Five bike fitting fads that hold you back

How to identify and avoid them

Cycling is a sport of tradition.

And with tradition comes baggage: the accumulated, common peloton knowledge that gets passed on and on...

While tradition has a place and can protect us from trendy and often dangerous fads, it also holds us back, refuting and often attempting to demonize beneficial advances.

In this article we'll uncover the 5 most critical fads that can reduce your performance or even hurt you.

Cycling is also a sport of technology - more so than tradition.

Fortunately for us, much research and effort is devoted by Sports Medicine professionals, bicycle/components manufacturers and cycling industry professionals with the goal of finding more and better performance.

Sometimes, the results of these efforts are so revolutionary and advanced that they cause a huge leap forward in the entire industry, leaving behind an obsolete knowledge base and spurring a whole new mentality -and even new industry segments.

This has been especially the case with bike fitting, where the advances in the last few years have completely shattered the knowledge of everything we thought we knew about the relationship between a human and a bicycle. Modern bike fitting broke through performance barriers once thought impossible to pass.

But for every leap forward, there is a baggage of accumulated knowledge (now obsolete), experience (in need of updating) and groups of nay-sayers that tend to persist and hold back progress.

In cycling that baggage is the all-pervasive old-school common knowledge of how a cyclist should be positioned on a bike. And because this is a sport of tradition, while fads come and go, old-school bike fitting misinformation is still out there, permeating everyday communications, being repeated over and over, passing down from cyclist to cyclist and creating false illusions of competence.




What happens when technology makes a leap

Think what the creation of low-voltage, miniaturized strain gauges has done to jump start a whole new industry segment: power meters. And look at how it completely changed the way we train. It created a whole new knowledge of training methodology - while spurring a new breed of coaches and making coaching a multi-million dollars industry.

Bike Fitting has gone through a similar, but more technologically significant leap with Retül 3D motion capture technology. It just didn't change the methodology of bike fitting; it revealed new, deeply hidden secrets of human bio-dynamics and bio-mechanics that created a whole new bike fitting paradigm for performance.                              

In this article, we address the most common old-school fads. The ones that not only are the most common, but also hold you back the most.

You know them by heart: the ones you think are the tenets, the fundamentals of biking because they seem to be repeated by everyone. Young or old, everyone mindlessly recites these fads as if they were commandments with absolute, unquestionable truth. And so, you have come to believe them.

Modern bike fitting science has proven these fads are not to be trusted. You are better off updating your book of common cycling knowledge if you are to move forward.

Let's look at these old-school fads. Lets find how they came to be, talk about how they became obsolete and why they actually hold back your performance.

  1. Low back for aero

  2. Aero knees

  3. Cleat position

  4. Plum line

  5. Mountain bikers don't need fitting



Fad: You must ride low down to be aero and go faster

Everyone wants to go faster. So this fad lodged itself into the imagination of every cyclist: cheating the wind by reclining one's body down and forward on the handlebar, stretching out long and low.

The practice: Install a long stem, slam it. Get low. Lower.

The trouble: a rider that is stretched out and low is loosing power, has trouble breathing and is more prone to injuries in the hip, back and knee area.

The issue: Thanks to tools like Retül 3D motion capture and Racemate Computrainer power meter, wind tunnel testing and sports medicine studies, we have been able to conclusively prove that a low back clearly hurts human performance and doesn't improve aero. Power significantly drops after a certain back angle while the aero advantage of the more tucked-in position remains the same or gets worse.

From a biomechanical point of view, pedaling when the back is too low, creates problems at the lower back and hips.

Lower back: a stretched out position locks the abs and lower back in position because the handlebar reach is too long. Pedaling is an up and down motion. It requires a fluid interaction between the upper and lower body. A locked back negates this interaction and robs you of power and comfort.

Hips: when the back is too low, the hip are too compressed at the top of the pedal stroke, robbing a cyclist of power in most parts of the pedal stroke. Clearing the top most part of the pedal stroke becomes troublesome and reduces massively the ability to generate power.

