Monday, 25 February 2013

Can A Professional Bike Fit Make You Look Like A Pro?

As cyclists, we enjoy the privilege of being able to get closer to the professionals than in almost any other sport. I’m unlikely to get the opportunity to drive Lewis Hamilton’s F1 car, or play a competitive match at Wembley, but I’ve ridden the bike that carried Alberto Contador to victory in the Vuelta Espana and have competed on the same battleground as the world’s best cyclists; the iconic roads of the Tour de France.

Many of our clients look forward to similar experiences: a new Trek Domane, as ridden by Fabian Cancellara, or a GPM10 training camp, covering some of the same roads as this year’s Tour. I celebrate these opportunities, but more troubling is the desire that many of us have for emulating the position and posture of the professional peloton. Let’s accept it, we’ve all tried to ‘look like a pro’ at some point in our cycling ‘career’.

I spent many years idolising the long, low position that has been favoured by professional cyclists for generations. I even sought out frames that would facilitate this fetish; short head-tubes, long top-tubes and extended, negatively orientated stems to get the front of the bike as low as possible, whilst I sat imperiously on a narrow, sparsely padded saddle.

Association Does Not Mean Causation

I analysed and deconstructed the professional’s approach to the sport, in an attempt to learn from and emulate them. Unfortunately, I fell into a trap; I identified an association and assumed causation. That is to say, I assumed that because the pros ride their bikes long and low, that must be helping them to ride fast and far. However, as I began to ascend the ladder of elite cycling and later studied the performance of riders objectively, I came to learn that, often, the truth is quite the opposite.

Many of the positions I admired did not result in optimum performance, even if I could adopt them. For me and likely for many professionals, whilst their position and posture on the bike worked, to some degree, it did not help them to realise their full potential. I’d always assumed that professional riders had all aspects of their training and riding dialed and tuned to maximise performance. How else could they achieve such incredible feats of speed and endurance?

Genetic Freaks

Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. Increasing numbers of professional cyclists are embracing evidence-based training methods, individualised nutrition plans and technological innovation. However, for many elite and professional cyclists, this approach represents the exception, not the rule. My bubble burst when I came to the realisation that the reason that many professional cyclists were so good was not down to scientific training and optimised biomechanics. In contrast they were, in the nicest way possible, genetic freaks - endurance monsters, who simply used their huge capacities to overcome all kinds of obstacles, and succeed, without bothering to even think about getting them out of the way.

It turned out that some of the professional cyclists I longed to emulate were very much like American cars. Their mechanics were outdated, the suspension was rubbish, aerodynamic qualities were questionable, but they had enormous engines. Their motors were so big, that they could power over any surface at incredible speed, blast through boulder sized cobblestones, poor biomechanics and still get across the line first. Unfortunately for me, where the professionals were blessed with turbo-charged V8s, I had a 4-cylinder and no amount of suspension lowering or tinted windows would get me to the Tour de France.

Grin And Bear It?

Most professional riders are incredibly genetically gifted. They combine this with hard work and tenacity, to ride to the top of the sport. Some riders optimise everything to reach this pinnacle. Others are happy with their level and choose not to change their position, because there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to; if it isn’t broke, why fix it? For other riders, their tolerance to pain is so high, that they simply grin and bear it, and still get the results. After all, professional riders aren’t getting paid to have a nice time!

For us mere mortals, who ride our bikes for fun, who are often time-limited, with lower pain thresholds and have engines that need all the help they can get - we need to look at every legal opportunity available to us. It was the realisation that I needed to get the most out of my motor that lead me to CycleFit, to begin optimsing my biomechanics to improve my performance. As an aspiring professional rider, getting a professional bike fit resulted in tangible gains in comfort and performance. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to land a good pro-contract, but today, whilst my stem may have a couple of spacers underneath, I’m more comfortable than ever and get more out of myself, in my limited training time, than I thought was possible. Similarly, my clients, whilst taking time to come round to the idea of stems ‘flipped-up’ and slightly longer head-tubes, consistently report being able to ride faster, further with less effort.

Headset Spacers: The Devil's Work?

The ‘pro look’ starts off with an assumption, that headset spacers are the devil’s work and that your saddle should be as high as possible; herein lies the problem with trying to look like a pro, for professionals and amateurs alike! The answer is to make the bike fit the rider, not force the rider to fit the bike. At Stephen James Cycles, with our CycleFit process, we start with a blank canvass, learn as much as we can about the rider, design a position and advise on posture, so that the cyclist can achieve their personal goals, even if the resulting position doesn’t conform to an aesthetic tradition. However, if your heart is set on slamming your stem, I have some simple advice: get a custom frame with an appropriately sized head-tube and/or start a regular and rigorous stretching routine!!

