HOW TO MAKE YOUR BIKE FIT

By Nick, 08 January 2013 | Comments (4)

Wij, James & Kat wear Vulpine


I've written this for road bikes, as it is the most complicated and there are various differences with MTBs and the plethora of other types of bikes. The same basic rules apply though. If you're comfortable, you can ride for ages without long-term injury. And indeed you can ride faster.


Right across the scale, from towpath pottering to hardcore racing, getting a perfect fit for your bike is perhaps the most misunderstood and essential part of cycling to get right.


I have 'fitted' bikes for god knows how many people over the years and I am always at pains to point out that there are many differing schools of thought and it will need your personal touch. I am no expert. I've just done it a lot, using the most widely accepted rules.


Bike fit importance increases exponentially as the distance increases. So with a 1 mile tootle on a Barclays Bike, you could probably ride with your knees behind your head. (Go on, try. I'll take photos). But the greatest challenge of a challenge event like London-Paris or the Etape is comfort.


Cycling is low-impact and as gentle or hard on your body as you choose, so its a great sport for everyone. But with distance comes repetition and you are 'locked' onto a bike in the same position for hours, often. This means each tiny misjudgement in position becomes ever more exaggerated with time. A tiny niggle in your knee can become excruciating pretty quickly. Which is why correct position and building up into training are so important.


Comfort prevents injury means more cycling means greater performance.


Anyone, everyone, undertaking any sort of mileage or time in the saddle must treat getting their position right with the utmost seriousness. And we at Vulpine don't really like seriousness that much. But this is SERIOUS (you getting this?!)


The concept of comfort even entering conversation is seen as a bit twee by many racing cyclists. But if you're uncomfortable its an early warning sign of injury. I'm not talking the discomfort of lactate-burnt legs. That's a sign of winning the war against training pain...Grrrrr. We're talking back ache, knee niggles, wrist tingling and shoulder tightness. If you get any of these regularly, something is wrong, and it is only going to get worse if ignored. These aches and pains are not part of training and don't make you tougher.


The following do not provide a training benefit, or improve your PB:
Hospital appointments.
Lying on a physiotherapist's table.
Pills.
Bed.
Operations.
Complaining.


Yep, niggles become injuries, even chronic ones. So get your position right! Trust me, I'll never ride properly again. More (but not too much) on that later.
Ok. Impassioned plea over. To practicalities.


A BIKE THAT FITS


By bike, we specifically mean frame, as everything else is built around it. Beyond frame the only other choice is wheel size. BMX riders are exempt, because they're not going to be riding distance....Are they? (You're not are you?!)


Some smaller riders may prefer 650c wheels.


But you know what, I'm not going to tell you what size is right for your height, reach and leg length, because the best thing to do is discuss your needs with a friendly recommended bike shop.


Many people now buy their bikes online. If you're experienced and have your position and understanding of frame geometry dialed in, then no problem. But the irony is that many cyclists buy bikes online to save money, when this is the worst period in your cycling life to buy without advice or experience.


What extra you pay in buying direct from a bike shop you save over and over in service and within that sizing advice. A great bike shop will service your bike, set it up for you, and most importantly save you making position mistakes that come from incorrect size purchases and worse.


NEW TO CYCLING? BUY FROM A REALLY GOOD BIKE SHOP!


Ok. You have a bike. It may or may not have been set up initially by a bike shop. You need to set things up in this order.


1. SADDLE HEIGHT


You do this via the seatpost (or seatpin) sticking out of the frame, probably with an Allen bolt, perhaps a quick release.


Set a height that feels ok. On a bike trainer or leaning against a wall (you may need help with this!) pedal a bit. Put the crank arm at its lowest point on your chosen leg with the ball of your foot over the pedal axle (wear the shoes you'll ride in). Is your knee slightly bent, so you're not 'reaching' for the pedal? Do that. Then put your heal on the pedal. Your leg will be straight, but comfortably so. Adjust until you feel at your best.
Bingo.


