Penises, Vaginas, and Bike Fit

I spent Friday evening in a lecture hall on a local college campus, listening to two leaders in bicycle fit science talk about what is known about bike fit. Dr. Andy Pruitt and Dr. Roger Minkow of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine were the presenters, and you knew it was going to be an interesting evening when Minkow said he was here to “change the world one penis at a time.”

Drs. Pruitt (left) and Minkow address the crowd.

Drs. Pruitt (left) and Minkow address the crowd.

Minkow is the man behind the Specialized Body Geometry Romin saddle (Romin is a contraction of the first syllables of his names). He regaled the crowd with tales of measuring cyclists’ private parts to get the best handle on saddle design.

We’ve all heard that you sit on your sit bones. That they’re supposed to hit the wide part of the saddle, and that will make for a comfortable ride. But Minkow said that’s not really the case. He said we sit on the bottom of the pelvic bones, and it’s really more like a rocking chair. So the Romin saddle has a center channel and flares out toward the back. The “rockers” of the pelvic bone sit on the flares just outside the channel.

The process they went through to develop the saddle was the most interesting part of the evening, and drew the most crowd response in the form of giggles and guffaws. Back when they started testing blood flow (down there), Minkow said 50 percent flow was considered a good number. He developed a ring that fastens to the penis and can measure blood flow. Testers put on the contraption, and rode bikes in a lab. Minkow said as they modified their saddle design, they were able to get blood flow up to 75-80 percent in most testers.

“Austin is cool,” he said. “Austin was the first city where we got people to volunteer to do the blood flow test.”

It was one matter to design a saddle that would fit men’s anatomies, but when it came to women, Minkow ran into a problem.

“Where is the vagina?” he asked. The crowd gasped, then giggled.

“Well, yeah, we men know where it is in order to use it,” he added. But in terms of measurement, women aren’t as easy to decipher as men. And they can’t be tested for blood flow. Luckily, there’s a big difference in women and men.

“Ladies can draw a diagram and show every point of pain,” Minkow said. “Men don’t have a clue. They could be at zero blood flow and not be aware of it.”

So a pressure map was created to show where pressure on women — and men — is greatest.

“There is no mid-line pressure on Body Geometry saddles,” Minkow said.

That’s important, because erectile dysfunction can be a reality if you ride improperly or if the bike isn’t set up correctly.

“Bike fit,” said Pruitt, “is about making the bike look like you.”

He compared fitting a bike to buying a suit of clothes. You can go to a store and pick a suit off the rack, and eventually find one your size. But if you were to take that same suit to a tailor, he could make the suit fit you perfectly, rather than acceptably.

Specialized has developed a bike fitting regimen for Specialized based on x,y, and z axes — x and y are the two dimensions visible from the side, but Pruitt says the z axis — viewing the bike from the front — is the difference between the Specialized system and others. Pro cyclists who have been fitted according to that system show notable improvements in power output and time trial times.

The crowd for this event, which was sponsored by Bicycle Sports Shop — one of the biggest bike shops in Austin — was overwhelmingly made up of experienced cyclists. People who appeared to be racers and triathletes sat near me. Some of the questions thrown at Minkow and Pruitt were highly technical, and they did their best to field them in terms everyone could understand.

Both Minkow and Pruitt are on retainer from Specialized, so the evening had the feeling of a commercial for that brand, but overall, the discussion of bike fit and saddle design was worth attending. If the two make an appearance in your area, it’s worth a couple hours of your time.

Saddle Feels Funny – But In A Good Way!

I’ve been bugged lately by soreness in my butt during rides. This is a problem I’ve wrestled with pretty much since I started biking. A pro bike fit a couple of years ago helped, but not entirely. And in recent months, I find myself standing on the pedals at regular and more frequent intervals to take the pressure off from down under.

I finally decided to do something about it, and last weekend I dug out the Allen wrench and went to work on the seat. Well, nothing drastic. I just thought it made sense to scooch it back about an eighth of an inch. Using the time-honored method of gauging seat fore-and-aft, I realized that when riding normally on the hoods, the front hub stuck out from under my handlebars — just a little bit.