We may not be able to able to make you look like your favourite rider, but we will do everything we can to help you get the most out of yourself and the bike, achieve your goals and enjoy this wonderful sport.

This article first appeared at

Monday, 14 January 2013

Professional Bike Fitting

About a year ago, I made the decision to focus my bike store, Stephen James Cycles, around professional bike fitting and mid to high-end road bikes. I put together this short video to explain what I spend a lot of time doing, these days!

Friday, 15 July 2011

Coffee, Cycling and Mobile Technology

It’s all part of a lifestyle shift, there are currently three trends in particular: coffee, cycling and mobile technology.” Jeffrey Young, analyst at Allegra Strategies.

And there I was thinking I was special. I came across this quote recently, in a article I was reading on my iPhone, not long before I went out for a ride.

Of the people I know who ride bikes, a significant proportion exhibit an above average appreciation of coffee (sometimes known as an obsession) and many own some form of mobile device. It seems like coffee and cycling were made for each other. Take Michael Albasini, for example. The Swiss professional cyclist rides for a team sponsored by a mobile device manufacturer and likes nothing more than “playing with my coffee machine to make the perfect cappuccino or espresso” according to his profile on his bike sponsor’s website. Matt Seaton, author of three books on cycling writes of the “mysterious affinity between cafes, coffee and cycling". Olympic hero Chris Hoy set up his coffee machine and grinder (a Rocket Espresso Giotto Premium Plus machine with a Mazzer Mini grinder, if I’m not mistaken) in his hotel room during February’s Track World Cup event. There’s even a photo of Sir Chris looking very pleased with himself and the machine.

There seem to be a lot of people out there like me. It’s partly the reason that I began this blog. If you’re reading this on your iPhone, HTC or whatever, sipping an espresso, thinking about riding your bike later, you are not alone.

Friday, 24 June 2011

My Brother’s Bicycle Powered Washing Machine

Last year, my brother, Richard Hewitt, spent some time volunteering in an orphanage in Burundi, Central Africa. He brought back some coffee beans for me and a sack full of inspiration for his Product Design degree at Sheffield Hallam. I woke up this morning and read an excited text to say that his final year project is being reported on all over the world. It really is, I even found a report on a Japanese website. I couldn’t read it, but it looked cool.

My brother’s invented a belt-driven, washing machine tricycle. It’s a simple idea: fit the ‘SpinCycle’ design to the back of a tricycle, load it with dirty clothes, detergent and water, ride around for ten minutes, drain, add rinse water, ride around for another 10 minutes to complete the cycle. If you want to go the extra mile, you can also use it to spin-dry clothes.

This may sound like a long process, so I’ll let Rich take up the story. "One of the tasks I did at the orphanage was to wash around 30 loads of children's clothes by hand. This was extremely time-consuming and I thought 'There must be an easier way than this', and it set off a train of thought that led me to this idea. "They use bikes a lot there so I came up with the idea that it could become a micro-enterprise for people. As well as saving a lot of time, energy and water, people might also be able to make a little bit of money. "In the development stage I looked at making it into a trailer for a bicycle, but it made more sense to create a complete unit. By removing the aesthetic aspects the design could easily be simplified and made cheaper, and in terms of a workable product it's almost there."

Cycling is truly the world’s most beautiful sport, so I love to see ideas that mean a bit of pedaling can create far-reaching benefits for society. If you’re anywhere near Sheffield, today is the last day of his exhibition. You can find out more about the SpinCycle at Sheffield Hallam University's Creative Spark exhibition and if you have any questions for Rich, feel free to contact me via twitter and I’ll put you in touch with him.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Lessons from the bike: protein shakes and family life

These days, there are no grueling interval sessions on the horizon, there isn’t even a structured training programme, but I’d argue that recovery is even more important. A 100km ride now fatigues me as a 160km route once did and I don’t have the luxury of spending the day on the sofa when I return. I actually have to function as a civilised member of the society: husband and father, maker of coffee for wife, domestic chef and occasional nappy changer of young son.

