Original article posted on December 31, 2011 by Christine Johansen
It seemed silly to schedule a bike fitting at Husam Sahin’s boutique shop in Concord, Mass. After all, I already possessed the perfect bike— a 54 cm Cannondale SIX. The SIXstreaks across the frame as if the bike smeared it by sprinting away from the assembly line while still wet. Mostly pure white, it’s got delicious racy-red highlights—just like me.
My Cannondale has a name—“Maverick,” after Tom Cruise’s “need for speed” character in the Eighties blockbuster Top Gun—and a track record. Mav and I typically average 20−21 MPH in races and often earn one of the day’s top female bike splits. We came within seconds of breaking the bike-course record in our second triathlon ever; in his saddle I was called an “effing speed demon” by a male racer as I effortlessly sprinted past during my first-ever Olympic-distance race.
I thought it would be pretty tough for Sahin’s shop, Ata (pronounced A-T-A) Cycle, to improve on this dangerous duo. Still, a triathlete-friend swore by this accomplished-cyclist-turned-master-fitter who emigrated from Turkey 20 years ago; he called Sahin a “wizard” and said he could increase a cyclist’s wattage with a simple swap of a crank arm. Plus, I knew that none other than Jarrod Shoemaker had once dubbed Sahin his “go-to bike fitter”. Jarrod is a triathlete with whom I share a coach (the Marlborough, Mass.-based Tim Crowley) but little else. I am a two-season F 40-44 age-grouper known to erroneously execute 400s when my training plan calls for 200s simply because I still fumble my way around the track; at 29, Jarrod has graced Wheaties cereal boxes and raced in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
If this wizard, Sahin, could woo both my friend and Jarrod, then certainly I should give him and his FitLab a try. In full cycling regalia and with Maverick in tow as instructed, I followed my GPS system to his Emerald Palace in downtown Concord on an overcast Tuesday a few days short of fall.
Unlike Dorothy and her ragtag heart/brain/courage−craving friends, I harbored no crazy big wish.
On second thought, maybe I did; it was gnawing at me that despite a winter’s worth of Kinetic trainer−induced suffering, my speed hadn’t improved much year over year. While I was quite good on the bike—better than most chicks, even—there remained a handful of women who rode at a level so far beyond mine that it seemed unlikely I’d ever get to bark “on your left!” at one of them. Case in point: At the 2011 Age Group National Championships on Aug. 20, I averaged 20.2 mph on the bike split. Coach Tim called this “very good” and pointed out I was “only” seven minutes behind him on that split. (Trust me, “very good” qualifies as high praise from my coach; in comparison, my swim earned a “solid” and my run a “good”.) But an impressive nine F 40−44 speedsters streaked through the streets of Burlington, Vt, at 22-plus mph that very same day after completing that very same swim. Granted, only eight of them were mere mortals; one was Susie Williams, the only American triathlete to bring home hardware from the Olympics, a bronze in Athens, 2004.
How did those eight do it? More importantly, how could I?
I didn’t expect The Wizard to be able to help me find the answers. From him I expected little more than a nip and tuck to my perfect ride. Maybe a new crank arm.
So I was shocked when the slender-framed Turk in black Danskos that looked to be a size or two smaller than mine delivered his news. “Your bike is more school bus than race car,” he callously declared as he watched me pedal, sensors affixed to my legs and lasers searing red lines down my green bike shorts. He back-pedaled a bit when insult and injury crept across my face. “Don’t’ get me wrong—it’s a great bike. It is just not a great bike for you. If you are able to do 20−21 on this, then on the right bike, you will absolutely fly.” Then he left me alone with instructions to keep pedaling.
Me? Fly? Sahin popped his head back in the room long enough to add that I should notquit my day job, but he genuinely seemed as excited as I was about my potential to fly. There would be no nip and tuck—Sahin recommended a complete overhaul. Two hours and 43 minutes after entering the shop, I couldn’t look at Mav I contemplated whether to replace the beloved bike that had been my constant companion through my first two seasons of tri-ing.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack a bit.