From a purely aerodynamic point of view, it was also proven that a flat back creates more drag than a properly curved one. This is related to the issue of extraction of stagnating flows. A flat back causes the air flow to stall immediately behind the helmet, in the back and neck region and also in the abs/pelvis/quad area. This causes an increase in drag as compared to being more upright.

Tell tale signs: locked elbows, stretched out arms, back is too flat, quads hit stomach.

The consequences: pain in hands, lower back, shoulder and neck. The legs hit the stomach and the hip flexor are sore after riding. Knees often feel sore too. Loss of power, loss of comfort and loss of aero efficiency


A poorly position cyclist.

The Aerodynamics of the over-extended rider. Stalled flow (the green/red eddies) over the back, neck and in the pelvic/quad area cause high pressure. The areas of high pressure fight each other and push flow away. This reverses flow direction at the pelvic and quad area and interferes with oncoming flow: increased drag.

THE FIX: Depending on the application (road, Tri, MTB, racing, recreational riding long distance, etc.) and on the current situation of the rider (flexibility, injuries, pain, etc.), the position of a rider is adjusted so that the handlebar reach and stack are supportive of a comfortable position while improving both power and aerodynamics. A bend at the elbows is induced by selecting the correct length stem and height (rather than by forcing oneself in that position) and an optimized back angle is induced, so drag is reduced.

From a biomechanical point of view, a properly positioned rider is able to engage the upper body and abs to pedal in harmony with the lower body. This helps in generating more power as it unlocks the ability to use the arms and the core in assisting the legs in the down stroke (much like when climbing and pulling hard on the handlebar).

By inducing a fluid relationship at the upper/lower back point, the typical strain that causes pain in the lower back is improved. This also helps taking pressure off the hands and shoulders/neck.

From an aerodynamic point of view, a higher back is also better (up to a point).

Why a higher position is more aero than a lower? Doesn't it sound counter intuitive?

A good aerodynamicist knows that creating a speed differential in the air between the upper part of the body (the back/shoulder/neck) and the lower part of the body (the torso/pelvis/quad) is vital in enabling the air flow to be extracted from the typical points of stagnating air. This is done by creating pressure differentials much like in an airplane wing: the upper part must be a longer path.

When done right, the air above the back is induced into a lower pressure and sucks out the air below the abs/quad/pelvis through the underbelly of the saddle to form a uniform and clean airflow - reducing drag. This can be done only by rotating up the back and creating a curvature at the spine -and it can be done so that it's biomechanically and ergonomically much more effective.

The improvement: pain is averted in lower back, hands, neck/shoulders, hips, knees. Power is significantly improved. Aero is more efficient. Win-Win.

A properly positioned cyclist

The Aerodynamics of the fit rider. Air flow over the back is smooth and fast, creating a low pressure. The high pressure in the pelvic/quad area due to stalled flow (the green/red eddies) causes the stagnant air to be sucked below the saddle: reduced drag.



Fad: You must ride with your knees close to the top tube to be aero

This is a particularly damaging fad. Someone in the old days decided that keeping the knees close to the top tube reduced the drag. It spread like wildfire. Of course it did. Everything that's supposed to make you faster must be good.

The practice: You are told by countless people in the peloton to hold your knees tight to the tube. You see all the fast, skinny guys doing it. It must be right.

The trouble: forcing oneself to keep the knees tight to the top tube creates an unnatural position that puts tremendous strain on your knees, ankles and hips. It also can cause hot spots under your feet.

The issue: pushing the knees inward causes a mis-alignement between your foot-knee-hip alignment. When pedaling with the knee out of the plane created by the femur-tibia, the knee tracks outside the foot.

Whenever the knee doesn't track aligned with the foot, tremendous strain is put on the IT band, ACL/MCL, ankle's peroneal tendon, and hip flexors/abductors. The forces are directly related to the intensity and the RPM: the harder you go, the more likely the damage.

Ironically, it has been well-documented in wind tunnel testing that there is no aerodynamic advantage. Actually, the opposite. Keeping the knees in increases induced drag by as much as 15%.

Tell tale signs: knees close to the top tube, forming an angle between the femur and the tibia and twisting the ankle.

