Out of the three disciplines of triathlon—swim, bike, and run—cycling is probably the most finicky. You have to perch on a very small piece of real estate and grip handlebars (or aerobars) for hours on end. Not to mention the need to find some semblance of comfort for your neck, shoulders, and back.
Biking can be beautiful, but it can also be uncomfortable.
This is why including a triathlon bike fitter in your network of endurance experts should be at the top of your to-do list.Section divider
What is a bike fitter?
The term all but explains itself. However, a bike fitter is an individual who is skilled at helping your bike work for your body.
Every bike has a different feel to it. Sitting on your triathlon bike likely feels very different than sitting on your mountain bike. Even more granularly, sitting on one brand of triathlon bike will feel quite different than sitting on another brand. The angles, stiffness, and varying components that all come together to form a tri bike differ from company to company.
A bike fitter will be able to work with you to alter your current bike in ways—like seat post height, handlebar grip, saddle pitch and position, and more.
“A bike fitter should be someone who moves the bike to fit your body, not the other way around,” said Natalie Collins, PT, DPT, veteran bike fitter and owner of Pedal Bike Fit in Denver, Colorado. “The body is adaptable and the bike is adjustable. It’s important a fitter take into account both of those and not try to force a rider into a position if it’s uncomfortable to the athlete. An athlete’s bike position will change over time, and we can adjust a bike fit to match where they are in their career physically and mentally.”
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Where do I find a bike fitter?
If you live in a traditionally outdoorsy area such as Boulder, Colorado, or San Diego, California, there are likely to be more than a few bike fitters in town. Cities that typically have less of a penchant for two wheels may only have one fitter stationed at a local bike shop or none at all. We’ll get into this later, but fortunately, many fitters nationwide have started offering online bike fit consults. So if you don’t have a fitter in town, don’t fret.
“I found my bike fitter by word of mouth,” said Boulder-based pro triathlete Lisa Becharas.
“Reputation is really important to me. What are people saying about the bike fitter? Do most people think the fitter listens to the rider and offers individualized feedback? Asking around in my local triathlon community helped me solidify my choice in which fitter I go to.”
The grapevine is a powerful tool when it comes to locating a bike fitter, as even amateur athletes will generally have a sense as to whether or not a fitter has good bedside manner and knows what they’re doing.
You can start by asking for a fitter recommendation from a local triathlon or cycling club. It’s likely many of those teammates have gone to the same fitter, and some clubs even have affiliations with fitters and bike shops.
The power of social media can be leveraged here, too. Asking for fitter recommendations on Twitter and Instagram will usually net a cornucopia of results and give a solid starting place for your hunt.
Lastly, check in with your local bike shop. Not only does the shop probably have an idea of which fitters in the area are worth your time, but they may have an on-site fitter right at the shop you can talk to one-on-one from the start.Section divider
What should I look for in a bike fitter?
Just like working with a coach, working with a bike fitter is an individualized experience. No two riders are the same and no two bike fitters are the same. As important as word of mouth is, there are some key things to look into when meeting with a fitter.
“It is important to me that a fitter has a good bedside manner and actually listens to me,” Becharas said.
“As awkward as it can be to talk about, the reality is you need to feel comfortable speaking with your fitter about areas of the body like your pelvis and groin.”
Fitter Natalie Collins agrees. She noted that bike fits should be thought of as a safe space where the athlete can—and should—fully express what feels good, bad, and in-between when they’re cruising on the open road.
Collins noted that any good fitter will begin their services by speaking with the athlete about the athlete’s goals, level at which they compete, current physical limitations, and any concerns they want to be sure are addressed.
“As a fitter and also a physical therapist, understanding and assessing how a rider moves both on and off the bike is critical,” Collins said. “I’m fortunate that my physical therapy education provides me with this type of knowledge, but all bike fitters should be looking at how the body moves holistically.”
And Collins is right—any good bike fitter will ask a rider to perform a series of basic exercises such as a bodyweight squat, single-leg squat, lunge, and the age-old task of trying to touch your toes. These movements help a bike fitter understand where a rider may be limited and where they may be more flexible than the average athlete.