The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease
Whether our distance of choice is sprint or iron or something in between, the bike leg is the longest leg of any tri and is key to the race’s outcome; in the saddle a triathlete can dilute the damage of a less-than-stellar swim or bank some time to cash in later should she hit the wall on the run.
We triathletes devote our resources accordingly. The latest statistics from USA Triathlonsay we allocate a full 50 percent of our triathlon budgets to the bike and related equipment, spending an average of $2,274 within the 12-month period prior to the survey’s taking. (That figure seemed shockingly low until a fellow athlete pointed out that the average is surely diluted by bike purchases made at, say, Wal-Mart, Target, or the neighborhood garage sale.)
According to Sahin, most of those dollars are ignorantly thrown at ill-fitting rides. “Most cyclicsts set out to buy something of a certain weight, a particular brand, or a favorite color. Most shops oblige since it’s the shortest route to a sale,” said Sahin. “The metrics that matter most—the unique anatomical nuances that impact frame geometry and component selection—never come into the equation, because neither buyer nor seller knows better.”
The Traditional Approach
Even those who know a bit about bike fit generally focus on just three elements: frame size, handlebar position and saddle height. These were the elements of interest when I was “fitted” in the summer of 2010—a brief session which culminated in a credit card charge of $3,537.23 for Maverick and related paraphernalia, ranging from pump to saddle bag. (I often call this my second best purchase ever; the very best was the $600 I spent in 2005 to get me a goofy, spotted running companion, Sam the Dalmatian.)
Those elements are important; everyone knows the frustration of riding a bike that’s too big or too small. Handlebars that are too high, low, close, or far away can cause all sorts of neck, shoulder, back, and hand pain; the wrong saddle height and tilt can result in arm, hand and knee discomfort and injury.
However, according to Sahin you cannot achieve a perfect fit with those three elements alone, and the perfect fit is what Ata is all about.
Not in Kansas Anymore
Stepping into Ata, it was clear that I was not in Kansas anymore. To switch analogies from Hollywood to retail, the shop where I got Maverick is more like a good shopping mall, while Ata is pure Savile Row. You’ll find no racks of pre-made garments at Ata but instead the cycling equivalents of dress forms, tape measures, bobbins and pinking shears.
Sahin guided me and Maverick down a small corridor to the heart of Ata, the so-called FitLab—a 10’x20’ room full of measuring equipment, computers, and posters of triathlon greats, exhibiting perfect form on perfect machines. This wizard does not hide behind a curtain; two of the FitLab’s four walls are made more of glass than of sheetrock, inviting—no, encouraging—voyeurism.
A whiteboard monopolizes a significant slab of the room’s precious little sheet-rocked real estate; its impassioned yet indecipherable scribble reminds me of the conference-room walls at my first high-tech startup, circa 1997, where some of Israel’s brightest engineers employed three foreign-to-me languages—math, technology, Hebrew—to resolve problems I’d never grok. The ink fades and skips in places, a tell-tale sign that not only the cyclists get a workout here—the dry erase markers do, too. In the lower right-hand corner Sahin has sketched stick figures, a male and his skirted mate. They illustrate the differences in the sexes’ centers of gravity and at the same time expose a hard-cold truth: Sahin holds two advanced degrees, but neither is in Art.
The FitLab is just long enough to host a paceline of two; Sahin mounts Maverick in front while I ponder the contraption in the drafting position. It is the FitLab’s pièce de résistance and it seems to share DNA with the Autobots in the movie Transformers; it shape-shifts to a new geometry with the push of a button and will be used later, Sahin tells me, to first simulate the bike geometry my body dictates and then improve upon it, based upon my pedaling eccentricities and comfort preferences.
But we’re a ways away from eccentricity evaluation; Sahin explains that will be the final step of a three-step process and first up is the collection of what he calls my “basic measurements”. “Basic” is a misnomer; sure, he records the standard stuff like height and weight, but also the precise lengths of my humerus, radius, tibia and femur—on both sides. Hydraulic tools are involved. This man officially knows more about my anatomy than my former fiancés (I have two of those. Well, really only 1.5. Long story.)