My first ride after the adjustment Friday afternoon was inconclusive. I thought maybe it felt better, but the ride was only for 20 miles — about an hour and 20 minutes. It wasn’t enough time to get a good feel for the new placement.

On Sunday’s ride though, I did spend enough time in the saddle. My ride was almost three full hours, and we traveled 43 miles. Sure, I stood on the pedals. But on a ride of that length, who doesn’t? What I did notice was that the seat felt more comfortable. I was sitting a slight bit back, and it seemed to make a difference.

When we got to the convenience store we use for a turnaround, I propped the bike up against a wall and went in to refill my bottles. When I came out, I took a look at the bike — then looked again. That saddle seemed to have a marked tilt down! I have no idea how it got that way, except that when I loosened the bolts to move the saddle back, I must have knocked it off level.

Even a quick snapshot in my cluttered garage shows the forward tilt to the saddle.

Even a quick snapshot in my cluttered garage shows the forward tilt to the saddle.

I’ve always set my saddles so they’re level. Well, maybe I fudge a little bit, and tilt it half a bubble down, according to my carpenters level. But this was lots different. The tilt forward was noticeable just by eyeballing it. My initial reaction was to reach for my multi-tool and set things right, but then I remembered — on the ride out here, my butt wasn’t bothering me. The soreness and pressure I usually experience just wasn’t there. I decided to leave well enough alone, and ride back.

I’ve already talked about that ride in the previous post. It was an easy ride for my companions, and a challenge for me. But even during the final mile, when I was pedaling hard to keep up with one of the club’s faster women, the saddle wasn’t bothering me. In fact, I seemed to be able to apply more power to the pedals in the new position.

Last summer, I rode with an older gentleman who tilts his saddle forward at a drastic angle. I told him I was surprised that he didn’t slide off during his rides — the tilt was that severe. He pointed out that he spends most of his riding time on his aero bars, and he needs a tilted saddle to fit the bars well with a well bent-over riding position. It must work — he’s a faster rider than I am.

So even though I’m riding with a greater forward tilt than I think I should, I’m coming to the conclusion that maybe I should have been doing it this way all along. My saddle tilt isn’t as great as that fellow’s, but as I said, it’s obvious even to the casual cyclist. I’ll let you know if I decide to keep it this way.

Sitting on the Sit Bones? Maybe Not

Long-time readers of this blog are aware that I have had an ongoing battle with various saddles. It seems that after about an hour’s riding, my butt starts to hurt. I’ve tried several different saddles, and thought I had finally hit upon one that was acceptable — not perfect by any means, but one that seemed to work better for me than most others I’ve tried.

Even with this one though, I have to resort to some tricks to stay comfortable. I stand and pedal every so often. Whenever I coast, I take the weight off my butt. I vary my hand positions on the bars constantly. But when riding Friday, I accidentally scooched into a position that was mahvelous.

The admonition when riding is to sit on the sit bones — the “ischial tuberosities” — that protrude from the pelvis. I’ve always been aware of this saying, and I thought I had always been abiding by it. But this shift of position moved me to the real sit bones. I could tell the difference. Suddenly, my bottom felt at ease — as though it should have been in this spot all along, and should continue there from now on.

Funny thing is, I’m not really on my sit bones. At least, not the sit bones we all think of. It was all cleared up for me when I stumbled onto Steve Hogg’s Bike Fitting Website. Hogg writes extensively about the arcana of a proper bike fit (Reading his articles is a great way to spend a rainy afternoon when you can’t get out for your ride) and you’ll learn a lot by visiting his site.

According to Steve Hogg, we really sit on the pelvic bones just forward of the ischial tuberosities.

He points out that the pelvis is not constructed for us to sit on the ischial tuberosities. Instead, the bones on each side of the base of pelvis curve a little bit lower than the tuberosities protrude. They angle from wide at the rear to narrow at the front, and if the saddle is the right design, they’ll rest right on top of it.

I must have rocked back just enough that these bones rested on the saddle, instead of my perineum. I’ve been crushing my taint all along, and apparently thought that was what we had to put up with when riding a bike.

