February 7, 2013

The Hard Sell

It is a good thing I am not in the business of selling used cars or something.

Got this email from J:

Hi Walt,
I talked to you a long, long, long time ago about starting a project for me. I never followed through with it but your name has kind of always been in the back of my mind for a new frame and I’m coming to you now with a more interesting request.
I have really, really bad shoulder and neck pain during and after I ride for more than an hour or so. It’s really sucky. I’m sure a lot of it has to do with my anatomy and general riding style but I’m wondering if it also has to do with fit. The bike I currently have is a Niner EMD and I like it a lot. My friend who built it up for me is a bike mechanic and he’s pretty good at assessing fit so it fits me pretty well. However, I’m sure since its a stock frame and he’s not a bike builder that the fit is off enough to be causing some discomfort.
I was just wondering if you’ve built for anyone coming from a similar situation and if you’re able to make a frame and tweak the build enough to alleviate some of the pain in my neck and stuff. I really want to do a 12 and potentially 24 hour race one day but I’m thinking that will never happen until I can get the pain under control.
Thanks in advance for your help,

My response:

Hi J – 


Being in pain on your bike sucks! I’d love to build you a new bike that solves all your problems! 

That said, I think there are some other steps you should try before getting a new bike.  

-Go get a professional bike fit from a facility (probably NOT a bike shop) that handles fits for people with medical/physical issues. The Boulder Center for Sports Medicine in Boulder does that, there are other places around the country that also do it. Bike shops are usually not equipped to do a really good fit for people who are in pain. 

-Talk to a physical therapist. It may very well be that there are muscles that are weak in your back/neck/shoulders or an old injury is being aggravated. In those cases, the solution is going to be to change yourself, not change your bike. Often bike folks have terrible weak core muscles – go take some yoga classes! 

-If none of that works (or the fit folks tell you you need something really unusual you can’t do on your current bike), drop me a line and let’s talk further.  

-Even if you don’t want to do any of those things, get your bike shop friend to get you a big pile of stems of different lengths and rises and try some different positions on the bike. It might be that you just need to sit more upright (or the opposite). Remember that physiological problems at one point (say, your hands and wrists at an odd angle) can transmit themselves to other parts of your body (ie, your shoulders and neck can end up hurting) so you could also try different sweep/width handlebars and grips.  

-Suspension can be your friend too. Try a full suspension bike (demo/rent/borrow) that fits you and see if that helps. Try a suspension seatpost. Let a little air out of your tires, even.
So basically, do some experimenting and see if you can figure out what’s happening. I can’t diagnose you remotely and I’d be lying if I said I could guarantee a bike I built you would solve all your problems, since we’re not really sure what’s causing them.  

Once again, I’m happy to build you a bike and I bet you’d love it, but it sounds to me like there might be more going on than a bad bike fit and you should make sure you need a custom bike before you spend big money on one. If you just want one and think custom bikes are cool, of course, that’s a good reason too! 🙂 

-Walt 

There are 2 misconceptions about custom bikes (and custom builders) that I think are worth clearing up here:

1: Framebuilders aren’t omniscient. Anyone who tells you they can diagnose and solve all your fit problems via the internet is more interested in getting your money than solving your problems. In many cases you can do a good fit with just some body measurements and current bike geometry/setup numbers but in some cases you just have to put the person in different positions and have them ride until they figure out where they are comfortable. Sometimes they’re NEVER comfortable and you have to figure out if PT or medical intervention is going to need to happen. That is WAY beyond my expertise (not to mention my pay scale!) so for people in chronic pain without an obvious cause – I have to defer to someone who can examine the rider in person.

2: When you get a custom bike you are really mostly paying for the intersection of fit and frame geometry that produces a bike that rides well. I could put a 4′ tall child on a 29er with a reversed stem and flipped over drop bars and probably get all her contact points in exactly the right places – but everything else about the bike would be horribly wrong. I want you on the right contact points (ie saddle, grips, pedals) but you also need to have the wheels far enough (but not too far!) in front/behind you to balance your weight well, be able to straddle the toptube, not hit your cranks on the ground constantly, not have toe overlap, etc, etc. THAT is where the value in a custom bike lies.

You can accomplish “fit” by moving your saddle and bars around with spacers, stems, setback posts, etc (ie, I can “fit” on a road bike that is 54cm or 60cm if I have a long enough seatpost for the small bike and a short enough stem for the big one), and most people already know pretty well where they feel comfortable. So fit is often easy. Making sure fit and frame geometry come together perfectly – that’s what’s hard.