Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Guru On The Mountain-Top

Sometimes, when you want something done right, you go to an expert.  Because when it comes to fitting my bike, I have tried to do it myself.

In my mind, there are four bike-fitters in the U.S. that are worth a special trip, one for each major region.  David Greenfield of Elite Cycles in Philadelphia, PA; Mat Steinmetz of Retul in Boulder, CO; Dan Empfield of "I only just invented the triathlon-specific bicycle, as well as the F.I.S.T. fitting system, and know a thing or two about putting a unique human body on such a device" [and that's reality, not bragging]; and John Cobb, formally of Blackwell Research, now of Cobb Cycling (and some of the most commercially applicable research in aerodynamics and comfort inducing research in saddle design) in Tyler, TX.  Each of these men has his own approach - rider feel vs. numbers vs. a trained eye and tinkerer's ingenuity - but some of them have been fitting riders longer than the other fitters have been alive, so...

I was fit by Davey G. back in the spring of 2010, and for 18 months the result of his organic approach to fitting felt great, until, as I aptly described in a previous post, it didn't anymore.  But what was a special day trip from DC would be a special weekend trip from Texas, and I just so happen to now live much closer to John Cobb.

Having identified and located the Guru, the parable of the truth-seeker seeking the answer to the meaning of life - or a bike fit - begins.

As per the parable, the trip to the mountain-top is arduous.


Just me, East Texas, and the occasional semi-truck.

Maybe there will be something to see if I turn on the brights...

As per the parable, the mountain-top is desolate, or more favorably described, under-stated.



In this case the answer to the meaning of a bike fit is found in the back of a used car dealership.  And before you laugh or jump to an under-educated conclusion, I can now say that the best bike fit I have ever received in my life took place in the least auspicious place I have ever received a bike fit in my life.  Don't judge the Guru simple because you find him in simple surroundings.




Unlike other Gurus, especially those in India, this one does not have a sacred cow.  Here is John uncovering and hacksawing off a piece of a saddle of his own design so that said piece would no longer be around to bother me.




But just as his own creations are not sacred, neither are those of others.  Here is John blithely hacksawing off a piece of my bike - yes, of my bike - because it was preventing the correct positioning of my seat-post and saddle.



And that is the answer to the secret of the bike fit: a basic, solid, supportive fit of a body in its most powerful position is everything, and no limitation - aside from ingenuity and the necessary structural pieces required to make a two-wheeled bike not collapse beneath you - should get in the way.

Just because some geek in a back office decided that aero extension arm rests should not attach directly to the aero extensions without a spacer doesn't mean your aero extension arm rests cannot attach directly to the aero extensions without a spacer.  If this means drilling new holes in non structural pieces and chiseling out plastic-in-the-way-of-progress with a hacksaw, so be it.  Hacksaw, please, Nurse, stat.

Here I shall digress a moment.  To all the women and applicable men out there who have not yet tried one of John Cobb's saddles, I ask a single question:

WHY NOT?

Think about the softest, most vulnerable parts of your body and what it feels like to sit on them, on a really uncomfortable surface.  Like straddling the top rung of a fence with no where to rest your feet.  Now imagine if someone fit people - five billion variations on a single theme - for decades, listening to their likes and dislikes, and then invited a ton of those variations to sit on temporary molds fashioned on those verbal cues, and only then designed a saddle - a line of saddles! - with the express purpose of protecting those parts and providing support through the solid, non-nerve ending parts around them, no matter how unique it looks.  And then is entirely willing to take apart and cut up his creations to meet your specifications exactly, or to support you doing the same thing at home, with a six month guaranteed return policy.

Now imagine if someone imagined a saddle the way it is "supposed" to look (or how the "next big break-through" will look) - whatever the heck that means; my crotch doesn't need a big break-through, it just needs pain-free riding - and only then having you try how it feels.  Oh, and once the seat clamp has scratched the rails, it's yours for eternity.

The former describes John's long-standing, and on-site, R&D; the later describes pretty much everyone else's.  For once, you have permission to think entirely on behalf of your genitals - and they will thank you for it.

John does not lie when he says that every fit is learning experience and R&D opportunity for him.  I described some pretty-painfully-obvious-to-me discomfort, something he said he had never heard before.  Off came the cover, out came the knife, and goodbye offensive foam. 




Then some surgical staple gun action and good as the factory floor!  Only custom!


Later John showed aero extension arm rest makers just how necessary some of their plastic was.  Pretty darn unnecessary was the verdict.


The arm rests did need some minor shimming to effect the correct angle, and so he made some.  I mean, of course, doesn't everybody, right?  A few small washers and an electric drill and my forearms were once again happy campers.

All of this was not because John enjoys dismantling bike components (although I certainly found the process had a unique speak-truth-to-power feel) but because some not-so-subtle changes needed to be made so that my body in its most powerful position could fit on my bike, while maximizing comfort.  And John was not trying to fit a square peg - me - in a round hole - my bike.  I am short and have some strange morphologies, and somewhat by chance, the bike I walked in with is only one of three made by any company anywhere that could accommodate - and even then, only after all of the hacking and drilling and cutting described above - the fit I walked out with.  If anything, he was trying to further square out the corners of the squarest hole available so that the square peg could get through.  Others, it seems, had been rounding off my corners - limiting the use of my own body - to better fit a round hole.

For someone of my analytic take on things and own tinkering background, the experience was made truly engaging by the education to be gleaned from the one-liners dropping left and right.  Basically, you are in the presence of a man who has done more wind-tunnel testing - on pretty much everything - and functional comfort fabricating than, well, a whole slew of the people who try to sell you popular triathlon gear on a daily basis.  One sentence and an entire sub-industry of almost universally adopted bike gear is marginalized - with data to prove it!  Another and whoops, well, I might be doing some seamstressing on my tri kits.  With two fingers he touches the side of your leg while you ride to palpate a certain point.  He found this point through two years of physiological testing with 12-channel EMGs; now he can tell if you are in the proper position, muscularly, just by touching it.

Some people, as they gain education, are "closed," become narrow and limited.  Others are opened, far wider than many of us could ever hope to be, and learn to think without limitations.  A mere few of that number know how to bring others along for that experience.   John Cobb is one of that number.

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