The shop where I do all my bike fits, Revolution Bike Shop in Solana Beach, is located on one of the most well traveled coastal cycling roads in all of Southern California, Highway 101. I also have a home directly on one of the region's most popular road biking routes known as the Elfin Forest Loop. The bottom line is that I get to see a lot of cyclists each year. Thousands. Based on access to viewing these large numbers of roadies and my experience as a bike fitter, I’ve narrowed down the most common bike fitting issues to the following five:
1. Poor Leg Alignment
2. A saddle that is too high or too low
3. Poor cleat position
4. A saddle that is tilted downwards
5. Excessive reach to the handlebars
I’ll be examining the first two of these issues in this article.
Leg Alignment Issues
One of the most common problems I encounter in road cyclists is often overlooked by many others in my profession - poor leg alignment. The simple fact is that many bike fitters don't spend nearly enough time working with a cyclist's feet, shoes, and cleats during the fitting process (the root cause for most alignment problems). The conclusion I draw is that many fitters either don't know how to fix these common issues, or simply weren't aware that they even existed in the first place.
An advanced fitting, which should include time devoted to the foot/pedal interface, is usually going to take a couple of hours, if not more. Most bike shops simply can't afford to spend that much time with one client, unless they have a dedicated bike fitting department, and many of them don't. Further, most of the commercially available bike fitting systems used by shops do not address many of the common foot/pedal/cleat issues. Don't get me wrong, there are bike shops that have great fitting departments, but they are definitely in the minority.
Poor alignment can rob you of power, cause shoe "hot spots" and/or foot cramps, and can eventually lead to an injury (usually in the knees or lower back). The problem with alignment issues is that most people are simply unaware of the problem. Even if a riding buddy or team member has mentioned you may have knees that don't track straight (aka "wobbly" knees), most cyclists simply don't have the first clue how to cure the problem. A close cousin to this issue is a splayed leg, a condition in which one leg usually sticks out from the top tube further than the other; this is most evident at the top of pedal stroke, when the legs are closest to the top tube.
These very common biomechanical issues can usually be cleared up by making sure the pedal, knee, and hip are vertically aligned. This is typically accomplished with cleat wedges - thin canted pieces of plastic that go in your shoes or between your cleats and shoes; these devices can correct for an angulation/tilt in your forefoot, which are usually the underlying causes of the poor alignment. Improper stance width on the pedals can also cause poor alignment. If your stance width needs to be widened outside of the range provided by either the pedals or cleats, pedal spacers can be installed between the pedal spindle and crank arm. Sometimes altering your stance width will even require a switch to another pedal system with a different spindle length. The cause of alignment issues can also be traced to a leg length discrepancy, a tilted pelvis and/or a rotated pelvis, all of which can require any number of different remedies.
Saddle is too high or too low
If your seat is too high, you can experience pain on the back of your knee(s), or your hips can rock (causing loss of power). Genital numbness and saddle sores are other potential consequences of a saddle that is set too high. It's also quite possible that there is too much of drop from the top of your saddle to the top of your handlebars, which can lead to back pain and hand numbness.
If your seat is too low, it can also lead to an injury and you can experience pain at the front or top of your knee. A low saddle can also lead to poor efficiency resulting in significant power loss. It's amazing how much faster someone will ride when their saddle is raised into the appropriate range. Not only is the pedal stroke more efficient, but often a more aerodynamic position is obtained with the correct height. Chronic upper leg cramping can also be caused by a saddle that is too low.
You should be wary of formulas used to determine your saddle height, as they can sometimes be way off of the mark. Your saddle height should be adjusted so that you have a slight bend in your knees when your crank is lined up with the seat tube. Depending on an individual's flexibility, I will usually recommend a knee angle of anywhere between 30-40 degrees. The way I measure this is with a large angle finder known as goniometer. One arm of the device is lined up with bony bump on the outside of the hip (greater trochanter), the other with the ankle, and the center of the "dial" (which measures the angle) is placed over pivot point at the center of the knee.
In future articles I’ll discuss the remaining three bike fit issues - cleat position, tilted saddles, and problems with reach to the handlebars. In the meantime, if you want more information on fitting self help, you can download a free copy of my 9 page ePublication by signing up for my Newsletter. The sign up box/link is located in the right hand column.
Eric Bowen, the owner of VeloFitter, is the author of all articles.