If you are interested in reducing pain, being more comfortable on the bike or the performance improvement you can get from having your bike set up correctly then you’ll find this interview I had with Steve of considerable interest.
Like all bike position experts, Steve has his own way of approaching it. The one thing I really like about Steve is that he questions everything. He’s never one for going with the norm. He even continually questions and tests his own bike fitting methods. It’s taken him down some very interesting pathways in his endeavor to solving the really tough bike positioning issues. Over the 14 years that I have known Steve I’ve seen him use this “questioning method” to take his bike positioning techniques to new levels, some of which has been quite controversial.
In this interview, Steve is a little apprehensive at the beginning but once I get him talking he warms up and gets stuck into and shakes up the underlying core values of bike positioning while touching on seat height and how he approaches the different cycling disciplines including road, track and time trailing.
I like Steve. He’s an interesting character. I always find spending time with him insightful. He challenges me to think outside the box. You’ll either love him or hate him. Either way, I suggest you watch or listen to this interview and draw your own conclusions about Steve and his bike fitting methods.
This video was recorded in 2014 but is still relevant today.
David: Welcome to Cycling-Inform Cycling Tips. Today I’m going to be talking to Steve Hogg about bike positioning. So, I met Steve Hogg around about 2000?
Steve: I would guess about 15 years ago.
David: Yes and it was a time when you were writing articles for Bicycling Australia.
Steve: Bicycling Australia.
David: Yes. I picked up one of your articles and I was having a lot of problems with my bike positioning.
Steve: I remember you saying at the time.
Steve: Nine, ten years of walking up stairs backwards.
David: Yes and out of all the bike fitting people that I’ve seen since seeing you and previous to seeing you, you’re the only person that’s really been able to get me back onto the bike and I haven’t found anybody locally either in Melbourne or here in Sydney or in Adelaide that’s been able to do as good a job as you. So, when I need to get my bike fit, I travel up to Sydney and I see Steve Hogg.
So, Steve, tell me how did you get into bike … What’s the history around getting into bike fitting.
Steve: An accident.
David: An accident?
Steve: Oh, I’ve had a lot of fairly severe injuries. I got into cycling as a 17 year old trying to rehab from a serious knee injury. I found that the information available to me at the time didn’t work for me but I wasn’t surprised by that because I had a serious injury. So, I came up with something that worked, largely forgot about that for 13 years till I found myself in a bike shop.
Steve: Then I started positioning people, at first informally. I tried to use, again, the generally available information which in those days was multiply your leg length by a number and that’s your seat height, drop up a plum line from the tibial tube and that’s your seat setback, ball of the foot over the pedal axle and I soon found that didn’t work. I know it didn’t work because from day one I wanted to judge what we did. So, I did everything on a money back if not happy basis and when your clients want their money back you obviously haven’t done the job.
So, I set about looking for real answers to problems and what I found is there’s only individual solutions to individual problems.
David: Right, okay. So, you talked about seat height, you talked about angled leg, so, what have you found to be out there? What have you found to be true?
Steve: Well, at the moment, there’s a big push within cycling, within large companies, Shimano, Retul, who are now owned by Specialized BG Fitting and by Specialized and others to systematize or to attempt to systematize and formularize the relationship of a human to a bicycle and that can never work beyond a certain point because people vary so much in what they’re able to do and how they’re able to do it and the individual techniques that they use.
David: So, with the limitations with some of those bike systems, you’ve taken it and I get that when I come up for a bike fit it’s a totally different experience to getting put through a systematized approach. So, tell us about what you start working with when you see a person come in through the door.
Steve: Funnily enough, most of it takes place off the bike. If anyone comes here for a fit it’s usually going to take four hours, if they’re tricky maybe longer. They won’t get on the bike for the first two hours. The first two hours is asking them a lot of questions designed to elicit information that will give me little hints which may or may not be confirmed as the fit progresses. Then a fairly thorough structural and neurological assessment to find out what they can do, what they can’t do and if they can’t, why they can’t.
Once I’m armed with that information, I can predict with something well over 90% certainty what they’ll be doing on the bike anyway and what the issues they’re going to have are. So, the general thrust I’ll already know. The individual detail, we have to wait and see how they sit on the bike.
David: Yes. So, you get a bit of a bio-mechanical structural history?
Steve: Much more than that. Where I’ve made a lot of headway in the last 10 years is that all modern systems and theories about bike fitting are all about quantifying movement.
