Give Me a Centimeter Here and a Centimeter There

As many of you in #BikeDC know, I have been struggling with an elbow injury since last fall. As a matter of fact, I wrote about my struggles in a recent post.  After staying off the bike for the month of November and returning with continued elbow pain one thing became very apparent to me: this was a bike fit problem. It also became apparent it was one particular bike: my Salsa Vaya.

I had both bikes professionally fit by my friend Matt Moore, owner of District Cycle Works. My Blue Norcross EX has been a joy to ride since the fitting which solved my problem with plantar fasciitis last year. Now, a new pain has arrived. Whenever I would ride the Norcross my elbow with feel fine. Of course it was sore but it is always sore. The point is… no increased pain even after long rides. On the other hand, after riding the Salsa Vaya my elbow would have sharp pain in the joint as well as muscle pain in my forearm during and after each ride. Using my considerable intellectual brain power I determined the Vaya must be the culprit. Aha!!!!!

Matt upload the special Salsa Vaya setting into the Wahoo trainer

Matt upload the special Salsa Vaya setting into the Wahoo trainer

I initially had the Vaya fitted at Matt’s shop but decided to reuse a 110mm Thomson stem I already owned. I also used a Salsa Cowbell 3 handlebar my friend Brook had given to me. Since I already owned these parts I really wanted to reuse them. At the time, Matt and I believed the bike felt and looked good. The stem and handlebars seemed fine when I first started riding them but over the course of 6 or 7 months my elbow slowly but steadily became more problematic. Eventually, it reached a point where it could not be ignored.

Once I was confident this injury was bike fit related I returned to see Matt for a follow-up and discuss what I thought were possible issues. I took measurements on my Norcross to determine key differences. Why did the Norcross feel so good and the Vaya feel so bad? I had three thoughts: stem length, handbar width, and the angle of the hoods created by the 12 degree flair of the Cowbell handlebars. Because of the 110cm stem, I felt my elbow was over-extended and being jammed with every DC pothole. In comparing my Norcross, it has a 42cm handlebar measured at the hoods while the Vaya’s bar measured at just over 40cm. In addition, the flair of the Cowbell’s makes the brake hoods angle outward at an odd angle. I wondered if the angle of the hoods was forcing my wrists to turn at an unnatural angle. This unnatural angle combined with the narrowness of the handlebars was forcing my elbow to rotate inward in a direction my elbow joint was not designed to do.

"How far apart is this again?"

“You want one an inch lower than the other, right?”

After putting the Vaya back in the trainer for some pedaling and explaining my concerns to Matt, we agreed to explore a shorter stem and a wider handlebar with considerably less flair. In the meantime, Matt set me up with a 90mm test stem. The bike felt better but I thought the narrowness of the bar was still problematic. Along the way, a 90mm Thomson X4 stem came up on the DC Used Facebook Marketplace which I picked up. Then, I went down the rabbit hole of handlebar widths and shapes. This brand and that, carbon versus alloy, compact versus traditional, and on and on and on. Maybe I should just mount some beach bars.

Then, things got weird. I used math.

Returning to the logic that the Norcross felt good and the Vaya didn’t, I started looking at the distances between where my butt sits and where my hands land on the bike. On both 56cm frames the top tube is 560mm long. On the Norcross, using a 80mm stem with handlebars having 89mm of reach put an overall length of 729mm. I considered this the sweet spot. My initial build using the 110mm stem put my overall length on the Vaya at 746mm, far outside of my sweet spot and stretched to the maximum. Using Matt’s 90mm test stem this equation changes to 726mm with the Cowbell handlebar. As they say, 3mm difference is close enough for government work. I realize this approach is overly simplistic given the differences in geometry but it is useful to establish a benchmark.

Ah, Matt? Where is my rear wheel?

Matt? Where is my rear wheel?

Next, my attention turned to handlebars to address the width and hood angle problems. The Salsa Cowbell has a 76mm reach which it turns out is somewhat unique. Most bars are either short reaches at 70mm or longer reaches in the high 80’s reach. A reach in the mid-70s turned out to be a elusive creature. Hmmmm……I wonder what other handlebars Salsa makes…….well, what do you know….they do make other handlebars and without 12 degrees of flair. Salsa makes the Pro Road Medium 2 with the same reach and drop as the Cowbell but without the extreme flair. It was the perfect fit until I tried to find a set online. Turns out every retailer was sold out in the 42cm size. But as many members of #BikeDC know, if you wait around long enough, the DC Used Facebook Marketplace will deliever. A week later, a Salsa Pro Road Medium 2 in 42cm showed up brand new for a very reasonable price. Ask the bike gods and they shall answer.

A job well done with Matt Moore

A job well done at District Cycle Works

Armed with a new stem and handlebars, I revisited District Cycle Works and it’s Wahoo trainer. Matt made the final adjustments to the hoods and rewrapped the handlebars with bar tape. With the final adjustments done, the bike felt terrific on the trainer. The path to solve the mystery of fitting the Salsa Vaya may have just been unlocked. Riding home, the bike felt good. Immediately, I noticed the wider handlebars make my elbow bends outward rather than inward much like how it reacts when riding the Norcross. After this week, I am looking forward to putting many more miles on the Vaya.

The takeaway from this is: First, don’t try to convince yourself, and your bike fitter, into reusing parts you already have. It is not necessarily a smart idea. Second, free parts given by friends may not necessarily be the right parts for your implementation.

Thanks to Matt Moore, owner of District Cycle Works, for helping me flesh out my problems, providing me advice, and being a sounding board for my ideas.