Monday Medical: Get fitted to your bike

Even regular bikers may be riding the wrong way

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They say you never forget how to ride a bike, but did you really learn to ride it correctly in the first place?

As soon as the snow melts, I ride as much as I can: To and from work on my commuter bike, or for fun on my road and mountain bikes. Because I spend so much time in the saddle and I'm dedicated to improving as a road cyclist, I felt it was high time I saw how well my little 5-foot frame matches up to my road bike frame.

So I signed up for SportsMed's Bike Fit Analysis at Yampa Valley Medical Center. Although I was not surprised to learn my bike needed adjustment, I was surprised that my riding form needed some adjustment, too.

I also did not expect to find that the bike fit process is more about the body than the bike. They could call it "body fit analysis" instead. Rather than starting with hopping on my bike, the analysis began with hopping on an exam table.

"We are making the bike fit you, so it's important to understand what is unique about your body," physical therapist Jen Kerr said. "I'm trying to flush out your strengths and weaknesses."

Kerr performed a few simple tests to assess the strength, flexibility and range of motion of my legs, knees and feet. She also looked at my posture and reach. One thing she noticed was my right leg is a centimeter longer than my left. She also found tightness in my calf muscles and tissue.

Next, I got on my bike, which was positioned on a stationary trainer and wired to a laptop computer that showed how I generate my power, including whether I use both legs equally. I soon learned that my left leg works harder than my right. As I pedaled, Kerr walked around me, taking note of my body mechanics and alignment.

"I can tell a lot by eyeballing before we start the measurements," she said.

By observing my body's position and pedaling style, Kerr identified a few areas where I needed bike adjustment and technique improvement. In my case, I resolved some issues by simply modifying the bike's seat height.

"Seat height and fore/aft position are two of the most important adjustments you can make," Kerr said.

I also needed to make some changes to my pedaling style. My toes point downward as I pedal when they should remain flat. This could perpetuate the tightness in my calves.

"Pretend like you are scraping mud off the bottom of your shoes," she coached.

She also observed that my hips rock slightly side to side, my arms are fully extended, and my right knee rotates inward, all of which can cause discomfort and lead to injury.

All of these habits are things I could not pick up on, let alone correct, without Kerr's trained eye.

I stopped pedaling, and Kerr took a series of measurements to help determine how to properly place my seat height and fore/aft position.

After lowering my seat, I got back on the bike. This time, I found it a little easier to improve my pedaling style. I definitely felt more comfortable with the lower seat, because my hips were no longer rocking.

Because I had recently upgraded the pedals on my bike, I was very eager to ensure that the cleats on my biking shoes, which click in to the pedals, were positioned correctly. Kerr determined they also needed a slight correction and again I found more comfort.

After changing the seat, cleats and angle of my handlebars, we let the computer analyze me again. From a performance standpoint, my average power output went up along with my comfort level.

I rode home from SportsMed with more than an understanding of my body and better bike fit. Kerr recommended a few stretches I could do for my legs. She also provided a cycling drill I can practice that will improve my pedaling form.

Consider a bike fit analysis if you are thinking of buying a new bike. A trained bike fit physical therapist can provide insight that will help you understand your body and cycling habits. With this knowledge, you can find the bike that will best suit you.

If you are looking to upgrade your current bike, instead of spending a couple of hundred dollars on new components, why not pay less to learn how to ride right and improve your performance? The analysis could prove to be your most valuable investment.

Riley Polumbus is communications specialist at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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