Steve: What is the angle of the knee, what is the angle of the femur to the torso. Quantifying movement only tells you part of the story. We should be determining the quality of the movement. Now, that’s determined by central nervous system efficiency. So, my approach; rather than take a pure bio-mechanical approach which I think is severely flawed, I take a neurological approach and why; because we all want to ride a bike well. To do that we have to function well in a bio-mechanical sense, we have to be efficient but what is a precursor and determinate of that is neurological efficiency because no muscle will fire unless the signal arrives at the right time in the muscle firing sequence.
Funnily enough, I’ve found some little known areas of knowledge and probably stumbled over a few things myself that are new to others where you can affect how accurately the body uses neurological inputs and determines what the bio-mechanical result is.
David: Yes. So, obviously, I see the level at which these systematized approaches work at a fairly common level. They take a statistical …
Steve: Yes, the outcome is predetermined.
Steve: You’re going to be made to fit into the same eight or ten boxes no matter who you are and how you function. Now, maybe some of them work for you but maybe some don’t. A fit has a certain number of parameter and what they’re trying to do is put you into the average within each parameter but the more parameters there is the less likely it is that the overall result will be a good one.
David: Yes, I understand that.
Steve: Because no-one’s average.
David: No-one’s average. I liken it to those systems fitting people up as if they were a 17 year old or something like that.
Steve: There’s an element of that. I think a larger problem is that they take anyone and there’s no real qualification of the person. No-one has to pass an exam. If you pay your money, you get your certificate. That’s the biggest problem.
David: That’s the certification for the bike fittings?
Steve: Yes in many of the systems. No, you don’t have to pass an exam, you buy the equipment, you purchase the process and wow, you’ve just become a bike fitter and you’ve done a three day course with no exam. A guy I know who used to teach for one of the biggest systems told me if it was up to him, he’d fail 70 to 80% of the candidates but he’s not allowed to fail anyone which is why he no longer works for that company.
David: That’s part of the systematized approach, you really … It’s about getting yourself into a box. How successful is that approach? Do you see people coming in that have done fits like that?
Steve: I have. I track this sort of stuff and 40 to 45% of the people that come here have fitted elsewhere first. Now, some of them quite well but the fine detail that makes the difference between an okay fit and a really good fit hasn’t been dealt with.
Steve: Some of them quite poorly. So, there’s a wide variety in the level of skills out there. Some people are doing quite a decent job. Where they fall down is just things like missing leg length differences and also just getting the feet right. One of the keys is getting the feet right on the pedal, both cleat position and also foot correction and I’m sure you’re going to ask about that later so I’ll hold fire till you do.
David: That’s great. So, what you’re saying is that you can get close?
Steve: What I’ve noticed over the last five or ten years is we used to have zero competition in Sydney. Now, every shop has a system in place and what I’m finding now is the people that get here on average are worse functionally than was the case ten years ago because the people who don’t have major issues don’t get as far as us. Someone sorts them out in the local bike shop or the local bike fitter but the people with issues, they still get here but they get here by a more secured route with a few stops along the way.
David: Right. So, you see the progression? You see a percentage of people that go through that systematized approach and they get a tick in the box and that generally would work …
Steve: Well, that works for them to a point in a sense that they don’t perceive themselves as having a problem.
Steve: So, to them, it’s a result.
David: And then there’s a percentage for those, obviously still haven’t found that to be satisfactory and they’ll …
Steve: They’re looking elsewhere.
David: They’re looking elsewhere and they eventually find you.
Steve: We get them at the second or third or fourth attempt.
David: Fourth attempt, yes, and the sort of results that you get from that, obviously …
Steve: Well, look, Dave, I don’t have unhappy customers. It’s pretty simple. I will do whatever it takes to make that person happy. Why; because if I don’t I have to give them their money back.
Steve: That’s a very powerful incentive and it’s taught me some very hard lessons.
David: (Laughs). I know, certainly, in my experience, the amount of detail that you went into was phenomenal when I originally got my first bike fit and that would’ve been back in 2000. So, we’re talking …
Steve: I’ve come a way since them.
David: 14 years and the interesting thing is that it hasn’t stopped. Every time that I’ve come back, you’ve been playing around and researching and …
Steve: Well, learning is an ongoing process.
David: it has been an ongoing process and I’ve seen, not only you, take whatever you’ve been doing which has really been, for me, head and shoulders above what everybody else is doing. People are still running around with formulas and this sort of stuff and you took that to a whole new level and every time I come back it’s like suddenly you’ve taken it to the next level.
Steve: I’m a curious person. I like to find answers.
David: (Laughs). I think that’s great. Personally, I believe that without obviously being fit by everyone on the planet, I would believe that you’re probably one of the top bike fitters, certainly.
Steve: I don’t know.
