Normally, if some guy I've just met asked me to wedge a stick between my legs, I'd tell him where he could shove it, but Michael Sylvester, the fitting guru at the Bike Gallery, had innocent intent. The stick would help measure my inseam and be one part of the larger picture of how my body interacts with my bike.
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Bike fitting is the process of making sure your bike contours to your body. Think of it as haute couture for the cycling world. Some shops just measure you and plug your stats into a computer--the clothing equivalent of shrinking a pair of 501s to fit. But what Sylvester does is a little more like going to Savile Row to be fitted by a mystical tailor who wants to know all about you.
The 46-year-old native Oregonian, who has never owned a car, has the soothing voice and gentle touch of a yoga instructor because, well, he is one. When he was a young man, his right foot was crushed in an accident, ending his budding running career. He started riding bikes because it was all he could do to get the level of activity he craved. At 26, he started working at the Bike Gallery (that's 20 years at the same job, for those of you who are counting). That's also when he became frustrated with the fittings common for the time, using what's called a "fit kit" that squeezes everyone into the same approach. After another accident, this one breaking the neck of his femur, he had a fateful encounter with a physical therapist/yoga instructor that opened his mind. He began delving into the world of body mechanics and yoga, fixating on how they might influence bike fitting.
"I didn't invent anything," he says. "I'm just a guy who loves yoga and bikes and merged them."
When you go for a fitting with Sylvester at the Bike Gallery's eastside location, it's clear the ownership backs up his belief in this process. In the retail world, floor space equals potential income, and Sylvester has his own nook to the side of where the gleaming new bikes live. A row of tropical plants stretches upward toward a skylight and creates a screen between the milling customers and Sylvester's studio.
I've come with my 8-year-old Specialized hybrid that has served me well for close to a decade of commuting and joy riding. As far as I was concerned, it fit just fine. I loved the upright handlebars, and beyond occasional wrist, butt and ankle pain, everything was agreeable. I was curious what Sylvester would say about my bike. Would it be like sending a healthy kid to see a hypochondriac doctor?
Sylvester designed his own system for leveling bikes, inventing a few tools he's yet to give fancy names--"leveling device" is the thing he screws on to your axle, while "trainer-modified wheel stand" is the thing that holds the bike in place and lets you spin. There's a platform that raises the bike so he can watch you move. But first, he asks you questions: How often do you ride? Any pain? What kind of activity do you do on the job? Then he takes measurements of your bike, measures you (hence the stick between the legs) and asks you to lie on the floor. This is where the Sylvester method seems to differ from the conventional fit-kit approach: He lifts your legs and rotates them around to measure hip flexion angles and has you stand and touch your feet to measure hamstring flexibility.
Sylvester sat me down and explained that even though I thought that my upright handlebars were better for my achy back, I was wrong. People lean forward when they're trying to go fast because leaning forward engages the butt muscles that power your push on the pedals, and leaning at a 45-degree angle also allows your back to extend rather than compress. According to Sylvester, this alignment is key.
Maybe because Sylvester sounds a little like Mr. Rogers, I barely cringed when he popped off my beloved upright handlebars and replaced them with those flat, almost cruel-looking mountain-bike bars I've always feared. After I pedaled on my seat for him, Sylvester determined that it was the wrong height and installed a new seat stem. He told me that I'd have to adjust to this new setup and that he was there should I have any questions or need any help. I scooted out of the store with that in mind.
I was in for the most miserable ride of my life.
I understood what he was going for: My back seemed to be engaged in a whole new, healthier way. But that didn't make up for the excruciating pain in my wrists, the pummeling I took when my thighs rammed into my belly with each rotation, the constriction on my breath from leaning over so dramatically, the viselike hold my genitals had on my seat, and the disturbing sensation of both my feet going numb. My comfy old two-wheeler had been body-snatched! I rode it once more to make sure this wasn't just part of the adjustment process. When the situation didn't improve, I got in touch with Sylvester and he had me come in again.
To a certain degree, I had thrown him a curve ball; most of the bikes he fits don't have owners who are more Rosie than Lance. While the 45-degree angle may work with those knobby-legged, no-ass Spandex-lovers, it doesn't exactly fly for those with Buddha bellies and butter-fed butts. Sylvester replaced the handlebar stem with one that raises it a lot more, and he put on a seat the size of Alaska. I'd still be leaning over, but not as much as before, and my new, generous seat would keep me from sliding forward.
I rode toward home. A group of young girls was playing softball as I approached Alberta Park. The girl up to bat cracked the ball over the left fielder's head. Everyone rose to their feet, and cheers frothed up as she rounded third plate and slid into home. The sky was as blue as a Charm Pop. I forgot I was even riding my bike, which is the way it's supposed to be. Sylvester had sewn my suit. And now it fit just right.
Fittings range from $50 to $200. Plan to spend additional money on parts.
Northeast Portland location:
5329 NE Sandy Blvd., 281-9800 (Michael Sylvester- trained fitting experts are also available at the Bike Gallery's other three locations: downtown, Lake Oswego and Beaverton.)
Sylvester also teaches yoga for cyclists.