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Profile: former Team Sky and British Cycling physio Phil Burt

Nikalas Cook
19 Nov 2018

Phil Burt literally wrote the book on bike fit. He tells us about Olympic glory, UCI rule changes and why he made Team GB brush their teeth

Watch a repeat of Chris Hoy’s triumph in the keirin at the 2012 Olympics in London and you’ll see the man upon whose shoulder Sir Chris is hoisted after securing gold.

Phil Burt has been lead physiotherapist for British Cycling through several Olympic Games, he’s an original member of the Secret Squirrel Club, and he has been the driving force behind some of the projects that helped propel Great Britain to the summit of the cycling world.

‘I’ve been at the sharp end of elite cycling performance for over a decade now, working within one of the most progressive and successful cycling teams ever,’ he says.

‘It’s been an amazing experience, including the traditional injury rehab role of the physio, the development of bike fit and, right from the early days of the Secret Squirrel Club, making step changes in equipment and performance.’

Now he is moving on, and has set up his own bike fitting and injury assessment practice in Manchester, called Phil Burt Innovation.

Cyclist has come along to reap the benefit of the Burt magic, and to find out more about his time at the sharp end of cycling.

Crunching the numbers

Arriving at the Manchester Institute of Health and Performance for my own appointment with Burt, I’m raring to jump on the fitting jig and get going, but Burt reins in my enthusiasm.

First off he sits me down and explains why, despite all the technology available to bike fitters, not all fits are equal.

‘A bike fit, even with 3D motion-capture technology, is still largely trial and error and is reliant on rider feedback, experimentation and the fitter’s knowledge,’ he says.

‘There are guidelines and data ranges that can be followed but all riders are different and there’s no one-size-fits-all recipe.’

Phase one of the fitting process is a thorough physical examination. Burt pokes and prods, then gets me to perform a range of movement tests.

My hamstrings and upper body are good but my quads are worryingly tight. This could be limiting power production and my ability to hold a good position, and could potentially lead to imbalance and injury issues.

Burt shows me a simple daily stretch that will fix the problem.

‘Physiological limitations, such as overly tight hamstrings, or morphological issues, such as leg length discrepancies, all have to be accounted for when determining a rider’s position,' he says.

‘Yes, with strengthening and mobility work you can slowly adapt your body to any position, but it’s a hell of lot easier to adjust the bike to accommodate the rider rather than the other way round – at least initially.’

We move onto phase two: my goals and why I’m having a bike fit. I’ve been feeling slightly cramped when racing, and I wonder whether a change of position might help.

‘There’s little point in conducting a bike fit unless you know the rider’s goals, but it’s a step that’s often neglected,’ says Burt.

‘A sportive rider is going to require a completely different fit to a crit racer of exactly the same height and build.

‘I like to talk about the three pillars of bike fit: aerodynamics, comfort and power generation. All riders will have different cycling ambitions and by finding these out, the relative importance of the three pillars can be assigned.

‘An example of this was setting up road bikes for the GB track sprinters. With the goal of their road miles being base endurance and recovery, aerodynamics had almost no importance for them,’ he explains.

‘So comfort was prioritised and they were given positions that even many sportive riders would consider upright and relaxed. This is in direct contrast to their race positions, which were all about maximising aerodynamics and power generation.

‘Comfort barely got a look in at that point.’

After assessing my goals and needs, it’s time to attach the motion capture dots and wires and to get down to the technical part of the fitting process.

It’s easy to be seduced by all the technology and data, but Burt stresses that although systems such as Retül have revolutionised bike fitting, the quality of the fit is still down to the expertise and experience of the fitter.

‘Whenever I perform a bike fit I’m always looking to find correlating lines of evidence. No one piece of evidence – a Retül data point, pressure mapping of the saddle, an observation or rider feedback – can determine the direction of the fit.

‘However, if four or five of these lines of evidence are pointing in the same direction, I’ll have the confidence to go with it.

‘This is the problem with many bike-fitting services on offer – they’ll only derive the end position from one evidence source, normally the motion capture data.

‘Because of all of the hi-tech bells and whistles it’s too easy and tempting to rely on the technology and forget you’re dealing with an infinitely variable and unpredictable commodity – a human being.’

An example of how unpredictable the human body can be, and the importance of adopting an open mindset, was Ed Clancy’s rehabilitation from a near career-ending back injury.

‘The consensus opinion was that Ed should train in an altitude chamber,’ says Burt. ‘This would allow him to load his cardio system while keeping the stress on his musculoskeletal system relatively safe and low.

