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Rider Discomfort: Adapting to the TT/Tri Position

By Mat Steinmetz, Founder of 51 Speedshop

Comfort is defined as the ability to sustain your position for the duration of your event. If you’re unable to sustain or hold your position because you’re uncomfortable, nothing else matters.

  

Between 80 to 90 percent of the overall resistance affecting the rider when in motion on a bicycle comes from aerodynamic drag. Thus, if we can reduce drag, the cyclist can maintain a higher velocity for the same given effort.

When purchasing a TT/Tri bike, we are buying SPEED. The TT/Tri bike allows a rider to assume a position aboard the bike in an attempt to decrease aerodynamic drag. However, the No. 1 thing that impacts a rider’s ability to increase their SPEED is not aerodynamics. In reality, it is comfort.

My SPEED equation reads like this:  SPEED = Comfort + Power + Aerodynamics

Comfort is defined as the ability to sustain your position for the duration of your event. It doesn’t matter if you’re a World Tour rider, Ironman Champion, or a recreational cyclist. If you’re unable to sustain or hold your position because you’re uncomfortable, nothing else matters.

In this piece, I’m going to talk about comfort in the form of adaptability. Most athletes will find themselves belonging to at least one of these three scenarios:

1. You’ve purchased your first TT/Tri bike. 

2. You’ve just overhauled your position and lowered the front end significantly. 

3. You’ve taken a prolonged break from the TT/Tri position.

If you’re struggling to get comfortable, know this: The TT/Tri position is not natural and takes time to adapt!

This fact needs to be understood. Glossing over or not explaining this concept accounts for a lot of unhappy riders, and results in many of the poor bike positions you see out on the road. At one point or another everyone has to go through this adaptation period. My goal in explaining this phase is to make the transition easier for everyone: The bike manufacturer, shop, fitter and rider.

Most Common Areas of Discomfort

When working with a client, I make a point of explaining the adaptation phase. I inform them of the several areas in which they might experience discomfort once they get out on the road. In doing so, I create clear expectations for the rider and their new position. It also allows us to discern between initial discomfort and needing to make fit adjustments.

This sort of transparency promotes trust and opens a line of communication between the rider and fitter. It also ensures that if there is a problem, the first person the client will reach out to is their current fitter. You don’t always get it right the first time, and if the fitter is truly competent, they’re in the best position to help with future adjustments.

As I mentioned, the purpose of the TT/Tri position is to allow the rider to assume an aerodynamic posture aboard the bike, whereby their pelvis and shoulders rotate forward in harmony. This forward rotation is the part that will cause discomfort.

Saddle discomfort:

The saddle is the most important component of the TT/Tri position. A good TT/Tri position requires a degree of anterior pelvic rotation, which pivots us forward on the saddle placing pressure on sensitive soft tissue areas. Saddle manufacturers have addressed this problem by creating TT/Tri specific saddles that isolate this pressure onto boney landmarks (ischium or pubic rami). However, we will still experience sensitivity issues as we are not used to bearing weight in this area.

Although the saddle can feel great during the fitting session, it may cause discomfort once out on the road. I will inform the client that this may occur and to give it 1-3 weeks for the bone and soft tissue to adapt. If at anytime the saddle becomes intolerable, or is still uncomfortable after this period of time, alternative options should be explored.

I encourage shops and athletes to take advantage of the saddle demo programs offered by most saddle companies. We have various tools and can make an educated guess to help with the saddle selection process. But, once out on the road, client feedback along with trial and error is how the final decision should be made.

Shoulder discomfort:

The forward rotation of the TT/Tri position will place more weight on the front end than you’re used to. The lower the front end, the more weight you’ll need to support. The key here is supporting your weight skeletally, which is achieved through proper placement of your elbow on the arm cup and fore/aft bar positioning. Even with a proper fit, we may experience shoulder discomfort during the initial adaptation phase.

Neck discomfort:

During our normal everyday lives, we walk around with what can be described as a neutral spine. To maintain a neutral spine when lowered into the TT/Tri position, we’d be looking straight down at the front wheel. To see where we are going, we must extend our necks in a very unfamiliar way to see up the road. By giving postural cues — setting a neutral spine then lifting the chin, versus lifting the entire head (a.k.a periscope head) — we can minimize the impact, but we must still adapt to this unnatural head and neck posture.

Why Should You Care?

When I’m going through the fitting process with a rider, I’m very open about what to expect during the period in which they’ll be adapting to their new position. Some athletes adapt quicker than others, but hardly anyone gets a free pass without experiencing one of the aforementioned areas of discomfort. The good news: The body eventually adapts to the TT/Tri position and the discomfort subsides.

Now, when a client embarks on this adventure and these areas of discomfort present themselves, they’ll know what to do. Rather than making immediate changes or thinking there is a problem, they’ll pause and think, “Mat said this would happen and I need to give it time.”

If this information was not given to the client, but instead the fitter “sold” their client on how great their fit is and how much faster they are going to be, many things could happen. I’ll list a few, but there are many more scenarios:

1. The fitter will never hear back from that client, who assumes the fitter doesn’t know what they’re doing since they were uncomfortable in the position after only 30 minutes of riding. 

2. The client might lose faith in bike fit and take matters into their own hands, making ill-informed position modifications in an attempt to alleviate discomfort that would have eventually gone away. 

3. The client will go to another shop to see another fitter who will “fix” the fit, or merely explain the adaptation phase. 

4. The client may unjustly blame the name on the bike's downtube for their unhappiness. 

5. The client may fall out of love with cycling because they are tired of dealing with the discomfort of riding a bicycle.

Summing up

The key takeaway: The TT/Tri position is not natural and some initial discomfort should be expected. However, due to the adaptive nature of this position, with persistence and time these points of discomfort should go away. Understanding this concept will give fitters and their clients the confidence to work through this adaptation phase, knowing when to give it more time versus making a fit adjustment. In the end, this will lead to greater cycling satisfaction, better time-trial positions, and consumer confidence.