Custom, Part 3: Fit & Fitness
February 27, 2010
There are bicycle friendly communities, and then there’s Portland, Oregon.
We noticed it on our first visit, when we boarded the light rail into town and saw its well-used bike racks. At downtown intersections we had to watch for speeding cycles in the bike lanes. And every visit since, I have had to remind myself not to rubberneck when a cyclist wheels past a cafe window because I’ll get whiplash, there are so many of them.
This is all by way of introducing last fall’s visit by Mr. Spoked and me for my custom bicycle fitting. We love Portland, and on top of this were excited about meeting Natalie Ramsland of Sweetpea Bicycles.
Our appointment was not just with Natalie, though. We were meeting at Bicycle Fitting Services, the studio of fit-master Michael Sylvester. As the appointed time neared, Husband and I began our walk across the Burnside Bridge from downtown Portland to the studio, housed in an old warehouse on the east side of the Willamette River. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many bicycles whizzed passed us on the bridge’s bike lanes. What a sight for cyclists’ eyes!
We were buzzed into the building and made our way up to Michael’s studio, a beautiful open room on the fourth floor. Tall windows looked out over the riverfront, a couch and chairs were grouped at one end, and a platform occupied the opposite side of the room. The platform held an adjustable bike, a Serrota Personal Fit system, that looked rather like an exercise bike. It was clearly the room’s focal point. My heart beat a little faster.
Natalie arrived shortly after we did, and introductions were made all around. It felt like Natalie and I had already met because we had talked at least a couple of times on the phone (see previous post), but Michael and I were complete strangers. I had no idea how this whole thing was going to work, or how Michael and Natalie would work together.
We all sat down on the couch and chairs and Michael took the lead because it was his studio, after all. Point by point, he began going through a multi-page questionnaire. What was my height? My weight? How many miles did I average a year? What other kinds of exercise did I do, and how frequently? What injuries had I suffered? By the end of the questionnaire he had a pretty good snapshot of my athletic abilities. We also spent some time reviewing my pain issues–where, when, & how.
Next I changed into cycling clothes. It’s strangely unsettling to be clad in Spandex when everyone else in the room is dressed normally. Natalie and Michael instructed me to stand still while they took stock of my body. Trying not to feel self-conscious, I focused on the gorgeous view from those windows but kept an ear tuned to what they were saying.
If I heard them correctly, they commented on my kneecaps. I’m not sure why this was important, but it was interesting nonetheless. The most significant finding was my long femurs, which according to Natalie were a cyclist’s dream (she has them, too). The synapses in my brain began firing. That must be the reason my knees have always felt like they were too far forward on the pedals!
At this point we were close to the halfway point in the two-hour fitting session. Next, Michael had me perform a series of stretches. Turns out all those years of stretches to strengthen my back (daily, since I was 26 years old) have resulted in a high level of flexibility.
Finally, Michael put me on the adjustable bike, and the real work began. He and Natalie discussed what the fit should be based on their observations of my body and fitness level, and they set the Serrota accordingly. But it just didn’t feel right once I started to pedal the bike. What followed were lots of discussions between Natalie and Michael, followed by lots of adjustments. Interestingly, Michael concentrated on the seat, saying it was the first and most important step in bike fit. We went through a number of different seats. Michael had an entire wall of options to choose from. He’d listen to my description of what I was feeling, think about it a few seconds, then walk over to the wall and grab a different one. Each new model was an improvement, and every time I thought it might be The One. But still, Natalie and Michael were not happy.
Finally, I made what I thought was an offhand comment, that I wished someone made a seat with the nose cut off. This was due to some *ahem* uncomfortable pressure, if you know what I mean. Michael immediately pointed his index finger in a “Eureka!” gesture, walked over to the wall-o-seats, and pulled one off its hook. Glory be, it didn’t have a nose. He explained that it was a time trial seat, designed for riders who position themselves in a low, aerodynamic position and need to “keep their junk off the front.” He and Natalie installed the seat on the bike, I rode it with a smile on my face, they made a few minor adjustments, and that was it. The fitting was complete.
Husband and I made plans to pick up the bike in the spring, and Natalie stayed in touch via email over the next several months. She designed the bike around the calculations made during the fitting session. Her emails included a list of components she recommended, and she also asked me to think about the color which apparently is the most difficult decision many people have. Not me. I quickly decided on a powder blue hue. There were other decisions to be made, including whether or not to have fenders, but for the most part they were not challenging.
This whole winter has been one giant waiting game, but it’s finally almost over. In just a few weeks, we return to Portland to pick up the Sweetpea.
Our hometown, Topeka, has officially broken into the top ten snowiest winters on record. We achieved this honor last weekend when another 5+ inches of snow fell on the city. The cold has stayed put, and the snow has turned to icy patches that make the roads treacherous, so I couldn’t put as many miles on the bike as I’d hoped. But the ice will melt next week because the forecast calls for 40F+ temperatures and sun.