‘However, despite all the research backing the protocol, Ed’s numbers were falling off a cliff and it was clear that in his case a different approach was needed.

‘I reverted to a much more direct formula of simply getting Ed to ride pain-free and developing the flexion in his spine required to achieve this.

‘This gave control back to the rider, rather than just going through the motions of chasing numbers and blindly following the accepted protocol.’

Are you sitting comfortably?

Getting back to my own fitting, Burt makes some significant tweaks to my position. He feels there are power and aerodynamic gains to be made by moving my saddle back, fitting a longer stem and changing my handlebars.

I also mention how, during longer races, I occasionally suffer from saddle soreness.

It’s a subject that has been of particular interest for Burt, especially with regards to the female members of the GB squad.

After the Rio Olympics, Laura Kenny was quoted as saying that Burt had ‘saved her life’ in this respect but the story goes back to pre-London 2012 and Victoria Pendleton.

‘We developed a special saddle for Vicky and it solved the problems she was having. After the Games, though, I wondered how common the problem was.

‘We surveyed the riders and the results were staggering. Almost all the female riders were suffering problems but no one was reporting them.

‘Aside from the obvious health implications, it could impact on a rider’s ability to train and affect performance,’ he adds.

‘There were gains to be made and, by putting together a conference of world-class experts, including tribologists [friction specialists to you and me], reconstructive surgeons who were experts in dealing with pressure sores, and a top dermatologist, a rider care package was produced and the problem was solved.’

Also, while investigating this issue, Burt found that saddle angle was a major contributor to soreness. He presented this evidence to the UCI and facilitated a change in their regulations.

Outside of elite competition, Burt is convinced that saddle soreness is a major issue for a huge number of riders, women especially, and saddle health is going to be a big part of the services that he offers.

Using gebioMized pressure mapping, Burt is able to see how and where I am loading my saddle. He finds I’m skewing to the left and thinks adding a degree of tilt to my saddle and altering my left cleat position would help.

It wasn’t just saddle health that Burt revolutionised during his time with British Cycling. During the build-up to the Rio Olympics, he suspected that the team’s dental health might not quite be up to scratch after meeting dental expert Professor Ian Needleman at a conference.

‘I realised that the constant sipping of sugary drinks, and a less than brilliant dental hygiene routine due to travel and fatigue from training, might be an issue.

If this was leading to low-level infections because of the extreme stress that the athletes’ training load put on them, it could be reducing performance or their ability to fight off other infections and recover optimally.

‘We got the squad checked out and the finding was that their dental health was worse than the average population, which was in line with research done in other sports.

Dental care wasn’t covered by the Olympic Association BUPA policy so I worked with University Dental Hospital to have the riders recognised as a special need group, ensuring that care packages and advice were given to the team along with any necessary treatment.’

I make a mental note to clean my teeth when I get home. With my saddle and cleat tweaked, my position already feels more balanced and powerful.

Burt is convinced that, with some more fine-tuning and work on my tight quads, there are greater gains to be made.

‘Rider history and goals have to be combined with the data from the 3D motion capture and pressure mapping to give what I refer to as a “window of bike fit”. This window will be a range of values, not absolute measurements.

It’s a fallacy that you have a single set of bike fit numbers that will apply throughout your riding lifetime.

Riders need to take information away from the fit and, over the course of weeks or months, work within their fit window and dial in their position with their riding goals at the forefront of their thoughts.

‘Even with top riders, bike fit should be a constantly evolving and fluid process without any obvious final finishing point. It’s a process of evolution, not revolution.’

For details on Phil Burt Innovation go to philburtinnovation.com

 

Fleet of foot

Phil Burt dips his toe into the world of hi-tech cobbling

If you’ve watched the GB Cycling Team in action, you can’t help but have noticed their super-sleek shoes. These minimalist moccasins were another of Burt’s innovations.

Seemingly without buckles, a Boa locking system is hidden from the wind on the underside of the sole to minimise drag.

Moulded from carbon, the shoes are incredibly stiff for efficient power transfer, and incredibly light to minimise the impact of a rotating mass.

Burt claims the shoes helped the team significantly increase peak power and reduce drag, and who’s going to argue with the 12 medals won at the Rio Olympics?

Available through simmons-racing.com, you can even have a pair custom-made for yourself if you’ve got a spare £1,000 knocking around, although Burt says he is working on a version that’s a bit more accessible to mere mortals.

 

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