It seems a lot of cyclists have trouble with finding the right spot. As our frequent guest poster Jeff Hemmel pointed out in a review of the Bontrager Affinity saddle, Bontrager designed its perch to facilitate finding the right spot on the pubic arch.

I spent the rest of Friday’s ride, and Saturday’s, changing my position on the saddle so I could practice getting back to the exact spot I needed to get to. I think I have it down. At any rate, my rides seemed more comfortable to me than they usually are after I’ve put in 15 miles or so.

Now, you might think that if I’m putting my weight a bit forward of where we have always thought it should be that I’d be crushing my softy bits. In my case, the Forte Classic saddle I ride has a cutout, so there’s no pressure there anyway. I’d be interested in trying one of my other saddles that don’t have a cutout to see just what the results would be — but I’m in no hurry to do so. For the time being, I’ll just enjoy my rides.

Have You Ever Fitted Yourself?

We’re looking forward to spring here in Central Texas. For this morning’s club ride, temperatures were in the upper 40s, the bright sun warmed our backs, and a brisk wind played havoc with our riding — especially on fast downhill stretches.

Most everybody at the end of the ride seemed to be in good shape, with no complaints about sore lower backs, or numb hands, or etc.

But during the ride, I noticed that I was often scootching back on the saddle, to the point that my butt hung off the back. Not the most comfortable of positions, but it offered some relief from the discomfort I was feeling.

Whenever we stopped for a breather (not often today) and I unclipped from the pedals for a few minutes, I was able to get back on in a normal position on the saddle — perhaps a tidge forward of center. This is a comfortable position, but as I said, in a while I’m scootching back again.

I think I need to make an adjustment to my saddle position.

But I don’t intend to get an expensive bike fitting. Seems to me this is an adjustment I can make myself. I’ve been poking around online, looking at sites about bike fitting. Most say the same thing. For fore and aft positioning, they recommend the “knee over pedal spindle” (KOPS) method. To do this, you need a plumb bob (which can be fashioned out of a piece of string with a weight at the end — a washer or two will work well.

Wearing bike clothes and biking shoes, get on the bike and grab onto something. If you have a trainer, so much the better. Put your crank arms at 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock. Have a helper hold the unweighted end of the string against the bony protrusion under the kneecap. The weighted end should be directly over the pedal spindle. If it isn’t you’ll have to adjust saddle forward or back. That is, if the plumb bob hits behind the pedal spindle, you need to move the saddle forward, and vice-versa. A cautionary note: Plenty of bike fitters think KOPS is bunk, because it considers only the relationship of one body part to the bike rather than the whole body to the bike.

I have putzed around with positioning without much luck. On my mountain bike, I found that the saddle height was too high, and that’s now a more comfortable ride. But I’m only on that thing for neighborhood errands, so it’s not a big deal.

For the road bike, I’ll have to get more precise, and actually recruit a friend to help with the measurements. Once, I attempted to do the KOPS measurement myself, and the results were very inaccurate.

I’m interested in learning what your experiences are with do-it-yourself bike fitting. Have you tried it? Are you happy with the results? Did you screw it up so bad that you had to swallow your pride and pay  a visit to the local bike fitter? Or do you not trust yourself with these important measurements and only do the pro bike fitting routine?

Relax

When I bought my road bike three years ago, I was getting the cursory fitting common to bike stores. The salesperson doing the fitting stepped back, and with a scowl, said, “Relax! Your shoulders are hunched. Your arms are locked. That’s not the position you want to be in.”

She was right, of course. “Relax” is probably the best advice you’ll ever get about cycling. Not only does it apply to your position on the bike, but just about any other aspect of riding.

Let’s take the basic riding position — the one I was having trouble with in the shop. If a rider adopts that position on a long ride, it’s likely to end badly. Your neck will be sore. So will your arms. You’ll be tiring out your muscles when you don’t have to. Your upper body — neck, shoulders, and arms — don’t move the bike forward, so you want to take them out of the equation. No side-to-side motion. No up and down motion.

This road bike rider has been fitted to ride in a relaxed position.