David: I don’t know either, certainly within Australia, possibly the world, one of the top …
Steve: Well, look, I think there’s a dearth of information out there because my inbox is filled with bike fitters from all over the planet asking questions. So, the fact they have to email someone at the other end of the world suggests to me that there’s not a lot of quality information out there because with the access to the Net that everyone has, there’s plenty of information there if you want it but people aren’t getting the results they want using that information. So, they’re looking elsewhere and I seem to have a somewhat different view to how humans relate to bikes to most.
David: So, let’s come back to that distinction that you made around function versus what was it?
Steve: Just quantity.
David: Quantity and quality of movement.
Steve: I’ll give you an example. A lot of the people I see who’ve been through system fits, there was one single problem that recurs time and time again is 95% plus are sitting too high.
Steve: Because the usual story is someone is stopped while they’re peddling and a joint angle measuring device called a goniometer is put on the femur and the tibia and that angle is measured or maybe it’s done by video capture or motion capture and the aim is to achieve a knee angle of somewhere between 135 and 145 degrees because that’s the angle where most people are peddling through the bottom of the stroke.
The problem is it depends on the quality of the person applying that information. For many, they just keep jacking the seat up, up and up till the poor old rider’s pointing his toe down, plantar flexing the foot as much as the ankle will do till they arrive at that 135, 145 degrees and they say; there you are.
David: Done, yes.
Steve: Now, the key thing is quality of motion and it’s easy to judge as an onlooker and it’s all about the velocity of extension of the knee. When we pedal a bike, the glutes aided by the hamstrings push the upper leg down, at the same time, the quads extend or straighten the lower leg. Now, the calves are also involved but I’m trying to keep it very simple. Now, because the hamstrings are contracting while the quads are contracting, that places a limit on how fast the quads can contract.
Now, when you see a sudden acceleration of the knee towards the bottom of the stroke no matter how subtle, that’s a sign that that person’s nervous system has switched off their hamstrings as a self-protection measure. So, the quads are no longer extrained and that rate of extension of the knee increases. What it means is they’ve lost control of the motion.
Steve: Now, we can get away with sitting too high on the flat because momentum carried you through the dead part in the stroke but once you hit a hill, it usually becomes painfully obvious to onlookers if not the person riding the bike if someone’s seat is too high. My best story is a shop in Melbourne whose name I won’t mention. There’s an antral of customers who’ve been fitted there who’ve come up here and I’m used to seeing them now and I know their seats are going to be too high.
So, a guy walks through the door, he tells me he’d been fitted by this particular business and I said; oh, your seat will be too high and he said; oh, yes, probably. He got on the bike and I said; mate, your seat is way too high and he said; how much and I said; easy, 15, 20 mil and he said; I’ve already lowered it 35 from where they had it. I said; you’re kidding.
So, he left here approximately 50 mil lower than apparently his original position and 15 or 16 mil lower than when he walked in the door. That’s the sort of thing I see a lot and now, I’m not trying to tip a buck on the rest of the bike fitting world. No-one more than me understands how tough a job it can be because I had to start from scratch and work out a whole lot of stuff by myself because I didn’t use the internet till about seven or eight years ago, I didn’t even use a computer.
So, I didn’t have access to a lot of the information freely available now but because I’m interested and do work on a money back if not happy basis and I’m not trying to push that as a marketing line, I’m pushing it as a learning tool because once you’re forced to hand over the cash, you learn and you don’t forget those lessons and what matters is the result. That’s all that matters. The process doesn’t matter, how it was achieved, the tooling, none of that matters. The only thing that matters is you have a happy bike rider that performs better than before they saw you.
David: Fantastic. So, coming back to that whole seat height thing, I’ve always when I do my bike fits and I’m by no means an expert at doing bike fits, for me it’s really important to get to the bottom of the stroke and I know …
David: Absolutely and from a hill climbing, because I have a background in hill climbing, it’s totally important and my bike, my seat, is probably lower than what would be considered normal …
Steve: I suspect mine is too but it works.
David: Yes, but the fantastic thing is I can at least climb and I can … I very simply think of it as if you’re having to reach to get to the bottom of the stroke then you’re having to unstabilize …
Steve: You do stabilize in your pelvis, you’re being forced to enlist upper body effort in an effort to regain stability. The problem, as soon as there’s any unnecessary tension in the upper body, you hinder breathing efficiency and so on and so on. Now, people who can’t get here or don’t want to come here or live in other parts of the planet often say to me; how do I determine my seat height.
