Editor’s Note: This story originally ran in the February 2012 issue of Velo magazine, a special issue dedicated to some of the most compelling personalities in cycling.
As the founder of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, Andy Pruitt has helped scores of amateur and pro cyclists hone their riding positions, including Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen, Alberto Contador and the Schleck brothers — as well as several members of the Velo editorial staff. And whether it’s a Tour de France contender or a mid-pack age grouper, Pruitt applies the same careful eye for detail, combined with 40 years of experience, enabling him to pinpoint an athlete’s problem often after only a brief glance.
Dialing in Cancellara’s time trial position is a perfect example. In 2009, when Saxo Bank moved from Cervélo to Specialized, Pruitt, a Specialized consultant, convinced the reigning Olympic champion to try a more upright TT position. Raised in the old-school European mentality that lower is always better, the Swiss champion resisted, but reluctantly agreed.
“After measuring his hamstring flexibility, I spent a lot of time talking with him about the maximum hip flexion that was allowable,” Pruitt said. “The old-school theory was lower in front is faster, but it’s not true. You can go too low, and lose power.”
Cancellara seemed happy with the new position; he started out his 2009 season with a prologue win at the Amgen Tour of California. But when Pruitt saw Cancellara riding the opening stage of the Tour of Romandie, he immediately knew something was wrong. “I’m watching it live on TV, and I’m watching his hips rock too much and I know he’s lowered his position,” Pruitt said. “I could see in his body it was way too low. I sent a text to my team contact, asking, ‘What’s going on? I’m watching this live, his position is awful.’”
Cancellara finished 11th in the Romandie prologue. Afterwards, he admitted to Pruitt that he’d caved in to old habits and lowered his cockpit by 4cm. “He told me that he had crotch pain, he had back pain, and more importantly, he went slower,” Pruitt said. “The bottom line is that he’d gone too far. Even a guy like Cancellara can go beyond his physiological capabilities. He raised it back up and won time trials that year at Tour de Suisse, Tour de France, the Vuelta a España and the world championship.” Over the past few years, the often outspoken and tenacious Pruitt has become perhaps the most sought-after biomechanist in pro cycling. He’s also medaled at the U.S. disabled ski championships and is a two-time world champion in disabled cycling. However, the road to the top, both professionally and athletically, was anything but smooth.
The early years
Pruitt was born in June of 1950, the youngest of three sons of a country chiropractor in Henderson, Kentucky. His father went on to become the executive director of the American Chiropractic Association, located in Webster City, Iowa, and the family relocated when Pruitt was a young boy. It was in rural Iowa that Pruitt’s interest in athletics was born. He played sports throughout his youth, despite his parents’ lack of interest. He recalls buying his first bike, a Schwinn Typhoon, at 12 years old, with the proceeds from a paper route. Despite an early interest in cycling, his first bike race wouldn’t come for nearly two decades.
At the age of 14, Pruitt was accidentally shot in the lower part of his right leg while hunting in an Iowa cornfield. He recalls being on the operating table listening to the orthopedist on the phone with another doctor from the big city asking what to do. Pruitt knew there was no saving the leg. “My foot was in another county,” he said.
He remembers vividly the first two questions he asked his parents and the doctor upon waking up from the amputation: “Will my new foot have toes?” and “When will I run?” They answered, “No” and “Never again.” That turning point ignited in him a desire not only to run again, but also to be “more normal than normal, and to do anything I could to prove those people wrong.”
Despite the loss of part of his leg, Pruitt continued wrestling in high school (he would remove the prosthetic and wrestle without it.) At age 15, the football coach of his high school saw in Pruitt a keen interest in both science and sport and he suggested that he take a course that was being offered in athletic training, sponsored by the Cramer Chemical Company; he agreed and the coach paid for it. Pruitt completed the course and became the athletic trainer for his high school. He worked with the football, basketball, baseball and wrestling teams. His career in sports medicine had begun.
After earning a degree in anatomy from Iowa State in 1972, Pruitt took a position as an anatomy teacher and athletic trainer at Mercer County College in New Jersey. He had enormous autonomy in his position, essentially establishing an entire sports medicine department on his own, months out of college.
It was then that he got a call from the University of Colorado. He took a position as assistant athletic trainer in 1973 and has lived in Boulder ever since. He worked as a trainer with all of the sports teams at CU until 1985. After the passage of Title IX, and despite considerable resistance from the University establishment, Pruitt was one of the first in the U.S. to incorporate women in the training room and on the sidelines in the capacity as athletic trainers.
It was during his time as a trainer that his interest in cycling was rekindled; he started riding again and began to develop a keen interest in non-traditional sports injuries. The atypical, repetitive-use injuries of runners, Nordic skiers, and cyclists were a perplexing puzzle that intrigued him.