April 2022

The Future of Bike Fit (Part 2) – Interview of the Bike Fit Machine Manufacturers and Bike Fit Education Content Creators

By Rick Schultz, DBA

In the September 2021 issue of Lower Extremity Review, Happy Freedman wrote an article titled “The Future of Bike Fit,” in which several bike fitters were asked their opinions about the future of bike fitting. But what about the opinions of the bike fitting machine manufacturers and the bike fitting educational course creators?

I recently discussed bike fitting, including future predictions as they relate to everyday consumers (vs pro cyclists), to just such a group of professionals: Niels Boon of Shimano Experience Center’s bikefitting.com; Eric Bjorling, with Trek Bicycle’s Precision Fit system; Scott Stroot, Specialized’s Retul & Body Geometry business and marketing manager; Andy Brook, president of the International Bike Fitting Institute (IBFI); William Thomas, CPT, CSCS, a  California State Time Trial (TT) champion, exercise physiologist/kinesiology faculty at California State University Fullerton, sports nutritionist, and cycling coach; and Amy Schultz, PT, DPT, CSCS, who, in addition to being a board certified physical therapist with Red Bull, is a certified sports trainer, certified bike fitter, and former cat 2 women’s bicycle racer.

With respect to where bike fitting was in the past compared to where it is now, Boon outlined advances in technology and healthcare. “I think the reasons why pro cyclists are retiring later is not just related to bike fitting, but rather to a better overall way of keeping riders fit for their job (nutrition, training science, medical care, etc.). But the main improvement in bike fitting is the inclusion of modern technologies like faster CPUs in computers, which can handle more complicated algorithms; 3D motion analysis technology; and power meters with 3D force vector measurements,” he said, adding that these same advances are available for the masses as well.

Brook agreed about the importance of the medical and physiological aspect of training and added that bike fitting has also played a part in that shift but to a lesser capacity. “Riders used to race all year, across all kinds of events, but now they better understand training load and recovery,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, bike fitting has definitely reduced the risk of overuse injuries, so it’s played a part, but I think the training knowledge played a bigger role.”

These are great points. Better nutrition pre-, during, and post-race, better training science, and better medical care also play an important role in prolonging the pro cyclists’ career, with bike fitting being a part of it and becoming ever more available on a wider basis, to the everyday consumer, as Boon pointed out.

Going Mainstream

“I see bike fitting heading to a more mainstream service that is offered by bike stores as a way to keep driving/attracting consumers into their physical premises,” Boon said. “We also hope to see that the translation of results from a bike fitting to the ‘real’ or outside environment of the cyclist will improve and that it will become the norm to do a bike fit (of whichever level, basic or advanced) with every bike sold. Automation will have its place to predict 80% to 90% of the fit. But for the last 10% to 20% (and from a comfort/performance point of view, very important), a trained bike fitter will always be necessary.”

Reading between the lines, Boon is throwing bike sizing into this equation as well. The correct size bike is often overlooked for many reasons. For instance, it’s the only bike the shop has in inventory, the salesperson gets a higher commission on certain bikes, etc. I believe the future of bike fitting will be to start with the right size (and right kind of) frame for the type of riding the customer wants to do as well as match the frame dimensions to the customer’s physical dimensions to maximize efficiency and comfort.

To be able to successfully fit a bike, “education is and will always be crucial,” said Boon. “You can develop and sell the best tools in the world, but without education, they are of no added benefit for the consumer. Education needs to be aimed at teaching a process to the bike fitters, which helps them to develop their own standardized approach. One must also keep in mind that there needs to be a significant practical proportion in the training schedule, relative to the theoretical part. Finally, a certified dealer network is the key to success for any bike fitting system. I also see…physical therapists and bike industry professionals working together. Bike industry professionals are knowledgeable about bikes, but do not always have the best background in human physiology and anatomy, whereas physiotherapists are knowledgeable about the human body but not so much about the adjustment possibilities of a bicycle. So, I strongly believe we need both groups to have an interest in bike fitting and to cooperate with each other to bring the best possible service to cyclists. It is crucial to have a good process that is followed in a structured way…. This will bring the best possible results to our end consumers, ensuring that their cycling experience is optimized by the bike fitter.”