I just tell them to keep riding up a hill. If they can get to the top of the hill feeling like their weight is evenly supported between the left and right sides of their seat, if they feel like both feet are reaching fluently through the bottom of the stroke, keep repeating that hill, moving the seat up three millimeters at a time. Once they realize they’ve gone too far, drop it not only the last three mil increments, drop it another couple of mil as well just so you’ve got a margin for error.
If they feel on the first repetition they’re sitting too high, they’re weight’s not evenly distributed on the seat, keep repeating that hill, dropping the seat three millimeters at a time. It helps when you’re doing that if you force the gear a bit, that is, ride approximately one gear higher than you can comfortably ride up that hill. Why; because what matters is what we do under load. So, you’re trying to ride up that like you are racing it.
David: Yes, exactly. Now, we’re talking about a fairly high torque, what I would call a high torque.
Steve: Absolutely. Sorry, just to interrupt, why up a hill; because up a hill everyone relative to their normal peddling technique drops their heels more.
David: Of course they do.
Steve: Because they’re trying to get behind that peddle as early as possible in the stroke and when we drop our heels, our legs extend more.
David: Yes. When I’m teaching people how to peddle properly, the first thing I ask them to do is stabilize their hips. Their hips are nice and stable. So, once they’ve got that happening then we start working on peddling over the top and the bottom of the stroke. For them to be able to do that they’ve got to stabilize their core. They can’t do it …
Steve: You’ve got to be able to sit reasonably squarely on the seat.
Steve: And you want to achieve that stability passively. You don’t want to be using muscular effort to be stable on a bike which means the rider themselves has to be reasonably functional. Everyone’s out there trying to condition themselves for cycling in a cardiovascular sense but you also have to condition yourself to hold that position for the length of time you’ve got to do it and anyone who rides a bike and doesn’t stretch regularly has got their priorities wrong.
David: Yes, totally agree, yes. The interesting thing is when people come to my studio and I start working through this exercise, it’s not uncommon for them to only be able to hold it for 30 or 40 seconds.
Steve: Yes, you’ve got it.
David: I think a lot of that comes from the fact they’re very much desk-bound …
Steve: Most people don’t realize how dysfunctional they are.
Steve: I’ve got a simple series of stability exercises I put people through. My feeling is; anyone who wants to ride a bike should be able to nail those seven compound movements with ease and I don’t think that’s the heart of athletic achievement, I think that’s the bare minimum requirement. I would get, maybe, one person a year out of three to five hundred who can do that.
David: Yes, wow.
Steve: Because most of us sit on a … We think about our body when it hurts. We assume if there’s no pain, there’s no problem. Pain’s a long way along the dysfunction spectrum. Pain comes when you’re body’s run out of ways to compensate. Pain’s not an early warning sign, it’s a late warning sign.
David: Yes. Do you think that lifestyle … I know cyclists, historically, have come from more of a trading type background and nowadays we’re seeing a lot more people that are desk-bound …
Steve: Cycling has historically been a working class sport and the funny thing is 20 years ago, if you were a lifetime cyclist, you were a social outcast, you were counter-culture, you were a bit strange because there weren’t many adults riding bikes. I can remember around that period being at a barbecue on a summers day and I was wearing shorts and a singlet or a T-shirt or something and another guy there looked me up and down and said; oh, you look pretty fit, what do you do and I said I race bikes. He said; push bikes and I said; yes and he looked me up and down and he said; but you’re an adult like why would you use a kids toy.
Whereas now cycling is a widespread activity. Most cyclist now take up the sports between 35 and 50. They’re not in the first bloom of youth. They’ve sat behind a desk for the last 10, 15, 20 years and it shows. People need to unwind the postural distortions they get by having desk-bound jobs and failing to resist gravity. That’s one of my favorite subjects. Good posture is posture that resists gravity. Why is good posture necessary; because posture and alignment determines how well your nervous system works and as I mentioned earlier, good nervous system function is a precondition of good bio-mechanical function.
What’s the single thing we can do to influence nervous system efficiency; stand tall, sit tall, carry yourself well. Gravity is omnipresent. We forget it exists because it pushes down on us 24 hours a day and it pushes us into our own personal version of postural dysfunction. If you want a queue; put your finger on your sternum notch, your wishbone and lift it. As soon as you do that, extend your spine and elevate your ribcage, you hollow your abdomen and create intra-abdominal pressure. In other words, you squash your viscera, your guts.
That pressure is the majority of support for your lumbar spine because the cervical, the thoracic and the sacral spine have direct muscular and skeletal support. The lumbar spine relies almost wholly on indirect support which we call core strength, a word that I dislike, or good posture because they’re one and the same. The best core exercise you can do is merely stand tall and sit tall.