As he feeds the numbers into special software on his computer, Sahin excitedly reports that I have “exceptionally long femurs” and a “significantly larger-than-average rib cage”. Both of these boost my cycling ability, he says, by giving me powerful levers with which to pedal and super-sized lung capacity to fuel the effort. This sounds like cyclist-speak for, “Hey babe, nice legs and rack!”—a thought that makes me laugh out loud. My signature rapid-fire giggle surprises Sahin; he stops what he’s doing long enough to shoot me a quizzical look. I stop laughing but don’t explain.
Sahin breaks the silence by telling me it’s time to move on to Phase 2—I am instructed to mount my trusty stead and pedal “normally”, which I suppose means I should try to forget that I’ve got lasers cutting red lines down my sensor-laden legs and that a video camera mounted on the wall at knee height is recording all the action.
As I pedal, Sahin stresses that this technology doesn’t exist in any normal bike shop. “A typical bike store sells bikes. A master fitter fixes problems,” Sahin says.
According to Sahin, Mav and I present him with myriad problems to fix. We are apparently not alone in being so problematic: Sahin tells me that of the 20,000 fittings he has done in his career, only one cyclist possessed the perfect bike. “Only one of 20,000,” he stresses. “That’s a lot of riders on the wrong bikes.”
I am certain his career scoreboard is about to change to two out of 20,001. He quickly bursts that bubble.
Like the eponymous character on the medical drama House, Sahin clearly skipped Bedside Manner 101; it is here that he callously calls Maverick a school bus. As if that’s not enough, he then launches an Internet browser to see how much Mav will fetch on eBay. What? I am beyond mortification. Fight or flight—my eyes dart towards the door the same way they did when my podiatrist ordered me to stop running six weeks before the 2011 Boston Marathon. My gray matter screams: Escape! Escape! Escape!
Sahin comes to his senses, Xs out eBay, and walks me through a partial punch-list of my problems (at least the bike-related ones):
Problem 1: Improper size. The top tube is what made Sahin dub my ride more school bus than race car: it is, he says, a full six inches too long for my anatomy. I’m 5’ 8’’—while that’s pretty tall for a girl, I’d need to be 6’1’’ to require a top tube as long as my Cannondale’s, Sahin says. It forces my hips to roll backwards, which hampers the blood flow to my legs. So my top tube is actually preventing my muscles from getting the oxygen they need to keep working.
Problem 2: Improper geometry. A less vertical than desirable seat tube angle resulted in me employing too much calf muscle and too little quadriceps. I wasn’t asking much of my quads, which should deliver most of the power to the pedals while in the TT position, he explains. This is why, Sahin says, my power meter readings (which are displayed on a small screen on the floor to my right) are struggling along in the mid 200s—they’re good but not great numbers.
Problem 3: Improper configuration. Tempted by the possibility of making my position on my road bike more “aero,” I had adorned Maverick with clip-on aero bars. After all, even the casual cyclist knows that the rider’s posture on the bike contributes to her/his overall performance. Sahin disabused me of the notion that attempting to look like a pro will automatically turn me into one – the clip-on bars assuredly provided a place for me to rest my elbows while in the “aero” posture, but their location was not ideal for my back length and range of saddle settings. As a result, my forearms were stretching me into a position in which I suffered a power loss (due to loss of core compression). The side-to-side placement of the clip-ons was further preventing my lungs from opening fully. Given my mileage and performance goals, this setup was handicapping my ride.
To sum up: not only is my bike cutting off my muscles’ oxygen supply, it’s forcing me to use the wrong ones. Fixing those problems wouldn’t “just” boost my bike speed. “Right now, you are ruining your run during the bike leg,” Sahin said. “Assuming the proper position on the bike will take the workload off of your running muscles, so that they will be fresh when you need them.”
It’s not all about biking and running faster—it’s also about remaining uninjured. “If you’re in the wrong position,” says Sahin, “not only do you impede your performance—you open yourself up to injury.”
For instance, Sahin said the far-back position my school-bus-sized top tube dictated put excessive pressure on my hip joints, causing them to grind with every turn of the crank arm. Assuming I keep grinding away at my going rate of 100,000 revolutions per month, it’s easy to see how my sockets might suffer.