The consequences: damage can occur in the knees, IT band, ACL, peroneal tendon in the ankle and hip flexors. Most commonly, IT band inflammation is too severe to ride comfortably. In some severe cases, some damage can be permanent, especially in the knee patella area. Loss of power.


A cyclist keeping the knees too close to the top tube

The Aerodynamics of the knees to close to the top tube. The incoming air is first pulled in at the hips and quads and then pushed out by the knees. This creates a stalled flow (the green/red eddies) near the knee. It also causes the air flow to turn outwards and interfere with oncoming flow: increased drag.

THE FIX: Stop it! Just stop doing this to yourself. There is no aerodynamic advantage but there a wealth of injuries to be found in engaging in this behavior.

The IT band is a severe risk, and so is the knee. In 2 hours you do over 10k pedal revolutions at 90 RPM. Every one of those revolutions aggravates your knee and IT band a little more.

From an aerodynamic point of view, the drag created by keeping your knees close to the top tube is actually more than with your knees correctly aligned to your feet.

It's counter-intuitive to most of us. We experience drag by the simple changes in the shape of an object. A flat hand against the wind is more aero than a perpendicular palm. This is called form drag. Common experience tells you that a sharp object is more aero than a blunt. But that's where you go wrong.

Drag is more directly related to how efficiently you manage the air flow rather than the sharpness of an object. A good example is a golf ball. You would think that the dimples in the ball should make it less aero. But in reality, they make it more aero and faster. That's because it has less induced drag.

Induced drag is the invisible drag that is responsible for much of the resistance objects encounter when in an a flow. It has to do with the way the flow goes past a shape and separates from the object. The more separation, the more drag. Think of a wake behind a boat. That's induced drag; it slows down the boat. A golf ball uses the dimples to force the flow not to separate and therefore can fly further.

Knees pointed to the inside create a shape that pushes the air away at an angle from a cyclists (same as the elbows). Air flow doesn't like making turns around angles. So when pushed outward by the knees angled to cradle the top tube, instead of following the shape of the leg and aligning to the direction of motion, air flow separates at the quad/knee, creating induced drag. Lots of it. One study put it at 15% more drag.

So why doing that to yourself?

The improvement: less knee/IT band, ankle/foot, hip pain. More aero. More power

A cyclist pedaling with properly aligned knees.

The Aerodynamics of the knees aligned to the top tube. The incoming air is pushed out by the knees significantly less. This reduces or prevents the stalled flow near the knee. It also keeps the air flow aligned with the body so it doesn't interfere with oncoming flow: decreased drag.


Fad: You must lock your cleats straight

This fad established itself as a solution to improve efficiency in the pedal stroke since the inception of the clipless pedal in the early 80s. It stuck, in the face of the experiential and medical knowledge of the damage it does.

The practice: you are told your toes point out/in. You are told to buy fixed cleats to align your toe straight because it's more efficient. You are told foot floating on the pedal is bad.

The trouble: floating is nature's way to deal with revolution. Because the foot reverses direction during the pedal stroke and engages different muscles that are not symmetrically attached to the bones, float naturally occurs. Every cyclist floats 2 deg or more, no matter how technical the pedal stroke is. The foot moves slightly from Left to Right during the pedal stroke, especially at the top and the bottom of the pedal stroke where the foot reverses direction. Cleats that allow 6-8+ degrees of float are ideal, and should be used by all cyclists. The trouble is that most manufacturers sell new pedals with reduced float cleats, and many "experts" at bike shops steer customers to low/no float cleats, further aggravating this problem.

The issue: Some people have a natural tendency to point their toes out or in. It's nature's way to deal with their particular biomechanical configuration of bones and muscle attachments. It's not good or bad (in most cases, but for a few people it may point to an underlying medical issues). It is what it is. And it must be protected, not corrected.

From a strictly mechanical point of view, not pedaling with your toes perfectly aligned to the direction of pedal is slightly less efficient. That's where the fad originated from: a well-intentioned mechanical engineer studying pedaling mechanics. But humans are not machines, made of push-rods and bolts. Human movement can't be reduced to bones = metal rods, joints = eyelets and bolts. This would imply that pedaling motion is strictly in 2 Dimentions.