Steve: I saw you sit tall (laughs).
Steve: It’s the hardest thing to forget. So, we need a prompt and there’s a little gizmo I saw a little while back called an I Posture. I’ve ordered one for my wife who has back problems and what it is is a little lapel badge or necklace with some sort of device in it that measures the relationship to horizontal. So, if you bend forward more than a few degrees it starts beeping at you unless your torso is straight. It hasn’t arrived yet so I’m not sure how well it will work but it seemed like a good idea to me.
David: That’s beautiful.
Steve: So, hopefully, we’ll be surrounded in the future by people beeping all the time when they let go of their posture.
David: That would be fantastic. I know, since maybe the Mansfield, one of the priorities in our office space was that I wanted a stand up desk. I wanted a desk that I could stand up and I got into a bad habit because I …
Steve: We all do this. Look, humans do this all day, we flex our spines. When do we ever do this? We don’t.
David: So, we’ve talked a little bit about seat height. Let’s talk about cleat position and footprint and this because I know that you spend a lot of time on this, like a huge amount of time.
Steve: Well, look, without going into a lot of detail because I have patent applications in that have been approved in the US, the UK and New Zealand but not yet in Australia, so, I can only talk in very general terms not specific terms and I’d best start at the start. I don’t know if whoever’s watching this knows what proprioception is. So, I’d better start right at the start. When we walk across a room or ride a bike or commit to any other form of physical activity it is a conscious thought that starts that process.
What is unconscious is the muscle firing pattern we use to accomplish the task. No-one walks down the street thinking; if I tense this muscle and loosen this muscle, we think I’m going to walk. Well, your cerebellum which is the seat of most unconscious motor control, your cerebellum is the part of the brain that works out the muscle firing sequence that allows you to accomplish this task. So, conscious thought triggers the event but after that it’s all unconscious and supposedly, something like 97% of our daily activity is unconscious.
Now, proprioception is merely the cerebellum’s awareness of what the body is doing in space. Now, it gains that awareness from the output of hundreds of millions of sensory nerves called proprioceptors that are distributed throughout the body but they are not distributed evenly. 50% of those receptors are in and around the upper and lower jaw. So, 50% of the awareness that each of us is generating now from internal sources about what we’re doing sitting on those chairs comes from here and you might remember the story about your jaw alignment, that’s why it played a part.
Another 25 to 30% of those receptors are located in and around our sacroiliac joints where the sacrum, the bony fuse, the five bony fused vertebra at the base of the spine butts up against the pelvis. The remaining 20, 25% of those receptors are in every bone, muscle, ligament, tendon and joint. Between them, they convey a constant flow of information; something like three billion signals a second to the spine and up the spine to the cerebellum alerting it to the load each body part is undergoing, where that body part is in space and how that body part relates to gravity.
We use that total flow of information to coordinate our actions. It sounds like a great system and it is but the flaw in the system, and it’s not a flaw, it’s as much a filter and self-protection mechanism as anything, is that while we generate three billion signals per second and they all get through, we can only process 2, 000. So, once I read those numbers whenever it was, it became my interest in trying to work out what hierarchy of priorities evolution had dictated we place on what we chose to prioritize for processing and what we choose to ignore.
To simplify it, the best analogy I’ve got is if you and Jodie are sitting in a sporting match.
Steve: There’s a hundred thousand people there but you two are intent upon a conversation with each other. So, even though you’ve focused on that conversation, you’re still, in a general sense, aware of all those screaming thousands of people but you’re not paying attention. Multiply that situation by orders of magnitude and that’s the cerebellum situation. So, what I’ve worked out through trial and error and a lot of painstaking work is the cerebellum only choses to prioritize two categories of stimulus.
The first is anytime we exert ourselves because anytime we exert ourselves that’s taken on as a priority task not just by the cerebellum but by the whole central nervous system because it’s got obvious survival value. In an evolutionary sense, if you’re running for your life or fighting for your life, you are betting your life, literally, that you’re going to coordinate those actions as well as humanly possible because like every other organism on the planet, your first priority is survival and you’ll do whatever you have to do to do that.
Now, within that category force generated from the top of the pelvis down is given a higher priority than force generated from the top of the pelvis up and again, there’s an evolutionary imperative at work. We’ve evolved to be upright creatures who relate to planet earth through our feet. There’s no evolutionary mileage whatsoever, given the disparity between processing capacity and signal output in only being able to use your arms, bend your torso or not your head, if concurrently that means buckling at the hips, knees and ankles.