Experienced cyclists riding distance will measure their seat height in increments of millimetres. You should mark it against your seatpost with a little tape, or a wee marker pen. Measure from the centre of the cranks to the top of saddle. That is your seat height. Write it down or email it to yourself.

This is the most important measurement on the entire bike! I once rode 500 miles in Ireland with a seatpost that had slipped down 5mm. I had knees like melons by the end. Didn't ride for two months afterwards. That's how important this height is to distance cycling.


If you find you are 'reaching' for the pedals or rolling your hips, your saddle is too high. You'll likely want to adjust (fettle!) this over time. Change only by small increments.


2. SADDLE POSITION


Your saddle needs to be flat. If its not, you're setup wrongly. Use a spirit level to get this right. The only athletes that have angled saddles are, well, athletes and likely doing time trials or triathlon to a good standard. *Don't try this at home kidz*.


Next up, set up a plumb line, or heavy bolt tied to string. With your cranks set horizontal, your knee should be over the pedal. To fine tune, hang the plumb line from the tip of the boney outgrowth at the top of your shin (tibia) where your knee tendons attach. The plumb line should bisect the pedal axle.


Loosen the bolts at the top of the seatpost, where saddle attaches and push back and forth until right. If it is very far back or forward you've either got the wrong bike size, or you have very unusual skeleton! At this time, the ball of your foot is over the pedal axle.


Saddle position affects saddle height, so go back and look at this again.


THINGS THAT CHANGE YOUR POSITION ONCE YOU'VE SET IT:
New shoes, pedals, saddle, cranks, even shorts.
Injury.
Age.
Experience.
Training.
Stretching.
Complimentary exercise, especially core work.


So keep checking and adjusting over time. Even (especially) over the years.

3. HANDLEBARS & BRAKES


There are a number of adjustments here that inter-relate. The overall aim to to have a head, neck, back, arm and hand position that is comfortable for hours (though if you're new to distance then it'll ache anyway, so build up, don't just jump straight in).


How will you know this? Well the neck will be relaxed and not cricked upwards to see. The shoulders dropped and relaxed also. Arms with a slight bend to absorb shocks, as straight arms ricochet everything through to the shoulders. And comfortable wrists with hands that can easily work on the brakes. On road bikes there are three positions, tops, hoods and drops. You need to reach all. More later...


Your bike came with a stem, that attaches the handlebars to the fork. It is likely attached at an average length. We'll work with that for now, but is the first component to be changed when buying a new bike, as stem's are so personal.


So, first up, put your hands on the 'hoods' in the position your bike was set up with. This is the most used position on a road bike, as it is comfortable and it gives you easy access to the brakes and gears.


How does it feel? If you have to crane your neck up to see forwards, you are definitely too low and/or forward. This can be altered. Are your arms slightly bent and you feel relaxed, not stretched?


Gently unscrew the face plate on the stem that holds the bars in place. Now they can rotate. I'd start with a position so that the 'flat' of the bottom curl of the bars is facing slightly upwards and the hoods rise above the level of the top of the bars. Now put your hands in the drops. Is this comfortable? Can you see forwards? Can you reach the brakes?


You may need to adjust the brakes in their position on the bars to improve reach. This is a bit more advanced and may need someone more experienced. It also messes with your bar tape unless a slight adjustment. But do make sure the levers are obscuring the front of the bars, not turning in or outside them, and are secured tightly.


Ok, you have something that feels as good as it can for bar & hood position. The stem makes quite a difference and there are a number of potential adjustments here.


If its a new bike the fork is left uncut so that you can have a high positioned stem if you like. Spacers are placed under the stem where it attaches to fill in the gap. This gives a more relaxed position. If you are not very flexible (which is frankly most of us) then set the stem high* like this.


*If you're not a confident mechanic, don't do this. Changing the stem in any way apart from adjusting bar angle via the face plate involves removing the stem and therefore decompressing the headset, which are the fork bearings. It is easy to get this wrong at first, either over or under tightening, so its worth being shown at first.

James looks effortlessly comfortable aboard his (custom) fixie. Note the old school quill stem, with less adjustablity.


