Your first ride on a shiny new bike can be flat out ruined by the smallest of details. Sometimes a proper bike fit is overlooked out of excitement and you’re left wondering why the bike doesn’t ride as well as all the magazines said it would. Getting taller, getting shorter, getting in a crash or other circumstances can result in an existing bike not fitting as well. And a proper fit is key for having fun out on the trails.
All bikes are different. That means that the fit of your tri bike does not correspond to the fit of your dirt jump bike. So for the purpose of this blog, we’ll be focused on road and cross country (XC) mountain bikes. An improper bike fit can result in chronic back, neck, and knee pain as well as causing inefficiencies in your bike’s handling and pedaling efficiency. Minor fit changes, such as handlebar and seat height adjustments, can make monumental differences in weight distribution and comfort which correspond to long-term benefits for your riding.
Below I’ve outlined a few tips to make your bike fit a bit better and feel more comfortable. This is not by any means a professional fit guide. Only a second pair of eyes and some careful measurements by an expert will get you the best fit. If you try these simple fixes and your ride still just doesn’t feel quite right, stop by Jans or White Pine Touring or your own local bike shop and seek the help of an Expert bike fitter.
Your bike has three touch points: saddle, grips, and pedals. To start, your shoe and pedal interface is arguably the most important. If you’re riding clipless pedals and shoes, your bike fit should ultimately start with your cleats and their position on your shoes. This position will affect everything, but mostly importantly your saddle height. Put your shoes on and mark the ball of your foot on your sole with a pen or marker. Set the cleats in the center of the shoe along the marked axis. This is your starting point. As you hone in your fit over the next few rides, you can move the cleat forward or back and side to side until you find the most comfortable, efficient pedaling position.
Most saddles on new bikes come in a generic, one-size-fits-all design. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but people come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and so do after-market bicycle saddles. To find the right saddle for your body, start with your sitting bones, or the ischial tuberosity. These bones have a different distance between them for every person and your saddle should complement and provide support and comfort for this distance. A good bike shop will have a tool or guide to measure the distance between your sit bones and be able to make a recommendation for a new saddle as well. A contemporary saddle will have a bit thinner profile and less padding and is designed to keep your weight forward to relieve pressure over a long ride. However, a wider saddle can be selected if it feels more comfortable to you.
Grips come in about 5 billion different options. Many have ergonomic shapes, lock-on or glue-on, feature soft or hard rubber compounds, and come in all sorts of colors. If your bike is new, I would suggest keeping the grips that came with the bike since many stock grips are very comfortable. If you’re looking to upgrade, try and identify if there are any specific pressure points where you might benefit from a different grip shape. Then head to your local shop, grab a few different grips and talk to the staff to see which ones are right for you and your needs.
Measure it Out
A proper bike fit starts by looking at three different measurements of your bike: saddle height, the distance of the saddle to your stem, and the stem and bar height from the ground. The simple measurements to guide you in a basic bike fit follow below. However, these methods can be incredibly accurate. The human body is remarkably proportional and key upper and lower extremity lengths are perfectly suited for bicycle fitting. It’s almost as if nature intended it. We have adopted many of these simple measurement tools in our shops, in addition to more advanced fit techniques and measurements.
Put your elbow on the nose of your saddle with your arm pointed to your stem. With your wrist and hand outstretched, your middle finger should fall right on top of the top cap on the bike stem. If your outstretched finger falls in front or behind the top cap, you’ll want to move your saddle backward or forward accordingly.
This measurement is a bit tricky as it has a direct correlation with saddle-to-stem distance as well as your flexibility and core strength. This measurement also comes down to personal preference as some riders prefer a higher handlebar for comfort or lower for more power transmission. To start, take your index, middle, and ring fingers and place them across the top of your head tube. The height of your fingers should not go over the height of your stem. This is a starting point, purely meant to get your stem in a ballpark range that you can hone in as you ride.
The next step would be to ride and take note of any back or neck pain. If you experience pain over the course of a few rides, try putting headset spacers underneath your stem or look into getting a higher rise handlebar. This will put you in a more upright position and take some of the pressure off your back and neck.
Now that you have your saddle-to-stem distance and your stem height dialed, place your armpit on top of the saddle and extend your arm and hand down toward your crankset, which should be positioned at 12 and 6 o’clock. Your middle finger again should touch the middle of the crankset almost exactly. If not, adjust your saddle accordingly.
Saddle height and distance from saddle to stem can be adjusted relatively easily. However, if you’re looking to raise your stem but have found that your steerer tube is too short, look for a dramatic riser handlebar. This will provide the necessary lift you need without having to empty your wallet on a new fork or steerer tube assembly.
Ask an Expert
Your bike is now roughly fitted or you have at least been able to identify some areas for improvement. To really get your bike fitted properly, we suggest seeking out an expert at your local shop. They will have more advanced measurement tools to get everything on your bike to fit your specific body perfectly. Both the Jans and White Pine Touring bike shops offer professional fits from Experts who know all the ins and outs of the process. If you are ready to take your riding to the next level, visit our bike fit page to learn more.
Paul Boyle, Marketing Associate