The relax advice applies to other riding moves, too. You’re climbing a hill? Relax. Be still from the waist up. Cycling coach Andy Applegate says you don’t want even an ounce of unnecessary tension. You want whoever is watching you to be unaware of the effort you’re putting into the climb.

Descending? Relax, too. It’s easy to tense up when the bike points downhill. Sometimes those runs can be pretty scary. Tenseness can affect your ability to control the bike. Drop your shoulders, loosen the death grip on the handlebars, bend your elbows. Tilt your eyes upward to look forward instead of craning your neck.

Here comes a corner. Relax. Coach Carl Cantrell says tensing up causes the bike to pull to the outside. You can lose control, and might have to brake to get control back. And we all know how jumpy a bike feels when you brake in the middle of a turn. Relaxing while cornering should become instinctive, says Cantrell. “It is the single most important thing most people can do to improve their cornering.”

Are you falling? Relax. “As you hit the ground,” said one commenter on a biking forum, “try to stay as loose as possible. If you’re tense or stiff, it’s easier to get hurt.”

Starting that first century? Or a big race? You’re probably tense with anticipation. Relax. Smile to relax your facial muscles. Breathe. Calm yourself by thinking positively. Then maintain that relaxed attitude once the ride begins.

For me, a relaxed position isn’t easy to come by. I catch myself from time to time with hunched up shoulders. But I’m getting better. I remind myself every so often to relax. I shift my riding position. I shake out my shoulders. I shift my hands on the bars.

We recently featured several guest posts on the most important thing the posters learned about biking. I’ll add my two cents to the mix. The Most Important Thing: Relax.

Updating the Bike Fit

After his crash and broken bones earlier this summer, Don Blount decided it was time to update his bike fit.

Being comfortable on the bike is important to being able to spend time on the bike. That is one of the reasons I went in recently for another bike fit. My last real fit by a certified fitter was about 18 months ago.

This time I went in to see Jon Tallerico, owner of The Bicycle Café (lodibicyclecafe.com), an eight-month old local high-end bike shop that specializes in bike, equipment, service and coffee. The shop has a few Orbea bikes on display, Sidi shoes and the ceiling is decorated with racing jerseys. I have not tried the coffee yet but I am told that it is good.

In addition to my bike, Jon told me to bring cycling shorts and a helmet. Instead of packing my car, I rode 11 miles from my home to the shop so I was warmed up when I arrived.

As Jon put my bike on the wind trainer he explained that bike geometry is built around cyclists with long arms and legs and a short torso. That in part describes me as I am 5’9” with a 35-inch sleeve length and 32-inch inseam.

A proper bike fit is akin to wearing a good pair of shoes. Just as you put on the shoes and feel your feet go “aaah,” you should settle on the bike instead of trying to get comfortable on the bike.

I got on my bike and pedaled and Jon watched and measured. He measured the bike, he measured me. I got off the bike and he made an adjustment. After several adjustments I took the bike out and rode around the block. Jon joined me and watched to see how my position looked.

Jon Tallerico makes adjustments to Don's bike.

In the end the changes appeared to be small in size but they were huge in effect.

  • Handlebars raised 1 cm.
  • Seat moved back 0.5 cm and down 1 cm.
  • Cleats moved back and adjusted so my feet toe out a smidge while in the pedals so my feet, knees and legs track better.

The adjustments relieved pressure on my hands and low back and placed me more on my saddle in that “C” riding position.

I have seen and heard that we should get periodic bike fits because our bodies change over time. We can become more or less limber, more muscular or stronger.

The accidents I have had in the past year may have affected my bike fit. Jon did not say my old fit was wrong; however, my new fit is better. I took a different route home to get in an additional 17 miles and took note of how much more comfortable I was on the bike and mentally calculating the rides I would be getting in later.

A Bike Fitting – The Best Thing You Can Do For Your Biking

For some now, I’ve realized that I needed a real professional bike fitting. I’ve been getting sore on my bike after about an hour in the saddle. So finally, I made an appointment to have one done — at Nelo’s Cycles in Austin, Texas.

Nelo Breda is the owner of the shop. He’s a former pro bike racer himself, and then coached the Brazilian national cycling team. His shop sells high-end bikes: Wilier, Kuota, Guru, etc. — but he caters to all walks of cyclist.

