Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Full Bike Fitting #1: Start from the ground (and work your way up)

You may recall my frustrations back in the spring over the various problems causing me to bail out on longer rides. The excruciating saddle-area pain that kicked in just a few miles into Adam's 'unofficial Dunwich Dynamo' ride back in June was the (literal) kick in the butt I needed to send me back to the fitter to get to the bottom of what may have been causing all my problems. (Sorry about the puns. No, sorry, I'm not sorry.)

The problems weren't just from saddles. I was also having bouts of hand and wrist pain, including sharp shooting pains when I would lift my hands to shift them from one position on the handlebars to another, the 'trigger' being the easing of pressure, the pain being something like hitting the funny bone in your elbow. Except not at all funny.

And there were my everlasting blasted knees.

I had gradually become aware that I "fidgeted" with my feet quite a lot while pedalling, especially my right foot which suffers significant pronation. I would shift my feet inside my shoes, which were of course attached to pedals via cleats. Left to their own devices, my right foot would work its way to the right, up against the outside wall of the shoes. I was repeatedly and deliberately pulling it back. My toes hurt. My arch hurt. Sometimes my ankle hurt. And my knees were pretty much chronically grumpy.

I remembered that my fitter, Julian Wall at Cyclefit, believes that proper bike fit has to start with the feet. If the alignment of the foot is not right, then nothing you set up or change anywhere further up the legs, body, even arms, will produce a comfortable, efficient, pain-free riding position.

So back I went to Cyclefit. My first appointment was with Morgan Lloyd, the resident physiotherapist. He put me on the fully-adjustable Fit Bike and we quite quickly got me into a reasonably good position. He took lots of measurements, assessed my flexibility (all through my arms, spine and legs) and my walking gait and then how everything lined up while pedalling. I made it clear that I was interested in being measured up for a custom-geometry bike frame in the fairly-foreseeable future (as in, by the end of the year). Morgan checked out the fit on my current road bike and thought it was pretty close to the approximation we'd reached with the Fit Bike but definitely felt I would benefit from getting much more stability in my feet and, consequently, through my legs as a whole. So we would start with new shoes and see how I got on, riding my current bike.

Morgan recommended switching my pedal system from Speedplay Frogs (a MTB style with a passive slide-in engagement) with something much more secure. We decided to cross over from MTB to road-system cleats, choosing the Speedplay Light Action system. These cleats require road shoes but involve four bolts instead of the usual three, providing an even larger secure platform than standard road cleats. Looking at the range of compatible shoes, we decided to try Lake CX401 shoes. Unfortunately, the closest that Cyclefit had to the right size for me were definitely too big. So the fitting process came to a temporary halt until I could get them in the right size. The plan was then for me to come back to have the cleats fitted and everything checked out again on the Fit Bike. Then I'd use them for a few weeks and report back.

The Lakes were gorgeous.

Unfortunately, the "correct" size were still not quite right (too short for my longer foot). Oh, I did try to talk myself into thinking they were fine! But I know all too well that you shouldn't mess around with your feet - after all, you only get one pair and they have to carry you all your life. 

On my second visit to Cyclefit, I saw Julian. He agreed, the Lakes were no good as they aren't available in half sizes. Further, he thought the opening around the ankle (the 'throat') was too big, which would mean the shoes couldn't be as supportive as they're designed to be. His recommendation then was to try Shimano R320 shoes.

Straight away so much better. I admit, I felt a little disappointed that I wasn't getting kangaroo leather or that mega-cool Boa cord fastener system, but the shape and fit of the R320s was just about perfect, especially given how different my right foot is from my left.

I didn't get photos of them new out of the box, but here they are. Fortunately, I have found they clean up very well - but it only takes one ride to get them dirty again!

With "cafe covers", which I have found absolutely indispensable.

From bottom (sole) up, there is a three-bolt-to-four adapter, then shims (blue),
then the cleat in its big platform. Speedplay road shoe systems differ from
other brands in that the engagement mechanism is in the shoe platform,
not on the pedal itself. (I'll post a photo of the pedals later.)

The heel cup is carbon and can be heat-moulded to the shape of your foot.
The fit out of the box was so good, so close, that Julian didn't feel heat
moulding would make an appreciable difference.
It would be cool to try it anyway, but I'd worry about getting it wrong,
so am very happy to leave them as is. 

Never let mud get in the way of enjoying your ride.

So, after all that, did it do any good? make any difference?

I felt positive throughout the foot analysis process and expected to get at least some improvement. My feet are much more stable and comfortable - staying put through the pedal stroke - which straight away translates to less fatigue. On my first proper trial with them, I asked Adam if he could see any difference in the alignment of my legs as I pedalled. He said he couldn't. But I felt better, so decided to go ahead and wear them on my next long ride, the Friday Night Ride to Bognor Regis in late July.

I felt great - the best I've felt on the bike in ages. And all night long and into the morning, random people commented on how my form on the bike looked different, and the motion of each of my legs more equal to the other. Adam said as the ride progressed, he could see my legs 'straighten up', as muscles learned they didn't have to compensate any more for all that lateral (side to side) movement in each joint.

As I said to the ride leader at breakfast, that was the first ride in years that I finished virtually pain-free.

An amazing result.

Three months on, I am still loving these shoes - I trust them to look after me all day long. And my entire body is just so much more comfortable. The structure of the shoes is of course key to this, but so also is the huge platform where they fasten to the pedals.

So, were new shoes and pedals the magic bullets to my aches and pains on long rides?  Maybe. Perhaps almost entirely. But having solved the big issue, I began to consider the smaller ones. Not because suddenly they were more noticeable or troublesome, but because I began to feel more hopeful that they too could be dramatically improved, perhaps even eliminated altogether, with a little astute study and experimentation.

Next target:  that thankfully only-occasional-but-excruciating-when-it-happens genital pain from the pressure of a saddle nose. I won't go into physiological details but I know I've not been alone in my quest for the Perfect Perch.  Stay tuned...

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