An inside look at the unusual biomechanics and bike fit of sub-4 miler and ITU Junior world champ Lukas Verzbicas.
The fastest high school-aged 2-mile runner in American history isn’t just an accomplished track athlete, he’s also the defending ITU Junior world champion. Lukas Verzbicas, 19, earned that title in his spare time between track and cross-country seasons last year. He enrolled at the University of Oregon in the fall to run for the school’s track and cross-country teams, but abruptly left mid-season to pursue triathlon. Verzbicas, who is currently living, training and going to school in Colorado Springs, Colo., is now totally committed to multisport and embarking on his professional career. The young phenom recently made the two-hour trip from his training base up to Boulder to be fit by Andy Pruitt, the originator of Specialized’s Body Geometry fit philosophy. Verzbicas offered Triathlete.com an unprecedentedly detailed look into Pruitt’s findings about his biomechanical structure and bike fit.
Verzbicas is no stranger to draft-legal triathlon, but his fit with Pruitt started with a blank sheet. He switched over to the Specialized Venge for this race season and showed up to Pruitt’s office at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine without even knowing his saddle height. Ignoring Verzbicas’ prior setup gave Pruitt the freedom to implement his fit philosophy without any obstacles. The core of Pruitt’s fit system goes like this: “The bike needs to look like the athlete, not the other way around.” Many fitters share this belief, but Pruitt applies it in his own way. “It is not about what you want to look like, what you think you should look like or what someone else should look like,” says Pruitt. “It’s what your pre-fit physical assessment lets you look like. And that’s just the way it is.” Pruitt’s pre-fit assessment of Verzbicas dictated that he would make the next steps in his evolution as a cyclist with a position slightly more upright than many would associate with an athlete of Verzbicas’ caliber.
Pruitt describes his pre-fit assessment as “a head-to-toe physical exam.” For a rider looking to achieve an aero position, he inspects biomechanical alignment with the body weighted and unweighted, then checks hamstring, hip and lower back flexibility and glute strength. As it turned out, the physical assessment revealed structural and functional abnormalities that became crucial to Verzbicas’ fit.
Although Verzbicas is specializing in the draft-legal Olympic format, he still needs a comfortable aero position to chase the group should he swim poorly or decide to push the pace at the front. Plus, he aspires to one day race the non-drafting format as well, so Pruitt approached the fit looking for a versatile position. “We want to hedge out bets between the pure road racing position and something that will help him move toward the more aerodynamic solo kind of riding ultimately,” says Pruitt.
Pruitt conducts his typical assessment in the privacy of an examination room at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. Most pro athletes don’t let their information leave that room, but Verzbicas elected to share his biomechanical details. Pruitt classifies the young triathlon prodigy as, “a Ferrari engine in a Volkswagen body. … That just means that this kid obviously has a huge motor, sub-4-minute miler in high school, but he’s also suffered some overuse stress injuries in his young career already.” He is referring to a shin injury Verzbicas developed earlier this year that required several weeks of healing time. “That’s basically due to the non-recognition of some of his biomechanical issues,” postulates Pruitt. “Lukas has interesting biomechanics. … He’s got bowed tibias, called tibial verum, and he’s got flat feet that point [his toes] outward. … His tibias were bowed, but his knees were not, so he’s got knock-knees, bowed tibias and flat, externally rotated [duck] feet. If you look at him standing, he looks like he’s got bowed legs, like a cowboy. Yet his knees are not.” The takeaway: “It’s a combination that does pre-dispose him to overuse injuries.”
Remedying this combination of structural issues is challenging for a runner but easier to address on a bike because of the fixed relationship between the bike shoe and the pedal. “In cycling, [Lukas’] combination of biomechanics stresses the medial knee (inside portion closest to the other knee).” To compensate for his alignment issues, Verzbicas had been riding with a custom pair of running orthotics beneath his cycling shoe’s sock liner. Pruitt ditched this jury-rigged arch support for a Specialized Body Geometry High Performance +++ Footbed, its most supportive version, and slid a 1.5mm varus wedge under both insoles. “If you let the foot splay out, he’s a little duck-footed. If you reverse the pronation and bring up the arch and you support the forefoot, the foot begins to correct back around to his most tolerant normal stance,” explains Pruitt. Without arch support he would need significantly longer pedal spindles to accommodate his outwardly pointed toes. With the inserts in place, however, Verzbicas’ fit calls for a narrow stance width. Pruitt prescribed Speedplay Zero pedals with short spindles—50mm long compared to the standard 53mm—to create that platform. With Verzbicas’ foundation set, Pruitt moved on to the rest of his position.