I got there a little before the scheduled appointment time. Nelo was wrapping up in his shop, and an assistant put my bike next to a trainer and offered water, a soft drink, or beer — and cookies. I took the cookies. It turns out they read Bike Noob in the shop. The assistant remarked that the kinds of things we talk about here are the same kinds of things they hear from people bitten by the biking bug, who are looking to upgrade after some time on their entry-level bikes.

Then Nelo walked in. He’s a slightly built man, who talks fast in a thick Brazilian Portugese accent. I listened closely as he explained the process.

Nelo looks over the bike before the fitting.

The bike fitting is 65 percent below the waist, and 35 percent above, he said. First, he adjusts seat height, then seat fore and aft. Once that’s done, he looks at the reach to the cockpit. If you’re not fitted correctly for seat position, the rest won’t matter. “We gotta get you in a comf’ posish,” he said.

He had me pedal a bit, then I stopped and he looked at the angle of my knee bend. He had me clip out of the pedals and relax my legs so they fell straight down. He put the pedal directly under my heel. There was a gap about the thickness of a finger between the heel and the pedal.

Well, I’ll be. The seat was too high. Nelo had me step off the seat, and he adjusted the height.

Nelo adjusting the height of the seat.

Then, he did the plumb bob test, to determine if the knee is directly over the pedal axle. Not mine. I was about a half-inch behind it. “Most people who come in here think their seat needs to be farther back,” he said. “But they really need to go more forward.” Count me in that bunch.

I sat on the bike again, and got into the drops. He had me lean farther and farther forward, until my chin almost touched the headset. I put my hands on top of the bar, then on the brake hoods.

“Looks pretty good,” he said. “We don’t gotta make any changes here.”

I sat still while he drew a tape measure across my upper back. “Whadya do to work out?” he asked. “You got real broad shoulders. They’re 48 centimeters wide.”

He measured the handlebars from the center of one brake hood to the other. They were 42 cm wide.

“You don’t have to change these right away,” he said. “Maybe next time you change your bar tape, you get a new bar. Should be 46 cm, at least 44.”

Then he surprised me again. “Your crank arms are 175 millimeters” he said. “You need 172.5. Again, don’t worry about it now. But you should try them.”

He said the combination of the lower seat and shorter crank arms would help me climb hills. I liked the sound of that.

With that, we were done. The whole process took about a half hour. Nelo usually charges $75 for a fitting, but because he made so few changes, he cut the price to $50.

I couldn’t wait to get out for a ride. I put in 22 miles in the neighborhood, including some fast laps on the Veloway and some repeats on a moderately challenging hill. Despite the small changes Nelo made, I could feel the difference. I sat a little more forward on my saddle. I was a lot more comfortable going up the hill.

Saturday was the acid test. Pat and I did a training ride with Hill Country Ride for AIDS, 29 miles for her and 45 for me. The southeast wind was blowing hard, and it was right at us for the second half of the ride. The improvements I noted Friday were still there. Plus, I noticed that in my new riding position, my elbows were naturally bent, compared to the previous setting where I had to consciously relax my shoulders and bend my elbows. It was a better riding position.

I’ve been having some trouble with saddle sores lately. No longer. The lowered seat position ended the rubbing that caused them.

Sunday morning, I had planned a long ride preparatory to next weekend’s MS 150. The morning broke overcast and misty. Normally, I would go back to bed, but I decided to ride anyway.

I cut my mileage in half from my planned ride, but again noticed how much more comfortable I felt on the bike.

One problem, though. My butt still hurt after an hour or so. Nelo had suggested I consider a new saddle, but I figured a proper fitting would take care of that issue. I do sit a little more forward on the saddle now, which I understand is where you want to sit on a narrow racing style saddle like mine. I’ll ride this saddle through the MS 150, and if the soreness persists, I’ll start trying out new ones.

If you haven’t had a full-blown pro bike fitting yet, you really need to treat yourself to one. It’ll be the best bike money you’ve ever spent, after your bike, of course. And if you buy your bike from Nelo, he’ll insist on fitting you first. Then he’ll show you some bikes.