For comfy cycling, make the bike fit the biker

Tim Gresh (left), co-owner of Velo Souplesse, takes measurements for Fernando Gallard, who came into the shop for a bike fitting.

Cycling is Fernando Gallard's favorite way of achieving fitness, having fun, and relieving stress - essential in light of his job fielding media queries for the Philadelphia School District.

When the weather is clement, Gallard, who lives in Wallingford, cycles four days a week, including jaunts of 40 miles or more on weekends. A cherished annual ritual is a birthday tour in May, when he and his buddies may pedal 200 miles.

But while Gallard loves cycling, he has never enjoyed it fully because he has never felt fully comfortable. Back pain, saddle sores, numb hands - one affliction or another has always limited his mileage and pleasure.

It was tolerable when he was young, but Gallard, 45, is no longer so supple and resilient. Thousands of dollars spent trying to improve his two-wheeled experience proved futile - until last week, when Gallard acted on a revelation: He needed a bike fitter.

Tim Gresh has made that his specialty. An elite-level amateur cyclist, Gresh, 25, and his business partner, Michael Chauner, 24, a pro cyclist who rides for a Swedish team, own and operate Velo Souplesse, a training center for cyclists in West Chester.

Souplesse is a cycling term for the ideal pedal stroke - one that is "fluid, powerful, and efficient," Gresh says. It's analogous to the flawless golf swing or the perfect tennis stroke, a Zen-like state when rider and bicycle move in complete synchrony and harmony.

Like Gallard, Gresh has had problems in the saddle. From the moment he began cycling seriously at age 13, he experienced low back pain. He sought remedies from various doctors, physical therapists, bike fitters - all to no avail.

Frustrated and intrigued, he devoured research about human anatomy, bicycle engineering, kinesiology. His quest led him to an Australian named Steve Hogg, the bike-fitting equivalent of a horse whisperer. Hogg's approach to bike-fitting is holistic and takes into account such factors as relative muscle strength and flexibility, pelvic symmetry, leg-length discrepancy and foot pronation.

Gresh began corresponding with Hogg by e-mail, absorbing his wisdom, adopting his precepts. Eventually, Gresh arrived at a diagnosis: His pelvis was twisted. With guidance from Hogg, he made several bike adjustments, including strategic shims, to compensate for this anatomical quirk, and finally, at age 21, he was able to ride pain-free for the first time. "It was awesome!" Gresh says.

Solving Gallard's problems was more straightforward. Frame size was not an issue because Gallard's $2,500, 30-speed, steel-frame Waterford touring bike had been built expressly for him. But it didn't take long for Gresh to figure out why Gallard was feeling uncomfortable. His seat wasn't back far enough to support the bulk of his weight, and his handlebars were too far out front. Gresh solved the problem by installing a new seat and more ergonomic handlebars, which he adjusted so Gallard could reach the brake and gearshift levers - "the default position" - without leaning too far forward.

"You should have a slight bend in the elbows," Gresh advised.

Generally, the top of a bicycle seat should be level. After nudging the seat fore and aft and determining the optimal position, Gresh adjusted the seat's height. Your knees should be slightly bent when your leg is extended at the bottom of the stroke, Gresh said, and your feet should be level during the descending phase.

Gresh recommends cycling shoes because they provide a firm platform and inhibit your feet from flexing. Gallard wears cycling shoes, and Gresh altered the location of the cleat in the soles of his shoes to maximize cranking power.

Gresh charges $275 for a fitting, which typically lasts about an hour but can take as long as three if a cyclist's problems are knotty. Gresh knows all the bike-fitting rules of thumb but refuses to follow them slavishly. To Gresh, bike-fitting is as much art as science. In keeping with the spirit of his mentor, his judgments tend to be informed more by his eye than by the tape measure. He makes use of the latest technology but is unafraid to defer to intuition and instinct.

"The only right solution is the one that works," he says. "The goal is for the bike and rider to mesh and move as one, for your bike to become an extension of your body."

When Gresh had finished fine-tuning his adjustments, he invited Gallard to mount his bike, which was clamped in a stationary position, its rear wheel resting on rollers. After a couple of minutes in the saddle, Gallard delivered his verdict: "It feels good. But the real test will come when I put in some miles."

For Gresh, bike-fitting is an evolving process, a matter of successive approximation, and he invites his clients to return for further tweaks and refinements.

Gallard has an even disposition and seems immune to surges of exuberance. Nevertheless, his euphoria was palpable as he contemplated the prospect of warmer weather and cycling without discomfort. "A proper fitting," he declared, "is one of the best investments you can make."


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Contact columnist Art Carey at 215-854-5606 or