The Great Debate: Performance vs. Comfort
"You can be aerodynamic or you can be comfortable, but you can't be both."
It's one of the great cycling debates, do we go for a bike fit that's aerodynamic and improves performance or a bike fit that's more comfortable? After watching twenty-one stages of the Tour de France each year, you can't blame a cyclist for wanting to get into the garage and start tinkering away with different adjustments to their set up. I mean, if it's good for Tadej and Wout then surely it's good for you, right?
We were lucky enough to catch up with a bit of a legend of WA cycling, Gary Suckling to talk all things bike fit. If you've ever been to his North Perth office, you feel like you're really taking a trip down memory lane with all the memorabilia and personal photographs on the wall. I pull the bike out of the car and Gary looks at my bike, then looks me up and down... "let me guess" Gary says, "you're always repositioning your hands and sliding your bum back in the saddle?" I nod in amazement, "how tall are you? About 170?" (he's robbed me of 2cm but I'll forgive him). "Yeah... this bike is the perfect size for you" he says and then proceeds to take a few measurements, hook my bike up to the trainer and we start to have a chat. Gary is a genuine, nice guy and whilst his methods are a bit old school, you don't have to chat to him for too long to realise he's been around a while and know's a thing or two about a thing or two.
Gary was born with a biomechanical issue, his left femur is nearly 3cm shorter than his right and this prompted him to study remedies while trying to troubleshoot the problem himself. Since then, Gary estimates that he has done over 5,000 bike fits and really started to notice a difference in performance once he begun adjusting his pupil's bikes as a cycling coach over 30 years ago. Gary explained that when he left retail 9 years ago, he was booking 10-15 bike fit appointments per week and credits his experience as a bike mechanic to his success, as he believes this gave him an edge. So as I'm hooked up to the trainer, It would be completely remiss of me not to take advantage of this opportunity to pick his brain:
TRT: Gary, thanks for having a chat! It's probably a stupid question given everything on the walls, but what's your background in cycling?
GS: I came from 2 generations of cyclists (my Dad and his Dad) and really I just took it up to lose a bit of weight as a 15 year old. I enjoyed it immediately and since I couldn't get a game as a young footballer, I stuck at it. I rode track and road and was more gifted with speed but I developed endurance over time. I had a family as a young man so I had to balance work and cycling with family life, so unfortunately I never had the opportunity to be a full-time cyclist. In my competitive life though, I won about twenty state titles, thirty silver and about twenty-five bronze. One of my best seasons I ever had was as a forty-five year old when I won three open A-grade road races.
Young Gary with his Father and Grandfather.
TRT: Very impressive and at 45! I'm in my mid-30s and some days I struggle to get around the river loop... What do you love most about your work and with over 5,000 fits to your name, what is the most common fit problem you see with clients?
GS: The best part about my job is providing improvements to cyclists on a daily basis and giving advice about all aspects of cycling. I make it clear to my clients that any questions they have after the fit will be answered without hesitation. Based on my experience, I think saddle height is definitely the most common issue, I find that often it is too low by up to 4cms. Reach is next, followed by front end height.
Gary claiming another win!
TRT: If you have to choose one, what would you say is the most important fit element to get right, above everything else?
GS: When fitting cyclists above the age of 30 or those with neck, shoulder or back issues, you need to make certain they're not too low at the front or over reaching, as this can agitate existing issues or even worse, create new ones.
TRT: You’ve no doubt seen a range of body types, bikes and issues in your time. Has there been any clients or bikes that really challenged you to get the fit right?
GS: The biggest challenge comes with male and females with exceptionally long legs and short bodies. To combat this, I'll normally favour the slightly smaller frame with more seat out, rather than have the over reaching on the bigger frame.
Gary passing on his wisdom.
TRT: Everything online says that in regards to bike fit, you can be aerodynamic or you can be comfortable, but you can’t be both. What are your thoughts on this?
GS: Yeah, in order to improve one, you generally have to give up something on the other. Not too many professionals are getting around feeling overly comfortable. I'll usually shoot for the middle ground but for those with biomechanical issues, I'll generally favour comfort. If the demand is for results, I'll try a slightly more aggressive set-up with the option of returning for a more comfortable set-up (free of charge) if it's not quite right.
TRT: I had my own experience a few bikes ago where I was “fitted” by a (chain) bike shop and ended up buying a bike that was too big. After a while I decided to sell it because I couldn't get the fit right. What’s your advice for people who are buying their first bike or looking to upgrade?
GS: My solution to this is a pre-fit assessment where I measure the client and then fill out a form with recommended measurements that they can then take to the shop they are buying their new bike from. This assessment only costs $75 and once they've purchased their bike, they can come back for a full fit of which I refund $25 off the full bike fit price ($200). Funnily enough, my initial assessment is usually within 2-3mm of the full fit on the new bike.
TRT: I'm sure you've been through a few bikes over the journey, but have you got a favourite?
GS: My favourite bike was a carbon Alan bike using bonded aluminium lugs. It would have been made around 1985 to 1986.
A 1985 ALAN Carbonio
TRT: You've got a pretty special bike hanging on the wall in your office, what's the story behind that?
GS: The bike in my office was my Dad's last bike and I went to a lot of trouble to bring that memory home. It's pretty special to me.
TRT: Finally, how often are you getting out on the bike these days and what's one thing that you never go on a ride without?
GS: I still get out about 2-3 times per week and I always carry my driver's license with me, just incase something happens.
Gary on MC duties at the Tour of Margaret River.
TRT: Gary, you've been generous with your time and we are greatly appreciative. Before we ride off into the sunset, how can people find you and what are you charging for your services?
GS: I'm based in North Perth and my website is www.gsbikefit.com (@garysucklingwa). I'm really fortunate actually that most of my bookings come from referrals and I still help out the crew down at Elite Racing Cycles whenever I'm needed, so I can often be found down there as well. I charge $200 for a bike fit and that includes coming back for adjustments if we didn't get the first one quite right. A pre-fit assessment costs $75 but I refund $25 if they come back for a full fit once they've purchased their new bike.
TRT: Thanks, Gary!