Seeing = Believing
Now it’s time to get off Maverick and mount the Autobot. Sahin pushes a few buttons and shape-shifts the transformer into a carbon copy of my Cannondale. I clip in and pedal; he asks me if the FitLab bike feels like my ride. Yes, I say—if I were blind-folded I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. It feels like home.
Sahin tells me he is now going to “dial in” my proper geometry—shape-shift the Autobot once again, but this time into my body’s dream dimensions. I am fully prepared to hate that position, whatever it may be.
Ever heard the saying, “you don’t know what you don’t know”? Well, as soon as Sahin orders the Autobot to assume a more CJ-friendly geometry, well, I suddenly know what I didn’t know. “Holy cow,” is all I can say. Pedaling feels entirely different. The new position activates my core—I never realized I wasn’t using my abdominal muscles much on the Cannondale. Now they are locked and loaded. For lack of better words, my legs feel like they’ve “opened up”— they are freer, stronger. With my handlebars closer to my core I feel more in control, more aggressive.
The power meter, stuck in the mid-200s when I was on Mav, flashes 310. Then 320. Then 330. Sahin notices before I do. “Good job, Christine!” he shouts through a huge smile.
OK. I completely-totally-wholly “get” it. And once I get it there is no turning back—Sahin will be building me a new bike. Gasp! The decision is made, the deed is done. I still feel acidic about eBay, but an image flutters across my mind: Maverick hanging over the mantle in my bedroom.
The Bits That Made My Bike
With the session at an end, we stand in front of a red carbon LOOK and chat. I like the way that LOOK looks, and can’t help myself; I ask to see the frame Sahin has in mind for me. Like the Autobot, he shape-shifts; his tone and stature immediately change from accessible to exasperated.
We all know a bike is merely an amalgam of the simple machines we all studied in elementary school—screws, levers, pulleys, inclined planes, wheels and axles. But an aggravated Sahin explains that the component selection process is more akin to rocket science than to fifth-grade physics. “I can’t just show you a frame right now—a lot goes into this. Even subtle differences in geometry among similarly sized frames will have dramatic consequences based on your anatomy and riding style,” he says. “I have to study the video, study the numbers. It takes a lot of time.”
Those were the last words. I was really curious about my soon-to-be bike’s color. But I was smart enough to not ask.
Four days later I received an image via SMS text with a three-word message that sent my heart rate skyrocketing:
“This is yours.”
After eight hours of analysis, component selection, assembly, and set-up, Sahin’s just-for-me masterpiece was ready.
I get there as soon as I can. I take my first spin on Thoreau Street in front of the shop. This bike is the Autobot only better since it a) has racy red accents just like Maverick and b) will be going home with me.
On that maiden voyage, my new Quintana Roo gets its name. He is Skerritt, which is yet another Top Gun reference. In the movie, Maverick’s most critical flight-school instructor (Commander Mike “Viper” Metcalf) was played by the actor Tom Skerritt. Skerritt’s character is a little bit savvier, a little bit smarter, a little more Carnegie Hall than the brash Maverick. My Quintana Roo has all the passion of my Cannondale, but with a lot more polish and reason for swagger.
Gearing Up for Season Three
To sum up, a master bike fitting is neither for the faint of heart nor the tight of wallet. Before you pick up the phone to schedule an appointment at Ata’s FitLab or someplace like it, make peace with the fact that you’ll be joining the ranks of triathletes whose bike expenditures are loftier than those “averages” noted in the USA Triathlon survey. The tri bikes Ata builds range from $2,000 to $25,000. If you’re ready to stop selecting your rides based on weight, brand or color and want to put your body in the optimal position for both power and injury prevention, the extra cash will be money well spent.
It certainly was for me. Good Lord willing, I’ll compete in the Age Group National Championships again in the summer of 2012. But I’ll leave Maverick above the mantle. Upon exiting T1, I’ll clip into my perfectly fitting Quintana Roo race car and join the 22-plus MPH Club.
Now…what will you clip into?