So, pelvis down gets first call on our proprioceptive awareness because that’s what holds up upright, that’s out postural foundation, upper body gets second call. The other category of stimulus that will always gain the cerebellum’s attention is any change in the quality of stimulus. A whisper that’s being ignored can quickly be elevated into a shout that’s being processes if there’s a change and a simple example is if I do that you become more aware of that part of your upper arm and your clothing than you were five or ten seconds previously but that increased awareness only lasts a few seconds before your attention drifts off onto other things.
In fact, in a serial sense, that’s what’s happening constantly. The cerebellum doesn’t remain focused on the same 2,000 bits of information. It’s attention is constantly flicking around. Is that important? No, I can ignore that. Is that important? No, I can ignore that. That’s important, better stay focused on that and so on and so on. Now, as part of this, I better tell you that in a proprioceptive sense, on a bicycle, no-one knows what their feet are doing. We don’t know we don’t know because we compensate so well with feedback from hips, knees and ankles that we’re not aware of it but compensating never solves the problem.
It only shifts the load and in this case … It always involves a cost, in this case a dual cost. The first is an increased tendency to left, right asymmetry because any challenge to our position in space from any source whatsoever, too high a seat height’s one, having a short leg is another, not having clear proprioceptive awareness of what your feet’s doing is a third and there’s a million others but any challenge to our position in space will cause us to automatically compensate. That’s what our nervous system is incredibly adept at doing but all of our compensatory responses increase the difference between left and right side function.
Now, that’s a bit of an issue because a bike is a symmetric apparatus in a positional sense and to give you a simple example; we’re talking about seat height. If someone’s seat height is jacked up too high it’s an exceptionally rare person who will sit squarely on the seat and equally overextend both legs. What they will do at an unconscious level is they’re nervous system will pick a leg to look after which is almost always but not always the right leg and a leg to sacrifice which is almost always but not always, the left leg.
Now, how that manifests is that person will start dropping or rolling their right hip forward which causes the left leg to overextend and also challenges the plain of motion of the left hit, knee and ankle constantly. That’s just one example. So, bike fitting, in a sense, is all about getting rid of challenges to our position in space, decompensating people so they don’t have to compensate.
Now, where foot correction comes in is, when I said any change in the quality of stimulus will always attract the cerebellum’s attention, what most people who are watching this won’t realize is when the muscles in our legs fire whether we walk, run, hop, skip or whatever while the cerebellum oversees the task, the basic pattern of extensor on, flexor off, flexor on extensor off is not generated up here.
It’s overseen by the cerebellum. The actual on and off switching is conducted by a bundle of neurons in the lumbar spine called the central pattern generator. Now, the central pattern generator uses, as it’s informational input, force feedback from the feet. Now, when we walk and run our feet flex a lot, they change shape on heel strike, toe off and so on and arch tension changes a lot. Now, arch tension is a primary component of that force feedback from the feet that is recognized by the CPG.
In contrast to walking or running, when we’re pushing on a rigid sole cycling shoe, tension changes little if at all. So, the central nervous system tends to switch off to that. So, the feet tend to be like this proprioceptive void or black hole. Now, I can demonstrate and you’ve seen me do it but I’m not going to tell you how because it’s still undergoing the patent process, that everyone knows what their hips, knees and ankles are doing but no-one knows what their feet are doing and to wake up that connection we need a decent level of arch support and, in most cases, some wedging as well but even then, if wedging is needed and it usually is but not always, it has to be in the correct location.
It has to be either cleat wedging or heel wedging or sometimes a mixture of both but you can’t just generically wedge. Even if it’s the right number, the nervous system will switch off to that feedback after a period.
Steve: I think I’ve gone off the track there. We’ll get back on track.
David: No, no, you’ve done really well and it’s actually phenomenal because I know the last bike fit that I got with you, we went through and addressed that particular issue and I know when I got back onto the bike and I was riding down Beach Road, it was just like …
Steve: You felt solid and stable.
David: I just felt like solid and stable. I couldn’t get over how different that felt from being able to apply pressure to the pedals and that the feet felt just really comfortable.
Steve: Well, it’s all about creating a situation where that connection between the motor control centers of the brain and the feet is open and being prioritized at all times. Now, think of it like this; imagine your cerebellum is staring at a wall with one and a half million white diodes on it and only one of those diodes is feet. How does it know which one is feet? The cerebellum is constantly using up a large percentage of what is quite limited processing capacity, constantly chasing information as to what the feet’s doing.
Now, once that connection is established, that capacity is freed up and allows the rider to better coordinate the entire task of cycling and that’s what you were feeling. You just had more neural capacity available to do the job because there was a clear and loud connection between feet and cerebellum.
David: Yes, it’s incredible.