Humans have posture and gait habits. Humans move in 3D, even when performing a task that is mostly activated in a single plane (like pedaling). Ignore this notion at your own peril!

If your gait's tendency is to have a toe eversion at the ground contact point (AKA duck footed), then you will also pedal pointing out the toe. By forcing the toe to point straight, you are forcing a set of muscles, tendons and bones to re-orient in a unnatural position. The body is smart and will compensate the forced-toe alignment with a twist and/or rotation at the ankle, pushing the knee and hips to accommodate for the natural gait. The result? Your leg will twist and turn, forcing the knee out of plane. This produces essentially similar results as fad #2: lots of issues at ankles, feet, knees and hips.

Tell tale signs: the knee has a jerking motion when pedaling up and down. Shifts rather quickly (or even violently) from side to side at specific points of the pedal stroke. Rider waves on the bike.

The consequences: pain in the foot, ankle, knee and hips. Often IT band inflammation and pain in the knee, under the patella upper and side.




THE FIX: Don't install fixed or reduced float cleats. Allow float to naturally happen. You may tighten the pedal tension if it feels loose, but not too tight that the cleat struggles floating and unclipping.

How can you tell if you have a fixed or reduced float cleat? Look at the bottom of the shoes and your cleats.

This is the list of cleats to avoid:

  • Shimano Red tips (locked)
  • Shimano Blue tips (reduced float 2 deg)
  • Look Black  (locked)
  • Look Gray fixed (reduced float 4.5 deg)

Buy only:

  • Shimano Yellow tip (8 deg of float)
  • Look Red (9 deg of float)
  • Speedplay (15 deg to fully unrestricted float)
  • Shimano SPD (8 deg of float)
  • CrankBrothers Eggbeaters (up to 22 deg of float) NOTE: MTB-specific

What if your toes points out, naturally, but your knees still hurt after you install any of the above cleats/pedal systems?

Get your cleats aligned by a professional. A gait analysis and a Retül bike fit session are the best approach to the problem. It's not uncommon for duck-footed individuals to have as much as 15 deg of toe eversion in their gait. The max float of popular road cleats is 8 deg. So your natural foot eversion takes up the entire float and hits the limits of the pedals.

Aligning the cleats to the gait of an individual, as compared to the centerline of the shoe is the key to a successful foot-pedal interface that protects knees, ankles and hips. That means that when the cleat is installed, it is rotated as compared to the mid-line of the shoe a certain angle. When you are clipped in and your toe turns out/in this alignment puts you in the middle of the float of your pedal. You'll be able to float 4-5 deg in each direction, relieving your knees of much strain.

It's a delicate and accurate operation that is best left to foot-pedal interface specialists who have extended experience.

The improvement: pain is averted in feet, knees, ankles and hips. Knees and IT band are protected. Pedal stroke is improved and RPM increase is often observed.



Fad: The seat position is set up with a plum line and heel on the pedal.

You have done this before. Your bike shop did the fit for you when you bought you new bike. In 5 to 10 minutes you are all set up and ready to go. But are you really?

The practice: Place the crank at 90 degrees, drop a plum line from the knee. If the line intersects your pedal axle, you are set. Place your heel on the pedal. If you leg is mostly extended, you are OK.

The trouble: This system is so arbitrary and fraught with inaccuracy that it is as bad as the false sense of security it creates. This cannot be considered bike fitting.

The issue: The old-school plum line and heel set-up has been around for over 40 years. In the old days, before bike fitting technology, this system was developed as as an approximate way to normalize fitting. It made a lot of concessions to exceptions and errors.

The methodology for measuring is in part to blame. The cyclist is asked to rotate the crank to a 90 deg angle, then a plum line is dropped from the knee. This angle is extremely hard to measure. But even if measured accurately with a spirit/digital level, the problem is that the bike is not level.

