From riding in the Yorkshire Dales as a child to winning the Helvellyn Triathlon in 2007, not to mention those two Olympic Games gold medals, Alistair Brownlee is clearly a man who’s spent a lot of time riding bikes.
Yet there comes a point in every athletes’ career when they step into the unknown, and for Brownlee – like fellow Olympic Games champion and future Ironman great Jan Frodeno before him – that’s a move into the non-drafting world of Ironman racing and the TT riding position.
Alistair Brownlee's key triathlon training sessions
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Brownlee’s middle-distance racing career has started with dominant displays at Challenge Gran Canaria, and Ironman 70.3s in St. George and Liuzhou. But as he plots his path to continued Ironman 70.3 success, the 30-year-old is looking for ways to secure an edge over the non-drafting competition. Following his recent hamstring surgery, Brownlee feels his position can evolve, especially as he’s spent relatively little time riding tri-specific bikes, including his Scott Plasma Premium.
“The bike fit for me is part of constantly looking to maximise my comfort and performance,” says Brownlee to 220, as we gained an exclusive insight into his latest bike fitting at the Manchester Institute of Health and Performance, led by Phil Burt.
As bike physios go, few come more acclaimed than Burt. The Cornishman came to British Cycling in 2006 and, over three Olympics, was a key component in the Great Britain Cycling Team’s ‘Medal Factory’. Sir Chris Hoy is just one athlete who credits Burt as being instrumental to his success. Having left British Cycling, Burt has set up his own cycling health consultancy, Phil Burt Innovation, giving the opportunity for all cyclists to access his expertise. And his book, Bike Fit: Optimise Your Bike Position for High Performance and Injury, has become recent a top seller. So it’s no surprise that the best athletes in the world are beating down his door. And one of the first athletes to book an appointment with him was one Alistair Brownlee.
Retül of the trade
Burt’s consulting room is packed with high-tech gadgets, including state-of-the-art Retül 3D motion capture equipment and geobioMized pressure mapping, but for Brownlee and any athlete seeing Burt, the most important item is a notepad. “Before I put anyone near a fitting jig, I’ll have a good chat with them,” says Burt. “Getting a complete history and understanding the athlete’s goals is the most crucial part of the bike fit.”
For Burt, a rider’s goals are an essential component of any bike fit but are often skipped over or ignored. Burt works on the principle of the ‘three pillars of bike fit’: aerodynamics, comfort/sustainability, and power generation. All riders have different cycling ambitions and, by finding these out, the relative importance of the three pillars can be assigned.
For example, a pursuit rider on the track will focus almost entirely on aerodynamics and power production, with almost no consideration being given to comfort or sustainability. For a long-course triathlete, comfort and sustainability is a key consideration. A great example of triathletes and fitters getting this wrong is when an age-grouper rides a huge percentage of a bike leg up on their bull-horns because they’ve purely focussed on aerodynamics and have ended up with a far too aggressive position. So for triathletes, does running off the bike need to be considered as a ‘fourth pillar’ of bike fitting?
“I don’t believe you can use bike set-up to positively save your legs for the run but what you can do, if your position isn’t optimal, is make the run a hell of a lot harder,” says Burt. “A good example is driving. If you do a long drive in a car seat that’s not positioned correctly for you, even the most limber of us will be stiff when we get out. It’s the same as running off a poorly-fitted bike.
“Additionally for multisport athletes,” continues Burt, “their run and swim training and athletic history can impact on the position that they’re able to hold on the bike. If you’re from a swim background, that’s time spent in supported lumbar extension so the lumbar flexion required on the bike, especially in an aggressive TT position, might feel strange.”
Proof in the riding
The next port of call is the physio’s couch for a thorough physical examination. Especially given the hip and hamstring surgery he’s undergone, this is a vital step for Brownlee and, using a number of examination techniques, Burt builds a picture of Alistair’s strengths, weaknesses and imbalances.
“A physical assessment is vital to understand the possibilities or limitations for improving your position on the bike,” says Burt. “The rider is adaptable and the bike is adjustable, understanding the first lets you optimise the second and means you’re working with a position and not against it.”
Alistair’s road bike is mounted on the Retül platform, motion capture dots and a network of wires are attached to points on his body and, as he pedals, a stickman Brownlee rides in synch on a screen flanked by a stream of data. For each joint there are a range of angles to give a rider their fit but this hard data has to be combined with the information previously gathered, blended with Burt’s experience of thousands of bike fits and, only if a few factors all point towards making a change, will it be considered.
“There are normative ranges for joint angles across cycling disciplines, road, TT, MTB,” says Burt, “but there can be very valid reasons for someone sitting outside of them. You can’t just fit to the numbers, the skill is, with the athlete in front of you and drawing on their history and physical examination, to find what’s appropriate for them.”
