Bike Fit: Michael Sylvester, Genius in Residence

There’s nothing quite like watching someone set to work doing something that they are really, really good at.  It’s the way I feel when I see Sal racing his bike, or when I watch my mother interview someone, or see my sister presenting to a group.

People in their element.  People who have followed their passions and become really, really, really good at what they are doing.  It’s inspiring. 

So it was when I sat down in Michael Sylvester’s studio for the first time.  Here’s a man who lives and breathes bike-fitting.  A master at work. 

I’d been reading about Sylvester in the press recently – though I’ve known his name for years.  After 6 years riding my road bike, I bought a new ‘cross bike, started racing, and discovered that bikes actually didn’t have to be uncomfortable… what a concept! 

I bought my ‘cross bike site-unseen in early September last year after cyclocross-fever struck hard and I knew I had to race.  It’s an off-the-rack ’05 Poprand LeMond with 105 and other stock components, save the saddle (Selle San Marco Glamour Arrowhead) and the pedals (egg beaters).  I received a pretty decent fitting from a fabulous woman at the bike shop and despite it being an entry-level bike (and weighing in at a whopping 24 pounds – ugh!), I loved it.  It felt great and rode well. 

In fact, I loved it so much that when I went to hop back on my road bike, I was in agony.

My first love, my sweet Pinarello, did not love me back so good no more.

And so it was, with a newfound appreciation for the fact that I could be comfortable on a bike (and a wild determination to achieve this), that I came to finally pony up and book an appointment with Sylvester, whose bike-fitting studio just so happens to be in the very same building as my photography studio.

On the day of our appointment, I walked downstairs in my stocking feet with my bike and bike-shoes in hand.

And what happened over the course of the next two appointments was fairly miraculous.

I’ve never had a real bike fitting before.  To be honest, I always thought that it was "one of those expensive superfluous cycling things"  – one of the many things on which Sal could find good reasons to spend money. 

What I discovered was that it was neither expensive, nor superfluous.  In fact, it actually made me feel sort of silly for having spent so much money on bikes, bike components, bike accessories, and bike clothing over the years – all while riding a bike that wasn’t giving me the best ride possible.

At $125 for a fitting, the sticker-price does seem high at first.  That’s a new saddle, I exclaim!  That’s a nice pair of bibs!  That’s half a Rapha jacket, for cripes sake!  But within about 10 minutes of sitting down with Michael Sylvester, I knew I was getting my money, and then some.

Michael starts with a thorough assessment of your athletic history, current activity level, and goals.  He tests your flexibility and generally observes your body.

In my case, he stood across the room looking at me, marveling.  Which is how I came to learn that I’m a little "off-center".  That is, my head is placed the tiniest little bit too close to my right shoulder.  So, the distance from my right ear to right shoulder would be just slightly less than the distance from my left ear to left shoulder.

I had never noticed this before.  Neither had anyone else.

But I had noticed, over the course of the past year, that I was unreasonably tight on the left side of my body.  My hamstring was notably tighter on the left side.  My shoulder was frequently sore on the left side.  My left quad cramped and knotted far before my right became even remotely fatigued.

I had definitely been keeping track of a troubling unevenness, but I was at a loss as to what to do about it.  See a chiropractor?  A physcial therapist?  The symptoms were so vague and mysterious, it seemed like one of those things that was going to be frustrating to try to solve, so I continued to let it ride.

Now, due to a bike fitting, I’ve got a bit of a lead – and even a contact with a PT who might be able to help me get balanced out. 

As I talked more with Michael throughout the fitting, I learned a lot.  He’s a quiet man with a calming energy, but his passion for cyclocross is hard to miss.  Having raced in Europe in the late 80′s, he’s a virtual walking history lesson on the sport. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the saddle that I actually wanted to put on the bike.  I’d ordered it in time for the fitting, but when it came, I realized that it was the wrong model.  So Michael and I got as far as we could without the seat, and then he kindly ordered the correct model for me.  We set another date to complete the fitting.

On day two, Michael installed a new seatpost (my frame happens to be a little on the large side for me) with a less-severe set-back.  He installed it backward so that it was actually set forward a bit.  He watched me ride, adjusted things, watched me ride some more, asked me for feedback, adjusted more things, and watched me ride again.

We tried two different stems and he patiently switched them back and forth, back and forth, while I decided which one I thought felt better. (He compared it to the eye-doctor flipping those damn lenses down in front of you:  "Which is better – A… *click*…. or B"  Except its somewhat easier to click lenses back and forth, than it is to switch stems again and again.

In the end, we also changed my bars.  He was concerned about my wrist position, but seemed reluctant to tell me I should try new bars.  I appreciated the fact that he wasn’t trying to sell me a bunch of superfluous stuff.

"How much are they?" I asked.

"These are $70."

"Put them on.  Let’s see how they feel."

My theory is that if I’ve gone to the trouble to do this fitting, I want to do it right.  100%. 

And I was glad we did it.  The bars turned out to be the single most amazing change we made.  Little did I know that back in 2001, when we built up the Pino, Sal picked out an extremely aggressive racing bar.  It was designed to be comfortable in a flat-out sprint, when you’re forward on the bike, in the drops, out of the saddle, with your arms bent and… and that’s about the only time.

With all the major components settled, we fine-tuned my position by moving the seat forward about 5cm and carefully adjusting the hood position. 

Bam.

New bike!

I had to fly out (Hi!  I’m in San Francisco!) the very next day, so I didn’t get a chance to take her out for a spin, but it’s on the top of my list when I get back into town.  I’ve been buzzing ever since the appointment at the thought of it.

As I am able to provide feedback to Michael, we’ll be able to further refine the fit.  We recorded all of the pertinent measurements, so if and when I want to get my other bikes fit, we’ll already have the base numbers to work from.  And if I *ahem* happen to want to build a really fast, really light cyclocross racing machine for next season… I’ll be able to base my frame and component choices on a specific and thorough set of data (and, of course, the knowledge and experience of a former worlds-level ‘cross racer turned bike-fit expert).

The fitting opened something up inside of me.  It opened my eyes to the resources and science that is out there.  Expertise, numbers, and knowledge that can give me a better experience, a faster ride, and an infinitely nerdier cycling life.  Anyone who knows me at all knows that I’m a veritable sucker for data.  Give me numbers, let me analyze them, and I’ll figure out how to take the results and improve some part of my life.

Would I recommend Michael for a fitting?

In a heartbeat. 

Michael is not just a service-provider, he is a teacher.  And a good teacher at that.  Like all good teachers, he wears his passion on his sleeve.  He teaches with true enthusiasm, an eagle-eye for details, and a mad-scientist’s genius and zeal.  He’s truly one of a kind.

He energizes and inspires.  And he makes people love their bikes… even more than they did before.

I’ll report back when I’m able to get a couple rides in.  In the meantime, happy holidays! 

May your cookies be full of protein, and your hot buttered rum sugar-free!  Ha!

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3 comments

  1. I think your lopsided because of that 80lb “purse” you carry around…:-)

  2. Michael is really a fantastic guy. But what amazes me about him is how abundant he is. I know that is a weird word to describe someone, but he is always willing to give, willing to teach, willing to learn. And while he has been doing fit for as long as anyone, he has resisted falling into conventions: He approaches each fit with fresh eyes knowing that no two bodies are the same.

    Like the incredible craftsman Michael Yeats (two doors down from Michael – introduce yourself, it will rock your world), Michael’s craft is making bodies and bikes work together. Glad you got the chance to work with him. He is really something special.

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