Monday, February 6, 2012

Women's Fit on the Bike


If you have been reading my columns you know that I recently attended the Serotta International Cycling Institute for their personalized fit class. If you haven’t been reading, shame on you.
I was one of three women who attended the class; the rest of the class was of the hairier gender. Well, I guess in cycling that might not be the case…but that’s a study for another day, and maybe not appropriate for here.
Women may be more petite or have wider hips than some men, but they also might be taller or thinner than some men. Obviously there are many variations to anatomical geometry both across the board and within a specified gender. So is fitting a woman really different than fitting a man? Time to find out!

“The process is the same”, says Steven LeBoyer, director of the Serotta Fit Lab Services. 1/3 of the Serotta Fit Lab’s clientele consists of women, so Steven has had a lot of fitting experience on this topic: “The key phrase to remember when buying cycling equipment is, size & shape. Whether it’s men or women, there are 3 contact points that need to fit properly.” Those 3 things are shoes, handlebars and saddle. Shoes and handlebars are pretty straightforward but nonetheless important. “The foot is the transfer point of your power to the bicycle and a proper fitting shoe is important for performance and comfort.” Handlebar width can be determined with a simple shoulder measurement. Cleat placement can get tricky, but if you can find your first and fifth metatarsal, then you are on the right path. I recommend “Anatomy for Dummies” before taking the Serotta Personalized Fit Class. Or maybe, that’s just me….
While the fit starts at the foot, and there are many things in between that can be adjusted or swapped out, a common problem is the saddle. Steven elaborates, “The saddle is both the cause and solution to the issues mentioned during the interview. Many women that have brought their current bicycles to us have been set up on their bikes in too upright a position. This is most likely the result of what I call reverse fitting: customer tries out a ready-made bike and feels too much pressure on forward soft tissue. Rather than changing saddles the salesperson shortens the stem and raises the bar to shift weight toward back of saddle. The customer ends up in a “comfortable” but inefficient, low performance position.”

Another issue with saddles is that historically women’s saddles were wider and made with more padding to accommodate softer tissues. Because of the extra padding, they need to ride more upright to be comfortable, which means a shorter top tube and shorter reach. And then they wonder, “Why am I not riding fast? Why don’t I look right on the bike?” I ask myself the first question all the time, and sadly it has nothing to do with the fit. More interval training for me…
Steven describes the saddle as the most misunderstood bicycle component. Its purpose is to support the sit bones. He reviewed a study that evaluated the heat and pressure imprints on 1500 cyclists; the results of the study point to the importance of fitting the individual, rather than focusing on men’s saddles vs. women’s saddles.
Fun facts from Steven regarding saddle selection:
-Many women have no anatomical reason to select a women’s specific saddle. – The shape of the padding and the saddle itself is more important than the width of the saddle. – When the sit bones fit the saddle, pressure on the frontal soft tissue will go away.
-The muscle development and fat placement on women may necessitate a different saddle shape than men, but it is not because of the width of the sit bones.
Steven dislikes labels such as “women’s specific”. “Its not relevant. There is nothing wrong with a woman riding a “man’s bike; It’s all about the geometry.” “Women’s specific” is not so much the deciding factor, as is the geometry and fit of the bike and the size and shape of the components. A woman my size (very petite!) and a woman who is 5’10 would most likely not share the same equipment just because they are women and the product is labeled “women’s specific”.

Some words of wisdom from Steven: “Whether buying a ready built bike or a custom made, you need to find a fitter/salesperson that is knowledgeable and will spend the time with you. If it’s a ready built bike, assume the saddle needs to be replaced since it’s improbable that the one sent from the factory will fit properly. Select a bike shop/fitter that has a large selection of saddles that can be tried. The right fit for women, and men, is comfortable and maximizes performance. There should be no pain or regular discomfort when riding. Whether it’s numbness in the hands, neck, or lower back pain or constant saddle discomfort, these are all signs of a bad fit and are unnecessary. Sometimes it’s just a small adjustment to the saddle angle or height that can make a ride so much more enjoyable.”
Some words of wisdom from me: Don’t let your cat sit on your computer while you are watching Spinnervals and riding the trainer. It makes for a very inefficient, stop and go training session; and keeps me wondering… “Why am I not riding fast?”

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