Schultz said she is seeing an increase in PTs attending bike fitter courses compared to bike shop employees/bike shop owners. “I know the bicycle shops are extremely busy now, so I see the trend of the shops providing sales and service and ‘farming out’ the bike fitting piece to a trusted and highly qualified fitter, whether that is a PT or an independent fitter.”

Bike Fitting Is a Big Tent

In my bike fitting education program, I am happy to see fitters with more diverse backgrounds, and I am seeing a greater percentage of students who are PTs. Along with personal trainers and bike shop employees and owners, this is the perfect mix of students, and everyone seems to learn a lot more in each class compared to if the class consisted of bike shop personnel only.

According to Stroot, today’s good bike fitting education and technology will only get better and will find its way into the fitting industry so fitters will continue to improve their skills. He also sees a trend, brought on by COVID-19 lockdowns, where riders have more time to evaluate how they might improve. He was adamant that more riders should seek out bike fitters and that retailers need to take more of a key role in fitting.

For high-level athletes, a knowledgeable bike fitter is just 1 tooth in the cog. The others being a PT/physiotherapist, coach, trainer, and even a direct line to the saddle, shoe, and component manufacturers that know what changes to what equipment will result in changes to the cyclist’s position on the bike. A regular cyclist might also need more insight to be able to ride more comfortably and injury free.

Brook said there are systems available that attempt to measure elements of the rider and adjust rider position automatically, and while they cannot replace a human fitter, that’s the direction things are going. He said he understands the appeal of bike fitting machines from a shop’s perspective: you buy the technology once, there’s no ongoing salary, and the machine cannot leave and take the training with them. However, bike shops “need to be cautious because these systems aren’t yet close to being able to offer the same level of service as a well-trained, professional bike fitter,” he said, emphasizing the importance of the educational standards recently implemented by IBFI. “By improving both the quality and amount of training a fitter receives, the harder it will become for automation to replace the role.”

Nevertheless, Brook acknowledged the initial appeal of new technology—that is, until the consumer realizes technology isn’t capable of carrying out every aspect of a fit. “Until the tech moves on significantly, bike fitters aren’t at serious risk of being replaced, but it’s constantly improving so we have to improve the quality of the fitters and make it as hard as possible for technology to replace us,” he said.

Education, Education, Education

One way to ensure that bike fitters remain relevant is to formalize and standardize education to raise standards around the world, said Brook. “The European Union has a very good approach to vocational training that the IBFI has mirrored in our recent education changes. We have created a common syllabus agreed upon by over a dozen education providers, with assessments for each module and external moderation. It’s a huge leap from where we were as an industry just 5 or 6 years ago, and I’m confident it’s a system that will produce well-trained and well-rounded fitters.”

As a level 4 fitter with IBFI, I agree with the direction the organization is taking to standardize and formalize the bike fitting process. For those new to bike fitting, there are classes (with continuing education credits) that can be taken to help with understanding bike fitting. After several hundred bike fits, the new bike fitter can test for level 1, after which they can then get a mentor assigned to them to help them understand more in-depth facets to bike fitting, the why’s and how-to’s.

I discussed what education a fitter needs with Stroot, and he mentioned 2 principal areas. First, as the categories of bikes increase (ie, cross bikes, gravel bikes, mountain bikes, road bikes, tri/time trial bikes, fit bikes like Peloton, Ebikes, etc.), bike fitting education will have to adapt to add specialties to fit those bikes. And second, fitters should understand strength, mobility, and nutrition.

Schultz said she is seeing a shift in gravel and mountain bikes gaining popularity over road bikes. And with this increase in popularity, she concurs with Stroot that fitters will need to brush up on skills that make sense fitting riders to these types of bikes. Asking her about body types, shapes, and dimensions, she said it still comes down to knowing how to measure angles—this part is still key and, yes, each person has unique dimensions that require custom measuring.