No one ever thinks of this issue. But if the bike is set up on a trainer and the front wheel is propped by a block, there is no guarantee it is level. When the plum line is dropped from the knee, a bike off-level will produce an off measurement. Just an error of 3 deg on the bike level (which is very small), will project the plum line 3mm off. That's a big error! And there's people using books for wheel blocks! (No thanks!)

Also consider that when a cyclist is in a static position, he/she will move to adjust to comfort to hold that position. He/she will never be in the same position as when pedaling. Which adds another layer of error.  

But the most significant error is where the measurement is made. Who is to say that the plum line should intersect the foot when the cranks are horizontal?  It's an arbitrary location that has been proven to be an extremely inaccurate predictor of the parameter it purposes to measure. 3D motion capture has shown us that.

And what about if you angle your toe down or up just a little when taking this measurement? This is the biggest error yet. An ankling movement of 10 deg results in the plum line moving by 20 mm! That's big. Bigger than the fit range allows, as a matter of fact.

Last, but not least, putting the heel on the pedal and having a little bend methodology has been proven to consistently deliver under-extended positions, with consequences on knee health.

Tell tale signs: Cyclist doesn't look right on the bike. Often, looks like sitting on a couch with a handlebar in hand. Rider complains of knee, hand, foot, neck and back pain.

The consequences: Rider is uncomfortable. There could be a propensity for injuries. If cyclist has special needs (due to gait like in fad #3, or due to any limitation/injury/special case), they go un-addressed. Big and Tall riders will have knee/hip/ankle/foot problems.





THE FIX: Get a Retul 3D motion capture bike fit. It is the only way to be properly fit and biomechanically set up in a neutral position.

Why does it make such a big difference? 3D motion capture is the only methodology measuring a cyclist's position while actually in live motion and in 3 dimensions and with IR sensors with 1mm accuracy. No stopping. No measurement bias. No rider re-positioning errors.

This is important because to be properly fit, a rider's movements on the bike needs to be captured with all the nuances as they actually happen. Then, an experienced fitter can use that data to make targeted decisions on what to improve in the bike fit. With no stopping, there are no errors.

A side note: video camera fitting systems are not motion capture. They video a rider while in motion (that's good), but they still stop the video at the old-school preconceived positions (that's bad) and measure there with on-screen tools. Bias is introduced by the video contrails and the accuracy of stopping at the exact location. But the big problem remains measuring at these preconceived locations. They are just not representative.

With the Retül live motion capture, this problem is eliminated. The system measures movements as they happen throughout the pedal revolution, not at some pre-conceived positions. By measuring everything in motion, a fitter can see max, min and avg movements as they happen. Knowing human biomechanics limits, the fitter can now make decisions based on not exceeding parameters, rather than one single point of measurement.

It's a revolutionary concept that improved so much the knowledge of bike fitting, human performance and biomechanics that it has Pro teams and amateurs flocking to it. This technology helps you go faster; longer; harder. And it does while keeping you healthy and extending the longevity of a cyclist well into the later years.

Have you noticed how in the past 10 years the age of the peloton has increased? There are many reasons, but one is modern 3D motion capture bike fitting.

The improvement: Maximized performance. Improved comfort. Improved Aero. Improved factors causing repetitive injuries (or averted).





Fad: You move so much on a mountain bike, you don't need fitting.

Everyone has heard this one. Because bike fitting is just for roadies and TRIs who sit on the bike in the same place all the time. So, this notion spread as if moving around on the bike is some sort of medicine against loss of power/handling or injuries.

The practice: Set up the bike by fad #4. Don't worry. You move too much to worry about power or injuries.

The trouble:  Studies have been done about how much time is spent in the saddle as compared to off. The surprising conclusion is that MTB riders spend 80%+ of the time in the saddle:

  • Single Speed 80%-90%
  • All-Mountain 85%-90%
  • XC riders 90%-95%

But more importantly, like all other cyclists, MTB riders also need to ride in a biomechanically neutral position to avoid injuries.

Mountain bikers are more prone to severe injuries than any other cyclist because of the high loads imposed by off-road riding -not just crashing. Making fitting all that much more important for both prevention and recovery from injury.

