As temperatures rise and bike paths are cleared of the remnants of winter, people often celebrate by buying a new bike. The purchase and checkout process typically ends with adjusting the seat height. While some bike shops offer comprehensive fitting services, many buyers overlook the benefits of making sure their bodies fully match the bike’s geometry. Discomfort, or even injuries, can await a rider and cycle not in sync.
Enter Chris Balser, who has spent almost 30 years helping cyclists ride faster, longer and more comfortably.
Balser founded Bicycle Fit Guru in 2008. Based in the metro, he worked with 600 cyclists alone in 2017, adjusting bike frames, seats, handlebars and pedals to improve cycling efficiency and do away with sore knees, aching backs, and tingling hands or feet.
Ninety percent of Balser’s business comes from referrals. Clients who have benefited from his fitting process offer enthusiastic testimonials. Kris Swarthout, founder of Final K, which trains and coaches athletes, said bike fitting, “much like coaching, is a craft.”
“It has many layers and many unseen details which need to be recognized. Chris gives you everything he has the moment you walk into his studio. He uses every tool and gadget in his quiver to break down your form and fit.”
Some bicycle-related brands have introduced bike fitting systems, biometric measuring tools and software evaluation programs. While Balser has stayed current with the use of technology, he said he prefers to rely on his experience.
“I do not use anything but my eyes when conducting fittings. I’m assessing muscle recruitment, joint orientation, symmetry and balance on a continuum of adjustments that eventually refine the interface between rider and bike to my and my client’s satisfaction,” he said.
Before opening Bicycle Fit Guru, Balser, 50, was a behavioral specialist consultant, bike shop owner, bicycle racer and doctoral candidate in psychiatric and alcohol epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh. When a doctor told him a lingering knee injury would prevent him from riding or running, Balser solved the problem by tinkering with his bike’s fit.
“When I started, people thought if you needed a bike fit, something was wrong with you. Now the word has spread that getting a bike fit is super important to enjoying cycling,” said Balser. “People were resigned to the fact that I ride a bike and my neck hurts, my arms hurts and my butt hurts. It doesn’t need to be that way, but it’s hard to get that into your head because it’s hard to imagine anything better.”
Looking for comfort
Jeff Grebner, 51, of Bloomington, currently training for two 70-mile half-Ironman races and the Leadville 100-mile stage race developed a chronic hamstring problem that was significantly affecting his comfort in the saddle and ability to ride. ‘I just wanted to get the best guidance possible to resolve the discomfort issues and nagging hamstring issue.”
Friends referred him to Balser, and the fitting process worked. A standard fitting starts at $200-$225.
“Two minor adjustments gave me an extra 5-10 percent power output. It’s amazing how moving a seat forward a centimeter or adding a spacer on a cleat that is a millimeter thick can make an unbelievable difference,” Grebner said.
Forced inside during Minnesota’s winters, many riders use stationary bike trainers to prepare for endurance events. Katie Moyer, 37, of St. Louis Park is training for a half-Ironman triathlon in August.
“I have been uncomfortable on the bike forever. Since I’ll be spending hundreds of hours training and racing, I knew I needed to do something different,” Moyer said.
After listening to her troubles, Balser began offering recommendations. “He has an amazing sense for balance and of what is going to be more comfortable. He made adjustments based on both watching me ride the bike and also based on my feedback. I was amazed and pleased at how much of a difference it made. An hour and a half of tweaks and it was like I had a whole new bike.”
The relationship between every cyclist and her or his bicycle is unique. Anatomical differences influence geometry and the way interconnected elements of legs, hips, back, shoulders, arms and hands work together.
“Not everyone is a 20-something rubber noodle, able to fit into any position on a bike. Real people have real issues, and Chris is the best at identifying them and finding a solution,” Swarthout said. “He takes a multistep approach at fitting athletes. He fits you, has you adapt to the fit and then refits you based on your adaptation. This happens a few times more until he gets you into your perfect fit. This multistep style takes time, but it is well worth it.”
Many of Balser’s clients come to him after unsuccessful attempts to address injuries and discomfort, some through their own tinkering, others from fit sessions with well-meaning but improperly trained bike shop employees.
‘Devil is in the details’
Creating a sense of trust is the first step in Balser’s process. “I explain that they don’t have to pay if I can’t resolve the problem. The most important part of my business is guaranteeing a positive outcome. If I can’t, I let you know upfront. Without that trust the process is crap,” he said.
“My process is to understand what a person needs in a way that preserves comfort, power and efficiency,” he added. “The devil is in the details. It’s about getting everything just right. I make a lot of wrong adjustments to get to the right adjustments. It’s a process of exploration and refinement.”
A 100-mile tour, weekend charity ride or triathlon requires long hours on a bike. With some guidance and attention, that experience doesn’t have to be painful.
“I don’t think people recognize how uncomfortable they can be on a bike until they actually have the bike fit to their specific riding style and geometry,” Grebner said. “If your bike doesn’t fit, you won’t ride it. If you are logging a lot of time on the saddle, it’s a wise investment to make to ensure that you can stay ahead of any injuries that may develop.”
Satisfied clients often return to get fit on new bikes. Balser works year-round and every day of the week. His client calendar is filled months out. But he always finds time to fit in people who call distressed about cycling-related discomfort. “Some people are meant to be singers or musicians. Bike fitting is what I was meant to do. I can see the body and it makes sense to me how things work.”
Lou Dzierzak is a freelance writer from Richfield.