Looking at Alistair’s position on his road bike, Burt is most interested in his knee extension angle, which points to a low saddle position and excessive set-back, potentially cheating him out of power. To confirm this, Burt digitally measures the bike and this data tallies with the joint angles. A pro cyclist, at the bottom of their pedal stroke, would have a knee angle of less than 35° but Ali’s is significantly higher. A lower saddle position might have protected his hamstrings but, with that issue now resolved, a raising and moving forwards of the saddle would be optimal.
Burt says that the change has to be incremental and that the proof will be in the riding. “Alistair’s low saddle position is a case in point of having a good reason for being outside of the normative range because of his surgery. What we need to explore is whether we can get it back up. Another common example is riders with long backs and short legs or vice versa. They often present outside of the normative range but, if you’re aware of their morphology, you wouldn’t force them into a position that’s deemed normal by the numbers.”
Burt’s also keen that Alistair tries shorter cranks as a preventative measure against future hamstring problems. “By decreasing crank length, we’ll decrease the total range of motion required of his legs. In my experience, decreasing crank length can make some riders more stable in the saddle. You haven’t got big peaks and troughs in the pedal stroke to accommodate, so there’s less rocking.”
Another area that stirs Burt’s interest is a discrepancy in knee forward position between right and left legs. Yet with good symmetry elsewhere, Burt isn’t convinced this is a morphological issue. It transpires that Alistair had his cleats set up differently and a quick tweak with an Allen key solves the issue.
Moving onto Alistair’s Scott Plasma TT bike and Burt thinks his position has an aggressive back angle and decent aerodynamics. Yet, as with his road bike, there’s scope to raise saddle height. “We can keep Ali’s hamstrings happy by giving him just the right amount of tilt so that his pelvis can rotate forward. This will clear his hamstring insertion while not tipping him of the bike!”
This’ll also have the knock-on effect of lowering his front end and improving aerodynamics, but Burt steers clear of his cockpit. “To lower his front end at the same time as raising his saddle may overload his lower body. It’s a step-at-a-time process; find a powerful and stable pedalling position and, once that’s dialled in, look for front end gains. It’s knowing what to change and not throwing the kitchen sink at it.”
As on the road bike, Burt also feels that Alistair would benefit from shorter cranks. “Shorter cranks on a TT bike allow you to maintain an open hip angle if you’re effectively lowering the front end. The multiple benefits are improved stability, easier breathing as the knees come up towards your chest, better power production and enhanced aerodynamics.”
Burt finds that Alistair’s saddle angle on the TT bike is ‘nose-up’. While this may have been okay with the lower saddle height, a slight downwards tilt would facilitate the raising of the saddle and allow better pelvis rotation. Experimenting with this found that Alistair could easily accept a 10mm increase in saddle height. Burt thinks a saddle change could further improve things and adds an ISM PN 3.0. With the ISM, the data shows an improvement in riding symmetry and the ‘noseless’ design should allow Alistair to edge forward to generate extra power and potentially become more aero.
As the fit finishes, Ali takes away an action plan of Burt’s suggestions, but this is far from the end of the process. Ali will put them into place, see the impact they have on both his body and his performance and then feedback to Phil. Even for an athlete as experienced as Brownlee, there are fundamental riding changes he took from the session with Burt. “I’ve had bike fits before and the main similarity to those was using the Retül system. The big difference, though, was that Phil is a real expert at analysing the data and looking at saddles and shoe fit. The saddle is especially important as I spend so much time riding.
“The most significant finding of the fit was that my saddle was low on both bikes,” Brownlee adds. “I had lowered it after hamstring surgery but, for optimal performance, need to move it back up. I was also interested in some areas of Phil’s specific knowledge, such as saddle and shoe design.”
So it’s clear that a bike fit and the recommendations made within it are just the start of the process of optimising your bike position. It should be evolving as you gain or lose mobility, adapt to changes, pick up injuries or shift your tri goals. Too many fits send an athlete away with a set of numbers and that their position is set in stone. This isn’t the case and really finding that optimal position has to be a dialogue between athlete, coaches, physios and fitter over months, years or even over entire career.
Who is Phil Burt?
Phil Burt is the author of Bike Fit: Optimise Your Bike Position for High Performance and Injury and is currently practising out of the Manchester Institute for Health and Performance (MIHP) but also has plans to set-up clinics in London. Prices for a bike fit start at £350. See philburtinnovation.com for more details.
This article appeared in the August 2018 issue of 220 Triathlon. To subscribe to 220 Triathlon print and digital issues click here