Steve: Well, it been a bit of fun, took me a long time to work out.
David: The results from it are just a huge, I wouldn’t say improvement because I can’t quantify that.
Steve: Some people can. There’s a lot of people coming here with power meters and I’m used to getting emails like I’m putting out six to seven percent more power at the same heart rate and this sort of thing and it’s not magic. It’s not that they’ve brought more muscle to the task. It’s they’re using less effort to stabilize themselves and that makes that effort available to push the pedals rather than hold the position.
David: Matt Brindle said to me one day, he said; you can only generate as much power as you can stabilize.
Steve: That’s absolutely right. Absolutely right.
David: If you can’t stabilize it …
Steve: Ideally you should be stable on the bike and relaxed while you do it. A good position requires a functional human being and they’re in short supply but we can all be a work in progress and we’re allowed to be a work in progress as long as there’s an emphasis on progress. We need a functional human being and with a good position riding a bike should feel easy. Seriously, it should feel easy.
David: Wow, yes, riding a bike for me has always felt a lot easier than running.
Steve: You can’t do anything about the huff and puff of exertion but the mere act of holding a position while you apply force to the pedals should feel easy. It shouldn’t feel like hard work.
David: Now, look, I get a lot of people that come in and, just to move off that onto another topic, and they’re not a person that can get down to the drops. When they’re riding on a bike they’re just … They complain of neck and shoulder soreness and …
Steve: Well, there’s a host of reasons for that. Lack of flexibility might be one of them but seat placement and cleat position play a big part in that as well because they’re the components that make the rider stable or unstable but let’s assume they’ve got a decent seat position, a decent cleat position, their foot correction is ideal and they can’t reach the drops, the drops have to come to where they can reach them.
There’s no point having them if you can’t use them. I go down to Centennial Park and I see people riding around with dirty bar tape on top and shiny bar tape below. They may as well take a hack saw and cut immediately below the break hoods because they wouldn’t lose anything. The drops have to be where the rider can comfortably reach them. That doesn’t mean that they have to spend time down there. I dont’ care but I want it to be available to them as a comfortable option and for some people that’s low, for some people that’s high, for most it’s somewhere in between.
You’ve seen me. I ride with my seat up here and my bars down there because I’m flexible enough and functional enough to do it but I wasn’t always like that. I had to work for that.
David: Yes. Certainly an area that I’m always having to correct myself and work on. I just remember to massage …
Steve: Hip flexibility, lower back flexibility, I don’t mean lower back ability to bend your lumbar spine. You don’t want to flex your lumbar spine, you want to bend at the hip. That takes glutes and hamstrings and quadratus lumborum that are flexible. So, get onto Kit Lockman’s YouTube channel, best free resource out there for anyone who wants to stretch.
David: Yes, fantastic. So, we’ve talked about pedal stroke and we’ve talked about seat height and we’ve talked about handlebar position. Is there anything that we haven’t really covered that you think is quite important to bike fitting?
Steve: Well, seat setback. The old lore, l-o-r-e, lore is a plumb line drop from there must bisect the pedal axle, I’ve never understood that because what that’s in effect saying is the relationship of one limb segment to the pedal axle is so overwhelmingly important that it outweighs any whole body considerations. When you put it in those terms it sounds like a nonsense because, frankly, it is. I look at everything through a neurological filter.
Seat setback, once you’ve got a decent seat height, should be the minimum setback that allows the rider to largely counter lever their upper body out from the seat with minimum effort invested in the handlebars. You should be a fraction forward of your center of gravity. You should need your arms to support your weight but only just need your arms. The more pressure you’ve got on the pedals, the more your upper body should be unweighted.
So, if you’re tootling around at 25, 30k an hour, yes, there should be some weight on your hands but when you’re riding at 45, 50k an hour flat out, your upper body should be literally weightless. The pressure you’re putting on the pedals should be supporting your upper body. Now, if you can’t do that either there’s a problem with your position or there’s a problem with how you’re functioning. For many people it’s how they function.
David: Yes, I understand. So, let’s talk about triathlon or triathlete type time trial positions.
Steve: Well, triathlon position and time trial position are not the same thing. A triathlon, particularly an Iron Man, is not a time trail in the sense that a road time trial is.
David: I agree with you.
Steve: If you go past four millimiles of lactate you’re not going to run very well. So, an Iron Man is not a time trial though it’s marketed like it’s a time trial, it’s a 75% effort time trial because if you go much harder than that you’re not going to run very well.
Steve: So, the requirements are different whereas a road time trial, if you get off the bike and can walk, you’re looked upon as a soft cock (laughs).