See how the added height helps you. If there is a noticeable difference in comfort and improved 'feel', stick with it. If you're still straining, we have two courses of action left. Stem length and stem angle. Lets do length first...


In this new setup, sit on the bike with your hands on the hoods. Comfy? Where is the front wheel hub in relation to the handlebars? Do the bars obscure the centre of the wheel or is it in front of or behind. If obscured, you have a good stem length already as long as you are comfortable! If the hub is behind the bars, then it is likely too long. If the bars are behind the hub, it may be too short. Too long is the greater of the two evils. You will need to buy a new stem. They don't HAVE to cost much. Many cyclists have piles of stems they try before they get the right fit. Me too.


So you've adjusted your bar angle and hoods. You need to get a different stem, and your position is STILL not comfortable in terms of being too low. I have this problem, as I have numerous herniated disks in my back that'll never go away. You need to 'flip' the stem.


The stem you were given is angled, usually to take account of the angle in the forks, so it is roughly level as it extends to the bars. By removing the stem and turning it over (this won't work on old quill stems or integrated bar units!!) you are angling the stem and therefore bars upwards. This gives height and eases your reach. You've now maxed-out your options. If you have,and its still uncomfortable, this bike is never going to be right for you. I have this problem. My bars (unusually) need to be higher than the saddle. So I had this beauty made by world-class frame builder Ricky Feather last year. She is my pride and joy. The position to many (including me) looks pretty bizarre, stupid even, for a road bike. But I don't care. It means I can ride.

Check that position out! You want that position? Right, well carry on slamming...

(Note that I tinkered with this a bit and raised the bars and put the saddle back after Ricky delivered it. Heh, I'm always tinkering).


Ok, you've changed a number of positions. Run through it all again. Tweak until each 'fits' with each other. Find that ideal mix.

It's not the coolst presentation ever, but these guys do a great simple video explanation of the above.


4. DON'T SLAM


And this is where I thump the desk and get passionate about why correct bike position is so important.


I got to the point where I could only ride custom frames, only ride for an hour (as long as I stop to stretch) and can't do a lot of things normally in daily life because I SLAMMED MY STEM. I have a degenerative spine disease that I may have got later in life anyway, but was definitely accelerated (into my teens!!) by having a very low position.


Slamming is where the stem is as low as the bike will allow. This is 'pro'. Some pros do it. Many don't, as they now know it does them no favours with injury or efficiency, as it can affect power transfer.


It looks very cool. But it looks much less cool when you have someone hunched over the bars, straining to look up, evidently not supple and experienced enough to handle what is essentially the cycling equivalent of putting a massive spoiler on a family car.


There's no speed gain from hobbling to bed with a bunch of painkillers in your system. Spine injuries to cyclists are increasingly common. We are not as experienced or nearly as supple as professional cyclists. A position like that puts immense strain on the spine and it's disks. Once is the disk has prolapsed, it'll never be the same for you again. It'll press against your spinal cord and give you immense pain. You may not be able to walk or sleep. You will get intense muscle spasms, like cramp that doesn't go away.

 

Andy Schleck's ultra slammed position. Check out the stem position and length. BUT he is a pro. And he handles a bike like a drunken giraffe in a tumble-dryer, so think on!


Look out for the signs. Tension, tingling, long term aches, white lights in your eyes, etc. And don't slam. Slamming is for boy racers.


5. ADJUST. IMPROVE.


Hopefully now you have a good basis from which to improve your position. You should gently tinker until it feels right for you. If you're comfortable, lower your position. If not, raise and shorten. Yes its less aero. But beds are really un-aerodynamic.


Or better still, if you're spending decent money on bike bits, spend the money on a professional bike fit. At around £100-250 this is worth infinitely more than the cash spent on lighter wheels or a Garmin. A great fit will give you peace of mind, improved comfort, safety, power transfer, aerodynamics. The lot.


And if you're just happy pootling about and you feel good, carry on. Bike fit is just a necessary evil on the way to maximum enjoyment of the thing we love in all it's forms:


Cycling.