Outside of searching for a fitter with great client rapport and understanding of the body, there are some certifications you may want to look for in a fitter.
For example, as E3 Triathlon coach and bike fitter Jorge Martinez noted, “Dan Empfield from Slowtwitch offers a bike fit training course called F.I.S.T. There are others that are well-regarded such as the Serotta International Cycling Institute and RETUL, as well.”
Both Collins and Martinez agree that the biggest thing to look for in a bike fitter is experience. The more bikes one fits, the more one will understand the nuances of each rider, bike type and brand, and how the goals of an athlete play into the direction a fit will take.
Martinez, for example, commented that most of his bike fitting experience comes from trial and error, online resources, and having years of experience fitting his own athletes (one of whom, Jana Richtrova, had the fastest amateur female bike split at Kona 2019).
The takeaway here is that even if a fitter doesn’t hold a wealth of certifications, verifying their experience and relationship with clients via word of mouth is often more powerful.Section divider
How often should I visit a bike fitter?
Similar to most things bike fit-related, the frequency at which you should pay a visit to your bike fitter will depend on multiple factors such as how competitively you ride your bike, how often you ride, how sensitive you are to bike position changes, and more.
Becharas, the pro triathlete, said that she usually does one major bike fit—a two-to-three hour session where she and her fitter take her body’s measurements, optimize her fit for aerodynamics, and may make some substantial changes to her position—once a year.
The rest of her fit appointments are follow-ups to tweak and perfect the initial fit.
Most fitters will offer free follow-ups after an initial fit. This is because it is nearly impossible to achieve an impeccable fit the first time; your bike may feel different out on the road than it did in the fitter’s studio, or perhaps you were on the fence about a change to your position and would now like to shift a bit. This is natural and should be addressed by your fitter with no hassle or extra cost in most cases.
Coach Martinez advised revisiting your fit each off-season.
“Checking in on your fit in the off-season will save you the headache of trying to reassess when training has already ramped up come spring,” said Martinez. “Plus, if you are healing from any injuries in the offseason, your fit—such as cleat position or aero bar position—may need to change after a couple months.”
What services should I expect from a bike fitter?
As we alluded to, booking an appointment with a fitter is about more than simply adjusting a few spots on your steed. It is a full-on comprehensive discussion about your athletic career, how your body moves, and how to adjust your two-wheeled beauty to fit you.
A bike fitter’s bread-and-butter offering is the initial fit. This two-to-three-hour operation involves the fitter learning about you as a rider, assessing your flexibility and mobility, and essentially beginning a fit from scratch. This type of fit can run you anywhere from $200-$500, depending on where you live and how experienced the fitter is.
A fitter may bring in some high-tech tools at this type of appointment, such as RETUL, a computer system that helps map your body’s angles and current measurements. Then, RETUL will offer suggested optimized measurements to guide the fitter toward. Any good fitter will take those numbers as just that—a suggestion.
After “the big one”—that initial fit—it is expected you’ll have feedback and want a few things altered after testing out the new position. These follow-up appointments are generally less than 30 minutes and involve minute adjustments. Most fitters offer one or two free follow-ups after your original fit.
The pandemic showed us that nearly everything can be made virtual these days and that includes bike fitting.
Virtual bike fitting is generally viewed as a starter evaluation for a rider. Most fitters will leverage Zoom and software that allows them to measure your body and bike’s angles. Riders should leave a virtual bike fitting with the following: knowledge that their equipment is up-to-date and optimal (cycling equipment is constantly evolving) or not, understanding whether or not their position is suitable, why they might be having discomfort in a specific area, and also a roadmap to move forward with an in-person fit.
The world of online bike fitting is just starting to blossom, and most digital fits we’ve seen run in the $150-$250 range for a one-hour session.
Some fitters will offer more unique services such as creating custom insoles for your bike shoes, aerodynamics testing at a local velodrome or wind tunnel, or as our physical therapist fitter Natalie Collins mentioned, a more thorough test of the body’s corporality. The rates for these types of add-ons can range from $200 into the near $1,000, depending on geographic location and level of fitter and athlete.