This article is from the Canadian Chiropractic Association website. Author: CCA Staff Team
Most people know you need a bike that you can step over and reach the pedals, but did you know there are several components that you can (and should) adjust to make your bike fit right?
This is a practice pro cyclists know well but it is just as important for the casual cyclist to consider how their bike fits to protect their neck, shoulders, elbows, back, knees, and hips. When your bike doesn’t fit, your riding becomes less efficient and muscle aches, pains, and general discomfort might shorten the length of time you spend riding or a number of times you decide to take your wheels out for a spin.
When it comes to fitting your bike properly, here are a few things to consider:
- Know Your Bike Sizes: Not every style of bicycle comes in standard sizes. How you’d fit a typical everyday hybrid bike would be very different than from a road bike or mountain bike. Even within a certain type of bike, the sizes can vary depending on the make or brand. Sometimes hybrid bikes and mountain bikes come in small, medium, and large sizes, while road bikes might be measured by your inseam or by the height of the bike frame from the floor to the top of the seat post. Research is key. There are several types of bikes suited for different purposes, so make sure you pick the bike that’s right for you and your activity.
- Pick a Frame Size: Picking your frame begins with an estimate based on your height. The simplest measure to start with the right height is to straddle the bike frame in front of the seat while wearing shoes you’d typically ride in. If it’s a bike with a parallel tube at the top (not one that slopes or that you can step through), you should be able to straddle it comfortably with about an inch of clearance between the frame and your body. If it has a sloping tube there should be two or more inches of clearance. If it’s a step-through style, the size might be better determined by how high the handlebars and the seat line up with your riding stance.
- Determine Your Seat Height: Determining the size of your bike and the height of your seat are two very different measurements. Once your frame size has been determined, it’s time to hop on the bike to figure out how high your seat needs to be, which is based predominantly on leg length. If you’re getting a professional bike fitting, your leg length may be measured for this adjustment. To determine if the seat height is right for you, sit on the seat with the ball of your foot on the pedal. When the pedal is all the way down, your knee should have a slight bend. If you extend your leg fully and lock your knee, your heel will drop slightly but your foot will stay solid on the pedal. When your feet are on the pedals at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock, the knee should be centered directly over the top of the foot. When you’ve determined the right height, you can put a piece of scotch tape or electrical tape at the base of the seat post where it touches the frame to mark the spot. This way if you need to remove the seat for cleaning or greasing the post, or if the seat slips out of position, you can put it back in the right spot. When you have the appropriate seat height you can maximize your pedal stroke and ride faster and with greater ease.
- Wear the Appropriate Shoes: It’s very important to make sure you’re wearing the right shoes when assessing the positioning of the seat height because this can impact how high you sit on your bike. Make sure your foot is positioned where you’d typically use it on the pedals when you’re adjusting the seat height, otherwise the bike won’t fit properly when you’re riding. For hybrid bikes, your foot should be either centred on the pedal or with the ball of the foot resting closer to the pedal. Never use the back half of your foot to pedal. Road cyclists often use bike shoes with bike clips. With some styles of road shoes, the ball of the foot is secured on the pedal for optimal stroke strength to increase speed. Mountain bikers also use different types of shoes, either flat shoes or with bike clips that are a bit more centred on the foot for optimal and balance.
- Find Your Saddle Type and Size: A saddle is another name for a bike seat. Did you know there are different shapes, styles, and sizes to your saddle? When it comes to road bikes, seats often need to be narrow and firm to account for padded cycling shorts and riding long distances. They can also have cut-outs for ventilation and to relieve some common pressure points that can cause problems the further you ride. With hybrid bikes you use for casual rides on bike paths and city commutes, your seat can be a bit wider and softer, and might not need a cut out. Mountain bikes are closer to road bike seats, but with a bit more width and slight padding to account for rougher terrain and shock absorption. For all the bike types, companies may differentiate between men’s and women’s saddles to account for differences in body structure and pelvic shape, but that’s more of a guideline than a rule. Don’t be afraid to try both cuts until you find one that fits.
- Adjust Your Handlebar Height: When it comes to your mid and upper body, handlebar height is very important to keep proper form and avoid injury. The height on a hybrid bike will be much higher than on a road bike. With a hybrid bike, your body sits more upright, with the handlebars levelled above the seat by a couple of inches. The higher they are, the more upright you sit. This is often based on personal preference and the shape of the frame, but in all cases on a hybrid bike, it should feel natural to look straight ahead. With road bikes the handlebars are dropped as low as two inches below the seat height, keeping the upper body lower to reduce wind resistance and improve speed. It takes some experimentation to find the right position. With mountain bikes, often the handlebars need to be in a comfortable position that is not too high, sometimes at saddle height or slightly below it, in a position that can allow you to shift your body weight forward on them and use the suspension on rough terrain. The handlebars themselves on a mountain bike might be longer and wider to allow for easier navigation and better steering control. With all bikes, handlebar reach is also important—you shouldn’t feel like you are crunching too small or stretching too far to reach them. An ideal reach allows for a straight, neutral spine and neck position without heavy pressure falling on the hands as you ride. A local bike shop is your best bet to help assess these positions.
- Assess Your Body Position: With the frame size, saddle, and seat height position, your lower body position is mostly established, but the way you hold your upper body is important to pay attention to over the course of your ride. A light bend in your arms on the handlebar helps with shock absorption. As a general rule, none of your joints should be fully locked, as this puts you at risk of injury. Make sure your hands are lightly touching/holding the handlebars as if you could play the piano. If you’re resting too much weight on your hands, they might go numb and are an indicator that your weight isn’t distributed properly, which should be predominantly on the seat. On a hybrid bike, your spine and neck should remain neutral as you look straight ahead. On a road bike, your body bends closer to a 45-degree angle, and it’s important to remember to roll your shoulders back so it has a slight curve. If your shoulders are scrunched at your ears and your back is hunched, it’s time to roll those shoulders back again and try to maintain that posture over the course of the ride. For mountain bikers, they’re often standing out of the saddle and adjusting their position to maintain balance over rough terrain, so there is no standard upper body position. As long as the body is upright, relaxed, without strain and soft on the joints, they’re in an optimal position for riding.
The longer you ride, the more important the fit of your bike becomes, since you’re spending longer exerting yourself on the same equipment in the same position. The wrong saddle or seat height can cause issues in your hips and lower back, nerve pain down your legs, and even create problems in your knees and numbness in your feet. The wrong frame size or handlebar height can negatively impact your mid and upper back, shoulders, neck, elbows, wrists, and arms. Getting the right bike fit will help make your ride a breeze!
If you’re buying a brand new bike from a bike shop (rather than a large commercial consumer chain) often they can help you fit your bike for free or for a small fee. You can also visit any bike shop with your bicycle (whether you bought it there or not) and ask them for advice. They might even give you some tips to do some simple adjustments on the spot.
Whatever you do, it’s important to make sure your bike is the best fit for you. Rest assured, your body will thank you.
If you’ve been experiencing any discomfort in your spine, muscles, or joints, get checked out by your family chiropractor.