Interview: Thinking Courageously with the Doctors of Body Geometry

Back in 1997, Bicycling magazine in the US published an article that would get half of their staff fired, scare the living hell out of huge numbers of male cyclists and ultimately send a whole new sector of the industry into overdrive. The article in question drew an undeniable connection between bike saddles and problems with your old fella; badly designed saddles were doing riders damage, it was that simple.

Specialized BG (2)
Dr Roger Minkow.

It was this article that spurred Dr Robert Minkow into action; over the course a weekend this ergonomics specialist crafted up a prototype saddle which featured a dropped nose and a deep groove through the centre to alleviate pressure on the nerves and arteries which keep your man parts doing their thing. This Franken-saddle would eventually find its way back to Mike Synyard, founder of Specialized bicycles who backed the concept and employed Minkow. Fast forward 12 months and a staggering 500,000 of the new Romin (Ro-ger Min-kow) saddles had been sold. 500,000. In one year.

Specialized BG 13
Dr Pruitt. Making groping motions.

In the meantime Dr Andy Pruitt, founder of the Boulder Sports Medicine Centre, had been making a name for himself as something of a wizard of bike fitting. While others were either operating off ‘feel’ or simply accepting the status quo of bike fitting (i.e. you had to emulate the position of a European pro!), Pruitt was using hard science to make riders more comfortable, more efficient and injury free. He literally wrote the book on the subject. Amongst his pioneering work, Pruitt began looking at bike fitting from a third dimension – the ‘z-plane’, front-on – as well as from the traditional side-on x and y planes. Pruitt clearly demonstrated the link between the stability of the foot and its effect on the pedal stroke; most importantly he showed that the collapse of the arch and forefoot under pedalling leads to knee instability and consequently potential injury and a loss of power/efficiency. It was this research that lead to the birth of the Body Geometry shoe as we know it, which features customisable arch support and more varus forefoot support. The BG S-Works shoe, Specialized happily point out, is the most popular shoe in the road cycling pro peleton, ridden by 115 riders, of whom only 20 are sponsored or paid to ride the BG shoe.

The universe worked its magic and brought Minkow and Pruitt together under the auspices of Specialized, and Body Geometry was born. It’s hard to overstate the impact that the Body Geometry concept has had in terms of bringing truly ergonomic design to cycling accessories and components and making bike fitting ‘mainstream’. BG shoes, gloves and saddles are now widely acclaimed as the industry standard, and the BG Fit system has launched a massive number of competitors, with a host of the major brands now offering their own bike fit programs.

Specialized BG 11
Dr Kyle Bickell, Dr Andy Pruitt and Dr Roger Minkow.

The BG ethos has been that science must always take primacy, not ‘feel’ or traditional methods. This same ideal applies whether it be developing a new saddle, a pair of gloves, helping Fabien Cancellara achieve the perfect time trial position or ensuring Troy Brosnan gets more power out of the gate. Did you know, for instance, that Specialized test all of their BG saddles for penile blood flow by glueing a transcutaneous oxygen sensor onto the head of the penis of dozens of test riders? It’s true. We saw it happen. We’ll, not the glueing per se, but we did witness live a test that showed the difference in blood flow to the end of Stewart’s knob when we rode his BG saddle and an equivalent competitors saddle. Thus, Specialized BG saddles are proven to ensure adequate blood gets to your old fella to prevent damage.

Specialized BG (1)
The other end of this wire is in Stewart’s pants.

Likewise, when it comes to gloves, Specialized were willing to throw the traditional notions of how a glove should be designed out the window. Over three years of development went into the new Grail glove, which ultimately reversed the common understanding of pad placement; rather than padding the points of contact, the Grail glove puts a supportive pad in hollow in the middle of the palm. The idea is to achieve pressure relief by balancing the distribution of pressure/force across the areas of the hand that would normally be doing none of the work. We’re looking forward to testing them out with a long ride on our rigid singlespeed.

Flow was lucky enough to spend a day with some of Specialized’s leading Body Geometry experts this week and we had a chance to pick their brains on a huge number of subjects (you could write on a post-it note all the things these guys don’t know about the body/bike connection!). We’ve always perceived that many mountain bikers regard ergonomics and bike fitting as not applying to them – that what we do on the trails is so far removed from the precise, controlled environment of a wind tunnel or laboratory, that things learnt there can’t translate to the dirt. This isn’t the case, clearly, but we wanted to hear it from the experts themselves, so we sat down with Dr Roger Minkow (saddles), Dr Kyle Bickell (gloves) and Dr Andy Pruitt (master of the bike fitting universe).

Specialized BG 9
Handyman, Dr Kyle Bickell.

There must be a lot of complication when it comes to bike fitting on a mountain bike, compared to a road bike.

AP: Yes, we do the whole fit with the bike in sag. You’ve got to get the bike to settle into its travel to its riding position, and this effects all the measurements. You certainly can’t take a static saddle height from road across to mountain bikes – you need to work out the saddle height with the bike in sag.

