A good bike fit can increase speed and comfort, but more importantly it’ll help you become a life-long cyclist
A major misconception of bicycles is that they fit right out of the box. You might get lucky, but more than likely you’ll need to try a few different positions to find the one that’ll keep you healthy both on and off the bike.
Be prepared to try new seats, different stems, or possibly even different handlebars. Take these expenses in to consideration when looking to make your next bike purchase.
Road bike frames are typically sized either by their top tube length, or as a t-shirt sizing. Regardless of the method of quantifying a size, the effective cockpit length (from seat to handlebar), is the major determining factor for basic fit.
Most bike companies have sizing charts on their websites to get you in the right ballpark for frame, based on your overall height. Of course this doesn’t take in to account your body’s specific dimensions in terms of leg length or torso and arm length, but it’s a great place to start.
Once your size has been narrowed down to within two or three sizes (manufacturer-dependent) the next critical measurement is stand-over height. This is a much more basic measurement, but of the 2 or 3 sizes you’ve determined can fit you, do you have enough clearance over the top tube to safely get on and off the bike? There should be several centimeters of space between you and the top of the bike.
Seats, seat height and setback
Finding a good position is impossible without a seat that supports your body. You’ve got two great bones in your pelvis that should make contact with a bike seat. If you feel like you’re sitting on soft tissue, try a new seat. You’ll know it when you feel good support, whereas you might not know the feeling of not being supported. Keep trying new seats until you get an ‘aha’ moment.
Getting your seat height right is an important aspect of road bike positioning and is the first adjustment for building a new position. The rule of thumb is that your knee should have a slight bend in it when you're at the bottom of the pedal stroke. From a generic standpoint, you can achieve this by placing your heel on the pedal and pedaling backwards slowly. If you knee just barely locks out at the point of maximum extension, you’ve found a good starting point. If you have to reach, it’s to high. If you don’t quite lock out your knee, it’s too low.
Getting the seat in the right place forwards and backwards is important too. The idea is to get maximum force applied to the pedals, and this is achieved when the knee is above the pedal axle when the crank is in the 3 o’clock position.
For a more detailed guide, see our How to get your seat height right article.
With your seat height and fore/aft set, it’s time to move to the front of the bike. Try going out for a ride with the handlebars where they are straight out of the box.
Be forewarned, this is not an easy process to work through. Be patient, try different things, and make some small documentations on what’s working well, and what isn’t.
If your neck or shoulders are sore after riding, it’s likely because you’re shrugging your shoulders and reaching too far - try a shorter stem. Most shops have a few inexpensive stems for you to try out (if you purchased your bike from them).
If you feel low back pain, this could be an indicator of the handlebars being too low (or your seat too high). Conversely, if you feel upper back pain, between your shoulder blades, this could be the opposite.
Don’t compensate for a shorter reach by moving your seat forward. The lower body and upper body should be treated as separate but equal components to your position.
Equally important to the location of the handlebar is your ability to access your brakes with confidence, and use your shifters with ease. This can mean unwrapping your bars, rotating them, repositioning your shifters, and putting everything back in place.
Fitting pedals and cleats alignment
As a final step, sort out your pedal and cleat position. Poorly positioned feet can lead to problems ranging from numbness and hot spots – inflammation of the nerves between the toes – to knee and leg strains. Sure, you’re fixed in those pedals, but it should feel natural.
The final touches
A correctly fitting, well set up bike should give good handling in all circumstances. You should be able to look down the road without fatigue, and over your shoulders (to see other traffic) without strain.
Once you’ve gotten these things sorted, you’ll be enjoying your riding more everyday. And on every ride, you’ll notice more about your body and your position.
Once you understand your position, what you like about it and what you don’t, there’s always more opportunity found from a professional bike fit. But do your homework – not all bike fit professionals are created equal. Some are more expensive than others, and some for good reason. Some are so confident in their work they’re willing to offer money-back guarantees, which I find attractive.
Always remember, cycling shouldn’t be uncomfortable – so if you are, it’s time to start making some changes!