Bike fitting: valuable service or fit up?

Last weekend I went along to the fabulous ‘Bespoked Bristol‘, the UK hand built bicycle show. The beauty and quality of many of the bikes on show was amazing and UK custom bike building enterprises seem to be growing well alongside the general increase in cycling. Even the BBC website now features this piece on the trend so the show’s PR team is doing a good job.

On a couple of the stands, I encountered the issue of bike fitting. One renowned custom frame builder insisted that I really did need a detailed fitting session before they could possibly consider building a bike for me. Another stand offered a 2-hour fitting session for £120 (about $180 US).

This got me thinking, not least because within my modest collection I have bikes of varying geometries with nominal frame sizes of 21 inches to 24 inches, measured from the centre of the bottom bracket to centre of the top tube. With a little experimentation with stems, seat posts and saddles, and the relative positions of each, I have yet to come across a bike that I can’t adapt to be comfortable, even for long rides.

When I started to get sore knees on one trip, I did consult the oracle – YouTube – and quickly resolved the issue by shifting the saddle a little. A search this evening on YouTube turned up this video from Performance Cycling, which has had nearly 1 million views:

It’s very comprehensive but just six minutes and ten seconds long. There are plenty of similar ones and a whole stack of online advice about bike fitting in the forums.

Of course, the right fit is a very individual thing and depends on a number of factors, not least the kind of bike you want to ride and the kind of cycling you’re going to do. Head down on the drops is not ideal if you’re a commuter that needs to attempt 180 degree vision at all times! But whatever shape and size we are, some basic judgements on the frame and a little experimentation should be sufficient to ensure that cycling is a pleasure rather than a pain.

So next time someone tries to sell me a £120, 2-hour bike fitting session, I think I should politely suggest they “take a ride” – don’t you?

3 thoughts on “Bike fitting: valuable service or fit up?

  1. Rebecca Olds (@velovoice) January 13, 2014 / 10:04 am

    For the majority, your take on this is probably right. As someone with body proportions that mainstream large-scale manufacturers do NOT cater to, bike fitting is absolutely essential. There is only so much that “basic judgements on the frame and a little experimentation” can accomplish. Eventually, some of us reach a brick wall of “sorry, no further adjustment is possible”. Lots of experienced people can help with that assessment, but only a bike fitter can show you what CAN be done. And then only a frame designer (not necessarily the same person) can show you HOW that can be done.

    You’re right that most people don’t NEED a bike fit. You’re also lucky that you’re ‘most people’. But there are some of us who do need it, and wouldn’t still be riding a bicycle (any bicycle) — much less riding with pleasure rather than pain, without it.

    And, yes, you hit a sore spot with me with this post! Getting to where I am now (riding a bike that’s comfortable) was a long painful process, riddled with lack of information, lots of misinformation, and frankly a great deal of apathy. And it was ALL about poor bike fit.

    Anyway – I am really glad I stumbled across your blog – lots of fantastic information, well written. Your posts about solving your Brompton Kinetics conversion problem were particularly helpful, as I encountered the same thing!


  2. Bob Jones January 13, 2014 / 10:33 am

    Rebecca, thanks for your comments and you make a very valid point about bike fitting for those who don’t fall into the ‘most people’ category. I’m glad that a fitting worked so well for you and I support any service that gets more people on their bikes. The original post was triggered by a bike builder who insisted that he could not possibly build a frame for me without a fitting – even if that involved a 300-mile round trip for me and I knew exactly the size and geometry of frame that I wanted. The bicycle industry, not unlike some others, will sell us anything we’re prepared to buy, whether we need it or not. More on that in my next blog post!


  3. Rebecca Olds (@velovoice) January 13, 2014 / 10:54 am

    Thanks for explaining the context, Bob.

    However, in that situation, I’d say bike fitting is even MORE crucial because the guy was a frame builder, not a bike seller. Presumably this means he would be designing the frame as well? If so, his business model is not going to allow him to have a portfolio of stock sizes/geometries. Each build is to order, i.e. every frame is custom.

    A frame built for you has to start with assessment to fit you – not just measurements, but flexibility and riding style/preference. The resulting frame design may in fact turn out to be pretty much in the range of standard sizes and geometries of the mainstream bike manufacturers. But the frame designer/builder can’t know that til he’s done the bike fit.

    I’ve personally known people to go to a frame builder with all the data and stats from a previous bike (which they may even still ride), only to end up with a bike that’s not quite right.

    Because here’s the thing: good fit is not an ideal or the end of a journey, it’s always a process. Your body changes. Your posture changes. Your style changes. The bike that fit just fine 10 years ago may cause pain now. The fact that you rode a standard Large size Specialized something or other 5 years ago isn’t the right basis for someone to build a brand new frame from bar tubes and guarantee that it will in fact fit you. In my opinion, it would be a very irresponsible frame builder to start a custom frame (right from the get-go: cutting tube lengths, mitering them — sorry, I have trouble with that word as a verb, also with whether there’s a British vs. American spelling thing going on as well)… anyway, he shouldn’t start without having done a pretty comprehensive bike fit beforehand.

    I would not conflate the offering of services for bike fitting (or, to a qualified extent, the building of a custom frame) with the general attitude of ignorance + presumptions + hard sell that pervades the mainstream bike industry. As you say, their job is to sell something… anything. I’d just like to flag up that selling goods is usually different from selling a service, especially a personalised service. Someone offering a specialised service may of course be just as patronising in his way as the local bike retailer, but often you already instinctively know whether you need that service or not and find far easier to say No if you don’t — as you did here.

    i look forward to your next post on this!


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