The cyclists, of all ages, abilities and styles from around the country make the trip to Chris Balser’s bike shops in Minneapolis.
His job is both simple and complex: figuring out what changes he can make, from bike set-ups to changing gear to tweaking biomechanics, to make their cycling stronger. The adjustments are made off his 30 years of experience and being an ongoing student of the human body and how it powers a bike.
Which is why Team USA Para-cyclists Clara Brown and Noah Middlestaedt traveled from Colorado Springs, Colorado, to see the Bicycle Fit Guru (Balser’s shop name and alter ego) during a pandemic. Balser’s roster includes many elite cyclists, who come to him to make their bike work at its best for their bodies.
“I see around 700 to 900 cyclists per year, so I treat everybody the same — a pro or Olympian or Para-cyclist or a rec rider — they get my best to help them be their best,” Balser said. “Everybody has something unique about their body or the way it performs, we need to learn what is going on and what we can to make their riding experience even better. When I first saw Clara … I actually didn’t know who she was.
“To me, she was somebody with an issue, and we need to get to understand the problem to get to the solution. It’s not all about being smart or using all the technology, it’s about having genuine concern for every person who comes to see me. Once I saw what an incredible athlete she was when she was riding, it was a lot of fun to work with her, and same for Noah, to help them be at their best.”
Balser did find some solutions for Brown in their couple of hours together. She rode her bike on a trainer, and he examined the equipment, plus her mechanics and body angles. He said they tried a lot of different things to help her right side, especially her foot and toes, generate more power. The art came in to be mindful of her spinal cord impairment and paralysis and how her body reacted to the changes.
They found the tweaks to making her riding position more efficient, by moving the cleat on the left foot to improve the flow of motion on her right side.
In the end, Balser’s intuition and skill found what needed to be done for Brown. He also worked on Middlestaedt’s bike and tweaked things. The modifications are always an ongoing process, and he said he has a few more ideas for Brown in the future to optimize her ride.
She credited Balser and the visit for helping improve her feel – and hopefully optimize her training and performance on the journey to the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2021.
“I’m so appreciative for (Balser) taking the time to understand our specific ‘hitches’ and working through solutions to optimize our positions on the bike,” Brown said in a post-visit Instagram post on Oct. 16. “Alterations made to my fit helps mitigate the dead spot in my pedal stroke, which now allows me to get more out of my right leg. Hopefully these changes take me closer to more 🌈 stripes in 2021.”
Balser clearly loves his job, combining his love of science, curiosity, problem-solving, and working with people. He is a bike-lover himself, riding mountain bikes.
His love of the sport, tech and biomechanics, comes through in his rides during the week. He likes to test equipment, modifications, and other changes he can do to a bike, to see how they respond in real-time. He likes to experiment and see how ideas and changes work out.
The sport of cycling is also his outlet for dealing with his three-decades long incurable battle with Lyme disease, and the neurological conditions that come with it.
“I’m in pain all the time, 24/7, but I am not letting that come through to affect what I do,” Balser said. “People can tell I care about them, because I do. You can’t feign compassion for people who have bodies are that are not functioning well. I am constantly being reminded of my issues, so I can have empathy for their issues even though they are different than mine.
“I never pretend I have all the answers, and I am always open to listening and learning. This is about our relationship, working together, and finding the solutions — even if they are not the obvious or logical ones. You need to solve the puzzle, and that comes by clicking with the person on a trust level.”