It wasn't too long ago that the every bike purchase was a pretty quick, very unscientific affair. Unfortunately, that is still the case for a large majority of cyclists.
Luckily, in the last 10 or 15 years, the bike fitting movement has led to more engagement during a trip to your local bike shop, as well as happier riders.
What is bike fitting? Essentially, it's making sure that a bike frame and all its component provide an efficient and comfortable bike ride for the cyclist.
Who needs one? Well, almost anyone ... especially if you ride more than once or twice a week. Not everyone needs to spend hours getting fit (it wouldn't hurt) - many cyclists could get by with much shorter appointments and come out not too much worse for wear, but a poorly fitting bike is actually a pretty common occurrence. Common enough to keep me busy doing 200 bike fits every year.
So what should a bare-bones fitting consist of?
1. Interview - Sit down (yes, sit down....this conversation shouldn't occur while the employee is wrenching on a bike, or manning the register) and spend a few minutes explaining how you're going to ride the bike - Where? How often? Type of terrain? Goals for this bike? etc.
2. Physical assessment - The employee doesn't need to have a degree in exercise physiology or practice as a PT (although, again, it wouldn't hurt) but they should be able to run you through a few simple physical tests for flexibility and strength to get even a vague idea of your abilities.
3. Bike assessment - At this point, get on the bike, but not the silly little ride in the parking lot. Have the bike set up on an indoor trainer so your posture can be viewed for more than a few seconds at a time.
Beware of anyone declaring the fit "good" after just a minute of watching you. Even just getting the correct saddle height usually takes a few adjustments to see how you respond to higher or lower positions, and then handlebar height and reach is likely to be changed at least once before moving on.
How do you determine if it's "good"? If your fitter skipped any or all of the previous two steps then you should make them change saddle height and bar reach/height a few times so YOU can determine what feels best. If they did a thorough job in steps 1 and 2, then you can probably take their advice, but your "feel" on the bike should still trump all. After all, you have to ride the bike. If you're not sure, ask lots of questions, delay a bit, or just ask for more time - tell them to go away for 10 minutes while you ride. Don't be afraid to ask for an extended test ride; it's best to spend as much time as possible on the bike before buying.
4. Follow-up - Ask if follow-up fit sessions, even just quick tweaks, will be included (for even a few weeks) since you are likely to find new issues when you spend a full hour or two with varying terrain on the road or trail.
All this could take anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours, but think of it as an insurance policy for the utility of your bike and you're overall riding satisfaction. If your bicycle fits well, you're more likely to ride it ... and riding is the point, right?
John Weirath is a physical therapist and a (very slow) runner, cyclist, and triathlete who fits and custom-builds bikes right here in GJ. Find out more at www.bicyclestudiogj.com.