In my late teens and early twenties (only six years ago!), I had the privilege of being a full-time racing cyclist. I wasn’t a pro, but managed to scrape enough money together to concentrate on riding my bike. I appreciated the time, as I was aware it might not last, but I still took some of it for granted. I’ve come to realise how selfish I was able to be. Rolling in after a 5 hour training ride, the rest of the day was my own and no-one cared whether I behaved like a human being. Recovery was about maximising performance tomorrow and in the days to come, whether that was training or racing, and that usually meant a protein shake, a few carbs and an afternoon spent in front of the TV.

How life changes. I’m beginning to ride again for fun and fitness, but now I have a wife and 16 week old baby. Following the end of my cycling career I finished my degree in Sports Science. Ironically, I’m probably in a better position to understand training, eating and recovering appropriately, than I was whilst racing. It’s interesting because, whilst my time spent racing full-time was selfish in some ways, riding my bike has equipped me with endurance and skills that continue to serve me well today, be it in a completely different context. I appreciate the benefits of trying to optimise nutrition even when you don’t have much energy, getting enough sleep, managing time and simply carrying on, even when you’re dog-tired. All good reasons to get out and ride your bike and my excuse for walking round with a protein shake, even though I haven’t pinned on a number since 2005!

Monday, 6 June 2011

The gateway drug to cycling

My dream was to ride Le Tour, but when it became clear that my lungs and legs were not up to the job, I consoled myself with the opportunity to cover two editions of the race for Pezcyclingnews. I had the (some would say) privilege of being close enough to be spattered by Floyd Landis’ sweat as he crossed the line a broken man, following his implosion on Stage 16. I managed to snap a photo, just a face and arm poking into the shot, as he rolled past me and into the arms of his soigneur.

My father - a newcomer to the sport - suggested that Floyd should just attack the next day, to recover his lost time. I scoffed and explained how feats like that were impossible in ‘modern cycling’. On the road to Morzine Floyd made a fool of me, dominating the stage and re-entering the race for the yellow jersey. It’s a great memory, providing I choose to ignore the unpleasant sub-text of the story.

I love the Giro, the Vuelta provides late season fireworks, but nothing can beat the the grandiosity, the drama, the three weeks of gladiatorial battles that make up the Tour de France. Channel 4 coverage of Tour was my gateway drug to cycling. I still get excited when I hear the classic theme tune. Thanks to the internet, you can still enjoy it. Thanks to hindsight, we can now appreciate the fact that, when this clip was filmed, the first face you see probably had blood thick enough to plaster a wall.

The uncertainty of the Tour de France is captivating, when experience lulls the viewer into a false sense of security, unexpected performances can be breathtaking. However, I’m beginning to get a tired of wondering whether the winner of the race will eventually be stripped of his title. Some may say that, should Contador start the race, this year’s edition of the Tour may be run under a cloud of suspicion. I’m not sure. We can’t insulate ourselves from all disappointment, just as we can never mitigate against all risk. I suggest, let’s not let fear of being let down hinder our enjoyment of the event. Come July, I’ll take my chances and allow myself to be captivated again.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Coffee, Cycling And Caffeine - I Love It

Cycling and coffee are like blood brothers. I love cycling and I love coffee, so whilst drinking my second coffee of the day on this rainy bank holiday afternoon, I thought I’d embrace my inner geek, calculate how much caffeine I’m pouring into my body and find out what some of the scientific community thinks about that.

These days, I’ve got into the habit of drinking 3, 300ml cafetiere/french press brewed cups each day. Despite my love for the little fellas, I’ve given up on espressos for now - at home at least. My machine is knackered thanks to limescale and neglect, and it wasn’t that great to start with.

According to the Harvard School of Public Heath, for the purposes of most studies, a cup of coffee is 227.3ml(8oz) with 100 mg of caffeine. So apparently, each of my 300ml cups contains 132mg of caffeine, making my average daily intake 396mg: equivalent to about 5 cans of Red Bull (but thankfully without the sugar) or about 8 Pro Plus tablets.

Obviously, the 100mg in an 8oz coffee is an estimation. Caffeine content varies considerably according to a number of factors including the variety of bean, roast level, temperature of water, brew temperature, length of brew time, grind level, beverage size, but this figure gives a rough idea. Our Harvard friends suggest that drinking up to six cups a day (1,363ml/4.5 of my cups) of coffee is not associated with increased risk of death from any cause. So I should be alright then... unless I got my numbers wrong or another study comes out.

If anyone actually reads this blog, I’d be interested to hear how much everyone else is drinking/consuming, if only to justify my own consumption/give me a reality check!