Steve: You’ve got to leave it all out there. So, look, comfort always has its time value attached to it. So, what is comfortable for an Olympic distance triathlon in terms of bar height may not be comfortable for an Iron Man. If you want a rule of thumb, and I hate rules of thumb, but if you’re an Olympic distance triathlete and contemplating a half Iron Man or an Iron Man and you’re happy with your position, lift your bars 20 mil because it’s a long day out.
It’s a long day out and go to any triathlon, particularly if it’s one where the bike leg is two or three laps and you get to see people come past multiple times, at the Old Foster which is two 90k laps which is wonderful, you’d see people come past after 90k looking like they’re a wind tunnel study. The second lap they’d be sitting up on top of the bars like this and guess what; they weren’t going any slower because they’d set themselves positions they could not maintain.
Steve: And you see that in any tri conducted in tough conditions with head winds or side winds, you’ll see a lot of people cannot maintain an aero position. I’m all for aerodynamics but aerodynamics has been used to tap into the unspoken wish we all have to get something for nothing and the message pushed by the marketing guys, who are pretty cluey is just spend money, get more aero, you don’t have to train harder just get more aero.
Aerodynamics is one of the components of performance but, frankly, it’s the least important. If you sacrifice one wad of power or one wad of comfort being more aerodynamic, you’re going to go slower not faster. So, it’s got to be sensible. It’s got to be achievable. You can sit further forward on a tri bike or a TT bike because you’ve got four major joints you don’t have to worry about stabilizing. On a road bike you’ve got to stabilize wrists and elbows. On a tri bike they’re inherently stable because you’ve got the cuffs that you can come further forward.
I just think many people overdo it and I see the casualties here.
David: Yes. I had a guy come in that had been set up by somebody and he was that far forward on a bracket. I don’t know how he could ride the bike.
Steve: Well, the problem is many of them don’t breathe very well when the position’s ridiculous and the other thing is they can’t see where they’re going and so they ride like this and you shouldn’t have to risk crashing to ride fast because you can only look up once every 30 meters.
David: Yes. So, I just wanted to recap on everything we’ve talked about. We’ve finished up talking about time trial positions. Yes, okay.
Steve: Well, time trial positions … Well, you wanted … Again, I’ll talk about rules of thumb and there are plenty of exceptions to this. This is not the gospel, this is not graven in stone. If you have a road bike and you’re happy with your position, you feel you’re strong, you’re stable, you’re comfortable and you want to know how to set up a TT bike, move your seat forward somewhere between 10 and 15 mil. That will allow you to roll your pelvis further forward and flatten your back.
Now, as you do that, your hip moves up and back as the pelvis rolls forward. So, while peddling mechanics change, they don’t change massively. Then set your bars where you can comfortably reach them. If in doubt as to your position, go do a 20k TT, if you can maintain that position for 20k at high intensity, it’s probably a good position. If you can’t it’s not. If you’re struggling to maintain that position, you’re getting pressure around the neck and shoulders or anything like that, now you’ve got work to do.
David: Now, so we talked a little bit about road set up and how it collates into time trialling. What about track?
Steve: Well, you’ve got to talk about sprinting on it’s own. That’s totally another world.
David: Alright, well, let’s talk about track …
Steve: Most people who are doing general track events, the kind of guy who goes to club track carnivals and races every event or most events, his position shouldn’t be a whole lot different from his road position. His bars can be a little lower because he’s not on the bike for as long a period and comfort, as I said, always comes with a time value. What’s comfortable for a 12 lapper may be uncomfortable for a three hour road race. So, he can get away with lower bars.
Seat a little bit further forward, again, five, ten, fifteen mil because you can pedal faster and there’s no hills on the track and it’s a fixed wheel and that’s the thing that’s often overlooked; on the track, once you have momentum, once that bike is up and going, the forward motion of the bike carries you through the dead spot. So, you can get away with things you can’t do on a road bike.
Steve: As you probably know, you can ride up a hill on a fixed wheel faster in a bigger gear than you can ride up that same hill on a free wheel.
David: Yes, of course you can.
Steve: Because the forward motion of the bike carries you through the dead spot which it doesn’t quite do when you’ve got a free wheel.
David: There’s no hiding on a hill.
Steve: There isn’t. So, a track bike, an evolution of the road position, it shouldn’t be massively different. Lower bars, seat a little bit further forward but only within the bounds of comfort.
David: It’s been fascinating, Steve.
Steve: Good to see you again.
David: Yes, it’s been fantastic. Thank you very much for taking the time out.
Steve: It’s alright. Thank you all for watching.
Steve Hogg can be contacted here: