Years ago, in fact decades ago, when I got my first road bike all there was were just proper steel frames, tubes came just in round, we nailed our cleats to our hobnailed boots and only girls talked about comfort! Today, road bike fitting is big business and road bike frames come in all sorts of different configurations and flavours and the ability to fit and match the bike to the rider has become something of a science possibly with a bit of art thrown in for good measure!
Getting a good bike fit is vital to the comfort of the rider and also to our physical well being. A poorly fitting bike can cause pain and injury and also prevents the cyclist from performing at their best. It really is worth taking the time to initially make sure that the frame is suited to your size and riding style and then that the smaller adjustments of fitment are as accurate as possible. It’s surprising how changes of only a few millimetres can make a big difference.
If you are buying a new bike from a good bike shop then you should get some good advice as to the correct size and type of frame and the bike should also have a good basic set up for you in terms of fit as well. You might want to tweak this yourself as you settle into your riding and the finer tuning details below will help with this.
If you are buying second hand then you will find everything you need to get the correct fit below as well – you’ll just need to do a bit more ground work yourself in making sure that the basic frame sizing and adjustments are right.
Whatever way you decide to buy a bike I cannot emphasise enough the importance of seeing it and sitting on it before you buy. It’s always tempting to buy online and to try to get a bargain and this may very well be OK but your chances of success and of getting a bike that really fits well and suits you are less if you have only seen the bike “virtually”. A bike is a very personal thing and can only really be appreciated by feel.
So, with that in mind let’s get stuck into the details of how get the perfect bike fit.
Frame Size and Geometry on a road bike
I hated geometry at school and was absolutely convinced that it was of no practical use whatsoever and that I would never, in a month of Sundays, ever need to refer to even the word “geometry” after I left! I was partially right and pretty much avoided it for most of my adult life but it did rear up it’s ugly head again when I got into road cycling.
Luckily “geometry” in road cycling is a little more palatable and it refers to the shapes and angles and set up of a road bike frame. This set up can have a dramatic impact on how the bike handles in terms of cornering, stability and how quickly it accelerates but probably for our purposes at least it also has a significant impact on the comfort of the rider as well.
Sadly, generally speaking, the faster the bike the more uncomfortable it’s going to be and the fitter and more supple and flexible the rider has to be to be able to manage to sit on it for any length of time before basically doubling up in agony. Unfortunately, in the broad realm of things I’m only very modestly fit, definitely not that supple and flexible and I do like to be nice and comfy but I also like to go fast – something will have to give somewhere!
So, a bike with what’s called a “relaxed” geometry (that was my problem at school – I was far too relaxed in geometry!) will allow the rider to sit in a more upright position and be more comfortable for longer rides but will still handle well and allow for a reasonably aero position when you need it. This type of bike geometry is generally aimed at sportive/endurance riders and general road bike riders.
A race bike geometry has a much more “heads down” angle and will therefore handle differently, be more aerodynamic and faster. The rider will need to be more flexible and stronger to maintain the position and this type of bike prioritises speed over comfort. You really wouldn’t want to ride all day on this type of bike in a sportive unless you were completely mega fit and flexible!
So, the bike’s geometry is a bit like it’s DNA, it’s genetic make up and character. This can’t be changed and is there to stay no matter what bike fitting and other adjustments are made.
The next important thing to look at is frame size and there are all sorts of unhelpful charts and tables that the bike manufacturer’s produce to help you fit the frame to your height. In my experience these need to be taken with a pinch of salt as we are all very different shapes and proportions and the only real way of telling if a bike frame is the right size for you is to actually sit on it!
You might think that the vital measurement is for the saddle height but, as long as the bike is roughly the right height, there is a wide range of saddle adjustment to make it fit perfectly. Much more important is the “reach” which is the distance from a vertical line upwards from the centre of the bottom bracket to a vertical line down from the centre of the head tube where the handlebars go in. Essentially this is how long the bike is and only has a small margin for adjustment. When you are sitting on the bike resting your hands on the hoods the angle of your back should be around 45 – 48 degrees for endurance cycling. You can shorten or lengthen a little bit by changing the length of the handle bar stem but it needs to be pretty close at the outset for a good fit.
On road bikes the size of the frame is generally measured in cm and is the measurement from the bottom bracket to the top of the seat tube. You will need to refer to each manufacturer’s specific chart to get a more accurate idea of sizing but as a very rough guide if you are between 5’3” and 5’6” tall you will need a 52 – 53cm frame. If you are 5’8” to 5’11” you will need 54 – 56cm and if you are 6” or over then good luck to you because you will need a frame that is 59cm, 60cm or even 62cm depending on the reach and some manufacturers simply don’t make them this big. Trust me I’m 6’5” tall and finding a bike to fit is a bit of a problem!
Road Bike Saddle Tilt
Ok, so now you have a bike that’s basically the right breed or geometry and is the right size for you. Now the fun starts! Let’s get measuring and tweaking!
The first thing to do is to grab yourself a spirit level and stand your bike on an absolutely level floor . This might be easier said than done as, I’m not sure if my house was just built by the Lone Ranger and his cowboy mates but, once you get a spirit level out you realise that there’s barely a level floor in the place!
Are all houses like this? I don’t know!
Anyway, with the flat floor and the spirit level in hand make sure that the saddle is 100% and completely horizontal to the ground. I believe that there are a very few saddle manufacturers that specify a slightly different angle but, if yours does, the chances are you will already know about it. So, unless you definitely know otherwise get that saddle level!
If the saddle isn’t level you will expend valuable energy trying to stay put on it and it can also impede the blood flow to vital parts causing numbness. It could also potentially cause your pelvis to be at an awkward angle and this can, over time, lead to aches and pains.
Road Bike Saddle Height
This is the biggie and the obvious one and, along with the reach, has the most impact. There are a number of different ways of working this out and you will probably find that all of them give you a slightly different result. When I originally set my saddle height I tried two or three methods to give me a ball park figure and then adjusted by feel. Taking a multi tool out on a ride is a good idea as it means you can make adjustments as you go. I think I fiddled around for two or three rides before deciding that enough was enough and that I had got it close enough. Surprisingly it’s possible to notice adjustments of 1/2cm or so in your backside. I never knew my bottom was so sensitive!
So, method 1 – Sit squarely on the bike and rest your heel on the pedal at the very bottom of the the pedal stroke. Your heel should just skim the pedal if the saddle is at the correct height. I found this quite tricky as I tended to lean over a bit to one side as I tried to do it. You really need to be on a turbo trainer or leaning against a wall. Anyway the idea is that if your heel can just skim the pedal once your toes are on the pedal it will create the correct angle at the knee.
Method 2 – For this you need a willing helper or to be alone as it looks quite strange! You basically need to get an accurate measurement from the floor (in your shoes) to your groin. You need a long piece of wood and a spirit level, pop the piece of wood up your crotch in a horizontal manner as if you are sitting on it, check it’s horizontal with the spirit level and mark on the wall the height from your crotch to the floor. Simple in theory but hard to achieve in practice and it looks a bit odd! Particularly as you are best taking the padding of your shorts into consideration as well so get your lycra on and shove a piece of wood in your crotch!
You then need to multiply the measurement by 0.883 to give you the measurement from the middle of the bottom bracket to the top of the saddle. You can also multiply it by 109% and measure from the pedal in it’s 6 o’clock position to the saddle as well.
This will give you a slightly different measurement – just for fun and confusion!
Method 3 – Do the measurement above and just knock 10 cm off the number. Measure from bottom bracket to the top of the saddle.
Method 4 – Use a goniometer and measure the angle at your knee when the leg is fully extended. It should be between 25 and 35 degrees. A goniometer is basically a large set square type thing (back to geometry!) and you can purchase them from medical suppliers.