“The future of bike fitting is in the hands of the people that best understand the mechanisms and interplay between the adjustments that you could make,” added Brook. “It’s not about being a medical professional or not, it’s about understanding the process. The IBFI’s new common syllabus is based on the European Qualifications Framework (EQF), which creates parity between vocational and academic qualifications. It’s the system commonly used by sports therapists in Europe, which is a similar role to an athletic trainer in the United States. So, it has a history of being used for complementary medical training, and level 4 carries the same weight as completing the first year of a bachelor’s or undergraduate degree. Professionalizing education in this way bridges the gap between fitters and medical professionals, completely removing the argument that one would be better than the other.”

The Value of Independence

Asking Schultz about bike fitting education, she believes independent fitters will be able to give better fits since they are not bound by any 1 bike company’s philosophy, they are able to team with a physical therapist to treat clients when needed or assist different bike shops, and they are able to take continuing education that will help their quality of bike fitting like anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, etc., which will help them understand more about how the body moves and how it is supposed to move. She’s talking more than a weekend course, she’s talking about fitters becoming personal trainers, which will give them a lot of the above-listed education, as well as maybe enrolling in a community college for these courses.

In general, she believes in fixing the body from imbalances rather than a band-aid approach, such as fixing muscle imbalances such as a tight abductor/weak adductor instead of placing wedges under the cleats to fix knee tracking.

Stroot summed it up by stating that “bike fitters have a lot of power to (a) keep a rider riding, and/or (b) help a racer maximize their potential.”

I must agree with Schultz. Education is the future of bike fitting. Topics that bike fitters should take must include engineering, mechanics, physiology, and biomechanics. What we are really talking about is going back to the basics to be able to move forward.

Lastly, I spoke with Thomas who discussed where bike fitting needs to go in order to help the top professional athletes. “The future of bike fitting will be when bike fitters combine current fitting theory and fine tune it based upon individuals’ physiology, including taking live metabolic measurements while fitting, such as oxygen consumption relative to watt production and aerodynamic modeling. This means fitters must not only have fitting equipment, but a metabolic cart with the capability to analyze gas exchange, setting the person’s actual bike on an ergo meter and photographic/computer modeling equipment to estimate drag coefficient. Specialized [Retul] has started this process, termed “metabolic fit,” but it really needs to be combined with drag estimates. Furthermore, the type of racing you perform, ie, triathlon, TT, crit, road, must be taken into account since aerodynamics’ importance decreases during racing that involves lots of climbing.”

In summary,

A.) Education is still king!

B.) There needs to be continued work between the bicycle industry, kinesiologists, biomechanics, sports physiologists, and medical professionals. I have already seen a shift in attendees of my bike fitting educational classes, from bike shop employees/owners to almost exclusively PTs taking these courses. This makes sense since there would be no disruption in the continued care of an injured athlete in the process of rehabilitation.

C.) Bike sizing is the first step toward a successful bike fitting.

D.) For fitters using bike fitting machines, there needs to be an accurate way of taking the post-fit dimensions off of the fit bike and duplicating those dimensions exactly onto the client’s actual bicycle. Take saddle height for example. There is an actual safe range for saddle height. Within that range, some cyclists feel stronger and more comfortable on the lower end of the scale, while others feel stronger and more comfortable on the higher end. This all has to do with leg length vs torso length and tibia length vs femur length. I might fit someone to where they feel the best, and if I raise the saddle 1mm, they will ask what I did, that feels terrible.

Note: Specialized Retul has such a system but something similar needs to be available for all bike fitting machines.

E.) Bike fitting in the future will integrate the processes from the customer starting off with the right-size bike and the right-size components to more pressure point and physiological analysis.

F.) Before automating bike fitting processes with tools and bike fitting machines, the fitter must know what the data is telling them and more importantly, know what to adjust on the bike based on this data.

G.) Bike fitting still relies on open and honest communication between the fitter and the client. The client’s feedback during the fit about what feels right and what feels wrong is still the most important aspect.

Rick Schultz, MBA, DBA, is a master bike fitter (IBFI Level 4) and USA Cycling (USAC) Level 2 Coach and Certified Skills Instructor. He is the owner of Bike Fitness Coaching, San Juan Capistrano, California. Find him at BikeFitnessCoaching.com.

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