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Fitting The Future Of American Triathlon

An inside look at the unusual biomechanics and bike fit of sub-4 miler and ITU Junior world champ Lukas Verzbicas.

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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.

RELATED VIDEO: Lukas Verzbicas Overhauls His Bike Fit

RELATED PHOTOS: Lukas Verzbicas’ Bike Fit

One of the old school dogmatic tenants of road bike fit is that the knee should be aligned directly above the pedal spindle. This relationship is viewed by some fitters to be more coincidental than causal, and it gets tossed out the window when fitting for a non-drafting position—positioning the knee 5cm in front of the pedal is not abnormal aboard a tri bike—but Pruitt believes this rule of thumb still has merit for a road cycling position. Verzbicas’ position is very similar to a typical road setup, but with a small concession to the time he will spend breaking the wind. Instead of using the traditional knee-over-pedal-spindle standard, Pruitt elected to push Verzbicas forward by about a centimeter. “Cheating forward allows him to use his little clip-on bars if he finds himself alone in the cycling portion of the race. It does allow him to get there comfortably,” says Pruitt.

The advantages of a forward-oriented position for aerodynamic performance are well researched, documented, tested and proven by athletes in a multitude of cycling disciplines. Lowering the upper body down into an aerodynamic tuck position tightens hip angle—the angle between a rider’s torso and their leg when viewed from the side. If it gets too acute, the rider isn’t able to push the same wattage. Moving forward, however, counteracts this effect. The farther Verzbicas moves forward, the lower he can drop his shoulders without compromising his hip angle. Despite the relatively small 1cm concession to Verzbicas’ ideal road position (the tip of his saddle is 6.9cm behind the bottom bracket), Pruitt asserts Verzbicas can “absolutely” ride his clip-on aerobars comfortably for an extended duration.

Situating his road bars with only a vertical drop of 4.5cm below the saddle instead of a bar location that creates a crunched over, stretched out position often associated with elite-level athletes gives Verzbicas the range to efficiently ride in the aero position. Using the 2D video capabilities of the Peak Motus Motion Measurement System’s 3D system, Pruitt identified 75 degrees as the tightest hip angle at which Verzbicas can comfortably pedal. Rather than position his bars low enough on the bike to approach the outer limits of his fit capabilities, the brake hoods orient Verzbicas with a hip angle of 82 degrees, substantially more open than his minimum. When he rotates downward on to the bars, this critical angle narrows to 78-80 degrees, but still doesn’t approach the point Pruitt identifies as Verzbicas’ current physiological barrier.

Compared to some of his peers, Verzbicas’ position is fairly conservative, but it isn’t set in stone. “Currently, [his fit] looks like him,” offers Pruitt. One of the foundational characteristics of Pruitt’s fit philosophy is that soft-tissue characteristics—strength and flexibility—limit a person’s fit. Some philosophies stress structural skeletal limits and view soft-tissue constraints as something that an athlete can endure. Pruitt disagrees: “I have seen so many uncomfortable triathletes that actually improve their efficiency and speed and power output by making them less aerodynamic.” As such, the fit that “looks like Lukas” can change dramatically as his strength and flexibility evolve. Despite an engine worthy of an Italian sports car, Verzbicas has a weak core, weak gluteus medius muscles and poor hamstring flexibility—all attributes Pruitt says play a critical role in determining an individual’s bike fit. “If he can strengthen his core, strengthen his glutes and get better hamstring flexibility, he will acquire then a more aggressive look to his position,” but until that happens, Verzbicas will stay with a more upright orientation.

His Specialized Venge is a size 58cm to accommodate his long legs. The bars that came as stock equipment, however, are shaped for a much broader person. “If you’ve ever seen Lukas, he’s a very slight young man,” describes Pruitt. As a result, the 44cm stock bars have been replaced with a 40cm version. His saddle was swapped to a 155mm-wide Specialized Romin Evo, and his clip-on aerobar of choice is the Vision Team Mini TT. This bar positions the elbow pads directly over the road bar. When Verzbicas grabs the extensions, roughly half of his forearm extends behind the aerobar pads, which creates very little structural support. Lacking the bone-to-bone support that comes from leaning directly onto the elbow puts further pressure on his core muscle to suspend his upper body.

With all the changes made and his bike ready to go, Verzbicas is “champing at the bit to ride” his new setup. He will have ridden the new bike for five weeks, which Pruitt says is more than enough time based on this position, before putting his new fit to its first real test in the ITU World Triathlon Madrid on May 27. It will be his first test against the world’s fastest triathletes, and if he can stick with the pack through the swim and bike, his incredible run pedigree may be enough to get him across the finish line at or close to the front.

RELATED VIDEO: Lukas Verzbicas Overhauls His Bike Fit

RELATED PHOTOS: Lukas Verzbicas’ Bike Fit