology*, and I can’t really coach you to having the best race strategy or even training philosophy. I do, however, know quite a bit about sports mechanics. Dialing in your gear is just as important as dialing in your mental psyche. Having a good bike fit is key to having your bike dialed in. Poor mechanics can translate into poor efficiency, poor alignment, and put one at a higher risk for getting injured.

Last year, I went to ProFit Bikes in Sylvan Lake, Michigan (inside Peak Performance), to get my QRoo Caliente fit for me. Prior to the fit, I had ridden it on the trainer once or twice, very uncomfortably, and took it to the road once. The road ride was a complete disaster, as halfway through the ride the aerobars shook loose, and about a mile from home my saddle fell completely off. There’s nothing quite like stopping at a four-way stop to feel your saddle fall out from beneath you.

Ok, before I get too deep into this: Yes, you can adjust your bike all by yourself. Everyone at least has an idea about what is comfortable for them. If your hip hurts on one side, your saddle might be too high and you might want to drop your seat post a smidge. If your neck hurts when your on an hour-long road ride, you might be too stretched out and want to try a shorter stem. Whatever the case may be, using your best judgment to get the bike to where you feel good is key. However (here’s the caveat), if you want to get the most power and advantage out of your bike (or rather, out of your body), you really should consider getting a professional bike fit. The biggest thing I got out of having my bike fit: I used the fit basically as my first step (soon after the new bike arrived, especially since it was my first ever triathlon bike, I had itpro-fit to me alleviated the headaches of small tweaking that would have come with small self adjustments).

So, I got the new triathlon bike. I had never had one before. I had no idea what was a good position and what was bad. Baberaham would watch me on the trainer before we went for our fit and say: “You need to raise the seat a smidge, your knee is less than 90 degrees” (as my knee ached and I felt my menisci extrude- not really) or “you might want to pull your aerobars back a bit, you look a little stretched” (as my neck craned and my trapezoids cramped up). But, the actual dialing part came when I went and saw Chad at ProFit.

He set me up on my QRoo (on the trainer) and used videography to map out my time-zero fit. It was obvious there were issues, but we had to start somewhere. He asked me what my goals were (comfort first, and then the best aerodynamics I could get with that comfort level- hey, I was training for a long course!) and made a few changes from there. A few hours later, I watched myself on the screen and felt like I was watching Ironman Hawaii on NBC. I looked good. But most importantly, I felt so comfortable. No tightness anywhere. My legs felt strong and I felt power pushing the pedal throughout the entire stroke. I felt my weight being supported by my elbows and not my shoulders, and I didn’t feel like I was crushing my lady-parts with the nose of my saddle (a serious issue I have had for my entire biking career). He wrote down my measurements and handed them off to me for safe keeping (luckily he kept a copy himself, as I am known to lose things).

Jump forward several months: I had raced IMWI, felt strong and comfortable the entire 112 miles (and passed a lot of dudes, I might add), and spent significant time on the saddle. But I sold the QRoo frame pre-season in hopes of getting my hands on a flashy and fast Kestrel 4000 LTD frame. A month goes by, no word on when I’ll be getting the frame. No biggie, I could get a road bike to spin on. Another month goes by,… and another… and then its March, and I hear through the grapevine that my beloved 4000 will not be released in my size until August. Dragging my feet around town, I am at a loss of what to do. Do I call the guy I sold my QRoo to and ask for it back? No. Should I get a Guru because it will fit me out of the box? Hmm… nah. Luckily, my LBS dudes are the best, and they found me a deal on a Scott Plasma Contessa. Since it was the bike I had originally wanted in 2009 (but couldn’t get because they were sold out stateside), I felt good about the purchase.

But there’s a problem. See, the Contessa isn’t the bike that I was fit on. It’s heavier (albeit sturdier, and faster once it gets rolling) and the bike just feels different. It came with different bars, a longer stem, a different saddle. Worse than that, there’s a seat mast- not a seat post. Uh, crap.

Luckily I had the measurements that Chad gave me. B and I set up the bike to the best we could, but cutting off the seat mast with a hacksaw is only so accurate (and nerve-wrecking; it’s very nerve-wrecking, that is when you’re dealing with several thousands of dollars worth of carbon). Granted, the Plasma came with a handy cutting tool that aligns the saw up perfectly with the mast so there are no uneven cuts, but there is also no room for error (in cutting it too short)…

We got within a quarter of an inch for the length between the bottom bracket and the middle of the seat that Chad had written on my cheat-sheet. That’s close enough, right?

