That first session with the team was crucial. All the science, knowledge and equipment in the world is nothing without a subject’s trust – about the only thing in bike fitting that can’t be measured.
Jens Voigt came in and said: “How do I know you’re right? Everyone comes in and says they are, why would I want to do this?”
No wonder. Cycling is still a sport where tradition, feel and fashion will trample over functionality. From professionals to ‘born again’ pedallers, jumping on bikes without much thought for measurements and minutiae is all too common.
Bike fitting advice often comes in the form of a throwaway remark from a friend on a weekend ride: saddle looks a bit low. It’s easy to believe there’s something in that and tweak it. Ah, much better. But what feels okay – or even looks better – isn’t necessarily right, and certainly not accurate. Unless your riding mate happens to be someone like Julian “Jules” Wall or Phillip “Phil” Cavell, he doesn’t truly know what he’s talking about.
The pair are directors and senior analysts at Cyclefit in London’s Covent Garden. Past the line of Treks on show and an old classic showing on TV into the white-walled rooms at the back and you’re into two laboratory-type spaces and the world of the bike fitter, home to an adjustable jig, foot-bed ovens and new-fangled tools.
Respectively students of film and politics and economics, Jules and Phil met while racing mountain bikes in the early ‘90s.
They both got injured around the same time too: Phil broke three vertebrae in his back in a racing accident and Jules tweaked a knee while bending down...
“That’s what got us interested in how the body fits to the bike, especially appropriate to some kind of change,” Phil says. “In our case, it was trauma, but it could be weight loss, weight gain, condition loss, condition gain. Always shooting from a moving goal – how do you do that?”
Their decision to structure a business around their idea was made over breakfast at a café in Saratoga Springs in 2001. In order to sell Serotta bicycles and design custom frames, they’d need to be able to fit a rider, so the pair enrolled in a course at the Serotta International Cycling Institute, where they learned fitting using dynamic measurements on the jig. After that, they decided to incorporate cycling fitting into the business. Cyclefit was born.
The new venture gained momentum quickly. “It created its own increasing marketplace,” Phil says. “It was a solution to a problem that people didn’t think existed. You’d fit somebody, they’d go away and become your ambassador, telling their friends and colleagues.”
“There was an assumption that pain was associated with cycling,” Jules adds. “The message from us then was, if you’re comfortable, you’re a more efficient cyclist. No one had heard of that, they assumed that they had to have their bars slammed down; that if they had knee pain, it was their fault, not that of their interface with the bike.”
As new-age practitioners going against the traditionalist tide, they copped a lot of flak too, which they batted back politely, but with interest.
“It’s weird, isn’t it?” Phil says. “If you’re a doctor or a plumber, people aren’t really going to have an opinion about how you do your job. Nobody’s going to have their plumbing done and say: ‘You know what? I’d have done that differently’.”
Much of the outcry was about appearance. Who cares if spacers and a higher front-end aren’t as pretty, so long as they provide the best power or comfort? When it comes to racing, the only thing that counts is where you finish: nobody hands out British Cycling ranking points for style. When it comes to training, better to finish a seven-hour ride than having to turn home, in agony, after three.
Besides, Jules and Phil knew the old school of thought all too well. “I was that man, we both were, with the slammed-down stem and the saddle right back,” Phil says. “Those were assumed things you did, and the assumptions were wrong. We were just challenging those assumptions.”
The fit is a process, not an event, as Jules and Phil both say during our interview. The body reacts differently under stress racing at 500 watts than it does at 300 watts, so physiotherapy and limb flexibility is also part of the equation.
Custom footbeds can be used to alleviate knee pain; neck and back pain can be sorted by bringing up the front. Identifying and ironing out the minutiae – from minor scoliosis to pelvic asymmetry – can make a big difference, and these guys, most importantly, have the profound knowledge to go with the 21st century magic box of tools.
Cyclefit went on to fix a host of top riders seeking solutions for their aches, including Nicole Cooke, Roger Hammond and a young Andy Fenn.
But the funny thing is, the modern professional peloton remains relatively unreconstructed in places. Some riders have become accustomed to bad habits and positions over the years. Jules and Phil despair looking at some of the mismatched frame sizes and centres of gravity of champions from the past.
They got their opportunity to fit the stars of the present when, after several years teaching and training with the American manufacturer at their head UK office in Milton Keynes, Cyclefit was invited to provide bike fits for Radioshack-Trek ahead of the 2013 season.
It was a bit like first-day-of-school nerves at that key first fit in Calpe. Riders milled around shyly, resistant at first, before former US champion Matthew Busche took the plunge.
Soon, Jens Voigt was up on the jig, and any scepticism quickly disappeared. “We used pressure mapping on the saddle and showed him videos of what he’s doing off Eurosport. It’s compelling,” Jules says.
They showed him the pressure on the nose of the saddle. Two hours later and with all four fitters present in agreement, Voigt was a believer, agreed to their recommendations and felt the benefits.
Fabian Cancellara, a known perfectionist, had his saddle moved forward by a centimetre, and also gained.
That said, some are incorrigibly set in their ways. One experienced rider, who allegedly has the same ancient leather chamois sewn into his shorts every season, took to the jig having already said: “I’ll try it, but I’m not changing anything.”
Cyclefit make custom footbeds for every rider, and will go to Trek Factory Racing training camps three times in the off-season, but the process is ongoing.
Jules and Phil have been at the forefront of the evolving bike fitting community for over a decade. How do they see it changing in the future? “It’ll be more about motion analysis, pressure mapping, heart rate. The top end’s going to get more medical – more people with sports science degrees are getting into fitting,” Jules says.
As the process moves on apace, so does Cyclefit. “We never thought it would go from a basement in Parsons Green to this. It’s bigger and more international,” Phil reflects.
And no guesses who they’ll be supporting this spring. If Fabian Cancellara claims another Classic, the big difference from a little part – about a centimetre’s worth – of that win will be down to Jules, Phil and company.