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Aches and pains when cycling, what’s causing it: the body or the bike?

In a previous interview with Alison McGregor from Chainsmith Bikes (which you can read here), physiotherapist Kenny from Physio K talks about how tightness in the body and repetitive movements can result in overuse and injuries.

Cycling Physiotherapy
Bike fit at Chainsmith Bike Shop

Aches and pain when cycling should not be ignored. At Physio K, we often deal with injuries or pain as a result from cycling. We know how your body acts and reacts to repetitive movements. Spending hours in the saddle in a similar position can accumulate into a series of problems.

We are used to assess the body, search for different movement patterns, educate our clients and address their problems. But sometimes the body isn’t the problem, discomfort can also be caused by the positioning on the bike.

Alison McGregor has a passion for women’s cycling and her aim is to encourage all new riders. She is co-owner of Chainsmith, a custom road bike specialist shop in Surry Hills. One of their services besides building custom bikes is specialised bike fitting, which can be key in injury prevention.

Let’s delve into the world of a bike fitter who can make your comfort on the bike a whole lot different!


Kenny Merlevede: You're specialised in custom built bikes. How much can you customise on a bike and how (much) could this impact the performance of the athlete?

Alison McGregor: Years ago my business partner David Piacenti and I recognised common problems in the workshop. All these road bikes were turning up for services with all sorts of set-up issues. The stems were really short, saddles were pushed forward or the shifters and bars were arched back. Basically the riders were adjusting their bikes to relieve pain or discomfort. Numb hands, sore shoulders, saddle sores were the main problems they were trying to stop.

When you're uncomfortable on the saddle, you deny yourself your best performance. It makes sense to think the problem is solved by adjusting parts here and there. But it often makes things worse. The fact is sometimes you just bought the wrong bike. Making too many changes negatively impacts your bike handling, your position and balance over the bike is changed. In extreme cases it can cause dreaded vibrations or speed wobbles, which is obviously dangerous and impedes both confidence and performance. The bottom line is that many riders buy a bike based on what their mates ride, or what the Pros ride. It can be an expensive mistake to follow others rather than look at yourself and celebrate what makes you unique.

So we devised a very different approach to finding and building the right bike to achieve personal riding goals.

Our clients already came to Chainsmith for consults, to choose high-end factory frames and components. Then we build the bike to suit their exact needs. This is one type of custom. It allows the client a proper position over the bike, enabling them more control in riding all sorts of terrain. With the feedback we received we knew when clients are well balanced on a purpose chosen bike they use muscles correctly, fatigue less, ride longer and faster. The second type of custom aligns the client with their bike even further.

When a bike is made to measure, in true custom fashion, our experienced builders engineer a frame to perfectly balance the individual rider. The geometry and the tube measurements are developed in relation to a rider's bone lengths and flexibility. This means better comfort and better handling. When it comes to performance, the evidence shows that being aero is not the be all and end all. With good fitting practices there should be synergy created between your body, the machine, and the terrain. That's what full custom bikes afford you.

Kenny Merlevede: You're working with the ID match bikefit lab. How (much) does that differ with other, classic bike fit systems? Why or how is it better?

Alison McGregor: We were so relieved when IdMatch Bike Fit Lab arrived from Italy because we knew it would give our clients certainty. It saves them money and time, and ultimately helps them find their best bike. Chainsmith is the only one to have the system in Australia and it took a lot of Italian conversations to understand the incredible accuracy it would give. Now we've had time to use the Lab, we realise the efficiencies and capabilities are beyond other fit systems.

There's so much technology! Measuring is done with 3d scanning. When you're seated on the smart bike it automatically adjusts as you're pedalling. It simulates a riders position on their current bike in seconds and then makes incremental changes to better the riders position and performance.

The smart bike is different because it's effective for clients who own bikes, but also for clients wanting new bikes. There are thousands of bike models and components in the IdMatch program. So a client's frame size and components can be determined before they buy. Of course, you need to read the data and you need to understand geometry in the first place. So humans are never replaceable. But we are trained, and with this system being so efficient it's a powerful tool.

Importantly, our custom clients have the opportunity to seamlessly assume their ideal position before a frame has even been created. That's a security our custom clients appreciate.