Not right. I went out for a spin and felt – uncoordinated. I couldn’t get into aero position for the life of me. I was going to fast, but I couldn’t go any slower or else I’d fall off my bike. My toes were pointed and my neck hurt for days afterward. I had to get on my pursuit bars to change gears, and eventually I just gave up altogether and sat up the last ten miles. I learned something I didn’t want to ever know about a tri bike: extra tape on the pursuit bars makes them more comfortable.

Had I forgotten how to ride a tri bike in just four months? Really?! Why did I feel like I could fall over at any minute, and why do the sides of my shins ache so bad?!

Seriously? this makes all the difference

Well, simply, the bike wasn’t dialed. I got back home and put the bike in the rack, riding my road bike for the next few outings. Was I scared of my tri bike? You bet. Did I want to ride my tri bike? Not one bit.

This was a serious problem. So serious, that a week later, B shaved off less than quarter of an inch from my seat mast. What the heck could that possibly do?

Well- It brought a smile to my face. I took the Plasma out to McLain and back, and sat aero the whole way. I felt in control. My feet were pushing through and powering me forward at the bottom of each stroke. My cadence was high and I felt strong. I could feel my weight through my elbows. I could change gears from my aero bars.

Welcome back, aero position! Seriously, riding aero is necessary in the Keweenaw when you head out by yourself (20-30mph winds are not always easy-peezy to ride through). Now, I just want to ride the Plasma all the time! Hopefully I get over this Funk that I got when I was in SLC (cough, sore throat, etc)… only two weeks until Rev3!

Speaking of Rev3– want to meet up in Tennessee? I will be racing the Olympic distance tri on Mother’s Day, but I’ll be in Knoxville all weekend. Find me at the Trakkers Booth on Saturday! If you’re not already signed up, get on it! Get $10 off using my code: trakkers118 . Registration for the Knoxville races closes on April 30th.


About megankillian

Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Delaware. I love biomechanics!

Posted on April 23, 2010, in cycling, gear, training. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Good article about your experience. Did you mess around with seat fore/aft? That is a big consideration when fitting Tri position.

    I hope the Keweenaw is thawing out!


    • I got fit by Chad on the QRoo using a different saddle (the one the bike came with) than the one I ended up riding on during the season. The saddles were pretty comparable in thickness, though. With my Plasma, I haven’t swapped out the saddle and I don’t plan to. The measurements are spot on (bb-to-saddle) what Chad had given me, too. 🙂 It’s funny how just a few millimeters (in my case, 4) can make such a huge difference.

  2. I love this post – most especially because I don’t know jackshit about my own bike (other than it’s name), bike maintenance, or anything else I SHOULD know to be a knowledgeable triathlete. I’m hoping some of your bike smarts will rub off on me!

    But I CAN contest to how important a proper fit is!! I got Rilo sized up for me right after I brought er’ home, and there is such a noticeable difference riding that vs. my trek-to-school-around-city bike. There is a lot more to the “right fit” than having the seat adjusted!

  3. Wow … I’ll have to remember this once I’m able to cycle again. I have an ancient mountain bike we converted to a pseudo-road bike, and my cyclist friends have been trying to convince me to get a fitting. I was skeptical it could make a difference … I think you’ve convinced me otherwise!

  4. Not considering investing in a tri bike for the foreseable future. Is it worth getting a road bike fitted? I only use it for Tri’s and tri training. Sorry for the noob question.

    • megankillian

      Many bike shops and fitters would agree that it is worthwhile getting the road bike fit. If you ride your bike for a few hours and notice that things just don’t feel “right”- then you probably want to head in to get a pro-fitting. And if you paid more than $2000 for your roadie, well- what’s another hundred or two to make sure you get the most out of your bike? That’s the way I justified it to myself. Plus, since the bike is the longest leg of the triathlon, getting the most power and comfort out of my bike was key. I’m not saying that it will guarantee your time to drop, but if you’re at all curious (or uncomfortable), it’s worth checking out.

      Plus, if you are going to use your road bike with aerobar clip-ons for a triathlon race, then you should get in to get it fit. So many people ride their bikes inappropriately (too scrunched up, too stretched out) which reduces their power and makes their ride so uncomfortable.

  5. This is my first Tri season but the bike is one I’ve had over 6 years (with zero use). I’ve always had aerobars on them. I feel I have more power to achieve on the bike, and am guessing a fitting can help me extract it. Thanks for the awesome info.

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