The Importance of Bike Set Up

Cycling is a key part of all triathlon and duathlon events.  Not only is the speed of the cycle leg itself important, the rider needs to be able to run effectively immediately afterwards. Cycles and their associated equipment have dramatically changed in recent years, gone are the steel frames, drop handlebars and shallow rimmed spoked wheels, replaced by acres of expensive, aerodynamic, carbon.  These bikes look fast just standing in transition. It is not so simple though, a quick look at the Hawaii Ironman bike split times shows in 1986 Dave Scott covered the course on his steel framed road bike in 4hr 48m, yet twenty six years later the winners bike split on his state of the art carbon steed was 4hr 35m.  The majority of this surprisingly small improvement has come from an improved understanding of the importance of body position on the bike, striking the balance between power, aerodynamics and the ability to run off the bike. If like most age group triathletes you have a limited budget where should you spend your hard earned cash to race faster?  If you already have a reliable road bike the data shows optimising the rider position is key, so why invest many thousands on a new bike when there may be significant gains to be had from your current equipment. For many years bike set up has been a bit of a black art, bike mechanics setting bikes up by eye or using various complex formulae.  Technology has been developed to make this more reliable, fully adjustable bike rigs and more recently video capture has helped.  We now have access to the ‘Retul’ type of computer linked systems which can trace the body’s movement on the bike and also capture video.  The data it records is used to automatically measure the angles through which the body is working at various power levels, allowing the operator to adjust the bike fit to optimise the riders effectiveness.  The system will then record the bikes essential measurements so the set up can be repeated on that bike after major works or any other bike the rider may use. This system will, for the price of an aero helmet, ensure your bike position is optimised for the type of riding you plan to do, making the best of you and your bike.  There is always the danger that your very expensive new race bike may actually be slower if the set up does not suit your body, resulting in many thousands of pounds being wasted. I have been riding my race bike for a couple of years now, I am very pleased with it and it seemed comfortable, even over long distances although I have suffered some saddle soreness and a little knee pain.  It is a road bike rather than a tri bike but it suits my riding style and the type of racing I plan to do, I would have happily continued riding it with the old set up.  As part of my preparation for Ironman Austria I decided to get my bike set up checked.  There are a number of local suppliers of the ‘Retul’ service, I chose to go to the University of Essex Human Performance Unit.  I took my bike, shoes and normal cycling kit along to the session.  My bike was clamped into a computer controlled turbo trainer and I warmed up on the bike.  This ensured I was warm and the bike working correctly.  During this time I discussed with James my cycling history, aims for the coming season, riding style and any problems I suffered.  I was then tested for my flexibility, particularly in my shoulders, back and hips.  This testing informs the range of angles which will be acceptable and unlikely to cause injury or discomfort. The Retul system works by attaching sensors at key points on the feet, legs, hips, shoulders arms and hands.  These sensors work alongside the capture system to produce a trace of all the joint movements at both low and high power, testing both sides of the body.  The main advantage of the system is you are riding your bike during the test in as close to real life circumstances as possible.  I was tested riding in the aero position on the tri bars and on the hoods.  Having ridden the bike for about five minutes all the data was captured on the computer; this was repeated for both sides. As I rode a stick man version of me was displayed on the lap top showing how my body moved.  The data was then analysed and a plan devised to optimise all the angles, putting me in the best position for my event.  My riding position was moved forward 25mm and handlebars lowered 23mm to lower my stance on the bike, reducing frontal area and aerodynamic drag.  My tri bars were moved forward 15mm to accommodate my new riding position.  The biggest change came from raising my saddle 20mm, a massive increase which totally altered my leg movement, this change will have to be introduced over time to prevent such a dramatic change causing injury.  This change should make my riding more efficient and help me running off the bike.  There was also a small change to my cleats, moving my feet out to widen my stance and improve my knee travel. Once the bike adjustments were made I rode again, capturing the new angles and position to ensure everything was now as it should be.  The video capture clearly showed my lower position which should make my riding more efficient.  My bike did not need any new components, just subtle changes to the set up to provide a genuine improvement over how I had it before.  I will have to wait to see how this relates to race performance, but having copied the position to my winter bike I have found the raised saddle height more comfortable with no knee pain.  The cost of a Retul fit is significant and took about two hours to complete, but when compared to a new bike or expensive components it is much cheaper and the performance gains per pound much greater.