Kenny Merlevede: You've had a few injuries and niggles yourself. Some got fixed with treatment but I'm sure your bike fit system has helped a lot as well. How did you experience the difference after making the bike changes?

Alison McGregor: About 10 years ago I stopped running due to excruciating pain. I was diagnosed with stenosis. I was never competitive nor much good at it, but I was gutted because I loved it. But there wasn't much hope. Luckily being on the bike helped open up my back. So I took it up pretty aggressively. When I met you, I'd suffered three straight days of unrelated neck pain. You immediately relieved the pain with some incredible needle work. That day you taught me a valuable lesson. Being in the ride position for hours on end, several times a week, comes at a cost if you fail to support yourself with stretching or strength training. And even with the world's best bike fit, or custom bike, you can benefit from medical recommendations.

When we received the IdMatch Bike Fit Lab we obviously tested ourselves. I'm a macro adjuster and I tend to have a high pain threshold, but when you're on the fit system and it's manually moving you as you pedal you can feel each incremental change to your position. Even though my fit was close with small adjustments I could literally feel my shoulders opening up and the access to air getting better.

In another instance, if you look at my stance you'll notice my right toe naturally points outwards. It's no coincidence my older frames have marks on the chainstays and crank. I literally stripped the paint off my CX frame and started scraping through the carbon! Since my fit, I've adjusted all my cleats with slight changes to my saddle position. The float is no longer destructive but more importantly my stroke is smoother and with more power. Bike Fit starts at the cleat, so there are noticeable changes in comfort from that one change.

At the same time I added strength training with shoulder, core and hip focus. Off road there's been obvious benefits - my improved position combined with strength work allows me to hold the front wheel down and avoid slipping out on really rocky climbs. My change in stability and balance is really noticeable.

Kenny Merlevede: Have you had huge successes with a bike fit on athletes' aches and pains?

Alison McGregor: Absolutely. For clients who own a bike and visit the lab to increase performance or comfort, the feedback reports show how we've helped. Since February we've done so many fits. Probably the most dramatic has been for several petite women who struggle to find a bike for their riding aspirations. One in particular suffered quite drastic injuries due to her position and saddle. She'd lacerated particularly sensitive areas. Obviously this is something that can stop your riding altogether. A change of ride position and saddle using the IdMatch Saddle Test has eliminated the problem and, in the meantime, she ordered a custom frame to cater for her size and race ambitions.

Aching hands, neck and back aches and knee pain are usual issues we see. Burning feet or saddle pain are also common. Actually, a client recently came to us while working through piriformis syndrome. The bike fit adjusting his bars and saddle helped with notable improvements in his riding comfort. That means he can ride more, and ride endurance. Of course he's also working with a medical practitioner, which we always subscribe to. But the reduction of pain due to the bike fit has been a fantastic motivator considering his lengthy battle with injury.

Kenny Merlevede: How can your bike fit system help riders with injury prevention?

Alison McGregor: The IdMatch Bike Fit Lab is a fantastic tool for fit, but also programmed to provide the most ideal bike options. By introducing the Lab the idea was to offer pre purchase bike fit. It's the best way to select the right frame model, in the right size, with the correct components.

The other day we'd a client wanting to purchase a brand we don't sell. The IdMatch program allowed us to look at all the options in an appropriate model and size, this includes the handlebar, stem, saddle and crank length. What quickly became apparent was his lack of flexibility. With our recommendations he realised his choice wasn't suitable. A handful of spacers could have helped his comfort, but it would have drastically and negatively affected his balance in the front end. We came up with a much better solution that aligned his body and cycling goals.

Pain or injury prevention doesn't only come in the form of good position, but also in how a bike handles in relation to the rider's balance. Many cyclists don't realise that when you're not balanced correctly over the bike you can experience instability on corners and descents. Good performance isn't just about being fast, it's about riding confidently and trusting your equipment 100%. At the end of the day, with the right bike and ideal position you should feel synergy between yourself, the machine, and the terrain. It's exactly that unity that allows you to really commit to your best performance.

Alison McGregor Chainsmith bikes
Alison McGregor

You can learn more about the comprehensive bike fit system here


To read the article about cycling performance and injury prevention with Kenny Merlevede, click here

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