Method 5 – Measure your inside leg using silk thread, take the measurement and multiply it by four frogs, take off a goblin’s hair breadth, whisper the number through eggshells and this will give you the measurement from the sky to your bottom bracket.
Yes, well only joking but you can see there are as many ways as there are to skin a cat as there are old wives tale’s!
Best thing to do is to try a couple of the methods above to get close and then go by feel. At least that was my thinking and I seem to be generally doing OK.
If you get the seat too high however, it will mean that you can’t push the full amount of power through the pedal stroke and your pelvis will rock from side to side on the saddle as you pedal. This can cause back problems and pain – it’s easily spotted from behind, in fact you see a large number of cyclists with this problem.
Similarly, if the seat is too low the leg never reaches a reasonable extension and again can’t exert it”s full power but also, due to being bunched up, this can lead to muscle issues and particularly knee problems as it can put an extra strain on the knees.
Handle bars are easily changed and are also one of the prime points of contact between your body and the bike so it makes sense to make sure that they suit your body. If the bars are to wide then they could potentially cause you to sag a little at the shoulder blades and cause pain. If they are too narrow then they will feel constricting and tight.
You need the measurement between the outer bits of your shoulder blades and this should approximately correspond to the width of the handle bars.
Reach and handlebar height
This is almost as important as the saddle height and getting the reach and handlebar height right has a significant impact on the rider’s comfort. At the outset you will possibly be tempted to want to lie as flat as you can with your head down and tail in the air. This sounds great and we all have delusions of possessing the flexibility and strength to be able to ride like this but, if you’re anything like me, this type of position is quickly going to make you bend over double and stay there writhing in agony.
Sitting on an overly aggressively set up road bike miles from home is a lonely and painful place and an experience that isn’t easily forgotten either physically or mentally!
There’s no reason, particularly as a beginner road cyclist, why you shouldn’t start off with the handle bars a little higher so that your body can adjust over time as your fitness improves. You can then gradually lower the bars if you want to and get into a gradually more aerodynamic position over a period of time.
So, you are aiming to have your back at an angle of between 45-48 degrees to the horizontal when your hands are on the hoods. To get the balance right, and if the frame is the right size for you, you should be able to achieve this by having the handle bars set at about the same height at the seat. You can of course have the handle bars lower and and aggressive racing set up would have the bars 8cm or more below the level of the seat. A performance road set up would be 5-6cm lower and a more relaxed endurance height would be level, or up to a couple of cm below the level of the seat.
Once you have the bar height as you want it you can then look at adjusting the handlebar stem length to get the angle of your back correct. This is a bit of a balance because again you don’t want to end up to long and low for a start although in my own experience having the reach too short ie the stem length not long enough causes you to hunch up a bit in the back and is uncomfortable as well.
You can buy stems in many different lengths as well as adjustable ones. Remember also that you can fir the stem upside down as well if you can’t get the handlebars high enough with it the right way round.
Handle bar rotation
This one is very much personal preference but again don’t just go with the default position. Have a bit of an experiment and try them in different positions until you find one that feels absolutely right.
As with a number of the adjustments we are talking about it makes a lot of sense firstly, once you are in the ball park, to make incremental adjustments and also to make them whilst you are actually out on a ride. Often the bike and your position will feel a bit different when you have been riding for a while so making adjustments by feel at home rather than out on the open road sometimes isn’t the best plan.
Saddle fore and aft
As well as being able to adjust the saddle for height and also for tilt as above, you can also adjust it forwards and backwards either closer or further away from the handlebars. This is important as it effects your centre of balance and also how much power you can put through to the pedals.
If your seat it too far forward your upper body will be tense and feel bunched up which will have an effect on your breathing and can also lead to back pain. You might find that you need to sit back to really put the power through the pedals, particularly going up hill. You will also be wasting your energy supporting your torso and you might get sore hands and tense arms and wrists as well. Pain in the front of the knees underneath the knee cap is also a symptom of having the seat too far forward.