The issue: Riding off-road requires a combination of skills and fitness. The ability to generate power must be tempered against the ground conditions and the obstacles to navigate.

It becomes even so more important that a MTB rider should be able to deliver power uniformly to keep traction and handle the bike properly to effectively overcome obstacles.

Handling and power delivery are intimately related to the fit: the location of the Center of Gravity is directly connected to handling.  The CG location is affected by the seat position; this, in turn, is connected to the ability to generate power uniformly. A properly fit MTB rider will handle the bike better and will deliver power more uniformly to maintain traction.

MTB riders are also more prone to injuries due to the high power required. Biomechanical alignment to prevent injuries becomes even more important.

Tell tale signs: Rider sits low and back. Rider complains of the front wheel washing out. Rider often replacing grips or gloves, looking for more/less padding.

The consequences: pain in lower back, neck, shoulders, hands, knees, feet. Uncomfortable position. Uneven power delivery causing inconsistent or poor rear wheel traction. Front wheel washing out. Reduced or poor handling.



THE FIX:  Mountain bikers need bike fitting probably more than any other group. With the fad about saddle time debunked, MTB riders need to jump on the bike fitting bandwagon. Bike fitting is not about sitting in one place and pedaling away. In mountain biking, it is all about handling, weight balance and uniform power delivery. Not the same fit protocol as the roadies and the TRIs.

With a proper bike fit by a fitter specializing in MTB, a rider can gain tremendous confidence in own handling skills by being properly set up in the bike. With the proper stem length and seat alignment, the position of a rider can be made such that the weight distribution is optimal in the basic positions:

  • In the saddle (80%+ of riding time)
  • Forward in the saddle (climbing and long, flat trail accelerations)
  • Back in the saddle (climbing, descending)
  • Out of the saddle (obstacle navigation, hard climbing, steep descending, obstacles)

While optimizing the weight distribution, close attention is paid to the seating position. Some fit parameters like leg extension and knee-over-foot (both directly related to power delivery) have a marked set up that is very different by MTB application:

  • XC hard tail
  • XC full suspension
  • All-mountain
  • Single Speed

As a matter of fact, there are more fit protocols for MTBiking than any other discipline. Each protocol addresses the unique environment of the MTB rider, fine tuning the position to best operate in that environment in terms of  power delivery, handling, CG location and overall comfort VS. speed.  Clearly, a XC racer's fit on a hard tail is different from that of an all-day, all-mountain rider.

So, jump on the bike fitting wagon and see yourself fly through the trails.

The improvement: more and uniform power, better handling, better comfort. Protection from potential repetitive use and high power injuries.



"You don't have to be a Pro to get a bike fit. Everyone who climbs into a bike deserves to have a great experience, regardless of their fitness, expertise or equipment level."

A Perfect Bike Fit Pro Studio
Love your ride. Get a bike fit.

- Steffi Bici

A Perfect Bike Fit Pro Studio owner, founder, senior fitter

About the author: Steffi is a Master Bike Fitter with a long history in cycling. See here a full profile. She has worked for Colnago as US Director of Sales and Marketing, wrote for sports magazines such as "The Racing Post", "Miami Sports Magazine" and Activate Outdoor Sports Magazine". Steffi has raced with much success with an International UCI Pro license in road and mountain biking. Cross and Triathlon racing followed, not a Pro level, but with more success.

Considered an advanced fitter with a propensity for troubleshooting, she has built her reputation as the go-to person for bike fitting. Retül certification and a degree in Aerospace Engineering seem to be the right combination for her to understand the complex relationship between cycling biomechanics and aerodynamics and injury prevention/recovery.

A deep understanding of people's behavior and coaching add a layer of inter-personal connectivity skills that makes her fun to be around and completely understood in your cycling life hurdles. Never afraid of blazing her own trail, she has had several breakthroughs in bike fitting coming from her active mind and constant research.

Steffi established her own business, A Perfect Bike Fit Pro Studio in June 2010 after over a decade of bike fitting research, experimentations and success with customers winning local races and state championships as far back as 2001.




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