KB: When I got fitted for the first time, I immediately went home and tried out those same numbers on my mountain bike, and pretty quickly I found out that I wasn’t comfortable. I was up too high, I was getting calf cramping. You have to take the sag into consideration.

AP: With cross country, it’s a reasonably direct carry over from the road, sag aside. All the other mountain bike experiences, it’s very different. That said, with the rise of enduro, where guys are having to pedal what is essentially a downhill bike uphill, suddenly things like the pedalling benefits offered by a BG shoe are becoming important in disciplines were fit aspects were’t regarded as important before. Take for instance the 2FO shoe – it’s a gravity shoe, but it uses the exact same BG principles of varus / forefoot support and arch support as the S-Works road shoe. Guys like Troy Brosnan are embracing the concept, Troy swapped out the standard red arch in soles in his 2FO shoes for the blue with more arch support, as he could feel the benefits. I mean, some of those gravity guys might have a tattoo on their neck and their hat turned sideways, but they give their sport a lot of thought.

KB: They’re professionals, just more highly caffeinated.

Specialized BG (1).jpg

We’re starting to see power meters emerge much more in mountain biking. Do you use power meters in fitting?

AP: Yes and no. Power meters are useful for assessing a fit AFTER there has been time for muscular / skeletal adaptation – like a few weeks later. Any changes you see in power at the time of fitting are incidental and not necessarily accurate, and there’s no guarantee those power changes will be sustained in the real world. We use a power meter to ensure that any measurements we take are done at a consistent effort, for example a pressure map of a riders saddle.

We had an interesting conversation with Jess Douglas recently about dropper posts. She’s started using a dropper post on her race bike, not solely to get the saddle out of the way, but to allow her to change her position at times in order to engage different muscles periodically or give her body a rest. Obviously a bike fit is about achieving the ideal position, but she finds varying her position beneficial. Any thoughts on that?

AP: Yeah, do you remember the old Eddy Merckx story that he rode with a 5mm Allen key in his pocket, and he’d change his position during a ride a number of times as he fatigued and it’d help him feel better? Turns out that Eddy had a significant femoral leg length inequality – no position was ever actually right! He was changing for the pure sake of change. So without seeing this woman, I can’t say. But I’d say it’s change for the sake of change, and maybe that’s nice over a 24hr race, but I can’t imagine any performance benefit.

A hand question for you Dr Bickell. We’re seeing a lot of change in mountain bike bar width; can you tell us how wider bars are having an effect on people’s hands?

KB: It changes everything from the axis of the angle of approach, to the angle of your hand on the bar, through to the force application onto your muscles and your joints. There is a comfort position, which people may not feel is their most high-performance position, but it’s important to know where that is so they’re doing less damage over long rides. I think on the mountain bike there may be more opportunity for riders to shift around quite a bit, more so than riders do at the moment. One thing mountain bikers sometimes get, which is less of an issue on the road, is blisters which are a result of friction. Perhaps if more hand positions were used there could be a reduction in friction forces too.

As Dr Minkow and I were discussing just yesterday, a lot of the work I’m doing at Specialized is to compensate for the handlebar. We’ve been stuck with the same non-ergonomic handlebar for, on the road at least, a couple of hundred years now. It’s obviously time for some changes that are based on science. There are other creative solutions, and with what we’re doing with carbon fibre and 3D modelling, marrying those two together with ergonomics is a natural fit.

On the mountain bike, it’s more difficult than the road, as mountain biking isn’t as rigid a discipline as mountain biking, and the demands of mountain biking require more variation in bar shape whether you’re talking cross country, enduro, freeride downhill… it all changes the need of the rider with respect to the handlebar. I’ve actually looked at creating a forward sweep – if you look at what happens with positioning of the joints, a forward sweep is ergonomically very beneficial. Obviously it totally changes control of the bike, so we’re looking at what would have to happen with stem length with regard to the bar sweep. But there’s definitely need for some innovation in this area, because with the exception of rise, there really hasn’t been much change in this area. But that’s something we’ll be looking at.

AP: Body Geometry fit is about neutral joint placement, so with a drop bar we talk about a neutral handshaking placement on the brake hood, but on mountain bike, the way your hand rests on the bar isn’t neutral at all. So how do you correct that?

BK: As soon as you bend your elbows, which you need to do with mountain biking obviously for shock absorption, the only way to get that neutral joint placement is to have forward sweep on the bars.

AP: The idea is to think courageously about obvious things that have been missed in the last 100 years. But because this is a sport that is simultaneously based so much on trends but also on history and tradition, it’s really tough to break the ways that people do and think and about these things. Sometimes you’re even fighting ignorance. And so how do you combat that? How do you make people listen? The way to do it, is with science.