If the seat is too far back you will be fine on the flat but you won’t be over the pedals enough to push up hill and you might need to stand on the pedals a lot. Maintaining a high cadence will be hard work and you may find that you get pain in the back of your knees.
To find the correct position you need a plumb line, a wall to lean on or a turbo trainer and a helpful friend. Sit on the bike in your normal cycling position and bring the pedals up to the horizontal 9 o’ clock and 3 o’clock position. Drop the plumb line down from the front of your forward kneecap through the pedal and, if the saddle is correctly adjusted it should pass through the line of the pedal spindle. Adjust as necessary.
Another area of adjustment that can play havoc with your knees is cleat alignment. The cleats are the bits on the bottom of your road shoes that clip into your pedals and it’s important to get them adjusted correctly to ensure that both side to side and fore and aft movement is correct. Most cleat have a bit of “float” built into them which means that they will allow a bit of movement whilst you are riding which is a good thing but it’s important to get the basic adjustments right at the outset.
Basically getting the right position for the cleats is about getting the axle of the pedal underneath the ball of the foot. There are a number of ways of doing this including dabbing the balls of your feet with paint or correction fluid and sticking pins though your shoes but the simplest way is to put your cycling shoes on with your normal cycling socks on and feel along the side of each shoe for where the knuckle of your big toe protrudes out. This gives you the position of the ball of your foot and you an then mark a line in pencil on the outside of the shoe. Most cleats have a centre line and you can then just match this up as you screw them into the sole of the shoe. For a start align the cleats straight down the middle of the shoe and go out for a ride to see how it feels.
As you ride we all move our legs around and point out feet in slightly differing positions. Generally speaking this isn’t too much of a problem as cleats have a certain amount of “float” or free movement built into them. For beginner road cyclist’s cleats the amount of float will be much greater than say for a precision professional rider’s set up. The professional’s accuracy and lack of free movement may give a slight power advantage but at the expense of free movement – there’s no allowance for sloppy technique here! So, the chances are that, with a relatively forgiving pair of cleats the float will take care of any lateral movement issues.
However, if they just don’t feel right or you are experiencing knee pain then you will need to sort out your cleat angle. Off the bike sit on the edge of a table and dangle your feet in your road shoes freely over the edge. Without changing the angle at which they are freely hanging place your feet gently on the floor on a piece of paper that’s perpendicular to the table and have a friend draw round your shoes. Draw a long line through the centre of the shoes to the edge of the paper. The angle between the line and the edge of the paper is your cleat angle. It’s likely to be different for both feet and will allow you to transfer the angle to the cleats and set up more accurately for your particular shape.
Getting a professional bike fit
My own personal experience with bike fitment has been one of ongoing trial and error and adjustment. I have two issues one of which is that I am a rather ridiculous 6’5” tall and, basically any bike is going to be too small for me. Secondly I’m fairly middle aged and inflexible. Fitting my long gangly stiff and ageing body to any bike is going to be a series of compromises and I have spent a lot of time twiddling around with measurements and adjustments to try to alleviate nagging back pain.
I’m pretty much there now due to a lot of trial and error and also due to the fact that I am fitter, have greater core strength and am more flexible than I used to be but, in hindsight, for me personally, I would probably have been better going to a professional fitter at the outset.
If you are of much more average stature and you don’t have any known physical problems then I think that it would be a very reasonable course of action to fit the bike yourself and to see how you go from there. You will soon know if you are uncomfortable and, if you can’t quickly get to the root of any pain issue by adjusting the fit of your bike yourself I would go to a professional fitter sooner rather than later.
I have to say that, for me at least, my comfort on the bike is far more important than being able to transmit the ultimate amount of power, being completely aerodynamic or looking even remotely cool. If I’m in pain I’m not going to cycle and that’s that and there’s really no point in that at all.
Spending time and probably money on getting your bike fitted as best you can is an investment in your health and well being. The small outlay at the start pales into insignificance when you consider the months and probably years of cycling pleasure a good fit will afford you and you really can’t put a price on that.