There are only three points of contact that matter when it comes to bicycle fit: hands, feet and bottom. A lot of bike fitters start with body measurements and then select the size frame that makes these measurements easiest to accommodate. To eliminate bicycle retailers from having to stock several bikes in one or two centimeter increment sizes, around 20 years ago there was a move by some manufacturers towards small, medium and large sizing, and with the new front loading stems available at the time, most individuals could find their position on one of the three frame sizes by using the correct size stem and seat post. I remember when frame and component designer Mike Burrows along with Giant Bicycles, began shipping OEM bikes sized this way, with adjustable stems that were similar to the very expensive LOOK adjustable stems that were making adjustable stems somewhat desirable. But the stem was a focal point of tradition and purists were unwilling to forgo their traditional single bolt, -17 degree quill stems in favor of weird and complicated looking adjustable ones, even if they insured better fit.
Back in the day, changing a stem meant removing bar wrap and levers, it was not the simple task it is today using two and four bolt front loaders. Bike fit was less forgiving in the days of single bolt quill stems and it is believed front loading stems and later the use of video technology, changed the way bike fitting is done.
Twenty-one years ago I went to see Bill Petersen, bike fit guru, to resolve a chronic knee issue. After complaining of knee pain, my regular Orthopedic ordered an MRI and after seeing it, quickly prescribed surgery. But the second opinion I got from a younger guy who cycled, differed in opinion. When he looked at my MRI he saw scar tissue from a previous meniscus repair and no new damage. He recommended I see Bill Petersen and not undergo another surgery.
Before I went to see Bill Petersen he told me I could bring up to two bicycles. In addition to the two bikes, I brought the owner of my LBS who was a rider I turned cranks with on Saturday mornings in a local, competitive group ride. He performed bicycle fitting at his shop, but a chance to watch the bike fit guru in action was not to be missed even by him. A session with Bill was good chunk of change, but I loved cycling and I needed to get to the bottom of my chronic knee problem.
It was an interesting session, beginning with measuring leg lengths. Mr. Petersen determined that my hip to knee measured longer on my right, but my knee to ankle was longer on my left, making my leg lengths equal. He said he could adjust the fore/after of my cleats for that slight discrepancy. He analyzed my feet using an electronic device and began making custom foot beds. He ran into a nearby room where he made them. He came out several times to try them in my cycling shoes, only to return to his workshop where I could hear the grinding wheel and smell the shaved rubber and fresh adhesive. He was like a mad scientist, and it was obvious he was determined to make these foot beds perfect for me.
When the foot beds were complete to his liking, I got on one of my bikes which was secured in a trainer and began pedaling for him. Video technology had not yet become the standard it is today and Bill did all his observations with the naked eye. I heard before I went and Bill reinforced it when I arrived, that he favored fixed LOOK pedals and he might require that I purchase them in order to get the fitting done. I was using rotating Speedplay road pedals and after watching me pedal on the trainer long enough to work up a sweat, Bill said that although he was not a big fan of Speedplay, my knees were straight and my pedal stroke near perfect, so he did not recommend changing them.
Using a Plumb Bob, rulers and ultimately his expertise, Bill raised/lowered my seat post, adjusted the fore/after of my seat, adjusted saddle tilt, adjusted my cleats, rotated my bar and told me to use only 170 mm cranks, explaining that he was less concerned with crank length at the bottom of the pedal stroke, but more concerned at what happened at the top given my knee issues. He suggested spinning and not mashing. He did the fit utilizing the neutral knee over pedal spindle (KOPS) position, a position whose effectiveness modern day bike fitters have aggressively dismissed as myth.
After he transferred all the measurements onto my second bike using a FitStick, the session was over. Bill told me to go home and ride and to call him with my results after a couple weeks of training.
The entire session took 2.5 - 3 hours and if I remember correctly, cost around $250 with the custom, cycling-specific foot beds.
I was excited to get out and ride and on my first ride I was surprised to be in such extreme pain. It felt like there were golf balls under my insteps. I rode like that for four days until it wasn't fun anymore and the pain was too much. I called Bill to tell him something was wrong. He set up another appointment for the following week and told me to continue riding, to give the changes a chance.
In the days leading up to my follow-up appointment the pain in my insteps disappeared. I called Bill to tell him the good news. After a few weeks the knee pain that originally drove me to my Orthopedic and then to a second opinion and ultimately to Bill Petersen, was gone too.
Back when I went to see Bill Petersen he was way ahead of his time. Entire cycling teams were fit by him. Lance Armstrong went to see Bill. Today, progressive bike fitters call his technique "Old School" and "Outdated", but for me it worked. It has kept me surgery-free and pedaling pain-free on two wheels for the last 21 years.
I heard a while back that Bill moved to California and later that he had passed away. In the 2.5 -3 hours I spent in his shop I was left feeling he was a man of great integrity who paved the way for bike fitters with his innovative approach to solving physical problems through proper bike fit. I'll always be grateful for what he did for me.