KB: I mean, just take a look at helmets. The pro peleton in road cycling was completely resistant to helmets originally. But then Laurent Fignon lost the Tour in the time trial to Greg Lemond because Lemond was wearing a helmet while Fignon’s ponytail was flapping in the breeze and slowing him down. Science was able to show riders that helmets were both safer and faster. The same goes with what I’m doing with gloves; essentially it’s a safety item, but we’re incorporating elements that will boost performance also.

AP: On the matter of bars, obviously outside of the discipline of cross country, some of the aspects of bike fit become less relevant, and bar width might be one of those. The variables of handling, you want a bar that’s wide enough to give you the leverage to stop the rocks and roots ripping it out of your hands. But some of the bars we’re seeing now are too wide for many riders. If I asked you to do a push-up, you’d self select, you’d determine the hand placement width at which you’re strongest, and it wouldn’t be 800mm apart.

Specialized BG 5

The trend towards riding without gloves tends to come and go in mountain biking. Dr Bickell, as a hand surgeon, you’d have some thoughts on that.

KB: Not just in mountain biking, but on the road too. A lot of riders ride without gloves because they’re looking for more feel – they find that a traditional glove, especially if it’s padded, limits their feel, that tactile feedback. Ultimately there are huge advantages in wearing gloves, but not if feel is sacrificed, and that was one of the major challenges with the Grail glove. We are looking at the friction forces very closely now; we think there are a lot of advances possible in terms of the friction between the bar, to the glove and the glove to the hand.

AP: It’s interesting to note there can be a trend away from wearing gloves. It’s so incredibly dangerous if you fall without gloves – that trend is totally in the wrong direction.

KB: “I’m too good to need protection.” That’s a dangerous trend. But there are a lot of other reasons beside protection. Obviously there’s the sweat element, you’re not slipping so much when you’re gripping so you need to grip less firmly, and there’s obviously an impact on force transfer.

Saddles in mountain biking. Obviously there are more constraints with mountain biking than on the road, in terms of people needing to be able to manoeuvre more and have the saddle pass between their thighs. Does this have an impact on the fit aspects of the saddle? 

AP: You know, we designed road and mountain bike specific saddles for a long time, but what we’re seeing is that people use what they like, wherever they like. It seems that riders are choosing what fits their needs. Of course we know a mountain bike rider has different needs – they move around a lot more, put themselves on the nose, get off the back – but we’re always surprised how many ‘road’ saddles end up on mountain bikes. There are a lot of people riding Romins that are really hard to get the back of, but the benefits in other areas for them outweigh the downsides.

RM: We design products that we think are for a certain group of riders, but then sometimes it gets picked up by a totally different group. So we have to be open minded too. The minute we stop being open-minded, we get behind like everyone else. In order to be innovative, we’ve got to take some chances.

KB: When it comes to design, the best feedback we get is from the riders. They tell us things about the product that we never thought to consider.

AP: That’s why having a large sample for rider feedback is so important. I mean, look at the Shimano Biopace chainring – that concept was launched off the feedback of three people! And look at what flop that was.

KB: I’m definitely the beneficiary of all that experience with the Grail glove project. I mean, we have had the project on the go for three years, and we’ve kept pushing back the launch date as we’ve acquired rider feedback. I’ll give you an example: we’d settled on a pad material which we felt was perfect, but we designed it and testing in the summer. But then it became winter, the temperature dropped by 25 degrees, and what felt great in the summer now felt like a brick in your palm in the winter. So we had to go back to square one with the material. Had we not had that level of patience and experience, we may have launched it and had a product that wasn’t right.

That patience issue is key. There is definitely a lack of patience in the mountain bike industry. 

RM: And that’s because of the money. The longer you take to release a product, the more money you lose. It leads to inadequate testing. I remember a grip we made about 10 years ago that we didn’t do enough testing on; this dealer from Santa Cruz came up to me and said, ‘I really like your grips… but when I park the bikes outside, all the grips melt off like ice cream!’. They were really good up until the time that they melted!

Specialized BG 1

If you had to convince a mountain biker about the benefits of Body Geometry, what one element of the BG system, or which single BG product would you point them towards?

RM: I don’t think it’s about individual products. I think it’s about the Body Geometry system. Once a rider, or a journalist, understands the method and science that goes into everything BG – be it a product or a BG bike fit – then they’ll trust it. They’ll trust it for the science behind and the level of testing that goes into it all.

AP: My advice to mountain bikers would be ‘don’t be afraid of fit’. Mountain bikers tend to be so free thinking and independent that I worry they sometimes think they’ll just work it out, when what bike fit can offer them is huge.

RM: I’d also say to mountain bikers, be careful of illogical trends. Be careful that you’re not so worried about looking a certain way that you’re not making choices that aren’t smart.


Cheers, Doctors.

Specialized BG 7


It appears you're using an old version of Internet Explorer which is no longer supported, for safer and optimum browsing experience please upgrade your browser.