Cam McKenzie – “I wasn’t fighting my bike, I was riding it.”
Amid the rush of packing before he heads to the US next week to continue his Academic pursuits, Cam took the time to reflect on the time we spent “having a quick look” at his bike fit.
“I thought I’d been riding long enough to work out my bike fit by feel. If I ride hard and feel wrong, I change something. If everything seems ok, I don’t touch it. Recently, the cracks in this theory have started showing through. I have had knee and hip problems for years, but I normally do a good job of ignoring them, or papering over with a week or two of physio exercises and stretching. I think many of us with similar issues do the same. Once the pain of racing dials up, the pain from an injury or a little niggle or tightness is pushed into the back of the mind, drowned out by the flood of lactic acid.
Still, over the last six months, I haven’t felt right on the bike. I had two speeds: racing, where everything else was blocked out, or riding painfully slowly. I wasn’t comfortable turning on the diesel at 80% and knocking out a good block of training because that was when I started to notice the little things bugging me. Hammies tight, back sore, hips locked, knee twisted. Over 80km and things started going wrong. Sure, I still had some good races, but the next day I’d feel stiff walking up stairs and my training dropped off to a minimum during the week as I tried to recover for the next weekend.
Given all this, it is surprising I didn’t turn to a fit specialist sooner. I have had fits in the past, but the changes they made have always been small and the difference I noticed after smaller. However, it was a happy coincidence that at the same time I was noticing my problems were not improving and thinking something had to be done, I met Peter from Cycling Edge at one of the (most excellent) Dirty Deeds Cyclocross races. It turns out Peter has spent the past few years becoming acquainted with modern fitting techniques and has a studio in south melbourne incorporating a highly adjustable instrumented bike (with power and pedaling symmetry measurements) and slow motion video analysis. Even if my foolhardy, old school racer mindset sniffed at the idea of a bike fit that didn’t rely on my own feel for my body, my inner geek was pretty interested in how this stuff all worked. Hence it was that I decided to give a bike fit a crack – it couldn’t hurt, it might help and it would be interesting either way.
We start off with the fit bike set in my original position, looking at my pedal stroke. Surprisingly to me, I am quite symmetrical in how I pedal. I thought that since all my issues (hip, knee and ankle), arise on my left, that side would be weak. Peter pointed out that the powerful part of my pedal stroke was coming in far too late. The crank was halfway pushed down before I really got on top of the gear. This was a surprise to me – although I am quite an analytical person, as a bike rider, I tend to just ride and I figured that since my bike goes forward, I was pedaling ok. I can tell you a lot about race tactics (if you promise not to tell everyone). I know a decent amount about nutrition and aerodynamics and plenty of other aspects of bikes, but I haven’t thought in serious depth about the biomechanical aspects of my own pedal stroke. I can’t see it, and it turns out I can’t really feel it until I’m told to look for it.
The baseline position established where things might be going wrong – my glutes weren’t kicking in properly, meaning my power was coming on late, my hips were not controlled and my knee was twisting. What was the issue? To start with, my seat was low. This was a serious surprise to me. I’ve played a lot with seat height and setback, trying to get comfortable. Whatever I did, my hips felt a bit strange and locked up and I couldn’t get the power down I wanted. It turns out I was mistakenly thinking my hips were too stretched out, whereas in fact my hips were compressed and obstructed from my seat being too low. Peter put my seat up. A lot, by my standards… I think 18mm. My seat height hasn’t changed by that much in ten years. Things started feeling better. Immediately I was pedaling a bit more freely and we could see from the analysis software that power was coming on earlier. I felt more than a bit foolish that I had been interpreting the feedback from my body in the opposite way to what was correct. Peter also gave me some useful advice about how to recruit more muscle through the top of my pedal stroke, how it should feel. This was new to me and helped smooth things out too.
The seat height change was the major thing… but there was more to be done. From the frame by frame video analysis, it was clear that I was rocking a bit. Most likely, I was not anchored properly at my hips and feet. We tried some different seats. I had been using an SMP saddle. It was excellent in many ways, more comfortable than many saddles I’ve used in the past. It turns out it still wasn’t right for me. With an Antares on the bike, I was instantly better supported and my pedal stroke smoothed out even more and picked up more power. The SMP was too narrow for me to be anchored properly and supported – the comfort had distracted me from noticing it. Changing my saddle was going to get me major gains.
Finally, we looked at how I was supported at my feet. A long time ago, at Interbike, I’d been fitted for cycling specific orthotics. These were made by e-soles and I had been custom fitted by a gregarious and extremely knowedgable Irish man called Paraic. I have since told people that I wished I lived near Paraic so I could pick his brains on bike fit. His insoles had helped a lot when they were first made. After four years they had worn out – my physio had been bugging me to sort out a replacement, but most of my options didn’t seem like they were much good. It was a happy surprise to me that (i) Cycling Edge have e-soles semi-custom orthotics and (ii) Peter has done training with Paraic and is in regular contact with him. Paraic now runs his own fitting business (FASTER) in the US after years with Serotta and e-soles . Peter had a good look over my feet, we set up some insoles and put them in my shoes and I jumped back on the bike.
At this point I felt something I haven’t felt in a while – comfortable pedaling, with hip, knees and feet aligned and my back not locking up. I wasn’t fighting my bike, I was riding it. Along the way, my bars had been raised a bit too and pushed away from my body, meaning I was better supported at the front end and not reaching awkwardly. I was supported at my feet, at my seat and my hips were opened up properly. Despite being more stretched out, it was now much easier to flatten my back and ride in the drops. I was more aero despite a theoretically less aggressive position with raised bars (well… without a tunnel it’s hard to tell 100%… but I was lower and straighter) .
The whole process took a bit over three hours. Peter is thorough. Measurements are taken, injury history considered, different solutions are tried and, if they don’t work, rejected. Peter’s approach does not seem dogmatic, but instead involves the application of a careful and empirical methodology to personalize a solution to one’s needs on the bike. Peter managed to solve problems I didn’t know I had – it is only after riding the new position that I realize that not just my hips and knees were wrong, but my back was off too, my ankles were wrong… improving all these things has hugely improved my comfort on the bike.
A few weeks later, I am still adapting to the new position, but it is clear to me that it is better. I still need to work with my physiotherapist and rebuild my hip strength and flexibility – a fact that Peter himself pointed out during the fit. The difference is, now when I am going out on the bike, I am not locking up and undoing any good work I’ve done in the gym or on the swiss ball or the stretching mat. I ride out through Warrandyte with my old man probably every second weekend. I met him for a ride the other week and he asked me how I was going. I started babbling… it’s great… things so much better… and after two minutes, dad worked out I was talking about my bike fit. He said “I thought you were going to say you had worked out the meaning of life or metaphysics, the way you were talking”. Feeling good on the bike, enjoying the hills… it’s not the meaning of life, but it’s helped a lot.
TL;DR: I thought I was fitted fine, I was wrong. After a Cycling Edge fit from Peter, I feel hugely better on the bike and injury problems that I’ve been working on with my physio are improving much more rapidly than before I was fit.”
Cam does his mid race stretching routine!
Cheers Cam, I look forward to the coffee tour of San Fran!